Whom to Believe
Imagine that the chart below shows your systolic blood pressure since 1970, when you had just turned 20. In those long-ago days, you were an athlete, took good care of yourself, and had the low blood pressure to show for it. As the years went by, you exercised less, gained a pound or two every year, and no matter how many times you tried, could not quit smoking permanently. In the ups and downs of the chart you can recognize the period in the 1980s when you lost 25 pounds, only to gain them back. The dip around 2000 reflects one of the many times you succeeded in stopping smoking for a few years. It’s as though this chart records your life history.
Your father died of a stroke at age 55 and you are ten years older than that. You can’t walk a block without running out of breath and you’ve developed a chronic smoker’s cough. But what is really alarming is the way your blood pressure has shot up above its long term trend in the last two years, setting a new record each year.
That really gets your attention and you decide to consult your elderly family doctor. After a cursory examination, he lights up a Lucky and tells you, “I don’t know why your blood pressure has risen so high, but I’m confident its nothing to worry about. You don’t need medication and there’s no risk of a stroke. Your blood pressure is bound to come down without your having to inconvenience yourself and change your lifestyle. Just relax and enjoy life.”
This is music to your ears, but your significant other is not satisfied and insists that you get a second opinion. This time you go to a specialist, a trained cardiologist who has published articles in medical journals. She conducts a battery of tests and then discusses the results with her team, each an expert in their own branch of medicine. She reports: “Your failure to take care of yourself has put you at serious risk of a stroke or heart attack. I am putting you on blood pressure medication immediately. You need to stop smoking, start exercising, restrict your drinking, and lose 30 pounds. Otherwise you do not have long to live.”
Now for a confession and the point of this post. The chart above is actually the rise in global temperature since 1970 as reported by NASA, with the scale of the vertical axis altered in proportion so that the shape of the curve remains the same as on the temperature chart.
Those who deny man-made global warming are analogous to your senile family doctor. They have not the slightest idea why global temperature has risen and if pressed can only fall back on claiming that the data have been faked. But then why do NASA, NOAA, the British Met Office and the Japan Meteorological Agency all report exactly the same trend? Is the whole scientific world just one giant conspiracy? Only a fool could believe that.
Like the old doctor, these deniers tell us that we don’t need to worry about rising temperature because “the climate is always changing.” In fact, they urge us to burn more fossil fuel because “CO2 is not a pollutant—it’s good for us.”
Contrast that with the world scientific community, who resemble the up-to-date cardiologist in basing her advice on published scientific evidence. She is trying to save your life, if you will but let her.
If your life were at stake, which doctor’s advice would you accept: the doddering family physician or the trained cardiologist? When your grandchildren’s future is at stake, whom do you believe: a handful of deniers or the virtually unanimous world community of scientists?
You can observe a lot by just watching. Y. Berra.
Ethan Siegel had a great post on June 14 in Medium Daily Digest, debunking the claim that erupting volcanoes put far more CO2 into the atmosphere than human activities. He writes,
When you realize that volcanism contributes 645 million tons of CO2 per year — and it becomes clearer if you write it as 0.645 billion tons of CO2 per year — compared to humanity’s 29 billion tons per year, it’s overwhelmingly clear what’s caused the carbon dioxide increase in Earth’s atmosphere since 1750.
In my last post, I showed how the isotopes of carbon prove that
the carbon added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution has come
from ancient coal, oil, and gas deposits—not volcanoes. Siegel includes a chart that shows the same thing
but more simply: that humans are responsible for global warming.
CO2 began rising above the natural, or preindustrial, level after 1800 and has kept on rising. That there was no corresponding increase in volcanic eruptions rules out volcanoes as the source of the added CO2. To put it another way, if volcanoes were the source there would have been more volcanic eruptions each year for the last 200 years, until today the entire planet would be covered with erupting volcanoes
That the rise began only about 200 years ago and has continued year after year in itself tells us that the rise is not due to natural causes. About half the increase over preindustrial CO2 has come since 1960—only two human generations. These are human timescales, not planetary or geologic ones. For instance, the waxing and waning of the huge continental ice sheets during the Ice Ages took scores of thousands of years—not decades.
