This is my first blog post. Because climate change is intensely debated with many dimensions to consider, this discussion turned out quite a bit longer than I’m shooting for in my average post (it takes about 30 minutes to read). However, sometimes important topics can’t be adequately discussed in say, two to three pages. And if we want to be informed citizens when we exercise our voting rights, we need to invest sufficient time to understand important and often intensely debated issues. A healthy democracy depends on this. In this case, and in the future, I hope to synthesize a lot of information so that your overall time commitment to understand an issue is actually reduced. If I can do that, hopefully The Inspired Rationalist earns its way on to your reading list.
One quick note…at the end, I provide a lengthy list of links to supporting data, information, analysis and reporting for those who want to read (even) more, or who want to examine my sources.
More than in any other country (per surveys) Americans question aspects of climate change, though most of us do believe the climate is changing, and that the change is largely the result of human activity. But even for many who believe this, there is little sense of urgency.
The confusion about the science and the risks is not surprising considering the range of views and conflicting information put in front of the American public.
But this confusion is a big problem. Climate change either is or is not a dangerous risk to the planet.
- One side believes climate change is an over-hyped issue (or perhaps not an issue at all) and that attempts to mitigate it dangerously and irresponsibly undermine our ability to grow our economy in ways that benefit the most people.
- The other side believes climate change is real and threatens our planet in ways that will significantly and negatively impact humans and all life. They believe the threat becomes profound in the lifetimes of today’s millennials, and that longer-term scenarios that threaten the existence of our species are quite plausible.
Obviously, one side of this debate is hugely off base. The question is which one, and what the respective implications are for humanity. Clearly the cost of being wrong is potentially enormous. Assessing probabilities, consequences, and risk-reward tradeoffs is central to what I spent my investment career doing for almost 40 years. To that end, this post is intended to help (us) non-scientists get our heads around the question of whether climate change is a serious threat or not. If it is not we should move on and focus on other challenges. If it is, then we are collectively being dangerously complacent.
In addressing the question I’m not going to focus on the details of the science and possible outcomes (but at the end of this article are links to very useful resources on this.) While it is important to understand the science basics (and the next section briefly covers this), none of us non-scientists will become climate change experts by reading a few articles or books. Most of us are simply not qualified to assess the validity of scientific arguments, though it is human nature to have false confidence that we can.
Instead, my approach to figuring this out is to carefully examine who holds what views on the subject. For me, it makes sense to weight the views of people and groups who are credible, intellectually honest, and who have the expertise or the access to experts and resources to have a well-informed and genuinely unbiased opinion. And if there are groups and individuals in on the debate where there are clear reasons to question their motivations or credibility, that also deserves to be weighted accordingly. I am very confident in my ability to make this assessment based on the information that exists, and that is the primary focus of what follows.
What is Climate Change? A Very Brief Overview
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, that accumulate in our atmosphere, keep heat from escaping into space. This heats up the earth’s surface and oceans. These gases are released when we burn coal or oil (fossil fuels). Other things also contribute, like cutting down forests, melting of permafrost, or methane released in cow farts. (It’s true and the size of the cattle population around the world for beef consumption is a sizable contributor to methane release.)
The increase in the earth’s temperature has generally tracked the greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. As we humans continue to emit more greenhouse gases, climate change science predicts there will be more warming and ultimately, potentially in the next century (but increasing problems before then), we could have unbearable levels of heat in many parts of the world, melting ice that leads to rising oceans and the submersion of many coastal cities, difficulties with food production, species extinctions and economic collapse. There would be other impacts, but you get the picture. If the scientists who believe this are right, aggressive action needs to be taken.
In the climate change debate, there are four critical questions:
- Can we confidently say the climate is changing?
- If yes, can we confidently say that human activity plays a material role in the change?
- If yes to both, is the threat to our planet and life on our planet serious and urgent?
- Can we do anything about it?
The following sections examine the people and groups on both sides of the debate, who are largely informing public opinion. Given the magnitude of the stakes, and the ferocity of the debate about climate change, I thought it important to be thorough in presenting information on both sides (and some of you may find certain group’s opinions more compelling):
Who Is Concerned About Climate Change?
The scientific community: It has been represented that there is broad agreement among scientists regarding climate change in general, including the contribution of human activity to it. This conclusion is still challenged. So, I wanted to first examine the evidence to determine if this is in fact the case. If it is true that there is broad agreement, that in and of itself doesn’t guarantee that the science is correct. But it is nonetheless important to understand where those with the greatest expertise on the subject – the community of climate scientists – stand.
