So far during this campaign season there have been spirited debates about issues ranging from immigration to national security to economic and social justice. Americans, Left, Right, and Center are upset with the inability of our elected officials to work together to solve the serious problems facing our nation. Sadly, only two of the candidates have taken on the 900 pound gorilla whose ominous shadow darkens all of our concerns. Whether by ignorance or intent many of our leaders have chosen to ignore the calamity of climate change. When climate change is mentioned it is glossed over with 5 second sound-bites that tells us nothing or denies that it even exists. Considering that climate change has a tremendous impact on all the other problems facing us, making those problems unsolvable, all we have heard are crickets’ chirruping in the empty night.
Folks claim that they want plain talk about the problems threatening us: no hemming or hawing. But most of our candidates and leaders appear to be thinking like Jack Nicolson in A Few Good Men, who said, “Truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Really? Try us!
So here’s the unvarnished truth. It’s a bad news, good news sort of thing.
Cut to the Chase
The Bad News is that climate change is a man-made disaster created by our undisciplined use of energy and resources, natural and human. Once a slow motion train wreck it is now picking up speed and the wreckage is piling up all around us. No other problem facing us is as important. That bears repeating. No Other Problem Facing Us Is As Important As Climate Change. That is because climate change makes all of our other problems much worse and likely unsolvable. If we don’t make climate change our number one concern and take immediate, significant action then the catastrophe will careen out of control with little chance of saving the world we love. In that case the show is over, we’re kaput, good night Irene.
The Good News is that we know that climate change is happening and how to fight it. The solution is complex but not impossible; it involves the use of technology and our talent for organization. In addition, we can anticipate where needed changes will cause hardships and do things that ease the transition for those affected. There is no need for anyone to be thrown overboard.
Already we have technology that, if employed on a massive scale, can mitigate the bleak future we face. This buys us more time to adapt to climate change, save our nation and the world, and work on our many other problems. As a nation, we have experience in how to mobilize our society to tackle the hardest problems, for example the Great Depression, World War II, rebuilding Europe and Japan after the war, putting a man on the moon, eliminating smallpox world-wide, and containing Ebola. We have a history of doing big things successfully.
Again, the Good News is that we have the tools and skills needed to survive and in the long-term, prosper. That is if we are willing to confront the truth of climate change, adapt to the new climate reality, think creatively, and take decisive action.
Can We Handle the Truth? Exxon-Mobile Says No
Recent advertising by the fossil fuel industry claims that we can continue on the same path that we have been on since, 1859, when the first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The fossil fuel industry is flooding media with advertisements, such as those produced by the American Petroleum Institute, that misinform and mislead the public with cheery messages about using natural gas as the new fuel of the future. They say straight out that drilling for natural gas is safe, ignoring the sizeable evidence of gas leaks, pollution, and earthquakes to the contrary. Industry ads imply that natural gas will see us well into the future. This is untrue. The use of fossil fuels for energy must be phased out as quickly as possible. We only have two decades to do this, sooner if possible.
Exxon and the fossil fuel industry know that they will have to leave a huge amount of their investments, 80%, in the ground and write them off as a loss. They don’t want to do that, even though they know exactly what their products are doing to the climate and us.
An example is the massive Porter Ranch gas leak in California that started October, 2015 and continued for 16 weeks before being capped. The energy company Southern California Gas Company has allowed 80,000 metric tons of methane to escape into the atmosphere due to inaction. It was only after the public became engaged that So Cal began to act.
Exxon’s Smoking Gun
Recently, internal communications of the Exxon-Mobile company were uncovered that show without a doubt, that Exxon, other oil giants, and the American Petroleum Institute knew in detail the threat that CO2 posed and aggressively worked to bury the truth, spread misinformation, and thwart any attempt alert the public. We are in this life and death struggle because of the fossil fuel industry; coal, gas and oil.
Exxon scientists discovered in the late 1970’s that use of oil, natural gas, and coal was flooding the atmosphere with CO2. They calculated that the world had about 20 years to make significant changes before climate change would become evident and regulatory actions would be taken. That was 45 years ago.
