Mark Wilson: Global warming and the ‘PAIN’ theory
Forty-four years ago, geochemist Wallace Smith Broecker popularized a new term. At a time when Gerald Ford was in the White House and Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” was blasting from every car’s AM radio, Broecker was introducing the term “global warming” into mainstream speech.
But he was far from the first to broach the subject. In 1957, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and a teen-aged Paul McCartney was teaming up with a guy named John Lennon to play skiffle music with The Quarrymen, scientists Hans Suess and Roger Revelle suggested that continued emissions from burning fossil fuels could lead to a warmer planet.
Fast forward to 1984. Ronald Reagan was at the helm in the White House and Arnold Schwarzenegger was basking in the fresh box-office success of The Terminator. In Washington, D.C., Broecker was telling a House subcommittee that the then-current level of atmospheric greenhouse gases called for a “bold, new national effort aimed at understanding the operation of the realms of the atmosphere, oceans, ice, and terrestrial biosphere.” House members apparently listened intently, thanked the speaker, and went home.
In 1988, when Reagan was still president and a puzzling new invention called the World Wide Web was still a year shy of seeing the light of day, Dr. James Hansen confirmed Suess and Revelle’s prediction of 31 years earlier. Testifying to the U.S. Senate Energy committee, he said, “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” The committee apparently was unimpressed, or perhaps more likely, unconvinced. Summers were hot; winters were cold — sometimes more so than usual, but advances in air conditioning and heating made sure they were all comfortable until they had to walk between buildings for a meeting. What was the big deal?
In the subsequent decades, both George H. W. and George W. Bush took actions to directly undermine the more than 50 years of increasingly certain peer-reviewed scientific research on the subject. And Presidents Clinton and Obama, while making strides toward addressing the problem, ultimately just nibbled at its edges. By January 2017, our official governmental position had degraded to the point where global warming was not only unimportant, it was a “Chinese hoax.”
So faced with more than two generations of painstaking research pointing to a host of potentially catastrophic results, why does our government continue to do so little to address global warming? Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s theory is that human brains are moved to act only when something is Personal, Abrupt, Immoral, or Now — what he calls his “PAIN” theory.
Until recently, these boxes haven’t been checked for most of us, but that’s beginning to change.
It becomes personal when a record-strength hurricane blows your house and everything you’ve worked for away. It’s abrupt when you have one minute to evacuate your workplace while a raging fire speeds towards you, raining embers on your escape. It’s immoral when we think of leaving our children and grandchildren not the better world they deserve, but one that forces them to deal with hotter temperatures, extreme weather, and species extinction.
And it’s now, because we see it all the time. Odd temperature swings throughout the year. Flowers and trees blooming weeks before they used to. Extreme weather events that challenge weather forecasters to decide what superlative comes after Super, Mega, Extreme, and Colossal. Mass die-offs of ocean species. Melting permafrost and retreating glaciers. Week-long heat waves leaving hundreds dead. That nagging feeling that while we go about our daily business the natural world is poking us in the ribs like a little kid trying to get his mom’s attention, to tell her the barn is on fire.
In October 2018, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that we had 12 years to act to prevent the 3.6°F temperature rise that could fundamentally change how our planet functions. So news outlets reported that we have 12 years to address climate change. But we don’t have 12 years — we need to address it now. Today. Because the decisions we make today determine our future. Today’s new natural gas power plant or office building will last 50 years. A car, 15 years. All beyond 12 years.
We had decades to enact the relatively cheap fixes; now they’ll be more expensive. And the longer we wait, the more expensive they’ll be. So how long do we put them off before we ultimately acknowledge that change is inevitable?
How much PAIN will it take to convince us to act?
Mark Wilson lives in Nevada City.
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