How to Be Happy in the Age of Climate Change

March 2013

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Image from NASA.

 

“For 25 years our government has basically ignored the climate crisis: now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work. We shouldn’t have to be here — science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that money.” ~Bill McKibben, in a press release from the Climate Rally in Washington D.C., February 17, 2013.[1]

 

Public awareness – and my awareness – of climate change really began in 1988, when James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, testified to congressional committees about “global warming” and advocated for action to “avoid dangerous climate change.”[2]  That was 25 years ago.[3] Back then the question seemed to be whether we could largely avoid climate change if we acted responsibly and in a timely manner.  I hung my hopes on human ingenuity, on the fact that people had pulled together in the past when we really needed to, and on uncertainty – there was a lot of uncertainty back then, and a small hopeful voice in the back of my mind said, “Maybe Hansen is wrong.”

A lot has happened in the intervening 25 years. The climate models have become more sophisticated; scientific data – from the atmosphere, from the oceans, from the glaciers, from the biosphere – have poured in and been analyzed. Thousands of papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals. A mountain of scientific evidence has corroborated the climate change hypothesis[4] – the effects that we would expect to see in a warming world are in fact beginning to be seen. The large amount of uncertainty that one might have hung one’s hope on a quarter of a century ago has been rapidly diminishing, and now there is a very solid consensus among climate scientists that climate change is indeed happening and it is largely human-caused. Hansen was shown to be right, and that small hopeful voice in the back of my mind was silenced forever.

There are several things about climate change (or “global warming”) that distinguish it from virtually every other problem humankind has faced – and that make it “the perfect storm” of a problem.  First, because climate change is caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere largely as a result of human activity, it’s the kind of problem that gets worse over time if not dealt with (as the greenhouse gases continue to accumulate), so the longer we wait to address it, the greater the problem we have to address.

Second, it has potentially catastrophic consequences. Recently, scientists have been warning that, if we don’t make fairly drastic mitigation efforts, the consequences of climate change could be dire. The urgency of these warnings has increased significantly in the last few years, as new data on the impacts of climate change have come in – and these data are sobering indeed. This, for example:Scientists track carbon pollution both by monitoring what comes out of factories and what winds up in the atmosphere. Both are rising at rates faster than worst-case scenarios that climate scientists used in their most recent international projections …”[5] So, how bad can it get? The answer, according to a growing number of climate scientists, is this: If we do nothing, it will eventually be “game over” for the climate, and thus perhaps for civilization as well.[6] If the world warms sufficiently, it is not clear that civilization could be sustained (and if it could, it would presumably be under pretty horrendous conditions), to say nothing of the many species and ecosystems that make up the world as we know it.  We’re not talking about small changes to the planet.

Third, climate change is a global problem. Greenhouse gas emissions, and activities (such as the clearing of forests) that reduce the earth’s capacity to sequester carbon, are not limited to only one country, so the actions of any one government will not alone solve the problem (although some countries – the United States and China chief among them – have an outsize influence on the problem, so their governments could have an outsize impact on a solution). Ultimately, a global solution is needed for a global problem.

Fourth, the impacts of climate change are gradual (although apparently not as gradual as climate scientists first thought[7]), and thus it is difficult to focus public attention on the problem, or to even get people to appreciate that there is a problem.  Unlike the massacre of 20 innocent children in Newtown, CT by a crazy person with a gun, there is no single event that clearly highlights the problem of climate change. Climate change isn’t about any single event; it’s about a trend of increasing frequency and severity of weather events (and other changes) generated by the increasing energy in our climate system due to greenhouse gas-induced warming of the atmosphere. Although recent “mega-storms” like Hurricane Sandy have certainly brought the issue of climate change back to the forefront of public consciousness, it’s difficult to keep it there as other, seemingly more immediate problems push it aside. By the time climate change-related “super storms” and other severe weather events become sufficiently frequent and severe to really put climate change front and center in the public consciousness – and to keep it there – it may already be too late to avoid dangerous climate change.[8]

Fifth (and related to number four), the largest benefits of mitigating climate change are in the future – and perhaps far in the future (although that “far future” may not be quite as far as originally believed) – while the costs (of reorienting our carbon-based economy away from carbon to something else) are largely in the present. Economists routinely discount benefits received in the future when doing cost-benefit analyses, because people generally have a positive time preference – i.e., they prefer a good or service now rather than later (and would be willing to pay more to get it now).  To illustrate, using a three percent discount rate (one of the discount rates typically used in EPA cost-benefit analyses), the value of $1,000 received now shrinks down to $235 if it is received 50 years from now – or only $54 if it will be received 100 years from now.  So when economists try to apply the standard cost-benefit analysis methods to climate change, the benefit of avoiding potentially catastrophic consequences in a distant future shrink way down when compared to the costs of that mitigation, which would occur in the present. This cost-benefit analysis result merely reflects an unfortunate reality about the problem of climate change – it’s hard to get people to care about something that will happen many years in the future, even if it is something catastrophic.[9]

