Now, I make a point of never having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever facts may lead me—Sherlock Holmes, in The Reigate Puzzle
Why is America virtually the only country on the planet that remains stuck in denial of climate change at its national level? Long after the leaders of all other countries (excepting only Brazil, recently) have recognized the overwhelming scientific evidence of an existential threat to human civilization, the President and the Senate continue to ridicule the notion and aggressively plough forward encouraging fossil fuels and an ever-growing economy. What is going on?
Good question. As I thought about it, I tried to let Sherlock Holmes' method quoted above guide me; being a scientist, it came natural. I was surprised where it led me; after all, I am the product of a conservative (though open-minded) home in Oklahoma. Never the less, in what I believe is my first essay that touches on "politics" as much as natural history, here is what I concluded. I suggest that three factors conspire to bring about this bizarre stance isolating America from the rest of the world.
Greed. For America's wealthiest barons of capitalism, simply accumulating wealth is the most important consideration in their lives, trumping morality, decency, honor, and legality. Their greed is avaricious, boundless, and all-consuming.
Thus when Donald Trump hears compelling evidence from his own Intelligence officials that the leader of Saudi Arabia has arranged for the murder of a journalist who has criticized the country's policies, and furthermore had the murderers hack the critic's body into small pieces to be disposed of, Trump's first reaction is—"Hey! None of our business. They buy lots of bombers and weapons from us." End of story. Profits for the bloated American weapons industry are the bottom line, more important than considerations of criminality or the silencing of government critics—not to mention simple decency.
Would facing up to climate change and its dire threats to America's security (confirmed by the Pentagon) and the health and welfare of American citizens have a negative impact on the American economy? Well, it depends on which sectors of the economy. Renewable energy and mass transit would experience a boom. Whole new industries would spring up and prosper. But they are the wrong people. They are not the 1% who hoard the current wealth of America. The ones who have contributed so generously for decades to the campaigns of presidents and senators. They will be negatively affected, because their wealth is invested in fossil fuel and mining interests which are generating the emissions and pollution which threaten the welfare of Americans. So—no. Anything that threatens the profits of America's current plutocrats (and the servants whose loyalty they have purchased) must be opposed. Regardless of evidence or common sense. Greed.
Indeed, so entrenched is he fossil fuel industry in the "deep economy" of America today that anything causing perturbations in its many components—the oil companies, petrochemical industry, transportation, mining, pipelines, and financial investments in all of these—is reflexively opposed by the plutocrats inextricably involved with this deep economy.
Do restrictions limiting the health hazards of extracting fossil fuels and minerals diminish the profits of the entrenched 1%? Then such restrictions must be overturned, regardless of the welfare of the public. Profits cannot be negatively affected. Regulatory agencies must be headed by apologists and loyalists of the great corporations to achieve this end, men (almost always) whose objectivity and understanding of basic scientific concepts is absurdly limited. Profits cannot be limited, though. Does this pollute the environment of America and damage the health of Americans? So what? America is not its "purple mountain majesties" and "amber waves of grain…above the fruited plain" to these people. No, America is the bank accounts and stocks of those controlling the economy, the plutocrats contributing so heavily to the politicians.
You would think the American public would be on to these barons of greed. After all, it has been less than a century since heads of American corporations ordered the beating and murders of union organizers protesting their mistreatment of workers. Is memory and knowledge of basic American history at such a low ebb that these lessons are forgotten? Evidently so.
The tactics of the deep economy plutocrats are much more sophisticated these days. They hire not thugs, but advertising firms and "public interest" groups to do their bidding. A good example is the Heartland Institute, which was well-funded by tobacco companies in the 1960s to discredit the alarming notion that smoking cigarettes might injure the health of the American public. They were very successful, establishing the approach of scouring up a few scientists to discredit the science (and being well-paid to do so) and gain the tobacco barons more decades of profits.
This same Heartland Institute was hired by the fossil fuel barons to do the same thing in the 1990s toward the growing climate change movement—again, successfully. The tried-and-proven model for tobacco was wheeled out and applied to climate change. Some few scientists were well-paid to cast doubt on the science. "Is the climate really changing?" brought a decade or two of confusion. When the science was recognized as irrefutable, the question became "But is changing climate brought about by human actions?", and that has brought them another several decades of continued emissions and continued profits. Greed.
Willful Ignorance is the stubborn clinging to notions and positions that are clearly refuted by scientific evidence, experience, and common sense. Willful ignorance is putting ideological convictions over scientific facts. And there is a lot of it in America these days.
The scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change is clear and overwhelming. Yet many Americans dismiss it out-of-hand. Partly this is a reflection that these folks lack the discipline and focus to sit down and consider scientific data. More frequently, though, it reflects these folks lacking the imagination to even consider that their world might be on the verge of catastrophic change.
But most fundamentally, the climate change sceptics are utterly convinced that America is such a paradigm of perfection that any criticism of its historical practices or economic foundation cannot be anything but nonsense. Their ideological commitment to American greatness precludes consideration of any need for fundamental change. Any proposal for change—by abandoning the internal combustion engine and its emissions, for example—is seen as absurd, a threat to their country or, more importantly, to their economically privileged status atop the deep economy centered on fossil fuels and their use.
Consider the ideological conviction of America's current elite that free-market capitalism is the "end of history," self-evidently the greatest and only true economic system devised by humans, a belief fervently advanced by the 1% who have obscenely profited from it. This despite the fact that most of the world declines to trust in unfettered capitalism, and insists on varying degrees of governmental control over the market. Does this worldwide practice perhaps have something to do with capitalism's long-displayed tendency to be rocked periodically by catastrophic crashes plummeting the world's citizens into unemployment and poverty? We're not talking here merely about the Great Recession of 2008 and the Great Depression of 1929 (which lasted a decade, until WWII ended it). We're talking also about the crashes of 1907 (featuring runs on banks), of 1857 (featuring the worldwide dissolution of joint-stock banks and junking of railway bonds), of 1825 (the emerging-markets crisis), or of 1792 (featuring unchecked speculative fever for short sales and futures contracts).
In this long (and incomplete) history of crashes endemic to capitalism, the common citizens always lost, their families and lives grievously impoverished and harmed, while the plutocrats weathered the storms, swept in afterwards to scoop up the devalued assets, and ended up—well, as the old 1%.
Add to these recurring crashes the ineluctable current pushing individuals and corporations into ever-increasing debt, as well as the inherent confusion as to where responsibility resides (the corporate executives? their boards? the shareholders? the private equity and hedge funds?), and you have an economic model riddled with uncertainty and instability, as elucidated so persuasively in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. Most governments in the world shudder at the notion of an unrestricted free market capitalism, based on experience and evidence.
Except in America. This economic system, centered since WWII on the many ramifications of the fossil fuel industry, has made a relatively few Americans extraordinarily rich, and they protect the system in spite of the evidence of its inherent problems. Certainly the changes necessary to meet the challenges of climate change question the current model—so they must be stridently opposed. The ideological mission of America as somehow fated to defend the "only" respectable economic system (one unknown to America's founders in the 18th century) has somehow proved more convincing than experience or scientific facts. Propose an alternative system—say the currently discussed "democratic socialism"—and you are vilified as unpatriotic, un-American, a threat to all that America stands for. And less than a century ago, during the McCarthy hearings, we saw how effective this charge of being somehow un-American can be in ruining lives.
