Right now, in Paris, is the World Climate Change Conference. The goal is to get two hundred nations to agree on a legally binding and universal agreement on climate. In and of itself, this is a tremendously difficult and monumental task. Making it harder is the near immobilization of one of the largest industrial nations in the world, the United States, from political division on the issue of climate. A significant portion of its population do not regard climate to be an issue at all, and thus many elected leaders will not endorse any plan of action.
Having a huge swath of its public opposed to even the idea of the issue of climate change, along with many public officials, is a rather unique phenomenon within the United States. Opposition parties in nearly every nation agrees with the scientific consensus - that global climate change is real, it poses great challenges to humanity, and one of its principal causes is human activity. To have such an enormous polluter so comprehensively divided on the topic presents one of the greatest challenges to those who seek to preserve familiarity and a sense of normalcy with global climate. Simply put, no plan of action regarding climate will ever be successful without the United States on board.
Global Climate Change
Global climate change is one of those things that is remarkably easy to grasp, once understanding the basics and, critically, accepting them. Admittedly, it can be hard for humans to see beyond the particular area they inhabit. The enormity of the world can be a challenge to comprehend. Referencing weather patterns in various places one is already unfamiliar will mean little as a persuasive device. Because of the interconnectivity of the planet as a whole, a rising planetary temperature effects myriad of things, sometimes in subtle ways, while other times, more grandiose. For humans to act on something, it is easiest if the effects on them by it are profound and overt. A record temperature is a seemingly temporary thing. Likewise, a record drought or epic hurricane. Because a hurricane is only in one area of the globe, most will not feel it overtly. For those in its impact area, it will eventually pass, and for most, life will proceed as usual. It can often feel that the only way to get the majorities all over the world to recognize an obvious reality is if the entire planet suddenly burst into flames, effecting everyone, and doing so with no end in sight. Global climate change, in geologic time, is happening quickly, all over the world, effecting everyone, with no end in sight. However, in the span of a human life, it is slow, and for many, it goes mostly unnoticed. During summer, it is hot and during winter, it is cold. Nothing to see here folks, move along!
The Greenhouse Effect
The greenhouse effect is the root of global climate change. This is part of the basics and reveals why global climate change is actually a rather easy concept to grasp. This is one of those "common sense" things. Most humans, at one point or another, have gotten into a car on a sunny day that is hotter inside than it is outside. Sometimes, quite dramatically so. This motivates why, in most places, there are laws prohibiting leaving a pet or child in a car unattended. In spite of such laws, humans do so, thinking they will only be gone a few minutes - and they are - but in those few minutes, the temperatures rose so dramatically in the car, the pet or child dies.
The sun provides thermal heat and with it, light. This enters the car via the windows; however, the thermal heat cannot escape. Consistent light means trapping more heat. This is how greenhouses work, hence the name. It may be cool outside, but it can be very warm – naturally, from trapping thermal heat - within a greenhouse. This is the purpose of their design. It may then help to think of a special layer of atmosphere surrounding the earth as a car window. This is the ozone layer. Light and thermal heat from the sun enter, and particles in the ozone layer work to deflect radiation and some of the incoming heat from the sun, while also trapping a bit of that heat reflected from the surface, keeping the planet at temperatures and conditions that sustain life as it is presently known. Thus, the atmosphere is a glass bulb, and the earth within it. Outside the ozone, or glass bulb, it is an uninhabitable, freezing cold void called space. This trapped heat is what allows the entire planet to sustain life, in spite of the sun only directly warming part of it at a time. I hope this is as easy to comprehend as I expect.
The particles within the ozone that help trap heat include carbon dioxide. However, the most common gas in the atmosphere is nitrogen, though neither plants nor animals use it when breathing. Animals breathe oxygen, and release carbon dioxide. Plants breathe carbon dioxide and release oxygen. It is a nice and harmonious relationship. If there were too much oxygen, humans would suffer oxygen toxicity, which severely affects the nervous system, and can lead to death. Likewise, too much carbon dioxide can kill plants.
