December 5, 2018

Time To Wake Up: Science’s Latest Warning

As-prepared for delivery

A persistent argument of my climate talks is how corrupt climate denial is, and how malign the fossil fuel industry has been in the politics of climate change.  The premise of that argument is that the fossil fuel industry denial apparatus is wrong about climate change, and knows it is wrong.  That is my case:  the denial apparatus is not only wrong, but knows it is wrong. 

Every once in a while, along comes something that proves my case.

Last week, on the afternoon of Black Friday, the Trump administration released its National Climate Assessment, by 13 federal agencies, describing the monumental damage the United States is facing from climate change.  In more than 1000 pages, the report contradicted nearly every assertion Trump and his fossil-fuel-flunky Cabinet have made about climate change.  Trump’s pro-polluter policies are predicated on lies and nonsense of the fossil fuel industry, and this report is devastating to those policies and those lies. 

So what did the fossil fuel apparatus do to rebut the science?  Nothing!  Instead of engaging with this devastating report, they tried to bury it; timing its release for a day of the year when it would be least likely to get public attention.

Consider the environment in which they backed away from this challenge.  Their industry populates the Trump administration.  The president is in their pocket.  Both Houses of Congress are under their control.  Their phony climate-denial front groups wield more influence than ever. 

The tell here is that, even in this environment, the fossil-fuel industry and its bevy of stooges in the Trump administration did nothing. 


There is only one answer.  Because they know they’re wrong; they know the real science is right.  They know their science denial campaign is phony, so they backed down. 

That is an admission.  It’s an admission by inaction.  It is an admission that even the fossil-fuel industry knows the climate science is irrefutable.

Interestingly, “irrefutable” is just what President Trump and his family said about climate science in this full-page ad they signed in the New York Times in 2009, saying the science of climate change was “irrefutable,” and its consequences would be “catastrophic and irreversible.” 

The new National Climate Assessment, and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, are both very clear. 

Damage from climate change is already occurring. 

There is no credible natural explanation. 

Human activity is the dominant cause. 

Future damage from further warming will be worse than we previously thought. 

Economies will suffer. 

We are almost out of time to prevent the worst consequences of climate change. 

Tough stuff.

As the Trump administration summary states, the “earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.  The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future.”

Which makes sense, since in the history of human civilization the Earth has never seen atmospheric CO2 concentrations like we have today.  Many scientists have said warming of around 3 degrees C is now likely.  What does that mean?

Heating the planet well beyond 2 degrees C would create a “totally different world,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University.  “It would be indescribable, it would turn the world upside down in terms of its climate.  There would be nothing like it in the history of civilization.”  

Here’s what the Trump Climate Assessment chronicles:

From the Ocean State, we note sea levels rising, as oceans warm and land ice melts.  If fossil fuel emissions are not constrained, the report says, “many coastal communities will be transformed by the latter part of this century.”  Along coasts, fisheries, tourism, human health, even public safety are being “transformed, degraded or lost due in part to climate change impacts, particularly sea level rise and higher numbers of extreme weather events.”

Out West, “more frequent and larger wildfires, combined with increasing development at the wildland-urban interface portend increasing risks to property and human life.”  From 2000 to 2016, wildfires have burned at least 3.7 million acres in the U.S. every year but three, and California still smolders today.

More than 100 million people in the U.S. live with poor air quality, and climate change will “worsen existing air pollution levels.”  Increased wildfire smoke heightens respiratory and cardiovascular problems.  With higher temperatures, asthma and hay fever rise.

Groundwater supplies have declined over the last century, and the decrease is accelerating. “Significant changes in water quantity and quality are evident across the country,” the report finds.

Midwest farmers take a big hit: warmer, wetter and more humid conditions from climate change; greater incidence of crop disease, and more pests; worsened conditions for stored grain.  During the growing season, the Midwest will see temperatures climb more than in any other region of the U.S., the report says.  Crop yields will suffer; a warning that is echoed by grain giants like Cargill.

Climate change will “disrupt many areas of life,” the report concludes, hurting the U.S. economy, affecting trade and exacerbating overseas conflicts for our military.  Costs will be high: “With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product of many U.S. states.” 

