An Open Letter to Vice President Pence
Dear Vice-President Pence:
Thank you for taking note of the "paramount" importance of climate change as an issue for "the left." Too often, folks on "the right" don't recognize this. I understand that you are not sure why this concern exists--so by way of thanks, let me try to explain.
There are four main points that go to the gravity of the situation we face:
- Climate change is real, and is mostly due to human activity.
- Climate change is serious.
- Climate change is urgent.
- Climate change is irreversible.
Let's take these points in turn.
1) Climate change is real.
This may sound a bit banal. But folks on the right often don't grasp this, because they too often limit their information to sources such as Fox News, Breitbart, and 'alt-right' media. Such sources have focused largely on the scientific uncertainty that exists, and not on what actually is known. Folks who have been trained to focus only on uncertainties are naturally not going to be too worried.
They may also tend to ascribe their opponents' view to some sort of "faith". It has thus become a cliche for some that "climate alarmism" is a cult. This quite often extends even to the cartoonish view that "alarmists" are just a group of deluded "believers" duped into "drinking the Koolaid" of a vast New World Order climate conspiracy. Indeed, President Trump himself approached this extreme with his famous but erroneous characterization of climate change as a 'Chinese hoax.'
However, "belief" is a slippery word. One may "believe", as Saint Paul puts it, "through a glass darkly." Or one may "believe" what one sees clearly, in the full sunlight of plain evidence clearly presented.
As it happens, there is massive, credible evidence of the reality of climate change. It is presented in the professional scientific literature, and it is publicly available from many sources. Notably, it is summarized in the five Assessment Reports so far published by the International Panel on Climate Change.
There is no source more authoritative--nor, if one is willing to examine it fairly, less 'cultish.' The conclusion of all this research? Climate change is happening, and is mostly due to human activity--especially the burning of fossil fuel.
These reports are not (as some think) conducted by the UN--the IPCC is an independent, outside body. Nor are they new, original research. Rather, each Assessment Report is a synthesis or summary of what the professional scientific literature says, written by hundreds of scientists working without pay. Each is, quite literally, based upon many thousands of research papers. Each is painstakingly peer-reviewed and subjected to an open comment process. Essentially, each is a snapshot of the state of the science of climate change.
2) Climate change is serious.
The scientific literature, including the Assessment Reports, finds serious consequences. Not all are negative, to be sure; for instance, Canadian and Russian agriculture will benefit from a longer growing season. But existing plants and animals (including us!) are adapted to historic conditions. That adaptation means that the more climate departs from previous norms, the more difficulties those plants and animals will have--the more difficulties we will all have.
These negative consequences include, among other things:
- Decreased productivity of outdoor labor, particularly in the tropics and sub-tropics;
- Increased health threats from invasive diseases;
- A wave of biological extinctions;
- A wave of ecological disruptions, affecting air, water and soil quality;
- Heat waves far beyond what we are accustomed to;
- More frequent and more severe drought;
- More severe and frequent extreme precipitation;
- Continued and accelerating sea level rise.
Quite a few of these consequences are already observable trends today. Put together, they imply a world in which agriculture will be much more difficult, more insecure, and less productive. (Remember that all our food crops were bred for the relatively stable climate we've enjoyed over the last few millennia.)
Unchecked, these consequences would bring us a world poorer, sicker, less secure, and far less productive than today. Humans would struggle against starvation and disease, would be displaced from many places around the world, and would be dogged by high levels of violent civil and military conflict--basically, the antithesis of what any of us would want for ourselves, or for our children.
It is a world hard to imagine, certainly. And it is a deeply unpleasant and disturbing prospect. This naturally tempts us to believe that this world is also impossible. It is a natural psychological defense.
But many historic changes were hard to imagine in advance. The Black Death; the European incursions that devastated pre-Columbian native American populations; the Holocaust; the fall of the Soviet Union; the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa--all these 'unimaginables' happened, regardless of the desires or expectations of those who enjoyed or suffered them.
There is no sign in the available evidence that climate change is any different.
3) Climate change is urgent.
The third thing is that we are now committing ourselves to just such a dystopian future. There are familiar analogies--"One needs a certain amount of time to steer a car out of an impending collision," or "It is much better to stop amassing debt before defaulting on the mortgage." Similarly, it takes time to restructure whole economies and societies upon sustainable lines. Our carbon-dependent world, like the Titanic, cannot turn on a dime. We need time to change.
