California forest fire

The Rocky Road to a Sustainable Future

“To the extent we live today under clouds of uncertainty about climate change, those clouds are projections not of collective ignorance about the natural world but blindness about the human one, and can be dispersed by human action. This is what it means to live beyond the ‘end of nature’—that it is human action that will determine the climate of the future, not systems beyond our control.”

As Nathanial Rich points out in his book Losing Earth, “There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without an understanding of why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.”

Political Response and the Role of the Fossil Fuel Industry in the U.S.

Every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy was warned about climate change. It is also “incontrovertibly true,” says Rich, “that scientists and senior employees at Exxon, and its predecessor, Humble Oil, as well as those at other major oil and gas corporations, knew about the dangers of climate change at least as early as the 1950s.”

Despite its ultimate demise with the Watergate scandal, the Nixon administration is credited with a long list of important environmental protections. When Lyndon Johnson was confronted with data from the Keeling charts that showed the alarming rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, he commissioned a Science Advisory Committee. The committee’s report warned of the rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, and increased acidity of fresh waters – changes that would be “not controllable through local or even national efforts.

President Jimmy Carter was the first president to think in terms of interconnected global climate systems. He installed solar panels on the White House. He also commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) assessment under the leadership of Jule Charney that resulted in the 1979 report linking the burning of fossil fuels with global warming – the report often cited as the baseline of modern climate science. He later signed the Energy Security Act of 1980, directing NAS to start a multiyear analysis of the social and economic consequences of global warming.

After the publication of the Charney report in 1979, Exxon decided to create its own carbon dioxide research program, albeit with less concern for how much the world was warming than with how much of the warming could be blamed on Exxon. Similarly, British Petroleum, which had spent $11 billion on rigs, roads, and pipelines on Alaskan permafrost, wanted to figure out what would happen if, as Rich puts it, “the frost wasn’t perma.”

world map of temperature changes in the last 50 years

Average global temperatures from 2014 to 2018 compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

From the viewpoint of journalist and climate activist Naomi Kline, the 1980s was “the worst possible moment” for humanity to get serious about planetary health over profits because it coincided with the global rise of neoliberalism, a particular brand of capitalism that involved a “powerful global architecture to liberate capital from all constraints,” a movement that would “remake every economy on the planet.”

Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, deregulating with a vengeance. “After undoing the environmental achievements of Jimmy Carter,” says Rich, “Reagan seemed determined to undo those of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and, if he could get away with it, Theodore Roosevelt.” In his first year, the White House defunded solar-energy research, considered closing the Energy Department, and expanded coal-mining on federal lands.

In 1983, both the EPA and an NAS commission that had been appointed under Carter released studies on global warming. Both concluded that concerns about the effects of carbon emissions on the climate were well-founded, but while the EPA stressed the need for immediate action, the NAS only proposed further study. The Reagan administration seized on the more cautious NAS approach to oppose any meaningful action. When speaking to the press, commission chairman William Nierenberg and others downplayed the urgency, essentially shifting the burden to future generations who, they said, would be better equipped to deal with the consequences. The New York Times published its most prominent piece on global warming to date with the headline “Haste on Global Warming Trend Is Opposed” paraphrasing a statement by Reagan’s science adviser that derided calls for corrective action. Fossil fuel industries backed off their research investments and adopted this stance, emphasizing the “uncertainties” of the science as too great to justify economically risky changes.

In the fall of 1987, NASA atmospheric physicist James Hansen had his first brush with an overt attempt by an administration to censor his congressional testimony. Rather than comply with the Reagan administration’s demand that he remove his statement about the inevitability of significant global warming by the early 2000s, he testified as a private citizen instead of as a representative of NASA.

In 1988 public awareness of the greenhouse effect reached an all-time high, and for the first time, the climate became a major issue in a U.S. presidential campaign.