As I’ve examined evidence I’ve concluded that a strong consensus does in fact exist. Here is some of the information that lead me to this conclusion:
- In 2016 the non-partisan Pew Research Center surveyed members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and found 93% of members with a Ph.D. in earth sciences say the Earth is warming because of human behavior. Only 1% say there is no evidence. Among all scientists who are members of the association (almost 4,000) the numbers were 87% and 3%.
- The survey confirmed several previous and widely reported analyses of peer-reviewed scientific articles that found that virtually all authors believe human activity is causing climate change.
- Of the earth scientists Pew surveyed, 77% agreed with the statement that “climate change is a very serious problem.” Another 18% said it was a somewhat serious problem. Only 1% said it was not a problem. Among all Ph.D. scientists the numbers were almost identical (77, 17 and 1).
- The International Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the international body that assesses climate change. Thousands of scientists from around the world contribute to their work. The group’s last report in 2013 stated that there is at least 95% certainty that humans have “been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
- Even scientists working at fossil fuel companies have long acknowledged in internal (non-public) documents that “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gasses such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” This quote is from a 1995 primer on climate science commissioned by an oil industry group and led by a scientist at Mobil Oil. Click the link at the end of this article for more detail.
While almost all scientists view climate change as a serious threat to our planet and one that humans significantly contribute to, there is less consensus and certainty on the exact impact to our planet. So, rather than a specific forecast, a range of possible outcomes is identified. But it is important to understand that the uncertainty is mostly about how severe the risk is (not whether it is a serious risk), with a strong likelihood that it will be very severe and threatening to our way of life over the long run. These views are held with “high” to “very high confidence” by the IPCC.
Fortunately, this group also has high confidence that we can mitigate the impact of climate change if we take very significant action quickly and aggressively. Nevertheless, though much of the public professes to believe the science, for many there is not much sense of urgency. The problem seems far off. However, scientists say rising temperatures and sea levels, melting ice and changing weather patterns, etc. are evidence that the effects are already here. Without aggressive action now and in the future, we undermine our ability to mitigate much more severe risks during the lifetimes of my children and future grandchildren (I’m 60) – a time frame many care about.
The identified risks include food security, species extinction, flooding and eventual submergence of coastal cities, collapse of fisheries, reduced freshwater availability that will impact agriculture, and rising health challenges in many regions especially in developing countries.
Besides challenging whether a consensus exists, some who question the science also argue that scientists are influenced by personal political bias, the availability of funding for research, and groupthink. I’m certain that there are individual scientists whose intellectual honesty is compromised for one or more of these reasons. And some scientists exaggerate. However, science is among the most evidence-based professions. It’s hard to imagine that most scientists have materially biased their research. The fact that scientists employed by fossil fuel companies share the views of the majority of climate scientists, also undermines these arguments. (It is also worth mentioning that the idea that certain gases trap heat, and that human activity was raising levels of those gases, dates to the late 1800s and was written about and accepted for many decades before the escalation in warming turned it into a mainstream politically charged issue. This history undermines the notion that the consensus might be driven by current politics or funding.)
Groups who challenge the science also make the point that scientists can be wrong. Probably the most commonly cited example was that there was a consensus in the 1970s that the earth was headed into another ice age – the opposite of warming. I researched this claim and found that only a few scientists raised this concern back then, compared to many more who wrote about warming. (See the link at end for more on this.) Nevertheless, it is fair and true to say that scientists can and will be wrong at times. However, it seems absolutely sensible to rely on the best expert minds, rather than ignore them and allow decisions to be driven by non-experts and/or clearly conflicted groups (e.g. the fossil fuel industry). And the costs of dismissing scientists’ views must be considered.
Bottom line, I find the evidence convincingly supports the conclusion that a strong consensus about climate change exists within the scientific community.
Besides the scientists there are many other noteworthy observers who weigh in on their side:
Widely respected thought leaders: Many credible thought leaders have expressed extreme concern about climate change. Among them, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz (more on Schultz below). Their intellectual sophistication, access to experts and reputation for intellectual honesty add weight to their opinions. Unlike other major issues of public concern, I found there to be a lack of comparably credible independent thought leaders on the other side of the debate.
