United Nations

"Planet Earth=The Titanic?"

Metaphorically-speaking, the Earth could be equated with the ill-fated Titanic that sank on April 15,1912, in the North Atlantic. The captain of the doomed ship (read Earth) erroneously believed it was unsinkable (read climate change deniers) and increased its speed; whereupon, it  plowed full steam ahead into an iceberg. A reader might logically conclude that human consumption of fossil fuels is stoking planet Earth's boilers and hurtling it toward a similar perilous fate.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a widely-respected group of over 800 climate scientists, released its most recent IPCC Synthesis Report on climate change that proffers several alarming conclusions. The report highlights that there are "severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts (from climate change)."  It states it is "unequivocal and clear" that humans are the main causes (95%) of global warming, and that the negative effects  will last for thousands of years unless this trend is reversed or stopped.

"Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years,” said Thomas Stocker, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

To achieve the agreed upon goal of  holding the warming under 2º Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and at reasonable costs, emissions should decline by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100. 

The IPCC reports draw on the many years of work by the scientific community investigating climate change, of which 97% of the scientists believe that climate change is occurring. Sixty-seven percent of the American public, in a recent Pew Survey, believe that the climate is warming, but only 44% believe it is caused by human activity.

Regardless  of whether people believe that climate change is man-made or natural, there are several irrefutable facts that need to be considered: 

--As oceans rise by a minimum of 1 to 4 feet by 2100, low-lying areas will have to confront how to keep the saltwater from invading their fresh water supplies and rising seas from destroying houses and other physical infrastructures. If action is not taken soon, it is argued, then the problems will be more difficult and expensive to deal with in 20 or 30 years, costing trillions of dollars rather than billions. How does Miami-Dade County cope when large parts of it are underwater by 2048?

--Even if someone did not believe in climate change or has never read a scientific study, it would be difficult  to ignore that there are many negative climatic events. Some of the most noticeable ones are declining food production, more frequent and violent storms, erratic weather patterns, acidification of oceans, droughts, bleaching of reefs and a dramatic carbon buildup that contributes to the Greenhouse Effect. 

--If one viewed a photo of a glacier from 1950 and compared it to a photo today, that glacier will be 50-80% smaller than the earlier one. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. What will happen to the indigenous people in Bolivia on the Altiplano when the glaciers disappear and their water supply is gone? What will Bangladesh, the most densely over-populated country in the world, do when 20% of its current landmass is under water due to rising sea levels? 

Even as many policymakers have been slow to move on climate change, there are some hopeful signs:

1) Clean energy sources are moving to center stage in many areas: Denmark is striving to eliminate ALL fossil fuel use by 2050; Germany, a country not known for abundant sunshine, set a goal of 40% of its power from solar; China, which along with India has some of the most polluted cities in the world, is investing heavily in solar energy, which makes it a favorite to experience a breakthrough in inventing, producing and selling solar technology worldwide.

As of November 2013, the solar industry has expanded to 142,698 solar workers, which is almost 20 percent greater than the 2012 solar jobs figures and over ten times the growth that the overall U.S. economy experienced during the same period. Most of these positions are higher-paying jobs of around $24.00/hour. As coal jobs disappear, would it be more logical to build solar plants in East Kentucky and re-train the miners--who are eventually going to be unemployed as coal production and jobs decline?

2) The TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline legislation recently lost a procedural vote in the US Senate 59-41 (60 votes needed). Undoubtedly, this legislation will be revived in January; however, it may be a moot issue for three reasons: leaders of the  Rosebud Sioux Tribe said "they were willing to die" to make sure no pipeline crosses their sovereign reservation and an environmental disaster does not occur; as oil prices plummet, analysts predict that a $65.00 barrel of oil price makes the tar sands oil  unprofitable, given that the peanut butter type sludge is labor and capital intensive to extract; and, President Obama may likely veto the legislation.

3) The landmark agreement between Chinese President Xi Jinping and USA President Barack Obama,  heads of the two largest carbon and greenhouse polluters, is a major agreement. Although it has modest goals  to reduce greenhouse emissions, it is the first time China has signed on to specific reductions. Symbolically it is earth-shattering since China and the US account for 45% of global carbon emissions. Even more importantly, it may goad India, the third largest polluter, to engage more seriously in climate change discussions.

Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to create a 50,000-strong “solar army” to expand India’s solar capabilities, India has  increased its coal power capacity by 73 percent, and it plans to double domestic coal production to one billion tons a year by 2019, which is a potential environmental disaster.  

