When fossil fuel industry scientists investigated global warming in the 1970s and 80s, they acknowledged the truth
In December 2015, a Pulitzer-prize winning environmental news organization published the findings of its investigation into exactly what U.S. and multinational oil companies privately knew about the negative effects of burning fossil fuels.
As it turns out, from 1979 to 1983, the oil and gas trade group American Petroleum Institute and the world’s largest oil companies like Exxon, Mobile, Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, and the companies that later formed Chevron, formed a secret “CO2 and Climate Task Force” to study the interaction between man-made CO2 (carbon dioxide) and the environment.
Internal documents and admissions by the former Task Force head reveal that the industry’s own scientists and engineers acknowledged CO2 was already rising, that the fossil fuel industry was generating more CO2, and even considered self-regulation to mitigate the damage to the planet.
It was previously made known that Exxon’s scientists agreed as early as 1977 that climate change was occurring, and eventually determined CO2 was warming the planet, melting Arctic ice, and poisoning the Earth’s ecosystem.
The oil and gas companies buried their findings and, as the former head of the CO2 and Climate Task Force admits, turned to lobbying Congress to prevent any regulations on fossil fuel emissions. After all, regulations, while good for the Earth, would cut into profits.
Such efforts would require misinformation campaigns to discredit climate change. So for example:
In 1998, a year after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by countries to cut fossil fuel emissions, API crafted a campaign to convince the American public and lawmakers that climate science was too tenuous for the United States to ratify the treaty.
President George Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol “in part…based on input” from oil industry lobbyists, as a State Department official said, according to an internal government document.
Since then, the State, particularly with Republicans in power, has been complicit in downplaying the danger, such as in 1990, when the White House modified a report for a Congressional committee completed by a government scientist (see Zinn, A People’s History of the United States).
Likewise, many Republican politicians recently did their part to serve the fossil fuel industry by condemning the December 2015 COP21 United Nations climate change conference in Paris, during which advanced nations agreed to slash carbon emissions.
Lobbying has grown into an extraordinarily important practice for oil and gas companies, as massive sums of cash help keep politicians in line with industry objectives and garner profitable subsidies. The industry spent nearly $41 million on politicians’ campaigns in 2013 and 2014. Total, the industry spent over $326 million lobbying the U.S. government.
The government spent nearly $34 billion on the fossil fuel industry in the same time period, in the form of subsidies. Some see that as a massive return on an investment.
The industry is also unafraid to buy off scientists, such as Wei-Hock Soon, who was paid over $1 million by the fossil fuel industry to discredit climate change.
If deniers claim to know better than scientists about climate change, ask them to explain the role of photosynthesis
A 2013 meta-analysis of scientific research on the topic from 1991-2011 revealed a 97.1% consensus that anthropogenic (man-made) global warming exists (the director of the National Physical Science Consortium notes that if one includes the studies that imply it exists, the consensus rises to 99.99%).
30 gigatonnes of human-produced CO2 now poison the atmosphere each year. We’ve climbed to 400 parts per million, and may reach 1,000 parts per million by the end of the century.
Why is that a problem?
Well, the heart of the issue is this: air pollution, including CO2, methane, carbon monoxide, CFCs, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, can kill people. This is done directly and indirectly.
The concern is the increasing gigatonnes of CO2 and other pollutants produced by human industry in the advanced world has reached a level that photosynthetic organisms, which regulate planetary CO2 levels, cannot safely handle. Ocean and land plants convert CO2 in the atmosphere into sugars and carbohydrates to consume.
Earth’s ecosystem has a system of eliminating pollutants, but there is only so much the system can handle. As human industry produces more CO2, photosynthetic organisms cannot consume the supply, and CO2 builds up in the atmosphere and warms the planet to an unnatural degree (the greenhouse effect). By one calculation, humans are changing the climate 170 times faster than natural forces.
