In the fall of what I vaguely remember as 1994 in an exclusive suburb of a ritzy Florida enclave I attended a board meeting of the National Resources Defense Council popularly known as NRDC. It is one of the most prominent environmental groups in the United States and its claim to fame has been the battle to protect the Alaskan wilderness.
It was a rarely temperate evening in the normally unbearable humid climate of Florida. People sat around drinking wine at a reception on the eve of the board meeting. All of the people except for me and the NRDC staff were wealthy white people and the air was filled with erudite conversations.
As the evening wore on and the reception finally broke up some of us walked down a dark road, dimly lit by a half-moon to where we would board a shuttle back to our hotel. On my trek a lanky gentlemen caught up with me and began to ramble on about something called global warming. It was the next big environmental challenge he told me. I listened but did not respond. I had not heard of global warming as such, but knew of climate variability studies from my years at the University of California’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography where I did a brief stent as a work-study grunt. In addition, the Revelle College at UCSD was named for the famed Harvard research professor and co-founder of UCSD who had done much of the original climate change research and was supposedly a mentor to former vice president, Al Gore.
The following morning at the board meeting the hot agenda item was global warming and the strategy that would be developed to convince the public that global warming posed a significant threat to life on earth. No data was cited, there was no scientific presentation that I can recall or explanation of what were the causes and effects of climate change. But it was clear the board members were alarmed and that they had been alerted to their next big environmental cause. I listened, but learned little of substance. I already knew that climate change research had been going on for decades prior to 1994 and that research suggested increased that CO2 emissions from human sources was contributing to a subtle change in climate. In addition, I grew up in Los Angeles as a child when there were still smog alerts and I suffered along with thousands of other children my age whose lungs and eyes burned from hydrocarbon emissions from cars and trucks. It was no news to me that human beings were affecting the environment.
Now, twenty years after the NRDC meeting and nearly fifteen years after the first comprehensive report on climate change, the alarm over global warming has reached a fever pitch. Environmentalists of every stripe, professional and armchair; soccer moms and students, conspiracy theorists and anarchists have all jumped on the global warming/climate change bandwagon heralding the end of the world if something is not done. They are well meaning people, who are committing the greatest treason warned of by T. S. Eliot, which is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
And then there are the climate change deniers, who in what will prove to be one of history’s greatest ironies, are also doing the right thing for the wrong reason. They are challenging the conclusions drawn by climatologist and other scientists. There is nothing wrong with challenging any theory or idea, but climate change deniers are often doing it for political and selfish reasons, not to advance the science. The common thread that joins the climate change deniers and the climate change believers, is that most of them(researchers not included) don’t know what they are talking about. Ask either side to present evidence supporting their case and the best they can do is point to a pundit or report they haven’t even read or understood; or what’s worse they will point to websites often run either by a far right-wing organization or a progressive save-mother-earth group. You will rarely receive a rational, science based explanation from either side.
It is no wonder. The science is mind-bending and complex. I read the original reports released in the late 1990’s, which were supposed to give definitive evidence for global warming. I barely comprehended any of it. What is more, back then, neither did most other scientists. The data involved ice core samples, carbon dating, complex models for ocean currents and models for temperature increases for the next half century. Then, to complicate matters the well meaning environmentalists began to misinterpret the data mostly mistaking ordinary short-term climate fluctuations for the long-term effects of climate change. Every natural disaster became the result of global warming: every hurricane, flood, wildfire and hot summer became the poster child for global warming. Soon people began to joke that every unnatural occurrence, whether climate related or not was caused by global warming: my car won’t start, oops must be global warming; my boy friend left me, oh my God, it must be global warming; the fish aren’t biting, must be climate change.
Yes, I’m being facetious to make a point. And that point is hidden in T.S. Eliot’s fourth temptation of Thomas Becket in his play, Murder in the Cathedral, which I mentioned earlier. The fourth tempter explained to Beckett that all he had to do was nothing but continue down the same path he was on and he would become a martyr. This placed Beckett in a no win situation. It was not his intent to become a martyr, actively seeking martyrdom in Beckett’s mind was the greatest treason, treason against God. Yet, there was nothing else he could do but continue down the same path, which despite his desire to the contrary would lead to martyrdom. In the same way humanity, though not seeking martyrdom, is instead seeking a kind of self-glorification. While on the surface it may seem that climate change activists are seeking to save the earth from destruction, the hidden motivation is to appear to be a concerned and committed citizen willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to bring about change. This is the worse kind of treason. What is the evidence of this sad state of affairs?
The most clear evidence is that few individuals are doing anything to modify their behavior in any significant way to affect climate change. We continue to drive cars and produce more internal combustion engines; we continue to consume products produced from hydrocarbons; developed nations seek to place the bulk of the responsibility on developing nations; in other words we fiddle while Rome burns, while pretending to care. The just concluded climate change summit in Lima, Peru produced no meaningful results. Thankfully, there are exceptions.
A paper, “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C,” (that is 2 degrees centigrade) was published in April 2009 in Nature, the prestigious science journal. It was the work of researchers from Germany, the UK and Switzerland, led by Malte Meinshausen, a climatologist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact. This paper was used by Bill McKibben to communicate to people the math and science behind the urgency to do something about climate change. McKibben founded the group, 350.org and has had great success at educating the public with rock concert style events. McKibben has both done a great service to us all by demonstrating that you can take the complicated mathematical data and models and translate it into language people can understand without losing detail. He has also exposed the kind of treason I have been talking about.
With increased understanding of the data behind climate change activism has more credibility. However, the understanding of the data has done little to change individual behavior, including that of the activist. The focus of activism continues to be on governments and corporations. However, at the end of the day, the governments of the world represent individuals and those individuals are the consumers of the products and services produced by the hydrocarbons and their combustion products that are contributing to climate change. A climate change denier, while a real impediment to solving the world’s climate problems, is in the same boat as a climate change activist who refuses to change his/her behavior by reducing their personal carbon footprint. It’s not enough to rail against corporate greed and government inaction. Activism has to be matched with individual and highly personal actions. It is the only way that significant change comes about.
Treason is betrayal. We are betraying ourselves, the earth, each other and the promise of the future when we simply pontificate about climate change, yet refuse to change our contributing behavior. Activism, global conferences, Facebook rants against evil and greedy corporate entities may on the surface seem like the right them to do, even may be the right thing to do. However, if it is done for the wrong reason, the reason of self-righteousness without self-sacrifice then in the spirit of Thomas Becket’s fourth temptation, it is the greatest treason.
To learn more about the climate change issue and how you can personally make a difference see the following references. You can calculate your own “carbon footprint”, which measures your personal contribution to climate change at the Nature Conservancy website.
A quote from famed philosopher anthropologist, Mary Midgley sums up the situation very well, “Morally as well as physically, there is only one world, and we all have to live in it.” Amen.