By Dr. Kevork N Abazajian
As a scientist, I find myself in my most fulfilled and happiest state of flow when I am working on and discovering scientific models and their impact on available observations. Testing models with data, and uncovering new phenomena is in essence what science is. This breakthrough activity is what drives scientists and science itself. Scientists are rewarded with discovering the basis of our natural world. Sometimes these discoveries have little impact on everyday life.
Sometimes these discoveries have profound impact. The discovery of the possibility of a sustained nuclear chain reaction being potentially used as a weapon led to the Manhattan Project in the United States, and has changed the nature and of warfare. It has also brought a long period of relative peace among major powers, so far. On another front, the discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) cause the depletion of the ozone layer by University of California, Irvine chemist Sherry Rowland led to the phasing out production of CFCs by international treaty.
In both of these cases, American scientists led efforts to avert a severe and global threat. In the first, the development of nuclear weapons by America allowed the eventual deterrence of their use in the past seventy years. In the second, a discovery in an American laboratory led to halting the threat of an expanding ozone hole that would have led to adverse affects on human health and the environment on a global scale.
We find ourselves now with the scientific discovery by climatologists of a new global threat: climate change. There is no veritable controversy in the scientific community about the status of climate change, with high confidence that the observed warming is due to human activity, primarily greenhouse gas emissions. Business as usual greenhouse gas emissions are forecast to be globally catastrophic. Denialism of these conclusions is fringe and equivalent to those who deny Einstein’s theory of gravity applies to the Solar System.
The catastrophic implications of business as usual emission of greenhouse gases is an immense threat. One immense implication is ocean acidification occurring in a rate unseen in 252 million years, and when it last occurred 96% of marine life went extinct. For humans, the implications are vast, including eventual sea-level rise to where over 20 million Americans live, and 470 to 760 million people globally.
Unchecked climate change also has implications to U.S. national security since climate change stresses increase the likelihood of international or civil conflict, state failure, mass migration and instability in regions of strategic interest, as recently reported by U.S. military leaders.
Action on averting these threats must be taken immediately, since our greenhouse gas budget to stay under warming goals is quickly being consumed. Given this threat to our planet and our national security, action on climate cannot be further delayed.
In a course I teach on energy and the environment at the University of California, Irvine, I walk my students through a calculation that shows that individual action is veritable, but not even nearly sufficient for averting climate change. Let us suppose that you are personally so horrified of the threats posed by climate change that you give up a 15 mpg SUV that you drive to work 2,000 miles each month and bike to work instead, for a full year. (This eliminates about 16 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.) You are so excited about this that you start a campaign via your social networks and social media that gets 100,000 people to do the same thing. This eliminates 1.6 million tons of CO2, which turns out to be about 0.004% of global emissions for that year.
It should be clear that international, governmental policy change is the only way to achieve a significant reduction of the threats Americans and humanity as a whole faces from climate change. There is precedent with such international accord with the Montreal Protocols leading to the elimination of production of CFCs averting the ozone-hole threat.
A report by the Sierra Club detailed how the incoming Trump administration is alone among 195 world leaders in not acknowledging the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the need for action to mitigate it. This includes leaders of North Korea and Russia. Setting aside that scientific progress has led to the immense technological, medical, and economic achievements of the U.S. in the past century, ignoring and devaluing climate science specifically by our political leadership would ignore and allow a severe threat to our nation and our planet to continue to be imminent.
It should be clear that as scientists and citizens, our greatest impact is by taking part in enacting national and international level action to averting the clear and imminent threats forecast by continuing laissez-faire greenhouse gas emissions.
The ethical imperative for climate action via political action reminds me of similar calls from antiquity. Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics that
If, then, there is some end of the things we do… clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature. [emphasis mine]
Another pointed quote comes from Albert Einstein, “One thing I have learned in a long life: That all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
When the sciences point toward a global threat of unprecedented scale to humanity and our environment, it is clear as scientists we have an imperative to take action, and specifically political action to avert this threat. It will take a Manhattan-Project-like effort to do so.