John Langton, Ph.D.
“If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us.”
In August I will be starting my thirty-sixth year of teaching political science at Westminster College, and I have been wondering since 1989, after hearing a “last lecture” by a young, popular economics professor, who was departing to teach at another school, what I would say, what crucial wisdom I would try to impart to my students, my colleagues, and perhaps the world at large if I were asked to give an honorary last lecture, based on the conceit or useful fiction that it would be my final talk ever, my last chance to make a difference before retiring from the scene “permanently.” On June 1 this abstract, philosophical question became an immediate, practical task when the Dean invited me to deliver a last lecture on July 31, 2016, the final morning of Westminster’s inaugural Summer Retreat for alumni, faculty and students.1
I thought a lot about what I might say. I like to think I have insights to share on a number of subjects, but I concluded that I would speak about climate change and politics, after my family took a vacation in mid-July to visit my brothers in California, which was and is still suffering through the fifth year of the severest drought to have struck the state in 1,200 years.2 Wildfires were burning out of control in various locations and motels from Laguna Beach to San Francisco displayed warning signs, announcing the drought and asking their patrons to conserve water. At the John Muir Woods, I asked a park ranger if the giant Redwoods in the area were threatened and she said they were suffering because climate change had reduced the fog from which they normally derive half the 55 gallons of water they need each day (the other half comes from groundwater).
I have been teaching Environmental Policy and Politics for more than 20 years and I have become convinced that environmental degradation in general and climate change in particular pose the preeminent, existential threat to the survival and well-being of the human species and countless other species as well.3 Climate change not only creates serious ecological, economic and health problems by itself but also exacerbates a whole array of other vexing conditions from poverty and acute inequality to illegal immigration, civil and ethnic strife, interstate conflicts and ultimately, I believe, the threat of nuclear war.4 Without getting control of climate change, it is going to become increasingly difficult for us and particularly for future generations to lead decent, healthy, civilized lives. To put it more bluntly, I am convinced that unless we drastically reduce the amount of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) that we are now putting into the atmosphere, we are going to be royally, hellishly f**ked by climate change and its cascading, catastrophic consequences. That’s the thrust of my last lecture.
Originally, I had a more sedate, more traditional academic title for my last lecture and I wrote out a dense outline of what I wanted to say so that my final talk would have more structure than my usual classroom lectures. But, at a local bar on Thursday night, before the formal beginning of the retreat on Friday, one of my former students thanked me for really challenging her, and she and a number of other alumni said they had come to the retreat specifically to hear me hold forth, to “pontificate,” to give a typical free-flowing, off-the-cuff, irreverent Langton lecture. And so that’s what you’re getting this morning, with the proviso that I will try to follow the major points in my outline, which you now have before you.
I decided to change the title of my lecture to make it more provocative, more memorable and thus to give my “final talk” a better chance to be published and disseminated to a wider audience. I don’t mean to offend people by using the term f**ked. Rather I want to convey as graphically and effectively as possible that unless we stabilize climate change, we are going to be ruined, screwed, degraded, totally messed up, FUBARed, as American GIs in WWII used to say.5
To give credit where credit is due, I derived the title of my lecture from the title of Brad Werner’s highly technical paper, “Is Earth F**ked?” which he delivered in 2012 at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco (where else?). Werner’s answer to his question was, “more or less,” “…as evidenced by widespread inability to meaningfully address such global challenges as climate change and soil degradation…within the dominant culture…”6 My answer to the question posed in the title of my last lecture, the wisdom I so desperately want to impart here is that “we are probably f**ked by climate change but not necessarily, not ineluctably.” We can save our planet and ourselves but it is going to take an incredible amount of sustained, intelligent work, large sacrifices, wise and courageous political leadership, systemic reforms, and, crucially, a massive, global “metanoia” or fundamental change of consciousness about the magnitude of the threat we face from climate change and what must be done to avoid being royally, hellishly f**ked by it. I hope you will pardon my repetition of that phrase for rhetorical effect, but, damn it, if we don’t act decisively to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases and thus anthropogenic climate change, we will be FUBARed. And that’s the unvarnished truth, as I see it.
My Thesis and Basic Argument
Plato defined political wisdom in his Republic as knowing what is “the best possible conduct for the state as a whole…”7 and the knowledge I would like to convey here is that although we are in all probability going to be f**ked by climate change, this does not have to be our fate, if we can change our conduct, if we can just shed our addiction to fossil fuels before it is too late. We still have the time, knowledge and technological resources to stabilize climate change at a point that avoids the worst scenarios now envisioned by the IPCC. But we must recognize and treat climate change as the greatest existential threat, not just to American national security, but to the security of the human species, and we must act on that realization immediately, decisively, and dramatically to ensure that the average global temperature of the planet does not go higher (for a number of years) than 2 °C or 3.6 °F above the preindustrial baseline (1880–1910) average of about 13.7 °C or 56.7 °F.8 Concretely, to achieve this imperative, to have a sustainable future, four incredibly difficult steps must be taken: (1) we (the human species) must reduce the current roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 and the billions of tons of other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrofluorocarbons we are currently emitting each year by burning coal, oil and natural gas9 by 80 percent by 2050 and then to zero by 208510; (2) we must leave approximately 85 percent of the known fossil fuel reserves underground11; (3) the United States, as one of the greatest emitters historically of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere and as the most powerful and wealthiest nation on the planet, must lead this daunting project,12 but (4) we (Americans) can’t do this without first “fixing our politics,” as President Obama put it in his last State of the Union Address.13 Taking these steps would be, I firmly believe, the truly wise course of action for the United States and the world community in the most expansive, necessary and crucial sense of the phrase.
