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A Call to End the Conspiracy of Silence on Climate Change

The climate clock is ticking
Environment • Views: 26,078
Drought via Shutterstock

Environmental scientist Robert J. Brulle has an op-ed in the Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists, calling for the environmental movement to redouble its efforts to move climate change onto the presidential agenda, and criticizing the irresponsible behavior of both candidates as the climate continues to heat up: Conspiracy of Silence: The Irresponsible Politics of Climate Change.

In a summer dominated by heat waves and a devastating nationwide drought, it would seem that climate change would be a major issue in the US presidential campaign. However, quite the opposite is happening. Neither President Barack Obama nor the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has focused any attention on this critical issue. In a recent speech on the Senate floor, Senator John Kerry characterized the political discourse in the United States as a “conspiracy of silence … a story of disgraceful denial, back-pedaling, and delay that has brought us perilously close to a climate change catastrophe.” This silence means that we can expect further delays in addressing climate change, delays that we cannot afford.

A very sobering passage on where the problem already stands, and what’s at stake if the inaction continues:

The consequence of this inattention is an irreversible commitment to dangerous climate change. Twenty years ago, the United States signed, and the Senate ratified, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The objective of this treaty was to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” which was defined in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009 as limiting the overall temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. There are three reasons why that goal is now unobtainable. First, even if greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere could be held steady at 2005 levels, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have calculated that global temperature would rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius if not for the air pollution that is masking the warming by blocking some of the sun’s rays. Second, as a 2011 paper by British climate researchers explains, emissions reductions that are constrained to levels thought to be compatible with economic growth are not sufficient to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. Only a period of planned austerity and an intensive effort to build a carbon-free energy system could now achieve the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change. Finally, the International Energy Agency has estimated that the carbon-emitting energy infrastructure that will push global temperature rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius is already 80 percent complete, and will be fully installed by 2017. This will lock in future emissions unless capital equipment is retired earlier than anticipated. The best we can now hope for is to avoid catastrophic global warming in excess of 4 degrees Celsius, which will require an aggressive response by governments around the world.

Listening to the presidential campaign, you would be hard pressed to find any inkling of this situation. The official statements still maintain that there is no reason for alarm, and that we can still avoid dangerous climate change. While ignoring climate change might be a good political strategy, both the Obama and Romney approaches are intellectually disingenuous and morally irresponsible. Romney’s position is ridiculous, as it ignores the enormous scientific literature on anthropogenic climate change. But is Obama’s position any better? Any delay increases the probability of reaching a tipping point beyond which mitigation measures will be too little and too late to avoid catastrophic consequences. Yet the Obama administration has ignored this threat, offering instead a thin and uncompelling case for developing clean energy.

Dealing effectively with greenhouse gas emissions will require substantial transformations of both our economic and energy systems, and adoption of politically unpopular measures such as a carbon tax. Rather than attempting to build a public consensus to address climate change, the Obama administration is perpetuating the cultural delusion that we can continue business as usual, and that climate change does not require substantial and politically painful actions. While this strategy might prove to be advantageous in the short term, it saddles future administrations and generations with a heavy political, economic, and environmental burden. Even if Obama wins, he will have built no mandate for action during his second term.

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50 comments

1 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:07:49pm

Blame Al Gore.

Really. He thought he could remove himself from politics, divorce himself from his political past and address the issue of climate change in a neutral and non-partisan way.

Instead, he acted like a red flag for a lot of bull-headed deniers and helped turn it into a massively partisan political issue.

2 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:10:03pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

So if I got it right, it's not the fault of the willfully ignorant, it's the fault of a washed up politician? Try that somewhere else.

3 Kragar  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:10:38pm

Taking action on climate change will make conservatives feel their religious beliefs are being threatened and they'll start talking about 2nd Amendment solutions.

I really wish that was sarcasm.

4 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:11:51pm

What could be more conservative than saving resources and the environment for the future? Nothing.

5 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:12:19pm

Steve,

Not entirely: There were a lot of deniers out there, but Al Gore galvanized them into a movement, which managed to gain a lot of momentum.

And although I generally agree with Al Gore in most of his arguments, I found it somewhat presumptive of him to think that he could expect to separate himself from his past political associations and become some kind of neutral statesman/spokesman for a global issue.

