There were hundreds of good reasons why we should not have elected Mr. Trump. But one was orders of magnitude more serious than the rest. Surprisingly little was said about it during the campaign, but I think that it’s now the main reason why so many young people are finding it almost impossible to put down their protest signs and go home.
We are either right at, or we have already passed*, the point of catastrophically changing our planet’s climate. But we have now just turned over its historically largest CO2 emissions economy to a man who does not ‘believe in’ climate change. Trump’s position here is exactly as rational as not believing in Mount McKinley, or Niagara Falls. The underlying physics and chemistry of CO2 driven global warming are every bit as well understood, and as laboratory demonstrable, as gravity. So we knew what was coming. High temperature records are now being broken with monotonous regularity all over the world, our polar ice caps are observably melting, and our mountain glaciers are either in rapid retreat or are already gone. Our sea levels are measurably rising; and all of the heat increase driven secondary effects that our models also predicted (stronger and more frequent storms, flooding as opposed to nurturing rains, general expansion of our deserts, and more) are observably happening. So we can see that it is arriving.
But Mr. Trump does not ‘believe in’ it.
I believe that if snow being black could further Mr. Trump’s agenda of increasing his wealth and power then he would be able to stand with us on a snowfield and swear that it was black. Trump’s mind is fully postmodern. He is sufficiently ignorant of objective knowledge to be able to believe that everything is negotiable. So he can indeed believe passionately – and at any given instant, without reference to what he might have believed an hour ago – whatever best serves his power agenda.
Mr. Trump needs climate change to be a myth (or even better, ‘a Chinese plot’) in order to enable his program of massive re-stimulation of American heavy industry, including armaments manufacture, which will of course force other nations throughout the world to follow suit, and so blossom into a global CO2 emission orgy. That process will make Mr. Trump and his rich backers much richer. But it will also sacrifice any remaining chance that we might now have for salvaging something like a crash landing on climate change. The young people who have read books like Bill McKibben’s ‘Eaarth’, Thom Hartman’s ‘The Last Hours of Humanity’, and Christian Parenti’s ‘Tropic of Chaos’ know this. They understand that Mr. Trump and his cronies are basically ordering them to stand aside while they complete the destruction of their world. This is kind of a tough order to follow.
*I don’t have the time or space here to even start to précis the main data driven arguments, but they are well presented in the 3 books mentioned in my paragraph above this one. Our most prescient scientists and science journalists have been making the arguments in excellent books for the past 40 years. And yes, as the denialists can still smugly point out, the sky hasn’t yet fallen. But – as they will understand too late, if at all – that was never the prediction.
There are two large points that the denialists, and most in the ‘not too concerned’ center, still seem to be unable to grasp:
1. The huge disconnect between geophysical change rates and those that evolution has equipped our minds to comprehend.
2. Extension of the physics concept of thermal inertia to a system as large as our planet.
On the first: A one degree C average rise over 100 years (which is about what we’ve had so far) seems very slow to us. One degree seems hardly worth worrying about, and 100 years is a long time; more than a standard human lifetime. But the 1 per 100 rate was based on an average CO2 PPM (parts per million) of 330. Our rate now, at 420 PPM and still climbing, is approximately 1 degree per 25 years; and both of these rates are ‘warp speed’ against the normal range for geophysical change that we can determine from our glacial ice core and fossil tree rings data. We are now, from the strong consensus of all of our best measurements and analysis, warming our planet at a faster rate than it has ever been warmed in its 4.7 billion year history. And that history has included at least 5 major biosphere dieback events, starting from the End Permian event at 251 million years ago which extinguished 96% of all species then in existence. The really nasty little realization that we’ve achieved during about the past decade is that in each of these events, though they did not all start in the same way, CO2 driven global warming was the knife that finally did the killing. See Thom Hartman’s book in particular for this, and for the two-phase theory that now seems to best fit the data and best explain our largest diebacks. Basically, that the first 5 or 6 degrees of warming are typically CO2 increase driven, while the next 5 or 6 degrees are from positive feedback and tipping point effects (like loss of reflective capacity, with dark ocean and land absorbing heat more efficiently than bright white snow and ice, and massive additional releases of methane – the 30 x more efficient heat trapping gas than CO2 – which is now in ‘safe’ frozen storage in our deep ocean clathrate deposits and high latitude permafrost). The summary point of all of this is that the denialist’s common sense based reassurances about everything being okay ‘because, see, it’s been 40 years since you climate change guys got all bent out of shape about this in the ‘70s, and nothing terrible has happened!’ have far more to do with their anthropic cognitive limitations and scientific ignorance than with reality.
On the second: The system that we have started to move is also massive beyond anything that our common sense could have evolved to prepare us for. Most of us already have some familiarity with the concept of thermal inertia, in knowing that the hottest time in a typical day is not at 12:00, when the sun is at its zenith, but at about 2:00 PM. Because the land takes time to heat, the period of maximum heat lags about two hours behind the period of strongest heat input. Our models show a similar lag for CO2 driven global warming. But the lag period is a little different. Rather than 2 hours, we have calculated it to be around 30 years. The implication of this is pretty sobering. To spell it out: If we could shut down all additional CO2 production right now (simply stop all of our cars, planes, ships, power plants and so on), and we have not already dialed in enough warming to take us past an overall tipping point in our activation of secondary greenhouse gas emissions (our clathrate and tundra permafrost sequestered methane deposits) then our planet will still go on warming for the next 30 years.
Does this mean that the only thing left to be done is to bend over and kiss our asses goodbye? Definitely not. We are tough, and smart, and we have an impressive record for fighting like cornered rats once we realize that we are in that position. My point for this essay is that that really is where we are. The margin for prevarication that we had back in the 70’s is gone. If we wake up and start doing all that we can, as from right now, to turn our present climate change power dive into a survivable crash landing (and the second half of McKibben’s book is pretty strong on the specific steps) then there is at least a good chance that we’ll be able to do so. If we acquiesce to Mr. Trump’s insanity then that chance too will disappear.