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Commentary: Climate Change


I tell my students at Columbia College that when they are finished with this class and they don’t know if I’m a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal, then it’s been a successful class in at least one way.  I tell them it is none of their business what my political beliefs are.  

The only thing that matters about opinions is that in this class they have developed tools and skills to better understand what THEIR political beliefs are, that these beliefs are grounded in knowledge of the American political system, and that they feel more confident to articulate and defend them.  I’ve been pretty successful at this over the years, and I think my students appreciate it.

I also tell them that there is one exception: They will learn my opinion about environmental stewardship generally and climate change specifically.  I tell them that there is a political debate about climate change, but there is no scientific debate.  There is something as close to a consensus as you will ever find among scientists that the global warming that has been occurring over the last 200 years, and is currently accelerating, is caused by deforestation, harmful agricultural practices and especially by human introduction into the earth’s atmosphere of carbon dioxide that is caused by burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas.  It’s a fact, Jack.  Don’t take it from me.  Watch, for example, “Decoding the Weather Machine,” a 2018 Nova documentary on PBS.  There are plenty of other sources.  The scientific question is not “Whether?”  The question is “How do we slow it?”

I observe in disbelief the politicians who pass climate change denial legislation and regulators who gut environmental protections.  I listen in amazement to the talk radio and television hosts who prattle on recklessly about denial.  I read with dismay about the petroleum industry lobbyists who give millions of dollars to elected officials so they will vote the denial agenda.   When the world the scientists predict comes to pass, they all will say: “Why didn’t you tell us before it was too late?”  They will have much to answer for.

I come by my very strong views on the environment honestly.  I was brought up in a Green home before there was even a term for it.  We conserved: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  It was an economic necessity but also a moral imperative.  It’s a good thing the American economy did not then, and does not to this day, depend on the Smiths for consumerism.

I do not want to believe the science.  The most likely trajectory for global warming will create a pretty bad existence for our children and their children.  And they will be fortunate compared to billions of fellow human beings who will be displaced, or worse, by coastal flooding, drought, unbearable heat and frightful storms. 

As the clock ticks and politicians fiddle there are enlightened citizens who have good ideas about “flattening the curve,” a term much heard these days.  True change of the magnitude necessary will require the Mother of All Manhattan Projects, or whatever metaphor suits you.  I’m intrigued by carbon capture – taking the CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it back in the ground and/or making useful products from it.  We’ll need carbon capture factories in their thousands.  While we’re waiting for the construction crews, we could plant a trillion trees.  That’s fewer than 140 trees per person on the planet.  Here’s your shovel and sapling.  Start digging today.

The coronavirus will change all of us.  If we’re really lucky, the biggest change will be an existential shift in the way humans view the future of earth, and the sense of urgency essential to shape it so future generations will have an earth worth living on.

Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.