A good argument, a good plan of action, a good political theory, I tell my classes, offers sound reasons for a conclusion and typically tries to answer three questions: (1) what is and will be the case empirically, if current trends continue; (2) what ought to be the case, morally and practically (this is often referred to as the “vision” question); and (3) what should be done to go from here to there, to move from where we are to where we ought to be (this is the question about a feasible, effective transformation strategy). In the remainder of this lecture, I would like to sketch my answers to these questions with respect to the greatest challenge we face as a species: unmitigated climate change driven by the relentless, massive burning of fossil fuels. In thinking about these questions, I have been guided by Auguste Comte’s incredibly astute observation that “we seek to know in order to foresee and to foresee in order to control.”
What Is and Will Be the Case?
What we know in general, according to physicist Myles Allen, is that “there is a simple and predictable relationship between the total amount of carbon injected into the atmosphere and peak projected warmings. Releasing a trillion metric tons of carbon [or 3 trillion tons of CO2] into the atmosphere may cause a most likely peak warming of two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which many identify as a danger.”14 What we know specifically, according to Bill McKibben and others, is that since the start of the industrial revolution in 1750, we have released, as of 2011, 531 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, primarily coal. At current rates of release, we will put enough carbon into the air to raise the global temperature by a very disruptive 1.5 °C in about six years, and we will burn the remainder of our “carbon budget,” which has been reduced by now (July, 2016) to only about 330 billion tons of carbon (or 1000 gigatons of CO2), in another 15 to 20 years.15 At that point, around 2034, we will have warmed the planet a catastrophic 2 °C or more above the preindustrial level, and an average global temperature of 61.5 °F or higher will be the hellish, “new normal.” Not to alarm you too much, but this July was not only the hottest July on record but the hottest month since 1880, with an average global land/ocean surface temperature of 16.67 °C or 62.01 °F, which was, according to NOAA, 1.57 °F above the twentieth-century average of 60.44 °F and 4.41 °F above the preindustrial average.16
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, there were 270 to 280 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere; then 315 in 1959; 379 in 2005; 386 in 2010; 396 in 2013; 401 in 2015; and 403 to 407 in 2016.17 We are now adding 2.25 ppm of CO2 a year to our air and the average global temperature actually reached 61.52 F or 16.4 °C in June, 2016, breaking the 2 °C hotter threshold for the first time, according to NOAA. If this trend continues, we will hit 450 ppm of CO2 in less than twenty years, the average global temperature will be perhaps as much as 3 °C hotter than baseline averages and we will be royally, hellishly f**ked by climate change or rather the drastic, almost unimaginable consequences of that process.
According to reports that are readily available on the net by NASA, NOAA, Climate Central, the EPA and similar agencies and organizations,18 over the last 50 years the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history. Every year for the last 40 years has been warmer than the average global temperature for the twentieth century. Fifteen of the sixteen hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. The year 2015 was by far the warmest on record since 1880 and there is a 99 percent chance that 2016 will be warmer than 2015. The first six months of 2016 were the warmest six-month period on record and were 2.7 °F warmer than the pre-industrial average. Each month in 2016 exceeded all previous average temperature records for that month. June 2016 was the fourteenth straight hottest month on record and July was the fifteenth. For the first time in recorded history, the average global temperature of the earth in 2015 was 1 °C above the preindustrial average. Another 1 °C increase in average temperature or a sustained 2 °C above the preindustrial average will produce catastrophic climate change. Previous forecasts that we will hit that by 2034 now seem rather optimistic and if we continue to practice business as usual and these trends continue, we will probably have put more than 600 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere by the end of the century, the global average temperature will be 4 to 10 °C hotter than the average temperature in which we evolved as a species, and our great grandchildren will be burning in a hellish, striated, Hobbesian world and cursing us for our incredibly immoral selfishness.
As the average global temperature moves permanently beyond roughly 16 °C or 62 °F, we can expect to see an even more rapid, unstoppable melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets, an appreciable sea-level rise, destructive warming and acidification of the oceans, massive storm surges, the inundation of coastal cities around the world, the disappearance of small island states, increases in allergies, asthma and infectious diseases, drastic declines in potable water, food fish and agricultural production, the unabated mass extinction of other species, and the proliferation of extreme weather events, such as relentless, murderous heat waves, sustained droughts and frequent torrential rains, more powerful hurricanes and tornadoes, and all this will, I think you must quickly realize, exacerbate a plethora of other social and political problems.19 Eventually, if these trends continue deep into the next century, a kind of “end-of-days” apocalypse could occur in which world trade collapses, democratic governments start to disappear, nation states fragment, war and ethnic strife become endemic, and civilization, as we know it, disintegrates.20 Indeed, at some point in the foreseeable future, the disastrous direct and indirect consequences of unmitigated climate change will destroy the institutional capacity of the human species to respond coherently and effectively to climate change and then our progeny will really be royally and hellishly f**ked.
In April global leaders met in New York to sign the Paris climate agreement, which had been approved on December 12, 2015 by 195 nations at the twenty-first meeting of the UN-sponsored Conference of Parties (concerned about climate change). The agreement committed virtually all the countries in the world to “holding the increase in global average temperature well below 2 °C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” Unfortunately, the average global temperature of the first three months of this year has already almost hit that 1.5 °C threshold, and it now appears that even if there is no free riding and each of the 195 countries meets its proposed emission-reduction goal, their collective total emissions of CO2 will not decline significantly and by 2050 the global average temperature will be at least 3 °C higher than the preindustrial average. In other words, while the nations of the world were willing to sign a nonbinding agreement to do something meaningful about climate change, most were individually and practically unwilling to do enough work, to sacrifice enough for the common good, to accomplish the goal. Concretely if all the nations that endorsed the Paris Accord hit their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (i.e. proposed reductions), CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions would only drop from 60 billion metric tons today to 54 billion in 2030, which clearly would not do much to slow the buildup of CO2 and the pace and magnitude of climate change.21 For all of President Obama’s good intentions, the United States has only pledged to drop its emissions 28 percent below its 2005 level (7.1 gigatons) by 2025 or only about 2 billion tons below its current level of 7.5 gigatons. And this ignores the fact that the US plans in this span to burn more natural gas and thus emit more methane, which actually captures and reradiates more heat per molecule than CO2. All this provides simultaneously an example of the problem of collective action and “the environmental policy paradox,” described by Professor Zach Smith as a recurring and puzzling condition in which policy makers seem to understand what to do about an environmental problem, like climate change, but fail, for various reasons, to respond to it in a timely and effective manner.22
Donald Trump has called climate change “bullshit” and a “hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese to weaken America, and recent polls indicate that a majority of Republicans basically agree with him.23 Thus it is no surprise that the platform just approved by the GOP at its convention explicitly rejects the imposition of a carbon tax and calls for rescinding Obama’s Clean Power Plan and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, which the United States signed in April and agreed in September to participate in formally, in conjunction with a similar commitment from China.24 Trump, of course, did not mention climate change in his Nomination Speech at the Convention, and one editorial observed that the “GOP Fiddles While America Burns.”25 In contrast, the Democratic platform characterized climate change as “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” and called for putting a tax on carbon. But alas, Hillary Clinton had only two tepid sentences about this “urgent threat” in her Nomination Speech: “I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.”26 Someday, I think, conditions will force the presidential candidates of both major parties to talk at great length about their plans for dealing with climate change. I just hope that this happens before it is way too late, before water from the D.C. tidal basin is lapping at Jefferson’s feet in his Memorial.
What Ought to Be the Case?
Ideally, the global economy will be substantially “decarbonized” by 2050 and certainly before 2100,27 emitting roughly 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year by midcentury and fueled then primarily by wind, solar, water, geothermal and, although I hate to say it, a lot of nuclear power, generated perhaps by fast-fusion reactors. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, instead of hurtling toward 450 ppm and beyond as it currently is, will be moving back toward 350 ppm, as the great climatologist James Hansen has contended is necessary to have real sustainability.28 This will mean that not only will the burning of fossil fuels virtually cease by 2085 but, according to a new study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, technologies must be in place by then that extract 15 billion tons of CO2 from the air each year, so that we actually have “negative emissions.” 29 The population of the earth will be stabilized at less than nine billion and we will have zero population growth in the future. People will lead much greener, less consumptive, more energy efficient lives. They will walk and bike more, play more tennis and other sports, watch a lot less TV, use public transportation a lot more, drive small, energy efficient cars, and eat little or no meat, whose production now contributes significantly to climate change. 30 The United States, among many other things, will have an extensive high speed rail system and scores of new, small nuclear power plants.
The American political system will be fixed, so that it can actually get things done. It will no longer be what Francis Fukuyama now describes as a gridlocked “vetocracy,” suffering from “a problem of political decay in a more acute form than other democratic political systems.”31 Virtually all the nations in the world will be strong, robust democracies, the UN will be strengthened, and there will be powerful regulatory agencies at the national, regional and international levels to control the emission of greenhouse gases, to deal with a myriad of other environmental problems, to administer a carbon tax and to direct a massive program to develop clean forms of energy, more efficient technologies and on and on.
