Part 2: In the 1990s and at the turn of the new Millennium, proponents of climate change denial put up a big fight. What were the effects, where do we stand today, and what are our chances in the future? (Go here for Part 1)
The 1990s: The Climate Change Denial Machine Shifts Gears
This decade saw the first and largest gathering of people from around the world determined to reverse the effects of global warming and deforestation. In 1992, 30,000 people from 172 nations met at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro. President George Bush attended with the express intention of putting a kibosh on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” Bush told the gathering of heads of states and representatives of NGOs. That same year, Exxon became a member of the bland-sounding American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which went on to play a key role in undermining action on climate change at the federal and state levels, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
After it became incontestable that global warming was underway, the climate change denial machine shifted gears, concentrating its energies on convincing the public that global warming was natural and not man-made, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In a landmark report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” In 1997, a landmark treaty was signed in Kyoto, Japan that reflected the resolutions that emerged from the Earth Summit.
Industrialized countries agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions five percent by 2008. Developing countries would face no restrictions, but were encouraged to reduce carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was hailed by President Clinton as “environmentally strong.” The US Senate responded by voting 95-0 against the treaty. By 2002, George W. Bush withdrew US support for the Kyoto Protocol, labelling it “fatally flawed” due to exemptions for China and India.
The First Decade of the New Century: Dire Warnings and Billboards
The lack of political will to wean Americans off of fossil fuels did nothing to change the reality of unchecked global warming. Predictions began to emerge with increasing frequency about coming food shortages and extreme weather events. In 2003, a specially commissioned Pentagon report warned that rapid climate change could “potentially destabilize the geo-political environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war” over scarce food, water, and energy supplies. It was authored by two men with ties to corporate America: Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.
As the evidence mounted in favor of the threats posed by greenhouse gas emissions, defenders of the oil industry, led by Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, ratcheted up the rhetoric. In July of 2003, Sen. Inhofe, who chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee, made a long speech on the Senate Floor, declaring that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” He pledged to “expose the most powerful, most highly financed lobby in Washington, the far left environmental extremists.” Inhofe was well rewarded for his efforts. From 2011 to 2015, he received $557,700 in campaign donations from his largest contributor the oil and gas industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which uses data from the Federal Election Commission.
In 2006, An Inconvenient Truth, made the case that global warming was not only real, but man-made, and posed cataclysmic risks. It brought the issue before an international audience and won an Oscar for best documentary film. When former vice president Al Gore called global warming “the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced,” Fox News commentator Glenn Beck responded by comparing Al Gore to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In 2007, Al Gore and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
This prompted Steve Doocy of Fox and Friends to ask this question: “What do Al Gore, Yasser Arafat, and that crazy Jimmy Carter have in common? They all won the Nobel Peace Prize,” chimed in co-host Gretchen Carlson. Doocy, Carlson and Brian Kilmeade went on to review what they identified as “errors” in the film. “And polar bears are all drowning cause they’re out of ice? That’s not true,” declared Kilmeade, to which Doocy replied: “I’m not a scientist. I don’t know if any of that stuff’s true. I don’t think any of us do.”
The phrase, “global warming hysteria” became a favorite of Fox News host David Asman and others.
The increasingly shrill tone of deniers carried a note of desperation. In February 2007, Sen. John McCain of Arizona said that the argument about global warming was “over.” And on February 6, 2007: The New York Times ran On the Climate Change Beat Doubt Gives Way to Certainty. In 2010, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences released the results of a comprehensive study of climate change and made the following statement: “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.”
None of that deterred Inhofe, who released a report in 2010 that included a list of 17 top climate scientists. The report questioned their data and alleged that the scientists might be engaged in “potentially criminal behavior.” Popsci.com, the online news outlet for Popular Science, reported on the underhanded attacks on climate scientists in articles with headlines such as this: Climate Scientists Routinely Face Death Threats, Hate Mail, Nuisance Lawsuits and Political Attacks. How Much Worse Can It Get?
“Inhofe outlines three laws and four regulations that he believes the scientists may have violated, including the Federal False Statements Act—which, the report noted, could be punishable with imprisonment of up to five years.”
And in May of 2010, the Heartland Institute, a front group for the Koch brothers, launched a billboard campaign in Chicago. It featured a photo of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the question: “I still believe in global warming, do you?” The Institute issued a press release and declared that the “most prominent advocates of global warming are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.”