Republican elder-statesman: At present, most Republican politicians resist the scientific consensus. So, it is notable that a group of highly respected, Republican elder-statesman, who needn’t worry about the next election, are concerned enough about climate change risks to have spoken up and suggested action. George Shultz is one of the most revered and respected Republican elder-statesmen. His reputation for intellectual honesty and clear thinking is unquestioned. He, along with James Baker and other highly respected former Republican cabinet members and senior advisors (Henry Paulson, Martin Feldstein, George Mankiw) have joined the Climate Change Leadership Counsel.
This group of Republican elder-statesmen is proposing a carbon tax to discourage the consumption of fossil fuels and to accelerate the development of alternative energy sources. Shultz, a well-known environmentalist who drives an electric car and runs his home on solar, says this is a prudent insurance policy to protect our planet from possible dangerous climate-change outcomes.
Governments around the world: 195 nations signed on to the Paris Climate Accord. Only Syria and Nicaragua did not (and now the U.S.). Getting so many countries with differing interests and internal politics to agree was remarkable – I can’t think of another example of the world essentially being aligned on an issue. Even though the commitments were voluntary and non-binding this widespread participation reflects the strength of the evidence, the gravity of the threat to our planet, and the understanding that it requires the cooperation of all of humanity. Many countries are making real progress and are ahead of schedule including China and India. The accord was just one step with the intent to continue to build upon it with further commitments over time.
The Pentagon: Our military leaders have long been concerned about the impacts of climate change. These concerns are non-partisan and reflected Pentagon views during Republican and Democratic administrations. After the November 2016 election, a bipartisan group of former military leaders and defense experts delivered a briefing book to the president-elect. The book warned that climate change represents a significant threat to national security. It identified global security risks that could be triggered by climate change including civil conflict, state failure, mass migration and instability in strategically significant areas around the world.
And there is Defense Secretary James Mattis who shared his views at his confirmation hearing. “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today” he said.
Oil Industry: As mentioned, per internal industry documents, oil industry scientists have long believed in climate change and the role of human activity in driving CO2 emissions. When these views were originally discussed at the company level, they were not shared with the public for obvious reasons.
More recently, oil companies are openly acknowledging the science, likely because the scientific case is now so strong that it is difficult to dismiss. For example, this is from Exxon’s website: “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.” Chevron makes a similar statement on its website. Given the long-term implications, some oil companies are even investing in solar and wind, including Total, Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil. Collectively they have invested $15 billion in the last four years.
The broader business community: There is also growing concern within the broader business community. Days after the November election 365 companies wrote to the then president-elect and members of Congress emphasizing their “deep commitment to addressing climate change…Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk…But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness.” The list of companies represented a range of industries and not just those that might benefit from a move to a low-carbon economy. More recently many CEOs reached out to the president to urge him to stay in the Paris agreement (prior to the decision to pull out).
For many businesses, this is self-interest driven by customers and shareholders. People are increasingly aware of how their consumption impacts the environment. And shareholders are increasingly demanding that companies minimize their carbon footprint. Both movements are in their early days. Large companies including Wal-Mart, Google, Microsoft, Apple, GM, Siemens, Coca-Cola, etc. are reducing their carbon footprint and many are targeting to be largely reliant on renewable energy surprisingly soon. This focus will continue with or without government support.
That many large, publicly traded companies want the U.S. government to acknowledge and be a part of the climate change solution also reflects an understanding that it is in our best interests to be part of the discussion, and that government involvement facilitating this shift in energy policy matters. It also suggests that managements are excited about the potential business opportunities. This is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the economic impact.
In summary, each of the groups listed above answers yes to the four questions raised at the beginning of this article. In the case of the oil industry, we can’t say unequivocally that their scientists believe the threat can be mitigated but we can infer that to be the case. We can do so because they warned company management that public awareness of the risk would reduce demand for fossil fuel.
The Other Side: Climate Change is Not a Concern
It is also important to understand the case made by those who disagree with the scientific community, and any potential motivations that could influence their positions. After investigating the people and groups on this side of the climate change debate, along with their message, reasoning and tactics, it became clear to me that most are subject to significant conflicts – I walk through these below. I’ve researched this by examining the anti-climate change case that has been made over a period of years in the media (much of it in op-eds) and in articles and research published by some think tanks. I’ve also examined the work of several journalists documenting the people and funding behind these groups. There are basically three major forces that drive and support the anti-climate change arguments.
