(Updated and re-edited, 8-19-15)
The fundamental basis of what climate change is often seems to be missed.
It’s not that the earth is “definitely warming” due to human activities: although the overwhelming majority of climate scientists conclude that it is.
The fundamental basis of climate change is that we’ve altered the long term energy re-capturing capacity of the atmosphere in geologically profound ways.
The signs of encroaching climatic pattern changes are simply corroboration of what many climate scientists, for very basic reasons, have long expected and predicted. That includes these guys, who looking back even somewhow managed to get it down fairly precisely in terms of time frame as well – almost impossible to do. And one of those guys was James Hansen, who told Congress to “stop waffling” in 1988.)
And this fundamental, and so far ongoing rather than mitigated, change to our atmosphere is setting in motion major changes to the earth, and creating a risk range of additionally unpredictable, potentially radical and volatile climatic shifting.
In 1988, Leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen (and others) told the U.S. Congress to act to move off of fossil fuels.
By 1988, we had already made severe changes to our earth’s ongoing and accumulating net energy balance – and the heart of what “climate change” really is. And even back then it was clear we, and certainly the world, wouldn’t just automatically cease all patterns adding to the net long term atmospheric levels of long lived “energy re absorbing” greenhouse gases that constituted the underlying problem in the first place.
But we at least needed to start the process of reversing the trend.
We didn’t. And the problem is now greatly amplified, will have greater long term impact, and presents a far higher risk range of radical unpredictable and potentially extremely dramatic long term changes if we only very slowly respond now.
Yet, reinforced by lots of misinformation, and constituting an overall change to a system that over days (weather) instead of decades (climate) naturally on its own appears to shift far more wildly, it’s one that’s easy to dismiss:
Namely, by rhetoric that sounds great but has nothing to do with what the issue really is; by misconstruing the basic issue; by cherry picking slivers of inconseqential and often even irrelevant data; or dismissal by saying that since we can’t be certain the worse case scenarios will come to pass – or that climate has “changed before,” the fact of change itself, as well as the risk, isn’t real or substantial.
And which, in turn, is about as off base as assessment can be. (Although it is driven by a fervent desire, in large part fueled by the same economic presumption that held us back in 1988 and discussed herein, among other things, to believe that the issue isn’t significant or real. And leading to a remarkable and still not properly illuminated widespread socio cultural phenomenon of advocacy driven climate change disavowal.)
And it’s as off base, if not even more so, than the constant claim that “if there is any change,” we’re not causing it; and our sudden multi million year spike in basic atmospheric long lived molecular energy recapture – which is then in turn increasing the total net energy in earth’s entire system, where most of is going into increasing ocean (warming) and ice sheet (warming and melting) energy, is some sort of wild coincidence.
And is so, even though total global air temperature change alone over the past 100-120 years is around a 1 in 100 to less than 1 in 1000 chance for any random 100-120 year period, and the chance of that occuring while massive shifts upward in total net ocean heat and glacial ice sheet accumulation occur, is even less. Let alone, perhaps even more importantly, that the odds of that happening at the same time the even more odd fact of a sudden multi million year shift upward in earth’s insulation layer, is somehow otherwise not affecting climate, is many, many, times lower still.
As a practical matter, some other factors further supporting sensible action, even loomed large back in 1988, just as they do today:
Fossil fuel dependence was considered a national security vulnerability. And relying on fossil fuels also required sending of considerable dollars overseas to acquire a natural resource – as even with excessive ongoing environmental degradation, it was clear the U.S. didn’t have nearly enough reserves to meet its energy demands on its own.
Fossil fuels were also finite. And, although technology and its implementation has since helped a little they’re also extremely polluting; representing countless unseen long term and highly comminged hidden “costs” or harms to our and the world’s long term health and quality of our environment.
There are even also large damages often associated with much fossil fuel extraction, particularly in the case of coal – which has destroyed, harmed, or greatly altered countless mountain tops, local communities, watersheds, and local ecosystems.
And coal’s use has pumped considerable amounts of mercury in the air, likely putting nature past its naturally evolved threshold (organisms can self detoxify limited amounts of mercury, albeit it’s an exceedingly slow process), and contributing to the now counter productive and almost silly fact that one of nature’s healthiest foods – fish, filled with DHA, EPA, selenium, Vitamin D and protein – is as a result now often contaminated with this bio accumulating and infinitely lasting neurological toxin.