In the summer of 1988, the hottest on record, Hanson testified again before congress, this time saying that the warming trend could be detected with 99% certainty. Just four days after his highly publicized testimony, 400 scientists and politicians attending the Toronto World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere signed a statement calling for a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2015. Public awareness of the greenhouse effect reached an all-time high, and for the first time, the climate became a major issue in a U.S. presidential campaign. Also in 1988, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed and chartered with establishing a global climate policy. Reagan’s attorney general Edwin Meese and other agency heads convinced the outgoing president to help ensure adoption of a set of U.S. objectives for a binding treaty.

Upon entering office in January 1989, President-elect George H. W. Bush, who ran as a pro-climate candidate, appointed professional environmentalist William K. Reilly as EPA administrator. Reilly and secretary of state James Baker also urged U.S. leadership in demanding a global treaty on climate change at the upcoming meeting of the IPCC working group in Geneva. But Bush’s chief of staff John Sununu, to this day a die-hard science denialist, considered Hansen’s warnings to be based on “technical garbage” and ordered the U.S. delegates not to make any commitments.

Meanwhile, then senator Al Gore blew the whistle on yet another attempt, this time by the Bush administration, to alter congressional testimony by James Hansen. A public outcry forced Sununu to publicly reverse his instructions to the Geneva team. But behind the scenes Sununu continued his resistance, essentially forbidding anyone in the administration from even using the terms “global warming” or “climate change.” At the first major diplomatic summit on global warming in Noordwijk, with the acquiescence of Britain, Japan, and the Soviet Union, he forced the conference to abandon the commitment to freeze emissions.

The negotiation of the first IPCC accord continued for another two and a half years before it was finalized at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders in history. Sununu had resigned and Bush himself attended the summit. At any point, says Rich, Bush could have compelled a binding treaty, but by then his entire economic council was taking the position that the benefits of any emissions cuts needed to be weighed against immediate economic costs.

After Hanson’s 1988 testimony, an industry lobbying group called, hypocritically, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) had begun to experiment with a more aggressive strategy, seeking out the few scientists who professed doubts that global warming was occurring. In 1991 Science magazine estimated this to be a group of just a half dozen individuals. GCC offered $2,000 for an original op-ed promoting those doubts. Says Rich, “the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the unrestrained efforts of the fossil fuel industry, compounded by the ingratiating abetment of the Republican Party, to suppress scientific fact and confuse the public.”

After President Bill Clinton proposed an energy tax as a way to meet the goals of the Rio treaty, the GCC launched a $1.8 million disinformation campaign and, through the rest of the decade, invested millions more to crush public support for climate policy, including some $63 million in political contributions to congressional campaigns from 1989-1999. Every effort by the American delegation to Kyoto in 1997 to win support for emission control measures was subject to attacks by industry and the Republican party, coordinated by the GCC. Tactics included another $13 million ad campaign, attempts to influence and discredit the IPCC and it’s peer-review process, and overt public attacks on the credibility of individual scientists.

In 1998, Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, the first global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases with specific targets. But because India and China were exempted and the baseline year gave Europe an economic advantage, the treaty was considered politically unacceptable to the U.S. It was never even submitted to Congress for ratification. In fact, the Senate passed a proactive measure declaring its opposition to a treaty by a vote of 95-0.

Emboldened by their success in blocking climate policy throughout the nineties, the GCC and its sister groups shifted their strategy fully away from the message of scientific uncertainty to an out-and-out claim that, as Rich puts it, “the fundamental science of climate change, established by Tyndall and Arrhenius in the nineteenth century, ratified by Jule Charney’s group in 1979, and confirmed by every major study since, was itself uncertain—a rhetorical feint akin to a historian who turns from arguing that slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War to arguing that slavery did not exist.”

Shortly after taking office in March 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, saying it was “fatally flawed in fundamental ways” and that the deal would hurt the U.S. economy. That same year, Christine Todd Whitman, the Bush administration’s own EPA head, urged support of measures to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of the energy company Haliburton, quickly stepped in to set up his own national energy policy taskforce. Its members, originally kept secret, included Exxon Mobile vice president James J. Rouse, Enron head Kenneth Lay, and other representatives of the largest electrical utilities and mining and fossil fuel interests including the American Petroleum Institute.

