COLUMN: Science, morality and global warming | Columnists – Independent Tribune
Chief among my long list of complaints against the current administration in Washington, D.C., is its utter lack of concern, let alone leadership, for the most existential threat to humanity of all, global warming. The president and his wing of the Republican Party have become ideological outliers even against some of their own base, such as evangelical Christians, many of whom see themselves and others as stewards of life on Earth.
Just as with the current pandemic, those politicians are scornful of compromise; obtuse in the presence of any conventional presentation of evidence, science and common sense; and dismissive of the legitimacy of any political opposition. The absence of leadership in climate change will lead inexorably toward famine and drought, the collapse of the ocean’s food chain, a worldwide refugee crisis, exacerbation of the present pandemic and the risk of even more widely spread disease, and a catastrophic level of extinctions — and all of it much sooner than heretofore expected.
The paucity of national leadership in this greatest of threats to all life on the planet is fostering a grassroots response at the county and township level all across America. Here in Concord, the call to leadership has been heard by architect Ken Griffin and by educator and former Concord Mayor Scott Padgett. Their campaign is one of advocacy — an effort to maintain and encourage levels of awareness and urgency so that we don’t waken to a post-pandemic world that can no longer support 8 billion humans; a dystopia that may go deaf and blind to the dangers presented by global warming as we shelter in place and fight with one another about face masks.
The Earth’s population has far more than doubled in my lifetime. Naturally, this kind of explosive growth exposes all of us to unprecedented problems. Evidence of our early history suggests that the world population was roughly 5 million around 8,000 B.C.E. The advent of agriculture made cities possible. The number of human inhabitants gradually grew and accelerated, so that by 1650 we counted about 500 million of us. In the next hundred years, the population doubled to about 1 billion. Technology supported the changes by supplying the means to move food, clothing and the material for building dwellings.
The Industrial Revolution ushered in a global capability to house and feed more and more people so that, even with regional famine, war and outbreaks of disease, the birth rate and average longevity made for yet another redoubling not just possible, but inevitable. But, emerging industries also introduced an exponential rise in the injection of greenhouse gasses and airborne particulates into the atmosphere. In 1943, there were about 2 billion people sharing our planet. Now we’ve passed 7 billion and are well on our way toward a quadrupling of 1943’s figure. The question of how long we can sustain a livable planet is not new. But, it’s obvious that, regardless of which side of the political/ideological divide you happen to feel comfortable with, we have some issues that require our full attention. The line graph “curve” of comprehensive insult to the Earth’s entire ecosystem continues a vertical rise that took off in the 1940s, and has increased every year since.
I have a friend who maintains that, at their core, all political questions are moral questions. I agree with him, but I would take another step: i.e., all moral questions are subject to a reasoned response based on data. Consider, for example, what it means to live in a modern America — to have a flourishing society — a society in which people are loved, well-fed, well-educated, have leisure time and routinely exercise the full freedoms we all expect from a well-ordered democracy. Contrast that life with existence in a failed state — Taliban-controlled sections of Afghanistan, for instance. There, the majority is underfed, undereducated, and, if you happen to be female, required to forego education entirely and acquiesce to being smothered in a cloth bag when in public. Many would agree that such subjugation of women is a moral issue. But, beyond that, is there any doubt that there can be a reasoned response to the plight of those who live this way, and that the response matters, especially from the point of view of a society founded on freedom?
To me, it comes down to the relationship between science and human values. Historically, science has had nothing to say about good vs. evil, right and wrong. From a traditionalist point of view, science can help us get what we value, but it can never tell us what we ought to value. To illustrate, consider the question: Would it be a good idea for everyone to believe in the evil eye, so that when bad things happen, we immediately blame our neighbor? Probably not, is the only clear answer. There are truths to be found about how best to interact with one another, whether or not we can articulate those truths. Thus, when we speak of morality, we are talking about facts. Just admitting that questions of right and wrong affecting human well-being have answers that will fundamentally change how we talk about morality. Gone are the days when it was satisfactory to throw up one’s hands and say, “Well, that’s just the way it’s always been.”
