Let’s Rethink the Environment: Caring for the Commons

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“Global warming and climate change will be the biggest existential threats that human society has ever faced.”

“Global warming is a hoax. The climate has always been changing.”

“We must eliminate fossil fuels completely.”

“We can’t destroy whole industries just because a bunch of alarmists claim the sky is falling.”

“Apathy is our most dangerous enemy.”

“Climate hysteria is our most dangerous enemy.”

Global Warming Demystified

A commonly accepted definition of global warming has it as:

A gradual, irreversible rise in average local temperatures across the Earth’s surface, associated with the build-up of various “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere such as smog, carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons, which trap heat and reduce the amount of sunlight energy reflected back to space.

The idea of calculating an “average” temperature for the whole Earth seems like a strange undertaking, because of the obvious differences between hot and cold regions, and the huge variations through the seasons every year. However, scientists have evolved a rather clever way of collecting temperature readings from many scattered locations, and combining data from those local readings over time to determine whether temperatures in general have gone up over the years, gone down, or stayed pretty much the same.

Technically speaking, they measure the average change in temperatures, not some hypothetical overall temperature.

Since about 1880, scientists have kept records of these temperature readings all over the world on a continuing basis. Over the many decades, they’ve set up more and more measuring stations, and international researchers have shared and analyzed the data. In recent decades,  thousands of sensors, most of them now reporting electronically, have helped to map the local patterns.

These increasing yearly deviations from the long-term average temperatures amount to small fractions of a degree, year by year, but over many decades, they’ve grown to a cumulative increase of nearly 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Two or three degrees might not seem like much, but consider the immense amount of heat energy it would take to raise the entire Earth’s temperature by even a fraction of a degree. That extra heat drives regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and changing habitat ranges for plants and animals—expanding some and shrinking others. 

With increasing global surface temperatures, the possibility of more droughts and increased intensity of storms will likely increase. As more water vapor evaporates into the atmosphere, it fuels more powerful storms. More heat in the atmosphere and warmer ocean surface temperatures can also cause higher wind speeds in tropical storms. Again, tiny changes can have a huge impact.

What Do Americans Believe?

As of this writing, Americans seem concerned, confused, and conflicted about a variety of environmental issues, including climate change. According to studies by the Pew Research Center and others, for example:

    • Two-thirds of Americans say the federal government hasn’t done enough to reduce the impacts of climate change. Similar numbers fault the government on protecting air quality, natural water systems, animals and their habitats, and public lands. Those numbers might seem somewhat encouraging, but they put Americans at last place in a comparative survey of attitudes in 21 major countries.

    • Further, those averages conceal big differences in political ideology. Ninety percent of people who identify as Democrats, or as leaning toward that affiliation, believe the government should do more on all five of those dimensions, while less than 40 percent of Republicans say that.

    • Generationally, younger people and millennials express more dissatisfaction with government action than older people. Gender also makes a difference: 46 percent of women disapprove of government performance, while 34 percent of men disapprove.

    • On the issue of energy, more than three-quarters of Americans say they favor developing alternative energy sources rather than increasing production of fossil fuel sources.

    • Again, however, political affiliation makes a difference. A breakdown of that average shows 90 percent of Democrats favoring alternative energy sources but only 62 percent of Republicans agreeing. Three-quarters of millennials agree, but barely half of boomers and older Americans agree. Two-thirds of women agree, while 58 percent of males agree.

    • About 60 percent of the people surveyed say climate change affects their lives or communities in some noticeable way. They believe episodes of severe weather—heat waves, droughts, severe storms and floods, and wildfires—have become more frequent. Over half believe that rising sea levels have begun to affect shoreline communities.

    • On the central question of anthropogenic climate change—the extent to which human activity affects climate—Americans differ radically by party affiliation, probably more than on any other political issue. As a gross average, about half of Americans say they believe human activity has a big influence on climate change. Another 30 percent believe it has some effect. Only 20 percent believe it has very little effect.

    • Splitting the responses by political affiliation, again, shows that over 80 percent of liberal Democrats rate human influence as very high, while less than 15 percent of conservative Republicans agree. Moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans come somewhat closer, but still divide more than 60/40 on the question.