The fossil fuel and tobacco industries had drawn on some of the same scientists and research institutes to back their disinformation efforts.

The following year, Bush’s own State Department issued a report to the UN that pointed to a clear human role in the accumulation of heat-trapping gases and detailed the likely negative consequences of climate change. Bush dismissed it as “a report put out by the bureaucracy.” His administration also removed a section on climate change from the EPA’s annual air pollution report, even though the reports had been addressing the issue for five years running. Bush administration spokespersons continued with the now industry-standard mantra that uncertainties in climate science were too great to warrant mandatory action. Perhaps even more alarming, the administration systematically excluded scientists – even the EPA – from any policy discussions on climate change.

The GCC disbanded in 2002 when some of the member groups resigned, fearing their tactics and lies would catch them in the same trap as the tobacco companies. In fact, the fossil fuel and tobacco industries had drawn on some of the same scientists and research institutes to back their disinformation efforts. Also, with the election of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and with Cheney’s industry-staffed energy policy taskforce, the outcomes the GCC had set in motion were now ensured.

In 2008, under pressure from shareholders – including members of the Rockefeller family, who later brought a lawsuit – ExxonMobil announced that it would no longer fund “public policy research groups” that advance climate “skepticism.” Nevertheless, the oil and gas industry, with ExxonMobil being the largest contributor, spent half a billion dollars on lobbying efforts in 2009. Even with a 59-seat Democratic majority, the Senate declined to enact comprehensive climate legislation. According to a 2013 study by sociologist Robert Brulle, right-wing billionaires displaced corporations as the main supporters of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations working to spread the denialist position and block action on climate change, spending nearly $1 billion per year from 2003 to 2010.

Though backed in his first term by a Democratic majority in both houses of congress, Barack Obama entered office facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Congress went through excruciatingly partisan votes on the stimulus, Dodd-Frank, and the Affordable Care Act, which partly explains why the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill – which could have been a significant step toward reducing emissions – fizzled in the senate.

Though on Obama’s watch the United States surpassed Russia in gas production and Saudi Arabia in oil production, his stimulus package included a record $90 billion for clean energy. He reached agreement with auto companies on improved fuel economy standards that they had resisted for 25 years. Through executive actions in his second term he tackled truck emissions, methane leaks, and energy efficiency standards for home appliances. He secured a China-U.S. deal on carbon emissions, signed on to the Paris climate accord, established 23 protected national monuments, issued a ban on Arctic drilling, and ultimately rejected the Keystone XL pipeline – all this in spite of the fact that since his inauguration, the “cult of denialism” had more or less overtaken the Republican party. In February 2015, Republican senator Jim Inhofe, who had previously called climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people,” brought a snowball with him to the U.S. Senate chamber and tossed it across the floor, claiming this debunked the alleged hoax.

Though previous Republican presidents at least gave lip service to the climate crisis, Donald Trump was the first to overtly and staunchly advocate the denialist position. During the 2016 elections, coal magnate Bob Murray gave Trump and affiliated groups millions of dollars, expecting and receiving policy favors in return, such as help in bailing out the failing coal industry. According to CAP Action’s analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics, 150 climate deniers – all Republicans – accepted a total of more than $68 million in direct contributions from the fossil fuel industry. One of Trump’s early official acts after taking office in 2017 was to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord.

During the 2016 elections, coal magnate Bob Murray gave Trump and affiliated groups millions of dollars, expecting and receiving policy favors in return.

