Tabulating the amount of carbon stored in the Canadian tar sands, retired NASA climate scientist James Hansen said the burning of that tarry storehouse while continuing a business-as-usual petroleum-powered agenda would mean “game over” for planet earth. A coalition of climate activists, concerned Midwestern growers, and Native peoples beat back the Keystone XL pipeline that would have moved that sludge to U.S. refineries and into the global market.
However, the incoming President-Elect Donald Trump has promised to revive Keystone, get the contested Dakota Access pipeline back on track, and kick start American’s industrial engine, largely, it would seem, with outdated 19th century energy technologies. Not only that, but Trump has also pledged to “tear up” the international Paris Agreement intended to guide the reduction of global greenhouse gases, the primary cause of accelerating (and effectively irreversible) planetary warming.
For this and other reasons, many, like Noam Chomsky, were suggesting before the 2016 presidential election that a Trump election posed not just a setback for liberal humanitarian values and global peace. They have warned, much as Hansen did about the Keystone, that a Trump administration posed a potential “game over” for the human race from climate catastrophe.
As the incoming Trump Administration seeks to identify anyone within the U.S. Department of Energy who has been involved in climate change research or policy discussions (which the DOE has so far refused to do), scientists have been busily making copies of their climate-related research out of concern the incoming will order a massive data purge.
It’s worth hearing Hansen again on his Keystone-era clarion call:
“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now,” Hansen wrote for The New York Times in 2012.
“That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”
Suggesting that little has changed with that assessment, more than 350 scientists, including 30 Nobel laureates, stepped forward in September with an open letter for Donald Trump and his supporters. “The letter warns that the consequences of opting out of the Paris agreement would be severe and long-lasting for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States,” an introduction from the campaign site Responsible Scientists states.
The full text is below.
An Open Letter Regarding Climate Change From
Concerned Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
Human-caused climate change is not a belief, a hoax, or a conspiracy. It is a physical reality. Fossil fuels powered the Industrial Revolution. But the burning of oil, coal, and gas also caused most of the historical increase in atmospheric levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. This increase in greenhouse gases is changing Earth’s climate.
Our fingerprints on the climate system are visible everywhere. They are seen in warming of the oceans, the land surface, and the lower atmosphere. They are identifiable in sea level rise, altered rainfall patterns, retreat of Arctic sea ice, ocean acidification, and many other aspects of the climate system. Human-caused climate change is not something far removed from our day-to-day experience, affecting only the remote Arctic. It is present here and now, in our own country, in our own states, and in our own communities.
During the Presidential primary campaign, claims were made that the Earth is not warming, or that warming is due to purely natural causes outside of human control. Such claims are inconsistent with reality.
Others argued that no action is warranted until we have absolute certainty about human impacts on climate. Absolute certainty is unattainable. We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks: to our ability to thrive and build a better future, to national security, to human health and food production, and to the interconnected web of living systems.
The basic science of how greenhouse gases trap heat is clear, and has been for over a century. Ultimately, the strength of that basic science brought the governments of the world to Paris in December 2015. They went to Paris despite pronounced differences in systems of government, in national self-interest, in culpability for past emissions of greenhouse gases, and in vulnerability to future climate change. The leaders of over 190 countries recognized that the problem of human-caused climate change is a danger to present and future citizens of our planet. They made national commitments to address this problem. It was a small but historic and vital first step towards more enlightened stewardship of Earth’s climate system.
From studies of changes in temperature and sea level over the last million years, we know that the climate system has tipping points. Our proximity to these tipping points is uncertain. We know, however, that rapid warming of the planet increases the risk of crossing climatic points of no return, possibly setting in motion large-scale ocean circulation changes, the loss of major ice sheets, and species extinctions.
The climatic consequences of exceeding such thresholds are not confined to the next one or two electoral cycles. They have lifetimes of many thousands of years.
The political system also has tipping points. Thus it is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord. A “Parexit” would send a clear signal to the rest of the world: “The United States does not care about the global problem of human-caused climate change. You are on your own.” Such a decision would make it far more difficult to develop effective global strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The consequences of opting out of the global community would be severe and long-lasting – for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States.