Industries directly affected: The fossil fuel and related industries are gravely threatened from any move to materially reduce our reliance on them as our primary energy source. So, just as tobacco companies sought to discredit the science showing the health risk from smoking, it is not surprising the fossil fuel industry would seek to discredit the science behind climate change.
More recently large multinational oil companies have acknowledged climate change science and supported the Paris climate agreement, though behind the scenes many still hope to influence policy in ways that serve their interests rather than the public’s. Much of the fossil fuel industry, particularly refiners and coal companies, continues to spend millions of dollars to fight policies that are harmful to their business, and to confuse the public about climate change.
Resistance to almost everything that is government: A small group of billionaires have funded a methodical, multi-decade anti-government campaign intended to negatively influence the public’s view of government. This group views almost all regulation and government activity as limiting individual freedom. But the extreme form of libertarianism they promote appears self-serving. Its goal is to allow their businesses to operate with few rules while minimizing the taxes they pay, irrespective of the public interest. Fans of small government will be strongly predisposed to be skeptical of climate change risk because fighting climate change will involve some degree of government rules, subsidies, investment, etc. As has been widely reported, the Koch Brothers are the best known and most influential of this group.
Resistance to international cooperation: More recently a growing nationalist movement has gained influence. Believers in nationalism include Steve Bannon, formerly President Trump’s Chief Strategist, who views participation in multinational treaties and agreements such as the Paris climate change accord, as undermining our country’s flexibility to pursue its own interests. This type of nationalism sees little value coming from international cooperation unless it is directly in our narrow economic or security interest. But fighting climate change is clearly a global problem that requires a considerable degree of global cooperation.
There is a lot of overlap across the first two groups and there is a clear record of their funding a multi-decade campaign to advance their interests. It included the founding and/or ongoing financial support of well-known conservative think tanks by a small group of billionaires whose research they often influence (The Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation are two of many examples). Many hundreds of millions are also spent on lobbying and for politicians through super PACs and other organizations. This includes attacks on politicians who don’t agree with them. Support given to academic institutions is also part of a long-term campaign to influence thinking in the legal and business communities.
This strategy dates to the 1970s and was and is focused on stoking public outrage at government interference with the intent of minimizing government’s role, power and ability to regulate business. They also sought to eliminate regulation of political spending. Later, when awareness of climate change threatened fossil fuel related interests, some think tanks also focused on promoting bogus science, writing misleading op-eds and employing spokespersons who regularly appear on TV news shows to create doubt about the science and discredit the scientists and strategies intended to reduce the risks of climate change.
The strategy of creating doubt is not difficult to execute and it is effective. There are few things in science that we can say are true with 100% certainty. It is easy to confuse non-experts by raising questions that point to some uncertainty. In doing so the non-expert can be confused so that even when the overall weight of the evidence overwhelmingly points to a conclusion, they are unable to accept it. The same strategy was employed by big tobacco to create doubt about the cancer risk from smoking. And some of the same scientists and PR firms that big tobacco used have been employed in the same way by those trying to confuse the public about climate change.
Understanding the campaign against climate change is partly informed by identifying the source of the massive amount of money (to the extent possible) that collectively supports: 1) many think tanks with anti-environment agendas, 2) the tiny number of scientists that speak out against the otherwise accepted science, and 3) lobbyists who seek to influence politicians.
The evidence I’ve examined suggests that aided by their anti-government arguments and enormous political spending, this group has successfully influenced public opinion over many years. This has been accomplished partly by infiltrating the conservative media, especially their opinion-oriented coverage which generally shares the anti-government, anti-regulation, pro-business philosophy and has been known to misrepresent research with the intent to distort climate change science and conclusions. I often carefully fact-check certain editorials and have been amazed at the willingness of some to blatantly misstate facts and other’s research, even when points are easily refuted with a little checking.
The Heartland Institute is a think tank example. This is a libertarian group that has been supported by the fossil fuel and tobacco industries, among others. Exxon was a major funder for many years (but reportedly stopped) and the Koch brothers are supporters. Heartland has long argued against science supporting the danger of secondhand smoke and has been all in on climate change denial.
