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Alarm bells and climate change

Mark Hertsgaard of The Nation talks about climate change during an LSU appearance

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I've given lots of speeches in my career, but until I visited Louisiana State University last month I'd never been interrupted on stage by fire alarms — interrupted three separate times, in fact. Was that because I was talking about the threat of climate change on a campus where, to put it gently, there were plenty of people who didn't want to hear about it or, frankly, anything else that reflected poorly on the oil and gas industry? Or was it simply bad luck, the kind of technical glitch that can happen at the start of a new school year?

  In any case, I was prevented from completing my remarks to the roughly 500 students assembled to hear them. And although I knew it wasn't my fault, as I drove back to New Orleans the next day I felt I had let the students down, and I wanted to make amends.

  After all, there are few places on earth more threatened by climate change than Louisiana. Scientists say that climate change will trigger more storms and flooding — not a good thing for a state that is bisected by the continent's biggest river and faces a sea that already produces frequent hurricanes. Climate change will also cause sea levels to rise, meaning that the southern reaches of Louisiana could literally disappear beneath the waves and Baton Rouge become beachfront property.

  Louisiana is also, however, a place that has taken impressive steps against the climate threat in the eight years since Hurricane Katrina. The rebuilding and strengthening of levees and other defenses has made New Orleans and its surrounding areas much better protected than they were before the storm, though additional work certainly remains to be done. What's more, Louisiana has the potential to do much more going forward, to demonstrate that even an economy as dependent on oil and gas as this one can leave carbon-based fossil fuels behind, prospering instead through the development of solar and other renewable energy sources, including energy efficiency. Boosting energy efficiency means installing more efficient windows, lighting, motors and other forms of building renovation, creating large numbers of well-paying jobs that by their nature cannot be sent overseas.

  Of course, to some Louisianians even acknowledging the reality of man-made climate change is blasphemy. I was reminded of this by one LSU student's personal story. I had been invited to LSU because the Honors College had chosen my latest book, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, as the "common book" all first-year honors students were required to read before arriving on campus. HOT was my attempt, as a father and a journalist, to come to terms with the dangers climate change poses to my young daughter and to identify the changes needed for her and the rest of her generation — Generation Hot, I call them — to inherit a livable planet. But when the mother of this student heard that her daughter had been assigned a book about climate change, the mom's response was curt: "Don't drink the Kool-Aid."

  As the saying goes: There is none so blind as he who will not see.

  For everyone else, the evidence is, at this point, unequivocal. In climate science terms, "unequivocal" means 95 percent sure, the same level of confidence scientists have that cigarette smoking causes cancer. Indeed, unequivocal is the word that the world's foremost authority on climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recently chose to describe humans' responsibility for climate change. In a landmark report released Sept. 27, the IPCC also reiterated that the primary source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are overheating the planet and unleashing more extreme weather such as the record heat wave and drought of 2012 is — well, you know what it is: the burning of oil, gas and other carbon-based fossil fuels.

  Which is why, to be honest, I wondered if there had been some mistake when the good people at the Honors College first contacted me about coming to LSU. After all, LSU is an institution that, like the state it represents, has been soaked in oil and gas money for decades. Would an LSU audience really want to hear from an author who laid much of the blame for the climate crisis at the feet of the fossil fuel companies, who had revealed (in Vanity Fair, shortly after Katrina) how those companies had deliberately confused the American public and media about climate change by funding the very same scientist, Dr. Frederick Seitz, who had taken $45 million in tobacco industry funding in the 1970s and 1980s for medical research that blamed cancer on everything but cigarette smoking?

  So when the fire alarms began interrupting my speech, I wasn't sure what to think. The first alarm went off before I even got inside the Student Union lecture hall. I joked that perhaps a climate change denier had pulled the stunt to keep me from speaking, but I was only joking. After a few minutes, the building was cleared for entry, we all filed in, the provost and the dean made opening remarks and I took my place behind the podium.

  I had been speaking seven or eight minutes when the fire alarm began blaring a second time. The electricity went dead, rendering my microphone mute. A metallic voice filled the room, instructing us to leave the building at once.

This time I genuinely wondered if some trickery was afoot. I had begun my talk by thanking my hosts for the honor of choosing my book as their common text. I said I especially appreciated that the Honors College had welcomed an author whose writings about climate change challenged what many Louisianians believed. I emphasized, however, that I had come in a spirit of friendship, for I had developed a great affection for Louisiana in the course of many visits while reporting on the aftermath of Katrina, the levee failures and the BP oil disaster. I stressed that I very much wanted the state to succeed, for its sake and America's.

