On Climate Change and the Arc of History

By John McFerrin

February is 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 as good a time as any 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.  Now we have a President who thinks that climate change is a hoax.  He has taken the hopeful arc of history and wrenched it into a giant horseshow.  At least on the Presidential level, we have been smacked all the way back to the first stage of a truth’s acceptance.

Now we are left hoping that Mr. Trump will quickly pass through the other stages of an idea’s acceptance.  We are left hoping that only Mr. Trump and those whose salary depends upon their not understanding the threat of climate change will seek to turn backward while others forge ahead. We are left to hope that states of the United States, other countries, and other individuals will continue to work to deal with this problem.