I couldn't leave for Iceland without a few final thoughts on the Heartland Institute’s International Climate Conference held at the Chicago Hilton last week. After spending two of the three days listening to speakers and mulling over what I'd "learned" for a few days, I've decided there was one extremely telling moment from my time there.
Heartland, the Chicago-based organization known for its advocacy of global warming skepticism, garnered international attention this month by displaying a billboard out on the Eisenhower Expressway comparing people who believe in anthropogenic climate change to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Heartland, which planned to include Osama bin Laden in later ads, canceled the campaign after 24 hours.
As I watched a panel of speakers agree with each other that climate change either wasn’t happening or, if it was, that we shouldn’t do anything about it, the moderator, Jay Lehr, said, “And don’t think that if we win this argument there won’t be something else. Biodiversity, ocean acidification—there will always be something out there for the people who want to control your lives.”
After listening to hours of this kind of talk, I probably should have been inured. However, this statement struck me because the two examples Lehr chose as whiny, eco-nut bellyaching, are in fact major, daunting environmental catastrophes in the making.
Pumping out such incredible amounts of CO2 is also acidifying our oceans, which scientists fear will begin to irreparably damage calcifying organisms at the bottom of the food chain, potentially leading to widespread die-offs in aquatic life. Meanwhile, human activity is contributing to the sixth major extinction event in Earth’s history. Lest we scoff at the gravity of biodiversity loss, to put it simply: we all benefit enormously from all the free products and services Earth’s diverse ecosystems produce. The disappearance of a marginal bird or weed may seem irrelevant, but think of them as the bolts in the ship’s hull. When they all start popping off at once, the consequences become dire.
You don’t have to call yourself an “environmentalist” to see that any reading of the available facts indicates that not only are our environmental problems—especially climate change—growing more acute and their consequences more severe, but they are approaching a point when even with drastic changes in our behavior, they will have accelerated beyond our ability to control.
Organizations like Heartland may have rendered themselves irrelevant within the scientific community, but their narrative remains omnipresent. Even as record-breaking heat and wildfires terrorize the country for a second consecutive summer, the vocal minority telling us, “Don’t worry, do nothing,” still has a firm grip on national policy.
At the end of the conference, I sat down with Heartland’s senior fellow for environmental policy and Forbes columnist James M. Taylor. We talked about the controversial billboards.
“In frustration, we decided to dip our toe in that,” he said. “I don’t mind people expressing genuine disappointment… But the loudest voices of quote-unquote outrage are the folks who on a daily basis call global warming skeptics ‘Holocaust deniers’, call for their houses to burn down, call for putting people on trial for crimes against humanity.”
After a spirited conversation, I asked a question he probably gets a lot: What if you’re wrong? What if we are headed over a cliff?
“Even if I’m wrong, we’ll have time, we will see the temperatures rise,” he said. “We’ll have time to adjust.”
Though I found Taylor friendly and reasonable enough, this was probably the most dangerous of all the lies told at the Heartland conference. Because temperature rise lags behind the accumulation of greenhouse gasses, we’ve already locked in a significant amount of planetary warming even if we stopped the world’s emissions tomorrow. Yet we’re not stopping; we’re accelerating. Global carbon emissions hit a record-breaking 31.6 gigatonnes in 2011 according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. This puts the world on pace for a catastrophic 6 degree Celsius (11 F) rise in global temperatures by 2100.
While it’s unlikely those of us who live to watch this unfold will have much of a sense of humor about our burning planet, I hope someone, at some point, has the comic presence to say, “I told you we should have listened to that Ted Kaczynski.”