In another example of the intersection of fact-driven evidence and morality, the ways in which nation-states respond to the threat imposed by climate change is, by any measure, insidiously pecuniary. Money doesn’t merely talk, it gives orders, and the order of the day, especially since the Korean War and the advent of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System with its attendant spike in fossil fuel consumption, make that finite source of energy the dominant offender. Every person has a “carbon footprint” due to our need for energy, food, shelter, transportation and health care. Look around your kitchen. Take in the Tupperware, the Ziplock bags, the nesting mixing bowls, the polyurethane soda bottles and all that you bought at Food Lion that survived its time on the shelves wrapped in a cocoon of plastic. Those floating islands of plastic flotsam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean were gestated in your kitchen.
Modern cultures around the planet are used to fast food and the 24-hour news cycle. Long-term goals that require immediate investment receive short shrift. The Paris Accord on Global Warming, repudiated by the Trump administration shortly after it took power, though long on promise and short on real solutions, was nevertheless a highly visible step in the right direction. Now ask a very practical question: What are the chances that the United States’ withdrawal from even that largely symbolic international accord makes the world more promotive of our well-being? Manifestly nil. And going further, is there any doubt that the answer to that question matters? No. It’s just one of the reasons that America’s leadership role among nations is in serious jeopardy.
Historically, measures designed to suppress the effects of over-population and its attendant deleterious effect on the land, sea and sky have not been universally subject to moral green lights by the majority of societies. America and the other mature democracies have low birth rates compared to many nations in developing regions of the world. But this factoid gives us little to be smug about. The U.S. has the highest per capita CO2 emission rate in the world. It’s more than twice that of the European Union, which has a standard of living equal to ours; more than twice that of China, though it’s become the world’s largest economy; and almost 10 times that of India.
In any case, climate change and its corollary problem of overpopulation as an issue will not be going away without an intercession of extreme prejudice from all of us. The ability of humans to maintain a level of existence consistent with self-actualized, fulfilled individuals across vast masses of humanity will steer the argument about how to promote a healthy environment for the foreseeable future. We will need to draw our moral view of the choices to be made based on facts in the here and now, rather than on voices from earlier ages when the problems to be solved had little counterpart to what we face today.
Finally, let me say that it may seem reasonable to consider a new effort to address problems associated with climate change, even as a pandemic rages, as quixotic. The burden of bringing climate change under sustainable control falls to us who are alive now on the only planet we have, because the lion’s share of damage has occurred on our watch. On the other hand, who says it’s impossible to deal with more than one problem at a time? We certainly did so during World War II. We continue with highway construction, with the nation’s political life, and with all manner of effort to make money to keep our individual boats afloat. Global warming and its attendant problems are arguably the most proximate threats to all life the world faces, and time is our enemy. When confronted with increasingly stark choices, it’s evident there is no time like the present. So kudos to Ken Griffin and Scott Padgett for keeping their eyes on the ball. Someone has to.
A note from Ken and Scott: The most important action each of us can take in addressing global warming is to vote for candidates at the state and federal level who acknowledge the existence of manmade climate change and pledge to take action to fight it. Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The League of Conservation Voters (www.lcv.org) is a nonpartisan organization that promotes environmental legislation and provides ratings of all members of Congress based on their voting record on environmental legislation. The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters (www.nclcv.org) does the same for members of the N.C. legislature and governor. These ratings and the candidates’ platforms provide voters with information regarding which candidates will take decisive action to address climate change. The fate of our state, our nation and our world depends on the election of political leaders who believe in science, truth and uniting our citizens in addressing the climate crisis.
Gerry Dionne is a writer, musician and coffee-table philosopher who moved to our area when he was 18. He’s in his 70s now, so y’all give him a break.
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