All of this was completely known in 1988. As was the fact our atmosphere, in terms of its basic thermal radiation recapture property, was being fundamentally and significantly changed; that this change was long term; and, from a shorter “man-centric” time frame, somewhat irreversible – at least into the foreseen future.
The problem now, just as it was then, is that the atmosphere issue and attendant “alteration of climate” issue (or “warming” and “change”), was looked at as one of discreet units of definitive effect. Linear, and near immediate: Atmospheric GGs go up, earth immediately warms.
That’s not how it works. At all. And believing otherwise defies basic geophysical reality, or at least understanding.
Nevertheless, a “skeptic” paper was actually recently published in a Chinese science journal, that formed a conclusion, then continued to make assumptions and disregard all other modeling knowledge, to fit that pre determined conclusion. And one of the assumptions, astoundingly, was not just that climate is “very stable” and completely contradicting the issue irrelevant skeptic argument that climate constantly changes. But that almost all climate change “effect” is instantaneous. (The paper, in science journal speak, is covered here, and it and its broader pattern, here.)
Climate change in effect presents not just an alteration, if a lagging one, to earth’s climate from what’s now a geologically radical level of long lived greenhouse gas molecule level shifting (effecting a change on the order now of several million years, and counting, in just a couple hundred years, with much of it occurring in the past 50). But also a high risk range of potentially almost incalculable changes.
And ultimately, despite massive presumption otherwise, it stems from a pattern of habit that in the long run may not have been any better than any other alternative pattern of habit; just easier. (Incidentally, tackling less easy things – which includes developing different habits or practices – is also part of what builds economies.) And, at one point in time at least, now long past, was seemingly the only real practical one.
And it stems from a pattern of habit that in the long run may have been no better than other alternatives, even if it didn’t have have all the issues of pollution, environmental damage, potential security exposure, net dollar export, and the finite nature of the resources attached, as well.
This same consideration – that is., it’s not clear there was some huge advantage from these specific habits and patterns regardless of all the harmful external effects as was (and is still) otherwise widely presumed – applies to the other major contributor to climate change as well. A contributor that, when its use of fossil fuels, direct and indirect are considered, is the main contributor to climate change: Namely, agriculture.
For instance, many of the same practices contributing to the atmospheric alteration problem, also resulted in degradation to and large scale erosion of the soil, less nutritionally rich foods (by some studies, depending on where and how grown), and extensive reliance upon heavy metal laced chemical macro nutrient fertilizer as well as and in some ways rather senseless life killing and similarly extensive herbicide and pesticide use. (Herbicides and pesticides are man concocted chemicals designed to kill life that we didn’t even evolve with, and it never made any sense to put them into our bodies.)
The other ongoing and counter productive impediment, still present today but less so, was – and still is -the mistaken presumption of inherent conflict between environmental “protection” and human growth or progress. That is, between the quality of our world and direct and indirect if often hidden long term impacts upon our own health and well being, and human growth and progress. When not harming the quality of our world or adding to negative impacts upon our overall health and well being, is part of human growth and progress.
Progress – including economic – means doing what improves our world, and improving our lot and our experience in it. And which provides, ideally meaningful, employment, in the process: Things which improving the quality of our world and impacts upon our long term health – rather than constantly harming them – accomplishes.
That is, improving long term health and environmental quality, not degrading it and creating increasing and needless counter productive harms, is as fundamentally a part of this creation of employment and betterment of our world as anything else. It is ultimately closer to the very opposite of some sort of inherent conflict to it, as was and often still is mistakenly assumed, even sometimes presumed as near gospel.
In short, the presumption has always been that our environment was a vast expanse to simply dump things into, and it would take care of itself – rather than a balanced system of which, as we grew, we were invariably becoming a bigger and more influential part.
Yet the view continues today, and is even frequently used as an “argument” (irrelevant as it is), as to why “climate change” is not real. To wit:
“Man is insignificant compared to the earth, and can’t really affect it.”
Or variations therein. A “speck”of existence.
In relation to the relevant issues we face, such an expression is pure semantics, and meaningless. (Much like, if not even more so, the myth of the self regulating earth for man’s climatological benefit, as if the earth would target the climatic range that happens to suit us and that we evolved under, rather than simply respond to the laws of physics and the net energy inputs upon it.)
