Our Planetary Inferno

The Camp Fire in California

The horrific and deadly Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the most devastating in California history, is finally contained — but not before killing at least 85 people, destroying 14,000 homes, and charring an area the size of Chicago. Other parts of the state have been ablaze as well. A big fire near Los Angeles forced the evacuation of the oceanside city of Malibu. On the other coast, Hurricane Michael — the strongest hurricane ever to hit the Florida Panhandle — killed 45 people while inflicting 30-billion dollars damage. 

Scientists have warned for decades that climate change would lead to extreme weather, yet President Donald Trump says the recent devastating storms have not caused him to rethink his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords. Global warming, the president maintains, is “a total, and expensive, hoax,” and his “natural instinct” for science leads him to believe climate “goes back and forth.” Accordingly, in Trump’s world, the California fires were caused by “gross mismanagement of the forests” and not a rapidly warming planet. 

President Trump says he does not believe the conclusions of a report on climate control issued by the U.S. government.

The government of the United States disagrees with the president of the United States. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, issued on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, climate change has resulted in debilitating hurricanes and heat waves, and the danger is worsening. Trump predictably said of the report, “I don’t believe it.” The authors — who represent numerous federal agencies — say climate change poses a serious threat to the health and pocketbooks of Americans. The congressionally mandated report had been scheduled for release in December, but was moved up, most likely on the theory — congenial to an administration that denies climate change is occurring — that most people do not pay attention to the news on long holiday weekends. The federal report echoes the findings of a landmark study from the United Nations, released last month, which concluded that the planet is warming faster than previously thought. The U.N. report described a world of worsening food shortages, cataclysmic weather events, and the die-off of coral reefs — all by 2040.

Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at an environmental protest in House.

Worried by the administration’s inaction on climate change, some incoming progressive Democrats have endorsed a “Green New Deal,” a proposal for transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy that would replace fossil fuels with renewable energy — wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat and a member of the new freshman class, joined a protest outside Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office earlier this month to push Democrats to adopt the “Green New Deal.” She has posted a blueprint on her website for combatting global warming. 

Climatologist James Hansen testifying before the Senate in 1988.

Scientists, government officials, and industrial leaders have known of the deleterious effects of climate change for decades. James Hansen, a climatologist at NASA, testified before Congress thirty years ago about the dangers of spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Since then, human-caused climate change has worsened as carbon emissions have increased every year except 2009 (the height of the global recession). As Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and journalist, vividly demonstrates in a searing article in the current issue of The New Yorker, the fossil-fuel industry consistently has denied evidence of climate change. Immediately after Hansen warned Congress about climate change, Exxon began to stress the alleged “uncertainty” in the scientific data about global warming. After the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 — the first global initiative to address climate change — an American lobbyist told McKibbben, “I can’t wait to get back to Washington, where we’ve got this under control.” 

Tragically, the lobbyist was right. Nine days after George W. Bush was inaugurated as president, Lee Raymond, the head of Exxon, visited his friend Vice President Dick Cheney, who had just stepped down as CEO of the oil-drilling giant Halliburton. Cheney, in turn, convinced Bush to abandon his campaign promise to fight global warming. The president duly pulled the United States out of the Kyoto agreement. Bush’s action presaged Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris climate accords.

The continued burning of fossil fuels makes the Earth hotter and hotter. Twenty of the hottest years ever recorded have come in the last three decades. Melting of polar ice caps and rising ocean levels as well as soaring temperatures are occurring faster than scientists previously predicted. The result is large parts of the world are becoming uninhabitable, either because of spreading deserts or coastal flooding, which is why McKibben entitled his piece, “Life on a Shrinking Planet.” McKibben gives many examples of how the Earth is changing, but one will suffice here: This past August he visited Greenland where he took a boat into a nearby fjord. According to the navigation chart the boat was a mile inland at one point. The captain explained that the chart was from five years ago, when the water around the boat was still ice. 

The deniers of global warming, unfortunately, have been successful. A poll conducted a year ago found that almost 90 percent of Americans are unaware there is a scientific  consensus on global warming. The role of the fossil fuel industry in abetting the public’s ignorance is shocking, but hardly surprising. After all, Phillip Morris lied for decades about the deadly effects of cigarette smoking. Eventually, the government stood up to Big Tobacco.  That has yet to happen with the drillers of oil and natural gas and the miners of coal.

Perhaps, progressive Democrats — heartened by the recent election results — will begin to insist on combatting climate change. If not, global warming will continue intensifying, and the world’s governments likely will fail to meet the goal agreed upon in Paris in 2015 of holding the increase in the Earth’s temperature this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Anything significantly above that number will call into question whether current societies can survive.

Of course, no one should worry, right? After all, President Trump, who has a “natural instinct” for science, knows that global warming is a “hoax.” Worry, the scientists say. Worry. Who will you believe?

Posted November 27, 2018




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