Citizen Action Monitor

Climate scientists warn Earth is in “imminent peril.” So, why the public apathy?

No 172 Posted by fw, May 10, 2011

redflag 2In her 2008 paper, Atmospheric Trust Litigation, (University of Oregon), Law Professor Mary C. Wood reflected on the dire warnings of “imminent peril” from leading climate scientists, the “strait-jacketed” inaction of the legislative and executive branches of government and their agencies, and the “weak” public reaction to the climate change threat:

Leading climate scientists warn that Earth is in “imminent peril,” on the verge of runaway climate heating that will impose catastrophic conditions on generations to come. In their words, continued carbon pollution will cause a “transformed planet” – an Earth obliterated of its major fixtures, including the polar ice sheets, Greenland, the coral reefs, and the Amazon forest. The annihilatory trajectory launched by humans over the past century threatens to trigger the planet’s Sixth mass extinction – the kind that hasn’t occurred on Earth for 65 million years. Should Business as Usual continue even for a few more years, our children and their descendants – future Humanity for untold generations — will be pummeled by floods, hurricanes, heat waves , fires, disease, crop losses, food shortages, and droughts as part of a hellish struggle to survive within a deadly greenhouse of our own making. In a world of runaway climate heating, these unrelenting disasters would force massive human migrations and cause staggering numbers of deaths – ultimately resulting in Humanity’s “self-destruction.” As author Fred Pearce states: “Humanity faces a genuinely new situation. . . . a crisis for the entire life-support system of our civilization and our species.

It is highly unlikely that, absent judicial intervention, the political branches will achieve the requisite carbon reduction in the short time remaining before irrevocable climate thresholds are passed. Straight-jacketed by political concerns, the legislative and executive branches and their representative agencies continue to permit actions that drive runaway greenhouse gas emissions. In both the legislative and executive arenas, lobbyists for huge carbon industries viciously fight climate legislation and regulation. 

For several reasons, the American public is a weak political counterweight to these dynamics.” Mary C. Wood, June 11, 2008

 Leaving aside the reasons for governmental and politicians’ inaction, what reasons does Prof. Wood advance to explain why “the American public is a weak political counterweight to these dynamics”? (The Canadian public’s reaction has been equally underwhelming given the gravity of the real and present climate change danger).

Here is a bulleted summary of Professor Wood’s explanation as presented on pages  38-40 of her paper, cited above. Wood’s exact words are in quotes.

  • “Global warming is a complex phenomenon and not readily understood by the average citizen.” There is a high level of scientific illiteracy among the general public and, more importantly, among those covering the news — a classic case of the dumb mis-leading the dumber.
  • “Attempts by the fossil fuel industries to obfuscate the threat, combined with outright suppression of scientific conclusions by the Bush II administration, have engendered climate confusion among citizens.”
  • “As leading psychologists observe, humans are hard-wired by evolution to ignore long-term threats like global warming. ” Wood cites the now-famous article by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert: If only gay sex caused global warming.  In it, Gilbert notes that the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that climate change lacks: 1) Climate change is not “human”,  and we humans “think about people and their intentions, talk about them, look for and remember them.” But climate change isn’t trying to kill us. If it had been visited on us by a terrorist or evil empire, the “War on Climate Change” would be government’s top priority; 2) Climate change doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities. When people feel insulted or disgusted — by gay sex, for example — moral emotions would be engaged in a call to action; 3) The more primitive region of the human brain treats climate change as a remote rather than an imminent threat; and 4) The rate of climate change is so slow and gradual that the human brain is not alarmed. If the change happened abruptly and with devastating impact, massive public protests would erupt overnight.
  • “Until Americans actually feel the consequences of climate change on a daily basis, the issue may not become salient enough to create the political pressure for a national carbon reduction effort – and by then it may be too late.” Will the recent tornado disasters, and current floods along the Mississippi and in Manitoba, and drought in Texas stir public demand for government action? Not likely, because meteorologists dare not mention “climate change” in stories about “severe weather”.
  • “. . . even when Americans demand climate action, they are easily misled to believe that small measures will achieve climate stability. Citizens are accustomed to addressing social problems through progressive, incremental policy that creates building blocks to larger transformation.”
  • “Few citizens understand the concept of “carbon math” or deadlines imposed by Nature.” Wood explains “carbon math” this way: “Each industrialized nation must carry out its proportion of the overall planetary carbon reduction, or it leaves an “orphan share” on the doorstep of the world.   An orphan share is a share of liability for which the liable party does not take responsibility. If a sovereign has liability to decrease its emissions 80% but actually decreases its carbon emissions by only 50%, it will leave a 30% orphan remainder.  A bedrock principle of atmospheric trust liability must be the inexcusability of orphan shares and partial orphan shares.”
  • “While these political encumbrances are classic to natural resource issues, they are dangerously amplified in the present situation, because the imminence of the climate tipping point forecloses many of the standard political processes that would normally provide solutions over the years.” (For more on this point, see Why We Can’t Wait  by James Hansen)
  • “Time-consuming educational and democratic initiatives may not propel the citizenry to force government action in the narrow window of time remaining.”

For reasons of these “insufficiencies of the democratic process”, Wood subscribes to Professor Joseph Sax’s conviction of the necessity “to invoke judicial power over crucial natural resources that are irrevocably jeopardized by legislative or executive action — or in this case, inaction.” And in this instance the atmosphere is a “crucial natural resource”.

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