Exxon’s studying of CO2 and the climate began as an open project shared with the world scientific community. In fact, Exxon outfitted an oil tanker with sensors to test water and air along its shipping routes. Exxon willingly accepted the cost of this research. In return, Exxon was praised by the EPA and scientists world-wide for their good citizenship and forward thinking.
However, at some point corporate self interest took over and the project was killed. By the mid 1980’s, Exxon had retreated from being a model corporate citizen and began a campaign to deny climate change and to protect industry interests. The carbon fuel industry told the public that climate change was neither man-made nor a threat while knowing full well that the opposite was true. They funded directly and indirectly a handful of scientists willing to do their bidding. Exxon and the carbon fuel industry lied to the American public and the world. They continue to do so today with promises of ample energy from gas and oil without mentioning the destruction that such behavior is bringing about.
Predicting the Future
Climate science has come a long way since the 1970’s and climate predictions have grown ever more accurate. They paint a grim picture of our future. Even more frightening is that observed changes are occurring faster than our best predictions.
The carbon fuel industry has chosen to characterize the development of more precise modeling as a weakness rather than what it is an improved understanding of how our climate works. The history of climate modeling has repeatedly shown that as these models improve we see that our situation grows worse, not better. Daily observations confirm this. We are hip deep in a global catastrophe right now. Too soon, it will be up to our necks and then over our heads.
Climate change works on a grander timescale than we are familiar with. We are like the frog in a pot of water, as the water is heated the frog does nothing, not sensing its fate. When it realizes something is wrong, it is too late. Between adjusting to the slow changes in the climate and being lied to we have almost run out of time. The pot is about to boil.
No Quick Fixes
Even if we were able to cut CO2 and methane emissions to zero tomorrow the effects of carbon in the atmosphere will continue for hundreds of years into the feature. There are no quick fixes. It took hundreds of years to get to where we are now and it will take hundreds of years to dial back the carbon in the atmosphere to a level where we can stabilize our climate once again.
Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels
Oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface. What happens in the oceans affects weather world-wide. Rising ocean levels increase the area covered by water and increase the ocean’s impact.
There are two forces driving rising ocean levels; ocean water temperature and glacial melting.
Ocean Water Temperature
Increasing water temperatures help to drive rising sea levels. The oceans absorb about 90% of the heat trapped by CO2 and the other green house gases. As water is heated it expands, just as warming mercury in a thermometer expands and rises in its calibrated tube. Warming the oceans and raising sea levels. By 2100 the thermal expansion of the ocean waters will increase sea levels between 8 inches and 1.6 feet. (NOAA, 2012)
Glaciers around the world, including those in the Arctic and Antarctic, are melting and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. This torrent of fresh water eventually ends up in the ocean, causing their levels to rise. Like ocean warming, glacial melting will continue to do so well into the future.
How much ice melts and the resulting water flowing into the oceans depends on how warm the climate gets. All this ice, whether in the mountains, Greenland, the Arctic or Antarctic, is where the greatest warming is occurring. Again NOAA estimates that ocean levels will rise between 2.3 to 5 feet depending on temperatures and amount of ice melted.
Total sea level rise by 2100 is currently estimated to be between 3.9 to 6.6 feet; this would be catastrophic. It will threaten hundreds of cities and towns in the U.S. and thousands worldwide, not to mention island nations.
Global coastlines are changing and, like the melting glaciers, will continue into the foreseeable future. Today, Pacific Islanders are being driven from their homes and livelihoods. In the coming decades millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of other people around the world are going to be forced to migrate to higher ground. At the same time, the 200,000,000 or more people who depend directly on glacial runoff for fresh water will see the glaciers disappear along with the life giving glacial water. They are going to need some place to go and something to do. Entire cultures will be torn apart. In addition, large areas of productive agricultural land will be covered by sea water or poisoned when irrigation water drawn from fresh water aquifers is contaminated by the infiltrating sea water.
