Were our leaders bold enough to do enough about climate change soon enough?

Drought by Patrick Emerson

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Dear people of 2115,

Hello, future humans! Anyone there? I’m one of your forebears from the generation of your great, great, grandparents checking in to see how you’re doing. We’ve long been concerned about you, your well-being, and… well, gosh, even your existence.

Were our leaders bold enough to do enough about climate change soon enough?

You see, we were stewards of the Earth back in 2015–a very dicey time for the planet, humankind, and life itself. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we made a polluted mess of our natural environment, resulting in an ever-hotter climate, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, widespread droughts, more (and much wilder) storms, accelerated species extinctions, crop failures, tens of millions of climate refugees, and increasing doubts about whether our progeny could survive it all.

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Unbeknownst to us, our unrestrained use of fossil fuels for more than a century had been incrementally spiraling the planet toward climatological catastrophe. Sure enough, in the last few years, the weather became so abnormally extreme and destructive around the world that more and more people awakened to reality. The need for action to reverse human-caused climate change grew obvious and urgent. But would our generation’s leaders be bold enough to do enough soon enough?

What gave us hope was that a massive people’s movement was organizing and mobilizing globally to lift common sense to the highest levels of industry and government, demanding an end to fossil fuel emissions. The overall message was straightforward: When you realize you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Unfortunately, we faced an elite alliance of petro-power profiteers and political henchmen determined to deny environmental reality to keep reaping the profits of doom.

The battle lines were sharply drawn. As I write this letter in December 2015, delegations from nearly every nation have gathered in Paris, France, for a United Nations climate convocation to consider cutting fossil fuels. However, the big clunker is that any final agreement is non-binding.

So whatever happens in Paris, we will keep pushing national governments to adopt and live up to policies to stop using these suicidal fuels. Success is uncertain, so I’m writing this “Letter to the Future” to ask: How’d we do?

Hello… anyone still there?

Early warnings

Recent headlines confirm the mess we’ve made:

Jan 1, 2013 | The Big Melt Accelerates Mar 31, 2014 | Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come May 12, 2014 | Looks Like Rain Again. And Again Aug 20, 2015 | Alaska Will Keep Melting Oct 1, 2015 | Climate Change a Worry for Central Bankers, Too

How did it come to this? It’s flabbergasting that We the People are only recently learning that our climate–the very environmental bubble in which we exist–is turning against us. Far from a natural phenomenon, it is caused by a handful of corporate interests. Oil, coal, auto, and other industrial powers have profited for decades by spewing fossil fuel contaminants into the world’s atmosphere– pollution that, ton by endless ton, has been perverting Earth’s life-giving climate into a life-extinguishing threat.

Did the profiteers know what they were causing? Yes, we now know that they did.

Why didn’t someone–a whistleblower, a scientist, an ethical executive, a government official–try to stop this disaster? Some did, speaking out nearly 40 years ago:

“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” — James Black, 1977

“Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” — Black, 1978

“[Heading off global warming] would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion. [Otherwise] there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Once the effects [of warming] are measurable, they might not be reversible.” – 1982 primer on climate change

“Over the past several years, a clear scientific consensus has emerged. There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.” — Roger Cohen, 1982

“Few people doubt the world has entered an energy transition away from dependence on fossil fuels and toward some mix of renewable resources that will not post the problems of CO2 accumulation.” — Edward David, 1982

The significance of these early calls to action is that they did not come from environmental critics of Big Oil, but from the biggest of Big Oil: EXXON! Its own research executives warned that the fossil fuels Exxon produced would, in fact, cause the climate change we’re now getting.

In an extraordinary series of investigative reports issued this fall, Inside Climate News revealed that the oil superpower (now infamous for its relentless campaign of lies to discredit climate science) was briefly a paragon of scientific integrity. Digging through internal Exxon documents and corporate archives and conducting dozens of interviews with former Exxon scientists and managers, ICN reporters found that from 1978 through the 1980s (long before the issue had risen to public awareness and political concern), the corporation’s Research and Engineering division was a buzzing hive of farsighted inquiry into the “greenhouse effect,” as the process of climate change was then called.

The Global Warming Olympics

World weather officials have announced that (1) the global warming gasses that enshroud Earth as a result of our ever-increasing use of fossil fuels reached the densest level of concentration ever in 2014, and… [read more]

Exxon’s top executives, backed by their board of directors, funded a team of cutting-edge scientists and engineers, unleashing them to answer the most fundamental questions about the build-up of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere: How much? How fast? What effects is it having? Is it caused by burning fossil fuels? It was, as one team member marveled in a 1978 memo, “a project aimed at benefitting mankind,” and there was a sense of mission and public purpose inside Exxon for a dozen years. Rather than being shrouded in corporate secrecy, the climate team shared its findings and collaborated with researchers in government, universities, and companies.

Reflecting on these years in a recent interview, a company official from that time said that the project’s work had been “guided by an overarching principle to follow where the science leads.” And, he added, the science led us to this: “The risk of climate change is real and warrants action.”

Weapons of mass confusion

In 1988, however, the space inhabited by principle was suddenly invaded by the demands of profit. This conflict erupted inside Exxon after Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s renown climate expert, yanked the discussion about warming out of science journals and into the political realm, where the public could grasp its significance. In widely covered 1988 testimony to Congress, he reported his dramatic findings on fossil fuel’s effects, concluding that human-made global warming had begun.

The startling news was then brought into focus by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a prestigious group of global experts convened by the United Nations. Its authoritative 1990 study concluded that planetary warming was “certain,” the cause was emissions from our unrestrained burning of fossil fuels, and the remedy was deep reductions in fossil fuel use.