How much CO2 has been added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution? As the chart shows, the preindustrial level was about 280 ppm. This May, CO2 came close to 410 ppm, so that the rise over preindustrial has been about 45%. That amounts to about one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Where can you find that much carbon that can be released into the atmosphere in a few human generations? There is only one source and we know what it is.
Note that the chart above looks exponential: it gets steeper over time. The chart below from Climate Central confirms that.
In the 1960s the annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 was 1 ppm or less. Since then the growth rate has increased erratically but steadily until in 2015 and 2016 it reached close to 3 ppm. While our so-called leaders deny even the existence of man-made global warming, the scientific evidence shows it is accelerating, growing more dangerous every year.
What will people of the future say about this generation when they learn that we knew man-made global warming was true but did nothing to stop it?
Global Warming: It’s Our Fault
Even hard-core global warming deniers are unable to deny that the earth is warming. So they retreat to claiming that it’s not our fault—that humans are not responsible. But as I show in this post, we are responsible.
The chart below shows how global temperature tracks atmospheric CO2, illustrating the greenhouse effect. The real question of who or what is responsible for global warming is whether the CO2 comes human activities or from some natural source.
That temperature tracks CO2 so closely (though erratically) is itself a powerful argument for cause and effect, But we can do better. We can show that the rise in CO2 is due to human activities using the methods that allowed cycling officials to determine that biker Floyd Landis had doped with synthetic testosterone when he won the 2006 Tour de France.
With Lance Armstrong retired and most of the other top cyclists expelled for illegal drug use, Landis had become one of the favorites to win the tour that year. He was leading until in stage 16, when he dropped suddenly to eleventh place. Then, just as his chances of winning seemed slim, Landis just as suddenly won the next stage going away and went on to ride the Champs-Élysées in the winner’s yellow jersey.
A few days later, Landis’s team announced he had failed a test for banned steroids, including testosterone. Landis appealed the ban, raised an estimated $1M for his defense, and wrote a 300-page book titled, “Positively False: the Real Story of how I won the Tour de France.”
After years of denial, in 2010 Landis suddenly reversed himself and admitted that from 2002 through 2006 he had used a grab-bag of banned substances and methods. Why did he finally have to give up his denial? Because the carbon isotope test nailed him. People lie, isotopes do not. Here’s how it works.
Testosterone is mostly carbon. Synthetic testosterone is made entirely from plants. They have a different carbon isotope ratio than our environment overall, which is where the carbon in our bodies comes from. The difference is small but easily detected with modern scientific instruments. Tests showed that carbon in Landis’s body revealed the presence of plant carbon, proving beyond reasonable doubt that he had doped with synthetic testosterone.
How do scientists use the carbon isotopes to confirm that humans are causing global warming?
Coal, oil, and natural gas come from plants and have the distinctive carbon isotope ratio of plants. As CO2 in the atmosphere has built up steadily, the isotopic composition of the carbon has shifted just as steadily in the direction of plant carbon, as shown in the chart below.
The more carbon we add, the more the carbon in the atmosphere shifts in the direction of plant carbon. Therefore, plants are the source of the added carbon.
But which plants? To answer, we use another isotope of carbon: C14. It is radioactive and dies away to undetectable levels in 50,000 years or so. Fossil fuels, being millions of years old, have lost all their C14. Adding ancient carbon should have lowered the proportion of C14 in the atmosphere—and as shown in the chart below, it has.
The chart above shows how the relative abundance of C14 was declining with the advance of the Industrial Revolution until about 1950, when it suddenly shot up. The reason is that C14 is a byproduct of atomic bomb explosions.
The chart above picks up the story after 1950. C14 continued to build until the ban on above-ground atomic bomb tests went into effect in the 1960s, then it resumed its decline, showing that the carbon added to the atmosphere is ancient.
To conclude, the C13/C12 ratio shows that plants are the source of the added carbon and C14 shows that the plants are ancient. Fossil fuels are the only possible source.
