Solveig Torvik

“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to
protect America and its citizens,
the United States will withdraw from
the Paris climate accord.”
— President Donald Trump
June 1, 2017

More than 40 years ago, I began writing news reports that briefly alluded to something scientists were calling “global warming.”

Global warming really wasn’t much of a news story. Scientists lacked the hard data they rely on to avoid speaking out of turn.

Still, they worried that “greenhouse” gases produced by unprecedented burning of fossil fuels were building up in the atmosphere, preventing heat from escaping the Earth.

OK, fine. But absent an urgent, unassailable certainty, the story didn’t have much by way of legs to get it on page one. The press, and thus the public, slumbered on.

In 1988, James E. Hansen got the story on page one. A physicist, astronomer and expert on planetary temperatures who headed NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, he broke bad news to the U.S. Senate’s energy and natural resources committee: whether hot, cold, wet, dry — extreme weather will become more frequent.

His warning has proven deadly accurate.

Global warming isn’t something that might happen in the future, Hansen testified. “It is already happening now.” Next year, his testimony will be 30 years old.

A lot of greenhouse gases have rocketed into the heavens since then. So has a lot of hot air from those who deny any human role in rapid global warming.

Much of it came from people like Myron Ebell. He’s been prominent among those who have cost us 20 years of time — and who thus will cost us untold future trouble and treasure. Well-armed with funds from the usual self-dealing parties, Ebell has guided an ambitious two-decade disinformation campaign to halt efforts to prevent unnatural, rapid climate change.

Persistent denial

Ebell’s persistence paid off in June when President Trump announced that the United States will abandon the Paris climate treaty. (But not until two days after the 2020 presidential election.) “We helped create the circumstances,” Ebell modestly admitted to the Washington Post.

Ebell, 64, a non-scientist who runs the Cooler Heads Coalition, is director of energy and environmental policy for the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute. A property rights and free market enthusiast who grew up on a ranch in Eastern Oregon, he in essence argues that government interference with climate change threatens “a regulatory onslaught” that would interfere with human freedom.

Ebell’s mission has been to persuade politicians to deny that humans are meaningfully implicated in climate change — and to get the public to believe it. He’s been successful. Lately he admits we may be a tiny bit culpable. Nonetheless, he insists climate change essentially is none of the government’s business. Why? Governments shouldn’t prevent corporations from making profits.

Ebell’s coalition of roughly 30 pretend “non-partisan” charities and nonprofit organizations enjoy tax-exempt status, the Post reported Sept. 5. Moreover, between 2003 and 2010, energy companies, corporations and conservative foundations gave hundreds of millions to 91 nonprofit “think tanks,” “educational” groups and associations that were fighting regulations meant to curb global warming. More than three-fourths of the 91 were tax-exempt charities whose donors were mostly anonymous, according to Drexel University Prof. Robert Brulle’s study, “Institutionalizing Delay.”

“This is a large scale political effort,” Brulle said.

The foundations of industrialist David H. Koch, the Scaife family and the Mercer family that underwrites former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon’s anti-government enterprises are among contributors to the effort to convince Americans that it’s their government, not global warming, that should scare them.

Expect worse

Tell that to the citizens of Hurricane Harvey-flooded Houston, wading in water up to their armpits. Tell it to the residents of the Caribbean islands flattened and flooded by Hurricane Irma, then piled on by Hurricane Maria. In the Northwest, open your window and smell the smoke from 55 wildfires.

And expect more sleepless nights. Higher nighttime temperatures will become more prevalent, scientists say. Seattle’s overnight temperature reached 77 degrees F. at 1 a.m. during this summer’s heat wave.

What I have learned as a journalist following this story over four decades is this: Earth’s climate mechanism is devilishly complex, composed of many mysteriously moving parts. A full grasp of how it all hangs together still escapes us.

The story line has been full of vexing to-ing and fro-ing because scientists, armed with ever-more precise tools, constantly uncover new information. This is how science is supposed to work. But any seeming contradiction is weaponized by those whose concerns are limited to profiting from the ruinous status quo.

Houston meanwhile shows us what comes of free marketeering. Unregulated, zoning-free growth paved over wetlands that used to absorb Houston’s excess water. Oops.

And this: The very oil industry that dominates Houston’s economy contributed to warming oceans, triggering conditions that brought the Houston area three 100- to 500-year hurricanes in the last three years. “Ironic” doesn’t begin to bear the load of such folly. Nor does “cosmic joke.”

But don’t shrug off Houston’s Oil Patch inundations as poetic justice. Too many innocent people are suffering.

Please do ponder this:

You believe your freedom will be constrained if governments try to curb climate change? So what do you expect will happen to your freedom during the unprecedented human migrations that surely will result if we don’t stabilize what remains of our livable climate?

You don’t like taxes? So who do you think will pay the ever-growing billions, trillions, to fix recurring, endlessly escalating material and social damage from really bad weather? The fossil fuel industry?


Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.

Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.