Recently they published a book titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming”. The book was reportedly sent to tens of thousands of high school science teachers. On the Heartland website, the background about the book says, “there is no survey or study showing consensus on the most important scientific issues.” This statement is inconsistent with the Pew survey and academic reviews of all peer-reviewed climate change research. The three co-authors were: Craig Idso, who has a Ph.D. in geography and was the former Director of Environmental Science at the coal company, Peabody Energy. Fred Singer, an Austrian born physicist is also a co-author. As reported in the Merchants of Doubt book and documentary, Singer as one of the scientists who refuted the science on second hand smoke (while he was being paid by tobacco companies) prior to refuting climate change science. Singer is 92. The third co-author is Robert Carter. Carter, was an English paleontologist who retired from James Cook University (New Zealand) 15 years ago, but remained an adjunct professor until 2013. Carter died in January 2016. According to Heartland internal documents that were leaked several years ago, and widely reported on in the media, all three of these scientists were paid a monthly income by Heartland. I find it telling that these scientists were apparently the best this well-funded organization could find to make their case. The same documents disclosed that the institute funds salaries for a team of experts who are working to undermine the UN climate findings.
As the science has become more convincing, the strategy to mislead the public has broadened and now includes warnings that policies are too costly and bad for jobs, attacks on the credibility of and level of consensus among scientists, claims that climate change won’t be so bad and might even be good for the planet, and arguing that climate change is unavoidable so we should accept it and focus on strategies to adapt to it.
I’m not going to take on all these arguments here other than to refer you to points already made and the information in some of the links I’ve included at the end that implicitly and explicitly address them. However, I may address them in a separate post within the next few months.
There are many credible sources that are shining a light on the influence and tactics of the fossil fuel industry and the more extreme anti-government proponents. At the end, I provide a sampling of links to reporting on this issue – particularly the fossil fuel industry’s role.
The Politicization of Climate Change
The politicization of climate change has made it difficult for Republican politicians to publicly express concern about the issue. While millions have been spent on lobbyists by the energy industry and others, and the misinformation campaign has long been a challenge, years earlier the politics were not this polarized. In fact, there were Republicans ranging from John McCain (during his 2008 presidential campaign he ran commercials about the dangers of climate change) to Newt Gingrich (he participated in a commercial with Nancy Pelosi warning about climate change risk – see the link at the end) who expressed belief in and concern about climate change. And more generally, there was a time when the level of concern about climate change was similar for Republicans and Democrats. According to Gallup, in 2000 64% of Republicans worried about climate change (“a fair amount” or more). By 2017 the 64% number had dropped to 40%, a huge decline during a period in which scientific evidence has strengthened. The numbers among Democrats were 78% and 89% respectively.
The Supreme Court Citizens United ruling in 2010 followed by the SpeechNow.org case changed the game. They essentially allowed unlimited spending by corporations and individuals and unleashed millions in spending by the fossil fuel industry and anti-government groups that aggressively targeted Republican candidates who didn’t toe the anti-climate change line, and supported those who did. Conservative think tanks and foundations heavily funded and influenced by this group also played a key role in building and indoctrinating the Tea Party. One objective was to activate climate change denial among this politically engaged segment of the public. This strategy was successful.
One victim was former Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana who publicly voiced concerns about global warming. During a recent interview, he said: “In my own campaign, there were people who felt strongly enough about my views on climate change to use it to help defeat me, and other Republicans are very sensitive to that possibility. So even if they privately believe we ought to do something about it, they’re reticent, especially with the Republican president taking the views he is now taking.” It’s not surprising, but this is an example of how public policy is corrupted by moneyed interests.
The Koch Brothers, reportedly the world’s wealthiest family at about $100 billion, were big players in politicizing this issue. They and multiple organizations they control or influence reportedly spent hundreds of millions on the last election (and prior elections). Their network of political groups reportedly had 1,600 staffers in 35 states. They had teams targeting specific constituencies and their political budget for the 2016 election was reported to be an astonishing $750 million. This all makes their political operation bigger than the Republican party’s. They have created and supported well known think tanks purposed to support their agenda, including a focus on undermining the case for climate change. The Koch’s core business: oil refining and oil pipelines.
The Kochs are advocates of an extreme form of minimalist government, favoring almost no government. Former Koch employees and lobbyists for the Kochs were part of the Trump transition team and/or are now part of the Trump team in the White House. Either directly or indirectly the Kochs have made sizable campaign contributions to many Republican politicians including Vice President Pence and EPA head Scott Pruitt.
The forces fighting against belief in climate change have successfully made deep inroads into conservative politics. The anti-government, anti-regulation, fossil fuel proponents have generally succeeded in snuffing out climate change concern within the Republican Party.
