Americans recognize global warming is happening, but don't believe
anything can be done about it or don't want to think about it.
A 2006 poll by ABC News and others found
fewer than four in ten believed global warming is a serious problem
and only three in ten believed it is caused by human activity. Almost
64 percent believe there's disagreement among scientists, which leads
to a great amount of doubt among the public.
With such a low level of concern, there's little political will to
lessen the causes of global warming or plan for the disruption it will
create. Although the media's need to provide "a balanced viewpoint"
created a controversy where none exists, these attitudes could change
with attention given the February release of a UN report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The IPCC found temperatures rose 0.74 C over the last 100 years, and
carbon dioxide levels from ice core data are at a 650,000-year high.
Scientists predict that temperatures will rise another 0.4 C in the
next 20 years and they are 90 percent certain this is caused by human
activity. But global warming is already here: these small temperature
changes are causing catastrophic weather patterns around the world.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American
Geophysical Union, the American Meteorology Society and the National
Academy of Sciences have issued statements that global warming is
occurring, it's largely caused by humans, and the president of the
AAAS says it's "likely to continue with large negative consequences
for natural and human socioeconomic systems unless we rapidly
decarbonize our global energy systems."
Any controversy arises from powerful medieval religious forces -- the
25 percent of evangelicals who back the GOP and Bush -- and by the
powerful petroleum industry, seeking to continue high profits from
burning fossil fuel, the main cause of global warming. Denying global
warming protects the status quo; how would Americans sustain their
high standard of living without the comfort and the plethora of
products produced by petroleum?
Only a few environmentalists take the dire predictions of global
warming seriously, and Americans, the absolute conforming
individualists who denounce anyone who is different, reject these
"alarmists," who are accused of seeking to destroy their lifestyle.
Few understand that global warming is an extension of environmental
destruction; we are running out of atmosphere to absorb our carbon
Traditional American anti-intellectualism, Knownothing politics,
fundamentalist religious moralism, and plain old capitalistic greed
combine to lead the public to reject scientific findings for a blind
faith that things will work out. After all, what would America be
The Bush Administration's utter failure to provide any leadership
except a "do your own thing" philosophy of rapacious free enterprise
only adds to the future build up of greenhouse gases. Some individuals
take a moral position, cut their individual carbon emissions by
driving less, eating locally and organically, and consuming less. A
handful of businesses embrace low-emission, self-sustaining plans or
invent new products to profit from global warming.
These efforts may be noble, well intentioned and admirable, but they
don't come close to preventing global warming, which is much worse
that we think. Take for example the prediction that if everyone in the
US rode bicycles, the Chinese closed their factories and Europe
returned to candles, global warming would continue for centuries. If
the rest of the world returned to the Stone Age, carbon concentrations
would continue to rise because carbon doesn't dissipate quickly; about
half of it is absorbed by the oceans and plants, and the other half
lingers in the atmosphere.
Carbon was last in balance about 150 years ago and, to stabilize
atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide today, emissions would have to
drop 70 to 80 percent. The elimination of all vehicle traffic in the
US would lower global emissions by 7 percent. Shutting down
fossil-fuel plants worldwide would reduce emissions 39 percent, and
replacing all 245 million cars in the US with hybrids would reduce
emissions 3 percent.
Meanwhile the US produces 25 percent of all emissions, and people in
India, China and developing countries are increasing their carbon
emissions. It's doubtful they will forgo development while the
profligate US plans to increase emissions 20 percent by 2020.
Individual lifestyle changes cannot stop global warming. Walking
instead of driving, changing to fluorescent bulbs and using a
clothesline will help, but will not prevent global warming. Collective
action is vitally necessary and leadership of the US is essential if
we are to adapt to the coming unpredictable and violent weather
As a society, we can blunt the worsening of global warming by
immediately cutting back on our wasteful energy usage. If we do
nothing, the effects will be much worse. Individuals need to call for
political action on a level unprecedented in American history. In an
increasingly acrimonious society, overly influenced by a wealthy
status quo, it's questionable whether society will be able to adapt
without massive die offs. Scientists tell us one thing for sure: if we
don't radically adjust our energy use, we face even more
Don Monkerud is an
California-based writer who follows cultural, social and political
issues. He can be reached at: