On Climate Change and the Arc of History

By John McFerrin

Even if we are past February–the month of predictions, the month that opens with Groundhog Day when we all at least pretend to listen to the weather forecast of a rodent—it is still a good time to look at a previous prediction or, more precisely, an analysis of a trend noted by then-President Hugh Rogers in January, 2008.

In his column of that month, Hugh observed:

Whether or not the president changes his policies to accord with his words in the year he has left in office, the words themselves mark a consensus that makes action inevitable. On this issue, it would seem, we have reached the final stage in the process that the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”

The President he was talking about was George W. Bush.  The issue was global warming.

Hugh’s observation came toward the end of a remarkable change.  The idea that global temperatures were changing and that humans were contributing to the change went from being a relatively obscure theory that scientists talked about to a widely accepted idea, one that most people knew about and one that most people accepted as true.

The transformation is all the more remarkable given that much of it came during the administrations of two Bushes.  Upton Sinclair observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  The Bushes were oil men.  By the time they reached the White House they were past the point where their salaries literally came from the oil business.  At the same time, that is who they were.  They were culturally, if not financially, predisposed to resist the idea that human activity–such as burning the product of the family business—could be harming the planet.

Their culture may have denied the idea of human influenced climate change but they embraced the idea anyway.  When he was first running for President, the senior Bush declared: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect. As president, I intend to do something about it.”  After he was President he said, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and unprecedented ways.”  The junior Bush said of global climate change “I take the issue seriously.”  As things turned out, Mr. Bush’s actions did not exactly follow his words but at least the words were still there.  

Following George W. Bush we had a president who did take the issue seriously, both in words and deeds.  It appeared that Hugh had read the trend correctly. We had reached a “consensus that makes action inevitable.”

Then we had an election.  For four years we had President who thought that climate change was a hoax.  He took the hopeful arc of history and wrenched it into a giant horseshow.  At least on the Presidential level, he smacked us all the way back to the first stage of a truth’s acceptance. 

At the beginning of his term, there was at least hope that he would pass through the other stages of acceptance.  That never happened.  He pulled the United States out of the Paris Accord on climate change. He spent his whole term distracted by other things and barely said anything about climate change.  When he did address climate change, he did it by taking a step backward.  See the story on Methane on page 12 of this issue.

This does not mean that nothing happened in four years.  States of the United States, other countries, and other individuals continued to work to deal with this problem.  They just continued to work without any encouragement or assistance from the President.

Now we have a new President.  He has turned us around again, resuming the long march toward solving the problem that the trend Hugh saw predicted.  Because we spent the last four years marching in place or marching backward, we will have to march faster now than we otherwise would have.  While it is unfortunate that we spent the last four years without any Presidential leadership on this issue, we are at least back to bending the arc of history in the direction Hugh foresaw. 

Note:  This is a revised and updated version of a story that first appeared in the February, 2017, issue of The Highlands Voice.  For a lot more about climate change, see the story on page 12 of this issue.