Scientists Agree, It’s Real, It’s Us, It’s Bad … But There’s Hope!
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ed Maibach, and Ana Unruh Cohen
From about 1938 until the end of 1941, United States citizens watched the horror of attacks on sovereign nations in Europe. We worried about it, but seemed separate and apart from the destruction. Then, on December 7, 1941, we were shocked into facing a common enemy—an existential threat thrust upon us that was not ambiguous or subtle or in the future. We had to act quickly, and we had to act in unison. The fact we do not speak German or Japanese as our basic language today or spend deutschmarks or yen instead of dollars is a testament to the power of concerted action against a common enemy. People under serious threat can put aside differences and be quite resourceful.
History reports numerous examples where, for whatever reason, people did not comprehend that a common enemy threatened their lives and their society and they did not act together, or maybe they could not communicate the threat in time to defeat it. Obvious examples include the Conquistadors, Cortes and Pizarro, and their conquests of South and Central America. It didn’t have to happen the way it did.
If some astronomical observatory somewhere detected a previously unknown eight-mile-wide asteroid or comet that the complex mathematics calculated would be at a point in space that our planet would also occupy at the same time a few years into the future, what would we do? Would all the nations on Earth form a task force of their best and brightest and undertake to design and build a spacecraft capable of nudging the big rock into a slightly different trajectory, and miss us? One would hope so.
Or would we argue about whether the scientists’ calculations are correct, or squabble over who would build the craft, and dither and delay and obfuscate and miss the window of opportunity to save the planet? At this point, even though a threat like that could be easily confirmed by science, since it would be a few years into the future, would we do what we’re doing with climate change and keep postponing action because taking action means doing some things that are challenging and not in the plans of the world’s richest and most powerful people?
The slow motion—but accelerating—train wreck caused by incessant warming of the planet is underway. Maybe it can still be managed and somehow reduced in magnitude, but not unless we change our approach pretty much right now. Climate change—now better called climate chaos—is real, it is caused by human activities, and it is increasing. Precious little is being done right now that promises to be big enough—fast enough, to prevent the continued rapid warming of Planet Earth with all the negative outcomes for life. These processes have the potential to spiral out of control. “Out of control” means that humans will no longer have the ability to rein in positive feedbacks, a counterintuitive name for processes that cause warming, and then that warming causes more warming—being on autopilot/overdrive with no off switch.
The year 2016 was the hottest for the planet, and sixteen of the seventeen hottest years since 1880 have all happened since 2000. The year 2016 just blew away the old record, which was the year 2015. Before that, 2014 set the mark. Glaciers are retreating rapidly, large ice sheets are at risk, and the Arctic region continues to suffer very significant declines in ice cover. Now the ice world of Antarctica is destabilizing, promising to add to the negative impacts of climate chaos. Tropical disease vectors are moving northward. Droughts are plaguing large parts of the world, bringing about starvation and political instability. Defense departments are factoring climate chaos into their scenarios. The insurance industry is factoring climate chaos into its complex loss calculations. In these last two examples, facts, calculations, science and statistics take priority over ideology.
Because there is so much money still to be made by continuing to burn fossil fuels, and because the fossil fuel companies and public utilities can use a tiny fraction of their profits to legally bribe our elected leaders, this issue has been politicized, doubt has been cast, science has been ignored and demonized, and the world’s largest economy now is split down ideological lines instead of marching in lockstep to defeat the common enemy that climate change is in fact.
But with that said, amazingly, Borick, Rabe, and Mills1 reported that seven out of ten Americans “indicate that there is solid evidence for global warming,” while only 16% of respondents say there is no evidence of global warming—a record low number.
But, a Chapman University2 survey asked Americans to rate the 79 fears on a list of worries of which they are “Afraid or Very Afraid.” Climate change was something that only 32.3% of this random sample of over 1500 Americans said they were afraid of or very afraid of. Climate change was 17th on the list of 79, and this sample of Americans worries more about reptiles (33.2%), credit card fraud (35.5%) and Obamacare (35.5%) than climate change. At least climate change is more of a worry than public speaking (25.9%), insects/arachnids (25.0%), and zombies (10.2%).
Taking a broader world-view, The Daily Caller News Foundation3 reported, “A YouGov poll of 18,000 people in 17 countries found only 9.2 percent of Americans rank global warming as their biggest concern. Only Saudi Arabians were less concerned about global warming at 5.7 percent (emphasis added). The biggest concern for Americans was global terrorism—28 percent of Americans polled listed this as their top issue.”
And a 2015 Pew Research Center poll4 found that virtually all countries around the world are concerned about climate change, but “Latin Americans and sub-Saharan Africans are particularly worried about climate change. Americans and Chinese, whose countries have the highest overall carbon dioxide emissions, are less concerned.” The findings went on to say “the U.S. has the highest carbon emissions per capita, but it is among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impact.” Most countries believe that climate change damage is occurring now, and the greatest concern focuses on drought.
So, two out of three average Americans are not yet afraid or very afraid of climate change, even if most people around the world are. But surely our leaders, or potential leaders, are on board by now. Not so fast. According to Merchant5, “Five minutes and twenty-seven seconds were spent on climate change and other environmental issues in the three (2016) presidential debates, two percent of the total time—and that was pretty much all Hillary Clinton talking. … There wasn’t a single question on climate policy, and only one that directly related to energy—thank you, Ken Bone.”
To the chagrin of those of us who know that the increasingly dire forecasts for climate chaos and its attendant problems are approaching dangerous tipping points, now the citizens of the world’s largest economy have elected a staunch climate denier to the White House. Many of his cabinet, his department heads, his EPA overseers—are climate deniers—think of them as the wrecking crew of the climate. Denial of climate change is the greatest existential threat to life on the planet at this time (with the possible exception of an unlikely all-out nuclear weapon attack between world powers). The most irrational thing we can do as a species is to continue to ignore climate change. . . .
The complete Introduction, 39 chapters, and references to the work of others are in the book. . . .
“There is no guarantee at this point that we are going to win this fight. But there is a guarantee that we are going to fight, which is something we didn’t know ten years ago, and that makes me happy. It would be a great shame to go out without a fight anyway. And you know—who knows? If we do everything we can, maybe we will catch a break from physics some place along the way. I am a Methodist Sunday school teacher, right? So part of the condition of having faith in a way is thinking that if you do all of the things that you can and are supposed to do, that the world might meet you half way. And so that is what we hope for. But, you know, one shouldn’t understate the predicament we are in, because it is very real. Bill McKibben In person interview by authors, Boone, NC, July 18, 2016