Further, as sea levels rise, the ancient balance between land and sea is being destroyed. Coastal fisheries that depend on shallow water, coral reefs, or complex eco systems like tidal deltas and mangrove swamps are shrinking. Overfishing adds to the destruction. It is questionable that threatened plants and animals will be able to adapt quickly enough to survive; hence there will be massive die offs that in turn will create food shortages and drive up food prices globally.
Hot, Cold, Wet, Dry Enough For You?
Warming oceans are creating new weather patterns that effects where there is rain and drought. Storms are becoming more powerful. The 2015-16 El Nino is an example of both changing weather patterns and increasing intensity. El Niño and its opposite La Niña are cyclical global weather patterns created by the warming and cooling of water in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño occurs when a massive area of the Pacific near Central and South America warms while a similar warm spot in Asia cools. This brings warmer and wetter weather to the United States. La Niña is the opposite with cooling in the Americas and warming in Asia.
The 2015 El Niño is the warmest and strongest on record. This has increased the number and severity of storms moving eastward from California and Mexico. The heavy rains stretching across half of the country from the South to the East Coast is an example as are the tornadoes in the southern states. Tornadoes are rare in January and February. Yet, 2016 has seen numerous clusters of strong tornadoes occurring as these El Niño powered storms move eastward.
According to the Minnesota DNR, since 2004 the state has experienced three 1,000 year floods and an increase in other intense weather events like tornadoes and hail. The DNR found that, “In 2013 Minnesota had some of the largest weather-related disaster claims in the country.” In addition, the University of Minnesota estimates that power generation by-products from state and out of state sources are responsible for $2,000,000,000 in damages to Minnesotan’s health and the environment.
World-wide, 2015, was unquestionably the hottest year in recorded history. Before then, 2014 had been the hottest year. The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.
In other words, climate change will dislocate, domestically and internationally, hundreds of millions of people, destroy precious agricultural land, reduce the amount of drinkable water, increase the number and severity of weather events, and increase health risks for crops and people.
Today’s issues like immigration, documented and undocumented, will pale in comparison to the massive movement of people in the coming decades. The world is struggling to deal with 5,000,000 Syrian refugees. What do we do with 200,000,000?
Terrorism will grow dramatically as will wars over resources, particularly habitable land and water. Every problem we have today will get much worse.
We Might As Well Give Up?
With such a daunting future facing us, what is the point of doing anything? Like the band on the Titanic that continued to play as the ship slipped under the waves, perhaps we should proceed on the course we are already on. It would appear that our fates are sealed. What can be worse?
It can get much worse. If we continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere the climate will reach a fatal tipping point where there is an irreversible runaway greenhouse effect. Then, temperatures will rise so high that no life will be able to survive. Earth will become a sterile planet similar to Venus. Game over.
The Good News: All Hope Is Not Lost
It is now, 2016. The world is changing all around us. The fossil fuel industry and others have shown that they cannot be trusted. Nor can we trust their business models. Knowing this, we are free to start with a clean slate and tackle the crisis with innovative thinking. No more business as usual.
We still have a small window of opportunity to save humanity and life on Earth. There are a surprising number of things that we can do immediately: IF we are willing to act.
We are overloading the atmosphere with CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases. We can stop.
CO2 is the direct result of burning carbon-based fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and trees. It makes up 76% of the greenhouse gases. Once in the atmosphere it remains there for hundreds of years, unless it is locked up in trees and plants or absorbed into the oceans.
Methane, CH4, makes up 16% of the greenhouse gases and is 25 times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere. In addition, it remains in the atmosphere for 20 years before it turns into CO2 which remains for hundreds of years more. Methane is naturally produced by bacteria in the soil. However, its presence as a threatening greenhouse gas is due to human activities; agriculture, raising cattle, coal mining, landfills, and natural gas production.