Crucially, and I mean crucially, virtually everyone will realize that, like the earth revolving around the sun, anthropogenic climate change is not a hoax, but a scientifically established fact, that the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has contributed substantially to the growing concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and thus to the warming of the planet, and that everything possible must be done to reverse this process, including paying a very stiff carbon tax.
Of course, it goes without saying that none of this may come to pass and that we will instead be living in an extremely hot, ugly, FUBARed world.
What Should Be Done to Get There from Here?
To ensure that our nation and the world community has a decent, sustainable future, the United States should become the clear, unquestioned leader in the global effort to combat climate change, to stabilize the average global temperature at less than 62 °F or something short of 2 °C above the preindustrial level. And to achieve this goal the United States should, among many other measures, impose on itself a carbon tax of $80 dollars per metric ton by 2020 and champion the creation of a global carbon tax, which will work to reduce the burning of fossil fuel, encourage the development and use of renewables and promote technological innovations to enhance energy efficiency and the attractiveness of alternative fuels.32 The funds collected through the carbon tax should be used in part to cushion the impact of the tax on the less advantaged members of society, to provide incentives for the development and deployment of green technologies and renewable energy, and to help developing countries transition to a decarbonized future. Critically, the Paris Climate Accord must be strengthened significantly, with participating countries agreeing by 2020 to raise their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (proposed reductions in CO2 emissions) dramatically enough to actually hold “the increase in global average temperature well below 2 °C.” And then they must abide by their new pledges.
For all this to happen, to stop just fiddling while we burn, at least two critical things must occur. First, the American political system must be fixed so that polices promoting decarbonization can be enacted. Big money must be taken out of our politics, the gerrymandering of our congressional districts must be reversed, and the filibuster rule in the Senate must be eliminated or reformed. Second, the ideological polarization about climate change must come to end. To put it simply, to avoid being unbelievably f**ked by climate change, the preponderant majority of people in this country and indeed the world must come to accept, sooner rather than later, the wisdom and advice I have sought to distill and convey in my last lecture, which is, in a nutshell, that we are going to be f**ked by climate change unless we take all kinds of actions to drastically reduce and then virtually eliminate the burning of fossil fuels. And it occurs to me that one of those actions would be for more and more professors from the baby boom generation to give last lectures that dwell on the threat of climate change and what can be done to mitigate it. Millions and millions of voices in millions of venues must speak out to change the hearts and minds of billions and billions of people across the globe in order for us to achieve sustainability.
Finally, I want to say that my goal here has not been simply to entertain you, to give you something interesting to think about, to let you experience once again one of my lectures at a pleasant Summer Retreat. I don’t want you to just passively accept my message; I don’t want you to be free riders, hoping others will sacrifice for the common good, while you continue to live high on the hog of fossil fuels, driving an SUV, keeping the AC on high, refusing to vote for anyone who proposes a carbon tax that would initially raise the price of gas perhaps a buck or two a gallon. Instead, as Gandhi said, you must actually “be the change you want to see in the world,” politically, economically, socially, and ecologically. If you want to alleviate the threat of climate change, you’ve got to live a life that helps alleviate the threat of climate change; you’ve got to walk the walk and so do I. As my wife often says to me, “if you’re such a big environmentalist, turn off the lights and TV when you leave the room.”
This is what I hoped I would be able to say in my last lecture, when I started to think about climate change as my topic. But I have to confess, it all sounds, even to me, farfetched, improbable, ridiculously idealistic, if not laughable. On such a nice day it is hard for me to believe, despite what the data say, that the planet has just suffered through the hottest month on record (again, 62.01 °F and 16.67 °C, according to NOAA) and that things will get much, much worse, if the nations of the world don’t cut their CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and leave 85 percent of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground forever. It’s hard for me to believe we can do anything like that. It’s hard for me to believe that we, the American people, will fix our politics in the foreseeable future, enact a stiff carbon tax and encourage China, India, the EU and the rest of the world to do the same. And that’s why, in a nutshell, it’s hard for me to believe that we will give up our addiction to oil, coal, and natural gas and avoid being royally, hellishly f**ked by climate change. But again, as I said, that does not have to be our fate. Improbable does not mean impossible, necessary or ineluctable. We don’t have to overdose on fossil fuels. We can get green and clean. We’re not blind and we’re not helpless. We know what is causing climate change; we can foresee its terrible consequences, and we know how to control, reduce and eventually eliminate the use of fossil fuels and to take measures to adapt to the level of warming that is now inevitable, given the CO2 already in our air. We just have to do it. So turn out the lights when you leave the room, join an environmental group or two, and become a passionate advocate of a stiff carbon tax. Start living a much greener, more environmentally sustainable and ecologically moral life. In short, live what is actually the good life for the new millennium. Your kids and their kids will praise you for your wisdom and thank you for your sacrifices for their well-being. That’s the final, practical piece of advice I’d like to give you in this my last lecture, at least for now.