The great (American) scientist and writer Isaac Asimov has pointed out that America has a long and rich history of extolling stupidity. "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"
More mature and experienced cultures, such as those in western Europe, have outgrown such admiration of ignorance (for the most part). Not America. There are a lot of intelligent people in America; our system of higher education is the envy of the world. But this coexists with the widespread practice of willfully ignoring facts and science when they conflict with an ideological conviction. Thus the prevalence among America's leaders of outright rejection of climate science. Though he is not the first or the best at the practice, Mr. Trump is the most nonchalant about declaring he simply does not "believe" facts about climate change when they contradict his ideological convictions that America is great and needn't change a whit. Willful ignorance.
I suspect that limitless greed and willful ignorance, so common in America throughout its history and particularly today, are somehow connected to America's frontier history. We are a people who expanded westward over an entire continent rich in natural resources for the taking (once its original inhabitants had been murdered and the few survivors herded onto reservations). This expansion and exploitation involved a lot of muscle and violence, spawning the famous "American get-up-and-go" and its "can-do" attitude—which are quite comfortably paired with greed and purposeful ignorance.
It is no coincidence, I think, that America's solitary position as the only nation denying climate change at the highest levels was broken by the recent addition of Brazil to this small club. Brazil resembles America in its huge size, its violent frontiers, and its huge concentration of pristine (to European-descent people) natural resources (in the Amazon rainforest). And in its prevalence of greed and willful ignorance.
Though they may be more prevalent and developed in America, though, these are not uniquely American (or Brazilian) traits. There is a uniquely American phenomenon, however, that combines with greed and willful ignorance to explain our rejection of climate change at the highest levels. That is the idolatry of "freedom". The contemporary American elite fervently believe that America is "great" because of its precious freedom—the freedom vouchsafed us by our sagacious founders that guarantees every American lad (for the most part) the inherent right to do whatever he darn well pleases to make himself obscenely rich, without restrictions or regulations imposed by a tyrannical government.
Never mind that those sagacious founders, practical men all, meant something completely different by "freedom." For them, freedom was a level playing field, where aristocrats had no advantages. Where no particular religion or ideology was decreed sacrosanct. Where laws—and regulations—were for the common good, rather than benefitting the privileged few, the elite representing the aristocrats back in England. And those laws and regulations promulgated by the founding fathers after their revolution originated from the freely-elected representatives of the people—not appointed by a king.
That was the freedom that America's founders fought for and bequeathed to us—not the freedom to trample the common people and their health and welfare in the pursuit of profits. By elevating the "freedom" to pursue profits for themselves above the welfare of the common people, today's American plutocrats have profoundly distorted and perverted the notion of freedom. They have made of "freedom" a false idol, and set about fiercely worshipping it, with no regard for its original conception. Our precious American freedom from oppression by an un-elected aristocracy in England has become an idol that turns freedom on its head.
The idolatry of "freedom" trumpeted and defended so aggressively by today's American 1% and their political servants—the "freedom" to rack up obscene wealth by profiting from the rape of America's natural resources and the polluting of its air and water, all at the expense of ordinary Americans outside the elite—is in fact the very opposite of what Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Madison meant.
The idolatry of freedom pursued by today's monied elite leads to today's plutocrats replacing the founder's hated British aristocracy. Now the modern American 1% are the ones imposing their will and their manipulations on the ordinary people of America, hoarding their wealth while the common citizens are thrown out of work, replaced by automation, and impoverished in a polluted environment. All this because the elite, by gosh, have been given absolute "freedom" to amass their wealth however they wish, whatever the cost to others. It's the American way, they insist. But in fact, they have created a false idol of the concept of freedom, which impoverishes the people and the land of America, even as it makes the elite even richer.
All other nations exhibit degrees of greed and willful ignorance. But only America has been founded on a concept of freedom, which its elites have perverted into an idolatry which gives them cover for viciously pursuing their own aggrandizement with complete "freedom" from limitations by others, either by considerations of morality or the common welfare. This is nothing but the "freedom" demanded by spoiled twelve-year-old boys. Except those boys are now grown up into manhood, without any maturation at all. America is full of Spoiled Twelve-year-Old Boy-men: STOBs. America is so dysfunctional today because it is ruled by STOBs. We even today have the most transparent STOB ever as our president, our very own twelve-year-old-in-chief.
