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The American People's War on Climate Change

Our political "leader" is AWOL

December 2017

The greatest hazard the human race has ever faced is the warming climate, and it's not far off, it's immediate. Yet the current US president and government seem to neither understand nor care. The Republican Party, in particular, has been invaded by an anti-scientific pigheadedness that now threatens dire consequences for the entire world. We must act, but how do we motivate a lackadaisical and leaderless American public?
The failure of leadership
When President Obama left office nearly a year ago, the US was engaged in the international effort to avoid a disastrous temperature rise of the Earth's land, seas, and atmosphere as a result of the build-up of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" (mainly carbon dioxide - CO2 - and methane) in the atmosphere. The US had made some progress in switching from coal to cleaner energy sources, though we're still hooked on petroleum and we're still burning far too much coal. President Obama deserves some credit for understanding the problem of our warming climate and involving our institutions in its solution. But the president neglected a vital part of the equation, without which he could not succeed: the American people. In Mr.Obama's go-it-alone style he forgot the most important aspect of fighting global warming – gaining the understanding, support, and participation of the nation.

The role of a leader in a national crisis is to warn, to teach, and to prepare and motivate the people to take the extraordinary and difficult steps which are needed to meet the crisis. A president's tools for this task are immense: the bully pulpit, free access to a largely willing media, pressure on Congress, leadership through our educational institutions, vocal support for organizations already tackling the issue, and motivating corporate and union America to understand the danger and to train their employees and members in this understanding. Through these and other means, the president must enlist and motivate the American people to meet the challenge.

But none of our recent presidents have done this. While Mr.Obama did instruct his administration to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement – which in itself is hopelessly inadequate as a solution to global warming – he also facilitated the enormous increase in US gas and oil extraction through fracking, which lowered the price of oil and increased its use – not the direction we needed to go to beat the climate monster. Where he had the possibility of leaving office with a US civic body motivated by understanding and fear to fight against global warming for the country's survival, he instead left a people confused and uninformed to the degree that they elected as his successor a science-denying populist whose mission was to wipe out the mythical "belief" in climate change that had infested the government, so that we could get back to burning coal ad lib. Of course it's not just Mr.Obama who has failed to motivate the nation in this fight. His predecessor Mr.Bush cared nothing about the problem, and we knew enough about this hazard in the 1990's that Mr.Clinton should have led the fight, but again he did not. (It's hard not to draw a parallel with the crisis of the world's human population growth, which is in itself a primary cause of the climate change, and which American presidents and legislators have been warned of for over a half century without taking the problem seriously.)

Our existential crisis
The warming climate is the number one danger facing the United States. Forget Iran, North Korea, and Russia. They're just nuisances compared with the real enemy, which is ourselves and our lifestyles – the real cause of the crisis. This has been known for several decades – Edward Teller warned of it in 1959, but as it has not been dealt with it has now become an emergency. Our continual failure to meet this emergency will result in destruction of much of our coastal lands and many of our cities, and that will just be the beginning. Our children will experience wholesale climatic changes with heatwaves, droughts, fires, floods and storms the likes of which have not been seen, with spreading of deserts and flooding of lands, and with uncontrolled movement of hundreds of millions of refugees both in the US and around the world, most streaming northward from the tropics, resulting in mass starvation, pandemic, and quite certainly unremitting war. Alarmist? No, this is the sober conclusion of the world's community of scientists.

The latest assessment of climate change was recently released by the US Global Change Research Program, a cooperative venture of thirteen federal agencies, required by law to publish such an assessment quadrennially. The report, Fourth National Climate Assessment, flies directly in the face of the climate-change-denying folly of Mr.Trump and his appointees. It appears that the president was unable to head off this report, which shows his denial and downplaying of the problem to be terribly damaging to the United States. The conclusions of the report support on every point those of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which the Panel and Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. During the decade since then, the problem has grown worse and more intractable. Unfortunately, in this hour of greatest crisis, we find the US government led by a man who has given no indication of the ability or willingness to understand the emergency. If he persists in denying the findings and recommendations of this latest climate assessment, if he continues to lead our government on a course known to be destructive of our nation, this would in my view constitute a sufficiently "high crime or misdemeanor" for Congress to do what they must to right the ship.

The National Climate Assessment (NCA4) concludes, in part:

  • "This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. ...over the next few decades (2021–2050), annual average temperatures are expected to rise by about 2.5°F for the United States,"
  • "The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels." (Fossil fuel burning in 2017 is again the highest in history.)
  • "Human-induced climate change is projected to continue, and it will accelerate significantly if global emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase." (Measured atmospheric CO2 levels in 2017 are again the highest in human history.)
  • "Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise – by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out."

The ancient saying, "Wherever you go, there you are," turns out to be right: we went here with our profligate burning of fossil fuels, and here we are in a crisis entirely of our own making. The problem grows more critical with each day that passes, so how do we, the American people, carry on our war for the survival of our children and our descendants with a government leader who laughs it off? The answer is clear: The American people must look elsewhere for leadership. We cannot succeed without leadership and coordination, yet we must succeed, so we must find the leaders who will guide this national effort forward.

The only way forward
To overcome this emergency, nothing less than the committed involvement of the entire citizenry – putting the country on a war footing, as in 1941 – will avail. Talented and committed leadership will be needed to motivate the American people. With the president absent from this effort,we must have leadership from outside the federal administration. A glimmer of hope developed at the climate talks recently held in Bonn, Germany. There we saw such American political leaders as Governors Jerry Brown and Jay Inslee, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg taking on national leadership roles on the climate issue. Such leadership will be the key to having at least a chance to forestall the disaster that looms over the world.

