The other day I had an odd conversation. One of my neighbors remarked on the high ocean temperature. “Can you believe it?”
It was a remarkable conversation. Of course I could. Everything that is surprising to many people was predicted by climate science. Those of us who have tried to sound the alarm are all but surprised. If anything, it’s going faster than the scientific community predicted. By their very nature, science reports tend to hedge their predictions. It is the nature of the beast, since the consensus involved tens of thousands of people.
My neighbor is not one that reads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports for breakfast. And no, I am not a trained scientist. My training is actually in intellectual history. To be precise, I did study the smallpox epidemic and vaccination campaigns in New Spain in the 1810s. And there are many parallels from that era to our present condition.
Smallpox is a very infectious disease. The first vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner, a country doctor in England. He observed that nurse maids who tended cows, with cow pox, did not get smallpox. He did not understand the germ theory of disease. That would come decades later. What he knew though, was that these women were not getting sick. He used his powers of observation, and the ability to ask why? This question is critical. He also used what we understand today as the scientific method to come up with a theory. What if the cowpox and the small pox were somewhat related? What if he inoculated people with active cowpox to slow down, or prevent smallpox? He also had volunteers. People who were sickened by the disease and were willing to subject their child to this unproven treatment.
While Jenner did not understand the first thing of how smallpox works, he made a series of inferences. The first vaccine came out of this. It was the first time that humans were able to *prevent* a deadly disease. Incidentally, smallpox no longer exists in the wild. It remains in a couple of bio containment labs in Russia and the United States. If it broke back into the wild, it would spread like wildfire, since the last people to be vaccinated are in their fifties.
So what does this have to do with climate change? It was the reaction by my neighbor to this story. THe conservative establishment of the era, and the church, saw this vaccine as a tool of the devil. And incidentally, it was not just the Catholic Church in its first forays against science. All churches feared this rising secularism, and in the United States some still do.
The common frame of the age was that god punished people with disease. Humans did not have a role to play in this. If god decided to punish you, it was because you were a sinner. The vaccine short circuited this, and took the explanation of why you became sick from these religious forces. In Mexico, during the epidemic, teams of people came to vaccinate the people. It was the first universal public health measure in history as well. The church tried to stop the campaign, with a fear, uncertainty and doubt and campaign. It was nowhere as sophisticated as the Petroleum Institute effort in our days against climate change. And it was mostly a fear (of the devil) effort.
We are in a very similar moment. Climate change is becoming very real to people who don’t follow these climate change reports. In the vaccination campaign there are reports of the Church loosing control of the message. The pro-corporate forces are no longer in control as well. Why? Wild fires are more frequent, and in California we now have an annual season, when we used to have definite months when fire was a real risk. That ocean temperature feels like a bathtub. In San Diego people were used to using wet suits. This may be changing water circulation patters.
Our droughts are becoming more profound. In fact, what is happening is that we are seeing extreme weather all over the world. So when we have a deep winter storm, it is also climate change. Why a better term would be extreme weather…
What was theory that people were told to laugh at, is becoming real. We lost a critical decade, and there are still skeptics in-spite of the evidence. Let’s be clear…
Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences. Compared with string theory and genetic engineering, the “greenhouse effect” — a metaphor dating to the early 1900s — was ancient history, described in any Introduction to Biology textbook. Nor was the basic science especially complicated. It could be reduced to a simple axiom: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, humankind belched increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This FUD campaign took form over the next two decades. At one time the science was not a partisan issue. Nor were the scientists themselves doubted on the issue. In fact, the major oil companies knew about it. These days we are starting the age of lawsuits. The companies, among them Exxon, knew of the damage their product did. Yet, they did all they could to confuse the issue.
So back to my neighbor. This is a person that does not read climate reports. Likely she has not cracked a biology textbook in decades. She is seeing the evidence. She can no longer deny what her eyes are telling her. Can you believe how warm the ocean temperature is? I can. It is no surprise to me. But it is a surprise to many who were victims of a very effective FUD campaign. Like their counterparts in the 19th century they are waking to the power of science.
She is not ready for some of the expected consequences to the world:
- The inundation of coastal cities;
- Increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer and wet regions wetter;
- Unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics;
- Substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions;
- Increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones;
- Irrefercible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.
In the 19th century this struggle in Mexico between church and state led to more than a few civil wars, and the French Intervention. We also saw the rise of positivism by the end of that century, and the kind of separation of church and state that Americans cannot imagine. Positivism is a belief that all valid knowledge is that which can be confirmed with the senses. It puts the scientific method ahead of any other source of knowledge, and by default secularism is critical.
Until a generation ago Mexico did not have diplomatic relations with the Papal state, because Mexico is a secular state. One of the issues before voters this year which was rejected, was the weakening of Mexican secularism. One plank for the right wing candidates was rolling back the 1857 Reform laws.
In Mexico voters said no, in overwhelming ways. Like them we need to fight powerful lobbies, that still rail against Climate Science, and even hold conferences. Among them the heartland Institute and the Petroleum Institute. They are both lying though their teeth. Climate science has consensus. There is no doubt on it. However, if we leave the fossil fuels in the ground, they will be as valuable as Stone Age technology.
Let’s be clear, FUD pays well. Those few scientist who have chosen to work for the peddlers of the oil industry make a very handsome income. If the planet warms beyond four degrees centigrade, it could become uninhabitable, to human beings. It’s not that life itself will go extinct, but it already is going though the sixth mass extinction. We are an apex species. We know from science that apex species do not survive mass extinction events. We believe science could save us. That is part of that positivistic ideology. And it could, but only if we listened to those reports and invested in the mitigation infrastructure we need.
The reaction from my neighbor was not unusual. Most Americans do not read the technical reports, and our media has not served us well. With the penchant of we need balance in reporting, we have given a platform to the likes of the Heartland Institute. Nor have reporters done the job with even a base knowledge of the issue. And those few that did, were called peddlers of doom.
The irony is that we live in a very religious country. One where we have periodic end of the world cults. Yet, an actual possible end of the world is not treated seriously. And the other day I saw a cartoon that fits this. A fundamentalist is telling god that he will save us. God answers, you fool that is why I sent you scientists.