Our Climate Emergency: A Tale of Three Doubts
A little more than a kiss: how did we end up like this?
In this article, the first of a series of three, GLOBUS Editor-in-Chief Todd Olive will seek to describe the history of climate change science and denial, outlining the three doubts employed by climate sceptics, deniers, and ‘realists’, to slow the environmentalist movement: questioning whether climate change exists, whether humanity is culpable, and whether there is anything that we can do about it.
The concept of the greenhouse effect, the enhanced version of which powers the behemoth that is climate change, has been around since 1824, when French physicist Joseph Fourier wrote: “The temperature [of the Earth] can be augmented by the interposition of the atmosphere, because heat in the state of light finds less resistance in penetrating the air, than in re-passing into the air when converted into non-luminous heat.” (BBC, 2013)
Fourier is, of course, referring to the change that electromagnetic radiation undergoes when it is absorbed and re-absorbed by the Earth: light from the sun, in the form of ultraviolet radiation, is largely either reflected or passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, before it is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. At this point, the light is converted into – as Fourier states – non-luminous heat, in the form of infrared radiation. It is this change that enables greenhouse gases, present throughout the atmosphere, to absorb heat – and, ultimately, is responsible for the greenhouse effect, global warming, and, after many decades, this article.
Nearly forty years later, Irish physicist John Tyndall showed that water vapour and a number of other gases create this so-called ‘greenhouse effect’ described unwittingly by Fourier; leading, ultimately, to the coining of the modern term for ‘greenhouse gases’, a group which includes carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour.
Two revelations in 1896 and 1900 provide the further foundations for the modern climate change movement: two Swedes, Svante Arrhenius and Knut Angstrom, conducted two pieces of landmark independent research. Arrhenius first demonstrates that industrial coal burning, by releasing greenhouse gases, will “enhance the natural greenhouse effect”; Angstrom discovers four years later that carbon dioxide is extremely effective at absorbing parts of the infrared spectrum of electromagnetic radiation: given our knowledge regarding the transformation of incoming light from ultraviolet to infrared, and with the benefit of hindsight, this can be attributed as the first study showing that a trace gas can produce what has become known as the ‘enhanced greenhouse effect’: global warming.
It is, perhaps, the greatest irony of all that, despite all of our advancements, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, all the way back in 1896, predicted what all of our modern-day science has come to conclude: a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration would lead to global temperature increases of several degrees Celsius. If we had listened, one hundred and twenty-three years ago – where would we be now?
Why, indeed, after all of the reports, speeches, conferences, and protests, are we faced with an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concludes:
“Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.” (IPCC, 2018: C.2)
Why, more than one hundred years after the idea of global warming was first conceived, are we only now seeing material action to tackle this, our Climate Emergency?
The answer, it may surprise you, is the tobacco industry.
In a campaign that would not sound dissimilar to critics of President Trump, Philip Morris (at the time the world’s biggest tobacco company) commissioned a public relations company to found and operate – at least initially – a fake bottom-up organisation designed to ‘educate’ the public about ‘over-regulation’ and ‘junk science’. In practice, the objective of this network was to sow doubt among the general public about the accuracy of scientific reports demonstrating a link between passive smoke inhalation and cancer.
A part of the campaign by The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) – the network paid for by Philip Morris – included discrediting other policy areas involving significant public interest and government regulation; among these was biotechnology, nuclear waste disposal, and – you’ve guessed it! – global warming.
And so, the story goes on – with chapters far more intensely horrific and eye-opening than this correspondent could possibly have imagined, prior to reading about them for himself; chapters that this correspondent could not do justice in outlining here. TASSC picked up funding from a more familiar ‘bad guy’, ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, and went on to finance a campaign that, according to Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot (whose book, ‘The Denial Industry’, serves as the source material for this correspondent’s summary of the so-called ‘climate skepticism’ history book) describes as “the main entrepot for almost every kind of climate change denial that has found its way into the mainstream press.” (Monbiot, 2007)
This activities of the TASSC, and its partners, are prime examples of the tale of two of this article’s titular ‘doubts’: seeking to sow doubt about whether climate change exists, and whether it’s our fault. Efforts on these fronts range from denying drastic observable changes in the Earth’s ecosystems, or arguing that these changes are nothing to worry about, all the way to denying that any concrete evidence exists that connect greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities to increasing global temperatures, or any other observed effects of climate change – which will be covered in this correspondent’s next article, to be published on Thursday 10th January. Those who have kept up with this publication’s writings will have observed two of this correspondent’s prior pieces on precisely these ‘doubts’ – ‘Climate Change – From ‘Realism’ to ‘Denial’’ and ‘Climate Realism: Non-Science, or Nonsense?’ – which, if you require any further convincing of their existence or danger, this correspondent would encourage you to refer to.
The third, and perhaps most dangerous form of ‘doubt’, is to question whether we can do anything about this Climate Emergency. Whether by arguing that it’s too expensive to switch away from fossil fuels in developed nations, let alone those requiring cheap energy for growth (it’s not – in either case), or by arguing that it’s too late for us to reduce emissions in time to prevent catastrophic global warming, the key to this form of doubt is presenting climate change as an insurmountable challenge that we have no hope of overcoming.
To some extent – as this correspondent’s next article will demonstrate – it’s true. Humanity has already caused unprecedented changes in the Earth’s ecosystems, from which there may be no going back: a global report in 2018 estimated that humanity has wiped out 60% of vertebrates since 1970, while another analysis estimated that it would take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover (Carrington, 2018).
This correspondent’s key message today, however, is not one of despair: rather, to shine a light on the unexplored or unquestioned. Doubt is, as this correspondent has hopefully begun to show, a key weapon for those who would see the climate movement delayed or dismantled, regardless of their motives – and has, to date, been so critical in diffusing meaningful action against what this correspondent has often argued is the greatest threat that may ever face our world: the Climate Emergency.
BBC. (2013). A brief history of climate change. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15874560 [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
Booker, C. (2018). The UN’s latest mega-panic climate change report is based on pure fantasy. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/10/14/uns-latest-mega-panic-climate-change-report-based-pure-fantasy/ [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
Booker, C. (2018). Sorry BBC. The world isn’t interested in the West’s groupthink obsession with global warming. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/23/sorry-bbc-world-isnt-interested-wests-groupthink-obsession-global/ [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
Carrington, D. (2018). Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds. Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
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Monbiot, G. and Prescott, M. (2007). Heat. London: Penguin, pp.20-43.
Nuccitelli, D. (2013). The 5 stages of climate denial are on display ahead of the IPCC report. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/sep/16/climate-change-contrarians-5-stages-denial [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
Spencer, R. (2013). Climate Change Rebuttal: Evangelical Scientists Correct One Error, Make Others of their Own. [Blog] The Christian Post. Available at: https://www.christianpost.com/news/climate-change-rebuttal-evangelical-scientists-correct-one-error-make-others-of-their-own-104158/ [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].