by Ron Gester, MD, 21 Sept 2019

November 1965

Pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air … By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25%. This will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature …”– President’s Science Advisory Committee Report to President Johnson


June 1988

"Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming...It is already happening now” – James Hansen, US Senate testimony

 December 1990

We are certain of the following: … emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: … resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface.” – First Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Sometime in 2006

Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were roaring drunk on petroleum. Love, 2006 A.D.” - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

May 2011

The predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will be climate change, comparable to Nazism faced by Churchill in the 20th century and slavery faced by Lincoln in the 19th century.” – James Hansen, Open letter to President Obama

November 2013

We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change. … there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.” – Open letter to environmentalists from climatologists

May 2015

We are the first generation that can put an end to poverty and we are the last generation that can put an end to climate change” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

September 2019

As much as we say the Republicans when it comes to climate change must listen to science, our party has the same obligation to listen to scientists. The data [on the need for nuclear energy to fight climate change] speaks for itself.” – Senator Cory Booker, candidate for President 

Our future’s now, it starts today.

If not you should do it, then who else? If not we should do it now, then when should we do it?” – Greta Thunberg, September 2019 In 2010, when Greta was 8 years old and first learned about climate change, she did not understand why no one ever talked about it.

I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans, who are an animal species among others, could be capable of changing the Earth's climate. Because if we were, and if it was really happening, we wouldn't be talking about anything else. As soon as you'd turn on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers, you would never read or hear about anything else, as if there was a world war going on. But no one ever talked about it. If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before?” – 2018 TED talk

How could we just continue like before? It is a profoundly important question and if we hope to mount an effective response to climate change, it is essential that we understand the answer. We have been warned about climate change many times over the course of more than 50 years. We can’t pretend we didn’t know. Yet most people have gone on with their lives just like before and rarely even talked about it. Why has this happened? Greta shared her thoughts.

For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white. We aren't very good at lying, and we usually don't enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of. I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before.” – 2018 TED talk

Greta suggests that we have failed to respond effectively because we are very good at lying. We believe climate change is an existential threat and then rather than take it seriously, we convince ourselves to ignore it and get on with the day. Why do we do this?

Some of the answers seem obvious.

  • First, thinking about anything in depth is hard work and we instinctively avoid it. One of the ways we do this is by using subconscious shortcuts – previously adopted beliefs – that eliminate our concern. “Science will fix it.” “It’s up to God.”
  • Second, we put off thinking about future events because they seem less urgent than present ones.
  • Third, climate change exceeds our familiar scales of time and space. It is almost incomprehensible and therefore seems irrelevant.
  • Fourth, some people are just more selfish; they don’t care much about their impact on others. Greta suggests a fifth reason that she calls a “social game.” We look to others to learn how to respond. Despite lofty opinions of our intelligence and reason, social conformity trumps independent thought. This incongruity deserves special attention. While there are undoubtedly some evolutionary advantages to this behavior, history provides a variety of examples of its dark side: the inquisition, slavery, and the holocaust. Climate change is going to be on this list.

So, it behooves us to look carefully at our behavior. Do our daily conversations and actions reveal our concerns that we are endangering our children, grandchildren, and numerous other species? Or are we living our lives just as before? Are we at least raising our voices, talking to friends and neighbors, writing to editors, politicians, and relevant organizations? Or are we just following the silent majority?

Which side of history are we on?

Listen up, as we say,
Our future’s now, it starts today.
Stand with us, side by side,
As we respond to the rising tide.
We’ve been left to do what’s right
We challenge you with no more mights.

(Lyrics from Unity by Mark Long)

Thanks for taking the time.