By Dr. Charles Hagan
By the fall of 2016, conservationists had a good idea of what the future of global environmentalism would look like after the election of Hillary Clinton. The Democratic campaign had given commendable deference to the urgency and necessity of a national commitment to fight climate change and enact policies for the abatement of greenhouse gases. Clinton had vowed to see millions of solar panels and thousands of wind generators erected in an ambitious program for renewable energy. Regulation of carbon emissions seemed secure with the Clean Power Plan, further exploitation and planned pipelines for Tar Oil would be kept on hold, and the future held hope for an eventual carbon tax.
It was not to be. With the election of Donald Trump we have instead a climate denier in the White House, with both houses of Congress controlled by the pro-profit / anti-climate Republican Party and dismal prospects for administrative and judicial appointments to confront global climate change and establish significant greenhouse abatement policies. It is a worst-case scenario for the environmental community and has left many climate crusaders paralyzed. What does this astonishing turn of events mean for climate change and what do we do next?
When Al Gore wrote An Inconvenient Truth ten years ago, the climate change community was imbued with a strong sense of optimism. Of course, the public would see the merits of saving our planet and that greenhouse gas abatement would require major shifts in policy away from the huge subsidies given to the extractive industries. Overwhelming scientific evidence supported the need to take urgent action and to develop a whole new perspective on priorities for energy conservation and renewable energy.
But the fossil fuel industries adopted ruthless, but effective, counter-strategies that played on this optimism with an expert manipulation of popular opinion and the media, coupled with massive political donations to contrarian members of the Republican Party. The reluctance of conservationists to appear as climate Cassandras gave the contrarian opposition a chance to exploit the debate as one lacking consensus and needing even more ‘sound science’ regardless of the overwhelming opinions of legitimate scientists who were shouted down by contrarians in the public forum.
Since the recent election, we have seen a major shift in America’s commitment to climate change abatement. Regardless of recent favorable trends in the rate of carbon pollution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the influence of carbon dioxide on atmospheric warming shows a 50 percent increase in the greenhouse gas effect since 1990, and that carbon dioxide and methane levels still threaten our world with no prospects for a viable plan to get the problem under control. Thus, environmentalists who were looking forward to four years of progress under a Clinton administration now see four years of stagnation and regression right when the planet may be running out of time to start effective programs of climate change abatement. As noted, climate scientist James Hansen told Rolling Stone magazine in December 2016, “We have not hit the disastrous level which would knock down global economies and leave us with an ungovernable planet. But we are close.”
The climate change crisis has five cardinal attributes. It is Predictable, meaning that the science is excellent and the consensus among scientists is overwhelming. It is also Insidious, especially at the more moderate latitudes climate change is barely noticeable. Climate change is Delayed—greenhouse gases that effect only minor changes now will cause cumulative effects in the future. But climate change is also Persistent: the carbon dioxide released 40 years ago may still be in the atmosphere, and greenhouse gases released today may still be active 50 years in the future. And finally, climate change is Catastrophic: the prospect for devastating storms, floods, droughts, crop failures, refugee crises, and coastal flooding will make our world a much less hospitable planet for future generations.
A regrettable aspect of human psychology involves the observation that much of the climate change crisis seems to sneak under the threat recognition capability of the human mind. Our brain’s threat recognition reflexes have evolved since the days of the dinosaurs, and primarily involve the brain’s amygdala, which processes visual and sensory input and matches it to memorized patterns of threat recognition. This all happens faster than you can blink and much faster than the cerebral cortex can process complex sensory input. But the reflexes that protected us from Cretaceous predators are of little use in evaluating the slow, subtle threats from greenhouse gas pollution. Human behavior tends to make us vulnerable to the Insidious and Persistent effects of climate change. This is a crisis where one must predict the damaging effects before they start to occur. Once the changes are noticeable it is too late to stop them.
