As we get deeper into Climate Change , Howard Baker’s famous question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” (during the Watergate scandal) is starting to resonate.
The question mattered to the Watergate issue because it got to the heart of whether the President of the United State was legally culpable for crimes committed during this growing scandal. Did the President try to cover up this "third-rate burglary"? (It appears that he did.)
Now, we are starting to ask that famous question of the fossil fuel industry. What did the fossil fuel industry know about their industry’s effect on Climate Change and when did they know it?
Oil Industry Group's Own Report Shows Early Knowledge of Climate Impacts A report the American Petroleum Institute commissioned in 1982 revealed its knowledge of global warming, predated its campaign to sow doubt. A Columbia University report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute in 1982 cautioned that global warming "can have serious consequences for man's comfort and survival." It is the latest indication that the oil industry learned of the possible threat it posed to the climate far earlier than previously known. The report, "Climate Models and CO2 Warming, A Selective Review and Summary," was written by Alan Oppenheim and William L. Donn of Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory for API's Climate and Energy task force, said James J. Nelson, the task force's former director. From 1979 to 1983, API and the nation's largest oil companies convened the task force to monitor and share climate research, including their in-house efforts. Exxon ran the most ambitious of the corporate programs, but other oil companies had their own projects, smaller than Exxon's and focused largely on climate modeling. (February 5, 2016) Inside Climate News
It matters legally if the fossil fuel companies committed fraud. But does it matter otherwise? In other words, whether or not the fossil fuel industries knew about their industries’ effect on Climate Change, it is still the case that greenhouse gases (mostly, our burning of fossil fuels) has brought us where we are today, 1C above preindustrial rates. We are more than half-way to the agreed danger zone of 1.5 C.
I suppose, if found guilty, there might be a way to levy large fines on the guilty parties and use that money to help our country adapt to the environmental changes caused by too much manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Penalties might also send a message out worldwide that misleading the public on fossil fuel use will have consequences and maybe quicken the movement towards renewable energy.
Environmentalists Call for Investigations of Exxon What did Exxon know about climate change and when did it know it? That's what environmentalists want state attorneys general to investigate. Activists from 350.org on Tuesday presented signed petitions to the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington. Lindsay Meiman, U.S. communications coordinator for the group, said Exxon Mobil executives knew that fossil fuels were causing global climate change in the 1970s but hid that information from shareholders. "Exxon instead poured millions of dollars into think tanks and lobbyists to sow doubt and confusion among the public and government," she said. (February 24, 2016) Public News Service
This leads me to another troubling question we should be asking. This time of ourselves: Climate Change: what did we know and when did we know it? In other words, is it true as some have suggested that humanity didn’t know about human-caused climate change until recently, and therefore we shouldn’t blame ourselves? The answer is interesting and complicated and instructive.
There is evidence that beginning in the early 1800’s, many were asking just this question:
“It was here, at Lake Valencia, that Humboldt developed his idea of human-induced climate change.”Wulf, Andrea (2015-09-15). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (p. 57). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In a wonderful new biography of Alexander von Humboldt ("The Invention of Nature"), it is clear that a very influential thinker* was changing minds on the how our environments around the world were connected. Humboldt’s painstakingly accurate observations on nature were proving to many that mankind’s actions were profoundly affecting environmental systems and that human-induced climate change was a distinct possibility.
Of course, Humboldt was probably talking about microclimates, not the whole planet’s climate, and he was not suggesting that our use of fossil fuels was the cause for warming up our atmosphere. But in the beginning of the 1800’s he was starting to realize that mankind’s environmental disruptions were having a dramatic effect on nature’s systems.
So did we know before the mid-1900’s that Climate Change was caused by humans burning fossil fuels? Not specifically. We did consider that how we treated the land, exhausting the soil and destroying forests, would accelerate and amplify desertification which might have an influence on weather patterns. We were given many warnings by early naturalists that our way of life, even before we launched the Second Industrial Revolution in the United State, was dramatically changing our environment. Even if we didn’t know the exact cause of Climate Change, our destructive way of life has made Climate Change the mother of all problems. Instead of being cautious with our life support system, we went for broke.
I’m not suggesting that we sit around wringing our hands, blaming our ancestors over Climate Change. Much of what makes the developed countries desirable is a result of our predecessors’ responding to a biological urge to make the world better for us. I am suggesting that ‘we’ (humanity, for we have to be as one on Climate Change) take full responsibility that we have knowingly brought ourselves to this state of affairs, where dangerous warming and a full blown catastrophe is only a few decades away. If no other past event can convince us that we are the cause of Climate Change, the Paris Agreement convincingly makes the case that most of us now know that Climate Change is true and that we are the cause. This crisis has been building up for a long time no matter how many times we try and convince ourselves these environmental emergencies have just suddenly appeared.
This self-knowledge about our own culpability in Climate Change should spur us into action. We should make sure that our government ratifies the Paris Agreement on Earth Day this year. We should understand that there are no single solutions to adapting to and mitigating Climate Change because the impacts are systematic and interrelated. This is to say, we have been living unsustainably for a very long time within what appears to be a very sensitive environment. Despite the benefits we have realized from a fossil fuel paradigm, our continual indifference to the evolving environmental sciences has gotten us into a state of impending existential collapse unless we immediately change direction.
We demand of our leaders and our industries that they own up to what they knew about their transgressions and when they knew so that we can determine the point from which the consequences of their bad actions lead us down the wrong path. So we can right ourselves.
Humanity should do likewise on Climate Change where we hold ourselves accountable for learning what we knew and when we knew it. It will help us to unravel the thread of bad choices and their consequences that has led to this dire situation, so we can make our way back (like Theseus in the Minotaur’s labyrinth) to a sustainable existence.
If we don’t, we will continue business as usual, thinking that bettering ourselves without considering the whole environment, will solve this worldwide crisis with only a few adjustments (carbon pricing, changing our light bulbs, altering our eating habits, making our buildings more energy efficient, or driving only electric vehicles). In truth, we’re going to have to do ‘all of the above’ to address Climate Change and then some.
It’s not hopeless if we act. Watch Al Gore’s incredible TED talk on Climate Change: “The case for optimism on climate change”
* Although most have not even heard of Humboldt (I’ll admit until I just read this book, I didn’t either), his ideas on nature were extremely influential. The author says:
“On 14 September 1869, one hundred years after his birth. Alexander von Humboldt’s centennial was celebrated across the world. There were parties in Europe, Africa and Australia as well as the Americas.” “In Cleveland some 8,000 people took to the streets and in Syracuse another 15,000 joined in a march that was more than a mile long.” Wulf, Andrea (2015-09-15). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (p. 6). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.