US AND THE ASTEROID

12 October 2021

 About a month ago, I woke from a sound sleep, with a thought resonating in my head: we are not going to stop – or probably even slow – the Climate Change progression. It wasn’t the first time something similar had occurred to me, but this time it was really insistent. I spent a lot of time the last several weeks going through my files on climate. Now, I know why I’m so positive.

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    Imagine an asteroid racing towards Earth, almost certain to make a direct hit, ending life as we know it. (This shouldn’t be hard; you’ve seen 100 different sci-fi movies with the same plot.) The Government and the Scientists are of one accord: they have to stop the asteroid from hitting Earth, the only choices seeming to be to explode it some way before it reaches us, or to somehow divert it so it misses contact. The options are not good – even if “successful,” there will be immediate casualties and  destruction, and probably long-term after-effects. But, considering the alternative…….

   Leaders all over the world give the bad news to their citizens, without embellishment. We’re probably doomed, but we have to make a monumental effort, if we want any possibility of saving  ourselves. There are some asteroid-deniers – demonstrators appear at many national capitols, holding signs decrying a Deep State (or United Nations) plan to take over the world while the people cower in fear. However, most of those not directly involved in stopping the asteroid are, indeed, cowering in fear.

   Two major wars have been raging in the Middle East; they end, as the combatants on all sides retreat in confusion. Thousands die daily from a continuing pandemic, but the losses are almost forgotten in the face of the bigger threat. Governments disband, forgetting that the day before they had been embroiled in negotiations on national debt, rebuilding the economy, creating jobs, repairing infrastructure, and righting social wrongs. The slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Africa, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the desire to classify more animals on world endangered species lists: all suddenly seem meaningless.

   Everybody waits, as the asteroid continues on its path.

*****

    Transition to Real Life.

   We have our own “asteroid” attacking Earth. Its name is Climate Change. Scientists have been tracking its progress for years, and have regularly “viewed with alarm” its progress,  properties, and accelerating threats. Its energy is supplied by “greenhouse gases,” notably carbon dioxide, the by-product of the fossil fuels that we have depended on to run our lives. We can legitimately blame a lot of bad things on these greenhouse gases, but the big issue is Global Warming. As carbon dioxide levels increase in our atmosphere,  from an estimated 280 parts per million (ppm)  before the Industrial Age, to 389 ppm in 2010, to 413 ppm this year - the highest ever recorded – the Earth’s temperature also continues to rise.  Climate scientists believe that if the average surface temperature across the planet reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than it was in pre-industrial times, many areas of Earth will become uninhabitable by humans. The average global temperature reached 1.25C higher in 2020; it has exceeded that in some areas for short periods of time.

    In 2006, Al Gore  with “An Inconvenient Truth” – in both book and movie forms - made this information widely available to, and eloquently understandable by, even the most uninformed and naïve human being.  Almost every scientist in the world, qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject, agrees that the threats are not hypothetical or debatable. Turn on the news - or look out your window - and you can’t ignore that some place in the world just had the hottest month on record, the wettest or driest year ever recorded, the most tornadoes, the strongest hurricanes, the largest and most ruinous wildfires, the second “hundred year” flood in the last two years, or massive crop failures due to long-term drought. In some parts of the world, whole populations are needing to move because their desiccated lands will no longer grow adequate food, or because their island homes are actually going under water due to rising sea levels. This is the most immediate – most dramatic – TODAY issue that the Human Race has ever confronted.

    So, with the situation so obvious, so active, and so immediate, all the world’s leaders must be gathered together with all the world’s climate experts to confront the issue head-on and somehow save us, right? Everyone not directly involved in the fight must be tuned in 24/7 to the news – must be hanging on every bit of information that comes out of those working so hard to redeem us and the planet, right? Things are so obvious that even the most ardent climate change deniers must be silent, and cowering in fear with the rest of us, right?

    Well, not exactly.