Finally, there is no “villain” here against whom we can band together and fight the good fight. It could be said that the last time Americans really pulled together and worked hard and sacrificed to fight a common enemy was in World War II – and, once we decided to enter the war, we did a splendid job. But there was a clear enemy then, which helped motivate the effort.  There is no clear enemy in the problem of climate change; there is just a changing climate as human activities around the world – the burning of fossil fuels, the clearing of forests, and the raising of animals for human consumption, chief among them – steadily increase the concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, warming the earth and increasing the volatility of the climate.  We are, as a species, simply “bumping up against” the boundaries of our environment – due to a combination of the very large number of people now on the earth (over seven billion at last count[10]); a high, energy-intensive standard of living already in some countries (most notably, the United States); and rising standards of living in other, very populous countries (particularly China, India, and Brazil), with a corresponding increase in the per capita consumption of energy. Since we cannot see the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, we are largely unaware of the atmospheric boundary we are “bumping up” against.

So climate change is indeed the “perfect storm” of a problem. And I haven’t even mentioned yet what may be the biggest problem of all – or at least what, to me, is the most gobsmacking.

In the last 25 years, during which scientists have been painstakingly collecting and analyzing data that have increasingly corroborated that climate change is real and human-caused, the Republican Party – and the right in general – has taken a stand against climate change – not just in the beginning of the 25-year period, when there was still substantial uncertainty, but quite recently as well. As I noted in my essay, Legacies, “on March 15, 2011 all the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted down an amendment acknowledging that ‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal,’ as well as two others ‘acknowledging the threat of climate change to public well-being.’[11]” Only one of the presidential candidates running in the 2011/2012 Republican primaries was willing to unequivocally acknowledge that human-caused climate change is happening[12] – Jon Huntsman, who on August 11, 2011, tweeted on Twitter, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”[13] The “call me crazy” is, of course, a statement about the Republican Party’s extreme anti-science stance by that point (and it hasn’t improved since).

But perhaps “taking a stand against climate change” doesn’t fully capture what has been going on.  An entire “alternative reality” has been created on the right, aided and abetted by conservative organizations like the Heartland Institute and Fox News. The Heartland Institute devotes significant resources to promoting climate change denial and spreading misinformation about climate change,[14] while Fox mocks those who protest for climate change action.[15]

While among climate scientists there is an overwhelming consensus that climate change is real and almost certainly caused by human activity, the climate change deniers present a completely different picture.  In their “reality,” there is a conspiracy among the scientists to keep sounding the climate change alarm so the research grants will keep coming.  It is, in the now-famous (or infamous) words of Senator James Inhofe, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”[16] Senator Inhofe elaborated on this view on the Senate floor in January 2005:

 “For these groups [the ‘environmental extremists’], the issue of catastrophic global warming is not just a favored fundraising tool. In truth, it’s more fundamental than that. Put simply, man-induced global warming is an article of religious faith…. Since my detailed climate change speech in 2003, the so-called ‘skeptics’ continue to speak out. What they are saying, and what they are showing, is devastating to the alarmists. They have amassed additional scientific evidence convincingly refuting the alarmists’ most cherished assumptions and beliefs. New evidence has emerged that further undermines their conclusions, most notably those of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change-one of the major pillars of authority cited by extremists and climate alarmists…”[17]

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”[18] I’m pretty sure the “facts” espoused by Senator Inhofe and the Heartland Institute are bogus. But they have their audience. Polls repeatedly indicate that attitudes about climate change (as about so many issues) are correlated with political affiliation – the percentages of Democrats who believe climate change is real and human-caused are invariably substantially higher than the percentages of Republicans who believe similarly.[19]  And whatever their private beliefs about climate change, virtually no Republicans in Congress are willing to do anything about it – or, in most cases, even to acknowledge that it is happening. And although the Democrats are more willing to acknowledge the reality of climate change, they haven’t pushed very hard either for any legislative action to mitigate it (although this may finally be changing[20]).

I have written in other essays (The Limits of Capitalism and Trying to Explain My Crazy Country) about how our political system is being strangled by “the mother of all conflicts of interest” – that because politicians have become so dependent on the money that big corporations donate to their (endless) campaigns, they simply cannot have only the public’s interest at heart when they make their legislative decisions – particularly in situations where the public good conflicts with the interests of those private corporations whose hefty campaign donations help keep those politicians in office. They cannot afford to antagonize these wealthy donors – including those in the fossil fuel industry.

I said above that there is no villain here, by which I meant that there is no entity that is maliciously polluting our atmosphere in an attempt to destroy us. But there are entities that are maliciously polluting our national conversation about climate change with misinformation; and there is an entire major political party that is refusing to hear what the great majority of climate scientists are saying with increasing urgency as each year goes by during which our government continues to do nothing.