The idea uses grand generalizations in place of simply what is, often serving unknowingly to reinforce a belief, rather than looking at something in a different or new light. Man is having the effect man is having. But seemingly philosophical (yet more rhetorical) generalizations about how man is “insigificant” in the sense of our physical impact, simply replaces the specifics of that physical impact one wants to disagree with, dismiss or trivialize, with the more meaningless general expression that therefore we simply “can’t” affect things.
“She has cancer and in order to survive needs to change some habits.”
“The human body is a wonderful organism capable of incredible feats of self regulatory homeostasis and protection and impugning this capacity by imagining it somehow isn’t or becomes ‘cancerous’ is to degrade the wonder of life itself.”
It’s nice rhetoric, but irrelevant to the fact that she has cancer.
Likewise, “man is insignificant in comparison to the earth,” whatever it philosophically means, isn’t relevant to the issue of our impact upon it, or whether that impact is productive or counter productive to what is in our best interests, or most practical for us to do based upon our various sensibilities and place here on the planet – with now the power to literally wipe out almost all of the other species if we so chose, or even all but literally blow the earth up.
But as rationalization for the continuation of some sort of ideology, believing environmental protection and health to be in direct conflict with economic growth, and wholly solved by the market (which is tautological because if so the ongoing constant harm and long term hidden health impacts – much of what is not discovered until years later and irreversible, or overly commingled with other impacts and nearly impossible to prove – wouldn’t exist and hence the constant desire to dismiss them as if they don’t, or don’t matter), the idea captures the majority sentiment of our earlier evolution as a society, and continues today.
And as adherence to an ideology, this semantic if here meaningless idea of man’s insignificance to earth still represents an inherent fall back position by which to automatically resist change – even if, apparently such change is market led based upon increased awarenessess and mechanisms (taxes, credits, regulations), for movement away from habits and old presumptions. (Though it’s not entirely clear because unfortunately in response to the antagonism often expressed by climate change skepticism toward environmental concern, less rather than more effort is put into trying to address inclusive fears and concerns in terms of practical solutions, further polarizing the problem.)
But we had it backward:
By 1988 the issue was clear. It made sense to move from fossil fuels, and improve agricultural practices anyway; for reasons of efficiency, health, pollution, environmental degradation, security and, yes, real long term, productive growth.
Engaging in a radical experiment with the basic geological energy recapturing combination of the earth, with almost no controls, and in a way that by releasing long sequestered carbon built up over hundreds of millions of years we were rapidly peeling back millions of years of climatic and earth evolution, on top of that, only means it made even more sense.
Yet instead, we looked at the issue – much like in some respects we still do today – as some sort of sacrifice.
This is because the immediate tangible concept of paying “x”, for “y” fuel, is something graspable. But the commingled hidden effects imparted by the collective actions of billions of people are seeming abstractions; even if over the long term both very real, and far more fundamentally relevant than any short term and ultimately easily market adjustable “cost basis” for “x” versus “y” set of market and consumer decisions and adjustments.
It may have been prompted by Hansen’s early belief that climate change likely presented an even more serious risk range than some other scientists studying it believed. (Though even back in 1988 the general consensus was of our long term impact, with any relevant uncertainty among actual scientists studying the issue not so much in broader, conceptual risk range terms but in more definitive, concrete, are we effecting ambient air temperatures now type of terms.) But there was nothing unreasonable, or even chutzpah requiring, whatever Hansen’s motivations, for saying – much as many others believed (and president Lyndon Johnson even articulated back in the late 1960s) – that as we were in essence radically changing the atmosphere through practices that were otherwise polluting and environmentally degrading, and there were other energy sources and better ways to farm, it was time to “stop waffling” and address it.
We’d have a different and cleaner, more efficient and less polluting and health impacting economy today, and likely wouldn’t be in the process of melting our north and south polar ice caps and looking at nearly so large a long term risk range of potentially (from our standpoint, anyway) monumental sea level rise, not to mention a host of other major risk factors and impacts.
Given the known parameters in 1988, such a view is also not hindsight. It was merely clouded at the time, as again still somewhat today, by the inherent and mistaken presumption that improving our world – not just our transitory things that we build to use, or even to keep us from having to ourselves move (thus requiring even more in health care “costs,” as well as fundamental losses in health and vigor), have fun with and or luxuriate in – isn’t similarly a part of our growth and economy, but is some sort of direct conflict to it.
