This piece ran in newspapers in early February, 2019.
Imagine this scenario: astronomers peering into space discover that a big asteroid is on a collision course to strike the earth in a decade. They tell the world this asteroid is on track to do to us what another asteroid did to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
They tell us, further, that we can avoid that fate if we make a serious effort to develop the means to keep that asteroid from crashing into our planet. They call for an ambitious project — like putting a man on the moon was in the 1960s, or like the Manhattan Project in World War II. Maybe even a project as vast as the whole effort to fight and win World War II rather than let evil rule the world.
What do you think would be the American response to this warning and this call to action?
Wouldn’t you agree we’d make the effort necessary to prevent catastrophe and secure our future?
But if that’s so, what are we to make of how we’re dealing with our actual situation, in which our civilization confronts a rather similar challenge?
- A serious threat of catastrophe does loom ahead of us, i.e. the dangerous destabilization of the earth’s climate.
- The scientists who best understand what’s happening are doing everything they can to convey to us their urgent warning and to elicit from us an appropriate response in order to safeguard the future for our children and grandchildren.
- They have laid out the outlines of a project by which we can divert the course of climate change away from catastrophe.
But, despite all that, our nation has failed to respond with anything like the determination that put Americans on the moon. Or gained us victory in World War II. Or that — I feel confident – that we’d show if we faced the threat of a collision with an asteroid.
Surely, the stakes are high enough, as the report from President Trump’s own government shows clearly. Even if the scientists don’t foresee our extinction, they speak of lives lived under much worse conditions, with
- more extreme weather
- the spread of virulent diseases
- mass extinctions of a great many forms of life
- famines and floods disrupting the lives of millions
- coastal cities rendered uninhabitable by rising seas
- disruptive waves of migration destabilizing the international order, and
- all that disorder leading to more warfare among nations.
That’s the future the scientists say we can expect unless we take corrective action to reduce our disruption of the climate system.
So why are we not responding appropriately to this challenge?
One big step toward an answer is to ask, more particularly: Why is it that – according to the polling – some 90% of the American population is unaware that regarding the reality and importance of climate change there’s a strong scientific consensus?
By now, that consensus is overwhelming, joined by more than 99% of the scientists in the field of climate science.
Our civilization depends upon science to scan our world, and to raise the alarm when necessary— whether it be about a deadly pandemic, or a hole in the ozone layer, or an asteroid on its way to deal the planet a blow.
This warning from the climate scientists is precisely the kind we are obliged to heed. It is as credible as any scientific warning about a threatening asteroid.
But 90% of our citizens wouldn’t be unaware of a consensus among astronomers about an approaching asteroid, would they? So why is it different with climate change?
The answer begins with this: No one would profit from our ignoring the asteroid, but with the danger from a destabilized climate, there’s a rich industry that gets richer from our ignoring the warnings science has delivered to us.
The main action that is required of us is to reduce – as quickly as we reasonably can — our burning of fossil fuels. But the fossil fuel industry – comprised of some of the richest on companies on the planet – profits off our burning fossil fuels. And it doesn’t want to lose those profits.
So, for decades, this super-wealthy industry – willing to sacrifice the human future for their short-term profits – has engaged in a (well-documented) propaganda campaign to mislead Americans. One part of that campaign has been to propagate the falsehood that the science is “unsettled,” that lots of scientists disagree.
Those lies help explain why, even after all these years, 90% of the American people don’t know that there’s virtual unanimity – across the world, among those scientists who know the most about the earth’s climate system – on the challenge we face and what we need to do to meet it.
This industry has also bought itself –along with the dishonest propaganda campaign — a major American political Party to act as its agent on the climate issue.
The Republican Party –the only major political party among advanced democracies that denies climate change – has been helping the fossil fuel industry in two ways: it helps the industry misinform and mislead the American people, and it uses its power in government to block responsible political action on this gathering crisis.
But there’s one more piece of the puzzle that needs explanation. It’s about the people who buy the lies.
So the question arises: Given how crystal clear is the folly of believing a word the con artists hired by oil-money are saying, and the equally clear credibility of the warnings coming from the world of science, what makes it possible for the fossil fuel industry and its Republican allies to win them over?