Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Decades of Denial and Stalling Have Created a Climate Crunch

Insights + Opinion
Decades of Denial and Stalling Have Created a Climate Crunch
Susan Melkisethian / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In a 1965 speech to members, American Petroleum Institute president Frank Ikard outlined the findings of a report by then-president Lyndon Johnson's Science Advisory Committee, based in part on research the institute conducted in the 1950s.


"The substance of the report is that there is still time to save the world's peoples from the catastrophic consequence of pollution, but time is running out," Ikard said, adding, "One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth's atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts."

Many scientists were reaching similar conclusions, based on a body of evidence that had been growing at least since French mathematician Joseph Fourier described the greenhouse effect in 1824. In the 1950s, Russian climatologist Mikhail Budyko examined how feedback loops amplify human influences on the climate. He published two books, in 1961 and 1962, warning that growing energy use will warm the planet and cause Arctic ice to disappear, creating feedback cycles that would accelerate warming.

The predictions have proven to be accurate, and evidence for human-caused global warming has since become indisputable.

What happened? Over the ensuing decades, the fossil fuel industry didn't try to resolve what it knew would become a crisis. Instead, it worked to downplay and often deny the reality of climate change and to sow doubt and confusion. Knowingly putting humanity—and countless other species—at risk for the sake of profit is an intergenerational crime against humanity, but it's unlikely any perpetrators will face justice.

Still, warnings from researchers worldwide started to sink in. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen told a U.S. congressional committee, "Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming. It is already happening now."

People in the U.S. and elsewhere started to demand action on climate and other environmental challenges. Political leaders from George H.W. Bush in the U.S. to Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. to Brian Mulroney in Canada started jumping on the "green" bandwagon—in word if not always in deed.

Had we heeded early warnings and had political representatives done more than talk, we likely could have addressed the problem with minimal societal disruption. But the industry-funded denial machine, which continues today, has been effective. Concern about climate change and other environmental issues has diminished as the problems have intensified. Politicians continue to think in terms of brief election cycles, focusing on short-term gains from exploiting fossil fuels rather than long-term benefits of conserving energy and shifting to cleaner sources.

Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and carbon sinks like forests and wetlands are still being destroyed. Even if we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow, we've emitted so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we wouldn't be able to avert worsening of the consequences already happening. But we still have time—albeit very little—to ensure the problem doesn't become catastrophic. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is conservative in its estimates, gives us about 12 years to take decisive action.

And yet, some people still deny or downplay the problem, or argue we have to shift slowly, even though they seem reluctant to start what could have been a gradual transition had we started a half-century ago.

Canada, China and Russia are the worst offenders. A report published in Nature Communications ranked the climate plans of various countries and concluded that if the world followed our climate policies, we'd face a catastrophic rise in global average temperature of 5 C by the end of the century. The U.S. and Australia weren't far behind.

We have to do better. Many people, especially politicians, say we can't shift from fossil fuels overnight. That may be true, but if we don't start, we'll never get there. With a federal election less than a year away, it's up to us all to ensure every political party makes climate change its highest priority and has a realistic plan to address it.

This fall brings three new environmental movies. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet | Official Trailer

This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice walk out and rally at the company's headquarters to demand that leaders take action on climate change in Seattle, Washington on Sept. 20, 2019. JASON REDMOND / AFP via Getty Images

The world's largest online retailer is making it slightly easier for customer to make eco-conscious choices.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Moms Clean Air Force members attend a press conference hosted by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) announcing legislation to ban chlorpyrifos on July 25, 2017. Moms Clean Air Force

The Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a risk assessment for toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos Tuesday that downplayed its effects on children's brains and may be the first indication of how the administration's "secret science" policy could impact public health.

Read More Show Less
Evacuees wait to board a bus as they are evacuated by local and state government officials before the arrival of Hurricane Laura on August 26, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Maria Trimarchi and Sarah Gleim

If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.

Read More Show Less
In 'My Octopus Teacher,' Craig Foster becomes fascinated with an octopus and visits her for hundreds of days in a row. Netflix

In his latest documentary, My Octopus Teacher, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster tells a unique story about his friendship and bond with an octopus in a kelp forest in Cape Town, South Africa. It's been labeled "the love story that we need right now" by The Cut.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch