Most Americans recognize global warming is happening, but don't believe anything can be done about it or don't want to think about it. A 2006 poll by ABC News and others found fewer than four in ten believed global warming is a serious problem and only three in ten believed it is caused by human activity. Almost 64 percent believe there's disagreement among scientists, which leads to a great amount of doubt among the public.
With such a low level of concern, there's little political will to lessen the causes of global warming or plan for the disruption it will create. Although the media's need to provide "a balanced viewpoint" created a controversy where none exists, these attitudes could change with attention given the February release of a UN report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The IPCC found temperatures rose 0.74 C over the last 100 years, and carbon dioxide levels from ice core data are at a 650,000-year high. Scientists predict that temperatures will rise another 0.4 C in the next 20 years and they are 90 percent certain this is caused by human activity. But global warming is already here: these small temperature changes are causing catastrophic weather patterns around the world.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorology Society and the National Academy of Sciences have issued statements that global warming is occurring, it's largely caused by humans, and the president of the AAAS says it's "likely to continue with large negative consequences for natural and human socioeconomic systems unless we rapidly decarbonize our global energy systems."
Any controversy arises from powerful medieval religious forces - the 25 percent of evangelicals who back the GOP and Bush - and by the powerful petroleum industry, seeking to continue high profits from burning fossil fuel, the main cause of global warming. Denying global warming protects the status quo; how would Americans sustain their high standard of living without the comfort and the plethora of products produced by petroleum?
Only a few environmentalists take the dire predictions of global warming seriously, and Americans, the absolute conforming individualists who denounce anyone who is different, reject these "alarmists," who are accused of seeking to destroy their lifestyle. Few understand that global warming is an extension of environmental destruction; we are running out of atmosphere to absorb our carbon waste products.
Traditional American anti-intellectualism, Knownothing politics, fundamentalist religious moralism, and plain old capitalistic greed combine to lead the public to reject scientific findings for a blind faith that things will work out. After all, what would America be without hope?
The Bush Administration's utter failure to provide any leadership except a "do your own thing" philosophy of rapacious free enterprise
only adds to the future build up of greenhouse gases. Some individuals take a moral position, cut their individual carbon emissions by driving less, eating locally and organically, and consuming less. A handful of businesses embrace low-emission, self-sustaining plans or invent new products to profit from global warming.
These efforts may be noble, well intentioned and admirable, but they don't come close to preventing global warming, which is much worse that we think. Take for example the prediction that if everyone in the US rode bicycles, the Chinese closed their factories and Europe returned to candles, global warming would continue for centuries. If the rest of the world returned to the Stone Age, carbon concentrations would continue to rise because carbon doesn't dissipate quickly; about half of it is absorbed by the oceans and plants, and the other half lingers in the atmosphere.
Carbon was last in balance about 150 years ago and, to stabilize atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide today, emissions would have to drop 70 to 80 percent. The elimination of all vehicle traffic in the US would lower global emissions by 7 percent. Shutting down fossil-fuel plants worldwide would reduce emissions 39 percent, and replacing all 245 million cars in the US with hybrids would reduce emissions 3 percent.
Meanwhile the US produces 25 percent of all emissions, and people in India, China and developing countries are increasing their carbon emissions. It's doubtful they will forgo development while the profligate US plans to increase emissions 20 percent by 2020.
Individual lifestyle changes cannot stop global warming. Walking instead of driving, changing to fluorescent bulbs and using a clothesline will help, but will not prevent global warming. Collective action is vitally necessary and leadership of the US is essential if we are to adapt to the coming unpredictable and violent weather patterns.
As a society, we can blunt the worsening of global warming by immediately cutting back on our wasteful energy usage. If we do nothing, the effects will be much worse. Individuals need to call for political action on a level unprecedented in American history. In an increasingly acrimonious society, overly influenced by a wealthy status quo, it's questionable whether society will be able to adapt without massive die offs. Scientists tell us one thing for sure: if we don't radically adjust our energy use, we face even more disruptive consequences.
Don Monkerud is an California-based writer who follows cultural,
social and political issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.