This is a view still continued by some in politics, such as Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, son of President George Bush. And, brother of President George W Bush, who in 2006 ironically said we are “addicted to oil.” (But would the Bush Administration follow through?)
And (though not nearly as radical as many of the other increasingly right wing GOP candidates, and therefore aware of the phenomenon of climate change itself), who essentially bases all of his statements about it – though as a gifted politican dresses it up in characterstically nice sounding language – in the context of climate change redress’s basic threat, rather than contributor to, the economy. Namely:
[The U.S. has a responsibility to adapt to] what the possibilities are without destroying our economy.
Not climate change’s basic threat to economy, as former superstar U.S. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, and George W Bush’s very own Henry Paulson, have very clearly articulated. Rather, climate change redress.
And that we should “invest” (taxpayers dollars – so no real choice or consumer market behavior enters into the equation – to feed industry), to find solutions “for the long haul.”
Sure, a long term solution. But also a long term quest (seemingly a step along the lines of Brother George’s ultimate “let’s study more” then do nothing approach, heavily influenced not by climate scientists, but this heavy fiction novelist), for such solution, when the solution and more is – cheaply, and dropping – staring down at us from the sky. And we not only have more than enough technology, we’re already building it now.
The problem is, not even a microfraction of the benefit (in terms of the absence of pollution and climate changing effects that more traditional means create), is integrated into the price; as similarly not even a microfraction of the external harms, is built into the price of traditional or “old fashioned” energy practices; thus making the market still heavily imbalanced toward highly inefficient long term patterns, rather than efficient ones.
And the same problem – perhaps even more so because it’s more complex than simply switching a dirty polluting fuel with a clean increasing low cost virtually non polluting free energy source (sun) panel – exists with respect to agricultural practices.
Yet Jeb Bush wants to throw dollars at the problem and “study” for “solutions” to bail out industry, instead of carbon taxing to shift the markets to create business certainty and the ability to plan, innovate and respond (in part why no fewer than six major international energy companies went so far as to even ask for a carbon tax), and use the funds raised, to help those industries and employees transition in the shorter term.
Thus, more rhetoric like the “Addicted to Oil” Speech in 2006? (Still, it’s a step up for him from this recent position – so Jeb, if the U.S. does wind up with more Bush presidents than sequels to the movie “Rocky,” I do volunteer to be an adviser in your administration. You could use a conceptual strategic, non ideological mind.)
Improving our world through manufacture, sometimes for practices that are just dumb (let’s build a lot of escalators and use even more energy, so people stand around even more and move even less and then spend more energy driving to and using electric equipment o gyms or getting diabetes and lower quality of life and greatly increasr “also GDP contributing” health care costs, along with countless other examples), and sometimes not, but just, whatever they “are” to us, is all “contributing to GDP” – even when it takes great cost to do so.
But improving energy and agricultural practices, even through the production and development of new equipment, installations, grids, uses and jobs, is nevertheless destroying it because we see it as the “price” of energy, rather than simply another component of growth, and choice to be made to maximize buying power, consumer and business.
“But we need energy to run business and heat (or cool) homes!”
But again, using processes that harm our interests rather than benefit them is a separate question. So gearing the market to do so – at the appropriate level of cost relative to other practices – is simply another part of growth; as is even the key component of “cost”- which, since each dollar of production also represented a dollar of cost, at heart makes up every last dollar of our GDP as well.
The only issue is whether the cost represents value or not. As we’ve seen in the escalator example, some may not; but if we want those things, fine.
When it comes to public environmental policy, the issue is: does a cleaner, healthier, less polluted, more environmentally stable world (or at this point at least having its increasing volatility and unstability range mitigated), represent value?
This is because making a cleaner world doesn’t detract from growth. In the short run it might create some economic substitutions as we adjust to newer production methodologies, practices and energy uses. But it simply becomes a component of growth.
And in the mid to long run, as we develop and learn cleaner, less damaging processes, that have become well integrated into our cost structure (something we could have done way back in 1988, and been far past it now), it comes with no additional cost – that is, either real cost or even cost simply representing a substitution of one production emphasis over another – just as many industrial “costs” are today (and which similarly represent expenditures and investment – that if unsupportable at the same rate of production will also shift from excess use at the increased cost level, over to more efficient processes).
