Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Short, Personal History of Episodes With Climate Change Denial in the United States

Earth from Space with Stars

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey Flickr Page:

The old button from the Environmental Club days which I just happened to find on Earth Day! It is a little beat up (particularly the ends of the ribbon), but no worse for the wear, I think. And it is one of the few items that I have left from those days, so it carries a lot of great memories for me! Nothing Changes Until You Do!

Here is a picture of a very similar logo, with the same message, that was on the t-shirt that I purchased from the BCC Environmental Club and, if memory serves me correctly, may even have helped to make. There were a few projects like that which club members, myself included, were regularly involved with. It has been so long, however, that I no longer recall specifically if I actually helped to make these or not, although I do believe so, since I remember seeing the process of the t-shirts being dyed. In any case, I loved this t-shirt, and have kept it ever since, even if I do not regularly wear it. Since it was part of my experience with the BCC Environmental Club days, as well as more generally having an environmental theme, it seemed appropriate to share it here. 

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed."

~Mahatma Gandhi

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."
~John F. Kennedy  

Back in the late 1980's or early 1990's, my father and I were watching an episode of Donahue. The guest was the famous singer, Sting, and he was talking about Brazil and the Amazon. Specifically, he was talking about the urgency of preserving the Amazon while there was still the Amazon. Much like in so many areas around the world, proposed development was threatening the integrity of the local environment, and this threat was particularly grave throughout the Amazon rainforest.

Farmers were burning huge tracts of land, clearing them for future farming. Naively, I assumed that this would be a simple issue of getting them to stop what they are doing, that they were essentially bad people for wanting to clear parts of this famous jungle. My father explained to me that these people were poor, destitute, and just trying to find a way to make a living. In other words, that they were not bad people, even if the effect of what they were doing had bad effects. Conveniently, westerners who heard about it passed quick and easy judgment, much like I had. But the issues were considerably more complex than that.

Sting himself pointed out this kind of hypocrisy. One person in the audience said that Brazil had a really bad problem of national debt. Sting retorted by mentioning that one country that had a worse problem with national debt was the United States. My father noted that not too many people in the audience applauded that point.

We discussed climate change a bit more. He emphasized Sting's point, about how the burning of the rainforests, and forests in general, was poisoning our air. I came to learn of other everyday practices that I had never previously questioned or even thought much of, such as driving, and how this was polluting our air. In time, I came to develop a bit of a deeper understanding of climate change, or global warming, as it was usually called back then.

One thing that I learned, also, was that a history teacher at my high school was taking an active role in this fight, and getting the local high school students involved. He rallied the students to protest the use of styrofoam at the local McDonald's, and I was impressed when that McDonald's announced that they would no longer use styrofoam. This man was the adviser for the school's Environmental Club, and he also started a recycling program at the school, with students in the club actually being the ones who went around after school and collected the recycling bins. In time, I joined the Environmental Club, and was one of the students who went around, collecting the recyclables. He also got us to show up at a local town meeting in order to speak out against a proposed town development plan that would have devastated a significant part of the town's most famous features - the woods and relatively abundant natural beauty - in order to build a new town center, a golf course, and thousands of new living units. We also tried to remain active against repeated proposals to bring a Kmart into town.

My own personal activism increased once I went to Bergen Community College, and also joined the Environmental Club there. The students there seemed much more aware, and impossibly more sophisticated in my then young and inexperienced eyes than the students at the old high school. There I learned more of the nuances and subtleties on the subject. We visited a recycling plant near Paramus, New Jersey. We each had "specialty" areas to focus on. One girl who became a close friend at the time that I was attending school was active with the Walden Woods project (probably because she was a big fan of Don Henley, who was the most famous face associated with the fight to preserve Walden Woods), and I began to learn more about Henry David Thoreau. We also learned more about Native Americans, and I learned more about them than anything that I had learned in high school - including how they lived a more sustainable lifestyle that was far more in balance with the web of life than our own, supposedly advanced culture did. I went to a protest with that girl, and followed the news of the day, having discussions about pertinent topics, and how the then new president, Bill Clinton, was doing on environmental issues. We attended the New England Environmental Conference up at Tufts University in the greater Boston area, and I went in both 1994 and 1995.

