Decades of de­nial and stalling have cre­ated a cli­mate crunch

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL - By David Suzuki

In a 1965 speech to mem­bers, Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute pres­i­dent Frank Ikard out­lined the find­ings of a re­port by then-pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son’s Sci­ence Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee, based in part on re­search the in­sti­tute con­ducted in the 1950s.

“The sub­stance of the re­port is that there is still time to save the world's peo­ples from the cat­a­strophic con­se­quence of pol­lu­tion, but time is run­ning out,” Ikard said, adding, “One of the most im­por­tant pre­dic­tions of the re­port is that car­bon diox­ide is be­ing added to the earth’s at­mos­phere by the burn­ing of coal, oil and nat­u­ral gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat bal­ance will be so mod­i­fied as pos­si­bly to cause marked changes in cli­mate beyond lo­cal or even na­tional ef­forts.”

Many sci­en­tists were reach­ing sim­i­lar con­clu­sions, based on a body of ev­i­dence that had been grow­ing at least since French math­e­ma­ti­cian Joseph Fourier de­scribed the green­house ef­fect in 1824. In the 1950s, Rus­sian cli­ma­tol­o­gist Mikhail Budyko ex­am­ined how feed­back loops am­plify hu­man in­flu­ences on the cli­mate. He pub­lished two books, in 1961 and 1962, warn­ing that grow­ing en­ergy use will warm the planet and cause Arc­tic ice to dis­ap­pear, cre­at­ing feed­back cy­cles that would ac­cel­er­ate warm­ing.

The pre­dic­tions have proven to be accurate, and ev­i­dence for hu­man-caused global warm­ing has since be­come in­dis­putable.

What hap­pened? Over the en­su­ing decades, the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try didn’t try to re­solve what it knew would be­come a cri­sis. In­stead, it worked to down­play and of­ten deny the re­al­ity of cli­mate change and to sow doubt and con­fu­sion. Know­ingly putting humanity — and count­less other species — at risk for the sake of profit is an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional crime against humanity, but it’s un­likely any per­pe­tra­tors will face jus­tice.

Still, warn­ings from re­searchers world­wide started to sink in. In 1988, NASA sci­en­tist James Hansen told a U.S. con­gres­sional com­mit­tee, “Global warm­ing has reached a level such that we can as­cribe with a high de­gree of con­fi­dence a cause and ef­fect re­la­tion­ship be­tween the green­house ef­fect and ob­served warm­ing. It is al­ready hap­pen­ing now.”

Peo­ple in the U.S. and else­where started to de­mand ac­tion on cli­mate and other en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers from Ge­orge H.W. Bush in the U.S. to Mar­garet Thatcher in the U.K. to Brian Mul­roney in Canada started jump­ing on the “green” band­wagon — in word if not al­ways in deed.

Had we heeded early warn­ings and had po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives done more than talk, we likely could have ad­dressed the prob­lem with min­i­mal so­ci­etal dis­rup­tion. But the in­dus­try-funded de­nial ma­chine, which con­tin­ues to­day, has been ef­fec­tive. Con­cern about cli­mate change and other en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues has di­min­ished as the prob­lems have in­ten­si­fied. Politi­cians con­tinue to think in terms of brief elec­tion cy­cles, fo­cus­ing on short-term gains from ex­ploit­ing fos­sil fu­els rather than long-term ben­e­fits of con­serv­ing en­ergy and shift­ing to cleaner sources.

Mean­while, green­house gas emis­sions con­tinue to rise and car­bon sinks like forests and wet­lands are still be­ing de­stroyed. Even if we stopped us­ing fos­sil fu­els to­mor­row, we’ve emit­ted so much car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gases that we wouldn’t be able to avert wors­en­ing of the con­se­quences al­ready hap­pen­ing. But we still have time — al­beit very lit­tle — to en­sure the prob­lem doesn’t be­come cat­a­strophic. The In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change, which is con­ser­va­tive in its es­ti­mates, gives us about 12 years to take de­ci­sive ac­tion.

And yet, some peo­ple still deny or down­play the prob­lem, or ar­gue we have to shift slowly, even though they seem re­luc­tant to start what could have been a grad­ual tran­si­tion had we started a half-cen­tury ago.

Canada, China and Rus­sia are the worst of­fend­ers. A re­port pub­lished in Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions ranked the cli­mate plans of var­i­ous coun­tries and con­cluded that if the world fol­lowed our cli­mate poli­cies, we’d face a cat­a­strophic rise in global av­er­age tem­per­a­ture of 5 C by the end of the cen­tury. The U.S. and Aus­tralia weren’t far be­hind.

We have to do bet­ter. Many peo­ple, es­pe­cially politi­cians, say we can’t shift from fos­sil fu­els overnight. That may be true, but if we don’t start, we’ll never get there. With a fed­eral elec­tion less than a year away, it’s up to us all to en­sure ev­ery po­lit­i­cal party makes cli­mate change its high­est pri­or­ity and has a re­al­is­tic plan to ad­dress it.

David Suzuki is a sci­en­tist, broad­caster, au­thor and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foun­da­tion. Writ­ten with con­tri­bu­tions from David Suzuki Foun­da­tion Se­nior Edi­tor Ian Han­ing­ton.

Learn more at www.david­suzuki.org.

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