As I write this, California endures another extreme fire year under record-breaking heat, the Canadian province of Québec has suffered a deadly heat wave, and Japan just experienced unprecedented flooding rains, with many deaths and 1.6 million people evacuated from their homes. Elsewhere, a city in Oman broke the world record for the hottest overnight low temperature (108.7 °F), Arctic sea ice is in rapid retreat, and a station in Hawaii set a new US record for rainfall in 24 hours (49.69 inches). While no single extreme weather event can be attributed solely to global warming, these are the very disasters and records that are projected to become more frequent and more extreme as increases in heat trapping gases make Earth hotter.
What, then, does it mean to be a “climate change skeptic” or “climate change denier” in 2018, as we face growing and incontrovertible evidence of climate change and its consequences? Humor me, please, as I offer a metaphor (albeit a grisly one): A man stands at the brink of a precipice. I pronounce smugly that I am a “gravity skeptic” or even a “gravity denier” and push him over the edge. The laws of physics are remarkably unaffected by my skepticism; sadly he falls to his death. After my arrest, I argue that since I am not a “gravity scientist” (a.k.a. a physicist) I could not be expected to know in advance what would result from my push. Or perhaps I say it is only reasonable for me to deny gravity, since I am in the business of building flying cars, for which business the presence of Earth’s gravitational field is highly “inconvenient”. In this I am no different from those in the fossil fuel industry who deny the reality of climate change because to acknowledge it would affect their bottom lines. But, in this case, for me to point out my pecuniary interest in denying gravity would render any insanity defense moot and instead enable my prosecution for murder in the first degree.
I’ll put my metaphor to rest, but there is no longer any justification or excuse for denying the reality of global greenhouse warming. To continue to do so, out of ignorance – feigned or genuine – or out of narrow economic self-interest, puts our nation, and indeed the entire planet at risk. We can and should debate the proper mix of mitigation and adaptation strategies to address climate change, but to pretend that climate change isn’t happening is indefensible. People are suffering and dying now because of global warming. The national security and economic consequences of climate change pose an immediate and growing danger to our nation.
My parents’ generation rose and mobilized to confront the greatest threat to the United States in their time, the ascent of global Fascism. They did so at considerable personal sacrifice. On the very day in 1944 he graduated high school, my own father volunteered for the Army paratroopers (fortunately for me, his poor vision disqualified him and the army sent him to college). In our time, climate change poses the leading existential threat to our nation and the globe. But so far, in stark contrast to the thousands of young men who stormed the beaches of Normandy 64 years ago, my generation has met this challenge with narrow self-interest and with apathy. If my father and his cohort had done likewise, none of us today would have the luxury of living in a free and (largely) prosperous world. It is time to call out this tragic failure and to give things their proper names. No longer can we talk about climate change skeptics and global warming deniers. Instead, only climate traitors remain.