The Human Cause
Carbon is a principal building block of life. It is in everything, even you, our dear reader. As noted, it is the principal component of carbon dioxide, an atmospheric gas that helps trap heat. For billions of years, carbon-based life has been on earth. Famously, dinosaurs! But also billions of years' worth of plants. As plants died, especially in swamps, they formed layers. Over millennia, these masses of layered carbon elements developed into oil, coal, and other gases. This mass of carbon, confined in the form of an ooze or rock, buried underground, was affecting nothing.
Over a period two hundred years, and increasingly on a massive, industrial scale, humanity has dug up all this carbon rock and ooze - which took billions of years for nature to develop - and burned almost all of it - to the point humanity now searches offshore, deep in the ocean, and still many miles below the bottom of those oceans, to find ever more. This is converting carbon rock and ooze buried underground into an atmospheric gas that helps trap heat. In geological time, measuring in the millions of years, two hundred years is a blink of an eye. In a blink of an eye, humanity has converted buried carbon rock and ooze into atmospheric carbon gas. Humanity is, so to speak, tinting the bulb, and thus helping to trap more heat. To throw up billions of years' worth of carbon gases into the atmosphere in no time at all, while asserting it having no influence on climate, is quite a thing to believe. It defies common sense.
For most humans around the world, this is a blatantly obvious reality. It seems simple enough to comprehend, which is why I noted it is remarkably easy to grasp, once understanding the basics. This is why some ninety-eight percent of professional scientists, who specifically research climate and related subjects, agree that global climate change is real, the earth is getting warmer, and humans are one of the causes of it. I also noted, however, that one must accept the basics in order to grasp it. This is where American politics come into play.
I wish to point out one seemingly unrelated thing. Babe Ruth. Have you heard of this human? Remarkably, most humans, no matter where in the world they are, have heard of this famous American baseball star. He transcends both the United States and the sport of baseball. Those who are not baseball fans have heard of him. Those who know nothing about baseball have heard of the name, Babe Ruth. He is, arguably, the most famous baseball player who has ever lived. Why am I suddenly talking about an American baseball player?
The greatest honor a professional American baseball player can receive is induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This occurs by popular vote. Players are elected. Those who are the "experts" of baseball - those who report and write of the game (The Baseball Writers' Association of America) - elect them. The player most widely known, all around the human world, regardless if a fan of the game or not - a player who held almost every record in the game, and to this day continues to hold many records; a player who helped make baseball the game it is today - when on the Hall of Fame ballot, was elected with 95.1 percent of the vote. 4.9 percent of those voting, somehow, did not believe the world's most famous baseball star of all time was worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The point here is, getting unanimous agreement on something, especially the more participants there are, regardless if all are experts, is hard to achieve, even for the likes of a Babe Ruth. Other factors, clearly having nothing to do with the achievements of Babe Ruth, influenced some of the voters. Some simply did not like him as a person. It had nothing to do with his skill or fame. Others loathed the team he played most of his career for - the New York Yankees. A writer for the Boston Red Sox, the chief competitor of the Yankees, may have viewed a vote for Babe Ruth as a vote for the Yankees, which would be unconscionable.
Yes, some two or three percent of scientists do not agree that the planet is warming, or that human activity is influencing global climate. As Babe Ruth shows, you cannot get everyone on board with an idea. It is unrealistic to wait for unanimous consensus before choosing to act on the issue. Reasons some of these scientists do not agree with the overwhelming consensus may very well have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Some are little more than professional skeptics, who take contrarian positions on various issues throughout their careers. Others are funded by oil and gas companies or related lobbies. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Given that ninety-eight percent of relevant scientists agree, that every professional association of relevant scientists agree, that even the militaries of the world, including the United States Armed Forces, agree that global climate change is real, and that humans are part of why it occurs, any scientist in the dissenting camp should face some amount of reasonable suspicion.
