An Inconvenient Ignorance

By Paul Fisk, Editor

This summer I had the privilege of spending a three-day weekend with Al Gore (and 1,200 of his closest friends) learning about climate change science, effects and solutions.  Mr. Gore’s organization, The Climate Reality Project, has trained over 20,000 “Volunteer Climate Reality Leaders” from 149 countries and territories in spreading the scientific truth about climate change and what we can and must do about it.  As an aging, retired public servant I have become increasingly troubled by the political and environmental legacy my generation is leaving our children and grandchildren.  So I have been increasingly active in organizations devoted to combating the twin existential threats to our democracy and our planet’s habitability posed by Trumpism and the climate crisis.  Paul Fisk

The steady news stream of ever-more mind boggling outrages and audacity by our President has largely displaced necessary discussion of what has been happening to the world’s climate. Only recently has increasing public concern been regularly featured in the mainstream media.

It’s been thirteen years since Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth warned us that global warming was threatening our current civilization. Scientists have known it could happen this way since the 1800’s. The fossil fuel industry knew they were causing it since at least the 1950’s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the “IPCC”) issued its first report in 1990 that human activity was causing increased greenhouse gas emissions to steadily increase global temperatures and that business as usual would result in further increases and rising sea levels. The IPCC subsequently issued four more reports, each more dire than the last, as they gained new knowledge and refined projections. The world’s nations acknowledged the need to act in the Paris agreement of 2015. And it’s been two years since Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power reminded us of the need to act quickly and aggressively to stave off the worst of the projected negative effects on the habitability of the planet.

We have been pouring heat trapping “greenhouse gas” emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, into our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Burning fossil fuels has been the chief contributor to dramatic increases in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists have shown how average temperatures on earth have fluctuated over the past 800,000 years as CO2 levels have fluctuated, within a similar range as we moved between ice ages. Carbon dioxide levels have now spiked well beyond that range to levels that have not been seen since the asteroid that doomed the dinosaurs hit the earth.

We are already experiencing the effects of rising temperatures: more severe hurricanes that intensify more quickly and stay in place longer, creating more flooding from the increased rainfall; more severe and prolonged droughts that lead to more wildfires, food shortages and population migrations; ocean hotspots and the decline of ocean dwelling creatures; increased rates of animal extinctions; the spread of formerly tropical diseases; melting glaciers and ice caps; sea level rises; and, deaths from extraordinary heat waves that reach temperatures in the ranges of 110 degrees, 120 degrees, even 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

If we continue to grow our carbon emissions, scientists warn we are destined to see all the above conditions intensify, rendering increasing portions of the earth uninhabitable by humans.

While there is clearly increased public interest and concern, we in this nation still lack the widespread consensus and sense of urgency that we must adopt if we are to come together in the grand efforts that will be required to blunt the ominous climate trends of today. Yet our tentative and relatively feeble efforts at the national level have been dismantled and reversed by an administration that now actively promotes increased greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of the nation’s mature forests, and increased “big agriculture” approaches to farming, all of which are antithetical to maintaining earth’s habitability.

Fortunately, individual citizens, environmental groups, municipalities and states have stepped up to take actions and create change, partially filling the vacuum left by the absence of national leadership. Many corporations have realized it is in their best interest to reduce their carbon footprint to meet customer demands and reduce costs. Technological advances and economies of scale have made wind and solar power and storage vastly more affordable and adoption trends are rising dramatically.  Smaller farms are adopting regenerative agriculture techniques.  Even automakers initially resisted Federal attempts to roll back emissions standards.

While all these efforts are good news, they are nowhere near the scale necessary to solve the climate problem. That will require a national effort equivalent in scope to winning WWII. Wholesale changes in our energy, transportation and agriculture sectors are necessary, with all sectors adopting available technologies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid the worst effects of current warming trends.

The knowledge is there, but not yet the willingness. For that we need broader public understanding of the problem to demand change from the bottom. And we need knowledgeable, capable leadership from the top. We need profiles in courage, not the current cowardice, complicity, and ignorance.

A dwindling but still highly significant portion of our population remains either blissfully ignorant of the facts or actively hostile to the science, dismissing it as some kind of elaborate hoax or conspiracy. How did this happen?

For decades now, the fossil fuel industry and associated conservative billionaires have been mounting well-funded and fairly well disguised efforts to sow doubt and encourage denial. They took their cues from previous efforts such as the cigarette industry’s campaign to raise doubts about the links between smoking and cancer. They have established numerous organizations with high minded sounding names to spread misinformation and disparage scientists personally and question the relevant scientific facts. They have induced some scientists, often from unrelated fields, to publish biased papers from fake conferences and in journals that pretend to be respected. Unfortunately, they have been successful in persuading a significant minority that this is all some liberal scheme to undermine their rights and the free enterprise system. It’s time to join Al Gore and the many legitimate environmental groups in getting the facts out.

We don’t have much time left to begin major environmental efforts. Experts say that action this decade is critical.   We need to quickly stem the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, then steadily reduce them in order to limit future temperature increases. We also need to regain our place as leader of the free world, not be the only nation on earth to spurn efforts to maintain its habitability. We need “regime change” for starters.