  But succeeding in life, I continued, requires facing facts, even if the facts are unwelcome. And the fact is, there is no solid scientific basis for denying man-made climate change. All of the world's leading scientific bodies, including our own country's supreme arbiter of such matters, the National Academy of Sciences, have repeatedly affirmed that climate change is real, man-made and threatens terrible consequences. This view is shared, I added, by 97 percent of the scientific researchers who have published peer-reviewed papers on the issue. Then I paraphrased the former California governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger: "If 97 doctors out of 100 say your child has a serious illness, you don't listen to the three who say he doesn't."

  Was it the Schwarzenegger line that somehow triggered the second fire alarm? I don't know. All I can say is that no sooner had I mentioned the movie star that fellow Republicans love to hate than the fire alarm went off that second time.

  Once again we exited the hall. The faculty members who had organized my visit apologized profusely. As we all milled about in the moist September darkness, I was approached by an animated young man wearing a baseball cap who announced that I was wrong about 97 percent of scientists believing in climate change. Whipping out a smart phone, he showed me his proof: a right-wing website that claimed that the true number was 42 percent.

  This occasioned a conversation about the difference between secondary sources and primary sources. Rigorous scholarship gives priority to primary sources, such as the peer-reviewed article in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science that furnished the 97 percent figure I had cited; it gives less weight to secondary sources, and almost none to secondary sources with an ideological axe to grind, such as the student's favored website. And critical thinking — the teaching of which, I'd been told, was the main goal of the Honors College at LSU — shuns the cherry-picking of evidence that merely confirms one's pre-existing opinions. Rather, it applies open-minded skepticism to all sides of an issue. Weighing all the evidence, it applies reason and judgment and then — the hardest part — embraces whatever conclusions result.

  Apparently unmoved, the student went on to voice what has become a favorite trope of the climate denier crowd: that a supposed leveling off of global temperature rise since 1998 proves that global warming is not happening. (The IPCC made a point of demolishing this canard in its recent report, noting that much of the recent temperature rise has been registered in the Earth's oceans rather than on its surface, and that the overall trend is undiminished.)

  Before I could explain this to the doubting student, the dean called everyone back into the re-opened auditorium. At the podium, I told the students I knew it might be hard for some of them to accept that climate change is real. Perhaps your father or mother works in the oil or gas industry, I said. Perhaps you've been contemplating such a career for yourself. But I beg you: please use the critical thinking you'll be taught here in the Honors College to consider your options carefully, for it's no exaggeration to say that your very life may depend upon understanding what climate change means for Louisiana.

  I was about to add that the pell-mell development of oil and gas, along with the auto-centric society of highways, suburbs and three car families it's made possible, is killing the planet — the planet where those students, my 8-year-old daughter and the rest of Generation Hot have to spend the rest of their lives.

  It doesn't have to be this way, I wanted to say. Other choices are possible, and your generation can help make it happen. Wind and solar power are now the fastest growing electricity sources on earth. "Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything," Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's electricity market, said in August. "It's going to be the dominant player. Everybody's roof is out there." The crazy treehuggers at investment banking giants Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Deutsche Bank are projecting the same globally, where the costs of solar are falling so fast that it is projected to surpass fossil fuels even in coal-rich China by 2030. "There is nothing like these rates of adopting a new technology," says Danny Kennedy, a former Greenpeace activist who now helps run a solar company called Sungevity. "They're faster than the adoption rates for cellphones."

I wanted to say all this and more at LSU. Before I could, the fire alarm sounded for a third time. Again the electricity went out and my microphone went dead. Again the disembodied voice ordered us to the exits as my hosts, thoroughly embarrassed now, apologized over and over again.

  So I wasn't able to finish my speech, until now.

  I should only add that most of the LSU students I met did not shrink from the truth about global warming; they understood that it's a serious problem that demands action. Which in turn suggests two final thoughts: first, Louisiana may not be so different from the rest of the country after all, and second, it's time to quit wasting breath debating climate deniers who will never let the facts get in the way of the story they want to believe.

  "At this point, 70 to 75 percent of Americans understand that global warming is very real, and [we] need to do something about it," Bill McKibben, the writer and activist whose 350.org group has helped mobilize a growing grassroots movement against climate change, said recently. "The trick at this point is not to convert the other 25 percent. The fight is to get those who do know what's going on [to become] as active and engaged as possible."

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of six books that have been translated into 16 languages, including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. He is the environment correspondent for The Nation and a Fellow of the New American Foundation in Washington.

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