Skepticism and outright denial of human causation of climate change remains high in the USA, much higher than in other countries. Why? What political and mass marketing of ideas against understanding climate change are hindering the USA? Is there a way to get past this skepticism and act sufficiently to lessen an existential problem for all life on the planet?
Is the Earth Warming?
YES! This is evidenced by the continued trend of glacial and sea ice melt around the planet, bigger storms and weather extremes of heat waves, droughts and floods.
It is not that we have lacked warning signs. The frequency and impact of Climate Change events have blunted the arguments by some that it is underway, but the new “fall-back” denial position is that humans are not the cause. In a prior post the science of greenhouse gases acting as a blanket was explained and the measurement of sources for CO2 showed that humans are the largest source by a large factor.
The PARIS ACCORD of 2015
The insurance industry and the disaster relief budgets of nation after nation had suffered too many financial hits to let them ignore Climate Change as an issue any longer. After decades of avoidance, an international agreement was signed in December 2015 under which nations promised to reduce their consumption of / burning of fossil fuels. The agreement came into effect in early November 2016. To get to this political and scientific statement of agreement took so long because the ease of extraction and energy released vs energy expended to extract. Carbon based fuels are very addictive in what they’ve empowered societies to build, or offer as goods and services. For a few, their extraction allows the ability to aggregate vast wealth – that provides vast political influence. Yet even now, it is the political mantra of the newly elected American Government to deny that Climate Change is real. How can this have happened?
As people began looking at the side effects of coal, oil and gas consumption, the vested interests (money and power) were put at risk of having their cash flow curtailed. Back in the 1970s, the connection between CO2 and potential greenhouse effects were recognized but research had only begun to quantify the amount of warming to be expected. How quickly would natural systems absorb the CO2 that fuel combustion was releasing? Exxon Corporation thought it advisable to get into the forefront of the research. Initially they provided much of the early research, openly sharing their discoveries, collaborating with other academic and government researchers.
As data accumulated pointing to problems of planetary warming, the open collaboration shrank. Only decades later do we have interviews and source documents explaining how management intervened. It took until 2015 for investigative reporting by Inside Climate News (updated link) and by the Union of Concerned Scientists USA to assemble documentation and interviews directly linking the denial organizations and the resulting skepticism to a heavily funded PR campaign (first by Exxon, then additional oil companies) that cast doubts upon the dire need to change human energy sourcing. See those 2 links to what was found. By using front groups to cast ongoing doubt as to whether the research was settled they used the tactic (and some of the same PR firms) as was used by the tobacco industry to avoid owning up to the harmful consequences of using their products.
I participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. If we had stayed on track then to recognize and seek alternatives to burning so much carbon – tens of billions of tons per year – how much simpler our situation would be today. Remembering that it takes 40 years for half the warming effects of CO2 to be manifest in the Earths average global temperature, we are experiencing today what were the effects of our global level of industrialization back in the mid-70’s. Back then we had no NAFTA, corporations were only beginning to expand production facilities globally, and the population was only half what it is now. The UCSUSA expresses the difference in this image – showing all the carbon released since industrialization began and marking the midpoint in tonnage to 2014 as being 1988.
Our societal addiction to accessing energy has continued to rely upon the burning of fossilized hydrocarbons (coal, oil and gas) because
- corporate financial interests have funded a campaign of false uncertainty, i.e. skepticism,
- the public likes what conveniences these substances provide, and
- the public wants to believe there will be ways to avoid the consequences that scientists maintain will be the disastrous reality ahead.
The IPCC 2007 reported scenarios projecting temperature consequences of each temperature threshold. IMO, the IPCC scientists are too aware of the political consequences of the changes ahead so have presented the most defensible/ conservative of forecasts.
Scenarios are statements of what may happen dependent upon what policy choices and actions are taken. That said, the IPCC in 2007 did try to consider what various policy activities would generate in terms of the resulting atmospheric CO2. The different scenarios are listed in the bottom right of this graphic, while the consequences are from a book by Mark Lynas (Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet)
Subsequent reports by the IPCC have sought to dodge some of the political pressure their 2007 report generated, with the listing of probability ranges for consequences, yet the initial reporting remains fundamentally unchanged. Worse, the track of human behavior still lies along the worst growth in atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
Learn the science. View this 1991 film produced by Shell Oil Company for use by schools and universities. It shows quite an accurate recognition of the issues and trends. Be informed so as to recognize the marketing of wishful thinking and promotion of outright lies. This is the job our print and broadcast media were entrusted to do, at which task they have frequently been delinquent. Most media is another form of corporate money/ profit seeking activity for which the advertising revenue benefits stack on the side of downplaying these concerns. Worse than a pity, the consequences of the path of continued fossil fuel use are temperatures with the high risk of killing most life on our planet. Learning this science as though your life depended upon it is wise, because indeed our lives are all at stake.
The 2016 average global temperature is on track to be over 1.5ºC above the preindustrial era, over 1.2ºC over the 1890s. While the goal agreed to for the Paris Accord was limiting temperature rise to 2ºC, revised studies as to climate sensitivity point to the IPCC as having been too conservative in its consensus opinion, indeed many signs already show the rate of changes to be higher than they used in the calculations. Yet even those calculations said we would surpass 4ºC this century unless we significantly changed human energy patterns, consumption patterns.
Study the warnings in that last chart. We are out of time for wishing we can negotiate with Physics, with the Laws of Nature. We are beyond the time when $Billions should be invested in infrastructure for continuing Fossil Fuel use, or especially for giving tax credits and rebates to companies for searching for more such materials. We already have discovered and have access to more than enough to kill us all.