Ideology and Partisan Politics
It should come as no surprise that extraction based industries, such as those in oil and gas, would prefer none promoted ideas that using their products might have long-term consequences to modest things like, say, life on earth. There are short-term interests at stake, largely that of shareholders. Many within such industries either created or financed groups that sought to undermine public confidence in the science, reminiscent of the efforts of the tobacco industry to do likewise regarding the medical consensus on the dangers of smoking. Promoted efforts include debating the data itself, and seeking to confound and confuse the public with, as Mark Twain once said, lies, damn lies, and statistics. Other efforts include supporting or creating think tanks that produce official or credible sounding misinformation. Various official-sounding centers of this or that, producing papers that appear to the casual reader as scientific works, while actually lacking peer review or other fundamental scientific rigors.
All of this is financed misinformation designed to produce doubt, though helping it is another problem regarding the issue of global climate change in the United States: partisan politics. Former Vice President of the United States and Democratic Party nominee for President in the election year of 2000, Al Gore, is a lifelong environmentalist. He sought to challenge some of the misinformation efforts and to help bring the issue to the forefront of national discussion, and thus began promoting the issue after his presidential election defeat. His effort culminated in an award winning documentary film called "An Inconvenient Truth". Though effective at first, a problem was the spokesperson himself – simply by being a Democrat. For many, that was enough reason to be suspicious of his efforts. This helped create an opening for naysayers - there was the beginnings of a partisan divide on the issue.
The most likely candidate to mount an effective response would be government, given its power to coordinate and marshal the full resources of a state into action
Added to this mix are anti-government and free market interest groups and related lobbies. They are political groups, not those of environmental expertise. Because global climate change is, well, global, the most likely candidate to mount an effective response would be government, given its power to coordinate and marshal the full resources of a state into action. This action would likely come in the form of various regulations. Though the Republican Party of the United States proposed a market-based plan, a prototype for what is called "Cap and Trade", in an effort to address the issue, these anti-government and free market interest groups and related lobbies simply rejected a government effort on principal. They oppose "regulations" and thus they must fight any move in that direction, regardless of the merits of the issue, for it is the reason such groups exist. Because the science is less relevant to these groups than ideology, these groups often throw out random efforts to persuade, in the hopes something will stick. For example, some may concede the science is sound, but challenge any efforts to address it as, say, harmful to the economic interests of the poor. Ideology says free markets are always good, and are the only way to decrease poverty. Anything that may regulate free markets will hurt the economy, and thus exasperate poverty. Such arguments, though irrelevant to the critical issue at hand, persuade many to reject government efforts to address the issue.
With a known Democrat having served as the public face of the climate change issue in the United States, and with a marriage between conservative interest groups principally opposing anything that smells of government regulation to big industries, such as oil and gas, which traditionally support the Republican Party, the conditions were set to make everything about the issue partisan. Because it has become partisan, and because the opposition has exceptional financing from the wealthiest industries in the history of the world, it will be very hard for the United States to take a lead role combating global climate change. It frankly will be even harder for the congress of the United States to pass any meaningful legislation regarding this issue.
With climate change now so partisan, and with so much money and influence behind opposition, the Republican Party now actively seeks to defund or repeal existing efforts at regulating environmental concerns. For example, prior to the American president heading to Paris for the climate summit, the Republican Party in the House of Representatives began debates to gut the administration's clean energy plan. Worse, many Republicans hope to repeal the entire agency that is responsible for environmental policy and regulation - the Environmental Protection Agency - an agency, interestingly, created by the Republican Party of a different era. Unfortunately, there seems to be too few allies within the contemporary Republican Party to be optimistic.
As a partisan issue, the voting base are even more susceptible to conspiracy and hyperbolic language. For as long as it remains a well-financed partisan issue, the more hardened and insular this voting bloc becomes. For now, the only thing we can suggest is one-on-one efforts of persuasion. As noted, this stuff should be a no-brainer, and very easy to comprehend. Sadly, it is not, only because of partisanship, ideology, and misinformation. To counter this would require explaining the no-brainer to friends who live within their partisan bubble. The only other obvious way out, aside from the planet catching fire, would be for a major, influential Republican leader, who may not even exist yet, to come around on the issue, akin to Constantine I converting to Christianity. Well, perhaps not that dramatic, but as it is said; only Nixon could go to China.