Drew Dellinger pretty well says it all in his compelling 2006 poem, Hieroglyphic Stairway. In fact, he pretty well says it all in his first stanza.
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
Think about it. As is evident from Dellinger’s powerful poem, when he published it in the mid 2000s not only was the destruction of our planet through man-made climate change well known – the only place that sustains life as we know it – but as well the threat to democracy around the world was well known. And both have only grown worse in the intervening years.
There’s a sad parallel. Think about cigarettes – deaths from lung cancer, foul air in airplanes and indoor spaces, enormous pressures on healthcare systems everywhere due to smoking-related illness – and the tobacco industry.
The first scientific findings of the link between an unprecedented epidemic of lung cancer and smoking were reported in the 1940s and 50s.
The first regulations to ban indoor smoking in public places didn’t come in until the mid-1990s, 50 years later. And several places didn’t implement indoor smoking bans until 2018 … or not at all.
The tobacco industry and all its money did an incredibly impressive job of suppressing scientific results, attacking and denying the evidence, and mounting conspiracy theories. Anything to keep cigarette sales flourishing. All that money to remind politicians of all the jobs that would be lost, not to mention all the corporate donations and political support that would be lost. It took 50 years to overcome that powerful corporate industry for the public good. But it was never the existential question of the only planet we have becoming uninhabitable; it was “just” a question of all those lives lost to cigarette smoking and quality of life for everyone having to breathe in secondhand smoke, even at work and on public transit.
Now think about our use of fossil fuels for, well, pretty well everything. Climate change is now impossible to ignore. It’s affecting everyone everywhere. Unprecedented hot temperatures, horrific wildfires even in Siberia, frequent and early extreme weather events causing unprecedented levels of flooding. People are starting to really get it, now that it’s affecting them directly.
Of course the people living in the Arctic have been directly experiencing the effects of fossil fuels on our environment for a few decades now, despite not having contributed to the destructive CO2 emissions. The Arctic warms at 2-5 times the rate of elsewhere thanks to the air flow towards the poles due to the rotation of the earth. Hence the loss of sea ice and the resulting absorption of heat from the sun into the sea water instead of being reflected by the ice. Hence the melting of the permafrost and the sinking of housing in the Arctic. Hence the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctic ice, which will make such enormous contributions to raising sea level, sending countless major cities around the world under water by the end of this century. The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine of climate change, but nobody wanted to listen.
The first scientific findings of the link between CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect and resulting climate change on our planet were reported in the 1960s. More than 50 years ago.
From a 1968 report from the Stanford Research Institute for the American Petroleum Institute (Wikipedia):
If the earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis. [..] Revelle makes the point that man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes.
But despite several grand proclamations of action to come, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accord, there has been precious little concrete action. Baby steps at best.
Yes, many places have put greenhouse gas emission and fuel economy standards in place for passenger vehicles, but these standards are being phased in slowly, and in some places not at all.
The large container ships, freighters, and cruise ships that ply the seas are not subject to any fuel standards at all; in fact in most situations they are allowed to use the dirtiest (and cheapest) fuel available, with no emissions restrictions. Did you know that a 24-hour day in the life of one cruise ship emits as much particulate as one million cars?! (And that’s apart from dumping all their garbage into the ocean.) And according to credible calculations, the emissions of 15 mega container ships equals all the cars in the world. Why have no standards been imposed on these ships?
Yes, we have moved forward to some extent on renewable forms of energy, including wind and solar, but we still rely far too much on fossil fuels for every aspect of our energy needs. Why? Well, the tobacco industry has a worthy successor in the form of the oil and gas industry.
The oil and gas industry and all its money have been remarkably successful at suppressing scientific results, attacking and denying the evidence, and mounting conspiracy theories. Sound familiar? Anything to keep the oil and gas industry flourishing. All that money to remind politicians of all the jobs that would be lost, not to mention all the corporate donations and political support that would be lost. All the time lost as a result, when that money, plus constructive leadership, could have been put towards transitioning the energy sector to a future without fossil fuels and with new jobs.
It took 50 years to overcome the powerful tobacco industry for the public good. But, hey folks, it’s been more than 50 years since corporate and political leaders should have known that the very existence of our planet is at risk. Not just polar bears and orangutans, but millions upon millions of people who will become climate change refugees. 800 million people alone, living in low-lying cities around the world, are at risk for being under water by as soon as 2050. And that doesn’t count all the places that will become too hot and dry – or wet – to grow the crops and raise the animals they – and we – have been counting on for so long. Water scarcity, food insecurity, people on the move for their survival. This is what we’re talking about.
So why aren’t we doing more about it? Why aren’t we panicking?
What did we do
Image credits: Evening Standard (flood in Germany), scienceovereverything.com (Stuart Palley wildfire picture), Australian Broadcasting Corporation (healthy cigarette image)