Trump’s response in 2018 to his own government’s fourth National Climate Assessment was simply, “I don’t believe it.” His administration announced that further reports could not include projections from climate models that look farther than 40 years out. He created a new climate review panel headed by William Happer, a former fossil fuel lobbyist known for his denial of man-made climate change and for comparing the “demonization” of carbon dioxide to the treatment of Jews in the Holocaust. Harper is also known to have consulted a climate denial think tank for policy and communication advice.

starving polar bear

The U.S. Geological Survey projects that reduced sea ice from climate change will lower the population of polar bears by two-thirds by 2050. (Wikipedia, photo by Andreas Weith)

In 2019 the Trump administration launched a new all-out attack to roll back regulations, halt, stifle, or modify any climate reporting by the U.S. government, and impose his hardline views on the rest of the world. He refused to sign a communique on protecting the melting Arctic unless all reference to climate change was removed. At an event attended by coal industry leaders, utility lobbyists and prominent deniers of climate change science, Trump’s E.P.A. administrator Andrew Wheeler announced a plan reversing Obama-era restrictions on coal plants, effectively undercutting progress to reduce carbon emissions from coal.

Also in 2019, the White House attempted to stop State Department senior intelligence analyst Rod Schoonover from testifying to congress that “climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security over the next 20 years.”

Though allowed to present a five-minute summary, the written report was blocked from the official record and, according to Schoonover, “Congress was deprived of the full analysis, including the scientific baseline from which it was drawn.” Schoonover resigned in protest in July of 2019. Woods Hole Research Center president Philip B Duffy, who served on the NAS panel that reviewed the 2018 assessment, called the Trump administration’s efforts “a pretty blatant attempt to politicize the science — to push the science in a direction that’s consistent with their politics. It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”

Barriers to Change

Wallace-Wells describes the scope of change needed to avoid catastrophe as “intensive infrastructure projects at every level and in every corner of human activity, from new plane fleets to new land use and right down to a new way of making concrete.” This transformation, he says, “dwarfs every technological revolution ever engineered in human history.”

We have the tools to stop the emissions, he says: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agriculture, including a shift away from meat and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture. “We just haven’t yet discovered the political will, economic might, and cultural flexibility to install and activate them, because doing so requires something a lot bigger, and more concrete, than imagination—it means nothing short of a complete overhaul of the world’s energy systems, transportation, infrastructure and industry and agriculture.”

So what prevents us from garnering that political will and pushing back collectively against the relentless forces of corporate greed and its political lackeys? Why haven’t we elected and demanded the leadership needed to bring about the transformation upon which the survival of our civilization, and perhaps our species, depends?

Science Denialism

Image by Sander van der Wel.

The earth is flat. HIV does not cause AIDS. Smoking does not cause cancer. Humans were “created” just 10,000 years ago. Global warming is not happening/not human caused/not a serious problem. Vaccines cause autism.

Most would find any and all of these statements to be absurd contradictions to something empirically discovered about the world around us. Yet in every case, a sizeable number of people believe (or once believed) them to be viable contentions. A 2017 Gallop poll found an increasing number of people doubt that objective facts exist at all – a phenomena brought into stark relief by the stunning explanation of the misrepresentation of something as verifiable as the number of people in a crowd at an inauguration as an “alternative fact.”

Truth about the size of a crowd may be relatively inconsequential, but when science denial dictates public policy, the results can be deadly. When South African president Thabo Mbeki denied that HIV causes AIDS, thousands of HIV positive mothers did not receive anti-retrovirals and transmitted the disease to their children. The result was an estimated 300,000 deaths. The tobacco industry’s efforts to promote the “uncertainty” of the science connecting smoking to disease resulted (and continues to result) in the deaths of untold millions. Continued denial of climate science is likely to result in something far worse.

It would be tempting to pass over a detailed look at the views and tactics of “fringe groups” if it were not for the fact that, at least in the U.S., this denialist viewpoint is driving crucial policy decisions. According to analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, 150 members of the 116th Congress – all Republicans – do not believe in the scientific consensus that human activity is making the Earth’s climate change. That’s nearly 60 percent of Republican members. The denialist viewpoint continues to impede public consensus on the need for decisive action – attempting even to alter how climate science is taught in schools, sadly reminiscent of efforts to teach “creationism” on par with evolution.