So our Environmental Protection Agency is now headed by a STOB formerly a lobbyist for elite corporations specializing in polluting the land and air; he is busily removing restrictions on the pursuit of profit by these good "freedom"-defending Americans. The Department of Interior, in charge of the stewardship of America's astonishing heritage of mountains, lakes, and rolling plains, is headed by a sequence of STOBs intent on auctioning off the right to exploit and destroy that legacy in the pursuit of profits. STOBs exercising that grand old American "freedom" to do whatever you want, always in the pursuit of private profit, never in the pursuit of what is best for the community. The idolatry of "freedom"
Today's American elite are, in fact, acting exactly as the British aristocratic ruling class acted in 1776. They are imposing their interests and will upon the common people. Except that today, they buy that right by skillful advertising and manipulation of the common people. With unlimited funds provided by the Kochs and the Trumps of America in light of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling of 2010, they twist and package their cupidity, stupidity, and idolatry of freedom to confuse and bamboozle half of America—just enough to make it work!
So between greed, willful ignorance, and the overarching idolatry of "freedom," America is the great denier of climate change, the great defender of the freedoms of fossil fuel and mining corporations to enrich the elite, quite regardless of well-established facts regarding the consequences of those actions. Ideology trumping knowledge, even bare facts.
The day will come when reality comes crashing in, and the common people will, finally, wake up and take the elite to task for what they've done. Well, in fact, reality is already crashing in, in the form of lives and savings lost to more frequent and intense hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, in America as elsewhere. What we await is the common people finally putting a stop to those STOBs putting profit before the general welfare, the worshippers of the idolatry of freedom. Someday.
Sooner or later, even the most propagandized, manipulated voter in America will recognize, finally, that the plutocrats are hypnotizing them, and that improving their plight will mean denying the 1% their mandate to govern. The reality of climate change and the elite's huge contribution to that all-too-real phenomenon—the deep economy of the fossil fuel corporations, the mining companies, the gas-guzzling, carbon-dioxide-emitting vehicles congesting our highways—will become clear and undeniable, even to a public-relations-bamboozled American public surrounded by electronic media and its insistent advertisements and games and diverting apps.
The great concern is that this day of America's voters opening their eyes to reality, to the facts scientists (and environmentalists) have been declaring for three decades now, will come too late to avert great harm and hardship. So long as America dithered and its elite reaped their profits, a leaderless world has dithered. Coal and oil have continued to be burned, vehicles with internal combustion engines swarm the world's cities, all this for so long that a 2 degree C (much less a 1.5 degree C) increase in temperature above pre-Industrial Age is no longer attainable at a practical level. Even the 3 degree C increase pledged in the INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) pledged at the 2015 Paris Accord has slipped from the practical possibility of attainment.
And beyond 3 degrees C, all indications (based on scientific evidence) are that the disintegration of human civilization begins, and accelerates rapidly, driven by intensified storms, droughts, continual wildfires, decreasing food and water supplies, all abetted and intensified by the hundreds of millions of refugees surging north from uninhabitable equatorial regions.
What we are now deciding, on a practical level, is how far down that terrible path humanity will go. Barbarism is on that path, and not so far down it from where we are.
And extinction of the human species awaits at the end of that path.
Every week that American greed, willful ignorance, and idolatry of "freedom" persist and rule, the farther humanity will travel down that looming path.
While it is instructive to consider the roles of these factors in producing the dangerous climate denial of America, we must not despair—yet—and ignore the other 99%, the common folks of America. I was fortunate enough to work for a decade with people representing a wide range of incomes to found a science museum in my hometown (which opened in 2010). I was struck with the decency and intelligence of these folks. None of them qualify for the 1% tag, but some had, by sheer dint of hard work and smart moves, become wealthy.