As I write this addendum to my last lecture a few days after the 2016 presidential election, I am filled with a mix of conflicting emotions: despair, dread, outrage, exasperation, sadness- but also hope and a resolute determination to fight on, to “Never give in… Never, never, never, never… except to convictions of honour and good sense,” as Churchill declared in 1941 when England was still facing defeat in World War II.
The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States has palpably and exponentially increased the probability that we are going to be royally and hellishly f**ked by climate change in the not too distant future. We have replaced a president, who became an eloquent and effective champion of the environment, who viewed climate change as the greatest long-term threat facing the world, who repeatedly warned that we were not acting fast enough to combat what he called in September its “terrifying trends,”33 with a president who will be, as Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club observed, “literally the only head of state on earth who is a climate-change denier.”34
Before the election, which I expected Hillary Clinton to win, I had become convinced on the basis of a fantastic article by Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez35 that “the Koch network,” with its incredible organizational and financial resources, was ideologically and politically the single most powerful force preventing the United States from acting more quickly and effectively to combat climate change. But now I realize that the damage done by Charles and David Koch to the climate will be almost nothing compared to what President Trump is about to do, if he carries out his campaign proposals. In short, instead of helping to reduce the global emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the Trump administration will be acting to increase their output tremendously. Under President Trump the United States will opt out of the Paris Accord and this in turn will encourage China and then many other countries to withdraw too, perhaps causing the collapse of the whole structure. Even if that doesn’t occur, America’s withdrawal from the agreement will deflate the remaining participating countries and cause them to work less strenuously to fulfill their national pledges. At the same time, President Trump will rescind Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other regulations that curtail American emissions.36 Instead of helping to keep 85 percent of the known fossil fuels reserves underground, the United States will be working overtime to exploit then and thus, of course, encouraging other nations to do the same. As prominent climatologist Michael Mann observed, Trump’s climate policies could mean that it’s “game over” for the planet. Without an effective Paris Accord, Mann argues, there will be nothing the countries of the world can do to prevent the planet’s average temperature from increasing between 4.0 and 4.5 °C by 2100, as a recent scientific paper predicts.37 If the average global temperature at the end of the century is in the mid to high 60s °F, the waters of the D.C. tidal basin could be lapping at Jefferson’s feet in his Memorial, and the world will be a very hellish, FUBARed place.
Why, then, do I have any hope that fighting on, that not giving in to pessimism and despair can make any difference, can help to save the climate and the planet, during the presidency of Donald Trump? Let me give you just three reasons. First, I believe that the climate science on which my last lecture is based is correct and that nature itself will make this increasingly clear. For example, in a remarkable article, entitled “2016’s Hellish Summer Weather: A Told-You-So Moment?,” Seth Borenstein describes the massive flooding around the globe, the droughts and wildfires in California, Canada, China and India, the unrelenting, record- setting heat, and the ten extreme weather disasters that each caused more than a billion in losses and occurred between May and September (and this litany of disasters doesn’t even include Hurricane Matthew). He indicates how these events were related to the effects of climate change, and observes that James Hansen was able to forecast back in 1988 “with a crude computer model” the global temperate rise, the “big changes in the number of days when the overnight temperature would not go below 75 and the daytime highs would exceed 95 in four cities by the 2010s.”38 In another remarkable article, with the title “Flooding of the Coast Caused by Global Warming Has Already Begun” and with the subtitle “Scientists’ Warnings that the Rise of the Sea Would Eventually Imperil the United States’ Coastline Are No Longer Theoretical,” Justin Gillis documents how the rising sea is beginning to inundate and damage towns and cities along the east coast and how elections in those areas are beginning “ to be won or lost on promises to invest money to protect against flooding.”39
My point, again, is that climate scientists have got it mostly right about climate change. They have the theories and forecasting models to predict what is going to happen to our climate as the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases increases and what that will do in turn to other aspects of the biosphere. Citizens who want to do something about climate change should strive to become fully informed about its causes, consequences and remedies. They then need to inform their president, senators and representatives about what they have learned and that their future political support for them depends on their willingness to do something about climate change, even if it is just to invest in green energy projects, including the building of wind farms and nuclear plants. They need to tell their senators to filibuster and refuse to see confirmed any of the President’s nominees for positions in the Cabinet, the EPA and other regulatory agencies, and the judiciary, who are not willing to be at least “pragmatic” about the issue of climate change and the degradation of the environment in general.
This leads me to my second cause for hope that the game is not over for the climate: Donald Trump did not win the popular vote for president. Let me say that again: Donald Trump did not win the popular vote for president. As I write this addendum, Hillary Clinton is leading him in the popular vote by more than almost 2 million votes, and that figure is expected to grow, since the states which have not gotten in all their tallies are large, heavily Democratic states like New York and California. Trump won the presidency because of the quirky way the anachronistic, undemocratic Electoral College “actually counts” the vote for president. Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than any presidential candidate in history, except Barack Obama. In other words, many more people voted for the candidate who said she believed in the science of climate change and wanted to do something about the problem than voted for the candidate who said that climate change was a hoax. This makes me hopeful. If Mr. Trump had won the popular vote, that would have been a cause for serious despair. But he didn’t, and four years from now he could be even more vulnerable on the issue of climate change and he should be reminded about that as often as possible.
