earth day

In some ways this blog is an exercise in legacy. If future generations read this blog, what will they think? Probably not much. But I believe that today’s topic will interest them more than most. I believe that when Florida and New York City are underwater and the world’s nations are fighting over higher ground, they’ll wonder: what was that born-in-the-late-20th-century-generation THINKING? Why didn’t they shout from the rooftops: STOP GLOBAL WARMING?!?

This post is as shouty as I get.

Climate change is the most important issue of our time, a glacially paced existential crisis that every day melts another of our glaciers. Of course Earth will survive anything, but humanity will not, particularly after a Malthusian half-century during which the Earth’s population doubled to more than 7 billion. Antarctic coring shows that CO2 levels are higher than they’ve been in 650,000 years. The Keeling Curve shows that in the last few years, Earth has shot above 400 molecules of carbon dioxide per million molecules of air – or 400 ppm, well above the 350 considered safe. Hundreds of species die every year that were once considered healthy. Every year turns out to be the hottest on record.

Regular readers know I define populism as policies that majorities of Americans support (that do not infringe on rights). Now more than ever, addressing climate change falls under that category, as this Gallup work shows.

56% of Americans believe protection of the environment should be given priority. 57% believe America is doing “too little in terms of protecting the environment.”

And yet, we know why we’re doing too little: partisan stalemates in Congress.

At the Consensus Project, they looked at 21 years of peer-reviewed papers about climate change. They found 4,014 papers authored by 10,188 scientists. Of those, 97.1% endorsed the view that global warming is caused by human activity. As someone who also submits papers to journals, I suspect this understates the problem. If scientific journals were in the habit of publishing papers that made the exact same points that previous papers had made, I suspect the number would be closer to 98% or 99%.

No right-wing think tank has ever seriously disputed the 97% number; they’ve merely trotted out their own smaller number of experts, or dismissed the idea of “peer-reviewed,” or dismissed the community of scientific journals as a sort of leftist conspiracy. It’s true that any group of professionals has their own biases that lead to a bit of groupthink, whether they be soldiers, farmers, yoga instructors, or what-have-you.

I’m willing to admit that groupthink is a problem, if climate change skeptics can likewise admit that we rely on scientific groupthink all the time. More importantly, groupthink almost never gets above 90%, never mind 97%. For example:

  1. Cell phones – We own them, yet they may well cause cancer. Are we waiting for the consensus otherwise to get over 90%? Hardly. So the bulges in our pockets bear the stamp of approval of fewer than 97% of scientists.
  2. Buildings and homes – We work and live in them, but almost none are earthquake-retrofitted. Even if you don’t live on the Pacific Coast, your home could be flattened by an earthquake in the next hour – certainly no majority of scientists will tell you otherwise. If you wanted to get closer to consensus, you could retrofit as many have done since Japan’s “spring” technology came here in the 1990s. However, even those measures aren’t supported by 97%+ of scientists. So the roofs above our heads bear the approval of fewer than 97% of scientists.
  3. Food – The Food and Drug Administration consistently ranks highest in terms of consumer trust; Americans hate all other regulators. Does the FDA require 100% of its regulators to approve of a given comestible? Hardly. “Good enough” often is, as we know because the standards keep evolving. So the food we eat bear the seals of approval of fewer than 97% of scientists.

From guns to cars to medicines, I don’t know who is waiting for 100% of scientists to weigh in. I don’t personally see science as a partisan wedge. For example, I support abortion services, but if scientists can make, say, 75% of 15-week-old fetuses taken from the womb survive to term, I’m not going to sit here and wait for 97%. At that point, if not sooner, we have to try to bring all aborted 15-week-old fetuses to term. In other words, who waits for 98%?

We’ve stopped pollution under Republican presidents. Nixon didn’t wait for 98% of scientists when he made today Earth Day; Reagan didn’t wait for 98% of scientists when he stopped acid rain. It would be nice if people saw melting glaciers as more of the same, but because the problem has metastasized, the opposition has metastasized as well.

I suppose I understand the right-wing hostility to the idea of global warming as intrinsically tied to hostility against government expansion (and perhaps reflex defensiveness of capitalism). But it doesn’t have to be that way, at least not ONLY that way. I am often assured by my right-wing friends that government programs against poverty and homelessness are a waste partly because good Christians, left to their own devices, are charitable and generous toward the poor without needing federal micromanagement. So it should be with global warming: if you look at Scientific American’s ten things we can do, you’ll see that more than half are “glocal”: Thinking Global, Acting Local.

This Earth Day, we should all rededicate ourselves to unplugging, recycling, biking, and doing more where we can. As a coda, I can admit I find this penultimate paragraph tantalizing:

Among the ideas: releasing sulfate particles in the air to mimic the cooling effects of a massive volcanic eruption; placing millions of small mirrors or lenses in space to deflect sunlight; covering portions of the planet with reflective films to bounce sunlight back into space; fertilizing the oceans with iron or other nutrients to enable plankton to absorb more carbon; and increasing cloud cover or the reflectivity of clouds that already form.

But…I suspect that any one of these ideas are, at best, supported by a small minority of people. Like a good populist, I can wait for them to get popular support that’s somewhere between 51% and 97%. What I can’t wait for is what people DO support.

Happy Earth Day, everyone. Let’s protect the only planet we’ve got.