While the traits of greed and willful ignorance were nowhere to be found in my colleagues, all of us to some degree are influenced by the idolatry of "freedom" described above. How might the good and decent folk of America break free of the controlling bonds of the deep economy plutocrats? How can the spell of the idolatry of "freedom" be broken?
Three suggestions. First, we must realize the urgency of the need to address the challenge of climate change. Second, we need to liberate our thinking regarding our ability to adopt a substantially different way of living. And third, we need to begin listening more to the women and youth in our society.
The urgency is well known and has been relatively well-publicized. It is commonly understood in Europe and around the world, thanks to the clear analyses by scientists and world policy-makers. We have until 2030 (according to the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to make the necessary decisions and to be well on our way to implementing those decisions. Period. I will not rehearse the findings and needed changes here; those can be found in today's The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, or Bill McKibbon's April, 2019 Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, or my 2016 Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet. Many other books and articles are available.
Second: the need to liberate our thinking about what we are capable of doing, as individuals and as a society. Bill McKibbon pointed out in a 2016 The New Republic article that the threat of climate change and its consequences are in the same league as the threat of World War II was 80 years ago. That is: an existential threat, which demanded an all-in, completely dedicated response that upended the lives of the entire nation, sending all in new and unanticipated directions. A response that could only be directed by the federal government, drafting not just soldiers to fight, but women to enter the workforce in new capacities, and corporations to begin producing new products—in a matter of weeks and months, not years.
Famously, Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" did exactly that—and met the gravest challenge to ever confront America.
Today, the challenge is even more dangerous, and requires the same total dedication to meeting and besting it. When conservative commentators ridicule the idea of sharply reducing travel by air and eating hamburgers, their "can't do", narrow estimation of what Americans can adapt to is a prime and clear example of defeatism, and abysmal ignorance of American history. The current Republican party's ridicule of the Green New Deal reveals not just a complete lack of understanding of the seriousness of the climate challenge, but also a low and mistaken opinion of American capabilities.
These clueless, weak responses remind me of what McKibbon documented in his The New Republic article (based on research by historian Mark Wilson): even with Hitler and his Nazis overrunning Europe, even with Japanese armies invading China and Korea in Asia and making ominous moves in the Pacific, the executives of America's corporations in the late 1930s generally opposed President Roosevelt's requests to alter their "business (and profits) as usual" in ways that aided the victims of Nazi and Japanese aggression (as, for example, the Lend Lease program). They protected their profits with the same zeal that we have seen in the last 30 years that the challenge of climate change has been known. This aversion to new practices that might perturb their profit-making was shrouded in a publicly-stated opposition to "foreign wars"—this when Nazi and Japanese armies were already well on their way to world conquest! Henry Ford was an adamant proclaimer of this stance, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also opposed any American assistance to our age-old friends and allies. (This is the same Chamber of Commerce that has persistently discredited climate change for 30 years now.)
This refusal of the plutocrats to countenance any changes in the profitable running of their corporations persisted through the Nazi bombing of England and further advances of Hitler's Wehrmacht throughout Europe—clear up to December 7, 1941.
It took Japanese bombers killing Americans and destroying American ships and planes at Pearl Harbor before many of America's most deeply-entrenched corporations contributed anything significant (other than delay and resistance) to the challenge of German and Japanese aggression (despite the puffed-up newsreel footage produced by corporate public relations departments).
Even then, post-Pearl Harbor, their long-entrenched attachment to their own profits was but grudgingly overcome by some segments of American industry, to the point where President Roosevelt was forced to order many firms to be seized when they refused to obey the directives produced by the U.S. military, as documented by historian Wilson. But overcome it was, finally, and even the plutocrats of America's powerful corporations and industries soon joined the common people in defending America and its allies in Europe and Asia.