6 garhighway  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:14:14pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

Blame Al Gore.

Really. He thought he could remove himself from politics, divorce himself from his political past and address the issue of climate change in a neutral and non-partisan way.

Instead, he acted like a red flag for a lot of bull-headed deniers and helped turn it into a massively partisan political issue.

Blaming Al Gore for this is like blaming the attack on the Maddox for the Vietnam War. It's a pretext. The spinmeisters behind the attacks on climate science would have chosen someone else for the role of climate whipping boy if Al hadn't been around.

7 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:14:38pm

re: #5 Expand Your Ground

You really think AGW deniers needed Al Gore? All they needed was millions in funding from the energy companies and conservative groups. Al Gore hasn't been the face of the global warming crisis for years.

8 Talking Point Detective  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:14:50pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

Blame Al Gore.

Really. He thought he could remove himself from politics, divorce himself from his political past and address the issue of climate change in a neutral and non-partisan way.

Instead, he acted like a red flag for a lot of bull-headed deniers and helped turn it into a massively partisan political issue.

Hmmm.

Google Jim Inhofe and get back to me.

9 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:15:33pm

re: #6 garhighway

The wingnuts would have been just as insane if Hilary Clinton had been elected President.

10 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:15:46pm

The "blame" part was a bit tongue-in-cheek, Al just raised a lot of political hackles and served as a high-profile target to distract from the real arguments behind AGW.

11 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:17:20pm

re: #10 Expand Your Ground

Nicely bactracked. If Al Gore hadn't spoken up in the first place, maybe the AGW deniers would have been able to save a lot of money.

12 Targetpractice  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:17:33pm

re: #10 Expand Your Ground

The "blame" part was a bit tongue-in-cheek, Al just raised a lot of political hackles and served as a high-profile target to distract from the real arguments behind AGW.

The real arguments behind AGW have been there for awhile, even before Gore took up the cause. They're the same voices who declared that we were foolish to give up CFCs in the vain hope we could close the ozone hole, or that banning DDT would save endangered birds. The skepticism and defeatism was already there, all Gore did was give them an easy excuse.

13 Talking Point Detective  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:18:19pm

re: #5 Expand Your Ground

Steve,

Not entirely: There were a lot of deniers out there, but Al Gore galvanized them into a movement, which managed to gain a lot of momentum.

And although I generally agree with Al Gore in most of his arguments, I found it somewhat presumptive of him to think that he could expect to separate himself from his past political associations and become some kind of neutral statesman/spokesman for a global issue.

I'm not going to defend Al Gore, but you are ignoring an explicit and long-standing politicization of climate science from the rightwing - which demonstrably stemmed out of politicization of the medical impact from smoking.

After you're done looking up Inhofe, Google Fred Singer and Frederick Seitz.

14 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:18:30pm

re: #12 Targetpractice

Al Gore forced the deniers to act more openly.

15 kirkspencer  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:18:36pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

Blame Al Gore.

Really. He thought he could remove himself from politics, divorce himself from his political past and address the issue of climate change in a neutral and non-partisan way.

Instead, he acted like a red flag for a lot of bull-headed deniers and helped turn it into a massively partisan political issue.

Wait. Don't blame the people who would have attacked anything Gore supported, instead blame the victim? Gore should have become a hermit, maybe? Or chosen some immaterial or objectionable subject to support instead?

No.

16 engineer cat  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:19:46pm

devastating nationwide drought

obviously, engineered by climate nazis to put golf course owners out of business

17 Talking Point Detective  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:19:53pm

re: #10 Expand Your Ground

The "blame" part was a bit tongue-in-cheek, Al just raised a lot of political hackles and served as a high-profile target to distract from the real arguments behind AGW.

I think this is wrong. There was a preexisting group of people who exploited Gore to achieve a political agenda.

18 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:20:20pm

re: #16 engineer cat

I love it when the ball rolls 50 yards.

19 Targetpractice  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:20:41pm

re: #14 SteveMcG

Al Gore forced the deniers to act more openly.

What Gore did was give the deniers a whipping boy, somebody that they could publicly flog in their arguments against actions and legislation they saw as detrimental to America's "unrivaled" status as the world's leader.