More and more, this situation has a “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” quality to it.  Like so many climate scientists whose urgent warnings are falling on deaf ears, who are becoming apoplectic, I am just stunned.  And I am becoming apoplectic too.

Scientists don’t know for sure what will happen if we continue to do nothing about climate change – there is much discussion of “tipping points” and “positive feedback loops” and various nightmare scenarios (involving mass famines and relocations of refugee populations and the earth looking nothing like it looks now), but of course good scientists try to avoid sounding hysterical.  But I would venture to guess that virtually all climate scientists agree that we really should start doing something about climate change – in fact, we should have started quite a while ago.

So here we are.  Year after year has gone by – a quarter of a century in all since climate change was first brought to public awareness – and every year the global average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) rises; it is now at about 395 ppm, well above the 350 ppm that some climate scientists say is the “safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere.”[21]  And each year there are new scientific data showing that what we would expect in a warming world we are beginning to see in our world. With each year the sense of urgency increases – outside the halls of our government. At this point, many climate scientists are practically screaming in unison that we must do something serious to mitigate climate change to avoid a very dangerous situation. Meanwhile, our politicians are arguing about the deficit, and the House Republicans voted 33 times to repeal Obamacare (something they know will not happen).[22]  At the same time, they have refused to put climate change on their agenda.[23]

There probably hasn’t been a problem as serious as climate change – with such potentially devastating consequences for so many people (to say nothing of the entire biosphere) – in all of human history (with the possible exception of a potential nuclear Armageddon).  And yet climate change barely gets a mention – except perhaps to deny it – among our conservative politicians. Nor has it received much coverage in our news media – in fact, as the climate situation has deteriorated in recent years, the news coverage of it in the United States has actually declined.[24], [25]

Do you feel yet like you’re living in the Twilight Zone? I do. And it has started to affect my everyday mood.  I’ve never been good at simply putting things that are worrying me out of my mind. And I’m even worse at outright denial.  So I think about climate change often – actually, just about every day.  And I worry. And I’m outraged.  Because there are solutions, but the Republicans in Congress are refusing to consider them.

There are no good reasons for this; there are only bad reasons – because our politicians – especially on the right – are “owned” by the big corporations whose largesse they so desperately need; because they apparently care more about their own careers than about the people of this country (let alone people in the rest of the world); because they refuse to get out of the “alternative reality” bubble they’re living in, since it’s apparently more “comfortable” in there than in the real world.  And perhaps because climate change presents a threat to conservative/Republican ideology – if ever there was a problem that required a big federal government response, climate change is it.[26]

Being in a constant state of outrage is not a good way to go through life; I’m well aware of this. We have only one life to live, as far as we know, and I don’t want to live the rest of mine in a constant state of outrage and despair – and burning incredulity. I just cannot wrap my mind around the gobsmacking immorality of what these politicians are engaged in – and the whole sordid enterprise of the “alternative reality” folks on the right.  It’s one thing to try to fool oneself, or to deny unpleasant realities in one’s own life as a (less than admirable) way to cope.  But to do that when doing so will affect billions of people, to say nothing of the entire biosphere?  I myself don’t have the hubris to even contemplate such things.

So I have this practical problem: How to be happy in the age of climate change; how to prevent all those negative feelings, to put it non-hysterically, from taking over my life. Because it turns out that I really care about this earth and all the people and animals on it. I’ve grown rather fond of civilization, for all its faults. I believe there is what economists call “existence value” for all those beautiful species and ecosystems, including the ones I may never personally see, that won’t be able to adapt as quickly as we are changing the climate. And I can’t seem to just shut out of my mind – at least not for very long – the outrageous immorality before me.

On February 17, 2013, I joined the Climate Rally on the National Mall.[27]  It seems pretty clear by this point that, since our Congressmen are not motivated by an understanding of the science nor a desire to do right by the people who voted for them, it will take an enormous grassroots upwelling demanding action for action to occur.  There were reportedly between 30,000 and 40,000 people on the National Mall that day (as freezing as it was). It was a wonderful sight.  But I want to see more.  I want to see a rally – possibly several – with “wall to wall” people from the steps of the Capitol to the Washington Monument.  I want to see a sea of people – of all ages and all races and all religions and no religion –loudly demanding action to mitigate climate change. And I want the headlines to convey that the time has finally come, that people are demanding what should have been done decades ago – and that they will hold their elected representatives accountable. That’s what I want to see; and then I will be happy in the age of climate change.