Denialism is the opposite of healthy skepticism that drives scientific advances and a search for truth. The lawyer/physiologist brothers Chris and Mark Hoofnagle define denialism as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none,” with the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists. They identify five general tactics used by denialists to sow confusion:

  1. Conspiracy:Almost every denialist argument will eventually devolve into a conspiracy. This is because denialist theories that oppose well-established science eventually need to assert deception on the part of their opponents to explain things like why every reputable scientist, journal, and opponent seems to be able to operate from the same page.” There are theories claiming that climate scientists purposely fake data to receive research funding, that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by leftist radicals to undermine local sovereignty or “a hoax created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
  2. Electivity (cherry-picking): Single papers, statements out of context, and discredited or flawed papers are used to suggest an idea is supported by the scientific literature. An identified flaw or even a disagreement among scientists – whether real or misrepresented – is emphasized to disparage a whole field, making it appear that the science is wrong or based on weak research. Examples include the controversy created over Michael Mann’s visually compelling Hockey Stick graph and the miscalibration of satellite data in the 1990s that indicated the planet was cooling. Individual weather events such as the 2019 polar vortex cold snap in the Midwest may be used to sidestep a discussion based on the whole body of research about climate trends, as also happened with the real but anomalous mid-century cooling.
  3. Fake experts: This tactic involves finding individuals with impressive credentials rather than real experience in the relevant field – individuals who are willing to promote arguments that are inconsistent with the literature, not generally accepted by those who actually study the field, and/or inconsistent with established epistemological requirements for scientific inquiry. An example of the fake expert tactic “in bulk” is the Global Warming Petition Project, or Oregon Petition. The petition includes more than 31,000 scientists claiming humans aren’t disrupting our climate. How can there be 97% consensus when 31,000 scientists disagree? It turns out 99.9% of the petition’s signatories aren’t climate scientists. In fact, some of the names are characters from television and pop culture. The petition and supporting documents were made to look like official papers from the prestigious National Academy of Science, which they were not, leading the Academy to issue an official press release stating that “The petition project was a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists and to rally them in an attempt to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol. The petition was not based on a review of the science of global climate change, nor were its signers experts in the field of climate science.
  4. Impossible expectations and moving goalposts: An unrealistic demand for “complete and absolute knowledge of a subject to prevent implementation of sound policies, or acceptance of an idea or a theory” is propagated. Scientists are then prevented from ever proving anything to the satisfaction of the denialist. In climate denialism, this tactic is especially evident in continual references to the unreliability of climate modeling. “True, models are hard, anything designed to prognosticate such a large set of variables as those involved in climate is going to be highly complex,” writes Mark Hoofnagle, but “that doesn’t change the fact that actual measurement of global mean temperature is possible, and is showing an alarmingly steep increase post-industrialization… You don’t need to know the position of every molecule of air on the planet, throughout the entire history of earth to make a prudent judgement about avoiding dramatic climate change… You don’t need to know the position of every molecule in the galaxy before deciding you need to jump out of the way of a speeding train. Similarly, we don’t need to have a perfect model of the earth’s climate to understand that all the current data and simulations suggest decreasing carbon output is of critical importance right now, and not when humans have obtained some impossible level of scientific knowledge.
  5. Common fallacies of logic including ad hominem (dismissing an argument by insulting the person), straw man and red herring arguments are all part of the denialism toolkit. The ad hominem tactic was taken to new heights against Michael Mann, with what he termed the “Serengeti Strategy”: the right-wing bombards a single climate advocate with Freedom of Information demands, smears, and even death threats, as Mann described in his book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

In 2009, a server at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was hacked – and thousands of files and emails stolen. A right-wing columnist claimed that the emails, which included correspondence with Michael Mann, proved that global warming was a scientific conspiracy he dubbed “climategate.” The conspiracy theory was ultimately debunked by at least six independent investigations, but not before the story went viral in social media and was broadcast widely by the mainstream media, including a Washington Post OpEd by climate denialist and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

None of these tactics of deception are employed in a vacuum. The distortion of reasonable scientific debate into denial is enabled by a right-wing media empowered to broadcast propaganda unchallenged. Social media in particular enables the spread of outright lies and threats. The mainstream media, prone to confusing balance with false equivalence, is also guilty of giving voice to denialism at the expense of truly balanced expert opinion.