Unrestrained carbon emissions will deal a brutal blow to U.S. GDP.

Danger warnings already flash in some economic sectors.  Freddie Mac has warned of a coastal property value crash, saying:  “The economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”  The insurance industry trade publication Risk and Insurance warns:  “Continually rising seas will damage coastal residential and commercial property values to the point that property owners will flee those markets in droves, thus precipitating a mortgage value collapse that could equal or exceed the mortgage crisis that rocked the global economy in 2008.”  The leading edge of this may already be upon us, as coastal property values are beginning to lag inland property values, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Separately, come warnings of a “carbon bubble” in fossil fuel markets:  fossil fuel reserves, now claimed as assets, that are not developable in a 2 degrees C world, become “stranded assets.”  A recent economic publication estimated that collapse of the “carbon bubble” would wipe out “around 82% of global coal reserves, 49% of global gas reserves, and 33% of global oil reserves.”  A separate economic review warns that $12 trillion of fossil-fuel industry financial value “could vanish off their balance sheets globally in the form of stranded assets.”  Twelve trillion dollars is over 15 percent of global GDP.  That’s why the Bank of England, as a financial regulator, is warning of this carbon asset bubble as a “systemic economic risk,” which could cascade beyond fossil fuel companies into the global economy.

Such a crash hits the U.S. particularly hard, because lower-cost producers can unload fossil fuel reserves into the collapsing market at fire sale prices; when they do, the economists warn, “regions with higher marginal costs”—like the United States—“lose almost their entire oil and gas industry.”

The solution is to decarbonize, invest more in renewables, and broaden our national energy portfolio away from this asset collapse risk.  One paper concludes “the United States is worse off if it continues to promote fossil fuel production and consumption.”  The other concludes: “If climate policies are implemented early on and in a stable and credible framework, market participants are able to smoothly anticipate the effects.  In this case there would not be any large shock in asset prices and there would be no systemic risk.”

As this graph shows, we’ve got to make a big move to avoid this hazard.  A carbon price (the remedy the fossil fuel industry pretends to support, while sending its political forces out to oppose carbon pricing laws) would allow this big move to happen; all while generating revenues that could be cycled back to states and citizens, and help the hardest-hit areas of transition. 

The smart move we need to make does not have to be painful.  It’s actually a win economically.  Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has testified:  “Retrofitting the global economy for climate change would help to restore aggregate demand and growth.  Climate policies, if well designed and implemented, are consistent with growth, development, and poverty reduction.  The transition to a low-carbon economy is potentially a powerful, attractive, and sustainable growth story, marked by higher resilience, more innovation, more livable cities, robust agriculture, and stronger ecosystems.”

Or we could do it the hard way, with dire economic consequences:  The status quo is not safe. 

Fortune magazine summarized the Trump administration climate report quite beautifully:  “The report catalogs the observed damage and accelerating financial losses projected from a climate now unmoored from a 12,000-year period of relative stability.  The result is that much of what humans have built, and many of the things they are building now, are unsuited to the world as it exists.  And as time goes on, the added cost of living in that world could total hundreds of billions of dollars—annually.”

Which way we now go depends on the Congress of the United States; on whether Congress can put the interests of our people ahead of the interests of the fossil fuel industry.  The record is not good.  Since the Citizens United decision, the politics of climate change is a tale of industry capture and control.  So far, despite the fossil-fuel industry’s obvious conflicts of interest and provable pattern of deception, despite clear warnings from … well, virtually everywhere now, the Republican Party has proven itself incapable of ever telling the fossil fuel industry “no.” 

So it doesn’t look good.  But the climate report does say we still have time—if we act fast.

I’ll close with a reference to “The Gathering Storm”, Winston Churchill’s legendary book about a previous failure to heed warnings.  Churchill quoted a poem, of a train bound for destruction, rushing through the night, the engineer asleep at the controls as disaster looms:

     “Who is in charge of the clattering train? 

       The axles creak, and the couplings strain.

        . . . the pace is hot, and the points are near,

       [but] Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;

       And signals flash through the night in vain.

       Death is in charge of the clattering train!” 

Colleagues, we are that sleeping driver; the signals flash at us, so far in vain; and it’s time to wake up.

I yield the floor.