Betting the future

The pope will soon arrive in the U.S. He has spoken forcefully about climate change and its causes, placing much of the blame on rapacious capitalism. It’s therefore unsurprising that many, if not most, Republicans are at least uncomfortable with the visit and at least one member of the House announced his decision to “boycott” the pope’s address before Congress. The GOP’s constituency, for the most part, rejects the science and fact of climate change, all the while averring that they are “not scientists.”

But for saner inhabitants of the planet, global warming presents profound, though uncertain, risks to current and future generations of animal species, including Homo Sapiens. For decades, now, the scientists have warned in increasingly strident tones that unless action is taken sooner rather than later, there may be no way to mitigate climate change. (See the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) Each warning is met with hollow words.

There is much at stake, for both the planet and fossil-fuel companies. The carbon embedded in oil reserves will exacerbate climate change should it be burned. But it’s black gold for the likes of Chevron, Shell, and Exxon. It has no value to them unless extracted and combusted.

And speaking of Exxon, Bill McKibben writes in today’s New Yorker that the massive corporation knew that its product would warm the planet. One of its principal scientists, James Black, told Exxon’s management committee that the “greenhouse effect” was real. That was in 1977. A year later, according to McKibben, Black reported that a doubling of carbon emissions would raise global temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius. Those numbers reflect today’s current estimates. However, rather than seek alternatives to oil and gas, Exxon management chose to disparage the scientific community, bribe legislators, and expand its operations.

As I see it, the reason we don’t act to keep carbon buried is that (a) our current lifestyle, heavily reliant on the automobile, gets in the way, and (b) the effects of climate change are gradual and their increments barely noticed from month to month. We are like the frog in the warming pot of water, failing to act until it’s too late.

We can only imagine what future generations, suffering the ravages of a warming planet, might say about their predecessors. I’m guessing that they will not be kind. Nor should they be.