The United States can and must be a major player in developing innovative solutions to the problem of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Nations that find innovative ways of decarbonizing energy systems and sequestering CO2 will be the economic leaders of the 21st century. Walking away from Paris makes it less likely that the U.S. will have a global leadership role, politically, economically, or morally. We cannot afford to cross that tipping point.
After the November election results were clear, many in the climate-science community were left wondering: Is this even a career anymore?
To them and many others, one of the organizers of the above Responsible Scientists letter campaign addressed a “statement of purpose” for going forward. It describes in short but illuminating strokes the life of a scientist, the emotional complications of being an American voter today, and speaks of the need to recommit oneself to one’s work even in a period of profound uncertainty.
Here is NAS member and climate scientist Ben Santer:
Statement of Purpose
I look at differences between expectations and reality. The expectations are from computer models of the climate system. Computer models can tell us about historical changes in climate – the changes we should have seen in response to things like human-caused increases in greenhouse gases. My job is to compare these expected changes in climate with actual observations.
In my scientific life, expectations and reality match up most of the time. There are also times when they don’t match up. I try to understand both the “matching up”, and the “not matching up”. The bottom-line message from this work is that there’s very good agreement between most model expectations and reality – but we only find this agreement if models include human influences on the climate system. Natural factors alone don’t give us “matching up” between expected and observed changes in climate.
I’ve also learned that when model expectations and reality don’t match up, the differences between the two are revealing. They tell us something useful about uncertainties in real-world climate measurements, about factors missing from the model simulations, and about the effects of natural climate variability.
That’s the way science works. When expectations and reality do not align, we learn. We try to understand. We try to improve the models. We try to reduce uncertainties in the observations. We keep on iterating. We keep on confronting expectations with reality, until what once was mysterious is no longer puzzling. Advances in scientific understanding are unstoppable, even when magnitude 8.0 seismic shifts occur in our political system.
In life, too, there are differences between expectations and reality. After the last Presidential election in the United States, over half of the voting population encountered differences between what they wanted and what they got. They expected a United States in which racism, religious intolerance, and misogyny do not have a place. They expected a United States government determined to find solutions to the existential problem of human-caused climate change. They expected a country eager to find cheap and efficient ways of producing low-carbon energy – a country ready to become a clean energy leader rather than a follower of others. They expected a country in which rational and respectful discourse is possible, in which ignorance is not glorified, and in which fear is not used as a motivational tool.
As yet, we do not know whether reality will match these expectations. Perhaps the harsh rhetoric of the campaign trail will give way to more thoughtful speech. Perhaps solutions will replace slogans, and divisiveness will give way to inclusiveness. Perhaps the job will change the job-holder. Perhaps pragmatism will win out over ideology. Perhaps there will be a few moments of clarity, when a signal of understanding – understanding of the President’s responsibility for our country’s future, and for our planet’s climate future – emerges from the continuous background noise of special interests, lobbyists, ideologues, and forces of unreason.
Some of my colleagues, younger and older, have concerns about this new post-election reality. They wonder whether there is still a place for kindness, tolerance, and rationality, and for curiosity about this strange and beautiful world in which we live. They are unsure whether “climate scientist” is still a viable career option. They are concerned about the climate risk their children and grandchildren are already being exposed to. They know how that risk will grow if we do nothing to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
I do not have good answers for their questions and concerns. All I can tell them is that we need to understand and learn from these “expectation-versus-reality” differences, just as we do in climate science. I tell them that we can find clever ways of using and amplifying our scientific voices, and of declaring who we are and what we stand for. I tell them that we have the amazing privilege of being in a position to advance scientific understanding, to work on problems that are truly important. I tell them that this is not the time for despair – it’s time for leaving the sidelines and entering the public arena. And finally, I give them my post-election statement of purpose, and tell them that this is how I have chosen to spend my time. That’s something we all have control over – how we choose to spend our time.
Personal statement of purpose:
1. To continue working to improve scientific understanding of the nature and causes of climate change;
2. To continue to inform the public and policymakers about all aspects of climate science;
3. To continue to seek constructive engagement and respectful dialogue;
4. To continue to be in the public arena, to be a voice of reason, and to be accountable for the research I do.
Ben Santer, San Ramon, Ca., November 22, 2016