I’ve been wondering why people aren’t paying more attention to climate change. One doesn’t have to look far to see the effects of a warming global environment, such as the record heat, drought and fires that have recently plagued Australia. Consider, too, the possibility that the Arctic may be relatively ice-free during the summer sometime soon. And it’s quite likely that Superstorm Sandy (too big to be a mere hurricane, it became a “superstorm”) was the product of our changing climate.

Earthrise

Earthrise

It seems that one of the reasons that we aren’t paying sufficient attention to the global warming issue is that we have a tendency to only regard things from the perspective of how they directly affect us. Temperature goes up a few degrees, we dress for it or turn up the A/C. What’s the big deal? In many ways, it’s the indirect (to us) effects about which we should be concerned. Relatively small changes in average temperature can dictate when plants can be pollinated, where grains can be grown, whether insects are active or dormant. Increasing the average ocean temperature a few degrees can make a day at the beach more comfortable, but it also rapidly increases the rate of melting of Arctic Ocean ice and Antarctic ice sheets, which in turn raise sea level. So, yes, a couple of degrees Centigrade increase in average global temperature is a big deal.

We also tend to dismiss issues that don’t immediately affect us. Ours is a society that tends to want instant gratification, so if it’s not happening within a week, we ignore it. With climate change, many changes happen slowly, over decades, so immediate effects are not seen. The problem here is that once we can really see the overt changes, having ignored the warning sign events such as those mentioned in the opening paragraph, it’s too late for us to change our practices in any meaningful ways. We will have gone well past the tipping point, and our course will be set.

Then the question comes up of “How do we know that it’s us?” It’s a legitimate query. We hear how the sun goes in high and low cycles, that the earth has been substantially warmer in the distant past, that it’s been relatively cooler recently, and similar. Scientists who specialize in climate and earth sciences have looked at all of the known potential causes of the current wave of global warming, and there is substantial consensus that we are the cause, largely through our burning of fossil fuels and the resulting emission of carbon dioxide. The whole chain of events features a large number of variables and “if this, then this, unless this…” scenarios. It’s dense, and tough to understand. We need to trust the scientists who make such investigations their life’s work, and seriously consider the paths that they recommend.

There are a number of people who disagree with the “humans are causing climate change” message. Obvious among them are the fossil fuel companies, particularly coal. Coal is one of the worst players in the climate change game, and, as it has been suggested that the best way to avoid climate catastrophe is to shut down coal-fired power plants, the coal companies are working hard to discredit the climate change message. Much of the business community likes “business as usual”, as it’s how they make money, so they, too, fight against climate change messaging and legislation. There are a number of other big players, with deep pockets and seemingly selfish agendas, who push back hard on the climate change issue.

I recently read a book which describes the way that business works to discredit messages, and messengers, that would negatively impact the bottom line. It’s called “Merchants of Doubt”, the title suggested from an infamous tobacco company memo which stated “Doubt is our product”. The book shows how just a few people, well-placed and well-funded, can work with a goal of discrediting scientists and any others who dare to advocate policies that would be detrimental to business interests.

What I found interesting in “Merchants of Doubt” was the thread that wound through the big “health risk versus business” public policy debates, starting with the link between tobacco use and cancer in the 1960s and continuing to today’s anthropogenic global warming. Four guys from the Cold War era of the 50s were at the core, using their credentials as physicists and knowledge of the system to cast doubt on the tobacco-cancer association. As that died down, they attacked the scientists who suggested a link between CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer. Moving right along, the group went after assertions that second-hand smoke was associated with various diseases, including cancer. It didn’t matter that they weren’t subject-matter experts in any of these areas. They portrayed themselves as concerned scientists who wanted the public to know the “truth”, taking the tiniest grain of perceived scientific inaccuracy and spinning it into a full-blown controversy. These guys reportedly hated government regulation, which they equated with the socialism that the battled in the 50s, and were happy to let the free market trample over the common good. That they eventually lost each battle meant little, as they simply went on to cast doubt in other areas.

The men at the core of this activity are either inactive or no longer with us, but the process remains intact, well-funded by big business interests such as the Koch brothers. The current target is manmade (anthropogenic) climate change, and they are casting doubt with great zeal. Climate change is an easy target for this group, as the numerous and complex variables present great fodder for questioning the science and the scientists. You might have heard of “Climategate”, where the e-mail accounts of many climate scientists were hacked and made public. Some out-of-context comments were heavily publicized as evidence that climate change was simply an antibusiness conspiracy. While several subsequent investigations have shown that such was not the case, the taint of “Climategate” remains. Or consider the outcry against climate scientist Michael Mann’s graph of temperature increases since the 1900’s, the now-infamous “hockey stick”. It was very legitimate science, pilloried by the denialists. Since it’s kinda tough to wade through the science, it’s easier to agree with the doubt-throwers than it is to do our own research…at least that’s what they hope we do.

I encourage you to give some thought to the climate change issue. Take a bit of time to consider whether you are hearing scientific consensus or a simple ad hominem attack on the messenger. Is there more credibility with peer-reviewed scientific evidence, or the cry of “you’ve got it all wrong” without the support of a plausible alternative scenario?

Over the next several weeks I will be posting on climate change issues, including causes, anticipated impacts, and the steps that the University of California and our own Health System will be taking to minimize our impact on the climate. I hope that you take the time to read and comment. To fight climate change, we will have to change our way of life, eschew “business as usual”, and understand that we can’t grow forever. We will have to recognize some new limits. We might not live to see the results from inaction, but life will be very different a couple of generations from now if we do nothing. Should that be our legacy?

Do something GREEN today!
JD