In time, I became secretary of the BCC Environmental Club, then moved up to Vice-President and, in academic year 1994-95, the President. Instead of simply being part of the organizing efforts to coordinate events, much of the responsibility fell on me. I felt the need to be more informed than ever before on environmental issues, and organized events for the club to participate in, always in cooperation with other school clubs. The biggest one was the Earth Day festivities, which actually lasted a few days. There were speakers, I went and made a presentation before young children in coordination with Early Childhood Development, and worked with numerous clubs and outside agencies to make Earth Day a success. We had eight rock bands show up to perform, although one of them,  unfortunately, never got to take the stage. Still, it felt like a success, and I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief afterward. By then, I could not wait until I was no longer president, and allowed someone else to take over.

After that, I tried to focus more on my studies (I had been going part-time at the college, but was still nearing graduation), as the time was nearing for me to move on. Also, I became more active with the school newspaper, and in time, became the sports editor. Once I transferred to Rutgers University, I felt older than most of the kids attending, and did not get involved with any student activities. Still, my environmentalist sentiments did not wane, although by then, it became more about staying informed about the issues and, if possible, to take a more active approach.

On occasion, there have been discussions on this topic with other people. There have been quite a few climate change deniers - you would be amazed at just how many people are out there who claim to be familiar with the topic and probably consider themselves experts who adamantly reject the climate change theory - and every now and then, we would lock horns. There was one guy I used to work with in Pomona, New York, and we got stuck in a massive, two foot snow blizzard one year. This was around the same time that then President George W. Bush was trying to justify the inevitable invasion of Iraq, and he and I went back and forth on that topic. He was in favor of the invasion, and the president, and described Bush as intelligent, articulate, and truly inspirational. I begged to different. On the occasion of the snow storm, however, he at some point turned to me and said, "Well, this sure shoots the shit out the global warming theory!" I then retorted that the global warming theory is not completely proven false simply because it is a cold day in Pomona, New York. That, in fact, the scientists who believed in climate change actually predicted more severe regional weather, including more severe winter storms, and often, more snow. I concluded out argument by suggesting that he at least familiarize himself a little bit with the theory before he simply dismisses it like that. Surprisingly, that pretty much ended that particular conversation, although it certainly did not adversely affect his admiration for President Bush. Nor did I expect that it would.

Over the years, there have been a few other discussions like that and, at the time, quite a few discussions with people like him who somehow believed everything that people like George W. Bush told them, but somehow remained skeptical to others who responded that the math behind these arguments, such as for the Iraq invasion or skeptical towards the global warming theory simply did not add up. However, these discussions probably did not do much to change opinions, one way or the other. The one area where I still felt good and productive on it was when I wrote, and this blog, which was initially the idea of a former girlfriend of mine, actually has helped me to clarify my own arguments and even understanding considerably!

That is how it has remained since, and I try to keep abreast of the pertinent issues, as well as writing about them and discussing them. I went up to finally visit Walden Woods in the 2000's, and have returned for fairly regular visits every few years or so since, including with my son. Mostly though, it has been watching and keeping up with politics, and for an environmentalist like myself, the news usually seems to be depressing and not at all encouraging. The victory of Donald Trump in last November's presidential elections was not exactly a shock to me, although it was the biggest step down that the United States has taken in this particular subject. That was not always the case, though.

Four decades ago, the United States had a president who urged Americans to end their reliance on foreign oil, and to develop clean, alternative energy solutions to replace it. He asked Americans to make some moderate sacrifices, on our terms, but this request was mocked and roundly rejected. The United States not only rejected him, but since then, they have continually rejected any serious notions of trying to get cleaner alternative energy options, and an alarming percentage of Americans seriously seem to believe that 97% of the world's scientists are in some kind of an evil plot regarding climate change, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Somehow, this was discovered by self-serving billionaires who want to drill for oil anywhere and everywhere, and they have crafted arguments equating their grabbing billions in profits and gutting laws protecting our air, our lands, and our water with freedom.

In 2017, America has a president who dismissed climate change as a hoax. He hired another climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He got Rex Tillerson, the former head of a huge oil company, Exxon, who's own scientists discovered that climate change was real back in the late 1970's (around when Carter was in the White House), but who covered this up, to serve as his Secretary of State. Tillerson himself has acknowledged that climate change is real, while paradoxically also claiming that the science is still not clear, at one point claiming that the U.S. should lead the world in combating climate change and agreeing with the climate accord, but now being in favor of deregulation, much like his boss. Funny, how they all stand to profit from it, too.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is going on without us, tired of watching Americans come up with denial and/or excuses. Netherlands has apparently completed wind powered trains ahead of schedule, and is eliminating cars run on petrol and diesel by 2025 - less than one decade from now. Germany relies enormously on wind power, and they are continuing to expand these efforts. Ireland is trying to get itself off of reliance on fossil fuels. Even tiny Iceland, with not even close to 1% of America's population or power) is leading the mighty United States, the world's leading superpower, in clean alternative energy production. With Trump and Pence in the White House protecting the interests of big oil and coal and other big polluters, that is assured not to change anytime soon, and America is falling farther and farther behind.

