This article is related to Anthony Biglan’s new book Rebooting Capitalism: Forging a Society that Works For Everyone.
Jerry Brodsky was a race track tout. After dropping out of graduate school he made his living betting on the horses at Portland Meadows, until, that is, the track burned down and he had to go back to psychology. One day, after the racetrack was rebuilt Jerry took me to the races. I had never been before. Over the course of five or so races, he taught me how to read a racing form, which gives the history of each horse’s finishes, the conditions of the track, and other data. By the sixth race, I was an expert. Jerry picked one horse, but I, with my new knowledge, picked another one. They were off! Jerry who is about six foot five and has a deep bass voice stands up and follows the horses with his binoculars. As they round the far turn, he startles me as he starts yelling loudly. His horse won.
I said, “Jerry, why didn’t you tell me you were that sure.” He said, “I did.” I said, “Yes, but if you had said it the way you were yelling at the end of the race, I would have listened!” That is where we stand with global climate change. They are rounding the far turn and we need to be yelling at the top of our lungs!
Our problem is that although humans are far better at dealing with distant threats to our wellbeing than any other species, compared to the dangers we face as a species, we are lousy at it.
If you feed a rat some food that makes him sick hours later, the rat will avoid that food the next time you offer it to him. Psychologists call this the bait-shy phenomenon. That is one of the very few examples of non-human organisms changing their behavior in light of distant consequences.
Humans, on the other hand, can plan ahead—including planning to avoid disaster. Consider engineering standards. According to Richard Lindeke, a professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, the U.S. Government has created more than 45,000 standards that guide engineers in their work. They provide the rules regarding the materials, procedures, products, and services that engineers need to comply with to build things.
If you are not an engineer, you take for granted that the bridge, elevator, airplane, train, or automobile you use will be safe. The standards have been shaped by the experience of engineers over many years to ensure that failure of the things they design and make will be exceedingly rare. In this sense, the standards are a form of planning ahead.
In the 1620s, when Sweden was still a war-like nation, King Gustavus Adolphus ordered the building of a warship to be used in Sweden’s war with Poland and Lithuania. On August 11, 1628, the Vasa sailed into the Stockholm Harbor on its maiden voyage. As soon as a moderate wind hit its sails, it listed, water flooded in through the lower gun ports, and it promptly sank. The sinking was due to the ship being too narrow, with too much weight on the upper decks. Shipbuilding was not an exact science in those days. But subsequent shipbuilders were careful to not build ships that were so top-heavy. In 1959 the ship was raised from the Stockholm harbor. It can now be viewed at the Vasa Museum.
Many of the standards that engineers have adopted were created because of disasters like the Vasa sinking. After an iceberg sunk the Titanic, they created doubled hulls that would be more likely to survive such a collision.1 Disasters persistently spur engineers to modify their standards. Earthquakes have driven repeated improvements in the design of buildings and lifeline systems such as electric grids so that they will withstand earthquakes.2 Similarly, floods, which account for 80% of declared disasters, prompted the construction of numerous dams, beginning in the 1930s. However, recently it has become clear that flooding can also be reduced and mitigated by not allowing natural barriers, such as coastal wetlands, to be destroyed. Hurricanes have prompted improvements in building design that allow them to withstand higher winds.
So while humans are able to learn from their mistakes, and plan a future that avoids the catastrophes of the past, our future planning is mostly shaped by our past catastrophes. This is what makes the ongoing climate change such a threat to human wellbeing. There is simply no precedent for humans dealing with such a slow-moving, worldwide disaster as we are facing.
The first step in preventing or preparing for any disaster is to develop as accurate predictions as we can of what is likely to happen.3 If you have been ignoring dire predictions about climate change either because it is hard to think about a problem that you don’t feel you can do anything about or because you have heard that the dangers are exaggerated, I ask you to hear me out. Although I am not a climate scientist, I am confident that I have the skills to evaluate the science and reliability of the scientists who have been making predictions.