The two animated charts below show how closely the isotope trends follow the overall amount of carbon dioxide emitted.
Global warming is our fault. Case closed.
Reckless Endangerment: Grounds for Impeachment?
Imagine this scenario: Relations between North Korea and America continue to deteriorate, with each side growing more belligerent. North Korea ramps up its testing of nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them, while the U.S. speeds up testing of its anti-missile systems. President Trump announces that he will abandon the “terribly, terribly weak” nuclear policy inherited from President Obama and return to the stronger one in place under George W. Bush. The Bush policy allows the President to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against an “enemy…threatening to use WMD against US forces or civilian populations,” and “To attack enemy WMD or its deep hardened bunkers.” Trump goes further, reinterpreting the “two-man rule” which requires two officers to turn the launch keys simultaneously, arguing that as Commander in Chief, he is the second officer. His almost daily confrontational tweets directed at North Korea escalate the tension and the Hermit Kingdom’s leader appears increasingly irrational. The world moves closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. A palpable sense of fear and foreboding engulf American society.
In response, Congressional Democrats and some Republican leaders ask how to wrest the nuclear key from Donald Trump before it is too late.
One possible mechanism for removing a sitting President is defined by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, Section 4:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thus, to invoke the 25th Amendment would require the concurrence and support of Vice President Pence, which it appears he would not give until the bombs were falling.
Another option is impeachment. According to Article II of the Constitution, Section 4:
The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
The Constitution calls upon the House to impeach, by simple majority, and the Senate to try a President. In modern times, impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon were begun in the House, but halted when he resigned. The House impeached Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, but the vote in the Senate failed to reach the two-thirds majority required for conviction.
The constitution does not define “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, a future president, appeared to have it right when he said in 1970: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” Impeachment of a president is bound to become highly politicized.
For example, the House vote on whether to impeach President Clinton on the charge of perjury was: Republicans: 223 yeas, 5 nays; Democrats: 5 yeas, 200 nays (with two abstentions).
At present Republicans hold a 239-194 majority in the House. Clearly, for an impeachment vote to carry, some two dozen Republicans would have to vote yea.
Even if Congressional Republicans had lost enough overall confidence in President Trump to impeach him, they would have to come up with plausible charges. Trump’s hypothetical belligerence directed toward North Korea, no matter how ill-advised and dangerous, would not be a criminal act like perjury or obstruction of justice. With what could the House charge him?
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, lists four possibly impeachable violations of the Constitution and the presidential oath of office:
· Failing to faithfully execute the laws and the Constitution.
· Receiving gifts of value from foreign governments.
· Prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
· Abridging the freedom of the press.
Reich also cites a fifth ground for impeachment, should Trump and his aides be shown to have colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election: treason, defined by the Constitution as “adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
Had there been enough votes to impeach Donald Trump on any of those charges, the House would have already begun to do so. And none of those charges would apply in the hypothetical case of a Trump-induced nuclear crisis with North Korea. To impeach President Trump over that issue would require a different type of charge.
By tweeting the world to the brink of nuclear war (a phrase that would have been utterly incomprehensible not too long ago), President Trump would have recklessly endangered not just the two Koreas, but Japan, possibly China, possibly cities in the far east of Russia, and any other country seen as an ally of America. “Reckless Endangerment” is a crime that could provide the grounds for impeaching Trump in this hypothetical example.
Reckless endangerment is conduct that creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury or death to another person. It can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, as for example when a deadly weapon is involved. The accused does not have to have intended the harm, but must have acted without regard for the potentially dangerous consequences. “The ultimate question is whether, under all of the circumstances, the accused’s conduct was of that heedless nature that made it actually or imminently dangerous to the rights or safety of others (Wikipedia).”
Under New York Penal Code PEN § 120.25,
A person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person.
Reckless endangerment in the first degree is a class D felony in New York and carries a penalty of a minimum of one year in prison up to seven years.
Surely a President who through midnight tweets and off-the-cuff-remarks had heedlessly, single-handedly, and against all advice brought the world to the verge of nuclear war is guilty of recklessly endangering the life not just one person, but the lives of millions. Surely that President should be impeached, convicted, and removed from office.
A nuclear crisis with North Korea is a hypothetical example, though one that is not that hard to imagine. What about a real example: a President who endangers not just millions, but hundreds of millions, possibly billions, and possibly even civilization itself? Is there not a case for impeaching Donald Trump on the grounds that by recklessly ignoring the advice of the world’s scientists, by making the U.S. one of only three nations not to be part of the Paris Climate agreement, Donald Trump has endangered all of us, our children, our grandchildren, and the children of untold generations yet unborn. If that cannot be made an impeachable offense, then we may be truly doomed.
Munich in America
In September 1938, Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, and Édouard Daladier signed the infamous Munich agreement that ceded the Czech Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. When Chamberlain’s plane landed back in England, he proclaimed, “Peace for our time.” No doubt he believed he had acted to protect Britain and its citizens. But by appeasing Hitler, Chamberlain endangered not just his own country, but an entire continent.
Chamberlain and the British believed what they wanted to believe—that Hitler could be trusted—and failed to arm themselves. Why waste time and money preparing for something that cannot happen?
On June 1, President Trump announced
that in order to “fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its
citizens,” he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement
on Climate Change. Because President Trump believes that global
warming is a hoax, he sees no need to prepare for it.
By siding with the climate deniers and rejecting the nearly unanimous opinion of the world’s climate scientists, President Trump has put Americans in harm’s way and set the world on a path that could lead to a global calamity far worse than the great wars of the last century. Terrible as they were, they did not last forever. Once runaway global warming gets going, on our time scale it will last forever.
Climate scientists from dozens of nations warn that unchecked global warming will bring rising temperatures, invading seas, abandoned coastlines, drought, crop failures, war, disease, famine, climate refugees, and economic collapse. Many of these effects are already being felt. But one of the insidious facts about man-made global warming is that its worst effects will not be felt for several decades, allowing time for complacency and denial. Nevertheless, President Trump’s announcement will have one short-term effect that Americans need to consider, again taking a lesson from World War II.
Even before the U.S. declared war on Japan following Pearl Harbor, it was
evident that America would overcome its isolationism and enter the war in
order to help save the world from fascism. As in World War I, we and
other nations proved willing to bear the greatest sacrifice for the good of
The threat from unchecked global warming compares only to the risk of the nuclear winter that would follow a global atomic war. No person and no corner of the planet will escape. As David Orr aptly puts it, “On a dying planet, every cause is a lost cause.”
If the allied nations of WWII would band together to stop Germany and Japan, it takes little imagination to realize that nations today will not stand idly by while the actions of one threaten to destroy civilization for all. As it becomes ever more clear that global warming is real and calamitous, a coalition of Asian and European nations, led by China, will put increasing diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on America. China has already announced that it intends to become the economic and world leader on climate change and is solidifying its alliances within Asia and the European Union.
What will happen if the actions of these twenty-first century Allies fail to sway the Trump administration? Will other nations pack up and go home to await doomsday? Of course not. To paraphrase JFK, to assure the survival of human civilization, they “will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe.” Wars have been fought for reasons that seem inconsequential compared to the need to prevent one rogue nation from compromising the future of all nations. Should a war over climate come, the U.S. will be on the wrong side of reason, science, and humanity.
Some 3 billion years ago, when the universe was only one-fourth its present age, a black hole 31 times larger than the mass of the Sun collided with another 19 times the Sun’s mass. As Einstein had predicted, the merger warped time and space and sent gravitational waves cascading out through space. Three billion years later, at 10∶11:58.6 UTC on January 4, 2017, one of the waves arrived at the twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the largest and most sensitive instrument ever built. The wave caused the distance between LIGO’s two mirrors to change by about 10−18 meter, less than one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. But LIGO caught it, the third detection of a gravitational wave since scientists turned on LIGO in September 2015. Many more will be captured and inspire a revolution in astrophysics.