Finally, I have hope not only because I believe that the science of climate change is valid and that nature will confirm its truth over and over in increasingly uncomfortable and undeniable ways, but also because I believe that fighting to stabilize the climate and save the planet is the morally right, just and laudable thing to do. So, as I said at the end of my last lecture, be the change you want to see in the world; turn off the lights and TV when you leave the room; join an environmental group or two; become a passionate advocate of a stiff carbon tax. And please, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump, don’t be afraid to exercise your First Amendment rights. Write letters to the editor; petition your government; assemble, march, speak truth to power about climate change and the pressing need to do something about it now, before we are royally, hellishly, f**ked by it.
After writing that last sentence less than two weeks ago, I was stunned to learn that Donald Trump had declared, on November 22, during an interviews with Thomas Friedman and other New York Times columnists, that: (1) he has an “open mind” about and is “going to look very carefully [at]” the whole issue of climate change, the Paris agreement and whether America would continue to play a leading role in confronting climate change; (2) he views “clean air” and “clean water, crystal clean water… as vitally important;” (3) he actually thinks “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change, but (4) he doesn’t know “how much” and is concerned about “how much it’s going to cost our companies” to do something about the climate issue.40 For me, all this is incredibly good news. It means that Donald Trump is not an implacable climate-change denier, that he is open to reason and evidence, and that he can be educated about how dealing with climate change, despite its costs, can yield enormous economic benefits and is absolutely vital to the health and well-being of American companies, their workers, and indeed the human species. It means that we can now have a bit more hope that, even during the Trump presidency, things can be accomplished that will help to save the climate and the planet, if we hold his feet to the fire and fight on. But, alas, I must leave you with a sobering thought, a last piece of wisdom, provided recently by Dr. Michael Mann on his blog. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, the United States would have been emitting approximately five to six gigatons of CO2 per year in 2020 (in contrast to the seven gigatons or so then if Trump were to fulfill his campaign proposals), and, combined with the roughly 40 gigatons released by the other nations, we would have warmed the climate a “very disruptive” 1.5 °C in just four to six years. In other words, as Dr. Mann adroitly put it, “the future of the global climate would have been fracked even had the election gone the other way,” unless a Clinton administration had undertaken almost immediately “stronger action to cut CO2 emissions” than expected.41 With the global temperature currently at 1.2 °C above the preindustrial average, it seems inevitable now that in very short order we will see a climate that is at least 1.5 °C warmer than it was only a hundred years ago. Somehow we’ve got to do more, so much more to avoid hitting in turn a catastrophic 2 °C hotter in 2034, 3 °C in 2050 and 4 °C near the end of the century, at which point the Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami will be as much as six feet underwater, according to an estimate by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact,42 and we will be “irrevocably fracked,” FUBARed, f**ked, royally and hellishly.
That said, I want to end my last lecture by reaffirming its thesis: although we are probably going to be f**ked good and hard by climate change, that does not have to be our fate, if we can take the tough, requisite actions to break our addiction to fossil fuels sooner rather than later. And right now, as I see it, this means, among a whole panoply of other actions, reminding President Trump, his administration and supporters in Congress over and over about what science says about climate change and its causes, consequences and remedies, and asking them again and again if they want to be remembered by future generations as politicians who, seduced by the love of power and the lure of campaign contributions, simply ignored or actively abetted an impending planetary holocaust.
1.^ This essay is a reconstruction of the “last lecture” I delivered on July 31, 2016 at the inaugural Westminster College Summer Retreat in Fulton, Missouri for alumni, faculty and students. It was written shortly after the lecture and is largely based on the dense outline I prepared for the talk and distributed to the audience. The essay retains the title, overall structure, conversational style, and much of the substance of the lecture as delivered. Like the spoken lecture, this essay is intended for a general audience of educated people, and thus I have used mostly popular sources, which can be easily found through Google, to support my claims. I have not rewritten the main body of the essay to reflect developments that occurred after July 2016, but I do cite sources published since then. I have added an addendum that discusses how the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States bears on the argument of my last lecture.
2.^ Catherine Gautier, “How Climate Change is Making California’s Epic Drought Worse,” The Conversation, May 21, 2015.
3.^ James Hansen, “The Threat to the Planet,” The New York Review of Books,” July 13, 2006; Laurence C. Smith, “Greenhouse Warming: Prepare for the Worst, The New York Review of Books, 63, no. 15 (Oct. 2016), 44–46.
4.^ For excellent overviews of climate change, its deleterious consequences and what can be done to alleviate them see Justin Gillis, “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change,” The New York Times, November 25, 2015; Justin Gillis, “Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst is Yet to Come,” The New York Times. March 31, 2014; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014, 1–28.
5.^ FUBAR is an acronym for the military slang term “f**ked up beyond all recognition” that became popular during WWII.
6.^ Brad Werner, “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism,” December 6, 2012; Dave Levitan, “After Extensive Mathematical Modeling, Scientist declares ‘Earth is F**ked’,” io9 Gizmodo, December 7, 2012. Werner’s argument and presentation of his unpublished paper is discussed by Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything, 449–450.
7.^ Francis MacDonald Cornford, The Republic of Plato. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 121.
8.^ “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report,” IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007, Topic 5: The long term perspective: 64–70; Brian Mastroianni, “Why 2 Degrees Are So Important to Climate Change,” CBS News, November 30, 2015.
9.^ The greenhouse gases countries are now emitting contain about 60 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalents. See Bobby Magill, “Negative Emissions Key to Meeting 2°C Threshold,” Climate Central, July 12, 2016.
10.^ James Ayre, “Study: Limiting Global Warming to Under 2 °Celsius Requires Ceasing Emissions by 2085 AND Technology to Remove Carbon From Atmosphere,” CleanTechnica, July 26, 2016.
11.^ R.L. Miller, “Climate Change Report Supports Bill McKibben’s ‘Terrifying New Math’.” Take Part, September 28, 2013.
12.^ Al Gore, “The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate,” Rolling Stone, June, 18, 2014.
13.^ Carl Husle and Julie Hirschfield Davis, “Obama’s Plea to ‘Fix Our Politics’ Leaves Both Sides Looking Inward,” The New York Times, January 13, 2016.
14.^ Quoted in David Biello “How Much Is Too Much? Estimating Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Scientific American, April 29, 2009.
15.^ Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012; I have used R.L. Miller’s recalculations of McKibben’s terrifying math in light of a more recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
16.^ NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for July 2016, published online August 2016, retrieved on November 12, 2016.
17.^ Brian Kahn, “The World Passes 400 PPM Threshold. Permanently,” Climate Central, September 27, 2016.
18.^ See, for example, Andrea Thompson, “First Half of 2016 Blows Away Temp Records,” Climate Central, July 19, 2016.
19.^ Rebecca Leber, “This is What Our Hellish World Will Look Like After We Hit the Global Warming Tipping Point,” New Republic, December 21, 2014; Bill McKibben, “Some Like it Hot!” The New York Review of Books. May 9, 2013, 59–60.
20.^ Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013, 304.
21.^ John Upton, “Paris Talks Won’t Achieve 2°C Goal: Does That Matter?” Climate Central, February 10, 2015; Bobby Magill, “Negative Emissions Key to Meeting 2°C Threshold,” July 12, 2016.
22.^ Zachary A. Smith, The Environmental Policy Paradox, Sixth Edition, Boston: Pearson, 2013. 92-93, 325.
23.^ Louis Jacobsen, “Yes, Donald Trump Did Call Climate Change a Chinese Hoax,” Politifact. June 3, 2016,.
24.^ James Bruggers, “Party platforms clash on climate change,” courier-journal, July 26, 2016.
25.^ Phil Plait, “The GOP Fiddles While America Burns,” Slate, July 20, 2016.
26.^ “Hillary Clinton’s DNC Speech: Full Text,” CNN Politics, July 28, 2016.
27.^ “’Decarbonization’,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 2015, Opinion Section, A14.
28.^ James Abraham, “What’s Climate Scientist James Hansen’s Legacy?” The Guardian. April 29, 2013.
29.^ Bobby McGill, “Negative Emissions Key to Meeting 2°C Threshold,” Climate Central, July 12, 2016.
30.^ Bruce Friedrich, “What Would the Pope Eat?” USA Today, September 17, 2015, News Section, 7A.
31.^ Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 487.
32.^ “Carbon Cure-All,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 27, 2012, Opinion Section, A18.C
33.^ Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Mark Landler and Coral Davenport, “Obama on Climate Change: The Trends are ‘Terrifying’,” The New York Times. September 8, 2016.
34.^ Oliver Milman, “Donald Trump Would Be World’s Only National Leader to Reject Climate Science,” The Guardian, July 12, 2016.
35.^ Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism,” Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 3 (September 2016): 681-699. DOI: 10.1017/S1537592716001122.
36.^ Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis, “Trump Victory Reverses U.S. Energy and Environmental Priorities,” The Washington Post, November 9, 2016.
37.^ Chris Sommerfeldt, “Donald Trump’s Climate Policies Could Mean Game Over for the Planet: Scientist,” New York Daily News, November 10, 2016.
38.^ Seth Borenstein, “2016’s Hellish Summer Weather: A Told-You-So Moment?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 21, 2016, Nation Section, A4.
39.^ Justin Gillis, “Flooding of the Coast Caused by Global Warming Has Already Begun,” The New York Times, September 3, 2016
40.^ The New York Times, “Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript,” November 23, 2016
41.^ Michael Mann, “Trump Carbon and the Paris Agreement,” Real Climate, November 17, 2016.
42.^ The Editors, “Trump and the Planet,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 28, 2016. AO9
Abraham, James. “What’s Climate Scientist James Hansen’s Legacy?” The Guardian. April 29, 2013.
Ayre, James. “Study: Limiting Global Warming to Under 2°Celsius Requires Ceasing Emissions by 2085 AND Technology to Remove Carbon From Atmosphere.” CleanTechnica. July 26, 2016.
Biello, David. “How Much Is Too Much? Estimating Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Scientific American. April 29, 2009.
Borenstein, Seth. “2016’s Hellish Summer Weather: A Told-You-So Moment?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. September 21, 2016, Nation Section, A4.
Bruggers, James. “Party Platforms Clash on Climate Change.” Courier Journal. July 26, 2016.
“Carbon Cure-All.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 27, 2012, Opinion Section, A18.
“Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report.” IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. Topic 5: The long term perspective: 64–70.
Clinton, Hillary. “Hillary Clinton’s DNC Speech: Full Text.” CNN Politics. July 28, 2016.
Cornford, Francis MacDonald. The Republic of Plato. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Davis, Julie Hirschfeld, Mark Landler and Coral Davenport. “Obama on Climate Change: The Trends are ‘Terrifying’.” The New York Times. September 8, 2016.
“’Decarbonization’.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 16, 2015, Opinion Section, A14.
Friedrich, Bruce. “What Would the Pope Eat?” USA Today. September 17, 2015, News Section, 7A.
Fukuyama, Francis. Political Order and Political Decay. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Gautier, Catherine. “How Climate Change Is Making California’s Epic Drought Worse.” The Conversation. May 21, 2015.
Gillis, Justin. “Flooding of the Coast Caused by Global Warming Has Already Begun.” The New York Times. September 3, 2016.
Gillis, Justin. “Panel’s Warning on Climate Risk: Worst Is Yet to Come.” The New York Times. March 31, 2014.
Gillis, Justin. “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.” The New York Times, November 25, 2015.
Gore, Al. “The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate.” Rolling Stone. June 18, 2014.
Hansen, Jim. “The Threat to the Planet.” The New York Review of Books. July 13, 2006.
Husle, Carl and Julie Hirschfield Davis. “Obama’s Plea to ‘Fix Our Politics’ Leaves Both Sides Looking Inward.” The New York Times. January 13, 2016.
Jacobsen, Louis. “Yes, Donald Trump Did Call Climate Change a Chinese Hoax.” Politifact. June 3, 2016.
Kahn, Brian. “The World Passes 400 PPM Threshold. Permanently.” Climate Central. September 27, 2016.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Leber, Rebecca. “This is What Our Hellish World Will Look like after We Hit the Global Warming Tipping Point.” New Republic. December 21, 2014.
Levitan, Dave. “After Extensive Mathematical Modeling, Scientist declares ‘Earth is F**ked’.” io9 Gizmodo. December 7, 2012.
Magill, Bobby. “Negative Emissions Key to Meeting 2°C Threshold.” Climate Central. July 12, 2016.
Mann, Michael. “Trump Carbon and the Paris Agreement.” Real Climate. November 17, 2016.
Mastroianni, Brian. “Why 2 Degrees Are So Important to Climate Change.” CBS News. November 30, 2015.
McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone. July 19, 2012.
McKibben, Bill. “Some Like it Hot!” The New York Review of Books. May 9, 2013, 59-60.
Miller, R. L. “Climate Change Report Supports Bill McKibben’s ‘Terrifying New Math’.” TakePart. September 28, 2013.
Milman, Oliver. “Donald Trump Would Be World’s Only National Leader to Reject Climate Science.” The Guardian. July 12, 2016.
Mufson, Steven and Brady Dennis. “Trump Victory Reverses U.S. Energy and Environmental Priorities.” The Washington Post. November 9, 2016.
The New York Times. “Donald Trump’s New York Times Interview: Full Transcript.” The New York Times.
NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. State of the Climate: Global Analysis for July 2016, published online August 2016. Retrieved on November 12, 2016.
Northcott, Michael. A Political Theology of Climate Change. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013.
Plait, Phil. “The GOP Fiddles While America Burns.” Slate. July 20, 2016.
Skocpol, Theda and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism.” Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 3 (September 2016): 681–699. DOI:10.1017/S1537592716001122.
Smith, Laurence C. “Greenhouse Warming: Prepare for the Worst.” The New York Review of Books. October 13, 2016, 44–46.
Smith. Zachary. The Environmental Policy Paradox. Sixth Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2013.
Sommerfeldt, Chris. “Donald Trump’s Climate Policies Could Mean Game Over for the Planet: Scientists.” New York Daily News. November 10, 2016.
Thompson, Andrea. “First Half of 2016 Blows Away Temp Records.” Climate Central. July 19, 2016.
“Trump and the Planet,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. November 28, 2016, Opinion Section. AO9.
Upton, John. “Paris Talks Won’t Achieve 2°C Goal: Does That Matter?” Climate Central. February 10, 2015.
Werner, Brad. “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism.” December 6, 2012.