[2] By the time Hansen testified before Congress, he and other scientists believed that climate change was already underway, so preventing it entirely was no longer an option.  However, avoiding dangerous climate change, still was an option, and this became a stated objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international organization established in 1992. See Wikipedia, “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avoiding_dangerous_climate_change

[3]  While Hansen was the first to really bring the issue to the public’s attention, in 1988, concern about possible global warming goes way back to the early nineteenth century.  Although there is undoubtedly much written about this, a nice overview for those with a casual interest can be found in Wikipedia, “History of Climate Change Science,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science. Another online source is http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm

[4] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 by two United Nations organizations – the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – is a good place to find many of the relevant references.  The IPCC puts out periodic reports.  The last one, the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) came out in 2007. The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is due to come out in 2014. See http://www.ipcc.ch/.

[5]  There are many articles about this. One that links to others is: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2012/11/a_grim_status_report.php?ref=fpblg

[8] I am reminded of the “urban myth” that if you put a frog in a pot of water and gradually bring the water to a boil, the frog will not attempt to escape – debunked by Snopes: http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/frogboil.asp

[9]  My own view is that climate change is a problem that strains the boundaries of applicability of the standard microeconomic models.

[16]  Inhofe encapsulated his views in a book, published in February 2012: http://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Hoax-Warming-Conspiracy-Threatens/dp/1936488493

[17] Senate Floor Statement by U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe(R-Okla), January 4, 2005: http://inhofe.senate.gov/pressreleases/climateupdate.htm

[18]  Variants of this quote have been attributed to Moynihan by various sources.

[21]  There is not complete agreement among climate scientists about what the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere is – 350 ppm and 400 ppm are two numbers commonly suggested.   See: http://350.org/en/about/science ,

http://science.time.com/2012/06/01/400-ppm/, http://www.climatenewsnetwork.net/2013/03/carbon-dioxides-climb-speeds-up/

[25]  Wikipedia has a good discussion of some of the problems with the media coverage of climate change in the United States (aside from its infrequency): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_coverage_of_climate_change

[26]  For a good quick overview of the current Republican relationship to climate change (and science in general), see “Global Warming: Deny, Deny, Deny,” in “The GOP’s Real Agenda,” by Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone Magazine, March 13, 2013:

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-gops-real-agenda-20130313

5 comments on “How to Be Happy in the Age of Climate Change

  1. I am a skeptic. I have pretty much rejected all “faith”, but with two exceptions. It is best that married people should have faith in each other, and Albert Schweitzer urged the nuclear armed governments of the world to have “faith in humanity”.

    But to call a person who has prejudged an issue, a skeptic, violates the meaning of the word. Deniers of the Nazi holocaust are not skeptics, and deniers of Global Warming are not skeptics. They are tools of the worst offenders.

    In the matter of Evolution, I can name two Scots who actually were legitimate skeptics. One was called Fleeming (pronounced Fleming) Jenkin, and he followed the then current notion that heredity was “in the blood” to the logical conclusion that a small advantage would be diluted half at each generation, and would be less than a thousandth at the tenth. He had not noticed that male and female parents did not produce hermaphrodite offspring, but still…
    The other was no less than William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, who assembled data on heat conduction, specific heat, and so forth for all the known and understood components of the Earth, and computed how long it would take for a molten planet to coll to the point where the heat flow from its interior would match observations made in deep mines. His result was 40 million years, which he reckoned aclose enough by a factor of two either up or down. It is slightly more than a hundred times too small, because the dear brilliant man did not know about radioactivity.

  2. I do not know, Ellen, if you are aware of “Pandora’s Promise”, or any of my own observations at http://energy.skepticva.org, to the effect that the remedies popularly called “green”, “renewable”, and “sustainable”, are woefully inadequate compared with nuclear breeder technology.
    Biomass, for instance, is renewable, but as you article notes, forests are not in most cases allowed to renew themselves. Brazil’s E85 motor fuel, from sugarcane, is essentially 200-proof rum adulterated with enough vile gasoline to make it unpotable. I would be very surprised to learn that it is not a threat to their tropical rain forest.

    • ellen post says:

      Albert — From what I learned in a class many years ago (when working on a degree in ecology), the vast majority of the nutrients in a tropical rain forest are held in the vegetation itself (as opposed to in the soil). So when rain forests are cleared, almost all the nutrients in the system are “cleared” also, leaving a pretty desolate soil. It’s therefore particularly difficult to “regrow” a rain forest once it’s been cleared.

  3. […] right now – most notably, climate change – aren’t like that. As I‘ve noted elsewhere (see “How to Be Happy in the Age of Climate Change”), “because climate change is caused by the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the […]

  4. […] But I’ve picked my battles. I’ve chosen to focus on two problems: money in politics (a.k.a. our growing plutocracy) and climate change. Why? Well, taking a step back to see the “big picture,” climate change has been called the greatest threat to the entire planet that human civilization has ever faced (with the possible exception of nuclear winter). It is an existential threat. (I’ve written about this elsewhere; see here). […]

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