Deforestation and habitat destruction exacerbate the problem, wiping out photosynthetic organisms crucial to keeping the planet habitable. The Amazon provides 20% of humanity’s oxygen; nearly 20% of it has been destroyed in the last 50 years. Since just before the industrial age, humanity has destroyed about 35% of the world’s forests.
50% of Earth’s species will face extinction by 2100.
Despite what the fossil fuel industry claims, human interference can disrupt or slow nature’s processes of greenhouse gas elimination, prompting unnatural increased temperatures (which intensify extreme weather like floods, snowstorms, hurricanes, and droughts), ocean acidification (CO2 dissolution into the ocean lowers pH levels, which is decimating marine ecosystems), and detrimental changes in freshwater routes and sea levels due to melting Arctic ice.
The situation is growing increasingly dire, and thus not only is ignorance and denial of the issue a national embarrassment, it encourages an increasingly lethal reality.
Pollution, whether in air, water, or soil, is devastating to the lungs, heart, and arteries, especially in children and the elderly. The organ failure and cancer it causes slashes lifespans by years; by the end of the century two billion people will live in air above the safe level set by the World Health Organization. 95% of the world already breathes air with unhealthy levels of pollution. A 2013 report in the New York Times revealed air pollution is already killing over 1 million Chinese each year (China has had to shut down entire cities, including its capital, for days due to toxic air). By 2017, India was experiencing the same death toll. In 2010, nearly 55,000 Americans died from soot and smog. It was 155,000 in 2015. A huge increase in ozone smog is expected for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Breathing in air with increased CO2 actually reduces human cognitive ability. For example, one study found that every increase in pollution of 5 micrograms per cubic meter was equivalent to a loss of over a year of education, plus an increase in psychological distress. Cities around the globe are already so polluted that outdoor exercise does more harm to your body than good. Some, like Beijing, are shrouded in smog: a warning of what humanity could potentially do to the entire planet.
A 2012 report commissioned by 20 nations and conducted by DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum revealed pollution is killing nearly 4.5 million people a year worldwide. It was 7-9 million in 2015, one in six global deaths, mostly due to air pollution. This is more than war, malnutrition, AIDS, and malaria combined.
As The New Yorker reported, historic famines are killing millions. In the past few decades, we’ve seen a 50-fold increase in the number of areas on Earth experiencing extreme heat. Within a century, many places will simply become uninhabitable. The Middle East has already recorded temperatures of over 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperatures alone would be a death sentence for half the world if we warm the planet another ten degrees. If the heat doesn’t kill you, the lack of water and food will, as areas that grow bountiful crops today will be too hot to grow any. Warming will also mean a global spread of malaria (likely infecting billions) and other diseases carried by insects that reproduce faster in hotter temperatures, more fires burning down oxygen-producing forests, increased ocean acidification (which can also lower oxygen levels), and more violent storms (monsoons, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods). Melting icecaps will raise sea levels (decimating coasts and affecting fresh water routes), release both greenhouse gases and diseases trapped for millions of years in the arctic ice, and reflect less heat than they do today.
The 2014 National Climate Assessment concluded that the 2-degree rise in the global temperature was worsening heat waves and droughts in the U.S., with more forests dying from both wildfires and growing swarms of insects that thrive in the heat.
At present rates of CO2 and methane pollution, warming could reach 10 degrees by 2100. The World Bank recently reported that in our lifetime maize-growing land in Africa will be nearly eradicated by heat and drought, and increasingly frequent and violent monsoons and tsunamis will ravage Asia. Hundreds of thousands more people are already dying from hunger aggravated by climate change, and over $1 trillion has been sapped from the global GDP. It is expected to decline significantly due to global warming.
Millions are going to die, yet oil and gas corporations resist emission caps and clean energy initiatives.
Global warming denial is based on ignorance
Ignorance meaning a lack of knowledge or education, not stupidity.
As a primary example, “climate change” did not replace “global warming” in scientific and political circles because researchers realized ideas about man-made global warming were wrong or no longer a problem.