    World leaders are talking about Climate Change a lot, and are regularly meeting to discuss it. Many countries have set targets for what they intend to do to reduce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, nobody is doing much more than talking.[1]

   We’re among the “talkers” here in the United States. Action plans have been championed by the President, and legislation is proposed by the Congress. Knowing that fossil fuels are the chief culprit in global warming, the Biden Administration has tried to curtail further oil and gas exploration and development on Federal lands, and has reversed decisions the last Administration made to accelerate fossil fuel development. It seems like we’re on the right track.

    “Unfortunately, attitudes toward climate change and environmental policy in the U. S don’t tend to be influenced by actual science and data. Historically, political affiliations are the biggest driving factor behind the beliefs people have of climate change.[2]

   Consequently: A Federal court of appeals nullified the Biden attempts to limit oil and gas developments, and most states that have heavy dependence on oil, gas, or coal have filed law suits against the Federal government, and/or are working on their own local legislation to protect their economic interests. The proposed climate change legislation - actually, part of a bigger bill designed to “get our economy going again” -  is being stymied by most Republicans and a few Democrats. Even if the current proposals passed, they wouldn’t be adequate to even slow the pace of  Climate Change; and – since the Government still seems to be thinking of climate change as “important,” rather than “vital” – some of what is included could be a likely sacrifice to get the rest of the legislation passed.

   As far as public concern, almost everybody in the United States now “believes in” Climate Change. Exactly what they believe isn’t so encouraging. In recent studies and polls,[3] of those who acknowledge Climate Change, about two-thirds think it is caused by human activity (versus “natural” changes); even fewer (about 60%) believe that Climate Change is already happening; only about a third are “alarmed” about the implications of change; and only about a quarter of
“believers” believe that Climate Change will personally affect them in their lifetimes. When asked what should be the highest action priorities for the current Government, Climate Change came behind the Corona pandemic, jobs, and the Economy, and about equal with the situation in Afghanistan, national security, health care, and immigration.[4]

   The fact that political ideology sometimes trumps Science further decreases our chances of doing anything meaningful about the changing climate. Almost one-quarter of Republicans polled expressed doubt that Climate Change would ever have a serious effect on humans. (Only about 10% of Independents felt that way, and almost no Democrats.) More discouraging is that, between 2003 and 2021, belief that greenhouse gases were the primary cause of climate change fell by 20 percent among Republicans (to 32%). Among Democrats, the numbers increased by 20 percent (to 88 percent). Conversion to other forms of energy will be a constant political battle, taking time that the climate scientists say we don’t have.

   For other countries, I only know what “I read in the news.” Things don’t sound any better than here in the United States, which means few promises about climate action will be kept. The United Nations Cop26 climate summit, coming up in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, seems likely to give us a lot of bad news.

*****

   Leaving asteriod comparisons behind: There is an often told story that  if you put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out. However, if you place it in cool water, then gradually raise the temperature to boiling, the frog will remain in the water until it boils to death. The story isn’t true; frogs are too smart to sit around, doing nothing, while their environment changes to their detriment. They jump out, long before a serious threat develops.

   This doesn’t seem to be true of Humans. As smart as we say we are,  we are apparently far behind frogs in our ability to “test the waters.” As our “pond” heats up, and our discomfort grows, we placidly continue on as if nothing was changing.

   Will we jump out in time?

   It doesn’t seem likely.

*****

 FOOTNOTES:

[1] At the September 2021 meeting of the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy, teen Greta Thunberg bluntly chastised adult decision makers: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah.  This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises. Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations” She isn’t wrong.

[2] Justine Calma, writing in The Verge, 26 May 2021.

[3] Reports issued in 2020 and 2021 by Gallup, Pew, and the Yale Project on Climate Change. The findings aren’t identical, but all report similar results and trends.

[4] Another poll has action on climate behind health care, drug addiction, affordability of college education, and the Budget Deficit. All those Important Things become meaningless if climate impacts are even half as bad as predicted!


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© Sanford Wilbur 2021