While on the flip side, cleaner, less damaging processes, come with the constant, continued benefit of far less pollution, atmospheric alteration, and negative external – and thus uncontrollable (and thus the most personally restrictive, even freedom affecting) – health impacts experienced: The point of improvement, and in particular, improved processes that, beyond the material “flavor” of the moment, go to more core fundamentals – such as basic environmental quality or at the very least health, and, perhaps, say, the availability of basic land and coastline (as opposed to sea bottoms, etc).
That is, shifting to better practices – far from being the “harm” to economic processes that, from the perception of immediate short term “cost” but rather abstract and hard to comprehend, and often intensely hidden long term gain, it’s assumed to be – is ultimately a net good, with little to no bad.
Yet requiring the awareness and will to sensibly and fairly address it in the first place, and make the improvements, policies or market motivations that even the playing field somewhat between overly externally harmful and non harmful processes, so better decisions, accounting for a wider range of actual real costs, can be made. That is – simply by changing our structure and not – under the belief we have to harm our world to grow rather the fact that mitigating such harm is similarly part of growth – not continuing counter productive practices that we find rationalizations to cling to.
But we didn’t in 1988. And looking back Hansen is said to have had chutzpah for making the common sense suggestion to the U.S. Congress to do something to move toward, require, inspire or (directly or through something like a carbon tax indirectly but far more efficiently), reward more productive long term practices that don’t continue to so radically alter the long term chemical composition of our atmosphere, with (from Hansen’s point of view), an almost assured range of likely negative changes, and a higher risk of major to radical ones.
Even if that process – being change to a huge, global system with enormous energy sinks (oceans) that in turn drive longer term processes, and that are starting to show their effect with increasing global temperatures now even as the oceans continue to warm- increasing melt, and acceleration of that melt, at both polar ice caps, and even warming ocean column induced sea bottom thawing leading to the increasing eruptions of a gas far more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping energy, and with potentially enormous consequences – from our perspective, seems “slow.”
In other words, due to this limited but popular and even sometimes near presumed gospel economic thinking – the age old presumption that our industry and progress comes with the cost of harming our world and our health to get it, and not that progress might also similarly, and in the long run even more importantly, actually also be the protection of our health from environmental impact, and the environmental protection and relative stability of that very world – we’ve done harm to the latter. And at likely no real benefit to us in the long term, and only illusory “we’re used to it so it seems right and a loss if we stop or change” gain, in the short term.
And that’s where the problem comes in, and where it came in in 1988: The inherent and inceasingly archaic presumption that markets, economy and growth – all of which are ultimately to provide employment, opportunity, and better our world – are inconsistent with protecting the environmental quality, implicit health effects from, and stability of that world; and therefore accomplishing the latter somehow doesn’t provide employment, opportunity, and the bettering of our world, but provides a “conflict” with economic growth which is nevertheless ultimately supposed to achieve the same end: Again, employment, opportunity, and the bettering of our world.
But protecting environmental quality does provide those things. Which is why the issue with environmental protection isn’t the illusionary “do we sacrifice harm to the economy or some sort of real cost to achieve it,” but rather choice, liberty and opportunity; and perhaps the inherent rights of present and future generations to cleaner air, healthier, more ecologically sound, environs, and – if the alternative of chaos is unnecessarily being caused by our inadvertent doing – to some relative climate stability.
And not, instead, the idea that:
“Environmental protection and common area – land, bio-accumulation toxic build up, water and air health affects – is the job of markets, not government.”
Because by virtue of the uniquely common nature of the environment – what, in essence it is – the environment, the one thing we must share, along with perhaps national defense, and justice, is not only the responsibility of government to at least somewhat oversee – it is precisely the job of even the most limited of government – as government is us, collectively. And our shared environment is about the most collective thing of all.
The issue is: “how.”
And the biggest impediment to this, as it was in 1988, and what causes us today to look back strangely at calls to tell Congress in 1988 to stop waffling over what was really a simple issue even then – carbon based and long evolutionarily accumulated fuels from deep in the ground are heavily polluting, finite, increase our international exposure, radically changing our long term atmosphere, thus “stop waffling” already over sensible moves to transition to more long term productive processes – is the idea of its inherent conflict with economy, rather than its ultimately integral part of it.
That was 1988. And the case, strong then, and despite rhetoric and much self reinforcing belief to the contrary, is now in the next century essentially overwhelming now; nearly thirty years, and much advancement, but perhaps not much more awareness, later.