Much has been reported on the Paris climate accord. Listening to the President’s June speech announcing our withdrawal from the accord, I found it to include many misleading and untrue statements. For those interested, at the end, I provide links to two of the many fact checks of the speech (one by Scientific American and one by Vox).
Our backing away from our commitment to the Paris agreement seems to be one factor undermining the United States standing in the world. The action was widely criticized by both friends and foes and in serious foreign media such as The Economist, Der Spiegel and the Financial Times. For example, Martin Wolf, the respected chief economics commentator for the Financial Times (England’s “Wall Street Journal”) wrote in response to Trump’s comment about countries laughing at the U.S. “That’s a paranoid fantasy. The U.S. is the second-largest global emitter of carbon dioxide. Its emissions are 50% larger than the EU’s and its emissions per head are twice those of that block or Japan. Far from being exploited by others, as Mr. Trump suggests, the U.S. emits exorbitantly. American co-operation is not a sufficient condition for management of climate risks. But it is a necessary one. This repudiation is no laughing matter.”
To Wolf’s point, while it is true that China has surpassed the U.S. in annual CO2 emissions, over the long term the U.S. is the country most responsible for cumulative global emissions, and by a wide margin. And we remain number one (by far) in emissions per capita. Given how our country has contributed to the problem, it seems understandable that other countries expect an acknowledgment of responsibility and leadership from the United States. Interestingly, the strong negative global reaction to the U.S. pulling out of the Paris accord, has not been limited to criticism. There has been an increased commitment on the part of many countries, states, cities and public companies to accelerate and expand policies to reduce carbon emissions. So strangely, this action has drawn attention to the issue in a powerful and very helpful way.
Where Are We Now
My views on climate change have evolved over many years. For a time, years ago, I was influenced by the counter arguments – because I was mostly exposed to that point of view. But over time, my views changed as the case became stronger, and as I learned more about it. Exposing myself in an open-minded way to the views and motivations of those who believe it’s a big risk that we can mitigate, and those who argue the opposite, made it impossible for me to honestly remain skeptical. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes once said: “When the facts change I change my mind, what do you do sir?” The evidence strengthened and so did my understanding.
So, after a careful and thorough examination of the issue I’ve concluded that to ignore the risk of climate change one must be willing to: 1) dismiss the impressive group of scientists and others who believe it warrants serious concern and significant action, and 2) favor the counterarguments financed by parties protecting their self-interest, mostly the fossil fuel industry (or those they have influenced). I find it impossible to intellectually justify doing either.
Even if one has doubts about what to believe, it’s irresponsible to ignore the risk. There are risks in life we are willing to take because the negative outcome is not catastrophic. But for risks that are potentially catastrophic, we understand that we must either avoid them, mitigate them, or insure against them. Climate change presents a risk that is potentially catastrophic to the planet. If we ignore it, or play it down, and the scientists are right, our children, grandchildren and generations to come will pay dearly for our inaction.
I would like to make a few brief points about the economics of reducing carbon emissions and the overall fight to mitigate climate change. We are seeing more commentary suggesting that the economic costs of doing so are too high. First, the point must be made that some plausible climate change scenarios are intolerable and therefore we can’t afford to ignore them. But still, it is right to say that energy costs do impact the economy and there the news is encouraging. Clean energy (e.g. wind and solar) is attracting much more investment than fossil fuels partly because costs have dropped to a competitive level. Within a few years this trend is expected to result in renewable energy that is cheaper than traditional fossil fuels. And, industry analysts forecast that because of declining battery costs, electric cars will be cheaper to own than comparable gas powered cars within five to 10 years. While sizable investments will be needed, these are extremely important developments that will undercut some of the concern about the economic impact of the fight to mitigate climate change.
The renewable energy industry is still small but already job growth there is robust. With the renewable sector gaining momentum, it now makes up about a quarter of all energy industry jobs. Solar and wind jobs amount to almost ten times the number of coal miners. California is one example of a thriving and growing economy that also has very tough environmental policies and its success is a counter argument to the notion that we have to choose between jobs and climate-friendly policies. (California’s economy is bigger than the economy of all but five countries and grew faster than all but six states in 2016.)
Please Care About Climate Change and Consider What You Can Do
If you’ve read up to this point, I hope you’ve found this post informative and compelling. Because while many Americans profess to believe the scientists, the issue does not drive many votes and even people who believe seem under informed and complacent. And per surveys, the acceptance of the science is heavily impacted by party affiliation.