Nitrous Oxide, N2O, makes up 6% of greenhouse gases and has a life time in the atmosphere of 114 years and is 298 times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat. Agriculture and the use of synthetic fertilizers accounts for 74% of the N2O. Stationary combustion, such as power plants and slash-and-burn agricultural practices make up another 6%. Manure management on farms and in city waste treatment, transportation, and industrial production and use account for 5% each.
Reducing Greenhouse Gases in the Short Term
We can rapidly transition away from power production that relies on coal, gas and oil. Power for domestic and commercial use can be provided by a mix of alternative power sources. Wind and solar power are efficient and cheap enough to be used word-wide. That is already happening.
In 2014, Germany produced 31% of its electricity using renewable energy, according to Bloomberg Business. Other reports have placed it as high as 50%. U.S. solar power already out produces Germany but because we are 4 times larger it only amounts to about 13% of US power production. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the US could increase solar power production to 80% by 2050. Currently the world-wide use of renewable alternative energy is estimated to be producing 22% of our energy and is climbing.
Building a Sustainable America
Jobs and the economy are going to change significantly whether we do anything about climate change or not. The reduction in coal, oil and gas employment has already begun.
The US coal industry has been in decline for decades. Industry experts have estimated that 40% of the coal mining companies in the US will lay off workers in 2016. At the same time a study of mining technology states that 96% of some mining jobs can be automated. In the area of gas and oil, jobs are being cut daily, due in part to low market prices. It is safe to say that many of the 523,000 people directly employed in oil and gas extraction will need to migrate to other forms of work. In addition, related industries that supply support services, chemicals, pipelines and transportation are also laying off workers.
The same goes for workers who will find themselves in industries and services made obsolete by climate change. What do we do with all these workers and their families? What do we do, when we are dispossessed?
Sadly, we Americans are too familiar with losing our jobs and being left to our own devices. Through the vagaries of business and a flawed economy we lose our homes, retirements, health, self respect and hope. This is an unsustainable system and it will be overwhelmed by the changes that are coming.
A sustainable America requires that we take a longer term view of the crisis and our responses to it. We must develop systems to ease the transition for anyone who is dispossessed by climate change. One area is retraining workers so that they can migrate to other jobs. Bloomberg Business reported in February 2015, that employment in the alternative energy sector is growing at about 14% annually while traditional energy sector jobs are falling. That is just the tip of the iceberg. As more and more of us start to feel the impact of our changing climate the demand for a sustainable nation and economy will grow.
Preparing for New Jobs
As we build sustainability into our society the number and types of jobs will dramatically increase. We will need more workers to develop more efficient transportation systems and infrastructure, replace worn out water and sewage infrastructure, switch over to green architecture for new structures, refit existing homes and commercial properties with the latest energy and water saving technologies, and develop sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and arboriculture (tree farming).
To do this, we will need to expand and improve our educational infrastructure. Not only will we need to continue to move forward with growing our primary education but also our community and technical colleges, and universities. This will require more teachers, maintenance and support personnel, administrators, educational materials, better buildings, and more equipment.
Every facet of our lives will be touched, and that means more jobs and greater opportunity.
Can America Walk and Chew Gum?
History provides many examples of our nation handling multiple challenges at once. For example; during World War II, with a generation of men away at war, the US desperately needed people to fill all the open jobs on Main Street, Industry, and Government. Women and Americans of color trained for and filled those positions. America experienced almost 100% employment. There were good paying jobs in all sectors and skills. Americans shared a common enemy and goal and they met the challenge. Are we less than our parents and grandparents? We can do the same now.
The reason that many people fear climate change and are reluctant to do anything about it is because of the threat of changes that could result in destitution for themselves and their children. If we are willing to open our minds to new possibilities and work together, then there is no reason why meeting climate change head-on should reduce our nation to poverty and homelessness. There is still room for the American Dream.
Unemployment insurance is already in place. It can be restructured so that it provides a livable stipend while the unemployed develop new skills in our high schools, community and technical colleges and universities. In Germany workers are paid a living wage while retraining for new jobs. Test programs in the U.S. and elsewhere are experimenting with paying high school students to stay in school and finish their educations. There are many other ideas that should be explored as well.
