Why are we being such idiots about climate change?

May 2, 2014 /


Veteran environment writer John Carey looks at the reasons we don’t seem to make meaningful progress on climate change — and issues a rousing call to arms for us all to step up and play our part.

When I started covering climate change more than thirty years ago, the underlying science was already clear. Heat from the sun warms the Earth. Gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then act like a snuggly blanket or greenhouse to trap much of that warmth, keeping much of the heat from radiating back out to space.

For humans, this greenhouse effect is a vital — and fortuitous — physical phenomenon. Without it, the Earth would be in a deep freeze. Life as we know it couldn’t exist. We would have no mighty civilizations, no vast fields covered with amber waves of grain. No smart phones or keeping up with the Kardashians.

But like most good things, we can have too much of this greenhouse effect. Spew extra carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, as humans have been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Age, and it’s like pulling an extra cozy comforter over the planet. We get warmer. Ice sheets and glaciers melt. Sea levels rise. The extra energy in the atmosphere means more powerful and extreme storms, bringing tempests that wash away Vermont towns and send walls of water into subway tunnels in Manhattan. “Suddenly, climate change isn’t about the polar bears or the distant Maldives Islands anymore,” a Nashville, TN, flood victim told me for a story I wrote for Scientific American on the growing number of droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, “It’s about the mold on your baby’s crib.”

And get ready for much worse. In the 1950s, a pioneering scientist named Charles David Keeling realized the importance of measuring CO2 in the atmosphere, and wangled funding for instruments on the lonely peak of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa. Those measurements, which continue today, show that CO2 levels have risen dramatically from 316 parts per million in 1958 to 400 ppm now — a rate ten times faster than the Earth has experienced in hundreds of millions of years. And we know from the paleontological record that the past variations in greenhouse gas concentrations are associated with dramatic swings in climate. One of my favorite cautionary tales is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum of 55 million years ago, when crocodiles cavorted off of a steamy Greenland and the tropics may have been too hot for life. Keep burning coal, oil and gas, and that’s exactly where we headed. Good for crocodiles, maybe, but not for modern civilization.

Climate change deniers say nothing is certain. True, we don’t know if the planet will be two degrees or ten degrees warmer in 2100. But I fault both the scientific community and the press for not explaining that uncertainty cuts both ways — and that the future could be far more threatening than the current scientific consensus estimates.

I fault both the scientific community and the press for not explaining that uncertainty cuts both ways.

I even scared myself by writing a recent story in Scientific American that was prompted by the worries of a few activist scientists, like NASA’s James Hansen, that climate change could happen way faster than anyone had expected. I was convinced that it could. The key evidence comes from the past. Small wobbles and other changes in the Earth’s orbit move the planet closer or farther from the sun over periods of hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, slightly more or less heat from the sun reaches the Earth. Evidence from ice cores shows us that the wobbles can have a huge effect on climate, causing mighty ice sheets to wax and wane, and temperatures to plunge or soar.

Yet the changes in solar heat reaching the Earth have been far too small to cause such huge changes in climate by themselves.

What’s happening, paleoclimatologists have figured out, is that the tiny changes trigger feedbacks that greatly amplify the small initial “push.” Add just enough heat to melt a bit of permafrost, for instance, and the thawing tundra sends enough methane and carbon dioxide into the air to create a stronger greenhouse effect. That, in turn, speeds the melting and causes the release of yet more greenhouse gases, thus accelerating the warming like a runaway train.

Now, by burning fossils fuels, we’re adding 12 times more heat per square foot of the Earth’s surface than those natural wobbles ever did. It’s crazy not to expect that the effects will be even more dramatic than the past wild swings in climate. Scientists tell me about their own nightmare scenarios, in which today’s modest increase in planetary temperatures triggers feedbacks that accelerate the warming enough to bring widespread crop failures and climate catastrophe in our lifetimes.

The sobering truth is that the planet has already been responding faster than expected. Sophisticated climate models have been enormously valuable in predicting what might happen as greenhouse gas concentrations climb. But they are telling us only part of the story. No climate models predicted the extraordinary decline of Arctic sea ice, for example, for reasons that are not well understood. So what other nasty surprises may await us?

The sobering truth is that the planet has already been responding faster than expected.

We do know some incontrovertible facts, however. CO2 concentrations, temperatures and sea levels are all rising. The basic physics is simple enough for even a congressman to understand. And the risk of disastrous changes within a century is large enough to take seriously. It’s crushingly obvious that fighting climate change should be one of the world’s top priorities.

Given the difficulty of getting the human brain or our political system to tackle anything beyond immediate crises, it’s encouraging that we’ve actually managed to take up arms in this fight. Seventeen years ago in the Kyoto Protocol, 37 industrialized countries and the European Community agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. About the same time, from my perch as a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek’s Washington bureau, I started writing about companies that started to plan for a carbon-constrained future — and to push for policies to make that future happen. I profiled executives, like Wayne Leonard of New Orleans-based utility Entergy, who made it a personal quest to make the world safer for future generations.

Leonard was far from the only hero. Legislators in most U.S. states pushed though requirements that a significant percentage of their electricity come from wind, solar or other renewable sources. Officials in nine northeastern states and California slapped binding limits on carbon emissions. The Obama Administration slashed pollution from cars by bumping up fuel economy standards, and is now inching towards curbs on powerplants. And the House of Representatives, with significant corporate support, even passed sweeping climate legislation, the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill, that put nationwide caps on emissions.

But those steps are puny compared to what’s really needed. And sadly, the trends and politics in the nation most crucial to staving off climate calamity, the United States, are mostly going in the wrong direction.

It’s hard for anyone who supports action on climate to get elected, let alone to pass meaningful legislation. And virtually the entire Republican Party seems to deny that climate change even exists.

Why are we being such idiots? Part of the blame lies in the fierce partisanship of Washington, where anything President Obama proposes is fought by his opponents — even those ideas they once supported. Part lies in a decades-long, well-financed and purposely deceitful effort by the fossil fuel industry and conservative groups to sow doubt, spread misinformation and paint climate change as a liberal plot to raise taxes and expand Big Government. In 2007, I wrote a grimly amusing story in BusinessWeek chronicling the dance of the climate deniers as they nimbly leapt from one argument to another each time their claims were debunked by mounting scientific evidence. About all they have left is this: Yes, humans may be causing climate change, but trying to do anything meaningful would collapse the economy and send us back to the Dark Ages.

Piffle. But I screwed up royally in that 2007 story by concluding that the skeptics and denialists were close to being vanquished. They may even have more political muscle now. And I’m also struck by how many people in the heartland still are genuinely conflicted by this issue. They can’t help but notice that the world has changed. Elk hunters see that their quarry no longer conveniently migrates down from the high country for hunting season. Iowa corn farmers have figured out they need to plant earlier and quicker to get a crop in before increased spring rains make planting impossible. Officials in city after city are building bigger stormwater and sewer systems to cope with more frequent deluges. Yet, many of these people insist that climate change is a hoax — and they oppose any efforts to combat it.

What gives? It’s not that they are stupid or blind. Instead, they seem to firmly believe that climate solutions inevitably mean more government, higher taxes and less freedom — and thus are threats to their core values and identity. Admit that humans must fight the peril that fossil fuel burning has wrought, and the devil incarnate — Al Gore — will knock on their doors and take away their SUVs, their jobs, and the American way of life. The complexity of the Waxman-Markey bill’s cap-and-trade program just reinforced suspicions that action on climate is a plot to enable the government to take over their lives.

Like a broken record, scientists say that if we could only better educate people about climate change, the public would line up to support climate policies. On the contrary, I fear. Dire warnings of the looming climate disaster may just make people throw up their hands in despair, sink into denial, or dig their heels in deeper against government action.

But we need not abandon all hope. What does work is offering a solution that doesn’t threaten core American values or inflame the anti-regulation zealots. After many years of writing for BusinessWeek, it finally sank in that market forces are really important — and that they could be harnessed to fight climate change. Give people the chance to save or make more money — in this case by burning less fossil fuel — and, by god, they’ll seize the opportunity, whether it’s by boosting energy efficiency, building wind farms and solar arrays, reengineering the electricity grid, or dreaming up countless new innovations.

After many years of writing for BusinessWeek, it finally sank in that market forces are really important — and that they could be harnessed to fight climate change.

How? The simplest way is by raising the price of burning carbon, through a tax or fee. When something is more expensive, we use less of it — and we also devise clever substitutes. In addition, a carbon tax corrects what economists call a market failure — the fact that current prices of coal or oil fail to include the true costs of fossil fuels, everything from illnesses from pollution to the military expenses of protecting the world’s oil supply. And revenue from a carbon fee could be used to reduce the costs of things we want more of, like labor, through reductions in other taxes, such as payroll taxes. There’s no need to expand government or, depending on whether the revenues are fully returned to the economy, even to increase taxes. That’s why a carbon tax has strong support even from many conservatives. As Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, wrote in a recent commentary (entitled “A Carbon Fee that America Could Live With“): “Among economists, the issue is largely a no-brainer.”

So here’s where we now stand. We have a pretty clear understanding of the threat climate change poses to us, our children and our grandchildren. We are already being forced to cope with more droughts, more floods, more extreme storms. At the same time, we have in our arsenal effective policies that are difficult for rational people to demagogue as crippling to the economy or as a subversion of our cherished way of life.

We thus face a stark choice. Do we let future historians excoriate us for our failure to act in time? Or do we step up to meet the challenge?

Let this then be a call to arms. In America politicians rarely lead — they follow. So it’s really up to you. Insist that climate change be a key issue in the 2014 elections and all future elections. Combat the lies and deceit from the Koch brothers and other deep-pocketed climate deniers. Push for a reasonable fee on carbon and for incentives for renewable energy (and energy efficiency steps) at all levels of government. Americans have already tamed the atom and put a man on the moon. We can also lead the world in the fight against climate change.

Featured image: David Baird.