Originally published in USA Today Magazine in July 2013. © Copyright 2013 by John J. Berger
Scientists have been warning the world for decades about the climate dangers linked to our continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Why haven’t policymakers heeded their warnings and acted long ago? The answer lies in the fossil fuel industry’s successful two-decade-long campaign to obfuscate the causes and effects of global climate change, stalemating policymakers.
The campaign was modeled on cigarette companies’ campaign to convince Americans that tobacco was not a health hazard, and how it operated to sow doubt about climate change through a network of prominent proxy organizations. The leaders included people who had fought pesticide, asbestos, and CFC regulation to protect atmospheric ozone.
From denial of global warming, the industry has now shifted to claiming that― while climate change may be real―it is still controversial, gradual, and above all, far too costly to act on. Such divisive tactics have brought us to an impasse: national and international policy processes have been virtually paralyzed, with significant portions of the American public deeply confused about critical climate issues. We have thus been left vulnerable to extreme weather, as epitomized by Superstorm Sandy.
The industrial opposition to climate science and climate-safe energy policies has grown more sophisticated over the past decade. The campaign operates through dozens of industry-funded institutes, policy centers, councils, research foundations, and societies that speak for industry on climate and energy. They are identified, and their myths are rebutted in my recent book, Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science.
The climate “skeptics,” as they like to be called, include anti-government and anti-regulation conservatives and libertarians who oppose government action on ideological grounds. Their strategy has often been to hide ideologically based misrepresentations of climate science beneath a mantle of science.
A review of scientific publications on climate, however, reveals that whereas many thousands of high-quality scientific papers validated by peer review have been published documenting all phases of global warming, only a trivial number of dissenters who dispute the evidence have published in similar journals.
Moreover, by contrast, the results of climate studies confirming global warming and humanity’s role in it can be found in the most prestigious scientific journals. Almost without exception, the deniers’ reports appear in publications that are not peer reviewed, since their objections to climate science have been repeatedly refuted; thus they are of little interest to responsible, well-respected scientific publications. Finally, the national academies of science of most nations of the world have passed resolutions affirming that we are warming the planet.
Although climate change is a scientific issue, it has been adopted as a Republican “litmus test” issue by certain Republican Party spokesmen and thus public opinion surveys show that more Republicans than Democrats characterize themselves as “climate skeptics.” These individuals today appear less focused on disparaging climate science than in the past, when climate science was less settled. Nowadays they seem to have shifted tactics to focus more attention on defeating the environmental and energy policies implied by climate change concerns.
For example, industrial critics of decisive action on climate change (such as the National Association of Manufacturers) made a case in Congress and with the public in 2009 that effective measures to reduce carbon emissions would bring economic disaster in the form of high taxes, lost jobs, lower productivity, and reduced competitiveness for America in world markets.
Since their arguments weren’t gaining traction in the world of science, industry-funded think tanks then spent millions of dollars making their case against climate science to more gullible media, government officials, opinion leaders, students, and the general public. Climate skeptics and their allies have thus become a major presence on the Internet, over radio, and on TV airwaves, as well as through industry-sponsored books, magazines, articles, reports, and press releases.
An unsuspecting person who uses an Internet search engine and enters terms commonly associated with climate change will be hard pressed to discern the truth amid the plethora of misleading information many of these organizations provide. Since some of the most effective arguments consist of deceptive statements wrapped in layers of truth, it can be very challenging for students and others without advanced scientific training or sophisticated rhetorical and analytical skills to sift truth from falsity without investing lots of time.
Because of the resulting confusion over now clear-cut scientific issues, much of the public still denies global warming or doesn’t take it seriously. Thus, for example, they believe industry-sponsored myths that we are in a natural warming cycle that has little or nothing to do with human influence, or that the scientific foundation for concern about climate change is uncertain and unproven.
Myths like this deter us from timely action commensurate with the risks we face. Let’s take a look at a particularly dangerous myth, “There is no urgency in dealing with climate change, because it’s a long-term problem.”
To the contrary, time is of the essence in keeping heat-trapping gas emissions from getting dangerously higher. An alarming recent report to The World Bank by the prestigious Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Analytics concluded that the world is now on a path to an average temperature rise of more than 7˚F by 2100. This puts the climate at great risk of reaching a “tipping point” at which large irreversible climate changes amplify the initial human-induced warming in a positive feedback cycle to create uncontrollable planetary overheating.