With that, a corporate climate change swept into Exxon itself, causing the flower of honest inquiry to go extinct. The research team was defunded and dismantled, scientific integrity was kicked out the door. And Exxon’s inner brute seized control of the corporation’s climate policy. Ever since, the $393-billion-a-year behemoth has been the shameful, self-serving leader of a mumbo-jumbo, voodoo “science” campaign to keep the world hooked on the fossil fuels that provide its profits.

The strategy was to create an incessant noise machine, fueled with hundreds of millions of industry dollars, to spread the false narrative that scientists are “uncertain” about the existence of climate change, much less its cause. Thus, Exxon’s machine has been insisting for the past 25 years that the best policy is to do nothing to hurt our mighty fossil fuel economy. In a confidential 1998 memo, Exxon’s senior environmental lobbyist, Randy Randol, stated the Orwellian goal of this corporate PR campaign: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; [and when] recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.'”

Defining consensus

The Official Tinfoil-Hat Climate Change Scoffers Club bases its widely publicized position on the repeated contention that there is no consensus among climate scientists that “human activity”… [read more]

Among its gambits and tactics, the oil colossus formed a lobbying combine in 1989 to sow doubt among public officials about the need for government action; placed a very costly, decade-long series of essays in newspapers denigrating the very scientists it had previously nurtured and the science reports it had published; tried to get the government’s chief global warming official to decry the uncertainty of climate research (then, when he refused, got the incoming Bush-Cheney regime to fire him); distorted or mocked scientists who advocated a strong policy to reduce fossil fuel pollution; teamed with the Koch brothers to fund Americans for Prosperity, ALEC, and at least three dozen other national front groups to promote Exxon’s agitprop and disinformation agenda; and turned its CEOs into hucksters of bunkum, including these gems:

“The Earth is cooler today than it was 20 years ago.” — Lee Raymond, Exxon CEO,1997

False. That year was the warmest on record at the time.

“It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.” — Raymond, 1997

Untrue. Earth has been warming steadily ever since Lee spoke, with 2014 the warmest yet, and 2015 certain to top that.

“What if everything we do it turns out that our [climate] models are lousy, and we don’t get the [rising temperatures] we predict?” — Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, 2015

Foolhardy. He is mocking the state-of-the-art climate models Exxon’s own scientists helped develop and which have proven accurate. So, what if we do nothing, and then we do get the extremes? “Solutions will present themselves,” he answered.

If these stupid-as-we-wanna-be denials sound familiar, that’s because they’re exactly the same ones parroted by such Einsteins as The Donald (“I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”), The Cruzer (Climate change is a liberal scheme for “massive government control of the economy and every aspect of our lives.”), and Jeb! (“For the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant…”).

Avoiding the abyss

The deniers are not only on the wrong side of science and history, but also on the wrong side of most voters. A New York Times poll taken last January found that 66 percent of Americans would be more inclined to vote for a 2016 presidential candidate who pledges to curb fossil fuel use to halt global warming. That includes nearly half of Republicans. Only 13 percent (and only 24 percent of Repubs) said they would be more likely to vote for candidates who contend climate change is a hoax. A poll by three GOP firms found that 54 percent of self-described conservative Republicans agree that the climate is changing and 72 percent support greater use of renewable fuels. Moreover, in the 26 states now suing to stop President Obama’s climate action plan to restrict coal for generating electricity, a Yale University survey reveals that 61 percent of their residents actually favor Obama’s policy.

With its obstinate insistence on more excavation of oil, tar sands sludge, coal, and other dirty fuels that were safely contained for eons in the Earth, the industry and its usual coterie of bought-off apologists are turning themselves into fossils. Worse for them, their heavy load of intentional lies, scientific skullduggery, flagrant profiteering, environmental arrogance, and gross endangerment of public health is fast sinking them to the same level of corporate immorality that disgraced the global tobacco giants 40 years ago.

In addition to facing rising anger from the general public, today’s global warming industrialists could also face the specific and costly wrath of their own shareholders, just as the purveyors of cancer-causing tobacco did. As the deadly consequences of climate change are laid at the doorsteps of Exxon, et al, investors will learn that the corporate honchos knew that their practices and products were causing global warming, and that the corporations could face ruinous legal liabilities. Yet they failed to disclose to stock buyers this known risk to the value (and even the viability) of the corporation. Already, New York’s attorney general has launched a sweeping criminal investigation into the possibility that Exxon committed investor fraud.

But the real power–and our great hope–is in the People’s rebellion, which is convening a mass mobilization this month in Paris. Marches, civil disobedience, trainings, and teach-ins will pressure delegates to put people and the planet over corporate profiteering, while also raising global public awareness. Led by 350.org–a freewheeling, grassroots coalition of climate change activists from all around the world–the December action is deliberately called the Road Through Paris, for the quickly growing rebellion will escalate its activism after the event, going on the road in dozens of countries next year. As 350.org puts it, “Politicians aren’t the only ones with power.” So the coalition will be in the streets, on the web, and in every other available forum to rally you and me to save ourselves–and future Earthlings.

Are you still there?

Do something

Join the grassroots action to fight climate change before, during, and after the Paris talks. 350.org coordinates climate-focused campaigns and projects led from the bottom-up by people in 188 countries.

Keep tabs on the latest developments progress and setbacks through independent media such as Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News (insideclimatenews.org) and the Lowdown, of course.

And write your own Letter to the Future! The Letters to the Future Project (letterstothefuture.org) has assembled letters from the likes of Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org), Annie Leonard (Greenpeace), novelist Jane Smiley, Carol Maillard (of Sweet Honey in the Rock), and retired astronaut Stephen Robinson and they’re asking for yours. How do you want our times to be remembered?

I’m making moves!

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