4) Although many fossil fuel companies earn billions of dollars in profit, taxpayers of the world subsidize them to the tune of $600 billion per year; whereas, renewable energy receives only $100 billion. More questions are being raised as to why these profitable entities should  be subsidized? If that $600 billion were re-directed to renewables and to offset any utility price increases for lower-income people, the carbon footprint would be reduced dramatically. 

On September 21 in New York City, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the largest gathering ever in the United States demanding action  to halt the advance of global climate change by stating that there is no “Plan B” because  there is no “Planet B.” Curiously, most media outlets reported the gathering as "tens of thousands" which projects a drastically different picture from the actual 410,000 marchers. 

Right-wing talk radio, Fox News  and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) are three of the major purveyors of misinformation and disinformation about climate change. When the IPCC report was issued, the WSJ did a two-page piece on how the science was not settled about this issue, fallaciously arguing that the knowledge was unavailable to make good policy. The science is settled and the knowledge is available, which is why most climate scientists will not give credibility to the deniers, many of whom receive funding from the fossil fuel industries. Debating deniers would be about as productive as engaging a Flat Earth Society advocate. 

Even the New York Times, which effectively covers much of the global warming issue, buried the IPCC story on Page 8. An issue of this magnitude should be on the front page seven days a week. There should be an open, objective, scientific discussion as to what causes climate change, how it affects the 7.2 billion people on Earth and what can be done to combat it--not the unsubstantiated charge that it does not exist.

The true litmus test of whether the political and financial will of the 193 member states of the UN General Assembly to commit to reducing global warming will be at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December of 2015. World leaders must, if they have any hope of succeeding, commit to a binding and universal agreement on climate change targets and specific commitments. 

Even if an agreement is adopted, it will be very difficult for 2 /3 of the US Senate to approve a climate change treaty, given the makeup of the 114th Congress. Many members of the House of Representatives and Senate are skeptical of climate change science and receive substantial financial contributions from the  fossil fuel industries. Politifact reports that only 3% of the current Republican members of Congress indicated that people are causing global warming, which is definitely at odds with the climate scientists.   

A major challenge is with the likely appointment of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) as the chair of the influential Environment and Public Works Committee. Senator Inhofe, who arguably is one of the most factually-challenged members of the Senate regarding global warming, has written a book on how he perceives climate change science to be a "hoax" and a "conspiracy." This is bizarre since it would take a Herculean collusive effort of tens of thousands of scientists (which is definitely not occurring), the US Department of Defense, most governments, insurance companies, large private sector companies and a litany of other participants who are concerned about climate change.

Senate Majority Leader-Elect Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will undermine any efforts to strengthen environmental initiatives, especially if he thinks it impacts coal production. The recent loss of over 7,000 coal mine jobs in Kentucky is due primarily to cheap natural gas, automation in the mines and coal costing more to extract, rather than to the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as Senator McConnell erroneously argues. 

The bottom line and driver of the energy discussion revolves around providing energy and earning huge sums of money. The oil, gas and coal reserves still in the ground are worth trillions of dollars. If there is a move from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, these resources will be "stranded assets" and the companies will be the losers. They have a direct financial investment that compels them to funnel millions to faux-scientists--such as employed by the Heartland Institute or the International Climate Science Coalition-- to sow "doubt and confusion" in the minds of the general public (this was a ploy that was used successfully for years by the cigarette manufacturers even when they knew how damaging their products were). The fossil fuel industry systematically develops slick pro-fossil fuel ads that depict a positive, yet false, impression of how the world benefits from the carbon-producing, environmentally-damaging products they are promoting.

Dr. Hans Blix, former director of the UN Atomic Energy Agency and head of the UN Verification Mission in Iraq that searched for WMDs, was clairvoyant in 2003. Dr. Blix--even though he originally thought Saddam had weapons-- scientifically and empirically proved they did not exist and said the invasion of Iraq was "illegal." In a recent Financial Times interview he suggested that environmental destruction was a "slow suicide." Perhaps the media, which ignored Blix's accurate analysis in 2003, should pay attention to him and hundreds of thousands of other experts who are sounding the alarm.

It has been alleged that as the RMS Titanic was sinking the band played the hymn "Nearer, My God, To Thee." If humans do not confront the climate change disaster that is looming, are the metaphorical iceberg getting closer and the lyrics even more appropriate? The clock is ticking.

Cover photo by Winky