Climate Change: Our Dilemma

24 mars 2011,

by Edwin S. Matthews

Texte d’une conférence prononcée en 1971 à la Maison de la Chimie.

The threat of a calamitous change in the Earth’s climate is upon us; it does not depend on who you talk to.  The overwhelming scientific consensus warns us that, largely due to our burning of fossil fuels, the Earth’s climate has already begun measurably to change and promises to change vastly in this century.[1]

Fossil fuels include oil, coal and natural gas and are nothing more than carbon stored from sunlight millions of years ago. When burned, the imprisoned carbon combines with oxygen to produce CO2 which, as it is released to the atmosphere, forms a sort of blanket over the Earth that keeps heat from escaping into space.

Since the industrial revolution began in the early 19th Century the CO2 content in our atmosphere has nearly doubled (from about 275 parts per million to about 390 ppm). This increase has been accelerating. Since 2000 the growth rate in CO2 emissions has nearly tripled over the previous decade.    If we continue in our present habits, scientists predict that a point will be reached — nicely termed the « tipping point » — when the planet’s warming will be irreversible and dramatically accelerate.

Although for the time being the change in our climate may be only barely noticeable in Northwest Connecticut, the planet is facing a calamity of huge proportions.  Warming of the Earth will mean not just unbearably hot temperatures; it will upset our ecosystems, redistribute rainfall and cause more violent storms.  We will see our sugar maples; hemlocks and other native plants disappear.  Food supplies will be interrupted; food will be much more expensive and millions will go hungry. As the oceans absorb more CO2 and become more acidic, marine life, on which humans and marine life depends for food, will die. Melting ice will raise all oceans and inundate large areas – wiping out some entire countries.    Hundreds of millions of people and other creatures will flee flooding and expanding deserts; conflicts over shrinking habitat and resources will ensnare us all.  There will be many other consequences we cannot predict.

And global warming aside, there are other terrible costs of fossil fuel consumption we have conveniently ignored.  The Gulf Horizon disaster has demonstrated with dramatic effect the grave risks our consumption of oil presents for life on the planet.  Toxic coal ash and acid smoke waste produced by coal fired power plants have been poisoning the Earth for years and are no longer tolerable.  The underground chemical cracking required to release natural gas deposits is irremediably contaminating precious fresh water sources.  And let us not forget the costly wars we fight and the unholy alliances we keep to protect our oil supply.

With this prospect, how can we continue with our present habits?  If we do continue, how can we even have children?

The Moral Argument

Our oil, gas and coal industries have an all-embracing grip on our political system.  We can properly blame industry, as well as our government, even our young president so hopefully chosen,  for failing to protect the environment and for not getting us out of fossil fuels that we all recognize are so dangerously extracted and damagingly consumed.

But, we must be honest: it is our own extravagant consumption of fossil fuels that threatens life and civilization as we know them.  As citizens we are all complicit.  I believe our complicity in gravely threatening practices must be deeply disturbing in ways we all conveniently avoid recognizing. Ghastly scenes of suffering creatures, like images of the dead from a distant war, have recently forced me to face the reality of my own conduct. The contradiction between my duties as a responsible human being and what I am unnecessarily costing the Earth is painful, and also profoundly angry-making.  I feel like the beneficiary of a criminal family enterprise that I enjoy, but that morally compromises my life.

Anger, however, is not palliative and passive acceptance of this moral contradiction in the face of such overwhelming consequences can only lead us to alienation from the community of life, the most despairing of end points to contemplate.  Although we are an integral part of this morally compromising equation, is there no hope that we can live morally and responsibly?  Must we accept this moral dilemma? What would I do were my country still living off of human slavery?

If my individual choices will not avoid climate change, is it worth being engaged?  Fortunately, history does teach us over and over that individual human beings can reform civilizations. Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed that even a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world and, she reminded us, that is the only thing that ever has. Without Rosa Parks’ lonely defiance, African Americans in the South might still be sitting in the back of the bus.

Should we be discouraged if our individual actions may not be enough to limit climate change that has already begun and may already be out of human control?  The American philosopher, William James, facing the probabilities of failure, asked himself “Is Life Worth Living?”  His answer resounded yes:   “So far as Man stands for anything, . . . his entire function may be said to have dealt with maybes.  Not a victory is gained . . . except upon a maybe.  It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.”   Assured success is not required for moral action.

What each of us can do:

To live right, our first step should be to hold our leaders, our young President, our Congress, our businesses large and small, our towns, our schools and others, including ourselves, strictly accountable for moving us out of the fossil fuel economy. Write them, picket them, shout at them, and, in a democracy, vote them out of office if they do not listen and act.  Intervene to insist that our governments, our institutions and everyone protect life on this Earth.

Next, applying our own intelligent design, each of us must begin now in all the choices we each make daily in our lives to live right by the Earth and insist that our institutions and others do so.  We have no shortage of opportunities to live ethically.  Here are some:

+            we can reuse and save for reuse everything we can, and consume less and consume locally.  Each saving gesture will save the energy and resources required to make and deliver what we save and reaffirm our freedom to respect life on the Earth;

+            we can drive much less, drive more slowly, and travel with others;  we will enjoy the scenery and even save lives, but also assert our choice to move at less cost to the Earth; and we can also argue for more stringent fuel economy standards for all vehicles (including trucks now illogically exempt);

+            we can weather-proof our buildings and support strict energy saving building codes like Europe has already, and also keep our thermostats down in winter (simply dress warmly) and minimize air-conditioning in summer,  all of which is healthier anyway;

+            we can turn off all those lights and electric devices when we do not need them, remembering that electricity costs both us and the Earth and that energy in no form is to be wasted and must be used both efficiently and only sufficiently to meet our legitimate needs;

+            we can recycle and compost our waste, which will save all down the line what it costs to dispose of what we throw away, and we can work in our towns for legally mandated comprehensive recycling which we need to enable us all to share the resultant savings and is long overdue;

+            we can install photovoltaics and wind mills and sell excess power back to the utilities, which neatly undermines their constant claim to build more power plants (or keep dirty ones operating) to sell us more;

+            we can easily lower the temperature of our hot water heaters (always too hot anyway) and install a thermo-panel to let the sun heat our water for free; and

+            advocate for a slowly escalating tax  to discourage all consumption of carbon, a tax that could help get us off our carbon addiction and pay for the cost of all of the above and much more (even repay our country’s debt).

All of these measures and hundreds of others are within our easy reach at least in part.  If we made these choices in large numbers, we would change our country.  But even more importantly, making the choice to protect our planet reaffirms our identification with the community of life on the Earth and offers us a principled way to live in a conflicting world…  Without being engaged we will have nothing better than to watch silently while we mindlessly destroy life on the Earth.                     


[1] .  In its Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) released in 2007, which won for a bureaucratic assemblage of 2,500 climatologists nothing less than the  Nobel Peace Prize, the scientific community predicted that the mean temperature of the Earth is likely to rise  4-6 degrees Fahrenheit this century.  The climate science summit held in Copenhagen in March 2009 attended by 2,500 delegates concluded that « the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized. »  Significant warming of the Earth over the past 100 years has already been measured.

Edwin S. Matthews