The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency recently found that human-induced global carbon dioxide emissions grew 45 percent in only the 20 years from 1990 to 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, global carbon emissions will be almost twice 1990 levels by 2035. This assumes continued increases in energy use and a failure to shift significantly from fossil to renewable energy. Acting promptly to lower emissions rates now, however, will reduce risk, provide economic benefits, and mitigate damage.
Of course, it is not enough to merely halt the increase in carbon dioxide emissions. The climate cannot tolerate the stabilization of carbon emissions at current levels without producing more powerful storms, tornadoes, droughts, and floods. Not only are current emissions rates too high, but even if we were to hold current emissions steady, which would be a big improvement, the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would still continue rising for hundreds of years, since they’re already pouring into the atmosphere far faster than natural processes can remove them.
Thus, even holding emissions steady will worsen the climate crisis. Furthermore, even if the concentration of carbon dioxide could be magically lowered to a historically safe level, the Earth would still continue heating for hundreds of years because of stored heat the oceans will be gradually releasing.
It should also be clear that if the concentration of carbon dioxide is stabilized at a level that is substantially above values found during the past 10,000 years, then that new atmosphere is simply not compatible with our continuing enjoyment of the familiar climate that has endured for all of recorded human history. If the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is abnormal, the climate will be abnormal. A stable but elevated concentration of carbon dioxide relative to the 10,000 year norm will force the temperature to rise. It will continue to do so until it corresponds to the much hotter climate that the record of climate data from the geological past shows occurred when carbon dioxide levels were 400 ppm or above. (Think palm trees and crocodiles in the Arctic.)
For a more livable, not to mention a more pleasant, climate like the one in which humanity has existed since the last ice age, not only will emissions need to be stabilized, but they will need to be reduced below the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by natural processes. Otherwise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase, even though emissions might be stable. If any reservoir is filled faster than it’s drained, even if it’s filled at a constant rate, the level of the contents will rise.
Currently, about half the carbon dioxide humans pump into the atmosphere is removed by natural processes in about 30 years, with about 30 percent staying in the atmosphere for a few hundred years and about 20 percent staying for thousands of years. By contrast, to get the atmospheric carbon dioxide level back to safer and more normal levels (300–350 ppm) as quickly as possible, manmade carbon dioxide emissions need to be virtually eliminated, rather than merely stabilized.
That means shifting with all deliberate speed largely to noncarbon and carbon-neutral renewable energy systems while actively removing carbon from the atmosphere into long-term storage and preventing its escape back into the air. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near either a political consensus that this should be done, or the adoption of an action plan to accomplish it.
We must not assume that just because energy technology will advance, the reduction of carbon emissions will be easier for our children thirty years from now than today. Unless we alter our energy technology mix now to rely more heavily on renewable technologies and to greatly increase the efficiency with which we use energy, our children will have to make drastic cuts in fossil energy use on a shorter timetable and without the benefit of today’s still relatively inexpensive fossil fuels for building the alternative global energy system needed. (Fossil fuels are likely to get more expensive as time goes on, as the most easily developed fossil fuel deposits tend to be developed first, and so will have already been exploited.)
Some people may resent that I am outspokenly critical of climate science denial and the institutions that have supported it. I believe, however, that false claims need to be rebutted if sound climate policy is to be adopted. Discussions about climate change do not take place in a vacuum. The IMF recently issued a study showing that subsidies for petroleum products, electricity, natural gas, and coal reached $480 billion in 2011. Someone is getting that money. The larger political and economic context of the climate discussion therefore needs to be understood by people seeking to get to the truth about this vital subject.
Now that the key scientific facts are in, and the increasingly dire consequences of climate change are becoming ever more clear and alarming, it is unconscionable to continue circulating misleading, discredited information. People who knowingly do so for ulterior motives need to be held accountable in the court of public opinion, not kow-towed to. At the same time, many people of good will have been genuinely hornswoggled by the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation. They have no wrongful motives. They need solid, reliable information. When they receive it, I believe they will recognize that action to protect the climate urgently needs to be taken.