Medicare can be expanded into a cradle-to-grave health system. As such, it would be a more cost effective way to provide healthcare than the current system that relies on the cumbersome and expensive middle layer of HMOs and insurance companies with their massive redundancy and personnel costs, top to bottom. In addition, businesses would be relieved of some of the burden for providing medical benefits. Individuals would find that medical services would be easy to access. There would be no out of network complications or costs because all of the medical providers would be part of the network.
Quality of care is always a concern. Oddly, the much maligned Veterans Administration is a good example of the strengths of a government run health system. First and foremost, the vast majority of veterans think that their care at the VA is good. This is important because vets have injuries and illnesses that require specialized services that are not available in non-military hospitals. As for the recent failures of the VA administration, being a government service is a good thing. The VA, through our government, answers to the American people, unlike the private sector non-profit and for profit health insurance companies that only answer to their boards of directors or stock holders and not their clients.
And there will still be supplemental insurance should someone want it.
No doubt, as we get further into the climate crisis new issues will be found and new ideas to fix them will appear.
Who Pays for All Of This?
We will pay for it like we always have. There is no free lunch in spite of what some people say. We have a simple choice: Life or Death.
The U.S. already has experience in dealing with huge deficits without trauma. After World War II the U.S. was saddled with a massive debt caused by the Lend-Lease Program. Through lend-lease we provided all manner of military aid to our allies around the world in exchange for IOUs. At the end of the war much of the debt was forgiven. The American tax payer shouldered the bill and eventually paid it off after 40 years, during President Reagan’s administration.
That huge debt did not derail the golden Eisenhower years. Nor did it hamper the Viet Nam War and the social programs started by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Our economy was solid and flourished. History shows us that even massive debt can be slowly paid off without destroying the American Dream or our government. The idea of debt must be looked at in a new light. Yes it must be paid off but how that is done and how long it takes is not carved in stone.
After all, we are talking about the life and death of our children and grand children, not to mention the rest of the planet. Ben Franklin warned us not to be, “Penny wise and Pound foolish.”
One More Time
We are facing the existential threat of climate change and only a few appear to want to discuss it. Climate change is our primary threat because it makes all of our other problems much worse and unsolvable. Our society is going to change significantly whether we do anything or not. If we do nothing the outcome is fatal to human beings and all other life on the planet.
The situation is not hopeless if we honestly confront climate change. History and experience shows us that we have the knowledge, skills, and fortitude to successfully tackle this problem, if we are willing to think creatively, work together, and pay the bill.
When people face a life threatening illness they can go in one of two directions. Either they can embrace the moment, acknowledge that they are in a fight for their lives, embrace life and do what must be done, or they can collapse in upon themselves, become hopeless, wither and die. Do we choose knowledge and action over denial and stagnation, life over death?
Today, right now, that is the choice facing us in the US and around the world.
Can Americans handle the truth and successfully deal with climate change? We’ve faced hard truths before and prevailed. Survival is in our DNA.
Yes, America can handle the truth.
“Exxon Sowed Doubt About Climate Science for Decades by Stressing Uncertainty” , David Hasemyer, John H. Cushman Jr., Inside Climate News, 10/22/2015
Explore Exxon and Related Documents, Inside Climate News,
“Gas Leak Is Atrocious” Climate Science and Policy Watch, 02/10/2016,
“How Much Will Sea Level Rise In the 21st Century?” Skeptical Science, 01/18/2016, http://www.skepticalscience.com/sea-level-rise-predictions.htm
“Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment”, NOAA, 12/11/2012
“Experts say the IPCC underestimated future sea level rise” the Guardian, 12/04/2013
“Overview of Greenhouse Gases; Nitrous Oxide Emissions” EPA
“2015 Was Hottest Year in Historical Record, Scientists Say”, Justin Gillis, New York Times, 0120/2015
“El Niño & La Niña (El Niño-Southern Oscillation)”, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration,