In 1989 the World Meteorological Association warned, “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.” Our corporate-controlled “democracy” has utterly failed to respond to that burgeoning crisis.
For 25 years, our national leaders have failed to respond to an evident worldwide catastrophe.
If we are to respond to the challenge of planetary scale climate change, we must take notice of that failure and respond to the evidence that the democratic process, as it exists today, is incapable of producing any rational response to the world’s most serious problems.
The Scientists’ Warning
Throughout the 1970s, scientists became aware that humans were changing the atmosphere at scales sufficient to alter climate. There was some confusion as to whether the change would take the form of cooling or warming. By 1979, the World Meteorological Association issued a report stating “with some certainty” that use of fossil fuels, deforestation, and changes in land use had led to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that it appeared to be “plausible” that this increase in carbon dioxide could contribute to gradual warming. The statement included calls for further research, and included this underlined statement: “There is an immediate need for nations to utilize existing knowledge of climate and climatic variations in the planning for social and economic development.”
By 1989, a full 25 years ago, the warnings had become far louder. A conference of the World Meteorological Association released a statement calling for a 20% reduction from 1988 levels of carbon dioxide emission by 2005.
The scientists were laying out a rational response. Over the decade of the 1980s, the warnings had gone from urgent to critical. The first sentence of the 1989 document reads: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”
This is not timid language; this is the language of people who recognize a vital need for rapid change. The certainty and evidence of climate change have, of course, only grown greater since then.
The United States and World Response
In 1989, US carbon dioxide emissions from energy were approximately 5 billion tons per year. The scientists’ advised reduction of 20% by 2005 would have brought emissions down to 4 billion tons per year. The actual emissions in 2005: approximately 6 billion tons. There had been a 20% change, but in the wrong direction. “Thanks” to the great recession, emissions have since returned to levels comparable to 1989. There has been no reduction.
Worse, and predictably, emissions from China have soared past those of the United States. China has become the world’s factory; the emissions from China are in large part a result of China’s production in response to US and European consumer demand.
It is now 25 years since scientists warned that reductions were vital, and suggested a 20% reduction by ten years ago. We have had both Democratic and Republican administrations since 1989; administrations which have been perceived as ranging from conservative to liberal. Yet no change anything like what we have been warned is necessary has made its way through our political system. That is, our political system has not responded with either the speed or the scale needed to prevent serious planet-wide damage to humanity.
Worse, public opinion has been manipulated by the fossil fuel industry. Science has come under increasing attack from deceptive propaganda. Climate change has become a partisan issue, with a 2008 Gallup poll reporting that 76% of Democrats believed global warming was already happening, but only 41% of Republicans believing global warming was happening.
In 2013, a poll by Public Policy Polling found that 37% of Americans believe global warming is a hoax.
The Inescapable Conclusion No One Wants to Talk About
The conclusion is inescapable and urgent. America’s existing social and political system has not responded in a sane manner to a critical call from scientists worldwide. Instead, the response has largely consisted of a propaganda campaign designed to protect the profits of the industries which must change in order to avoid major damage to humanity. In short, democracy has failed.
Most Americans have grown up with an unchallenged assumption that what Winston Churchill said at the end of World War II was true: that democracy, while imperfect, was our best hope. That truism is no longer supported by the evidence – corporate controlled democracy has failed to respond to a planetary crisis. For the sake of future generations, we must first admit that failure. We must then find a way forward, with or without support from corporate-controlled democracy.