Opinion: Climate debate shows no signs of subsiding

Photo/Mark Abramson/The New York Times / Snow falls on the San Gabriel Mountains in Angeles National Forest, Los Angeles County, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2023. Rare blizzard conditions presented hazards in the mountains of Southern California, and residents at lower elevations braced for fallout from a more familiar threat: flooding.

I rather liked the 80-degree weather in our winter, but not the storm warnings last week. I'm delighted that Chattanooga dodged any tornadoes and feel really sorry for the folks who didn't, including those in New Jersey a few weeks ago. New Jersey? Not exactly part of Tornado Alley! But then, weird weather is becoming the new norm. Cars floating in a river through a city's downtown and icicles on Southern California palm trees. Oy! What's going on?

During the storms, there were more than 200 tweets an hour on Twitter citing #ClimateEmergency. Some expressed frustration with the fossil fuel industry's failing to tackle methane emissions despite its pledges to uncover and fix leaking infrastructure. Others expressed fury with "globalists and socialists and their made-up catastrophe to instill fear, and guilt; to tax, regulate, and remove our freedoms, while pretending to be saving the planet."

The climate denial folks claim that the oil industry is a great asset, helping to lift billions of people out of starvation and disease. Citing "energy poverty," they tweet that more oil and gas are needed globally. "Denying cheap fossil fuel energy to the impoverished is immoral and inhumane," they write. "Energy poverty kills 3-5 million women and children every year from lung damage due to the burning of wood and dung for cooking and heating."

They try to use science to prove their point: "The temperature record of the earth and prior levels of CO2 do not support a climate catastrophe." They actually say that the earth is greening from the extra CO2 and crop yields are up significantly. There is a total rejection of any climate emergency, "The climate always changes, always has." And they attack alarmists, "Do some actual research for the first time in your lives and always question authority."

So this "climate alarmist" checked out new research. Scientists report that global methane emissions in 2021 were 15% higher than between 1984-2006 based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With intense heat waves increasing, so are heart attacks and heat strokes, according to a Columbia University presentation, "Earth Series Virtual: Blazing Temperatures, Broken Records."

Even more disturbing was a report published by Harvard University in collaboration with British universities: "Global Mortality From Outdoor Fine Particle Pollution Generated by Fossil Fuel Combustion," which found that more than eight million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, or one in five deaths worldwide. "Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it's in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases," Dr. Joel Schwartz, the study's co-author, said. "We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources."

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard Chan School of Public Health, says, "Now more than ever we can see the healthier, more just and sustainable world that climate actions can deliver." But do policymakers listen to experts like Bernstein and Schwartz, or just "question authority" as climate deniers insist they do?

Climate deniers -- or skeptics -- might take their own advice and seek out research. Instead of snark like "these alarmists lack any scientific curiosity, making them intellectually lazy," they themselves should be intellectually accurate. Then maybe we'll see fossil fuel industries live up to their promises and politicians act on our climate emergency.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.