Can the Biden-Harris team save the planet?

After four years of egregious anti-environmental policies during the Trump years, climate change activists and the general public can breathe a sigh of relief now that the Biden-Harris team has taken office in the White House. The new administration has been quick to rejoin the Paris Agreement on its very first day in office. A return to the Obama era, however, would be tragic if that simply means a continuation of the U.S. bullying poor nations to impose harsh restrictions on their carbon emissions without financial and technical support, protecting corporate interests at the expense of the global commons, and failing to acknowledge its own massive contribution to the climate crisis.

Still, the U.S. was once at the forefront of generating widespread awareness on climate change. Its scientists and political leadership were keen to take ambitious strides to address the challenge. What changed in the intervening years?

A brief history

In 1957, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, chaired by MIT scientist Thomas F. Malone, launched its First General Report on Climatology addressed to the Chief of the Weather Bureau, stating: “In consuming our fossil fuels at a prodigious rate, our civilization is conducting a grandiose scientific experiment”. The next year, Charles Keeling, along with his mentors Harry Wexler and Roger Revelle, began the now famous measurements of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, producing reliable evidence of the relentless rise in anthropogenic greenhouse gases over subsequent decades.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee produced a report entitled “Restoring the Quality of our Environment”, which pointed to rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, attributed them principally to the burning of fossil fuels, and warned that these levels could increase further by 25% by 2000, leading to a 0.6oC to 4oC rise in average global temperature, depending on the role of other factors. Global average temperature was already about half a degree warmer than at the end of the 19th century and the evidence was clear that mining vast quantities of fossil fuels from the earth and burning them in engines was responsible.

By the 1970s, human-induced climate change was a widespread area of concern among weather and climate scientists. In 1979, a report of the National Research Council, commissioned by President Jimmy Carter and chaired by Jule Charney from the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 over pre-industrial levels could lead to global warming of about 3oC. A year earlier, the U.S. Congress passed the National Climate Program Act “to enable the United States and other nations to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications”. Funding for the programme was ambitious, amounting to over $120 million for the first two years.

Corporate lobbies

The increased scientific and Congressional interest in addressing climate change was matched by mounting alarm within the fossil fuel industry. Recently exposed documents and internal memos show that major oil companies like Exxon and Shell organised themselves strategically to raise a concerted attack on climate science. The 1970s was characterised by the energy crisis, associated with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries oil embargo, but the roles played by American banks, oil companies and dollar hegemony in precipitating the crisis are only now being unravelled. That crisis resulted in “petro-dollars” consolidating the strength of the fossil fuel industry and financial institutions for at least the next two decades. Much of this clout was used to build a mammoth campaign against environmental action, particularly around climate change.

On June 24, 1988, headlines on The New York Times front page read, “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” In his testimony, the Director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, said humans had transformed global climate for decades to come. The same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations to provide the public scientific information on climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to address climate change was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The Second Assessment Report of the IPCC (1995) reaffirmed a “discernible human influence on global climate”. Frederick Seitz, past President of the National Academy of Sciences, denounced the report publicly. Seitz was the founding chair of the George C. Marshall Institute, a tobacco industry consultant, and also a prominent “sceptic” on global warming. Other conservative organisations were simultaneously working to muddy the facts, pointing at red herrings in the science. All had direct or indirect links to the fossil fuel industry.

Under intense lobbying by the industry-sponsored Global Climate Information Project, which recruited labour unions of miners and automobile workers, the U.S. Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution unanimously in July 1997. The Senate resolved that the U.S. should not sign a climate treaty to limit its emissions without developing countries agreeing to the same limits. This effectively prohibited the U.S. from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, which placed limits on the growth of emissions from rich countries.

Various policies

In the subsequent two decades, the Koch Family Foundation alone spent $125 million to finance nearly 100 groups that attacked climate science and policies. Still, the momentum generated by the growing movement of scientists, activists and youth is beginning to have some effects. The urgency is compelling. Keeling curve emissions are more than 410 ppm in 2020, compared to 313 ppm when measurements began in 1958. The Green New Deal offers a framework that needs further strengthening. If John Kerry, Special Envoy for Climate, integrates U.S. foreign aid or other means of support with climate targets by other countries, including China and India, then the U.S. is merely going back to business as usual. While the U.S.’s re-entry into the Paris Agreement may be by the stroke of a pen, regaining political legitimacy on climate requires the government to take responsibility in causing and aggravating the global climate crisis; commit to technology and funds for poorer countries; take on bigger emission targets; not bend over for the fossil fuel lobby which funds Democrats and Republicans; clean up the role of lobbyists in climate regulatory and policy organisations within the U.S.; and recognise and break up elite networks that have benefited by sustaining climate myths.

Sujatha Byravan is a scientist who studies science, technology and development and Sudhir Chella Rajan is author of ‘A Social Theory of Corruption’

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 4:12:47 AM |

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