The success of the LIGO experiments means something special to me. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed me to the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation. With a few months, the LIGO project came before the Board for funding. I can still remember how the presentation by Cal Tech’s Kip Thorne excited and persuaded this down-to-earth geologist to take a giant leap for the stars and vote to approve $211 million for a project that called for a sensitivity more than 100 times greater than any that had ever been achieved. I am as proud of that vote as of anything in my professional career.
So far as I have observed, no one has come forth to denounce gravity waves as a hoax, a conspiracy by the world community of scientists for some secret purpose of their own. Evidently our President, his cabinet, and the many members of Congress who deny man-made global warming are willing to trust scientists when they claim to have detected a 3-billion-year-old event whose signal strength is 10 divided by 18 zeroes. Yet on man-made global warming, they are not willing to trust either the world’s climate scientists or the nose-on-your-face evidence. Here’s a sample of that evidence: global temperature has set a new record each of the last three years. CO2 has passed 400 ppm and will never fall below that level in the lifetime of anyone reading this article, or of their grandchildren, or who knows when? Sea level is rising at the fastest rate in history. Unaffected by ideology, plants and animals are migrating to cooler climes. The Arctic ice cap and the world’s glaciers are melting at record rates. The planet is experiencing an unprecedented spate of extreme weather events. And so on.
Those who deny man-made global warming cannot discount this evidence, so they fall back on the claim that “there’s no consensus” and use that as an excuse for delay. They could not be more wrong. Scientists are as much in agreement about man-made global warming as they are about any theory in science, evolution and plate tectonics included. Why do I say that? Because reviews of over 54,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles from 1991 to 2015 found a consensus of over 99.9%. To find a single peer-reviewed article that rejects man-made global warming is not as hard as detecting a gravity wave, but it does require you to read 1,750 articles.
If any scientific theory is true, man-made global warming is true.
A March 2017 Gallup poll shows that 71% of Americans believe that global warming is occurring and 68% believe humans are responsible. Both are new highs and encouraging. Presumably, many of the other roughly 30% believe that scientists disagree. They likely also believe that for the controversy over global warming to have gone on for decades, and for the President, the EPA Director, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Interior, and many other government officials to deny that humans are causing global warming, there must be some solid evidence against it.
In this post I’ll first address the claim that scientists disagree and then look at the evidence.
Do Scientists Agree?
One way to tell is to poll scientists for their opinion. But opinion polls have disadvantages. First, typically more than half, sometimes two-thirds or more, of those polled do not respond. Why? The pollster does not know. Second, scientists tend to be cautious and not to accept a theory until they have personal knowledge. If I were polled on whether I accept a certain theory in evolutionary biology (I am a geologist), I would either not answer or respond no, really meaning, “It’s not my field.” Third, as we know all too well from political polls, the answer depends on the way the question is framed and on the group polled.
The chart below, taken from my article in Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society (free here until June 30), shows in gray the results of the 9 peer-reviewed opinion polls that scholars have conducted on man-made global warming. Each asked at least a slightly different question of a different audience. Omitting the lowest (and oldest), they range from 83.5% to 97.0%.
These opinion polls tell us that there is a consensus among scientists on man-made global warming, but not how strong it is. For that, we turn to the peer-reviewed literature. That allows us to base our conclusion on the work of experts who have carefully considered what they write and whose work has been peer-reviewed by other experts. Plus, the sample size is 100%.
That said, using the peer-reviewed literature does require us to recognize that publishing scientists only rarely directly endorse the ruling theory of their field. If you read articles about Darwinian evolution or plate tectonics, for example, you almost never find an author directly affirming the theory. However, if scientists have publishable evidence that casts doubt on a theory, they are highly likely to question or reject that theory in their articles.
As reflected in bars 11-15 on the chart, scholars have reviewed 54,195 peer-reviewed articles on man-made global warming and found only 31, or 0.06%, that reject man-made global warming, a 99.94% consensus. Spotting rejections is subjective, but if the reviewers missed as many articles as they found, the consensus would be 99.89%
Conclusion: on man-made global warming, scientists are virtually unanimous.
