The IPCC report and our willingness to deal with climate change
Why don't we do what we're supposed to do?
On Mondays, I usually delve into science news, reporting on very recently published papers on ecology, conservation, and sustainability. I try also to focus on topics that don’t get a lot of press.
Try as I might, I can’t ignore the headlines today. The IPCC issued its sixth assessment on global warming today. Unequivocally we are warming the planet and witnessing unprecedented changes. Those heat waves, those big storms, the wildfires, all of them are driven by climate change. At this point, no matter what we do, things will get worse. If we do nothing, things will get way, way worse.
How did we get into this mess? It is not that we haven’t known about the problem. And we have known for some time. Lyndon Johnson spoke about the rising levels of CO2 in a speech to Congress 56 year ago. Less than three weeks into his administration he said:
Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
Action on global warming was debated in Nixon’s administration in 1969, and warnings that we “only had a few decades to solve the problem” of global warming, and that we faced melting polar icecaps from our pollution, made it into the press the same year.The IPCC was formed in 1988, the same year that climate scientist James Hanson warned Congress that the warming temperatures we were experiencing back then were caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases. That was 33 years ago. We’ve known about the problem for a long, long time.
So where is the disconnect? There is obviously the well-funded campaign of disinformation from the fossil fuel industry and its fellow travelers. They know that they only need to sow doubt; that cheap ad hominem attacks on scientists and climate policy makers suffice to distract many people from the issue. Those tactics may work for a lot of folks, but what about the rest of us who haven’t been swayed by the rhetoric of the fossil fuel industry? Why haven’t the rest of us been writing our Congressional representatives, using public transportation, eschewing meat, and riding our bikes?
The American Psychological Association published a report ten years ago on how and why people are motivated or unmotivated to act on climate change. They commonsensically ascribed our inability to do anything about climate change to basic human nature, saying:
Many think of climate change risks (and thus of the benefits of mitigating them) as both considerably uncertain and also as being mostly in the future and geographically distant, all factors that lead people to discount them.
But with this new report from the IPCC, as wildfires burn thousands of square miles of the West in the U.S., southern Europe, and Siberia; as unprecedented heat waves hit the Pacific Northwest; as coastal cities get hammered by rising tides; we’ve reached an inflection point. If this were a science fiction movie from the fifties, this would be the point at which the very serious scientist, played by a serious-seeming actor like Walter Pidgeon, would have his vindication, when the hoards would realize their error in listening to the charlatan, possibly played by Vincent Price, and take the last-minute action needed to save the planet.
Yet there is something that moviemakers overlook. I believe that psychologists are overlooking this as well, something that is difficult to understand because it seems so bizarre. That bizarre bit of human nature is our willingness to accept environmental degradation and not think much of it. People don't become concerned about environmental degradation until their own personal safety is threatened.
Below is a picture of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1944, engulfed in the smoke and soot from the city’s steel mills. The clock says it’s a quarter to twelve, noon, yet neon lights shine in the darkness. To me this is frightening, yet people seem to be going about their business as usual. Pollution controls were not put into place in Pittsburgh until there was a similar smog event that killed 20 individuals and left one-third of the town’s population ill in the nearby town of Donora a few years later.
Although there were commissions to study and find ways to mitigate their situation, Los Angeles residents suffered through choking smogs for decades, with little done to bring clear skies back to the area. And this story is repeated throughout the world. People just accept pollution, or erosion, or dying forests.
I grew up a block away from a Union Carbide factory in West Virginia. The factory took coal from the nearby hills and turned it into graphite. Tons of soot and ash billowed from the factory’s smoke stacks, with most of that soot and ash drifting down and covering our small town. Years before, as a zinc factory, the pollution was so bad that all the vegetation on the hill behind our house died, leaving a bald hilltop with deep eroded gullies down its sides. Many of the nearby streams were lifeless, poisoned by the runoff from local mines, the rocks and stream beds stained a hazardous orange.
Yet there were few complaints or concerns expressed. Folks went about their business, sometimes hosing down their houses when the soot got really thick. We ran through and played in the eroded gullies. Nobody died, so nothing was done.
People are dying who probably wouldn’t have in the absence of climate change. There are more heat-related deaths, more people afflicted with malaria, and more people dying in weather-related disasters. But until folks can really make the connection between burning fossil fuels and their own safety, I’m afraid that getting the bandwagon together to stamp out greenhouse gases remains an uphill battle.
Despite all this, I remain hopeful. I don’t know why, but I am. What do you think? Does all this news drive you to despair? Make you angry? Motivate you to vote or ride a bike? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.
"Scientists Caution on Changes in Climate as Result of Pollution." New York Times (1923-Current file) Dec 21 1969: 46. ProQuest. 9 Aug. 2021 .