A Call to End the Conspiracy of Silence on Climate Change

The climate clock is ticking
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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