Ken Mazlen - Global Warming - Unite and Resist - 2016 Legacy

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Global Warming, U.S. Politics and the American Public's Perception of the Threat of Global Warming


1. The Recognition of the Threat of Global Warming: 1965-1988

In a special message to Congress in 1965, President Johnson warned of the harmful consequences of increased human pollution, including CO2, of the atmosphere. Serious concerns about eventual harmful atmospheric levels of CO2 were elaborated later that year in the report by the President’s Science Advisory Committee and, also, in 1966 by the National Academy of Sciences.

After the climate scientist’s conclusion in 1975...

...that the Earth was not cooling as predicted by the three (Milankovitch) cycles that drive Earth’s climatic variability, the research question became whether and, if so, why the Earth was warming. By the end of the 1970’s The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and others concluded that warming was indeed occurring and that increased CO2 was a plausible cause and, hence basic models for expected warming due to increased CO2 over the next century were developed.


The early models of warming in the forthcoming century distinguished between predicted temperature increases resulting from policies that promoted (1) “immediate” aggressive reductions of CO2 emissions, (2) continuing as is CO2 emissions levels and (3) dramatically increasing CO2 emissions (e.g. resulting from industrialization in China, India, Brazil etc.). The lowest estimate for temperature increase by 2080 (assuming aggressive CO2 emissions reduction polices) was 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.


2. The Public Recognition of Global Warming and the Concern of the World Scientific Community Resulting in the Creation of the IPCC: 1988

In 1988, Dr. James Hansen (the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he was 99% certain that the Earth was warming primarily because of the emissions of warming gases as a result of human activity. In the same year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to summarize all relevant scientific research findings and focus additional research on whether global warming was occurring and, if so, whether human activity, e.g. mainly the burning fossil fuels for energy, was the primary driver of the warming (see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Union of Concerned Scientists on history of IPCC  and Wikpedia for greater detail ).

If, indeed, further research established that human activity was the primary driver of global warming, the IPCC was tasked with identifying policies to reduce the harmful consequences of a warming planet. The UNEP and WMO had used same Intergovernmental Panel framework that facilitated cooperative international research and policy that led to the International treaties (e.g. the 1987 Montreal Protocol) to avoid further depletion of the ozone layer.

(photo credit: Benjamin Kriemann/IPCC)



3. The Response of the Corporate Sector to Increased Focus Upon Global Warming and the Policy Implications: The Creation of the GCC and the Campaign to Create Public Doubt


GCC logo

In 1989, in response to the scientific and public recognition of the danger of increasing CO2 (and other warming gas) emissions, the fossil fuel lobby together with other related corporate giants formed the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to obstruct any attempts in the U.S. to reduce fossil fuel use.

The neutral sounding name of the organization followed in the footsteps of front groups for corporate economic interests such as The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (that defended tobacco industry profits), Citizens for Effective Environmental Action (that defended pesticide industry profits), The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy (that defended profits for chemical industry producers of ozone layer depleting chemicals). The GCC included more than 50 of the largest international coal (e.g. the National Coal Association), oil (e.g. Exxon, Mobil, Shell, BP), automobile (e.g. GM, Ford, Daimler Benz), and energy intensive (e.g. the Aluminum Association) or otherwise related (e.g. American Highway Users Alliance, American Forest and Paper Association) corporations and associations

The primary goal of the GCC was create doubt about the reality of global warming and, later,  doubt about the growing scientific findings that CO2 emissions resulting from human activity were the most powerful factor driving the warming (refer to The Merchants of Doubt by Orestes and Conway). Although the GCC officially disbanded in 2002, its tactics and their impact on American public opinion lasted into the present. The GCC members used their vast economic resources in as any ways as possible: from lobbying, campaign donations, misleading publicity campaigns etc. One of the most effective tactics of the GCC corporate sector was the funding of a very small group of scientists (only one of whom was a climatologist) who publicly doubted or denied the scientific consensus about global warming and the primary causal role of human activity. These doubters or  "deniers” were effectively funded through a network of conservative think tanks established starting in 1973 (after Crutzen’s findings bearing on the depletion of the ozone layer), e.g. the American Heritage Foundation(1973),  the Cato Institute (1977) , the George Marshall Institute (1984), the Competitive Enterprise Institute (1984), and other conservative groups and, famously, some of the most wealthy Americans. The attack upon the science supporting global warming was carried on in non-peer reviewed articles and most effectively in U.S. television news that typically covered global warming scientific findings by “news shaper” interviews with one scientist agreeing with the IPCC summary findings and one of the “professional” deniers who misrepresented the fact that 97% of climate scientists endorse the findings reported by the IPCC.

In addition, the American mass media, more generally, very rarely covered global warming, often offered coverage that is inaccurate and significantly underreported the extent of scientific support for the reality for in global warming and the key causal role of human activity (Weather Underground).