The Growing Threat of Climate Change
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provides a clear and reliable summary of the ways in which our planet’s climate is changing.4 To begin with the average temperature on earth rose about one degree Fahrenheit during the 20th Century and effects on climate are already visible in the form of melting sea ice and glaciers, the rise in sea level, longer more intense heat waves, and more severe storms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a further temperature rise over the next century of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Figure 7.1 comes from NASA. It shows the level of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere over the past 400,000 years. (The historical estimates come from an analysis of air bubbles trapped in ice.) As you can see, CO2 levels have been increasing dramatically over the past two hundred years. The level exceeded 400 parts per million in 2013 a level considered to be far above the level needed to prevent further climate change. The last time levels were this high, dinosaurs roamed the world and the ocean level was forty feet higher than it is today.5
The consensus among climate scientists is that the earth risks catastrophic climate change if the average temperature of the earth rises more than 3.6 Fahrenheit above its pre-industrial level.6 Here is what is happening and what will happen:
- More and more severe storms. 2017 was a historic year for storms. In the Atlantic, we had ten storms of hurricane force in a row, a record. In terms of damage it was the costliest season on record, at more than $202 billion.7 The total energy of the storms in September of 2017 broke all records. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that over the next 100 years, the frequency of storms in the Atlantic will double.8
- Rising sea level. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,9 sea level has risen 2.6 inches in just twenty years and the rate of increase is rising. The latest estimates for sea level in 2100 range from one foot to 8.2 feet. Nearly 40% of the U.S. population will be affected by rising seas and eight of the ten largest cities in the world are threatened with rising seas. Higher sea levels combined with stronger storms will result in storms unlike anything humans have ever experienced.
- Species extinction. It has been estimated that about 1/6th of the species on the planet will become extinct due to climate change.
- The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reported that wildfires in the United States burned more than twice the area they did in 1970, due to less snow accumulation in mountains, drier summer weather, and hotter summers.
These are only some of the ways in which climate change will alter the human environment for the worse. In the usual way that you would expect from an American, I have focused on the U.S. But indeed the rest of the world will suffer enormously. Already we are seeing people in low lying areas having to move to higher ground. Many islands around the world are facing the fact that their citizens will have to move to other countries. Indonesia announced that it is moving its capital from Jakarta because by 2050 95% North Jakarta will be submerged.10
The Syrian civil war was precipitated by the long drought which drove farmers out of rural areas and into the cities. That led to hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into Europe. That, in turn, is sowing discord and racism in Europe. Many more problems of this sort will occur as millions of people are forced to flee their homes due to climate change or the conflicts that it leads to.
Human societies have evolved under fairly stable climate conditions for thousands of years. We are rapidly approaching conditions unlike any since dinosaurs lived. It is not going to be pretty. I elaborate on the problem in Rebooting Capitalism, where I discuss what we can do about it.
The Role of the Fossil Fuel Industry in Climate Change
It would be hard to overstate the benefits that fossil fuels have provided to human wellbeing in the past 200 years. A huge proportion of the technological developments that have enabled millions of people around the world to escape from poverty are thanks to coal and oil-fired power. Without fossil fuels, we would not have railroads, airplanes, automobiles, or much of our electricity. But the evidence is clear that this boon to human wellbeing has brought with it an unprecedented increase in CO2 in the atmosphere and with it, climate change.
The evolution of the fossil fuel industry has been fairly simple. As technologies such as the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the jet engine, and electricity generators were developed, coal, oil, and gas industries developed to provide the energy to run these engines. These energy providers have been some of the biggest and most lucrative industries over the past 200 years. Google estimated that the combined worth of all fossil fuel companies worldwide in early 2018 was $.4.6 trillion; Exxon Mobil was worth $425 billion making it the second only to Apple in size.
Like any modern corporation, fossil fuel companies have monitored the threats and opportunities for their business and taken steps to ensure the long-term profitability of their companies. Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times disclosed that some of the oil companies had done their own research and confirmed that global warming was occurring and that it was the result of human-caused CO2 emissions. Indeed, Exxon concluded that the melting of ice in the Arctic was likely to make it possible to drill for oil in the arctic and the company began to plan for doing that.
