Saving Earth: Don't Fall Into Climate Change Fatalism

We haven't lost Earth yet.
Forest fires burning near Ljusdal, Sweden on July 18, 2018.
Forest fires burning near Ljusdal, Sweden on July 18, 2018.
MAJA SUSLIN via Getty Images

You reap what you sow. The chickens have come home to roost. The ship has sailed. The s**t has hit the fan. The English language has no shortage of idioms describing lost opportunities and the consequences of failing to act. And we’ve failed to act on human-caused climate change. It is here, with a vengeance.

We see it in massive wildfires sweeping across the western United States, Scandinavia, Canada and Siberia; the brutal heat waves and rising seas; dying coral reefs and acidifying oceans; the destruction of the Arctic and melting of Antarctica; crop failures and supercharged hurricanes.

We told you so, over and over, but you wouldn’t listen. (There, I got that off my chest.)

Kudos to The New York Times and Nathaniel Rich for publishing “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” ― a comprehensive look back at the history of the climate science and political debates that went on from 1979 to 1989. It tells part of the story of the massive scientific work that went into trying to understand the risks greenhouse gas emissions pose to the planet and then the ― ultimately stymied ― efforts of some climate scientists, advocates and politicians to move that science onto the agenda of American and then international policymakers.

The piece begins on a misleading note, stating in the prologue that: “The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.” Yet the rest of the article makes it quite clear that the nascent efforts to slow damaging greenhouse gases emissions were stopped not by public opposition or ineffective communication by scientists, but by the clear ideological opposition of conservative Republicans and the Bush White House.

Rich also downplays the direct role that the fossil fuel industry played at the time in both hindering scientific research, hiding what was known (even to them), funding what was to become a massive effort on the part of the climate denial community and buying influence among politicians. That campaign, well catalogued by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book “Merchants of Doubt,” was fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars of “dark money” that was directed to pseudo-scientific organizations, fake “think tanks” and conservative ideologues.

The world didn’t stop in 1989. Nearly 30 years have gone by and while the basic facts of climate change were well known back then, scientific certainty about climate change has continued to be improved, refined and advanced. The “signal” that humans are changing the climate, which appeared in the late 1980s rising above the “noise” of natural fluctuations in climate, has become a klaxon, blaring its warning.

“Doomsday scenarios are not inevitable. Progress is being made almost everywhere, except at the national level of the United States.”

International negotiations have also continued every year to try to find a path forward. At every turn, ideological powers in the U.S., together with a small group of aligned nations (often dominated by fossil fuel producers and interests), continue to block any meaningful agreement.

It’s too late to stop severe climate change – indeed we see it around us. But it is absolutely not too late to slow the rate of climate change, to accelerate the transition away from coal, and then oil, and then natural gas to the diverse and increasingly inexpensive and effective suite of renewable energy options available to us. We can, and must, still act.

As the Times piece notes, we’ve lost the opportunity to prevent one degree Celsius of warming and without prompt and dramatic efforts almost certainly cannot prevent two degrees of warming. That’s bad enough: It’s probably sufficient to destroy the Arctic ice cap, most shallow tropical reefs, much of the snowpack in the world’s mountain ranges and lead to more extreme floods and droughts. But continued inaction will lead to much worse. Three or four degrees warming – which by the way was enough to mark the difference between planetary ice ages and warm interglacial periods – would wipe out all major coastal cities that can’t spend the literally hundreds of billions of dollars or more needed to build massive seawalls, destroy dozens of low-lying island nations, and make vast areas near the equator brutally – and perhaps unbearably – hot. Five degrees is simply unthinkable.

The good news is that these doomsday scenarios are not inevitable. Progress is being made almost everywhere, except at the national level of the U.S. Other nations, many U.S. states, local governments, responsible companies and individuals are moving forward. Emissions have flattened over the last several years and are starting to come down in many places. The delays of the past 40 years have committed the planet to unprecedented changes and will impose severe costs on all of us, especially on the poorest populations without the resources to adapt. But even more extreme costs can still be prevented if our politicians and the public can put aside blind ideology, anti-science rhetoric and short-term thinking for the sake of our children and the planet.

Peter H. Gleick is a hydroclimatologist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. His work on climate and water in the mid-1980s highlighted the threat of climate change for water resources and mountain snowpack. His research institute, the Pacific Institute, did the first comprehensive assessments of the threat of sea-level rise for the California coast. And his early writings in the 1980s highlighted the threat of climate change for national security, peace and conflict.