    • As we might expect, the opposing argument—that most of the climate changes come from natural forces in the Earth’s environment—divides the two camps in a similar way. Ninety percent of conservative Republicans believe that natural forces cause most of the change, while 15 percent of liberal Democrats agree.

    • As to the second central question, on the role government should play in trying to manage the effects of climate change, the partisan divisions also prevail. Researchers asked the survey participants to rate major government policies on two dimensions: 1) how much they benefit the environment; and 2) how much they help the US economy. On both questions, Democrats and Republicans differed widely.

    • On average, over half of those surveyed say government environmental polices help the environment rather than harm it. About a third believe they don’t make a difference. Fifteen percent believe they do more environmental harm than good.

    • Again, Democrats and Republicans diverge significantly in their opinions: over 70 percent of Democrats believe the policies help the environment, while a similar number of Republicans believe they either have no impact or that they harm the environment.

What Do the Scientists Say?

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analyzed a vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific papers, as well as presentations and interviews with thousands of scientists who specialize in climate issues. They reported that:

More than 97 percent of practicing climate scientists have concluded that human activity has caused most, if not all, of the global warming and climate change the Earth has experienced, going as far back as 1950.

Furthermore, closer inspection of the research products of the presumed 3 percent of scientists claiming to contradict the conclusion discovered questionable methodology and investigator bias in most cases. Several of the more provocative contrarian studies didn’t survive attempts to replicate them and others failed peer reviews. After adjusting for those questionable sources, some reviewers put the degree of reputable consensus at microscopically close to 100 percent.

Surprisingly, however, surveys by Yale University, George Mason University, and others indicate that fewer than 20 percent of Americans fully realize the overwhelming extent of scientific consensus. The researchers described Americans as ranging from Alarmed, through Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive.

Confused perceptions on the part of Americans go back to the start of the George W. Bush presidency in 2000. Prior to Bush’s accession to the presidency, Bill Clinton and his VP Al Gore had begun to raise the global warming issue to a more prominent place in the national conversation. Gore had written a well-respected book, Earth in the Balance, in 1992, just before he joined the White House leadership.

As Clinton and Gore handed the keys to the White House to Bush and his VP Dick Cheney, a new ideology of environmental politics began to set in. With his party in control of both the House and Senate for most of his two terms, Bush and his advisers began to offer a new narrative.

Bush and Cheney both came from the oil industry. Bush descended from a long line of Texas oilmen and Cheney had served as CEO of Halliburton Company, one of the world’s largest oilfield service companies. Both men maintained deep ties to the petroleum industry, and their historical loyalties strongly influenced their ideologies about the projection of American influence into the oil-rich and politically conflicted Middle East.

Neither one had much room in his ideological kit bag for vague notions about the far-off effects of global warming or climate change. Energy policy for them meant securing access to strategic sources of oil and assuring the future of the petroleum industry.

The Ideological Stand-off: Political Paralysis

A loose coalition of special interest players began to form, including oil industry executives, members of Congress from oil- and coal-producing states, newly influential talk show hosts, and ultra-conservative news industry personalities.

The new counter-narrative painted Al Gore as the patron of an idealistic subculture of soft-headed, tree-hugging activists who wanted to indulge their New Age aspirations at the expense of the American economy and its business sector.

“Global warming is a hoax!” became the mantra and rallying cry of this anti-ecological coalition. “Just keep an open mind,” one right-wing talker advised his loyal listeners, implying that global warming and climate change remained in dispute.

A long-running propaganda campaign tipped a majority of Americans in the direction of doubt and skepticism, and instilled a sort of indefinite wait-and-see attitude. Someday, the narrative went, we’ll know for sure whether human activity affects global climate. Until then, we won’t know what laws to pass or what changes to make. Let’s not rush into this—it will all work out eventually.

As of this writing, we have a paralyzing ideological deadlock in the American national conversation. One tribe—identifying mostly as Democrats—declares global warning and climate change a full-fledged emergency and calls for all-out war. The other tribe—identifying mostly as Republicans—declares the whole issue a tempest in a teapot and sees no need for any major expedition to mitigate it.

These compelling truths explain why the US government has made no significant movement on the ecological agenda. We face a simple prognosis:

Whether the US launches a grand effort to slow climate change and take on other big environmental issues in the next few years will depend almost entirely on which political party controls the government.

Continue Reading at Page 453 . . .


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