20 Kragar  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:20:45pm

I still can't believe with all the evidence at hand, people still want to make this about Al fucking Gore.

21 SteveMcG  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:22:12pm

re: #19 Targetpractice

Can't deny that the deniers didn't need a whipping boy until Al Gore spoke up.

22 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:23:23pm

re: #15 kirkspencer

Lemme express my thesis in less glib terms: a lot of people who might have been only slightly skeptical or perhaps neutral on AGW heard and saw Al Gore embracing it and it immediately prompted a knee-jerk rejection on their part of anything he had to say on the topic.

And he made a handy high-profile target for the active deniers out there to rail against.

I generally agree with his arguments, I just found it a bit arrogant on his part to think that he could suddenly cease being a politician and become an elder statesman. That process usually takes more than a few months...

23 garhighway  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:23:58pm

re: #19 Targetpractice

What Gore did was give the deniers a whipping boy, somebody that they could publicly flog in their arguments against actions and legislation they saw as detrimental to America's "unrivaled" status as the world's leader.

Anyone who speaks out on AGW gets that treatment: Michael Mann, James Hansen, Al Gore, and on and on.

It has NOTHING to do with Al Gore and precious little to do with the science. This is about politics, money and spin.

24 Talking Point Detective  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:24:42pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

From this:

Blame Al Gore.

Really.

To this ====>>>>>>

The "blame" part was a bit tongue-in-cheek,

Ever think of competing in the Olympics in the long jump?

25 Kragar  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:25:09pm

OK, after post 30, NO ONE TALK ABOUT AL GORE!

Downdings will ensue

26 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:27:12pm

re: #24 Talking Point Detective

From this:

To this ====>>>>>>

Ever think of competing in the Olympics in the long jump?

I neglected to insert a sarc tag at the right place.

I am not any sort of AGW denier, I just don't like Al Gore very much...

27 engineer cat  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:27:20pm

re: #25 Kragar

OK, after post 30, NO ONE TALK ABOUT AL GORE!

i submit this post in the earnest hope that this moratorium comes about as soon as possible

28 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:27:59pm

I just thought we should get that part of it over as soon as possible. Now lets move on to the creationist arguments...

29 Talking Point Detective  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:28:01pm

re: #22 Expand Your Ground

Lemme express my thesis in less glib terms: a lot of people who might have been only slightly skeptical or perhaps neutral on AGW heard and saw Al Gore embracing it and it immediately prompted a knee-jerk rejection on their part of anything he had to say on the topic.

I think that's wrong. The movie generally gained acceptance, originally. The targeting against Gore was part of a deliberate campaign.

If you research, you can actually find documents that specifically outline campaign strategies - that include the goal of undermining individuals (scientists, politicians, etc.) who promoted AGW theory.

30 Targetpractice  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:28:11pm

re: #23 garhighway

Anyone who speaks out on AGW gets that treatment: Michael Mann, James Hansen, Al Gore, and on and on.

It has NOTHING to do with Al Gore and precious little to do with the science. This is about politics, money and spin.

Exactly what I was about to write. Gore's just one of several prominent faces in the movement who have been targeted for ridicule. Basically if you're one of "the elite" who speaks about environmentalism and protecting the planet in anything other than empty words, the deniers will be quick to declare that if you're not living in poverty, then you're a hypocrite.

31 Talking Point Detective  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:28:46pm

re: #26 Expand Your Ground

I neglected to insert a sarc tag at the right place.

I am not any sort of AGW denier, I just don't like Al Gore very much...

I don't like him either (I think he's a blowhard). But that doesn't alter the reality.

32 Sophia77  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:29:00pm

Back to the topic of the OP: I saw one of those polls on Yahoo the other day, where you push a button (yes/no) in response to a question. In this case the question was, "Do you believe global warming is a problem," yes or no.

Of course I pushed yes and clicked to view the results. When I looked at them, 51% of people said yes and 49% said no.

This is why Presidential candidates are afraid to raise the issue. Given that Yahoo viewers by definition can read and access the 'net, the 49% of those responding "no" is alarmingly high.