Where We Are Now: Melting Ice And Coastal Cities At Risk
On May 12, 2012, NASA scientist James Hansen wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he warned of the unprecedented dangers posed by exploiting Canada’s tar sand reserves, which amounted to lighting the fuse on a ticking time bomb. Hansen explained that the sands contain “twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history.” Burning oil from tar sands in conjunction with existing oil, gas, and coal supplies would cause carbon dioxide levels to exceed those of the Pliocene era “when the sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.” These heat-trapping gases would “assure” the disintegration of ice sheets, cause sea levels to rise, and “destroy coastal cities.”
By 2014, intelligent investors were making up their own minds. In September, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced its intention to disinvest from fossil fuels just one day before world leaders convened at the UN Climate Summit in New York City. Steven Rockefeller, a trustee, called the move “both a moral and economic decision.” In October of 2015, leaders from companies such as Kellogg’s, General Mills, Nestle, Mars, and others co-signed a letter published as an full-page ad in The Washington Post and Financial Times. In it they warned that climate change poses a threat to the food industry.
On the eve of the Paris summit, a new 134-page study was released. Entitled People and the Planet, it highlighted the rapid and rising levels of consumption. It was authored by the Royal Society, a 352-year-old institution and fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists. The study takes the position that the Earth’s capacity to meet human needs is finite—echoing the findings of the Club of Rome, which warned of a perilous, ongoing global condition brought on by humans using more resources than the planet can replenish.
Back To The Future
When it was published in 1972, Limits to Growth was attacked by critics who interpreted its message as an economic one. But as Randers explains, the Limits to Growth concept refers to the “human ecological footprint” rather than economic growth. “Humanity cannot – in the long run – use more physical resources and generate more emissions every year than nature is capable of supplying in that year,” explains Randers, who went on to write another book, Global Forecast for the Next 50 Years, published in 2012. Furthermore, “the human ecological footprint cannot remain in unsustainable territory for very long. Humanity will have to move back into sustainable territory.” This message, he says, “has not changed since the book came out in 1972.”
Post Paris, climate activist Bill McKibben did not miss a beat before talking about what must be done to make good upon the promise of the Paris climate accord. “You have to start installing solar panels and windmills at a breakneck pace – and all over the world,” he wrote in a December 6 piece in The Guardian entitled Climate Deal: The Pistol Has Fired So Why Aren’t We Running. “The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow.”
Currently, a flurry of proposals are being aired regarding how greenhouse gas emissions can be curbed, including how to develop CO2 capture and storage technology. The notion that new technology can solve the problems created by old technology is appealing but problematic, according to experts who analyze our technosphere. What is the technosphere? Smart machines mostly—computers, phones, cars and more, according to geologist Peter Haff of Duke University who coined the term and views the technosphere as a fast-evolving system that humans have created but can’t control, and which is taking a horrific toll on the biosphere. In the ongoing contest between the technosphere and the biosphere, guess which one is losing? The problem is, of course, that like us, the technosphere exists within the biosphere and depends upon its existence.
As you read this, the entire Greenland ice sheet is melting. Concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached levels unprecedented in 800,000 years. A growing body of scientific evidence tells us that a sixth mass extinction is underway. We’re not talking snails, but vertebrates disappearing at a rate 10 times faster than normal. The Yangtze dolphin and the Costa Rica golden toad are among the casualties. The global demand for water has tripled since the 1950s, but the supply of fresh water has declined. Studies and computer models point to the possibility of serious food shortages by 2040 and a global food crisis by 2050, with social and political unrest to follow.
Climate change is well underway, although half of Americans have yet to be convinced that humans are the cause –a misperception fostered by wealthy climate change deniers who hid vital information, harassed scientists, and misled the public.
Even though the world population growth is slowing and should level off at 10 to 11 billion by mid-century, that’s not going to help us much if the earth is “full” and we have reached what environmental scientist David Tilman calls “maximum Earth density.” “What will life be like on a full Earth?” This is the core question Tilman poses in the introduction to the fall issue of Daedalus Journal.
“Can we provide 11 billion people with a secure supply of nutritious foods?” writes Tilman, a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Is it even possible for so many people to live on Earth without destroying its remaining natural ecosystems?” Probably not. If most or all major ecosystems collapse, further debate will be moot as our species confronts the dire consequences of our failed stewardship of the planet.
You Can Read Part 1 HERE.
Samme Chittum is an award-winning writer who uses the power of narrative to enlighten and effect change. Her work has been published by leading national and international news outlets, including the New York Times. She specializes in writing about health, women’s issues and the environment. As an editor for the Women’s Feature Service, she directed on-site coverage for the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
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