Unfortunately, the time we have is relatively limited. The scientific literature tells us that there is something called the "carbon budget." That is a shorthand term for the idea that if one wishes to avoid dangerous climate change, one can emit only so much carbon.
Specifically, as of 2016, our remaining carbon budget was 816 gigatonnes. That is, limiting total future emissions to that total would give us a two-thirds chance of avoiding a warming amounting to 2 Celsius degrees. (That's the amount of warming conventionally deemed "sort of safe"--although, increasingly, there is agreement that 1.5 degrees would be much safer.) 2015 global emissions were about 42 GT, which in turn means that if we froze our emissions at 2015 levels, our chances of staying 'sort of safe' would drop below the two-thirds level in approximately 2035.
Put so, it sounds a bit banal, a bit bland, a bit hard to grasp. But one could rephrase it. One could compare climate change to the classic form of the suicide game 'Russian roulette', which uses a six-shot revolver loaded with just one cartridge. In that analogy, by 2035, flat-lined 2015 emissions rates would have us playing "climate roulette" with two cylinders loaded.
But that's just theoretical; in reality, emissions have been increasing. Objects in the crystal ball are closer than they appear.
4) Climate change is irreversible.
This fourth thing is true--but not in an unqualified way. In the geological record, the Earth has passed through both very warm and very cold phases in the deep past--"snowball" and "hothouse" Earths, as they are called.
Given enough time, human-induced warming will again naturally reverse itself. Carbon dioxide in the air will continue to react with rocks as they weather, and the result will be carbon-containing chemicals that erode away, to be deposited in the ocean depths. That carbon will have been "sequestered" away from the climate system. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will decrease.
The trouble is the speed of these processes--or rather, the lack of speed in these processes. It will be as much as 100,000 years before the present carbon 'slug' dissipates. By contrast, all of recorded human history spans just a few thousand years. In humanly meaningful terms, a hundred millennia is an effective eternity. In human terms, though not geological ones, climate change is irreversible.
If climate change is real, serious and urgent, then a rational response is to address it--and doubly so since it is effectively irreversible. Climate change is not inherently an issue for the left or for the right. Historically, Republicans and Democrats have been found on both sides of the issue. Indeed, the first President to campaign on climate change was George H.W. Bush, whose Administration went on to do most of the American negotiation leading to the Kyoto Accord.
But the Republican party today has made itself captive to science deniers in the fossil fuel industry, those who have become the "Merchants of Doubt." Too many seem to believe that the evidence they refuse to look at does not exist. This does not work for fiscal policy, as conservatives have long liked to point out. Debt, they have said, has consequences, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Denial does not work any better for climate change. Regardless of our belief or lack of it, sea ice will continue to decline, animals and plants will continue to migrate toward the poles (or to die in place), and coral reefs will continue to bleach, to the vast detriment of marine ecosystems and local economies. Agriculture will continue to become harder and less certain. Coastal communities will be gradually submerged, or gutted by storm surge. And hungry, displaced people will continue to disturb and disrupt political systems. They'll continue, increasingly, to fight and die.
True, it is difficult to know exactly how bad things could become, and hard to know just when each particular disaster will hit. Some choose to see this uncertainty in a positive light: things may not get that bad, they say. Generals and risk analysts, who are trained to plan for the worst case, see it in another light: if there is no way to be sure of all the details, then there is no way to be sure the damage is contained--or even survivable. The worst possible scenario is to be forced to bet everything on "it might not get that bad."
Some things are certain, or at least as certain as anything ever is. If we continue with business as usual, warming will continue: the world will exceed the degree of warming we have observed to date. It will reach one, two, three, even five degrees Celsius, perhaps during this century. And the warming will not cease there.
But even a few more years of business as usual will commit us to an insecure, impoverished future that we will not like. And since that commitment is not reversible on civilizational timescales, humans will essentially never be able to "go home" to the world we were given--and which we will have defiled. These are the facts. We can choose to look at them, or we can choose to look away.
But given the risk we face and the responsibility we bear, once you do look, the issue becomes "paramount."
Mr. Vice President, will you have the courage to look? Or will you, like poor, terrified Peter at the trial of Jesus, choose denial? His fear was perfectly understandable, and we are assured that God forgave him. One may perhaps wonder if he ever quite forgave himself.