People are still not awake on this issue, even though we've had a disastrous summer including terrible fires, unhealthy heat and air pollution and a really bad drought.

Beyond that, there are people saying ok so IF there is global warming it isn't our fault. That, apparently, gets them off the hook for trying to work on solutions.

I think it might be smart to act AS IF the global warming had nothing to do with people and instead mobilize the country to deal with it, and other forms of environmental damage, making it clear that (Divine Will or no) not dealing with it will be catastrophic, probably sooner than we think.

33 erik_t  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:29:39pm

re: #32 Sophia77

This is why Presidential candidates are afraid to raise the issue. Given that Yahoo viewers by definition can read

Have you seen Yahoo comments!?

34 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:31:58pm

It is also linked to a notion that any interference in energy policy comprises government meddling in the Free Market and will lead to our eventual enslavement.

As if the US government did not already meddle in and regulate energy policy by using the US military to secure access to foreign energy resources, to protect shipping and pipeline routes and to build and maintain a road system for petroleum-based vehicles.

35 wrenchwench  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:33:40pm

re: #32 Sophia77

I think it might be smart to act AS IF the global warming had nothing to do with people and instead mobilize the country to deal with it, and other forms of environmental damage, making it clear that (Divine Will or no) not dealing with it will be catastrophic, probably sooner than we think.

The trick would be to convince those who think humans didn't cause it that humans nonetheless can do something to make it better.

Deniers are convinced it's a power grab, not an environmental or survival issue.

36 Schadenfreude 'r' Us  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:34:30pm

Now comes Richard Muller to affirm that the science is good, the measurements accurate and we are cooking, and the "skeptics" who formerly embraced him are figuring out how to get out of it now. They seem to be settling on "he was never really a skeptic."

And I was always Marie of Rumania.

37 Targetpractice  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:36:15pm

re: #34 Expand Your Ground

It is also linked to a notion that any interference in energy policy comprises government meddling in the Free Market and will lead to our eventual enslavement.

As if the US government did not already meddle in and regulate energy policy by using the US military to secure access to foreign energy resources, to protect shipping and pipeline routes and to build and maintain a road system for petroleum-based vehicles.

Not sure its that so much as the deniers declaring that any effort to control emissions will have a catastrophically dire effect on our economy, something that truly resonates in current economic times. When one side says "We need to make these changes to ensure a future for our children" and the other says "If we make these children, the government's gonna yank the money out of your kids mouths and tax you extra for those kids," which side you think will get more support?

38 Kragar  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:40:43pm

re: #36 Someone Please Beam Me Up!

Now comes Richard Muller to affirm that the science is good, the measurements accurate and we are cooking, and the "skeptics" who formerly embraced him are figuring out how to get out of it now. They seem to be settling on "he was never really a skeptic."

And I was always Marie of Rumania.

I thought you were the Czarina of Tokyo.

39 Sol Berdinowitz  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:41:06pm

re: #37 Targetpractice

Not sure its that so much as the deniers declaring that any effort to control emissions will have a catastrophically dire effect on our economy, something that truly resonates in current economic times. When one side says "We need to make these changes to ensure a future for our children" and the other says "If we make these children, the government's gonna yank the money out of your kids mouths and tax you extra for those kids," which side you think will get more support?

As long as we subscribe to the notion that our prosperity is directly linked to the amount of fossil fuels we consume, that sort of thinking is going to remain prevalent.

I am sometimes reminded of the old Pravda reports on economic progress in which the USSR was proud to report a 5% increase in their electronics output, expressed in tons...

40 ShaunP  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:43:07pm

LALALALALA, not listening...

...Ninety percent of South Florida gets its drinking water from underground supplies, most from the Biscayne aquifer. Pumping too much water from underground supplies can allow saltwater to push in from the coast.

Droughts can make saltwater intrusion worse as pumping to provide drinking water continues while rains don't come to replenish underground freshwater supplies.

Now South Florida officials are projecting that sea-level rise due to climate change could increase the reach of saltwater that can make water from community wells undrinkable.

That has city and county utilities along the southeast Florida coast exploring expensive alternatives, with costs passed along to ratepayers, to avoid getting cut off from freshwater.

