Amid all the talk about scandals in Washington, the most important news story of the year has been nearly overlooked.
As Justin Gillis of The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, the level of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere reached “the long-feared milestone” of 400 parts per million. (It was at 275 parts per million before the industrial age began.) Wrote Gillis:
The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.
“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration…
Why have we failed? Climate change skeptics, whose position has as much validity as evolution deniers, have persuaded the public there is real disagreement in the scientific community on this issue.
And the public, preoccupied with economic worries, has been happy to be fooled by this disinformation campaign promoted—it must be said–by conservatives of all stripes and the fossil fuel industry.
The brilliant economics columnist Martin Wolf of the Financial Times recently declared that “climate sceptics have won,” despite overwhelming evidence:
An analysis of abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed scientific papers, published between 1991 and 2011 and written by 29,083 authors, concludes that 98.4 per cent of authors who took a position endorsed man-made (anthropogenic) global warming…Today, 30 per cent of CO2 in the atmosphere is directly due to humanity.
What’s behind the recent rise? “Catch-up growth” particularly as China has brought hundreds of millions of people into the middle class:
As the emerging countries develop, emissions per person will tend to rise towards levels in high-income countries, raising the global average. This is why global emissions per person rose by 16 percent between 2000 and 2009, which was a period of fast growth in emerging economies.
In other words, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and Indonesians all aspire to the middle class comforts of the U.S. and Europe. But if they all achieve that, the planet is, well, cooked.
Advanced countries, especially the U.S., can’t tell the rest of the world that they should live with less while we are the biggest carbon users per capita by far. But Wolf is rightly concerned that the “25-40 percent cut in emissions of high-income countries by 2020” needed to keep CO2 levels below even 450 parts per million “will not happen.”
The reasons are mainly political. Here’s why so many conservatives simply can’t accept climate change:
To admit that a free economy generates a vast global external cost is to admit that the large-scale government regulation so often proposed by hated environmentalists is justified..It is far easier to deny the relevance of the science.
And then there is the public itself, which views a low-carbon economy as “one of universal privation” and which “will not do something on this scale because they care about others, even including their own more remote descendants.”
And yet the results of climate change could be catastrophic, as I wrote last July.
A sobering study in the journal Science posited an irreversible “state shift” in the planet’s ecosystem that could have “severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including…fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water,” the scientists wrote, all “within just a few generations.”
If that happens, you can chalk it up to human beings’ “short-termism” and our bottomless capacity for denial. And conservatives will have been responsible for aiding and abetting the most radical change of all.