Dreaming Big Again Could Help U.S. Confront Climate Change
The U.S. has inspired and influenced millions of people around the world. I am one of them. America is the nation of big ideas like the New Deal, the Marshall Plan and the Fulbright Program. It has showed the world what is possible with vision, commitment and determination. Today, global warming and its impacts call for that kind of vision again.
Almost 60 year ago, I received a generous scholarship and an elite education not possible at the time in my home country, Canada. On Oct. 4, 1957, as I began my senior year at Amherst College in Massachusetts, I was electrified by the Soviet launch of Sputnik. As the satellite passed overhead, its electronic beep reminded us how advanced Soviet technology had become.
In the months that followed, the U.S. sped up its response. America spared no amount of money and effort to blast ahead. Institutions, grants and scholarships were expanded. Even for foreigners like me, opportunities for graduate school, postdoctoral studies and faculty positions opened up. President John F. Kennedy's call for a race to the moon gave America a target.
Look at the results! The U.S. caught up to and overtook the Soviets, becoming the only nation to put astronauts on the moon. The spotlight on science stimulated innovation and led to advances that weren't predicted but are now taken for granted, from 24-hour television news and GPS to cellphones and computer technology. By providing the first pictures of Earth, the "blue marble," from space, the Space Race even inspired the environmental movement.
Now, 60 years later, the U.S. still earns a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes, all because Americans and their leaders dreamed big to meet a challenge. By investing in science and research, Americans made enormous strides, created jobs and spurred long-term economic benefits. Today, American science leads the world, expanding the frontiers of knowledge and providing fuel for ongoing revolutions in telecommunications, medicine and biotechnology.
But scientists do far more than expand technological and economic opportunities; they also increase our knowledge about our home, the biosphere—the air, water, land, photosynthesis and biodiversity—on which our survival and wellbeing depend. For decades, scientists have discovered unexpected consequences of exploding populations, technology, resource exploitation and waste disposal. They are society's sentinels, giving advance notice of unexpected problems or challenges.
Scientists discovered biomagnification, the phenomenon of concentrating molecules up the food chain as described by Rachel Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring. Physicists provided the insights to create atomic bombs and later discovered radioactive fallout, electromagnetic pulses and nuclear winter. Chemists synthesized chlorofluorocarbons that were ideal for aerosol spray cans and later learned of their unanticipated impact on the ozone layer.
More than 150 years ago, scientists discovered the heat-reflecting properties of molecules like carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane, and speculated on the role these greenhouse gases play in maintaining Earth's climate. Like a blanket holding warmth, these gases moderate nocturnal heat loss. In the right balance, they prevent huge daily temperature fluctuations, as occur on Mars, or extreme conditions, such as on cloud-shrouded Venus, where excessive water vapor keeps temperatures above 500 C.
For more than four decades, scientists have warned that human activity is spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than can be reabsorbed, so they are accumulating. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world's largest, most authoritative group of climate experts. Its latest report shows we're already experiencing ever-increasing impacts. If we act quickly, they say, we can better protect food and water supplies, critical infrastructure, security, health, economies and communities, and avoid the increased human displacement, migration and violent conflict that result from such tumultuous upsets. Meeting the challenge will also bring numerous economic benefits, as investing in innovative technology and renewable energy is a healthier long-term plan than relying on increasingly destructive, dwindling and difficult-to-obtain fossil fuels.
Faced with the magnitude and seriousness of global warming, and the tremendous opportunities in addressing it, we need the kind of leadership America is known for. We need an all-out effort as great as or greater than the determination to pull ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race.
America launched my science career, and I'm proud to receive the U.S. National Wildlife Federation's Award for Science in Washington later this month, along with President Bill Clinton, who is receiving the Conservation Award.
The America that set me on my path would never deny the reality of a scientifically proven problem, or claim nothing can be done about it or that meeting the challenge will destroy the economy. By committing to seek solutions, we will reap benefits—expected and unexpected. It's time to revive the American know-how and gung-ho enthusiasm that has long characterized this great nation.
Dr. David Suzuki is a Canadian scientist, writer, broadcaster and activist. Dr. Suzuki is receiving the U.S. National Wildlife Federation Award for Science in Washington, D.C. on April 30.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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