I consider myself an optimist. I believe people are generally good hearted, honest and well meaning. I believe world leaders will finally recognize that climate change must be addressed and must be addressed quickly.
My optimism is validated by recent climate actions of President Obama, Pope Francis and others.
However, my optimism is tempered by the scientific reality and the persistent denial from leaders who know better.
The problem is that quick climate action is now defined as taking steps that will limit global warming to about 2 degrees centigrade. We’re already at about a .8 degree increase and we’re seeing impacts: more frequent and intense extreme weather events; melting ice in the Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland and glaciers; rising sea levels impacting low lying coastlines; increased droughts; and, the first waves of climate refugees escaping climate impacted areas.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the 2 degree limit will help to mitigate sea level rise, but we’ll still see an increase of a foot or more in my lifetime and over 3 feet by the end of the century. That means a lot more human, environmental and economic hardship could face humanity in the coming decades.
The optimist in me believes we’ll find ways to cope with the changes, but we better not let it get any worse than a 2 degree increase. Anything above 2 degrees and the scientists tell us that we could get into an irreversible acceleration of impacts that will ultimately raise seas to levels unseen in human history and make large portions of earth uninhabitable. Some scientists are now questioning whether 2 degrees is the right number or whether the cap should be much lower to avoid the worst devastation.
The potential for climate change has been known for many years. In the 1980s, the science became clear enough that our leaders should have taken steps to limit global warming to a much lower level than 2 degrees. But they didn’t. In the 1990s, then President George H.W. Bush and other Republican leaders took some preliminary steps to begin to address climate change.
But then fossil fuel companies and their surrogates convinced some politicians and opinion leaders that the climate solutions would hurt their business interests. They funded some of the same public relations and psuedo-scientists who were used to delay regulation of cigarettes and toxic chemicals. They created doubt about the science and provided cover to Congressional leaders who wanted to placate their oil patrons. Their work was surprisingly successful. According to polls, only 50-some percent of Americans believe there is a scientific consensus on climate change or that we are already seeing impacts. And Americans are among the least informed on climate of the major industrialized countries. The reality is that over 97 percent of climate science studies agree there is a problem and scientists are telling us it is already affecting us.
By the early 2000s, opponents to climate action convinced the Republican leadership that climate could be used as a partisan issue. With some exceptions like Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and former Ronald Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, most Republicans who previously believed action on climate was needed, back-peddled. Then, one very conservative Congressman, Bob Inglis of South Carolina, looked at the science carefully and realized Earth was in big trouble. He started advocating for climate change action and, as a result, conservative activists rallied around a Republican opponent who soundly defeated him. The message to Republican members was clear — back climate science at your own peril.
Opinion polls in the U.S. now reflect a sharp partisan divide on climate, with Democrats much more likely to believe climate science than Republicans. The Public Policy Institute of California released a poll last month showing California Democrats twice as likely as Republicans to believe climate impacts have already begun (73% vs. 37%).
Climate deniers among the Republican Presidential candidates and in Congress have been emboldened and continue in their efforts to dismiss scientific reality. Despite overwhelming irrefutable evidence, they continue to resist needed action.
I was thinking about the future recently and wondered how the climate deniers will be remembered in the future. The deniers have managed to stall climate action for several decades. I believe their days of obstructionism are waning in the face of public and world insistence for action – that’s the optimist in me coming out again.
But these climate deniers will be remembered in the future for their tremendous success at obfuscation and delay. And this remembrance will not be a positive one. I expect people in the future will look back in anger at our failure from the late 1980s to 2015 to take steps to limit global warming to a level lower than 2 degrees centigrade.
People in the future will want to know who was responsible for inaction. And, for the displacement, environmental damage and human suffering, those responsible will be remembered with disgust and disdain.
Others have used the phrase “traitor to humanity” to describe leading climate change deniers. Traitor is a harsh word, but I can think of none better to describe the reckless disregard for our planet and the humans that live on it. For a bit of political self-gratification now, the climate denial leaders are condemning themselves to be forever remembered as betraying humans and the planet.
(This article originally appeared on Climate Dispatch. It has been reprinted here with permission.)