The stakes could not be higher in the debate over global warming. If climate change scientists are right and we fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions, runaway atmospheric temperature increases will wreak havoc on the planet and the lives of our children and grandchildren. If they are wrong, we will have needlessly lost innumerable jobs and access to the cheap and abundant energy available from fossil fuels. How does a concerned citizen find the truth?
We could begin by consulting the scientific community, where the consensus is strong, not only among U.S. government agencies such asNASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense but also in academia and among America’s European and Asian allies. However, this approach fails to persuade some Americans, who suspect the scientists in these organizations are pushing a liberal agenda or seeking more funds for their pet projects.
We might then look to the private sector, where large energy firms such as Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil have staked out a position. There again, however, we find the same result. For example, ExxonMobil’s website bluntly states: “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.” All the oil companies concur. Yet, this too may fail to convince skeptics who fear these corporations are simply accommodating political correctness.
The alternative in an era of extraordinary distrust for authority is to assess the evidence for ourselves. If you investigate the topic you will find that carbon dioxide and methane absorb energy from the sun that would otherwise radiate back into space. You will also find that global temperatures have been rising in lockstep with rising carbon dioxide levels since industrialization took root in the 1880s. Indeed, the planet’s atmosphere today has over 30 percent more carbon dioxide than it did in the 1950s. Rising seas, melting glaciers and dying coral reefs provide their own testimony. More alarming still, global warming could soon become difficult if not impossible to control. For example, since water vapor also traps heat, a warmer Earth means more evaporation and more evaporation begets more warming. Similarly, because snow is highly reflective, less snow leads to more warming, which in turn melts more snow. These feedback effects threaten to take on a life of their own that could eventually prove devastating.
These facts raise a very simple but absolutely crucial question: How could increasing levels of greenhouse gases not produce global warming? If you add more down feathers to your parka it inevitably provides more warmth. That is what we are doing to Earth’s atmosphere on a massive scale, injecting tens of billions of tons of insulating carbon dioxide annually (100 times the amount contributed by all the world’s volcanos each year) into the thin barrier that protects us from the harsh vacuum of space. While the sky may appear endless, the atmosphere is actually so thin that a mere six miles above sea level, at Everest’s summit, it is already too depleted to sustain life. It is therefore not surprising that billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per annum would substantially alter the planet’s atmosphere.
If the data are clear, then why does a political debate continue among laymen and politicians? In part I suspect it is because many Americans first learned of this issue from Al Gore, tainting the science with partisanship at the outset. However, intense lobbying by the fossil fuel industry is largely to blame, much as the tobacco industry once sowed doubt about the links between smoking and cancer. Indeed, the tobacco industry’s efforts were so shockingly successful that two-thirds of all U.S. doctors still doubted smoking caused cancer more than 10 years after the link had been clearly established. Millions died excruciatingly and wholly premature deaths as a result.
Regrettably, the debate over climate change is following a similar trajectory. No sooner did the issue surface than fossil fuel corporations began spending millions to sow doubt and confusion and lobby politicians. In one telling case, an oil industry lobbying group actually sent fraudulent letters to members of Congress on stolen letterheads in an effort to defeat the America Clean Energy and Security Act.
In sum, humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere by more than a third since the 1950s; temperatures have been steadily rising in lockstep the whole time; and there is every reason to believe this pattern will continue if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Most of us purchase fire insurance although the risk is small; strangely, the Trump administration sees no need to address global warming, even though scientists are sounding the alarm and temperatures are steadily rising. Surely the prudent and conservative thing to do is mitigate the risks through reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, conservatives are more likely than liberals to live in rural areas, be employed in farming or ranching and be avid hunters and fishermen. Their livelihoods and lifestyle are clearly at risk.
Over the long haul, science and truth will inevitably prevail, but if this administration reverses recent progress and abandons a U.S. leadership role, then accelerating climate change and incalculable damage may result. Liberals and conservatives alike should insist that the administration address a very simple but crucial question: How could adding tens of billions of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere annually not produce global warming? Isn’t that why they’re called “greenhouse gases”?
If the administration cannot provide a compelling answer to this simple question, then the only responsible course of action is to insist on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while recognizing the need for compassion and assistance for dislocated workers and communities. Elimination of chlorofluorocarbons and the recovery of the ozone layer are proof that we can succeed when we follow the time-honored American recipe of bravely facing the facts and taking action.
Christopher K. Mellon (email@example.com) is chairman of the science committee at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and a private equity investor living in rural Western Pennsylvania. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.