Column: The bill is coming due for our catastrophic failure to address climate change

  • Detroit Free Press illustration -- Rick Nease

For the Valley News
Published: 9/26/2020 10:10:04 PM
Modified: 9/26/2020 10:10:02 PM

An oil filter ad from the 1970s claimed “You can pay me now or pay me later.” The premise was that if you didn’t regularly replace your car’s $6 oil filter, you could face huge repair bills down the road. This describes our situation with climate change. We have kicked that can down the road for decades, and guess what: That big bill is starting to come due.

As predicted by climatologists, severe storms, floods and heat waves worldwide are more frequent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Indicators — five times more often in 2016 than in 1970. Flooding from intense storms has become commonplace. In the past 10 months, we witnessed heat waves, droughts and devastating wildfires in Australia and California. The Golden State’s wildfire “season” is now year-round and includes more “megafires,” as Berkeley Science Review reported last year.

There have been unprecedented wildfires above the Arctic Circle, as tracked by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, the European Union’s Earth observation program, and slash-and-burn farming is destroying the tropical rain forests. Wildfires are a double whammy: They destroy CO2-absorbing trees while releasing stored CO2 from the burning.

Food security is now an issue. Midwestern states have seen more than their share of floods and droughts. A recent derecho windstorm flattened 10 million acres of crops in several states. The Southwest is suffering from a megadrought. With changing climate, plant diseases and pests are on the move and pollinators are disappearing, as are natural enemies of pests.

Prolonged droughts in Central America are sending refugees north to our border, according to a World Bank report. This is not an isolated case: The Migration Policy Institute says refugees worldwide are on the move because of droughts, food insecurity and lack of water.

The warming and acidification of oceans (from absorbed CO2) are threatening the marine food chain, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, and coral reefs, the tropical rain forest of the ocean in the incredible diversity of life they support, are dying. An estimated 1 billion people get their protein from coral reef systems, but already 50% are gone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch. Meanwhile island nations and coastal populations are threatened by storm surges and prodigious high tides.

But easily the most troubling thing that scientists have told us is that the ice caps and the permafrost are melting faster than their models have predicted, permafrost thawing 70 years before expected, as detailed in Geophysical Research Letters, the peer-reviewed scientific journal of geoscience published by the American Geophysical Union.

Thawing permafrost means previously frozen tundra starts to decay, releasing even more greenhouse gases (including methane, 25 times worse than CO2), which sets up a feedback loop. More greenhouse gases means more warming, which accelerates the thawing and creates more greenhouse gases, etc. Will there be an irreversible tipping point? Have we already passed it?

Ditto at the poles. There, ice and snow reflects 85% of the sun’s radiation back into space without serious warming impact. As glaciers, the Greenland ice sheets and Antarctica melt, however, more water and land will be exposed, which will absorb — not reflect — the sun’s radiation. This absorbed radiation is reradiated as infrared radiation (heat), which is absorbed by greenhouse gases and warms the air, melting more ice — another feedback loop, another potentially irreversible tipping point, and sea level rise.

All the above is not a hoax. The last two decades have been the hottest on record, according to both the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

What is a hoax is the continuing denial of the peer-reviewed science of human-caused climate change

The primary source of denial? The fossil fuel industry, whose own scientists described the connection between fossil fuel products and global warming as early as the 1970s. In the 1990s, when the grave consequences of global warming were becoming obvious, the fossil fuel industry chose not to diversify its energy portfolio to make the transition to renewables; instead, it doubled down on fossil fuels. Using the “Tobacco Strategy,” it then systematically misled the American people with disinformation, obfuscation and lies about the science of climate change.

This has all been amply documented in books like Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway and Falter by Bill McKibbon, and in reports like Climate Deception Dossiers and America Misled: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Deliberately Misled Americans About Climate Change by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The fossil fuel industry must be held to account.

What can we do? Here are three suggestions.

First, read Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken. It presents a compendium of ideas, which either you can do yourself or you can advocate for at all levels of government. In the back is a list prioritizing which actions will give us the biggest bang for our bucks.

Second, help defund the fossil fuel industry. You can do this by changing your bank and insurance company if they are heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry. Not only has the fossil fuel industry misled us, but it’s given us the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, oil spills (Mauritius the latest) and the filth and environmental degradation of tar sands. Natural gas has given us fracking, featuring escaped methane, groundwater contamination and earthquakes, as well as gas pipeline leaks and gas explosions. It is time to leave the rest of the fossil fuels in the ground.

Third, we must vote President Donald Trump from office. He has removed us from the Paris Agreement, buried the science, stifled discourse and thrown the entire weight of his office into enabling the fossil fuel industry. Four more years of Trump would be catastrophic.

It is time to stop more fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the recently abandoned Granite Bridge pipeline and prevent the industry from starting new extraction from public lands, including the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. We need a more sustainable energy future. To do otherwise, as former Secretary of State John Kerry stated, is to continue “perhaps the greatest abdication of generational responsibility in history.”

You can pay me now, or you can pay me later. Realize that those who will have to pay later are our children and grandchildren. They are the ones who will have to pay the massive infrastructure, human migration and disaster bills that will come from an increasingly unlivable world.

There is no planet B.

Allan MacDonald, of New London, is a retired middle school science and math teacher. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physical sciences and worked for four years at an Air Force weather station at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.

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