There’s a phrase you hear over and over in the debates, such as they are, that American chatterers and politicos engage in on the subject of climate change:
“Perpetrating a Fraud“
Here’s the context: a minority of my countrymen have decided, with a moral certainty, that the science and scientists confirming that carbon pollution is heating the planet are not only wrong, but are also maliciously deceitful. I’ve never been exactly clear as to the motive of this fraud (“redistribution of wealth” is another bandied phrase—but it’s still a puzzle why a climate scientist in Europe, for example, would be incited to enrich the Third World at the First’s expense)…but the climate-change deniers insist that what we have here is nothing less than a massive conspiracy to sow fear while picking pockets.
Here then is my question: why are these fraudsters walking free? We are a nation of law and order, and the least among us wouldn’t hesitate to call the authorities if we knew some slick-talker was trying to bamboozle the old lady down the street out of her retirement savings. According to people like Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, climate science is a fraud designed to drain entire national treasuries. If he’s right then it must surely be the largest ongoing criminal conspiracy in history. Doesn’t he have a duty to intervene?
If he did, he’d be in luck. These clumsy conspirators aren’t even trying to hide their culpability. If we’re swearing out international arrest warrants, we can start with this list of hubristic international bunkos:
Christopher B. Field (USA), Vicente R. Barros (Argentina), Michael D. Mastrandrea (USA),
Katharine J. Mach (USA), Mohamed A.-K. Abdrabo (Egypt), W. Neil Adger (UK), Yury A.
Anokhin (Russian Federation), Oleg A. Anisimov (Russian Federation), Douglas J. Arent (USA),
Jonathon Barnett (Australia), Virginia R. Burkett (USA), Rongshuo Cai (China), Monalisa
Chatterjee (USA/India), Stewart J. Cohen (Canada), Wolfgang Cramer (Germany/France),
Purnamita Dasgupta (India), Debra J. Davidson (Canada), Fatima Denton (Gambia), Petra Döll
(Germany), Kirstin Dow (USA), Yasuaki Hijioka (Japan), Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Australia),
Richard G. Jones (UK), Roger N. Jones (Australia), Roger L. Kitching (Australia), R. Sari
Kovats (UK), Patricia Romero Lankao (Mexico), Joan Nymand Larsen (Iceland), Erda Lin
(China), David B. Lobell (USA), Iñigo J. Losada (Spain), Graciela O. Magrin (Argentina), José
A. Marengo (Brazil), Anil Markandya (Spain), Bruce A. McCarl (USA), Roger F. McLean
(Australia), Linda O. Mearns (USA), Guy F. Midgley (South Africa), Nobuo Mimura (Japan),
John F. Morton (UK), Isabelle Niang (Senegal), Ian R. Noble (Australia), Leonard A. Nurse
(Barbados), Karen L. O’Brien (Norway), Taikan Oki (Japan), Lennart Olsson (Sweden), Michael
Oppenheimer (USA), Jonathan T. Overpeck (USA), Joy J. Pereira (Malaysia), Elvira S.
Poloczanska (Australia), John R. Porter (Denmark), Hans-O. Pörtner (Germany), Michael J.
Prather (USA), Roger S. Pulwarty (USA), Andy R. Reisinger (New Zealand), Aromar Revi
(India), Oliver C. Ruppel (Namibia), David E. Satterthwaite (UK), Daniela N. Schmidt (UK),
Josef Settele (Germany), Kirk R. Smith (USA), Dáithí A. Stone (Canada/South Africa/USA),
Avelino G. Suarez (Cuba), Petra Tschakert (USA), Riccardo Valentini (Italy), Alicia Villamizar
(Venezuela), Rachel Warren (UK), Thomas J. Wilbanks (USA), Poh Poh Wong (Singapore),
Alistair Woodward (New Zealand), Gary W. Yohe (USA)
Those are the authors of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s just-released Fifth Assessment Report. It’s grim reading. But as Lamar Smith and others would have it, it’s fraudulent reading. It can be dismissed as a sham, it’s signatories are liars, and those of us who believe it are dangerously naive; and also, probably, unpatriotic.
If I’m unclear on the motives of climate-change fraudsters, I don’t have any such confusion as to the motivation on the other side. Those who deny the overwhelming weight of evidence on this subject are either willfully ignorant, or blatantly greedy.
Greed? Not much needs to be said on that score. All is needed is a little research as to which billionaires and corporations are funding the climate-denial machine.
And willful ignorance? That’s become an existential threat in its own right. Let me be as clear as possible: you may have a right to your own opinion, but your opinion doesn’t compete with the scientific method. The scientific method has created the modern world. Its faults are self-correcting—which is precisely why it works. Your ignorance is both willful and alarming if you feel free to reject the scientific method if and when its findings conflict with what you wish were true, what you want to believe, or the dogma of your religion.
That last point is a huge one, so permit me to drive it home: If your faith forbids you from recognizing and resisting a threat to your species’ existence, when the impact is clearly already upon us, then you’re not a follower of a religion. You’re a member of a suicide cult.
There have always been existential threats. There probably always will be. There have been diseases and cataclysms that have toppled cultures and reduced populations so thoroughly that human repopulation was, in the aftermath, a damned close-run thing. There might one day come a threat we can’t overcome, and that will be that. As near as we can see, that’s just the way of the universe.
But maybe, just maybe, this isn’t that threat. Science has identified it, confirmed it, and if we’re very, very lucky, has shown us ways we might survive it.
I’ll try not exaggerate. The remedies for climate change are expensive and uncertain. We’ve gone past a tipping point where, it seems, our best hopes are mitigation and adaptation. It might not work, and it might not be enough.
But I can’t fathom a world where we wouldn’t at least try. The survival instinct is supposed to be one of our defining characteristics. Another is intelligence—and we should be intelligent enough to realize that any level of mitigation is at least a partial victory, and that transitioning away from fossil-fuel economies is desirable under any circumstances, and that the expenses involved here simply don’t matter. Either we’ll pay them anyway as coasts drown and crops fail, or worse: we’ll reach a stage where money is a memory.
That’s the future we’re headed toward, unless we act and act now. “Existential threat” is a term I use advisedly, and literally. It’s one of the scariest I can think of, except perhaps “climate-change denier.”