Live Well, Do Good

A History of Struggling to Grasp Climate Change Reality

Brandon Sun, November 30, 2015 – David McConkey

So the Paris climate change summit starts today. As global citizens, we are asked to think about a really big issue. But as humans, we are at a disadvantage. We evolved to live in small groups, dealing just with immediate things close at hand. But consider matters affecting billions of people? Generations into the future? Science? Hello, 21st century!

I was surprised, though, to learn how long the climate change issue has been around. More than a century ago, some scientists thought that a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could act like a greenhouse and heat up the planet.

Scientists in the 1960s warned U.S. President Johnson about the problem. Early in the 1970s, the issue was mentioned in books like Only One Earth and The Limits to Growth.

The public was very familiar with global warming by the late 1980s. Time magazine – instead of choosing a “Man of the Year” – named the “endangered Earth” as Planet of the Year for 1988. The magazine neatly summed it up. “The Problem: Greenhouse gases could create a climatic calamity.” Environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book about the issue for a general audience. And the United Nations established the IPCC: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nations of the world agreed to act on climate change in Rio de Janeiro at the 1992 UN “Earth Summit.” (That event was headed by Maurice Strong, who grew up in Oak Lake. Who knew? “On Saturday, the head of the UN’s environmental agency announced Strong had died at the age of 86.)

When future generations look back, I think they will fault us for not taking reasonable steps – starting in the 1980s – to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. We could have adopted a careful “no regrets” approach. Even if we had discovered later that the danger was overestimated, we would still be glad. That’s because cutting carbon dioxide has other benefits, like more efficiency, greater security and less pollution.

But we did not take action. A problem then that seemed far in the future is now at our doorstep, with higher temperatures and more severe weather.

What went wrong?

A host of factors sidelined the issue. Vested interests in the fossil fuel industry – like the famous Koch brothers – played a role. So did religious beliefs. There was also a growing anti-science and anti-intellectual environment – like we had in Canada with the Harper government.

And the public was turned off as the discussion became increasingly polarized and vicious. Scientists were accused of perpetuating a giant hoax. Fox News commentator Glenn Beck even went so far as to call on climate scientists to commit suicide.  

Dont Even think About It The U.S. 2012 presidential election marked a turning point, climate activist George Marshall notes in his new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. In 2012, for the first time, a candidate for president – Mitt Romney – was a denier of climate science. And for the first time in 24 years, the climate was not mentioned in the American presidential debates.

Over the years, climate change campaigners lost the battle of framing the narrative. Like: should we say “climate change”? Or should we say “global warming”? Both terms were coined in 1975. But the oil industry and others realized that “climate change” sounds a lot less ominous than “global warming.”

U.S. President George W. Bush, with his spinmeister Frank Luntz, promoted the definitive wording as “climate change.” Scientists were fine with the more ambiguous term as it suited their more general studies. But I think this was a big setback for society overall, as we lost the punch of the term “global warming.”
And: oops! Did I say earlier that Republican presidential candidate Romney was a climate science “denier”? I am terribly sorry. I should have said climate science “doubter.” The Associated Press news agency ruled recently that only the word “doubter” should be used in newspapers. “Denier” is apparently offensive to the sensitive individuals who deny the science!  
Alright then. Let’s only use words that are bland, soothing, and – most of all – politically correct!

See what I mean by framing the narrative? We are still struggling to describe and understand our global reality.

Now what about the future? If we can all pull together, it may just work out OK. After all, when it comes to adapting to new circumstances, we humans are quite well evolved!

* * * 

See also:

Climate Change on     (on

What You Need to Know About Climate Change  Sam Harris Podcast

Reflecting on Consumption

This Changes Everything

Deepening Our Thinking in the Internet Age: Ten Tips

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