Of course denialism is not the sole reason for the lack of political will and slow pace of meaningful action. According to several 2018 surveys, some 73% of Americans (though just 15% of Republicans) now believe that climate change is real, that humans are responsible, and that something needs to be done to fix it. But fewer than 28% would be willing to pay $10 a month toward a solution. How can we explain that passivity in the face of the horrific consequences of doing nothing?

Brains Wired for Short-Term Thinking

More than 30 years ago, in their book New World, New Mind, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich wrote about how we are biologically wired to react to immediate danger (the approaching tiger), not to recognize and act on long-term, often invisible, facts. This propensity for short-term thinking also extends to the political and economic spheres. To geophysicists, the difference between five and fifty years in the future is a brief moment in geologic time. But politicians tend to think in electoral time: six years, four years, two years. Rich describes how in 1985, Curtis Moore, a Republican staff member on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, told climate activist Rafe Pomerance that although global warming was an existential problem, it wasn’t a political one. Political problems, Moore said, have solutions. And the climate issue had none, which meant any policy could only fail. Says Rich, “No elected politician desired to come within shouting distance of failure.

The growth-at-all-cost economic perspective is also derived from this short-term thinking. Society’s immediate need for unfettered energy production eclipses long-term environmental consequences, no matter how cataclysmic. Thus, the only future worthy of consideration is the short term.

Alarming Lack of Empathy: The Moral Issue

Beyond an increase of 5 degrees we face the prospect of a new dark age,” writes Rich. “It is difficult to look at this fact squarely and not flinch. But doing so has a clarifying influence. It brings into relief a dimension of the crisis that to this point has been largely absent: the moral dimensionOnce it becomes possible to disregard the welfare of future generations, or those now vulnerable to flooding or drought or wildfire—once it becomes possible to abandon the constraints of human empathy, any monstrosity committed in the name of self-interest is permissible.

At a 2014 meeting of the Alliance of Small Island States – ahead of that year’s global IPCC summit, Seychelles president James Michel said, “We cannot accept that any island be lost to sea level rise… We stand as the defenders of the moral rights of every citizen of our planet.” The following year, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands said that the islanders’ forced abandonment of their homes and cultures “is equivalent in our minds to genocide.”

Flooding in southern Bangladesh after the passage of Cyclone Sidr.

The climate crisis also disproportionately affects the poor – those who have contributed least to the emissions from burning fossil fuels. The rich “we” can afford to convert to clean energy and cut vulnerability to heat, floods, and more. But the rest of humanity is still struggling to get the same basic economic benefits that industrialized societies obtained from burning fossil fuels.

Global warming is also exacerbating the economic disparity between the rich and poor. It’s estimated that India could have grown its GDP by almost a third more over the past half-century if not for climate change. According to the climate risk index, from 1998 to 2017 Puerto Rico, Honduras and Myanmar were most affected while the GDP of rich countries including Russia and Norway benefited. In the U.S., climate change and extreme weather affect low-income people more than the rich, as has been the case with Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Florence.

“Beyond an increase of 5 degrees we face the prospect of a new dark age.”

The lack of empathy and the tendency for tribalism and narrow self-interest also impede local and international agreements. Since every nation has its own set of interests, any global compromise will favor minimal action – the lowest-common-denominator law of international diplomacy. As William Nordhaus put it: “Countries have strong incentives to proclaim lofty and ambitious goals—and then to ignore these goals and go about business as usual.”

The requisite technologies to avert crisis, says Wallace-Wells, are not additive but must be substitutive. “Which means that all of the new alternatives have to face off with the resistance of entrenched corporate interests and the status-quo bias of consumers who are relatively happy with the lives they have today.”

