Columnist Marty Nathan: It’s not too late

  • Exxon service station signs in Nashville, Tenn., April 25, 2017. The Trump administration has dropped a two-year investigation into how Exxon Mobil Corp. factors climate-change regulations into how it calculates the value of its assets. AP PHOTO/Mark Humphrey

For the Gazette
Published: 10/4/2018 8:22:53 AM

We are standing on ground that is shifting under our feet. We can feel it.

Last week the Washington Post reported on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement by Donald Trump’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) predicting that, if the world continued business-as-usual practices regarding fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth’s temperature would rise by 4 degrees Centigrade (7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times. There has been no dispute that such temperatures would bring at least three feet of sea-level rise that would flood low-lying coast cities like Miami and Boston. It would decimate coral reefs and produce long-lasting, unlivable heat and drought around much of the globe. For starters.

The report does not question that global warming is caused by humans burning coal, oil and gas. It accepts that the Trump administration’s policy to prevent the lowering of tailpipe emissions by cars and light trucks (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards) will contribute to those emissions. (The Post reports that the Trump emissions policy change would put 8 billion tons of extra greenhouse gases in the air, more than a year’s worth of total U.S. emissions.)

Yet this prediction is given in support of not cutting vehicle emissions. Yes, you read that right. Why? Because it just doesn’t matter. The report argues that, unless we make deep cuts in carbon emissions, moves that “would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to substantially move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically practicable,” then the lowering of CAFE standards alone doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Do you follow now? The Trump administration has defied the rest of the world’s (uneven and often insufficient) attempts to cut carbon emissions by pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords devoted to keeping warming less than 2 degrees. It has infused new life into aging, polluting coal plants, allowed drillers to blow off as much methane as they find convenient; and it recently blocked regulations on large refrigerators and air conditioners that would prevent the leaking and venting of a set of organic compounds called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that act as highly potent greenhouse gases. Practically every environmental step this crowd has taken has contributed to the rise of global emissions and temperatures. Those policies were pursued following classic climate change denial: According to this administration, climate change is not occurring and/or not caused by humans.

The NHTSA report, though, lays out a complete reversal, accepting the dire scientific predictions Trump has persistently denied. And concludes that the agency might as well keep on keepin’ on, since it’s too late to change the climate outcome.

I am a doctor and not an English major. I don’t know enough words to capture that kind of venal cynicism.

Instead, I am going to dive into the hope buried in this new, emerging form of climate denial. The fact is that those who previously proclaimed proven science a “hoax” are being forced to change their cover.

Here is the seismic shift. Their shape-change is a mirror image of the transforming attitudes of Americans rapidly coming to grips with the reality of climate change. For more than a decade, we have seen signs of altered climate: Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, California drought, melting sea ice, damaged coral reefs. But over the last year, the magnitude and tempo of the change have increased, making it very difficult to ignore for anyone who watches the nightly news: Harvey and Maria last fall, then this summer’s unquenchable West Coast fires forcing masks on those who would venture outside; scorching heat waves from temperate zones to the far North followed by the unparalleled flooding of Hurricane Florence. Climate chaos was a prediction. Now it is our reality. Would that it were not so.

That recognition is intruding into the average American’s belief system and choices. Finally, it is something to act and vote about. In Northampton and the lower valley, it is a reason not to accept a pipeline system that would expand Columbia Gas’ delivery of climate change-making fuel to our region. Environmentalist volunteers are taking to the phones to tip elections for those who will fight for clean energy.

Besides provoking the “It’s too late!” defense against the necessary radical energy transformation, the heightened climate awareness is promoting a third form of denial, what I call “hoax-light.” Craig Altemose of Better Future Project wrote disparagingly about Gov. Charlie Baker’s and House Speaker Robert Deleo’s rejection last legislative session of a bold Mass Senate energy bill that would have engaged head-on the challenge to quickly ramp up renewable energy to replace outmoded fossil fuels. To them, it appears, the threat is not that bad, and we can wait a few decades more to address it. (Note the frontal assault on the “It’s too late” argument.) Altemose calls the Baker/Deleo approach “just as pernicious and even more widespread” than an overt rejection of the science, but it will kill us just as effectively.

Let’s sum up: 1. Climate change is a massive threat to our world. 2. It is not too late, but we do have limited time to stop polluting and that time is now. Last week U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned leaders gathered in New York, “If we do not change course in the next two years, we risk runaway climate change.”

This is our generation’s great battle, providing us with an opportunity to reshape our society away from both pollution and corporate domination. We must do exactly what the Trump administration says is not feasible, but which is necessary for survival: Change it all from the bottom up. We can, and we will. 

Marty Nathan, MD, is a physician, mother, and grandmother and serves on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She may be reached at

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