The importance of changing this has become clear to me. The strong scientific consensus is that the risks to our planet and all life are serious and that the window of time in which we can mitigate the damage is narrow. Climate change is already affecting temperatures, weather, sea ice, sea levels, food supplies, human health and species. The worst-case outcomes are truly frightening and the middle- and even lower-range outcomes are quite disturbing. But scientists also believe we have a fighting chance to mitigate the consequences in an economically acceptable way, though we can’t fully eliminate them.
Understanding the forces that are at play and the impact on policy makes it clear that it will take the overwhelming support of our citizens driving the private and public sectors to take the action that is needed. Winning will require sacrifices and fighting on many fronts. I believe it is appropriate to view this as comparable to other graves threats that have mobilized us in the past (think WWII) – but we are nowhere near this point of collective clarity and will, partly because of the effectiveness of self-interested parties who are on the other side of the issue.
We can’t afford to collectively be passive observers in this debate. It’s not just skeptics that are a problem. It is also the complacency of those that believe the science but still go on with their lives without much commitment to anything beyond awareness and acknowledgement of the challenge. (I plead guilty to membership in this group until recently.) We must be accurately informed and that information must be a major consideration in our voting – this is one of the most important things we can do. But it is not enough. Beyond this we need to:
- Collectively rise up and express our very strong concern to our representatives – especially if they are Republican. We must be heard for our democracy to work and this is so easy to do. You can reach them through their government website. Calls are better than email. (Also, sign up for your representative’s email updates and consider going to a town hall meeting — I did for the first time recently and it was quite interesting.)
- Raise awareness and concern by talking to each other, informing friends and family. A great deal of money is spent to make the topic uncomfortable precisely to further a narrow and dangerous interest – don’t accept it. (And share this post if you think it’s helpful.)
- If afforable, give to organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Defense Fund.
- Consider our own behavior. There are consumption-oriented things we should know about. Some are easy, some require sacrifice. But we can all do at least some of these things.
Here is a link to I AM STILL IN which supports the Paris agreement. https://iamstillin.org/ It provides ideas about things we can do as individuals.
Here is another article that focuses more on the hard choices (basically: fly less, eat less meat and drive less and/or drive electric): https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/7/14/15963544/climate-change-individual-choices
I also strongly encourage you to learn more. Here are two links that will help you to understand the issue – and particularly the impacts.
This is a primer. It’s a good summary, not too long and an easy read: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/6/1/15724164/9-questions-climate-change-too-embarrassed-to-ask
This is a longish and more detailed discussion about the impacts if we don’t take more action. And a warning, it is quite disturbing, but includes insights we should be aware of. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html
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Background information, sources, some cool reads.
If you want more background supporting most of the above, see below for various links on the issue. These links are not must reads, some are boring and some are interesting and even fun (like the link to the Gingrich climate change commercial). There are a few fascinating reads. The most interesting or important links are highlighted in yellow. Please take a few minutes to peruse this list to see what’s here.