The Good News: Signs of Change

Clearly, a human-driven transformation of this scope requires a near universal sense of shared purpose, a way of thinking and acting based on an unprecedented level of empathy and identity as citizens of a global community. In spite of this history of what feels like insane and even suicidal resistance, a growing number of people are stepping up to our custodial responsibilities and obligation to future generations.

Global Commitment to Renewable Energy

In spite of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accord in 2017, the rest of the participating countries as well as many U.S. states, cities, businesses and organizations have steadfastly maintained their commitment and stepped up their efforts to prevent a global temperature rise of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). Backed by an ever-increasing understanding of the true economic impact of transitioning quickly to renewable energy, and despite the continued increase in emissions from fossil fuels, progress continues. Energy from renewables now form the world’s fastest growing new power sources.

Total energy use in California, for example, has remained basically constant for the last 30 years in spite of more than a 60% increase in population and burgeoning economic growth. In 2019 the state passed its 2020 goal to reduce emissions to 1990 levels and produce 50% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Energy from renewables now form the world’s fastest growing new power sources.

Much of the meteoric rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past two decades resulted from the world’s poorest countries burning coal for the energy needed to improve the living standards of their populace. China and India in recent decades have succeeded in raising hundreds of millions of people out of the most dire poverty, and supplying them with electricity from coal has been essential to this effort. And yet these countries are far ahead of the U.S. government in their response to threats from global warming.

China now produces a third of the world’s solar electricity, about 3 times the capacity of the U.S., installing about 4 times that of the U.S. every year. China also has about 70% of the world’s solar heating. India also installs more solar electricity capacity each year than does the U.S., and has plans for a great deal more.

Wind power generation globally grew 600% in the ten years leading up to 2016, and continues to accelerate. Europe now generates about half of its total electricity from wind farms and the amount of power from fossil fuels in Europe declined by 19% – the largest decline ever – in the first half of 2019, even while electricity demand has gone up. In many locations, wind power is the cheapest source of electricity.

Legal Action

Despite its continued efforts to block progress, the fossil fuel industry is facing increasing pressure from its own investors, from political leaders such as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and an increasing spate of legal challenges.

In August of 2019, a coalition of 29 states and cities led by New York’s attorney general Letitia James sued to block the Trump administration from easing restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

A study by Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute identified just 90 entities that produced nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane released to the atmosphere. “Shifting the perspective from nation-states to corporate entities—both investor-owned and state-owned companies—opens new opportunities for those entities to become part of the solution rather than passive (and profitable) bystanders to continued climate disruption” said Heede. Similar to the case of tobacco companies, “one could imagine comparable actions aimed at the private entities involved in the production of fossil fuels.

Just 90 entities produced nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane released to the atmosphere.

In spite of ExxonMobil’s announced plan for a $100 million investment in emissions reduction research and its ad campaigns featuring scientists working with algae, the company continues to resist more significant efforts to limit fossil fuel production. But the combination of prior knowledge and its ongoing lobbying investments to fight climate change legislation makes the company an especially vulnerable target for legal action.

A wave of compensatory litigation such as Juliana vs. The United States began in earnest in 2015 and will likely last a generation. The Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Fifth and Ninth Amendments, the Take Care Clause, the Separations of Power Doctrine, and the Public Trust Doctrine are legal avenues now being used as a basis for active lawsuits.

Tort lawsuits will also gain traction as the science of attributing regional effects to global emissions becomes more precise. A 2017 study by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Clean Air Task Force found that more than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of oil and gas wells and operations, and another 6.7 million live in counties with refineries. The study warned that African Americans face disproportionate exposure to pollution as a result.

Green Innovation

People all over the world, in all sectors of the global and local economies, are acting and innovating as humans are wont to do in the face of a problem. Though lacking the economic leverage of the industry giants, a host of entrepreneurial startups are tackling potential solutions including “green” cement, fusion energy, carbon capture and other means of geoengineering, and improved emissions tracking. Efforts are also underway by government agencies, NGOs, and philanthropic groups to tackle the challenges.

