Dear America: Climate Change is threatening Water, Plants, Animals & doesn’t care what Party you belong To

(By Juan Cole)

A Gallup poll has found that only 35% of Americans are concerned about climate change, and that proportion is barely up from the previous year.

Climate change has become a partisan issue in the US, such that a majority of Democrats is worried about it but only 29% of independents and only 16% of Republicans! The youth are more concerned than their elders.

The American public is reacting to climate change as though it were a lifestyle or culture wars issue, such as gay marriage or marijuana legalization.

They don’t seem to realize that the laws of physics don’t respect party affiliation. If you put 32 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, as human beings are currently doing by burning coal, oil and natural gas, then you will cause massive climate change.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; more of it in the atmosphere interferes with the radiation back into space of the heat of the sun. In a lower CO2 environment, the sunlight hits the earth but then bounces back into space. If you keep that heat on earth, it increases average surface temperatures. This increase is now ongoing and dramatic. The difference between Venus (which is a fiery hell where molten lead runs in streams) and earth is that the atmosphere of Venus is full of greenhouse gases.

We have a choice over the next 15 to 20 years as to what kind of world we want to create over the next 100,000 years. If we hit the brakes on carbon dioxide emissions we could theoretically keep average surface warming to 3 degrees F. But if we go on like we are for 15 to 20 years, we will lock earth into an average surface temperature rise of 7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit (climate scientists talking to Americans need to stop using Centrigrade, which appears to downplay the extent of the increase). Once you put that level of carbon dioxide into earth’s atmosphere, it takes a long time for it to be scrubbed back out by carbon sinks. Much of it will go into the oceans, where it will increase acidity and kill off the fish. Igneous rock will absorb some. Carbon sinks will take roughly 100,000 years to wash it back out. In the meantime, the glaciation cycle will be suspended and the whole world will become tropical, with loss of all surface ice and a loss of one-third of the earth’s land mass to sea level rise. The atmosphere will likely become unstable, with mega-storms that strip trees from the landscape. It is not clear that human beings as a species could survive in a 9 degrees F. increase world.

At the same time as they manage to turn a blind eye to these immense dangers, a bigger proportion of Americans is concerned with environmental threats. They are afraid of poisoning of their drinking water, of contamination of their soil, of the pollution of rivers and lakes, the extinction of animal and plant species, and the loss of tropical rainforest.


Obviously, climatologists need to point out to them that man-made climate change will in fact produce a degradation of their environment in all these areas where the public is already anxious.

The Environmental Protection Agency points out, for instance, that:

“Climate change can have a variety of impacts on surface water, drinking water, and ground water quality. Higher water temperatures and changes in the timing, intensity, and duration of precipitation can affect water quality. Higher air temperatures (particularly in the summer), earlier snowmelt, and potential decreases in summer precipitation could increase the risk of drought. The frequency and intensity of floods could also increase. In addition, sea level rise may affect freshwater quality by increasing the salinity of coastal rivers and bays and causing saltwater intrusion—the movement of saline water into fresh ground water resources in coastal regions.”

Let’s just underline all this. If a majority of Americans is worried about the purity of their drinking water, they should be worried about climate change impacts on drinking water. Sea level rise will turn fresh water salt in coastal regions. Water will be scarcer with the increase in dry spells. As surface ice disappears, snowmelt water for drinking will literally evaporate (millions of people depend on this source around the world). In addition, extreme weather events caused by climate change include powerful rain storms and flooding (as happened in Britain this winter). Flooding can wash untreated toxic waste into our drinking water, with disease risks that include hepatitis and even cholera.

As for extinction of plants and animals, CO2-induced climate change is a major threat to many species. Some kinds of toads, penguins, cod, coral and bears are already in big trouble.

In the seas, where acidification is happening faster than any time in 300 million years, a sixth great extinction may already have begun. Loss of marine life would starve millions of human beings. But tiny sea creatures called phytoplanckton also produce 40 percent of our oxygen, and killing them off could suffocate us.

There isn’t anything more illogical than a majority or plurality of Americans worrying about environmental issues but being sanguine about climate change. Human-produced carbon dioxide is the most pressing environmental crisis the human species has faced in its 150,000-year existence. The little Republican children now toddling about at playgrounds are going to be hit by that crisis just as hard as everyone else. Their grandparents should be ashamed of themselves for throwing them to the hydrocarbon lions.


Related video:

Earth Institute: “Climate Change and Mono Lake”

16 Responses

  1. I’m a parent of three school age kids and I am extremely worried about what climate change will mean for their lives and the lives of their children. Maybe one of the ways to break the ideological log jam on this issue and start moving the federal government and the people of this country to take climate change seriously is to frame the issue in the starkest possible terms: if we don’t take decisive action on climate change now, our children and grand children will live on a planet that is increasingly a man made Hell. Starvation, violence and wars as society begins to break down. The death and destruction of all we hold dear and the people we love and care about. Maybe, just maybe, if we begin to describe a future with climate change in personal and emotional terms we might move people to change. Just a thought; more likely, a fantasy.

    • The problem is that it’s already being described in terrible terms, even by the Pentagon, and here we are anyway. I think it’s a problem of the “monkeysphere”, the idea that most people just can’t conceive that something is a problem until it’s immediately impacting them or those who they know firsthand. So things are probably going to have to hit rock bottom before we start to turn anything around. (If that’s at all possible at that point.)

  2. If we are going to counter scientific illiteracy, then we should counter with hard facts. Exaggeration will be seized upon and derided.

    Are you suggesting Antarctica will lose all ice by claiming “loss of all surface ice” or that the ice ages of the last 150 000 years – when sheets of ice covered most of the planet – were minor compared to a change in 3 degrees Celsius? Are we really talking about Earth as a planet where lead could be molten when you talk about Venus? How much sea level rise will it take to cover one third of the land?

