Donald Robinson: Facing up to climate change
ASHFIELD — Lately there has been a terrible hubbub emanating from Washington. Begging pardon, I would like to change the subject.
I realize that, in asking that we pay attention to climate change, I am forcing an issue that appears as number 21 on the public’s list of “top priorities” for the president and Congress to address, according to a recent poll by the Pew Foundation. So be it. Unless we take decisive action, it will soon be too late.
Planet Earth is undergoing a profound change in atmospheric conditions. Geoscientists are practically unanimous in the opinion that human actions, namely the use of fossil fuels, have caused radical changes in the atmosphere, and that time is running out to do something about it. Geoscientists are no longer tentative or defensive about these findings. Two weeks ago they informed us that one critical measure has passed a milestone. There are now 400 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a level not seen on Earth in more than 3 million years.
Carbon dioxide forms a blanket around the Earth. It holds warmth, which is critical to life on our planet. But too much warmth will upset the delicate balance that supports life on this planet. If we are able to reduce carbon dioxide levels to 350 ppm, it will limit temperature increases to 2 degree Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). An increase of that magnitude would not threaten life as we know it. But here is the rub. To restore carbon dioxide to that level (350 ppm), we need to keep 80 percent of the known fossil-fuel reserves on the planet in the ground.
Why would we do that? To keep the Earth habitable for human civilization.
That is what we know. What can we do about it?
First we must counter the massive efforts of the fossil-fuel lobby to sow confusion. The Pew poll contained distressing findings. Asked whether there is “solid evidence” of global warming, 69 percent believes there is (up 12 points since 2009). But when asked whether scientists agree that warming is due to human activity, only 45 percent say yes (down 14 points since 2006). On this latter point, public opinion is simply mistaken.
For those who accept the science, what can we do? As individuals, we can alter our lifestyle. We can turn off the lights when we leave a room, eat bread for breakfast instead of toast. We can ride a bike to work and drive fuel-efficient cars. We can convert to wood pellets to heat our homes. We can install solar panels.
Most of us are investors. We may own stocks or IRAs. We belong to institutions (trade unions, religious organizations, colleges and universities). We can exert pressure on those who manage portfolios. What stand should we take toward these institutions? Is it better for them to divest of stocks in Big Oil? Or should we vote our shares to encourage these companies (Exxon, Chevron, BP) to develop alternative sources of energy?
I serve as a trustee of a small endowment (about $60 million) that considered this question recently. We have a “fiduciary responsibility” to produce funds for our trust, but that is not a severe constraint. We can find profitable corporations that are not involved in fossil fuel production. If we divest, our relatively meager holdings alone will not move these imperial corporations, but as part of a movement, maybe we might have some effect.
The most important thing we can do, as citizens of a democracy, is to demand action by the federal government. Democracies are notoriously poor at taking actions that are costly now but have beneficial effects in the long run. There are a lot of people these days urging the president to “take action” on this issue.
A recent editorial in the New York Times said that the likelihood of congressional action is “nil.” Therefore, said the Times, the president must take administrative action. In particular the Times urged the president to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to issue new rules for coal-burning power plants. But presidents are not dictators. They cannot act without political support. It is really up to us.
Back in the early 1960s, a group of clergymen visited President Kennedy at the White House and politely asked how they could support his efforts to pass civil rights legislation. JFK replied that the best thing they could do for civil rights was to demand that he, and Congress, pass a strong law. They should not try to help him; they should rattle his cage, demanding that he and Congress act against racism.
The U.S. Senate is in the midst of a bruising battle over the confirmation of a new director of the EPA. President Obama has nominated a solid candidate, Gina McCarthy. She has held positions under two Republican governors, including Mitt Romney. She would make it a priority to enforce the Clean Air Act. You and I may be preoccupied with other things, but you can bet that the coal and oil industries are opposing her with every resource at their command. We must beat them on this one.
Those who care about climate change must focus on it like a laser. We have got to insist that politicians make climate control a top priority. Never again will I vote for a presidential or congressional candidate, of either party, who skirts this issue. We must mount campaigns against climate-change deniers (Inhofe, Issa, Sensenbrenner and others). We must make Limbaugh and the talking heads on Fox News pay for laughing Al Gore out of the mainstream.
Above all, we must find ways to keep 80 percent of known fossil-fuel resources in the ground or under the sea. Nothing less will do.
Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at email@example.com.