Congressional Committee hearing was another device to overstate doubt – the most famous hearings were held by Senator James Inhofe who presented global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public”. (The use of Congressional hearings led by deniers is very well described in The Heat is On by Ross Gelbspan.)  This kind of flagrant, disingenuous misrepresentation of global warming science is still espoused by most Republicans and can be read in the views (e.g. Brookings, Fortune) of almost all of the Republican candidates for the 2016 Presidency. (For detailed descriptions of the long-standing conspiratorial efforts to obstruct implementation of policies that would slow global warming see “Dealing in Doubt” on Greenpeace, “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Role in Hindering Climate Change Action…” on Fossil Free MIT and on Desmog.)




4. The IPCC, the GCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Continuing Republican Denial

In 1990, the United Nations launched negotiations on polices to reduce the threat of global warming, just as the United Nations had earlier done in the case of the depletion of the ozone layer.  At the U. N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 180 nations approved the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which aimed “to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system”.  President George H. W. Bush signed the Convention for the United States.

1 December 1997. Third Session of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC - COP3), Kyoto, Japan

(Photo credit: Audio Visual Library of International Law - UN)

After the Framework Convention came into effect in 1994, the UNFCCC organized the 1997 Conference in Kyoto to establish phased-in mandatory specific emission reduction targets for each advanced industrial nation with the ultimate target being reductions of worldwide warming gas emissions to levels  60-80% below 1990 levels. Initially, 84 nations signed the Kyoto Protocol, including the U.S. The U.S. did not ratify the treaty at that time because there was a large enough Republican majority to defeat passage in the Senate since 60 votes to end a Republican filibuster were unattainable.  The U.S. never ratified the treaty and, in fact, withdrew in 2001 under President George W. Bush. The Protocol did not officially come into effect until 2005. In 2011, there were 192 nations that had signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol and only three nations that had not signed: Sudan, Afghanistan, and the U.S.


5. The Legacy of Corporate and Republican Manipulation of the American Public Perception of Global Warming: The Politicization of Global Warming

In U. S. surveys, environmental issues have rarely ranked in the top 5 “important public issues” and, furthermore, global warming continues to rank near the bottom of the top 10 environmental issues. The 1988+ campaign of the GCC (and its legacy after the GCC formally disbanded in 2002) and the Republican Party have created a very different public perception of the threat of global warming in the U.S. than that in other advanced industrial nations. Gallup polls asking whether Americans worry about global warming, found 35% did in 1989 and 34% in 2014 (with at most 6% variation 1989-2014). Gallup polls from 1998 to 2014 found that from 40% to 52% of Americans did not agree that most scientists believe global warming is occurring.

In cross-national comparison, a 2007-08 Gallup poll found that 49% of Americans believed warming was primarily caused by human activity compared to about 60% or more in Europe (with one exception), Russia, China and 91% in Japan. Extensive research confirms that the single most important factor explaining this difference in public belief about whether global warming is driven by human activity is U.S. political party affiliation. Additionally, the U.S. mass media has stood alone in its focus upon doubt or uncertainty about questions regarding global warming as opposed to a focus on the scientific consensus and, consequently,  a focus on policies to slow warming.


6. The Legacy of Republican Obstruction of Meaningful Warming Gas Reduction Legislation in the U.S. and the Increased Risk of Runaway Global Warming

For 34 years starting with Ronald Reagan Administration in 1981, the position of the Republican Party has been to oppose any meaningful mandatory warming gas emissions reduction legislation (upon the basis of a changing variety of justifications). With the exception of the first Congress of the Obama Presidency (2009-2011), a Republican President or a Republican majority in the House or a Senate with more than 40 Republicans has exercised Constitution power to block meaningful emissions reduction legislation proposed by Democratic majorities in the Senate or House. While in February, 1981 the official level of atmospheric CO2 was 340.51 parts per million (ppm), in February, 2015 the official level was 401.23 – the first time a monthly average exceeded 400 ppm putting the humans at risk for profound harmful consequences of warming similar to those the last time CO2 levels were above 400 ppm (approximately three million years ago).

Thus, for 34 years the Republican Party has prevented legislation in the U.S that might have helped the world from reaching such a dangerous level of warming gases in our atmosphere. Indeed, from 1981 to 2015 the official (February) CO2 level in the Earth’s atmosphere had increased by 60.79 ppm while the increase in the CO2 level from the 280 ppm pre-industrial level was 340.51 in 1981 was 60.51 ppm. That is, the two century increase in the atmospheric level of CO2 level from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to 1981 was just about the same amount as the increase over the 34 years period from 1981 to 2015. One can only guess at how the threat of global warming could have reduced after 1981 if the scientific evidence had provided the basis for U.S. policy as opposed to politically powerful economic interests.

Finally, the 1981-2015 failure of the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions and, instead, to increase CO2 emissions  made it politically impossible for the largest economy in the world and the greatest military power in the world to lead the world in slowing global warming both in domestic practice and in international agreements. This failure of international leadership was unquestionably an important factor in China’s following a particularly damaging course in rapidly increasing warming gas emissions in its post -1988 industrialization. Indeed, China’s 1988 CO2 emissions were less than 3 billion metric tons, but by 2014 China’s CO2 emissions had tripled and nearly doubled those of the U.S.


President Obama announces U.S. Clean Power Plan

August 3, 2015

"...we're the last generation that can do something about it."