The Warning Signs We Ignored

by Dick Smythe

Last August, many countries around the world reported record-breaking high temperatures. People were hospitalized; rooftops were melting in the United Kingdom; and north of the Arctic Circle in Finland, the temperature approached 90 F. This June was the hottest June ever.

Recognition of the threat of climate change driven by human action is not new. In the early 1800s, Alexander von Humboldt, the most famous scientist in the world at the time of his death in 1859, warned that humankind “had the power to destroy the environment, and the consequences could be catastrophic.” In 1869, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius determined that a threefold increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would boost average Arctic temperatures by 14 to 16 degrees F.

Nathaniel Rich discusses our history of denial and inaction in a recent book, Losing Earth: A Recent History. According to Rich, the story of climate politics between 1979 and 1989 – both in the U.S. and internationally – appeared to be one of great promise. In 1979, the basic science of climate change was considered neither complicated nor especially controversial. Many government scientists and researchers at companies such as Exxon accepted that carbon dioxide produced by fossil-fuel combustion was heating the planet.

More telling yet, and almost completely unknown to the general public, the Jasons – a team of elite scientists established in 1960 and sponsored by the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community – issued a compelling climate-change report to the Department of Energy. The report concluded that carbon dioxide levels would double as early as 2035. It predicted the result would be an increase in average global surface temperatures of two to three degrees C, creating Dust Bowl conditions across portions of North America, Asia and Africa. Tragically, no action was taken although the National Academy of Sciences determined that the Jasons’ report had been optimistic and warned of a time when the seas might be 80 feet higher and beech trees could be growing in Antarctica.

The government failed to act, but the fossil-fuel industry did not sit still. Exxon’s research laboratory manager recommended the company “start a very aggressive defensive program” to protect the company’s oil business. Within a few years, Exxon and its allies proceeded to launch a pervasive and extremely well-funded attack on climate science in order to head off potential climate legislation. 

After President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, he began a wide-ranging cutback of environmental regulation. The embryonic climate policy was largely left alone to await a second National Academy report that was released in October 1983. Although the report’s overall tone was cautious, it contained grim warnings. The executive summary stated, “We may get into trouble in ways we have barely imagined,” and it recommended that researchers prioritize work on renewable fuels. Again, the warnings were ignored. 

The decade of hope and possibility was over. The fossil-fuel companies, following the playbook of the tobacco industry, have supported an ongoing American Petroleum Institute press campaign that has paid scientists to write op-eds emphasizing largely fictitious uncertainties in climate science. Those in power during the 1980s could have eliminated, or at least minimized, the climate-change problem by facing the facts and offering sustained support for emission-reduction policies and other fixes. They did not.

It is still possible to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by half before 2030, but after decades of denial and obfuscations, it will be very difficult. What we need is a rapid transformation of public opinion – not on political terms, but on the strength of a moral conviction. We need a strong commitment to equity and justice. We need a global transformation that “vastly increases the number of those who benefit while dramatically reducing the number of those who do not.”

If we don’t act responsibly, our planetary home will become uninhabitable for millions of humans and countless other creatures. It is that simple.

Haven’t we waited long enough? 

Dick Smythe is a member of the Climate Change Coalition’s steering committee. He spent his professional career with the U.S. Forest Service as a research scientist and in a series of administrative positions. 

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