Climate Change Isn’t the Stock Exchange

Climate Change Isn’t the Stock Exchange

I’ve seen remarkable developments in climate science since I gave my first lecture about the greenhouse effect as a graduate student. Back in 1985, I could explain the basic physics (deduced by Tyndall in 1859) by which carbon dioxide traps heat, and the calculations made by Arrhenius in 1896 concluding that doubling carbon dioxide would raise the earth’s temperature by 4-6°C. Now when I speak, I can show the findings from samples that scientists — working in the isolated interior of Antarctica or near the top of the world’s highest mountains — have collected and analyzed from the ancient ice in these locations. These dramatic data demonstrate how quickly and massively we’ve altered the atmosphere. I can also describe the results of climate models run on powerful computers that were used to project the future — the future that has now arrived as the sea level rises and heat waves, aridification and powerful storms intensify.

I never once considered that climate is like the stock exchange, until I read that 61% of Republicans in a recent poll were unconcerned by climate change. Their attitudes were represented by 61-year-old Terry Wright from Central Texas, who said “I think what we’re experiencing right now is a fluctuation that’s not as serious as an ice age and it will go back to normal. It’s like the stock exchange. It will go up, it will go up and go down and then it will go stable.”

Mr. Wright is so wrong. The physical changes we are observing in the world are being caused by something we can measure. Things happen for a reason, regardless of anyone’s opinion.

The climate is changing because it is being forced to change. Energy that used to escape into outer space is now captured by the earth’s atmosphere and, as that energy accumulates, temperatures rise, ice melts and climate (the average weather over decades) changes. If you turn the flame up under the kettle on the stove, energy accumulates in the water and forces its temperature to rise. The water will not cool down until you turn down the heat. The change being caused by greenhouse-gas emissions is overwhelming the more subtle, natural factors that alter the climate over centuries. I Wish This Was Just A Natural Cycle, I wrote in 2018, but it’s not.

Mr. Wright stipulates as fact that the climate has fluctuated in the past, as he references ice ages as real things. But he then projects a future climate without explaining why this will happen. He just knows that the climate "will go back to normal." This is nothing but wishful thinking. The climate cannot "go back to normal" when it is being forced in the other direction.

The stock market also changes but, unlike climate variations, the vagaries of human behavior make stock-market predictions very uncertain. We do know that prices vary based upon the demand from buyers, the willingness of sellers and the projected future value of different stocks. The recent discovery of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in South Africa increased future risk of economic impacts, and this caused stock values to plummet 900 points in a day.

There’s no lesson in market variations like this that helps us understand what’s happening with our climate. That both of these things cycle does not mean you can draw conclusions about one by studying the other.

Decades of peer-reviewed science document that greenhouse gases can force climate change and that the climate is changing as predicted. There is no alternative scientific explanation for what is forcing climate change, nor is there is an explanation for how emissions of greenhouse gases could not change the climate. This causal link underlies the U.S EPA endangerment finding — where the EPA explains that greenhouse-gas emissions pose a threat to public health and welfare and thus must be regulated pursuant to the Clean Air Act.

While many Trump supporters wanted to overturn the endangerment finding, this effort fizzled because the facts were not on their side. Trump famously said he didn’t believe his own administration’s scientific findings about climate change. Belief can be asserted as truth in church or on Fox News but, in court, truth is still determined by evidence.

For Mr. Wright, declarations can be made and any evidence that runs counter to his belief is just ignored. This is the lasting impact of Trump, bolstered by Fox News, the KGB and other sources of misinformation: what I want to be true can be substituted for the objective scientific evidence of truth. Governance is thus degraded to performance, where elected leaders do not propose solutions based on the facts, but instead generate sound-bites for television audiences that confirm established beliefs.

Ignoring evidence generated by science because you don’t like it is not recommended. Just ask the unvaccinated COVID patients who have painfully come to this understanding, many when they are in the ICU and it is too late.

It’s not too late to save our society from the enormous impacts of unmitigated climate change, but we’re in an ambulance that is flashing Code Red. We need to separate evidence from belief if we’re going to make the right decisions to keep ourselves out of the ICU.

We are well advised to embrace the words of Thomas Jefferson: "No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity."