This is a series I’ve posted in from time to time. The point of the title (‘don’t know much about….’) is meant to highlight a subject that I’ve found to be generally misunderstood or not part of the general knowledge of most people. The inspiration for the series was Kenneth C Davis‘ DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY, which attempted to clean up people’s misconceptions about a variety of topics. Past topics I’ve covered here have included gun control, history of the Second Amendment, torture, Reagan’s conviction for war crimes, etc. The topic for today is one of the many pretend-stories that we’re feeding ourselves about climate and warming and the increasing likelihood of our embrace of the E word. News on the weather and climate front is increasingly dire. The story we’re feeding ourselves is sort of an ‘aw shucks’ kinda thing, and it goes like this: Of course nobody knew this was going to happen. Of course we didn’t know we’d have drought and wildfires on this scale from a single degree c of heating. Of COURSE if we’d had scientific evidence ten or twenty years ago, we would have taken action to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Of COURSE we would have been watching the Arctic Ice mass.
This replaces the popular ‘global warming isn’t happening’ narrative. That narrative has been effectively blown up in recent days. The news is bad and getting worse. Grim details are here, among other places (h/t Dr Jeff Masters, Weather Underground).
You can tell that the ‘oops’ narrative isn’t working because there’s been recent ‘retreat’ (if you can call it that) on the GOP side of what passes for a two party system here in the US. A Republican Congressional resolution on addressing man made climate change has garnered a handful of GOP supporters, though it’s notable that the bill’s co-authors are not running for re-election. It’s notably that all the bill’s co-sponsors are from Northern states where the GOP is losing traction. It’s also notable that the bill is merely a resolution affirming that human activity contributes to climate change and endorsing action to respond to the threat of Earth’s changing climate. In other words, authorizing more studies. More industry-friendly ‘debates’. More kicking of a very dented can down a very dark and dangerous road.
But now we know. We know that warming is pushing us to the Sixth Great Extinction. We know Exxon (the world’s largest corporation) knew that climate would change pretty drastically because of increased carbon dioxide output. And we know that Exxon knew these things in 1977-78. An excerpt from an article from Inside Climate News, which pursued an eight-month investigation into Exxon’s internal paperwork on climate research:
(Dr. James)Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience (in 1978–ed). He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.
“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.
His presentations reflected uncertainty running through scientific circles about the details of climate change, such as the role the oceans played in absorbing emissions. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. “Present thinking,” he wrote in the 1978 summary, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”(emphasis mine–ed).
Per this video, Exxon dropped several million into research of climate warming over the five year span ending in 1982. This is part of a PBS Frontline investigation. By the late 1980s the big dogs at Exxon probably knew as much if not more about climate than any other scientific entity in the world. And what did Exxon do with this information?
They evolved a denialist strategy in an effort to keep governments from regulating fossil fuel emissions. “Let’s agree there’s a lot we really don’t know about how climate change will change in the 21st century and beyond,” Lee Raymond, the company’s former chairman and chief executive officer told an audience in a 1997 speech to the World Petroleum Conference.
Actually, no, Lee. Exxon knew in 1982 (as well as could be known absent advanced computer modeling) what climate change would do, and who was responsible for it. And to fight regulation, they enlisted the denizens of PR that had helped the tobacco companies torpedo anti-smoking efforts and action on secondhand smoke.
And I don’t want to single out Exxon in this effort to confuse and manipulate the truth. Thanks to The Guardian (and this post on DailyKos), it has now become clear that Royal Dutch Shell knew the consequences for maintaining the status quo on fossil fuels was extinction level temperatures. An internal document from Shell tells the story:
“Both our (oceans and mountains) scenarios and the IEA New Policies scenario (and our base case energy demand and outlook) do not limit emissions to be consistent with the back-calculated 450 parts per million (Co2 in the atmosphere) 2 degrees C.” Their number was 4-6c, with temperatures at the poles going up 10c. “We also do not see governments taking steps now that are consistent with 2 degrees C scenario.” But just in case governments DID take those steps, you can be sure that Exxon, Shell, etc., would bring out the big guns and make sure there was no implementation of carbon taxes or other mechanisms that could stop the onrushing train.
My Facebook friend climate activist Kevin Hester (who I’ve written about before) addressed the NZ Ministry of the Environment over this issue earlier this year. There’s a link here where he explains the issues. Short take: 6c is sure-fire human extinction. We can run our a/c all we want, but the plants and animals we need in our habitat can’t live in air conditioned comfort, and the c02 generated by all those chillers will hasten global heating. There’s also the increasingly strong possibility that heating is killing all the oxygen-generating plants and phytoplankton. Which directs me to one my favorite memes on here, courtesy of Guy McPherson.
For the better part of three years, I’ve been writing that the people in charge know exactly how f**ked we are and will not tell us. I warned about it here and here. So what do we do? How do we take action now that we have confirmation that the People In Charge knew that we were on a road to disaster and decided to keep that to themselves? What’s worse is that the People in Charge didn’t just look the other way–they greased the wheels for human extinction by covering up information they had at hand. The villains at the Nuremberg Tribunal killed a paltry few million–if the prognostications are correct, the liars at Shell and Exxon will put billions of humans on the Butcher’s Bill.
A shrug and a sigh don’t cover it. Money doesn’t cover it either.
Which brings me to a hero of mine by the name of Petra Kelly.
Co-founder of the German Green party, she took the issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear war and put it on the world’s front page. In 1982 she called for a Nuremberg Tribunal of the Nuclear Powers for planning the war crime of nuclear holocaust. The mood of the world was different then, and the non-nuclear countries were tired of the saber rattling of the US and USSR. Millions of people worldwide joined the subsequent protests, which also had the effect of weakening the hands of those on both sides of the Cold War who seemed bent on a nuclear confrontation.
Thirty years later and the world is on the precipice of runaway global warming and near-term extinction for nearly all of our species. It is clear that the corporate elite of the fossil fuel industry knew that this outcome was not inevitable, but hid the evidence and campaigned against truth. Isn’t it time for the climate movement to hold them responsible?