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Andy Schmookler: What’s it take to get it about climate change?

Andy Schmookler

We now know, from Exxon’s own communications, that Exxon itself understood — even 40 years ago — that the burning of fossil fuels was creating a problem. In the 40 years since, the scientific evidence for that problem has grown huge.

Yet still the United States remains crippled in its ability to take responsible steps to deal with the emerging crisis.

How can that be? How can the nation that brought science into its governance as far back as that great scientist and statesman, Thomas Jefferson, be as unable as we’ve been as a nation to heed the most urgent warning science has ever sent us?

Part of the answer, of course, is that the fossil fuel industry – companies like Exxon – have worked hard to paralyze the political system from taking action they themselves well understood to be needed. To block responsible action, they’ve bankrolled a long-term disinformation campaign to deceive as much of the American public as they could.

But that doesn’t explain why enough Americans have been willing to believe the liars rather than the thousands of scientist from around the planet.

Part of the explanation may lie in how well – or ill — the problem of climate change fits into the ways people already think about the world.

It is easier to grasp our civilization’s challenge regarding climate change the more one’s worldview includes such ideas as:

  • How human life – like all life throughout the several billion years of life’s history on this planet — depends upon an ecological order.
  • How the history of life already demonstrates that the disruption of the climate can inflict catastrophic injury on the systems of life on earth. (The most famous example: how the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago when the climate was temporarily thrown askew by the impact of a very large asteroid striking our planet. What the asteroid did then, coming from outside the system of life on earth, we human beings are doing to ourselves, though to a lesser degree.)
  • How the uniqueness of human civilization as a life-form brings new possibilities and dangers. Civilization represents a breakthrough into a new kind of life-form that not bound regarding how it relates to the environment. That freedom to invent new ways of sustaining our lives has imposed on us a responsibility no other creature has faced: to make sure that the way of life we choose maintained a kind of balance with our planet. Because we are still bound by the need of every creature to live in harmony with earth’s systems on which all life-forms depend for survival.

Here’s another set of understandings the lack of which may have made many Americans susceptible to the campaign of deception waged by the fossil fuel industry. Much of people’s thinking – having been formed in earlier times – fails to account adequately for how much greater the human impact on the planet has become in our times:

  • There are more than 7 billion people now–a number that has more than tripled in my lifetime.
  • A billion or so of those people are living at a level of material abundance that the mass of people in earlier eras could scarcely dream of, a “standard of living” that has a much greater impact on the planet.
  • Beginning with the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, and at a swiftly accelerating rate, our civilization has been harnessing energy from sources that, when burned, change the composition of the earth’s atmosphere. Science has known for generations that the by-products of such combustion – like carbon dioxide and methane – trap the earth’s heat. It is this “greenhouse effect” — from the prodigious amounts of those fuels we’re using – that’s rapidly altering the earth’s climate.

All of which should alert us to the great likelihood that such a phenomenal acceleration of the human impact would create some kinds of disruptions in the earth’s systems.

That intellectual dimension of the problem is compounded by the moral dimension.

The United States has the only major political party in the developed world that consistently tells its followers to ignore what the scientists are saying.

That political party, well supported financially by the fossil fuel industry, has placed itself in the same morally compromised position as those people who used to go on TV to deny what the medical scientists had shown about the connection between tobacco smoking and fatal diseases of the heart and lungs.

These politicians, like the corporations that bankroll them, serve their own selfish interests at the expense of our children and grandchildren when they tell their followers:

Don’t listen to the scientists when they speak about a scientific question like “What’s happening with the earth’s climate system?” Don’t listen to the world’s most respected institutions of learning and news organizations. Listen only to us.

There’s a cost in listening to the untrustworthy, to the wicked. Thus it is that many people do not notice – or do not heed — as the reports come in concerning

  • how 13 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000;
  • what the ongoing sea-level rise, caused by the melting of ice near the north and south poles, is likely to do to the coastal cities in the United States and around the world;
  • how extreme weather events have more than doubled in frequency in the past generation;
  • how a wave of extinctions has already begun (because of how the climate is being disrupted);
  • how the changes in climate are already starting to generate more wars and massive migrations of people.

These seem to be the ingredients that are enabling a force of brokenness to dictate inaction by the United States in the face of what scientists have reasonably called “the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.”

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