Viewed from the standpoint of the harm that continued use of fossil fuels will do to the planet, the threat to these businesses is huge. The problem for these industries is one of “stranded assets.” Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins11 who are at the Institute for Sustainable Resources at the University College of London have analyzed the fossil fuel reserves and their impact on warming. They estimate that in order to prevent the earth’s mean temperature from exceeding a 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit rise above preindustrial levels that climate scientists warn may cause irreversible and catastrophic damage to the planet, “a third of oil reserves, half of the gas reserves and over 80 percent of current coal reserves” would have to remain unused. This means that if you are a fossil fuel company that owns some of these reserves, the value of your assets become less if you are prevented from selling them. Bloomberg News estimated that the industry stands to lose $33 trillion if they are not allowed to sell the coal, oil, and gas they own.12
In other words, fossil fuel companies have a tremendous incentive to prevent policies that would keep them from selling their assets. We should not be surprised, therefore, that these companies have taken steps to prevent such an outcome. Here is a brief summary of what they have done to protect their investments.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzed internal memos of the fossil fuel industry to assess whether the companies have been trying to keep the public from believing that climate change is happening and that it is due to human behavior. If you have read the last five essays on industries, your reaction will probably be, “Of course they have.”
And indeed, that is what the UCS analysis shows. The report enumerates seven ways in which the industry prevented effective action on climate change. Here is a brief summary.
The industry (ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers among others) secretly funded an aerospace engineer, Wei-Hock Soon to do research on climate change at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The research claimed to show that human emissions were not causing climate change. His research has been widely criticized. Soon did not disclose the sources of his funding. The Smithsonian agreed to not disclose that the research was funded by the fossil fuel industry.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry group supported by the major oil companies developed a plan in 1998 to sow doubt about climate change. One document stated that “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of ‘conventional wisdom’.” The plan included recruiting five scientists to become spokespeople for climate denial; their connection to the industry would, of course, be hidden. The industry also funded an organization called The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. The API has distributed curriculum materials to schools that are designed to sow doubts about climate change. They also facilitated rallies in communities throughout the country that were designed to suggest that there was strong opposition to a carbon tax.
The Western States Petroleum Association, which is a lobbying organization for oil companies in the west created as many as 16 “astroturf” organizations to oppose California and Oregon’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. An “astroturf” organization is one that pretends to be a grassroots organization but is actually created by an industry or political organization that knows that if it directly advocated on an issue, they would have much less influence than a group that seemed to be created by interested citizens. Among the organizations they created was Fed Up at the Pump, the California Drivers Alliance, Californians Against Higher Taxes, and Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy.
The coal industry forged as many as 13 letters to congressional representatives that were purported to be from organizations such as the NAACP and the American Association of University Women. The letters claimed that these organizations opposed a bill that would have reduced the use of coal.
The coal industry also created a front group called the Information Council on the Environment. This group sponsored scientists and ran ad campaigns. The organization was attempting to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)” and to “use a spokesman from the scientific community,” because “technical sources receive the highest overall credibility ratings.” An ad played on the Rush Limbaugh show stated:
Stop panicking! I’m here to tell you that the facts simply don’t jibe with the theory that catastrophic global warming is taking place. Try this fact on for size. Minneapolis has actually gotten colder. So has Albany, New York.13
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a conservative organization that focuses on creating model legislation for conservative policies. They bring together state and federal legislators from all over the country and provide them with model bills and the talking points and advocacy materials needed to help them get passage of the bills. ALEC has taken the position that “the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions” to climate change. The organization has been an effective conduit of fossil fuel industry misinformation about climate change to legislators around the country. This has been one of the most effective ways for the fossil fuel industry to influence policymaking. They have particularly focused on preventing legislation that would reduce carbon emissions. According to the UCS, sixty-five ALEC-sponsored bills were introduced into legislatures between 2013 and 2015.
Many of the oil companies have publicly acknowledged the role of carbon emissions in climate change in recent years. Yet at the same time, they continue to fund ALEC, which as Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google put it, is “just literally lying.”