    Do we seriously put forward the proposition human life can not exist on a planet warmed by 3 degrees Celsius?

    Of course there will be serious consequences to global warming but why give critics ammunition to portray this as a fantasy?

    • What you should be asking is, how many humans could the Earth support with even minor disruptions to our economy? The reason there were less than 1 billion humans before 1600 is not that they didn’t have time to reproduce, but that they simply could not extract the resources to support more. All growth since the start of the Industrial Age was driven by fossil fuels and a complex corporate economy that turned them into sellable goods. A burst financial bubble in 1929 led to the deaths of millions and a near-victory for totalitarianism.
      So how LITTLE would it take to screw up global markets such that 100,000,000 more people would starve than currently? And what military, and possibly nuclear, follow-on effects would result?

  3. And igneous rocks? How do volcanic rocks absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide? Perhaps you mean sedimentary rocks such as limestone which contain calcium carbonate from sea shells.

  4. “A Gallup poll has found that only 35% of Americans are concerned about climate change, and that proportion is barely up from the previous year.”

    To some extent it is surprising that as many as 35% care about climate change. It seems only a small minority of people care about the more significant aspects of life such as the decline of democracy, the corruption of politics, shredding of the Constitution, multiple versions of the law that allow major criminals to go free while minor crimes are punished severely, 50 million people living in poverty, and militarism. And the list could go on.

    • I think the answer to this, and Cole’s figures showing concern growing over certain environmental issues, is that people only care about the issues they conceive as affecting them, personally, soon. It means they think they can reap the benefits of crimes against others, while evading any costs. If that’s not possible, they don’t want to believe it exists.

  5. Even without the 97% of scientists saying with 95% certaintity that we are the cause of climate change the idea that treating the earth like a cesspit comes cost free is, to use a phrase of Dr. Johnsons, one of “unresisting imbecility”.

    Keeping the planet habitable, treating our home with reverence and respect should be completely natural. Contemporary economics should be about the well being of the earth and all living beings – not about the abstract concept called “money”.

    It’s summed up by Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, northeast of Montreal – a quote that applies equally to us:

    “Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

    • I’m reminded of a story I was told as a child. Whether it was true or not I don’t know, but it has a good moral to it. The story told of a trick some indigenous people used to catch monkeys. They would build small cages and place a nut inside. The monkey would grab the nut but when he tried to remove his hand with the nut he couldn’t because his fist was too large with the nut in its grasp to get through the bars. The monkey couldn’t bring himself to give up his treasure and so was caught. People are similar. They are locked into their habits and can’t bring themselves to change so they put their well-being at risk.

  6. Why are so many people so apathetic to what is going on?
    We constantly come across as backward, uneducated, and indifferent, to what is going on. We are one of the top contributors of carbon dioxide in the world, second only to China, and have contributed to this climate threat, and yet our people are more concerned about what the Kadashians keep doing, and watch Honey booboo. To admit to this must be hard for the right wingers, after all Al Gore was right, and they ridiculed him.
    It seems Americans live only for the moment, with no thought of what the future may bring.

  7. I think we’re also locked into a cycle of “eh whatever” until it’s too late. We realists can shout until we’re blue in the face, but even Katrina, Midwestern floods and the drying-out of California haven’t moved a majority of the country to act or even to care. Everyone reading this site already recognizes the real danger, but the failure of reality to take hold beyond a realist minority means this continued discussion is just a big sermon to the choir. I don’t think there’s any way to snap the rest of the country out of denial until we have Atlantis II in Lower Manhattan.

  8. I went out canvassing against fracking recently and one guy told me “The earth is doomed anyway, and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well get some jobs out of it.” What can you say to that ? You can get a job blowing things and people up in the military and then be treated like a hero for it. You can get a pretty decent wage destroying the environment and if you miss out on those ‘opportunities’ and end up roaming the streets because of your moral qualms the only friend you’ll have is your lonely conscience.

  9. The reality that uncontrolled climate change will destroy Earth if the world does not reduce it’s out pour of CO2, carbon dioxide will not be understood nor accepted by most Americans until the illegal news medias which are violating anti-trust laws, federal and state are replaced with honest organizations that present honest news based on the best honest information available, the best scientific proof available and the best honest thorough analyses.

    Honesty, honesty. Not the crap that the criminal rich put out.

    Steps of Actions to Bring Honest News to Americans

    1. Breakup and close down, bankrupt the illegally controlled news media corporations. Jail time and large fines for the white and blue collar criminals. Americans needs honest news not the controlled brainwashing or sensational instant crap that many Americans swallow without any serious thinking.

    2. Replaced the useless millionaire Congress members and other members that are becoming millionaires with inside information with honest individual that will represent the 98% of Americans instead of following orders of the criminal rich millionaires and billionaires and their corporations including the Federal Reserve-a private corporation and their stooges.

    3. Phase out the Military Industrial Complex, aka MIC that gets rich on illegal wars and policing the world, sometimes illegally with drones. Replace it with a strong United Nations with the power and military to enforce world approved treaties and laws. No nation should have the power to rule the world, the USA has proven this.

    4. Close down the Federal Reserve, a private corporation.

    5. Include a permanent course in independent thinking and critical analysis in all public and private schools and in all higher degree institutions. People need to question with critical thinking more of the information they are fed and brainwashed with.

    6. America needs a single daily newspaper online and printed that contains honest news that is based on the best information available, the best scientific proof available and the best thorough analyses. There’s too much information and news based on lies, hearsay, heresy, unsubstantiated opinions or on crap from the criminal billionaires or their millionaire stooges ruling the world.

    Instant news is often, instant crap.

    Honesty, honesty. Not money, money, money.

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