Human-driven climate change has stressed the bond between science and society to an extent not experienced since the era of Galileo Galilei, the astronomer of the 17th century who was famously persecuted for confirming the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Indeed, the remarkably strident denial of basic observations and science underpinning human-driven climate change by much of the American public mirrors powerful 17th-century resistance to Galileo’s astronomical findings.
Resistance to science stems from disinformation campaigns and information suppression by powerful members of society when they are threatened by the consequences of scientific facts. For example, when European religious leaders were threatened by Galileo’s evidence of Earth’s orbit (because this evidence countered important scriptural tenets), they labeled his work “false and erroneous,” and re-framed it as “the worst [menace] ever perceived” and “a very dangerous attitude.” He was forbidden from sharing his findings with the public, convicted of being “vehemently suspect of heresy,” threatened with torture and placed under house arrest until his death. To a large extent, Galileo’s trial marked the end of the Italian Renaissance.
Today, many oil, gas, coal and petrochemical corporations (which are recognized as individual members of society by law) and their political supporters are threatened by the societal response to climate change – namely a shift from fossil-based to renewable energy sources – because this response would decrease their status quo business plans, profits and political power. As a result, in a response that disturbingly mirrors 17th-century Inquisition-style behavior, top US politicians and commentators are now promoting false climate trends and drastically overplaying the level of uncertainty in legitimate scientific results. They are using official government and willing media outlets to re-frame established climate science as “conspiracy” and “bunk” perpetrated by “alarmist” scientists (respective quotes from President Donald Trump, Chief of Staff Reince Preibus and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt). Most worryingly, they are asserting their legal authority to stifle public access to climate change information – for example by removing EPA websites that show basic United States climate trends.
A clear authoritarian strategy emerges, with a goal of continued public consumption of fossil fuels for the benefit of oil, gas, coal and petrochemical corporations. This strategy involves sowing uncertainty in climate science, discrediting climate scientists and decreasing public access to basic climate science resources. Unfortunately, slowing action on responding to human-driven climate change will not make the problem go away. Instead, by delaying carbon emission reductions, it will only worsen climate change impacts. These include increased extreme weather events, sea level rise, ocean acidification and emergence of lethal summer temperatures at tropical latitudes, all of which will directly affect every single human via impacts to global security, mass migration and natural resource availability. Who will suffer most? Most importantly: future generations, who will be burdened with the persistent consequences of planetary damage due to the thousand-year residence time of human carbon emissions in the climate system. Also: modern-day climate change-denying politicians, who, if their denial continues, will be roundly condemned by history for carelessly endangering global society in exchange for personal power and financial enrichment.
For everyone’s benefit, today’s leaders need to accept the basic physical science underlying ongoing human-driven climate change. In a remarkable twist of fate, religious leaders are now the leading proponents of this science; for example, reflected in Pope Francis’s impassioned call to action in his 2015 “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home” encyclical letter. Only once all major world leaders follow Pope Francis’s lead can coordinated and economically beneficial free-market efforts address the dangers of human-driven climate change. One hopes President Trump’s recent announcement of a pending decision on the Paris Climate Agreement, made during his 100-day address campaign in Harrisburg, Pa., will reflect an embrace of scientific facts and rational actions, and not ongoing support for continued unabated carbon emissions that will cause profound planetary damage for future generations.
Fyke is a climate scientist in Los Alamos. The views expressed are entirely his own.