Irony abounded. The temperature dropped through the thirties as the group gathered to discuss global warming. Their warning has everything to do with future generations, but the small group that gathered outside the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Federal Courthouse would not likely be mistaken for a group of millennials. The issue of climate change impacts billions, but the event brought out just over a dozen. And it was a press conference of sorts, though there was a notable absence of press. “Inside of Knoxville” didn’t ring much of a bell for the crowd, though they seemed to appreciate that someone showed up. I suppose news organizations are no longer adequately staffed to be able to attend such things.
But the crowd was a notable one: Joanne Logan, an engineering professor from UT who holds a PhD in Horticulture and Forestry and John Nolt, UT philosophy professor who specializes in logic and environmental and intergenerational ethics. He chairs UT’s Committee on the Campus Environment and is widely published on the subject of climate change. Mary Headrick, local physician and candidate for congress from Tennessee’s third district spoke briefly. Joseph Malgeri videoed some of the speakers and you can listen to Mary’s speech below thanks to his efforts. Others present represented range of specialization in the area, some were simply concerned citizens.
The occasion that brought them out into the cold and to the federal courthouse was the current report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They named the event on Facebook, “Be a Hero, Jimmy. It’s Our Kids’ Future.” The reference in the title is to U S. Representative John J. “Jimmy” Duncan (R-2) whose office is in the courthouse and who currently serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
A trip to his official website reveals that the most prominent item on the front page is a link to a recent article by George Will entitled, “Climate Change’s Instructive Past,” which discusses two recently published books detailing historic climate changes. He sums them up, “By documenting the appalling consequences of two climate changes, Rosen and Parker validate wariness about behaviors that might cause changes. The last 12 of Parker’s 712 pages of text deliver a scalding exhortation to be alarmed about what he considers preventable global warming. Neither book, however, supports those who believe human behavior is the sovereign or even primary disrupter of climate normality, whatever that might be.”
Which, I presume, is indicative of Representative Duncan’s stance on climate change: that it has always happened and the current changes aren’t anything different. Apparently the logic there is that if the climate has changed before (though the examples are not world-wide), there’s no reason to think humans are behind the current changes and, presumably, there is nothing we can do about it.
Last fall Pew Research reported that 61% of Americans believe the globe is warming. That sounds like enough of a majority for real action to take place, but it’s not that simple. The same survey found that only 48% feel it is a major threat. The polling indicated Americans are more concerned about ISIS and Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs. Further, while 79% of Democrats believe there is “solid evidence the globe is warming,” only 37% of Republicans feel the evidence is clear.
The U.S. serves as quite a contrast to Europe where aggressive programs are in place to reduce greenhouse emissions. It’s hard to understand where the disconnect is between Americans and the rest of the world. “That humans are causing global warming is the position of the Academies of Science from 80 countries plus many scientific organizations that study climate science. More specifically, around 95% of active climate researchers actively publishing climate papers endorse the consensus position.” – Skeptical Science So 95% of the people publishing peer-reviewed articles and studies support the position. But in the U.S., over 31,000 “scientists” have signed on with the Petition Project which completely rejects the idea that human activity is harming us or the environment in any way. It’s confounding.
So, the scientific community world-wide is not split – and that includes American scientists who are active and publishing in the field of climatology. And that recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? You could probably guess what the UN-sponsored panel of international scientists concluded: It’s real and it’s us. Here are a couple of their points of emphasis:
- Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.
- Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.
So, the small group assembled with the hopes that Representative Duncan might give consideration to an alternative view. They also hope his constituents might encourage him to consider the evidence from the international scientific community, as opposed to the lobbyists with with a stake in his membership on the Transportation committee. That would include industries profiting from the continued use of fossil fuels, which, of course, leads us back to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.
I spoke to the security guards who’d come over to make sure the gathering didn’t get out of control. They didn’t seem too concerned. They asked me what the gathering was about and I told them, “climate change.” One of them asked me, “Are they for it or against it?” I told him I believed they would agree that it’s generally not a good thing. That seemed to make sense to him.
So what can we do with such an important, yet curiously fractious issue? Is there any hope that Americans or our leaders will agree to any significant action? We represent about 4% of the world’s population and produce about 16% of carbon emissions. President Obama has taken some steps, including requiring higher fuel efficiency, reduced emissions from coal plants and a variety of efforts to expand our clean energy production. All of these steps were taken over objections from the industries concerned and the opposing political party. Many of them have come in the form of the hated executive actions.
We could do much, much more if there was a consensus that it was important that we do so. I’m not sure we will reach that consensus in time. Certainly to do so will require a larger conversation than a dozen or so cold citizens on a January morning. While it’s a hard conversation to have, maybe there’s some hope in simply focusing on the impact of carbon emissions on health and on our environment. Some Republicans such as Senator Alexander, for example, have shown that protecting the mountains, a cause he values, dovetails with concerns about climate change when talk turns to reducing emissions from coal plants and an end to mountain top removal. Where ever we find mutual ground, as this small group made clear, we need to find it and we need to do so expeditiously.