Climate Change can’t be denied and we need to do something about it!

A raised banner stating "ONE WORLD"

With climate change denialism on the rise at exactly the moment international climate action
should be, I want to salute the present leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of
Newfoundland and Labrador, Tony Wakeham, for distancing his party from former leader Ches
Crosbie’s denialist remarks last week in Ottawa. In the interest of protecting Newfoundland and
Labrador oil and gas from federal climate change regulations, Crosbie called the theory of
anthropogenic climate change “bogus.”

In 2019 when Crosbie was running for Premier, he asked me to head up an advisory committee
on climate change and the economics of transitioning Newfoundland and Labrador to green
energy. I guess Crosbie did not believe a word of our forty-two-page white paper.
It would be naive to deny the importance of oil and gas for the present economic challenges of
Newfoundland and Labrador and the committee did not. We argued that in a period of transition
from fossil fuels to renewables, Canada should draw on the less ecologically damaging
Newfoundland offshore than the tar sands of Alberta, one of the most polluting industrial sites in
the world. But we also said that there is no future for anyone in oil, as the Arab nations are also
beginning to recognize. Wind energy developments in Newfoundland and Labrador are a
promising sign that others agree. But leave aside for a moment the political and the economic
interests of Newfoundland and Labrador and think about Crosbie’s remarks on science: “Having
looked into the whole subject matter,” Crosbie has come to the studied opinion that “the theory
that carbon output caused by humans is causing catastrophic climate change is bogus.”
The only measure of the rigor of a scientific enterprise we have is peer review—independent
verification of results. According to this benchmark, climatology is the most rigorous scientific
enterprise in human history. Beginning in the 70s and continuing today with major institutional
support in every developed country, climatology is an unprecedented collaborative human
enterprise. The amount of data that has been amassed in support of the theory is staggering. Last
year was the hottest year on Earth on record. The theory of anthropogenic climate change is
accepted by the UN and the 68 countries that signed the “Global Cooling Pledge” at the UN
climate change meeting, COP 28, last year. According to the theory, the chief factor in the recent
temperature spike (a 2-degree increase since 1850) is human industry, which exploded since we
discovered fossil fuels and began burning them in ever-increasing quantities over the past

The theory may be wrong. But it is extremely improbable that it is, and the stakes could not be
higher. If the theory is right and we ignore it and keep consuming, producing, and burning oil
like it was 1960, we condemn our children to a largely uninhabitable planet. While deniers
generally have a vested interest in denialism (oil execs revising science to suit their industry),
climatologists have none in theirs. No one wants anthropogenic climate change to be true.
The science is complex but its essentials can be understood by a layperson. Greenhouse gases are
natural and necessary. They constitute the atmosphere of the planet without which Earth would be frozen and lifeless. The atmosphere is a semitransparent envelope of gasses that traps the heat of the sun like the walls of a greenhouse, that slender line of blue around the earth, shielding us from space, where the average temperature is -270 Celsius. If you pump more CO2 into the air, as we have been doing for the last 150 years, the atmosphere thickens and becomes even more effective insulation, like adding another layer of glass to your greenhouse.

CO2 is not a poison. It is released naturally from various ecological processes as well as from the
burning of fossil fuels. Scientists can measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and have
been doing so for decades. They can compare present to past amounts by testing the composition
of air bubbles trapped in glacial ice cores. The record shows that more CO2 means, as predicted,
a warmer planet. We distinguish the fossil-fuel-produced CO2 from the naturally occurring
through chemical analysis and demonstrate that the temperature rise in the past century is not
“cyclical” but due to industry.

Deniers like Crosbie like to point out that the climate is always changing and there is nothing to
be done about it. The first part is true but the second is not. We are at the tail end of the last ice
age right now, which began 12,000 years ago and made possible the agricultural revolution (i.e.,
civilization as we know it). We were not the initial cause of it. But we are certainly the finishing
act. Not sure what “cycles” the deniers are referring to but catastrophic climate change caused by
singular events is hardly unknown in Earth’s history (look up the great oxidation event). We are
not at the moment experiencing some kind of rhythmic freezing and thawing of the earth. The
change is singular, not circular. And what’s new about this situation is that we are the cause of it.
That’s never happened before. And most importantly, we know it is happening and why. That,
too, is new. For the first time in human history, we can do something about it. But we are doing
nothing. Why? Because of the kind of self-interested political games Crosbie and others who
agree with him (that model of scientific integrity, Donald Trump) are playing.

What I most appreciate about Wakeham’s disclaimer is that he dared to speak out on the issue as
a conservative, which is increasingly rare. Climate change has been viciously politicized as part
of a left-wing package to dismantle the American way of life. But there is nothing essentially
left-wing about concern for the environment. The most pro-environmental political leaders in
North America in recent times were both right-wingers: President Richard Nixon; who
introduced the Environmental Protection Act, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who
spearheaded international legislation to ban the production of the chemicals that were punching a
hole in the ozone (demonstrating, by the way, that we can positively impact the climate through
political action). Climate change policy is not in the vested interest of any one party. It needs to
become an issue like health care or education, one which all parties, left or right, need to address.
Those interested in the 2020 recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change in
Newfoundland and Labrador prepared for the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland
and Labrador can read it here . Crosbie might want to refresh his memory before he speaks out on
the issue again.

Op Ed. The Telegram, St. John’s, Newfoundland

Professor Sean McGrath
Department of Philosophy, Memorial University
Co-Director of For a New Earth