It’s the Evidence
What is the theory of man-made global warming? That burning fossil fuels has added carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and through the action of greenhouse effect, the extra carbon dioxide has caused global temperature to rise. With two charts, I can show you that this theory is almost certainly correct.
This first chart shows how the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere has closely tracked emissions from human activities, as the theory predicts. It is remotely possible that the parallelism could be due to coincidence, but the carbon isotopes show that the added CO2 is coming from ancient plants, the only known source of which in the amounts required is fossil fuels. (See my Youtube channel for the isotope charts.) The first half of the theory of man-made global warming is true.
The second chart shows how global temperature has tracked the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere. The CO2 rise has been steady but the temperature rise has been erratic because it is also affected by volcanic eruptions (which lower temperature), the El Niño cycle, and changes in the sun’s output. Some claim that the sun is responsible for the temperature rise, but since about 1970 the sun’s output has declined slightly. It’s not the sun. The second half of the theory of man-made global warming is also true.
Those who deny man-made global warming, like President Trump and his cabinet, have absolutely no scientific reason for doing so.
A recent experience brought home to me the ways in which the
Trump administration is at war with science.
Several animated charts on my website show how fossil fuel emissions, CO2 concentration, and global temperature have changed over time. Here is the link to that page. Take a look and see how these charts build up point by point. Download them if they will be useful to you. I believe, though I can’t prove it, that animated charts get across the inexorable rise of these parameters better than a static chart.
These charts have been up for a while and so I decided to take a look at updating them. The first one I looked at shows how carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and other human activities have built up since the 1730s. I looked back at the data I had used and saw that they only went through 2008. Surely, I thought, I can bring that at least a few years closer to the present.
The data came from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. When I went to the site, I found this message at the top:
CDIAC as currently configured and hosted by ORNL will cease operations on September 30, 2017. Data will continue to be available through this portal until that time. Data transition plans are being developed with DOE to ensure preservation and availability beyond 2017.
Donald Trump’s 2018 budget for DOE cuts its Office of Science budget by 17%, almost a billion dollars. The ORNL budget is slated to drop by 16%. The last thing DOE will be able to do under that budget is anything new. Instead they will be conducting triage on existing programs.
The likely result is that data such as global fossil fuel emissions, and other data having to do with climate change, may no longer be easily available online. Suppression of data and removal of websites is one more result of Donald Trump’s war on science.
Strike for Science
Scientists are virtually unanimous: manmade climate change is real and dangerous. Delay in preventing or at least mitigating global warming has already cost the opportunity to limit it to 2°C (3.6°F). Waiting four more years risks locking in a rise of at least 3°C (5.4°F), enough to threaten runaway global warming, the melting of the ice caps, and the ultimate destruction of civilization.
Carl Sagan wrote, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Last November, American voters handed humanity’s future over to a president who believes that manmade climate change is a hoax.
Some say that in his first 100 days, President Trump accomplished little other than a Supreme Court appointment. Not so. His executive orders have begun to roll back protections put in place by President Obama and other presidents back to Teddy Roosevelt. Trump has begun dismantling the Clean Power Act and the Waters of the U.S. Rule, approved the Keystone pipeline, taken steps to expand offshore drilling and withdraw protection for national monuments, approved banned pesticides, removed climate change from the EPA website, appointed climate change deniers to head key science agencies like DOE, EPA, and Interior, slashed their budgets and left hundreds of positions unfilled. And that’s just the short list.
In protest, scientists and their supporters have marched and pledged to fight on. But what if marches prove not to be enough?
Men like President Trump and his cabinet answer only to one thing: raw political power. Who has the power to confront them? Scientists. That comes as a surprise because throughout history, instead of engaging in politics, we scientists have chosen to provide the facts to guide policy-makers. But when ideology rules, politicians no longer need facts or science. For scientists to remain on the sidelines now renders us AWOL in the fight for the future of humanity.
Nearly every advance in the quality of human life is due to scientists and our partners in engineering and medicine. We have proven ourselves indispensable. No group has more potential power—if we have the courage to use it. If President Trump and his cabinet continue to ignore our marches and protest actions, we will have only one option: to strike.