"It is still progressing westward," Hector Castro, Hallandale Beach public works and utilities director, said. "Eventually all coastal communities will deal with this in some way, shape or form."

Hallandale Beach, Pompano Beach, Dania Beach, Lantana and Lake Worth are among local cities that in recent years have been most at risk from saltwater intrusion.

But the line of saltwater spreading inland comes close to or reaches cities from Jupiter to Florida City, including West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Miami, according to the U.S. Geological Survey...

CN: Climate change is starting to hit people's pocketbooks. Millions in costs for potable water upgrades are coming down the pipe in South Florida...

41 erik_t  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:44:54pm

re: #40 ShaunP

CN: Climate change is starting to hit people's pocketbooks.

Good thing, because that's the only way we'll ever get off our asses and deal with it. Were that it hit our pocketbooks thirty years ago.

42 Targetpractice  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:51:14pm

re: #39 Expand Your Ground

As long as we subscribe to the notion that our prosperity is directly linked to the amount of fossil fuels we consume, that sort of thinking is going to remain prevalent.

I am sometimes reminded of the old Pravda reports on economic progress in which the USSR was proud to report a 5% increase in their electronics output, expressed in tons...

And that's my point, how do you sell a movement towards lowering ones carbon footprint and adopting a less ostentatious lifestyle when such things have been sold to us all our lives as the "point" of our existences? We're a culture that views one's "success" by how big their house is, how much horsepower their car has, or how many miles away they can go for their vacation. You have a hard time selling them on the idea that those things should be avoided to serve what to them seems like a nebulous goal, telling people to accept a simpler lifestyle today so that their grandkids won't be buying beachfront property in Richmond.

43 Stanghazi  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:51:55pm

Al Gore mo fo's!! (just had to pipe in).

Carry on.

44 Kragar  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 2:57:00pm

re: #43 Stanley Sea

Al Gore mo fo's!! (just had to pipe in).

Carry on.

I did post warning.

45 funky chicken  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 3:27:03pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

Blame Al Gore.

Really. He thought he could remove himself from politics, divorce himself from his political past and address the issue of climate change in a neutral and non-partisan way.

Instead, he acted like a red flag for a lot of bull-headed deniers and helped turn it into a massively partisan political issue.

Kinda do blame Al Gore because he hyped hurricane Katrina as a huge sign of global warming and told people that there would be storms like that every summer thereafter. It didn't happen, and he had such a high profile that it made people very suspicious of the whole concept.

The right wing was already somewhat primed to do the attack on science with the Discovery Institute crap, and unfortunately Gore and Leo DiCaprio (unintentionally) gave them ammunition.

46 funky chicken  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 3:29:02pm

That said, can we talk about overpopulation and putting more solar panels in the Mojave desert now? How about more of a push to use more natural gas in cars instead of bringing oil across the ocean in those nasty supertankers?

There are solutions that don't involve huge economic disruption, but nobody seems interested in them.

47 Renaissance_Man  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 4:19:15pm

re: #1 Expand Your Ground

Blame Al Gore.

Really. He thought he could remove himself from politics, divorce himself from his political past and address the issue of climate change in a neutral and non-partisan way.

Instead, he acted like a red flag for a lot of bull-headed deniers and helped turn it into a massively partisan political issue.

Interesting theory. It's sort of like believing that if only Obama hadn't pushed for health care reform, it wouldn't have been a partisan political issue, because it was clearly 'foolish' for him to antagonise the haters.

Since facts are not relevant to the deniers and Conservativists, why would you think that Al Gore has anything to do with their denial?

48 Bentis Fughazi  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 5:17:51pm

re: #30 Targetpractice

Basically if you're one of "the elite" who speaks about environmentalism and protecting the planet in anything other than empty words, the deniers will be quick to declare that if you're not living in poverty, then you're a hypocrite.

And if you are living in poverty, they will ignore you.

49 BrainSurfer  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 6:36:32pm

Well, then, let's keep on Fracking! And loudly support it!

50 Interesting Times  Wed, Aug 1, 2012 7:25:54pm

Durr hurr, let's pour all our money and resources into dirty energy that requires metric fucktons of water during record heat and drought conditions that are only going to get worse! Derp.


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 Frank says:

Gee, it's so hard to find a place to park around here.