Climate Change Has Begun–What Can We Do About It?
Two Presentations To the KC Labor Forum, June 12 and July 10, 2011

by Bill Onasch

Part One–Climate Change Comes to the Ozarks

At the risk of being parodied on YouTube, let me say straight away I am not a climate scientist. I’m a graduate of Ruskin High School and a retired bus driver. But, with the unprecedented wealth of information available to us today, above all through the Internet, I think it is possible for any worker of average intelligence and education to understand at least the basics of how science explains the interaction between human activity and other natural material forces.

Being possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. All of us, of course, have daily priorities in our lives that limit our available time and energy for pursuing interests beyond routine functioning. In addition to this fact of life, unlike most branches of science, popular education about climate change has to clear away obstacles of fear and lies erected by propagandists who learned their techniques from George Orwell’s 1984.

Most climate scientists have not yet suffered the persecution of past trailblazing scientists whose work challenged the existing order of things. The church hierarchy that dominated feudal Europe burned Bruno on the stake for suggesting our world was not the focal point of the universe but just another speck within it. Galileo spent his final days under house arrest for failing to recant, as promised, his heresy of promoting the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Climate scientists so far have had to face only loss of funding and character assassination–though recently Australian climatologists have received anonymous death threats.

Current attacks on the credibility of climate science don’t come primarily from religious extremists, such as those that still try to suppress the well established science of evolution pioneered by Darwin. The professional climate change deniers and skeptics serve a more ecumenical Establishment–the bosses and bankers whose profits depend on activity exposed by climate science as threatening the future of our biosphere. The Catholic church was able to adapt to science once considered heretical; today’s ruling class has no such flexibility. Unable to use the methods of the Inquisition, today’s rulers rely on their control of the media, and their influence on school lesson plans, to try to dismiss the increasingly dire warnings of climate science as mere “theory,” if not outright fraud.

Like the Nixon White House, the climate wreckers even turned to crooks for digital black bag jobs. They hired hackers to steal personal, private e-mail exchanges between scientists collaborating at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England. Messages including petty unflattering remarks about other scientists were posted on a denier’s blog and passed along to the media gossip-hounds who soon created “climategate.” The East Anglia scientists were accused of cooking and withholding data. Eventually investigations by scientific academies, and even a committee of the British parliament, cleared the victims of the hack jobs and vouched for the sound science they had produced. But this vindication didn’t get the big headlines that spread the initial slander.

The central tenets of climate science are no longer a matter of substantial scientific controversy. As early as the 1890s, Swedish and Norwegian scientists were writing about how greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide that they noted was growing with industrialization, would eventually warm the planet and change our climate. Based on the emissions during that early period of industrialization they didn’t expect measurable results for many centuries and little attention was devoted to this topic for the next several decades .

They did not foresee the tremendous growth in the burning of fossil fuels that was to come. It’s only been since the introduction over the past forty years of widespread collection of data from around the world, coupled with the development of computers to analyze this data and project models for growth, that scientists came to realize that global warming was reaching crisis proportions.

The crisis resulting from the burning of fossil fuels was made worse by large scale deforestation, especially among old growth forests. These forests had long absorbed carbon emissions. When they were chopped down not only was this adsorption sink lost–the carbon dioxide they had stored in the past was now released.

Climate scientists came to warn that this global warming would lead to melting of polar and glacial ice; rising sea levels inundating some of the most populous areas; warmer ocean temperatures leading to more powerful storms; drought that would cause food shortages and make forests vulnerable to wild fires--and a lot of other unpleasant stuff. Ultimately, if left unchecked, these forces could lead to a planet so changed it could no longer support human life as we know it.

All this is way beyond the stage of theory. There is plenty of empirical evidence to confirm these suppositions. Climate change is, without a doubt, the most serious challenge humanity has yet faced.

The most legitimate criticism that could be made about the consensus body of work produced by climate scientists is that it has been overly cautious in projections about the scope and pace of climate change. The explanation for this is partially political pressure and partly because instead of expected reduction in carbon emissions promised by most countries greenhouse gas pollution is still setting new records on a global level. We’re still boosting the heat of our biosphere.

These issues are more commonly known and debated in Europe, and even in some of the so-called emerging countries than in the USA and Canada. Every evening our television features commercials paid for by outfits such as the American Petroleum Institute reminding us of all the jobs that depend on Big Oil and how sweet life will be if they are allowed to drill wherever they want without bothersome government restrictions. Occasionally we see some about such fantasies as “clean coal” and “green diesel.” And, if you want to be really green, you are asked to endorse public handouts to AgriBusiness for the food-to-fuel ethanol scam.