Youth Leadership

Young people, less entrenched in the values and cultural biases of their elders are standing up to fight for their future. In March of 2019, inspired by the eloquent 16-year old Nobel nominated Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, some 1.6 million students in 300 cities around the world walked out of their classrooms to march for climate action. Said Thunberg, “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” Others are taking to the courts to force an end to fossil fuel use.

In the political sphere, freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, originally inspired to run for office by her experience at the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline protest, co-sponsored a broad set of goals to tackle climate and inequality under the banner of a Green New Deal. Grassroots groups such as the Citizens Climate Lobby have been effective at generating bipartisan support, particularly of Republicans whose districts are being harmed by climate change.

“We are standing for our future; Our lives are at stake; We all live on islands; some just have longer coastlines than others.”

As part of the Sunrise Movement, young people are garnering support for the Green New Deal, converging on the offices and confronting congressional leaders of both parties around the country. The students leading the movement speak in the same register as the leaders of the sinking island nations. “We are standing for our future; Our lives are at stake; We all live on islands; some just have longer coastlines than others.”

The good news, writes climate activist Naomi Kline, is that unlike in 1989, today’s young and growing movement of support is advancing in the United States with precisely the right vision: replacing the current economic order with “something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center. And that represents more than just an electoral alternative – it’s our one and only planetary lifeline.”

Shifting Perspectives

Clearly, the unprecedented scope, pace, and multi-dimensional nature of this challenge requires an equally unprecedented level of political will and decisive public policy to amplify these efforts. We may be seeing a shift in this direction.

Cosmologist and astrophysicist Sandra Faber and her University of California Santa Cruz colleagues are embarking on a new Earth Futures Initiative dedicated to “cosmic” planning – looking not just to the next 40 or even 100 years, but the next million years, or 40,000 generations. A long-term commitment, says Faber, takes the issue out of the personal and to a more objective consideration of where we are going – and if we are going.

Economists like Kate Raworth are advancing a new, more comprehensive and regenerative economic models based on a view of humans as socially adaptable beings in a world of limited natural resources.

A long-term commitment takes the issue out of the personal and to a more objective consideration of where we are going – and if we are going.

In 2015, Pope Francis issued a papal encyclical declaring that the science on climate change is clear, linking it to broader global injustice, and calling on the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to join the fight to stabilize temperatures as a moral imperative.

Perhaps our growing understanding of morality itself as an intricate combination of biological and cultural factors that shape ethical stances and beliefs may also help us see through dangerous denialism and step up to our responsibility for protecting the planet. As the psychologist Paul Bloom writes, though we come into the world with the genetic foundations of morality – an ability to distinguish between kindness and cruelty, a sense of fairness and justice, and innate empathy and compassion – “our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.”

Unfortunately, the main driver of a rational sense of urgency about global warming may have to be the increasing occurrence of climate-related disasters. Now we can see it happening. Hopefully, we do not have to wait until the pain of the impacts outweighs the pain of lifestyle changes for all these efforts to coalesce into meaningful action – which may well be too late.

Featured Books:

The Future

Six Drivers of Global Change

Al Gore

No period in global history resembles what humanity is about to experience. Explore the key global forces converging to create the complexity of change, our crisis of confidence in facing the options, and how we can take charge of our destiny.

Our Choice

A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis

Al Gore

We clearly have the tools to solve the climate crisis. The only thing missing is collective will. We must understand the science of climate change and the ways we can better generate and use energy.

The Big Ratchet

How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis

Ruth DeFries

Human history can be viewed as a repeating spiral of ingenuity—ratchet (technological breakthrough), hatchet (resulting natural disaster), and pivot (inventing new solutions). Whether we can pivot effectively from the last Big Ratchet remains to be seen.

The Sixth Extinction

An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert

With all of Earth’s five mass extinctions, the climate changed faster than any species could adapt. The current extinction has the same random and rapid properties, but it’s unique in that it’s caused entirely by the actions of a single species—humans.

Related:

The Planet We Inherited
The Human Footprint
The Economics of Renewable Energy in the U.S.
As Goes India, So Goes the World
Energy Efficiency

Further Reading

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