In addition to political leaders at the state level bringing together the US states that are awake to the severity of the problem, we can only succeed by coordinating and focusing the efforts of the many organizations already active in the climate and environmental fields. Such established groups as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Audobon Society, and more recent groups like Vice President Gore's Climate Reality Project,, and many more must participate. These need to refocus their efforts to carry on an intense campaign of public information and recruitment toward what must be our prime goal: to fundamentally change the life styles of Americans, while at the same time encouraging and supporting a rapid switch to less polluting energy sources. So, how do we start?

Finding leadership
To succeed in motivating the nation, we need political leaders and organizations such as those above to unite their efforts in a national crusade. These should invite leaders in business, science, and communication to join in a summit to plan the actions needed to quickly bring our population to an understanding of the problem. Fortunately, we have many such leaders and superb communicators; I will only mention such names as James Hansen, Bill McKibben, James Strock, Lester Brown, Tom Friedman, and many others. Such a summit would gain nation-wide and world-wide attention and could serve as a spring-board for the heavy lift that must come.

As it turns out, a modest effort has been initiated by governors Brown (CA), Inslee (WA), and Cuomo (NY). These governors announced earlier this year the formation of a United States Climate Alliance (USCA), intending to gather under one umbrella the several US states that will commit to meeting the goals of reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gases laid out in the Paris Agreement, to which the US is signatory. President Trump has, however, announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Agreement. The USCA, advertised as a "bipartisan coalition of states", is a useful beginning, but will need to be refocused if it is to serve as a core organization for the national awakening that is needed to solve the climate problem. So far, the states that have joined the USCA have been, with the exception of Vermont, states with Democratic governors. It appears that most Republican governors have hesitated to diverge from Mr.Trump's climate-change-denying line. Serious effort must be made to bring Republican governors on board, because a one-party, politicized effort won't get it done.

Another issue with the USCA as currently envisioned is its limited aim of meeting the emission goals proposed in the Paris Agreement. Much more than that needs to be done. Climate scientists agree that the Paris goals are entirely inadequate to halt the build-up of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It's a truism that any international agreement that gets 100% concurrence by the nations of the world is sure to be painless, and therefore bootless. The reason nations have struggled over several decades to agree to emission limits is that these are seen to be a brake on economic development, which no nation will commit to. But the Paris Agreement, which lacks any kind of enforcement or even specific guidelines, was seen by many national leaders as an easy way to gain environmental credibility. (In an ironic twist, Mr.Trump's reason for rejecting the Agreement – the fear that it would hinder economic development – is based on the same concern that made the rest of the world's political leaders sign it, as they realized it wouldn't!)

I applaud the governors who launched the USCA, and I hope they can see this effort expanding as a core for our national climate lift. It's the nature of political executives that they need to be concerned about their local economic climate, and so, in the USCA's 2017 Annual Report we read the reassuring words, "Alliance states' economies have grown faster than the rest of the country, and we're continuing to grow as we make progress on our climate change." And yet, in the fight against global warming, actions may be needed, such as reducing fuel-intensive travel, that may hinder rather than support economic growth. Indeed, economic growth has been the engine behind the global warming phenomenon. In any case, a requirement for economic growth (Mr.Trump's sine qua non) cannot be a determining factor if this campaign is to succeed.

It's up to each of us
The actions eventually required by Americans will be uncomfortable – we'll be asked to make do with less use of energy – but much less uncomfortable than the consequences of not acting. My expectation is that to break the climate's warming trend, to actually gain control over the atmospheric level of greenhouse gases, we will need to make fundamental changes both in our electrical power generation, where progress is being made toward use of renewables, and more problematically in our transportation sector, which is now the greatest contributor to CO2 emissions in the US. The US currently lags behind other industrialized countries in shifting away from fossil fuel vehicles. While many countries in Europe are seeing rapid growth in sales and use of electric cars, these are still a rarity on American roads. The internal combustion engine is a device that – just like our bodies – breathes molecular oxygen and puts out CO2, incidentally creating heat which we then use to move things. It's a brilliant device, but a very inefficient and polluting means of creating mechanical energy, and we need to speed up the process of weaning ourselves from our dependence on it.

We will be asked to drive less. Our average gasoline-powered car adds about a pound of CO2 for every mile of driving – we spew out 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline used! We'll also be asked to fly less; lifting your body (and your share of the airplane weight, which comes to 8-10 times your own weight) up to 40,000 feet costs an enormous amount of fuel. To move the 845,000 passengers on US airlines in 2016, the aircraft's jet engines converted more than 17 billion gallons of jet fuel (over 20,000 gallons per passenger trip) into more than 400 million pounds of CO2 exhaust. The take-home lesson is that the next time you take a flight, consider that the cost of getting to where you're going is that you will personally discharge nearly a half million pounds of CO2 directly to the atmosphere. Every other way of getting there – train, bus, boat or car – is far less polluting, and not going is the best contribution you can make.

Our current tragic situation in the US is a result of the failure of our national politics. Our two dominant national political parties failed the country miserably in 2016 in a shameful election cycle, and have spent 2017 in recrimination, internal warfare and pettiness. They have become irrelevant to the solution of our greatest-ever national crisis. Of necessity, the American people must now turn elsewhere; to state politicians, and back to the pioneer spirit of self-help that built the country.

The success of our effort in the US to turn back the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases and save our following generations from a disastrous future will depend on our willingness and ability to organize that effort quickly. Those who understand the problem best tell us that we don't have much time; will we finally listen and do the right thing? It's up to us, and we will be held responsible.

© H. Paul Lillebo

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