The early years of the climate debate were conducted with the assumption that humanity would certainly find a way—certainly we would wake up to the threat to future generations—certainly we would overcome the avarice and greed of the extractive industries, certainly we could compel our political leadership to act on behalf of our planet before we destroyed ourselves. Now the future seems less predictable, and it is a grave error to project the scientific range of uncertainty as to fall always onto an optimistic endpoint. Over the past 20 years, there have been countless revisions of reports and research to show that climate change at polar latitudes is occurring faster than originally estimated. In some cases, wholly new theories and mechanisms have been developed to explain the rapid changes. Additionally, there are at least five positive feedback loops to global warming and climate change. These are the mechanisms that could lead the planet to a ‘tipping point’ where the warming changes take on an energy of their own and proceed to change the environment of our world despite anything that humanity could do to reverse or contain it. These positive feedback loops are:
Since 1975, scientists have increasingly agreed that the most terrifying and devastating changes to the global environment could be avoided if global mean temperature increases were kept under a two- degree Centigrade limit. Environmentalist Bill McKibben stated in 2012 that this would require limiting the burning of carbon fossil fuel deposits to less than 565 Gigatons of carbon. Since that time (and in agreement with the International Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment in 2014), there has been a general consensus that, considering the burning of fossil fuels which has been ongoing since that first report, there still would be an allowable limit of not more than 500 Gigatons in order to keep the planet within the two-degree limit.
The problem lies in the fact that there is in excess of four times that amount of carbon in the fossil fuel deposits already owned or leased by the extractive industries—an enormous amount of fossil fuel worth roughly $20 Trillion for which the extractive industries have already gone to the bank—already approved the loans—which reflects the value of their corporate stock and, by extension, constitutes a significant portion of every 401K, pension, and retirement account in America. Thus, requiring that these carbon deposits remain in the ground creates what economists refer to as a Stranded Asset. Just how the value of such an asset could be negotiated to relieve the burden of loss for investors and retirees would be a challenge for any administration. With our contrarian Republican administration and Congress, however, the resolution is clear: constraint of these carbon resources simply is not going to happen.
Now, we are confronted with a series of unfortunate circumstances:
This is a cascade of events that is diametrically opposed to a heartfelt, but entirely unrealistic human emotion, the feeling that ultimately everything must turn out all right.
There is no way the Trump administration will act to restrict the burning of carbon fossil fuels. Indeed, the Republican Party platform calls for the continued development of coal as “an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.” With American leadership now poised to oppose the mitigation of greenhouse gases and development of renewable energy resources, we are charting a course to blast right through the two degree temperature limit, and we are on our way to a three, or possibly four-degree increase.
In the 1950’s, the number of heat emergency days in Virginia was zero. In our current state, we might expect one or two heat emergency days in midsummer. In a three-degree world, however, the number of days with temperatures that preclude outdoor activity might climb near the majority of midsummer days. Crop failures and livestock losses would be significant and Virginians would live in a fundamentally changed environment.
A four-degree world is basically unsustainable. Heat emergencies, storms, floods, and droughts make compelling changes to everyday life. Crop failures make food insecurity a possibility for all levels of society. Desertification will claim the American Southwest, and the American Midwest (breadbasket of the world) will become a dust bowl. Sea level rises would inundate coastal cities, such as San Francisco, Miami, Norfolk, London, and New York, submerge south Florida and 80 percent of the Bahamas, wipe out low lying coral islands and destroy the fertile terminal river deltas of Bangladesh, Holland, and China. Africa and the Middle East will become a Hellscape, and mass refugee migrations will become the catalyst for epic human conflict and misery.
The climate change crisis is like a Terminator. It cannot be reasoned with, cannot be bargained with; It does not feel pain, or pity, or remorse, and it simply will not stop—EVER—until we as a species find the collective will to act against it. In a highly volatile climate environment with numerous unpredictable contributing factors, it is entirely appropriate to consider what the ‘worst case’ scenario could be. We may have committed a serious error downplaying the ultimate effects of a runaway climate disaster. With political, societal, and human elements contributing to a catastrophic global cascade of events, it is not unreasonable to speculate that 90 percent of the humans alive today may not have living descendants in 200 years.
Note: The photographs in this article were taken in 2016 by Stephen Tabone and Ernie Sears on Bulls Island, South Carolina, and show the impact of global warning and rising oceans will have on worldwide coastlines.