In reality, the terms are not synonymous, and have been used about equally for decades; only recently has “climate change” ever-so-slightly surpassed “global warming” in usage, at least in books on the topic published in the U.S.
The only hard evidence of politicians seeking to replace “global warming” with “climate change” is a memo from Republican political strategist Frank Luntz that advocates conservatives make the change:
It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming… “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”…
Rather than a grand conspiracy to cover up what would be the greatest mistake in scientific history, or to make a hoax more palatable to the common person, the use of “climate change” may be more desirable to scientists and Americans who trust them, as the term encompasses problems beyond rising temperatures, problems mentioned above.
NASA’s education website, for instance, explains this is the precise reason they use “global climate change” instead of “global warming.”
As a secondary example of how denial is based on ignorance, some insist rising global temperatures are only part of the pattern of naturally rising and falling global temperatures–that the actions of mankind have nothing to do with it, as if the planet’s leading geoscientists and climatologists simply don’t have a firm grasp of global temperature cycles! As if all the research, experiments, measurements, and data provided by the international scientific community over the last several decades simply failed to account for this.
Not only is that an insult to the scientists who devote their lives to studying this issue, it betrays an almost frightening ignorance of how the scientific method eliminates unwanted variables.
Thus it bears repeating: 97% of recent research concludes humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, and other dangerous practices, are creating unnatural global warming and all its horrid side effects.
Obviously, conservatives can find scientists who deny all this, but there is no need to pretend there’s a fierce debate about man-made global warming within the scientific community. That battle resides outside it; most scientists must shake their heads in disbelief.
As a third and final example of ignorance and denial, consider how in years with dropping global temperatures, extreme winter weather, record snowfalls, and new Arctic ice reformation, climate change deniers rejoice.
Due to lack of education, they see such events as “evidence” that anthropogenic global warming is false. They fail to understand that global temperatures can fall one year and rise the next, but over time follow an upward trend.
Note in the graphic how some years the global temperature falls, yet overall has risen since the time of the Industrial Revolution and is indeed picking up the pace (also note the correlation with CO2 concentrations).
As one scientist put it, “It’s all in the long-term trends.”
The world is changing
Despite oil industry propaganda campaigns and a loyal army of disbelieving conservative citizens and politicians, the U.S. and the world are moving in the right direction to reduce CO2 and other emissions, slow global warming, and create a cleaner, safer planet for coming generations. To paraphrase one political cartoon that begged deniers to err on the side of caution, “What if global warming is a hoax and we create a better world for our children for nothing?”
4 U.S. cities now receive 100% of their energy from renewables, the largest being Burlington, Vermont (42,000 people). Wind energy is now as cheap as natural gas. The price of solar power is plunging; Forbes recently reported it will likely be the cheapest form of energy on the planet in 10 years.
Renewable sources comprise 100% of Idaho’s, Maine’s, Delaware’s, and Rhode Island’s energy production, 92% of Iowa’s and Washington’s, 94% for South Dakota, 45% for New York, 40% for Florida, 25% for California.
Denmark generates 40% of its energy from clean sources, Germany 26%. Some days, Denmark generates over 100% of its electricity needs via wind power and shares power with other nations! Wind power in Scotland can already generate enough power to give every home electricity; the nation will run on 100% renewables by 2030. Many European cities are banning cars in their city centers to eliminate smog.
Realistic plans exist to get nearly 140 nations and all 50 U.S. states 100% green by 2050.
We have the technology to create solar-powered roads that charge your car as you drive, and buildings that eat smog and generate zero emissions. Scientists want to develop technology that mimics photosynthetic organisms, “carbon capture and storage” systems that can purge the CO2 humans have pumped into the atmosphere–some believe it’s the only way to save Earth’s biosphere, given business and conservative resistance to CO2 caps.
There is truly nothing humanity cannot do, whether our actions poison the planet or save it.