Fearful of job and membership loss that serious efforts to reduce carbon emissions might bring, many of our union leaders have become cheer-leaders for Big Coal’s mountaintop removal environmental atrocities, and they lead the chant of “drill, baby, drill.”

A few unions have allied themselves with the big mainstream environmental organizations. The Sierra Club, which claims over a million members, got together with the Steelworkers several years ago to form the Blue-Green Alliance. Since then several other unions and envirolobbyist groups have signed on as well.

Unfortunately, this development has not contributed much to educating workers about the truth of the climate crisis. They engage primarily in lobbying for legislation, and trying to negotiate win-win deals with the top corporate polluters. And they take great pains to avoid any action that might embarrass the current administration in the White House. As my generation was fond of saying, since they are not part of the solution they’ve become part of the problem.

So it’s no wonder that between the media and our own mass organizations, the American working class is confused, and largely in a state of denial, about the danger of us leaving a bequest of an unsustainable biosphere to future generations.

But while it is possible for the media to bury reports from climate scientists the beginnings of climate change cannot be so easily ignored. Most of the world’s glaciers–including Glacier National Park–are rapidly disappearing. Melting ice in the Arctic Ocean has now opened up the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific that eluded Henry Hudson and many others over centuries. Rising sea level has already eliminated some islands in the Bay of Bengal from the map.

In addition to these prosaic incremental confirmations of climate change a distressed planet has been hitting us on the head with a twoxfour to get our attention.

* In 2003 the hottest temperatures ever recorded in western Europe directly killed more than 40,000 and led to a severe drought. Russia experienced a similar heat wave last year accompanied by the most massive wild fires ever seen that stopped perilously close to Moscow.

* Much of Australia has been in a long-term drought that contributed to massive forest fires in the southeast. A few months later, northeast Australia was hit with devastating floods.

* A drought more severe than the one that produced the great dust storms of the 1930s continues throughout much of Texas.

Our local interest topic that we used to lure you here today is the Ozarks–that region running from southeastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma right across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas to the Mississippi River.

In March, torrential rain fall inundated much of the region, ultimately flowing in to a Mississippi already swollen by the Ohio River draining exceptionally heavy snow melt from Indiana. Such flooding so early is extremely rare and is an ongoing threat as much heavier than normal mountain snow melt is just beginning to overwhelm the Missouri River–heading our way. Whatever does not flood on the way down will ultimately go through major cities in Louisiana on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s anybody’s guess at this point whether flood control efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers will save that area from another disaster.

If that wasn’t enough, then came the tornadoes. Joplin, a town with which I am familiar, suddenly became the center of world attention after an F-5 tornado churned up about six-miles. More than 150 deaths have been recorded so far. All the television news anchors rushed to set up live broadcasts from Joplin. President Obama and Governor Nixon were on the scene to be seen as well.

What does this have to do with climate change? Certainly tornadoes are not unusual in this area and the weather conditions that create them are well understood. F-5 is rare but I saw the effects of one that devastated Kansas City’s Ruskin Heights district, along with my high school, in 1957.

But Joplin is the deadliest in what has been a record year for tornadoes in the USA, touching nearly every state east of the Rockies. Four recently died in a twister in Massachusetts–the first such event in living memory. Last year a woman was killed by a tornado in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I know Prospect Park well and there are many dangers to be wary of there–but never had anyone worried about a tornado.

Unexpected freak weather incidents have always been a part of the human experience. Meteorologists will tell you that it’s difficult to prove a direct connection between any specific incident to climate. But when you start getting reports of unusual extreme events on a regular basis across the planet then it is time to give credibility to the predictions of climate scientists that climate change includes more common, more frequent, more intense weather related disaster. The top climate expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently told a reporter,

“Looking at some of the modern trends, we've seen increases in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, drawing a direct link between what's happening in the Midwest and global warming.”

You would think such a statement would be a big story on the evening news–especially here in the Midwest. But I had to dig this quote out of the LiveScience website.

There are many in the environmental movement, especially among labor greens, who caution about us becoming too shrill about the dangers of global warming. Better, they say, to stay calm and focus on issues like green jobs.

I am all in favor of a calm demeanor in general and think green jobs are very important. But considering the stakes involved, and the urgency indicated by the fact that climate change has already begun, I think we should sound an alarm as loud and shrill as those sirens activated when a twister is sighted. Time is not on our side, delay is unforgivable.

Now we had advertised that we would also discuss today what can be done about all this. I’ve become convinced, however, that’s too much to tackle adequately in one Forum session. With your consent, I would like to speak to this crucial question at our July Forum and stop now to allow what I’m sure will be a lively discussion about what I’ve covered so far.

Thank you very much.

Click here to go to Part Two


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