Villains and Victims: How the Climate was Lost
There was once a time, decades ago, when the climate—and the concept of climate action—wasn’t political. At that moment, stakeholders from the scientific, environmental, business, and political communities were aligned in their concern about carbon emissions and climate change, and just a few small acts of courage and political resolve could have set us on a course to curb emissions and heal the planet. But divisiveness, short-sightedness, and self-interest took over, and now we’re suffering the tragic consequences.
For a decade, from 1979-1989, there was a moment in time when climate action was considered urgent, bipartisan, and necessary for a healthy, prosperous future. Scientists had already gathered 20 years of data, confirming that humans had, even at that time, altered the Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels.
Scientific theories were considered proven and the facts seemed unimpeachable: the more carbon dioxide belched into the atmosphere, the more temperatures would rise, and the more ecosystems would fail. Swift and meaningful action was deemed essential.
At that time, global leaders came just inches away from signing a binding international framework that would have reduced carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2005, with the expected result of holding global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even the fossil fuel companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to comprehend the situation and develop transformative clean energy solutions.
But, in an unexpected turn of events, the process got derailed. In his brilliant article, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, New York Times Magazine author Nathaniel Rich reflects on that moment when the climate was lost, lamenting that “Among scientists and world leaders, the sentiment was unanimous: action had to be taken, and the United States would need to lead. It didn’t.
Was it the sinister self-interest of the fossil fuel industry that tainted politicians and corrupted scientists? Was it a resentful President who wanted to placate his financial backers? Was it the deceitful propaganda campaigns that bewildered the public and shifted mindsets within certain audience segments?
Or was our choice not to act symbolic of a fundamental human character flaw? Had we already become so obsessed with the shiny objects in front of us, so overwhelmed by a pervasive culture of instant gratification, that we failed to consider the long-term consequences of a heating planet and shifting weather patterns? Were we so irresponsible that we allowed quarterly earnings reports and the next round of election results to cloud our judgement about the future of civilization?
What if we had listened to leading scientists in the summer of 1978 when they predicted in their benchmark report “The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate” that global temperatures would increase by an average of two to three degrees Celsius; drought would turn large areas of North America, Asia and Africa into desert; drinking water would become scarce and agricultural production would fall, triggering mass migration on an unprecedented scale; and the rapid melting of the polar ice sheets would raise ocean levels by up to 16 feet?
What if, in 1979, we had changed our thinking in response to the report “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment” released by esteemed scientist Jule Charney that took into account all existing information about the ocean, sun, sea, air and fossil fuels, and carefully determined that the world would warm three degrees Celsius—a temperature that had last been experienced three million years ago in the Pliocene period, when, as Rich points out, “beech trees grew in Antarctica, the seas were 80 feet higher, and horses galloped across the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean”?
What if, in 1980, Exxon invested the $600,000 annual budget already allocated to carbon-dioxide research into innovative technologies that would transform the global energy system—technologies that were profitable and would protect the planet from the ravages of burning fossil fuels?
And what if, at that same time, we had the political wherewithal to pass international climate policy that compelled the energy, transportation, building, and commerce sectors to develop clean, sustainable solutions?
What if, in the mid-1980’s, when the world developed CFC regulations to address the “hole” in the Earth’s ozone layer, we had gone a step further and implemented additional policies to tackle other greenhouse gas emissions?
What if, Ronal Reagan had pursued a more balanced approach to environmental regulation, or if George Bush created policy that matched his campaign declaration, “I am an environmentalist?”
What if, somewhere during the process, climate action became a collective rallying call—a moral stand rather than a political one?
I can’t help but wonder, if we had made better decisions during the moment in time when we once had consensus about the climate, would we still be experiencing epic superstorms, unstoppable fires, deadly heatwaves, and dramatic flooding across the globe? Would there still be massive population migrations and off-the-chart suicide rates that have actually been connected with rising temperatures?
Would there be multi-state lawsuits against Exxon Mobil for fraud and deception? And would our children be suing the government for “creating a national energy system that causes climate change” and violating its duty to protect natural resources—to which, the kids claim, all individuals are entitled?
Would certain industries still predominantly consider sustainability a deterrent to profitability, or would a more equitable metric have been developed that equally weighs financial and environmental impact? Would people and companies have incentive to clean up after themselves, rather than treating our air, soil, and water as an interminable trash dump?
These questions, to be sure, are rhetorical since there is no way to go back in time and recover the lost decades. However, when pondering what we could have done differently, perhaps we can glean some important lessons. For, as author Katherine Mansfield asserts, “Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. Life would undergo a change of appearance because we ourselves had undergone a change of attitude.”
Ultimately, climate action represents, now more than ever, our core values. Does our society have the ability to critically consider the long-term consequences of our actions and make decisions accordingly? Are we willing to make the colossal changes needed to ensure a healthy, vibrant future?
Despite billions of dollars invested in research, bold national pledges to climate action, and incredible innovation in clean technology and renewable energy, more carbon has been released into the atmosphere in the past two decades than ever before in the entire history of civilization, reaching 32.5 billion metric tons in 2017—with no real sign of slowing down.
According to Rich, “The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are 1 in 20. If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming ‘a prescription for long-term disaster.’ Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.”
Which leads me to a final set of questions, will humankind have the resolve to recognize and appropriately address the existential crisis that confronts us? Can we place our trust in our own ingenuity and hold any faith that we’ll make the right decisions this time around?
Rich poignantly states: “If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison. Like most human questions, the carbon-dioxide question will come down to fear. At some point, the fears of young people will overwhelm the fears of the old. Some time after that, the young will amass enough power to act. It will be too late to avoid some catastrophes, but perhaps not others. Humankind is nothing if not optimistic, even to the point of blindness. We are also an adaptable species. That will help.”
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