Here is the final draft of the U.S. government’s most recent report on the climate science by scientists from 13 federal agencies (it’s very long): https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/07/climate/document-Draft-of-the-Climate-Science-Special-Report.html?_r=0
And here is a NY Times article about the report: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/07/climate/climate-change-drastic-warming-trump.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront
More background information here from the National Academy of Sciences: http://nas-sites.org/climate-change/summary.html#.WUqu-GjyvD5
And here’s a less comprehensive one from National Geographic Magazine http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/04/seven-things-to-know-about-climate-change/
Here is the link to the Pew Research survey of scientists. The part of climate change starts on page 13 Report-AAAS-Members-Elaboration_FINAL.pdf
Here is the link to the research study of scientific literature on climate change (long and boring) http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024/pdf;jsessionid=7A015E840E382E518E7763C764921E71.c1.iopscience.cld.iop.org
Link explaining narrowly held fears in the 1970s about a coming ice age https://www.skepticalscience.com/ice-age-predictions-in-1970s.htm
Article about James Mattis discussing the security risks from climate change https://www.propublica.org/article/trumps-defense-secretary-cites-climate-change-national-security-challenge
Article about military leaders’ report to president-elect regarding security risks from climate change https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/military-leaders-urge-trump-to-see-climate-as-a-security-threat/
Article on military leaders response to Secretary Mattis’ concerns about climate change https://climateandsecurity.org/2017/03/16/release-u-s-military-leaders-applaud-secretary-mattis-clear-eyed-view-on-climate-change-and-security/
Here is a link to an editorial by George Shultz and James Baker addressing their carbon tax proposal as a means of addressing the risks of climate change. https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-conservative-answer-to-climate-change-1486512334
Recent and interesting Financial Times article on the booming renewable energy industry: https://www.ft.com/content/44ed7e90-3960-11e7-ac89-b01cc67cfeec
Short research announcement from Moody’s stating that wind energy costs have declined so much that increasingly utilities are accelerating the replacement of coal-fired power plants in place of wind energy in the Midwest: https://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-Utilities-increasingly-adding-low-cost-wind-power-to-rate–PR_363547
Fascinating two-part article in the NY Review of Books about the Rockefeller Family Fund’s exposure of ExxonMobil’s long and successful campaign to deceive policy makers and the public about the validity of climate science despite their (Exxon’s) own scientists’ understanding and acceptance of that same science since the late 1970s. John Rockefeller founded Standard Oil. Exxon is a descendant of Standard Oil. Part 1: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/the-rockefeller-family-fund-vs-exxon/ Part 2: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/22/rockefeller-family-fund-takes-on-exxon-mobil/
Here is an editorial discussing Exxon’s communication about climate change including links to other articles, peer reviewed research, and more: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/opinion/exxon-climate-change-.html?ref=opinion
This is a presentation of fossil fuel industry memos that expose aspects of their disinformation campaign to “deliberately sow confusions and block action to address global warming.” It’s long and detailed but very interesting and can be skimmed to get a sense of the industry’s actions. http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/07/The-Climate-Deception-Dossiers.pdf
This is the commercial about climate change featuring Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi6n_-wB154
And here is the McCain commercial from when he was running for president https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEIwVWchh8w
Here is a link to an article on the Ipsos poll that a higher percentage of Americans deny climate change than in any other country. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/climate/2015-paris-climate-talks
Here is a link to a fascinating and eye-opening article about the Koch Brothers from the New Yorker. This article is old, from 2010, but it’s a great introduction to how money has corrupted our politics and the influence of the Koch brothers in particular. It’s a long but amazing read authored by a skilled investigative journalist (she also wrote Dark Money which I strongly recommend): http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations
Here is a link to the Amazon page on the Dark Money book which I highly recommend if you’re interested in understanding the enormous influence of money and a handful of billionaires on our politics and society (it’s a hugely important issue for voters to understand). It is a gripping and disturbing account that is well researched and sourced. There is a specific chapter on climate change. It’s an extremely important book. The author, Jane Mayer, is an award winning investigative reporter for the New Yorker who previously spent 12 years at the Wall Street Journal including as front-page editor. She has covered a variety of topics including money in politics focusing on both conservatives and liberals. https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Money-History-Billionaires-Radical/dp/0307947904/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497632142&sr=1-1&keywords=dark+money
The Merchants of Doubt is a book that exposes the efforts to discredit climate science. It was also made into an interesting and entertaining documentary. Book: https://www.amazon.com/Merchants-Doubt-Handful-Scientists-Obscured/dp/1608193942/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1497632245&sr=8-1&keywords=merchants+of+doubt Documentary: https://www.amazon.com/Merchants-Doubt-Patricia-Callahan/dp/B00YO2IC3W/ref=sr_1_2?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1497632342&sr=1-2&keywords=merchants+of+doubt
This is a link to a listing of some of the organizations and think tanks that have attempted to discredit climate science. Included is information on donations and backing they have received from energy companies (often the Kochs and ExxonMobil): http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/fight-misinformation/global-warming-skeptic.html#.WTiWp2jyvD5
This is a link to an interesting discussion about how scientists think about uncertainty: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/certainty-vs-uncertainty.html#.WUv6n2jyteW
And here is another interesting and useful link to a recent discussion about uncertainties related to climate change: https://www.propublica.org/article/climate-change-uncertainties-bret-stephens-column
Here is the link to Scientific American’s fact-check on Trump’s speech about pulling out of the Paris accord: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/factcheck-shows-trumps-climate-speech-was-full-of-misleading-statements/
And here is one from Vox: https://www.vox.com/a/annotation-trump-paris-climate-agreement-speech-victor