Dear Dot: Are Humans the Cause of Climate Change?

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Dear Dot,

Do you believe that humanity is the cause of climate change, global warming?

–Gennaro Pupa, via email

The Short Answer: Yes

Dear Gennaro,

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I have no idea if this is an honest question or if you’re just trying to yank Dot’s chain. For the record, Gennaro, Dot is very much lacking in chains. And so I will take this question in good faith, in part because in some small corners of the real and virtual world, this remains a debate. Though you might be surprised to know how marginal that debate really is. Did you know, Gennaro, that there is (almost) universal consensus — more than 99% of scientists agree — that our climate is warming due to humans burning fossil fuels? And, indeed, the majority of us laypeople, by quite a margin, care about climate change and want to see political leaders take action. We can thank Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data for telling us that 86% of people around the world have “belief” in climate change. At the same time, however, we think that just 37% to 43% support climate action, despite the actual number being 66% to 80%. Why does this matter? Because if we think we’re alone in our belief and our desire for change, we’re more likely to be quiet about it, to not want to rock the boat. 

So let us consider both your question and the ways in which we can better learn to talk about this.

Dot began a response to this question last summer from a city that currently has a “Moderate” air quality risk, thanks to the wildfires that are burning in Canada — more wildfires than the country has ever experienced this early in the season, setting a new record for hectares burned. Wildfire ecologist Robert Gray told CBC Radio’s Front Burner that due to conditions created by climate change (on average: hotter temperatures, more lightning, nights that don’t cool enough for recovery, stronger winds),  “Fire season is going to get longer … We know what’s coming.” 

We must talk about this, Gennaro. And we must talk about it with each other in a way that allows for complexity. Because there are, indeed, things that alter our climate that are not human-caused; volcanic eruptions, fluctuations in solar radiation, tectonic shifts, and even small changes in our orbit have all had observable effects on planetary warming and cooling patterns, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council.

The thing is, Gennaro, those natural changes take place over millennia, even longer. But since the Industrial Revolution, when humans began releasing more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than ever before thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, the change we’re seeing has accelerated at a never-before-seen rate. And these greenhouse gasses have exacerbated the existing greenhouse effect, which traps heat and makes life on Earth liveable, rapidly turning that temperature up and producing headlines like “2023 was Warmest Year on Record, By Far.”

The problem is that fossil fuel companies have been muddying those warnings with misinformation. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” Upton Sinclair pointed out. And while fossil fuel executives did, in fact, understand — their own research told them decades ago that burning fossil fuels was changing our climate — they opted to sow doubt about the science. After all, their salaries depended on business as usual. 

This human-caused warming has wide-reaching implications, including making parts of the planet uninhabitable and threatening our ability to grow food. Put aside the jokes of how great it will be to wear shorts in January in Vermont and consider even the day-to-day changes we’re already seeing in our more privileged part of the planet: 

•poorer air quality leading to more respiratory issues and allergies

•environmental risks making consumer goods more expensive

sea level rise threatening supply chains and the livelihoods of all those that rely on our oceans for food and work

•insurance companies, a highly risk averse industry, refusing to insure homes in some parts of the world after massive claims due to climate change-related damage.

Unfortunately, Gennaro, the list goes on. But you get the idea. As storms intensify (thanks, in part, to warming oceans), as water sources dry up, as wildfire season grows longer and spreads further, none of us will be spared the impacts of climate change.

The strange thing is, most of us know this. According to Our World in Data, “People think climate change is a serious threat, and humans are the cause. Concern was high across countries: even in the country with the lowest agreement, 73% agreed.” Read that again. Close to three-quarters of people in even the most skeptical country see climate change as a serious threat and want action. 

So … why aren’t we seeing more action on climate? Back to those fossil fuel companies and their outsized influence on our politicians and therefore policy. And back to that Upton Sinclair quote. What these companies have done is give politicians cover for their refusal to address climate change, all in the name of making a buck (many bucks, actually). They have provided politicians with plausible denial.

And we will be paying a price for their greed for generations.

What can we do about it? I’m glad you asked, Gennaro. (You did ask, right?) 

We can start by talking with these literally millions of friends and neighbors who also “believe” in human-caused climate change and want to see action. We can demand that our political leaders address this threat. We can applaud the increasing climate litigation taking place around the world to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for the massive costs, financially and societally, of responding to and mitigating the effects of a warming planet. We can remind ourselves that change is scary and we’re in the midst of a seismic change in how we do things — what we eat, how we heat and cool our homes, how we move ourselves around. We can be patient with each other as we navigate this new warmer world we’ve created and we can encourage climate action both small and large. 

I salute you, Gennaro, for asking this question. I don’t know what prompted it, but it takes courage to seek clarification and risk feeling ignorant. 

I wish I had better news about climate change. It is existential and it is changing our planet in ways that the smartest scientists in the world are struggling to understand.

But I will share this good news: We know what we need to do — stop burning fossil fuels — and we have the alternative measures we need to slow down warming and avert the worst catastrophes. What’s more, these measures are being implemented at a pace never before seen. Entire countries, Gennaro, are powering themselves with renewable energy, at least for part of the year. Climate futurist Eric Holthaus asserts that “you are alive at just the right moment to change everything.” 

A bit terrifying, isn’t it, Gennaro? But also … breathtaking! Just think of the world we can create together, one built on justice and equity and renewable energy for all!

Radiantly,

Dot

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