The UCS analysis of the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation efforts ends with a description of a 1995 document titled “Predicting Future Climate Change: A Primer,” which was written by fossil fuel company scientists. The document, which was intended for industry insiders only, stated: “the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”
Simply put the fossil fuel industry is investing heavily in efforts to prevent any actions that will curtail their ability to market fossil fuels profitably. Like the tobacco industry, they have realized that the credibility of their companies would be undermined if they continued to deny the facts. So many companies have acknowledged that climate change is real. But at the same time, they continue to fight any policies that would prevent carbon emissions. They do this through other organizations such as ALEC, the Information Council on the Environment, and Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy.
- Reduce your carbon footprint. Here are some sources for how you can do that”
- Support policies that increase the cost of fossil fuels, either through cap and trade procedures that slowly increase the cost of these fuels or through an outright increase in the tax on them. In Rebooting Capitalism, I elaborate on how these policies work.
- Support the Green New Deal. It is a carefully thought through a comprehensive approach to the problem.
- Demand more funding for behavioral science research on the problem. As I describe in Rebooting Capitalism, there is far to little behavioral science research being done on how to influence policy adoption and behavior change that would reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions.
- You will find organizations working to prevent climate change at https://climatestore.com/take-action/get-involved/non-profit-organizations-working-on-climate-change. Find ones that you like, give to them, volunteer for them, and get your friends and family to do the same. It will be especially helpful if you work at the local level because every Middlesex village and farm needs to take action. The more communities that are actively involved in this the easier it will become to generate state and national action.
Read the Full “Cultural Evolution of Social Pathologies” Series by Anthony Biglan:
- Introduction by David Sloan Wilson
- How Cigarette Marketing Killed 20 Million People
- The Right to Sell Arms
- How and Why the Food Industry Makes Americans Sick
- Big Pharma and the Death of Americans
- How Free-Market Ideology Resulted in the Great Recession
- The Fossil Fuel Industry: The Greatest Threat to Human Wellbeing
- The Crisis of Capitalism
- Lynch D, Marschall K. Titanic – An Illustrated History. 2nd ed. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton; 1997.
- Cruz AM. Engineering contribution to the field of emergency management. Engineering in Natural Hazards n.d.; https://training.fema.gov/hiedu/docs/emt/engineering%20contribution.pdf. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- Biglan A, Barnes-Holmes Y. Acting in light of the future: How do future-oriented cultural practices evolve and how can we accelerate their evolution? Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. 2015;4(3):184-195.
- NASA. How climate is changing. Effects n.d.; https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- Freedman A. The last time CO2 was this high, humans didn’t exist. 2013; http://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-last-time-co2-was-this-high-humans-didnt-exist-15938. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- PBS. Why 2 degrees Celsius is climate change’s magic number. News Hour 2015; http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/why-2-degrees-celsius-is-climate-changes-magic-number/. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- McNoldy B, Klotzbach P, Samenow J. The Atlantic hurricane season from hell is finally over. Capital Weather Gang 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2017/11/30/the-atlantic-hurricane-season-from-hell-is-finally-over/?utm_term=.518836188338. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- Bender MA, Knutson TR, Tuleya RE, et al. Modeled impact of anthropogenic warming on the frequency of intense Atlantic hurricanes. Science. 2010;327(5964):454.
- NOS. Is sea level rising?: Yes, sea level is rising at an increasing rate. n.d.; https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- Kennedy M. Indonesia Plans To Move Its Capital Out Of Jakarta, A City That’s Sinking. Asia 2019; https://www.npr.org/2019/04/29/718234878/indonesia-plans-to-move-its-capital-out-of-jakarta-a-city-thats-sinking. Accessed May 9, 2019.
- McGlade C, Ekins P. The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C. Nature. 2015;517:187.
- Ryan J. Fossil fuel industry risks losing $33 trillion to climate change. Business 2016; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-11/fossil-fuel-industry-risks-losing-33-trillion-to-climate-change. Accessed October 24, 2018.
- Simmons Advertising Inc. Memorandoum to Rush Limbaugh Show. 1991; 1. Available at: https://research.greenpeaceusa.org/?a=view&d=2949. Accessed October 24, 2018.