Here’s the situation as it now stands: Even with the Paris Accords on climate change, temperatures are expected to rise by between 2.7 degrees Celsius to 3.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. To put this in perspective, the last time global temperatures were that high was 2.6 million years ago. There was plenty of life back then, but no humans. It’s highly doubtful that a world that overheated could feed the 7.8 billion people alive today, much less the additional billions that will be added in the coming decades. Indeed, global population has grown by 2.5 billion people since the first international efforts to address global warming began in the early 1990s, and four billion people have lived their entire lives since the first signals of a warming world became unmistakable. Those alive in 2100 are going to want to know: why did we let this happen?
It’s not like we haven’t been warned. There have been several false dawns in our efforts to tackle the threat of global warming. President Jimmy Carter convened a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue in the late 1970s. The panel, which included pioneering climate scientists Roger Revelle and George Woodwell, presented him with a paper in 1979 that warned that if we didn’t take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, we would see changes in climate by the end of the 20th century. We didn’t take action, and we did see changes.
Another false dawn broke nine years later during the sweltering summer of 1988, prompted by James Hansen’s dramatic testimony to a U.S. Senate committee in which he argued that global warming had already begun. Out of that wave of alarm came a toothless agreement called the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which went into effect in 2005. Most countries ratified it (but not the U.S.), but it did little to halt the rise in emissions of greenhouse gasses, which are now 60% higher than when the first efforts to halt global warming began.
Our present perilous situation is the product of the interaction of four different realms: reality, the scientific world, public opinion, and the world of business and finance. It’s useful to imagine four clocks running at different speeds, with each clock representing one of these four realms, the latter three all lagging the reality of climate change, but to different degrees. In the scientific realm, there is a lag built into the very structure of scientific inquiry. Science proceeds by gathering data, analyzing it, and publishing the results—from the 1980s on, we see a built-in lag of at least two years between what has actually been happening with the climate and our scientific understanding of it. The realms of public opinion and finance lag even further behind reality.
If we think of these four clocks running at different speeds, let’s start them all in 1979, the year President Jimmy Carter’s blue-ribbon panel presented him with their recommendations.
Clock One follows the progress of climate change itself. Hottest years in history began accumulating in the mid-1980’s, and since then each decade has set new records. For instance, the 1980’s counted 6 of its 10 years as among the top ten, with 1988 breaking the all-time record for global warmth. Since 2000, every year but one has been among the top ten globally, with the warming accelerating as we approach 2020 (each of the last seven years of the 2010-2020 decade were one of the seven hottest years on record). There have been many other signals of climate change, such as a rapid acceleration of sea level rise. This clock shows that human-caused climate change has been with us since the 1980s, and that the changes have been accelerating.
Clock Two marks the progress of science. Despite the warnings of the Carter blue-ribbon panel, back then most scientists felt that global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t arrive until the next century and would make its presence felt only incrementally. In part this was because, those reconstructing past climates literally could not see the rapid, violent global changes that have characterized climate change since the ice ages began some 2.7 million years ago. Starting in the 1980s, the tools for precisely reconstructing past climates became increasingly more precise, and the picture that emerged was both truly alarming and completely different than the conventional wisdom of earlier decades.
By the mid-1990s, signals of extremely rapid changes in the past had become blindingly clear, and by 2003, climate science had completed a complete paradigm shift: the consensus on how climate changes shifted from stately and incremental to dramatic and rapid. As climate scientist Richard Alley put it, the old view was that climate change was a dial; the new view, a switch.
Clock Three marks the progress of public appreciation of the threat. At times this clock has advanced rapidly, and at other times it has run backwards. There were periods in the ‘80s and ‘90s when public concern spiked. If the first clock reflects what is happening currently, and the second clock lags by two years, the third clock has lagged the first two by as much as decades. Opinion is changing rapidly, but as recently as 2018 nearly half of Americans polled by Gallup didn’t believe climate change would pose a “serious threat” in their lifetime – even as global warming was already inflicting trillions in economic damage.
Clock Four marks the understanding of climate change in the world of business and finance, including the economics community, the markets, and investors. With a couple of exceptions, this clock lags even the public in terms of appreciation of the threat. Right now, this is changing rapidly, but until a couple of years ago, the principle way climate change captured the attention of business, economists, and investors was not how climate change might affect the economy, but rather how attempts to limit fossil fuel emissions might lower profits.
This fourth clock is perhaps the least well examined and least well understood of the causes of our present dilemma, but it is also the most important. If the markets had the incentives and penalties to price in the likely future costs of climate change, the world would have acted decades ago, and we might have forestalled the changes we are seeing today. Instead, much of the business community put their resources into disputing the science and the scientific consensus, questioning the motives of the scientists, and, most of all, saying that we had time. We didn’t.
Because the markets are where the money is, politicians followed. Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the dizzying evolution of George H.W. Bush starting in 1988. Aware of the upsurge in interest in environment during that year, Bush vowed to be the environmental president. On Aug. 31, 1988 in a campaign speech, he said, “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the ‘greenhouse effect’ are forgetting about the ‘White House effect’. In my first year in office, I will convene a global conference on the environment at the White House. It will include the Soviets, the Chinese… The agenda will be clear. We will talk about global warming.”
Bush actually did convene a conference once president, but sometime between his campaign speech and the conference in April, the “lobbyist effect” came into play. The Chinese were not invited, and the briefing papers for cabinet members warned them not to use the phrases “global warming” or “greenhouse effect.” This is akin to convening a conference on pandemics and forbidding your aides from mentioning COVID-19.
The battle to contain global warming was lost in the 1990s. The mixed messages coming from the U.S. on global warming undercut efforts to convince China and other emerging nations to eschew coal and “leapfrog” fossil fuels in powering their industrialization. China leapfrogged the U.S., but it was in greenhouse gas emissions and not in the adoption of renewables. A study of 2019 emissions by The Rhodium Group found that China accounted for 27% of total emissions that year, two and a half times more than the U.S., and equivalent to more than the combined emissions of the 27 nations in the European Union and the 38 nations in the OECD.
There is one other legacy of the 1990s that we still live with today: the issue became politicized. With the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, fossil fuel and allied interests poured large amounts of money into campaigns linking climate change action to the liberal agenda. As we have seen with COVID-19, once an issue becomes politicized, the message doesn’t matter, only the messenger. If patients can refuse to admit COVID-19 is real, even as they are dying of it, what chance do warnings about climate change have if the messenger is perceived to be a liberal know-it-all who wants to tell you how to run your life. In that same Gallup poll where only 45% of Americans felt that climate change would seriously impact their lives in their lifetime, the number for Republicans was 18%.
Today, the issue remains politicized—witness the vitriolic debate over whether we should push renewables or drilling to replace the Russian oil and gas sanctioned because of the Ukraine invasion—but there has been a seismic shift in the posture of the monied interests with regard to climate change. Rather than seeing regulation as the threat, most major corporations now see climate change itself as a threat to the economy. This is welcome. Unfortunately, the past 33 years have underscored the tremendous momentum of business as usual, and business as usual will produce a climate hostile to humanity and most of the plants and animals we depend on to live. That first clock, reality, ticks louder every year. Should we not act, the harsh judgment of our survivors in the year 2100 will be the least of humanity’s worries.
Adapted from Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change From 1979 to the Present
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