I always find it amusing when people say that global warming does not exist because it's cold outside in their town right now. These people do not bother to look into what global warming/climate change really is, that scientists never said that the weather would just get warmer and warmer and warmer. Obviously, there are still four seasons, and the weather is colder during the winter than the summer. What they predicted is that the weather would grow crazier and more severe over time, which is what has happened. 2016 was the hottest year on record, and we have seen unbelievably erratic weather, unless you have been blind to Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, massive floods in the Mississippi River region, and record droughts out west. Overall, the trend is that the global climate will gradually grow warmer, and that the seas will rise to the point that coastal cities will be flooded. If you do not believe climate change is real, take a look at pictures of mountain ranges that used to be covered in glaciers, or see how ice in the Arctic and Antarctic has been melting. That climate change is real is not even really debated anymore. Even most Republicans have come around to admit that it is real, and the only thing that they debate is whether it is due to human activity. Pay attention and at least explore something a little bit before you dismiss it as a hoax.

I had a coworker tell me some winters ago during a snowstorm that "this sure shoots the shit out of the global warming theory!" And Senator Jim Inhoffe infamously brought in a snowball from outside to disprove climate change. Miguel's joke just reminded me of that, as well as Trump's denial that climate change was anything more than a hoax invented by the Chinese, and then his denial of that denial. So annoying, this blatant disregard for science!

In the 1980's, Reagan, Bush and numerous other Republicans (and some Democrats) literally laughed at the concerns of environmentalists regarding climate change, and claimed it was a hoax. By the time George W. Bush was into his second term, after years of not taking it seriously, the Bush administration admitted that climate change was real. As CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson also admitted that climate change is real, was for the Paris Climate Change Accord, and wanted America to play a more active role in global efforts to combat climate change. That, after the infamous cover-up by Exxon, as they had discovered, in the late 1970's, that it was real. Now, as Trump's right-hand man, he's contradicting himself, claiming that the science is unclear, and thus taking action really is not necessary. Trump himself has had contradictory views, claiming once that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to hurt the American economy, but later denying this denial. Not surprisingly, all of these idiots who denied climate change had something to gain financially by their denial. Their arguments have changed, while the basic arguments that climate change is real, which 97% of the world's scientists agree on, has not changed at all. Through it all, far too many Americans have bought into the ever shifting argument that the science is unclear, and many even believe that climate change is not real, despite a majority of Republicans now acknowledging that it is real. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world is going ahead without America. Germany relies on an already large and continually growing percentage of it's energy needs through wind power. The Netherlands is planning to eliminate gas cars within a decade, and Ireland is weening itself off of fossil fuels. Even tiny Iceland is more impressive in alternative energy development then the United States, which is the world's leading superpower. They understand what's at stake, and can see through the transparently selfish arguments trying to invalidate the urgency of climate change, although tens of millions of Americans apparently cannot.

They have taken action, deciding many years ago now not to wait until Americans finally stop dragging their feet on this issue. When almost all scientists acknowledge that climate change is real, and 97 percent of them believe that human activity has contributed to it, then they decided that the risks are simply too great to remain passive, to wait until absolute, irrefutable certainty is achieved. They went ahead and developed the technology necessary to free themselves from polluting energy sources. Every country in western Europe has much more stringent environmental regulations in place than the United States does, and these laws are not dismantled at the whim of some elitist elected officials looking to make money for themselves or their friends by allowing big polluters to drill or dump illegally - at least not to the degree that these things are increasingly allowed in the United States. 

And we wonder why we Americans are increasingly seen as the laughingstock of the world?

