Hot Under the Collar Over Global Warming

Excerpt adapted from Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science (Northbrae Books, 2013)

Global-Warming-3

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.

Flaming Forests: Preventing the Next Inferno

Climate Change Makes The Use of Controlled Burns and
Other Fuel Reduction Techniques More Imperative

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher

Powerhouse Fire, Shasta, CA – 1989. © Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

Fire has played an instrumental role in the evolution of many forest and grassland types, which continue to require its presence for ecological health and succession.1 Temperate and boreal forests, for example, naturally experience periodic wildfires in the absence of human fire-suppression efforts

In these ecosystems, fire cleanses the forest of dead and dying material, opens cones, freeing seeds, controls insects and disease, releases nutrients, and−through the patchy nature of most periodic burns−introduces additional habitat heterogeneity. Eliminating woody debris on the forest floor also inhibits the accumulation of fuels and prevents hotter and more damaging blazes from occurring.2

For decades, however, the United States Forest Service’s “Smokey Bear” public education campaign convinced Americans that forest fire was an inherently destructive, unmitigated evil, as the service fought fires with bulldozers to plow firebreaks and aircraft to drop chemical fire retardants. Although successful in suppressing fires, the campaign also served to obscure the beneficial effects of forest and grassland fires from public awareness.

A firefighter looks for hot spots as helicopter makes a water drop.
Old Gulch Fire, Calaveras, CA – August, 1992.
© Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

Effects of Fire Suppression
Where forest fires have long been suppressed, trees and brush grow thickly, drawing lots of moisture from the soil and sometimes drying up creeks and springs, reducing wildlife abundance and diversity. Some plants that require the heat of fire for germination may not reproduce at all, and others get crowded out by the dense brush and trees. In addition, so much fuel may accumulate that when fires eventually occur, they burn with enough ferocity to kill large, normally fire-resistant trees. They also bake the life out of the forest soil and cause both structural and chemical changes that produce a hard, water-resistant crust that impedes forest recovery.

The absence of trees following such a burn leaves the affected area vulnerable to erosion, landslides, and increased runoff, which in turn can clog and choke neighboring riparian ecosystems, harming their fish and other aquatic organisms.3

A recent study by research ecologist Edward E. Little of the United States Geological Survey’s Columbia Environmental Research Center indicates that riparian ecosystems may also be threatened by toxic contamination from fire-retardant sprays used nearby.

Dr. Little has conducted experiments to gauge the effects of fire-retardant chemicals including Fire-Trol® GTS-R and Phos-Chek® D75-R on fish and amphibian health and has found that exposure to these chemicals can cause illness and mortality in some fish and amphibian species.4 These sprays are often introduced to riparian systems through runoff, making them less effective and potentially harming nearby wildlife.5 These chemicals can also be introduced into riparian systems on ash from nearby fires. Furthermore, even when successful at delaying fire for long periods of time, delay often results in larger, more intense fires against which fire-retardant sprays are less effective.

The Station Fire
The Station Fire is a recent example of an inferno that followed a long period of fire suppression in California. It burned for 52 days before finally being fully contained October 16th, 2009 after burning over 250 square miles in the Angeles National Forest, making it the largest forest fire in Los Angeles County’s recorded history. Containment efforts cost taxpayers over $95 million. The blaze is part of a trend: scientists and researchers have noticed in the past decade that wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent. 7

“A recent New York Times article on the Station Fire notes that “7 of the state’s 10 largest wildfires have occurred in the last six years,”8 and discusses research by Scott L. Stephens and Dr. Little on the environmental issues that often arise after such devastating infernos. According to Dr. Stephens, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and president of the Association for Fire Ecology, investigations addressing the long-term environmental effects of the Station Fire coincided with recent studies on the effect climate change and drought may be having on forests and scrubland in high-burn areas.9

Sun gleams through smoke as fire consumes a pine tree.
Old Gulch Fire, Calaveras, CA – August 1992.
© Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

Wildfires and Climate Change
Climate change is suspected of increasing drought conditions and causing the fire season to start earlier and last longer in recent years. This means we can expect the number and intensity of fires to increase with time, and we need to devote more resources to conducting prescribed burns (and reducing fuel loads by other means) to try to prevent large, devastating, and uncontrollable fires, such as the Station Fire.

In reality, large wildfires are fundamentally uncontrollable forces of nature and, while they sometimes can be kept away from populated areas and certain high-value properties, true confinement and control depend upon natural conditions, including wind, rainfall, temperature, moisture, and fuel depletion. Controlled burn technology continues to improve as forest researchers and managers, such as Dr. Stephens, develop new techniques for performing prescribed burns and measuring their effectiveness at reducing fuel loads and preventing massive fires.

In recent years, even the Smokey Bear campaign has come to acknowledge the natural role that fire plays in forests and promotes prescribed fire as “one of the most effective tools . . . in preventing the outbreak and spread of wildfires,”10 so long as it’s conducted safely.

As forest managers recognize the benefits fire can bring to some ecosystems, and embrace prescribed burns as an effective forest management tool, popular sentiment on these issues is also changing, driven in part by worries of massive wildfires in populous areas and by the knowledge that worsening climate change is increasing wildfire frequency.

Flames silhouette nearby home at night during 1993 Topanga Canyon, CA fire.
© Robert A. Eplett/OES CA

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Additional Readings:

  • The Headwaters case study in Chapter 13, “Saving Forests,” in Forests Forever and the case of Bull Creek in Chapter 5, “Redwoods Rising,” in Restoring the Earth are two examples that address issues involving post-fire landslides and runoff.
  • To read Randal Archibold’s article, After a Devastating Fire, an Intense Study of Its Effects, please click here.
  • All of Robert A. Eplett’s photographs for the California Office of Emergency Services can be viewed here.

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References:
1. John J. Berger, Forests Forever: Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection (San Francisco, CA and Chicago, IL, Forests Forever Foundation and Center for American Places at Columbia College, Chicago, 2008), pp. 56-57. Distributed by University of Chicago Press.

2. Berger, op. cit., pp. 21.

3. Berger, op cit., pp. 57.

4. Little, Edward E. and Calfee, Robin. Effects of Fire-Retardant Chemical Products on Fathead Minnows in Experimental Streams. U.S. Geological Survey, Columbia Research Center. http://www.cerc.usgs.gov/pubs/center/pdfDocs/ECO-04.PDF

5. Bloomekatz, Ari B., Blankstein, Andrew, and Dimassa, Cara Mia. “Station fire an act of arson, sheriff’s officials say.” Los Angeles Times. September 4, 2009.
http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/04/local/me-fire4

7. Archibold, Randal C. “After a Devastating Fire, an Intense Study of Its Effects.” New York Times. October 2, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/
2009/10/03/science/earth/03fire.html?scp=4&sq=la%20%22 station%20fire%22&st=cse

8. Archibold, Randal C. “After a Devastating Fire, an Intense Study of Its Effects.” New York Times. October 2, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/
2009/10/03/science/earth/03fire.html?scp=4&sq=la%20%22 station%20fire%22&st=cse

9. Ibid.

10. Prescribed Fires. Smokey Bear Campaign. Accessed November 16, 2009. http://www.smokeybear.com/prescribed-fires.asp