OPINION: We should have climate action, not just caution

Graphic by Katie Erickson

The year was 1983, and renowned climatologist William Nierenberg was about to present “Changing Climate,” the findings of a National Academy of Sciences commission assembled by former President Jimmy Carter.

Little did he know that his optimistic advice to the climate action community, entirely counterintuitive to the dire warnings presented in the report, would change the global warming discourse forever.

Now in 2018, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report presents another conclusion on climate change that seems completely counterintuitive to its own data. However, while Nierenberg offered empty promises, Trump isn’t even offering that.

Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.

The NHTSA report was an environmental impact statement of the Environmental Protection Agency decision to revoke Obama-era fuel efficiency requirements for vehicles, a priority for Trump and ex-EPA head Scott Pruitt. Trump’s NHTSA made the shocking statement that current anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will cause global temperature to rise seven degrees Fahrenheit (about 4.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels.

This is so striking because it’s not followed by the clarification that they were describing a Chinese hoax. Someone in Trump’s administration actually got climate science right. Seven degrees Fahrenheit is about the same as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates in a “business as usual” scenario, where emissions rise through the 21st century.

This grim statistic was included not to promote climate action, but to dissuade it: The NHTSA’s conclusion is that the climate will change catastrophically no matter what, so revoking fuel efficiency standards won’t make a difference.

Decades earlier, Nierenberg’s report confirmed previous findings, including that the climate would warm around three degrees Celsius if atmospheric carbon dioxide doubled, which the commission predicted would occur by 2065. The report’s data, to quote Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” suggested “that action had to be taken immediately, before all the details could be known with certainty, or else it would be too late.”

And yet, when Nierenberg presented “Changing Climate,” he urged “caution, not panic.” Page 61 of the report claimed, counter to its own research, “[T]he problems that may be associated with [climate change] are of quite uncertain magnitude, and both climate change and increased carbon dioxide may also bring benefits.”

Predictably, it was “caution, not panic” that everyone remembered. “Haste on Global Warming Trend is Opposed,” read a headline in The New York Times; “You Can Cope,” crowed The Wall Street Journal.

Fossil fuel companies like Exxon, who had supported the report’s release, stopped bothering to pay lip-service to climate action. Since then, Exxon documents have shown that the company’s own cutting-edge research produced clear evidence of anthropogenic climate change as early as 1977, and Exxon leadership discussed the need to obfuscate public debate to protect their profits.

Nierenberg’s reckless optimism, clinging to postwar American exceptionalism, inadvertently opened a dangerous vein in public discussion on climate change: the belief that the world could leave emissions unchecked and somehow build up enough infrastructure to prevent disaster.

Overconfidence had deluded Nierenberg that human ingenuity will always figure out how to utilize the planet’s resources to “adapt” to its environment, even when those resources are no longer there.

Unlike Nierenberg, NHTSA is deliberately trying to prevent climate action in an incredibly cynical way. This wouldn’t be the first time the Trump administration tried to convince the public that social problems are unsolvable (urban centers are “no-go zone” crime hotbeds, immigrants are an unstoppable horde of parasites and rapists), but his fear-mongering wasn’t an end in itself.

Trump’s MO is to make people afraid, but even more importantly, to make them doubt their own power as citizens, so that they will cling to a strong leader who offers miraculously bold answers. Yet now, the Trump administration, or at least NHTSA, may have realized that these too-good-to-be-true solutions are just that.

So, NHTSA seems to have taken a new course: There’s nothing you can do, so you can panic — but you definitely shouldn’t act. Because if you did act, you might not look the other way as we line the pockets of our oil industry donors.

NHTSA’s data for warming under unchecked emissions is correct, but they don’t have to go unchecked. If all current Paris Agreement pledges were met, the Earth would warm 2.7-3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This certainly isn’t a reason to celebrate, but it’s also not an excuse to lose hope, as Trump wants.

The NHTSA report makes every possible climate action even more urgent. This includes fuel efficiency requirements, whose revocation will add a not insignificant 2.2 billion metric tons of emissions by 2040.

The greatest irony of climate change is that, in 1983, when everything seemed possible, the greatest danger was overconfidence. And now, when all looks hopeless, the greatest danger is apathy. Apathy may appear appropriate, as overconfidence perhaps seemed appropriate then.

But this makes knowing the mistakes of the past even more important, because history teaches us to look beyond the surface. Perhaps then, we would notice Trump’s corrupt destruction of the planet.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is a contributing writer from Agoura Hills, CA. He is also a member of Sierra Club.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Nierenberg’s commission found a rise of three degrees Fahrenheit with doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The article has been updated to reflect that the finding was three degrees Celsius. TSL regrets this error.

This article was last updated on Oct. 16 at 6:57 p.m.
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