As an American, I feel both the paradox involved with my country's history on environmental issues, particularly since we learned about climate change. On the one hand, I think some Americans have played a positive role. First of all, the Native Americans had lessons to teach us all in our American culture, and even though we ignored and dismissed them at the time, we are gradually coming to understand the significance and wisdom of their message over time. Thoreau was the first in our modern culture to begin to truly look at our way of life and see how it was out of balance and unsustainable. Others followed, such as John Muir (I know that he was not exactly American, although it was the American wilderness that captivated him and of which he wrote so movingly, and it was here in the United States that he fought politically for conservation of land. Theodore Roosevelt also went a long way towards allowing Americans to truly grasp the wonders of the natural beauty that they were now the custodians of, and his advocacy of setting up the national parks system was a landmark, changing attitudes and waking the conscience of a nation. Decades later, we had Rachel Carson, who first told us the idea that we could not simply do whatever we wanted with our land, with our planet, and remain ignorant that there would be repercussions. Dr. James Hansen was the first scientist to discover the trend that temperatures around the world were slowly rising, and made the world aware of climate change. I am proud that some leaders, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bernie Sanders recognized how important it was to have clean air and water and land. And I am proud of those environmental activists that this country has produced, many of whom have taken brilliant actions and/or written wonderfully about the subject, including but not limited to the incredible Daniel Quinn. Numerous companies and corporations have heeded the call, and have taken it upon themselves to develop products with a cleaner environment and long-term sustainability in mind. I am proud of California politicians of late, as well, including Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite their otherwise obvious political differences, for stressing the significance of that most important state leading the country in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly direction for the future.

Yet for all of that, it must be said also that as an American, I also feel both embarrassed and ashamed with my country's history on environmental issues, particularly since we learned about climate change. I do not want to repeat myself, but I felt embarrassed for the country at the literal laughter and mockery by very prominent politicians, including President Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. It was frustrating when Bill Clinton, and his supposedly environmental activist Vice-President, Al Gore, did not deliver on what were expected to be sweeping changes for America's environmental policies. I felt angry when George W. Bush ran as a candidate promising to be the environmental president, and then turning around two months into his presidency and citing supposedly new scientific research that allegedly showed that carbon emissions actually did not contribute to rising temperatures, and conveniently using that to weaken existing environmental laws. It frustrated me that after some serious episodes involving strange weather, most famously Hurricane Katrina, that he and his administration finally admitted that global warming/climate change was real, yet doing nothing about it. Much like with Clinton before him, President Obama's reluctance to take on climate change throughout his first term, and the limited nature of his action to address it during his second, also felt like either a biter joke or a betrayal (sometimes, I cannot tell which one it is). It is humiliating to me as an American that tens of millions of Americans believe that climate change is a big hoax, an argument that has been admittedly skillfully crafted by enormous, polluting corporations seeking further profits by either future exploitation of the world's valuable but limited resources and/or by seeking to opt out of what may be costly efforts to try and be responsible and not engage in illegal activity, such as dumping. It angered me that there is still plenty of mockery by self-serving politicians (predominately, but not exclusively, Republicans) who make light of climate change concerns, including but not limited to Mitt Romney, John Boehner, and Jim Inhofe. The fact that an outright climate change skeptic like Donald Trump won the White House, and then populated his cabinet with other climate change deniers who are hell bent on weakening existing environmental standards anger and frustrates me to no end. There are whispers that they intend to outright dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, and already, they are weakening environmental regulations designed to protect America's waters from illegal dumping.

Like millions of Americans, I am struggling with all of this. When these kinds of stories (and others not related to climate change) surface, I scoff at the notion that we should somehow embrace this president, and accept what is to come. What is at stake is just too important to allow a handful of self-serving, greedy rich men to do possibly irreparable harm to the country and it's future. I cannot sit idly by and turn the other way when uncomfortable truths are revealed about what is going on. As an environmentalist, I am more than tired of my country's apparent inability to actually do anything but mock climate change action, while the rest of the world long ago jumped in front and are now very well ahead of us in almost every manner possible. There is too much at stake to simply let this go.

So, whether successful or not, we as Americans need to take back this country's future from the irresponsible "leaders" presently in charge. We have had a bad history, but this mockery cannot be allowed to go unchallenged, and the issues to go unrecognized, or to remain in the dark, simply because the issue is either too complex for many Americans to want to think about, or perhaps too scary. We need to keep fighting, to keep informing, and to keep working to prevent Trump and other powerful billionaires and corporations from believing that they can always have their way. Whether Americans believe it or not, and whether they choose to listen to the open mockery and climate change denial of Washington politicians who usually, paradoxically, "qualify" their arguments by admitting that they themselves are not scientists, we who feel the urgency of the issue, and of the time passing by while America as a country does nothing, need to keep up the fight, and to try and engage our fellow Americans and make them understand. Force their hand, regardless of what comes out of the White House or the rest of Washington. We need to do this, if not for ourselves, then for our future generations, who will predictably be dealing with the consequences of our own failures today!

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