But it took Pearl Harbor to swing things around. Today we stand at the same point as we did on December 8, 1941. We have experienced many Pearl Harbor-like moments here in America associated with climate change. Climate-intensified hurricanes on the East Coast and Gulf which ravaged New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina in 2005, killing 1,833 Americans and causing $125 billion in damages), New York City (Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy in 2012, killing 147 and causing $70 billion in damages), Houston (Hurricane Harvey in 2017, killing 68 and causing $125 billion in damages), and climate-intensified wildfires in California in 2017 ( 9,133 fires killing 47, consuming 1,381,405 acres, and costing $18 billion) and 2018 (8,527 fires killing nearly 100 people, consuming 1,893,913 acres, and causing more than 3.5 billion in damages, destroying the entire town of Paradise).
All of these catastrophes, and more, represent climate change in action, affecting ecosystems to make catastrophes ever more frequent and more intense. Much more will come. Yet American corporations, led by the 1% executives and investors in fossil fuel, petrochemical, pipeline, and mining interests, have replayed the 1930s response to Nazi and Japanese aggression, and fiercely resist restrictions on carbon emissions and pollution, to the point of overturning those already in place. This folly will be viewed in coming decades as America's most shameful moment.
Though it will have taken much too long—decades too long—at some point in the near future America's common people will wake up and elect leaders that mandate the necessary responses to the dire consequences of climate change. Fossil fuels must stay in the ground; we must embark on a fast transition to 100% renewable energy; we must ban all new fossil fuel infrastructure projects; and yes, because emissions from airplanes are a significant and as-yet difficult to mitigate component of total emissions, airplane travel will be reduced and train travel expanded (until some enterprising American receives encouragement to develop a renewable energy source for airplanes); and yes, because the methane produced by the digestive system of cows is a significant component of greenhouse gases heating the planet, beef production and consumption will also be reduced. Somehow Americans, even gassy television pundits spewing defeatism, will survive on Impossible Burgers and other non-beef burgers.
Other nations are courageously and boldly stepping up to the challenge already. In Norway, 58% of the new cars purchased in 2018 were electric vehicles. In Germany, responding to alarming findings by scientists that pollinating insect populations are plummeting, the southern state of Bavaria this week legally mandated that 20% of its agricultural land be set aside to meet organic farming strictures on pesticide and fertilizer use by 2025, and 30% by 2030. Ten percent of green space in Bavaria will be turned into flowering meadows, and rivers and streams protected from agricultural runoff.
If Americans can do what we did in response to Pearl Harbor, and if Norwegians and Bavarians are doing the things cited above, then we today can do what we must to meet the challenge of climate change in America. Yes, it will be huge, a wrenching change in behaviors, a jolt to the life styles of many. But the Greatest Generation did it. Those who ridicule the ability of the current generation to do it also are pathetic under-estimators not just of the challenge of climate change, but also the ability of Americans.
Which brings us to my third suggestion: we need to empower and listen more to the women and youths of America. They are proving to be the source of understanding and of strength and determination in this crisis of climate change. Perhaps it is because they are better able to summon the time and focus to understand the scientific facts. Perhaps it is because they are not so caught up in greed, ignorance, and the idolatry of "freedom." Perhaps they are just more decent than the deep economy plutocrats. Perhaps they have the courage to imagine changes without being afraid of them. Whatever the reason, large numbers of women and youths understand the urgency and have the confidence and strength to do what it takes to face up to what is happening and deal with the intensified storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, food shortages, and the management of hundreds of millions of refugees that are threatening America and the world. Can do.
But time is short. The descent into barbarism has already begun in many parts of the world. That tide will reach America. How far down that path America will slide is today in the hands of its women and youths and the relatively few males standing beside them. We must listen to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib; to the Parkland high school students and Sweden's Greta Thunberg; to Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley—and others. It is these intelligent, courageous, eyes-wide-open women, youths, and men that can confidently move beyond greed, willful ignorance, and the idolatry of "freedom" to rescue America and the world.