Imagine that on a weekday this autumn, in towns and cities across the country, scientists, engineers, technology workers, university professors, students and all those who support science stop what they are doing and walk out of their laboratories, offices, and classrooms. Many in fields other than science, some of them already striking for their own causes, join. The strikers agree to return to work the next day, but vow to strike again and again until our government meets their demands.
To be sure, government and some private employers will retaliate. Some scientists may lose their jobs; some may go to jail. Who knows how far a president who admires Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan might go. However far, that may be the price of allowing future generations the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What should we demand? That will require careful discussion, but I would posit first that government officials sign a pledge to base U.S. policy on the joint statement of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, that "It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate.” Second, that science agencies have their funding and staffing restored to pre-election levels. Third, that the U.S. take whatever steps are necessary to meet its pledge under the Paris Climate Agreement and continue to show leadership on climate action. Lest these demands seem radical, they would only set the clock on climate action back to November 7, 2016. But that might be enough to give humanity a second chance.
If we wait four years to elect a president who accepts science, we may fail, as we failed last November. Even if we succeed, we cannot get back four years of climate inaction. The time is now or it may be never. What do we have to lose? Nothing but our grandchildren’s future.
Madoff for President
Anyone watching Robert De Niro’s mesmerizing performance as Bernie Madoff in HBO’s Wizard of Lies is bound to come away with troubling questions. How could a man betray not only the thousands who trusted him, often with their life savings, but his own family? And how from his prison cell could he not only show no remorse, but blame his victims?
Madoff’s investors trusted him to act as their fiduciary, making investment decisions that were in their best interest rather than his own. He fooled them, but he also fooled himself into believing that he could keep his Ponzi scheme going for as long as he lived. But when the financial crisis of 2008 caused his investors to demand their money, he had to confess that he did not have it. Madoff also fooled himself into believing that if and when his scam was exposed, only he and not his family would suffer. Instead, they were ruined, as were thousands whose inheritance he stole. He went to prison to serve a 150 year sentence.
When we say someone is a fiduciary, we usually refer to a financial relationship. However, the word applies to any affiliation in which one person trusts another enough to seek that person’s help and advice on an important matter. Attorney-client, doctor-patient, and pastor-parishoner are fiduciary relationships.
Just before I watched Wizard of Lies, I had been listening to a wonderful series of lectures from The Teaching Company called America’s Founding Fathers. The combination may have been the reason it struck me that Americans have a fiduciary in that broader sense in the person of our President.
We trust the President to live up to his oath of office. We expect him to act in our best interest and to do his utmost to preserve and protect our right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In order to fulfill that responsibility, the President should seek the advice of experts and act only on the basis of known facts. The greater the risk, the more prudent and careful we expect the president to be. A president who allows himself to be fooled by false facts and who takes the advice of quacks has betrayed our trust and violated his oath of office.
Sadly, in rejecting the conclusion of over 99.9% of climate scientists that manmade climate change is real and dangerous, that is just what President Trump has done: betray our trust and fail in his duty as our fiduciary.
You would think that in order to reject the overwhelming consensus of scientists, he and his cabinet must have some good reason, some hard evidence. But they don’t. A mountain of scientific evidence supports manmade climate change and there is hardly a shred of evidence against it. These men deny manmade climate change simply because they prefer not to believe it.
Let’s come back to investment. People invest to provide for their retirement and also to have something to leave to their children and grandchildren. A Ponzi scheme turns this generational benefit around: money that previous investors expect to receive in the future is spent instead to provide high returns to new investors. By denying manmade climate change and reversing the progress that the U.S. has made in reducing carbon emissions, President Trump and his cabinet are running a Ponzi scheme of their own. If they have their way, our children and grandchildren will pay the price so that our generation can avoid having to do anything about manmade climate change.
History will not treat Bernie Madoff kindly. Imagine how it will treat those who are so certain that the world’s scientists are wrong and they are right that they are willing to risk their grandchildren’s future and even the future of civilization itself. Don’t they ever ask themselves what will happen to those they love if they turn out to be wrong?