American Climate Tragedy

Diagram Description automatically generated with medium confidence

NASA / JPL-Caltech, 2022.

Prologue

California must move very fast to stop burning fossil fuels in order to limit the harm and damage from climate change. America and the world have to do the same thing – put fossil fuels out of business as fast as possible.

We love our homes

Thinking about climate chaos is disturbing. It causes a storm of emotions to me, sometimes nightmares. My ideas of virtue go away. Plato and Aristotle as well as Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo and Newton spoke of a perfect Cosmos, immortal, created by no one. That included the Earth. Perfection and order, Cosmos, was its nature. But now, in 2023, doubts cloud that perfection.

I am speaking from California, my home for 14 years. I have taught at Humboldt State University, California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, and Pitzer College – all in California. I bike, take the bus and train. I walk every day in Claremont, my small hometown. I wrote my latest 2 books, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, and The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise, in California. I have even written another 2 books, which I hope will see the light of the day soon.

What I am trying to say is that California has become my new home. I love it no less than I love Virginia where I lived for 33 years or Greece that brought me to life. These homes are threatened by anthropogenic climate chaos. Changing the climate of the planet should have been beyond the power of puny human, one of millions of species living on this giant star, our Mother Earth.

Knowledge without virtue

Puny humans remained insignificant for millennia. They fought each other with sticks and stones for millennia. They fought each other with metal spears and swords for centuries. Eventually, in Modern times, they started killing each other with lethal guns, canons, armed airplanes, and, in the 1940s, atomic bombs. So, puny man, always a craftsman, after the Renaissance of the fifteenth century, misused Greek science (mathematics, mathematical physics, mathematical astronomy, biology, and engineering) to conquer other men and the natural world. The discovery of fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, and coal) sparked the so-called Industrial Revolution that remade the planet with skyscraper cities, inhabited by millions of humans employing millions of petroleum-burning cars, trucks, airplanes, ships, and countless other petroleum-powered machines.

Pollution was one major product of this human explosion in machines, and in perpetually growing populations covering most of the land of the Earth. Pollution from industries, militaries, navies, and human and animal farm wastes are toxic to humans and animals and plants and water and air. Species on land and the seas and oceans are under tremendous stress for food and space. Many are disappearing.

The other product of the human grasp of the fire of knowledge was the changing of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. For millennia, this greenhouse gas was around 300 parts per million. In 2022, CO2 was 420 parts per million. CO2 originates in the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, wildfires, and the eruption of volcanoes. Along with other greenhouse gases, CO2 is warming the planet, definitely darkening the future for all life on Earth.

Warnings

For decades, climatologists have been issuing warnings about this unsustainable, nay dangerous reality of changing climate. Not only that, but the United Nations has been sponsoring annual climate summits that trumpet these dangers to human wellbeing and the health of the natural world.

So, why the climate apathy of world leaders? They know the facts. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, makes certain of that. He has told them repeatedly their countries and the entire planet are in dire trouble. He describes climate change as climate emergency, warning them and fossil fuel company executives they are speeding on highways of destruction. On November 7, 2022, he addressed prime ministers, presidents and kings in the Climate Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. He said:

“We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Monotheism, guns, and billionaires

So, again, why so little is being done? Religions, guns, and billionaires hold the keys.

Monotheistic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, wiped out polytheism that taught humans to respect and venerate the Cosmos and the Earth. The Greeks, for example, had several gods that were forces in the natural world and models of farming and rural life (Demeter, Dionysos, Aristaios, Pan), beauty (Aphrodite), music and prophesy (Apollo, Hermes), justice and rain (Zeus), intelligence and technology(Metis, Athena, and Hephaistos). The Greeks did not believe in those gods. Eusebeia, piety, explains their relations to their anthropomorphic gods. They were pious towards them. They thought of the Earth, for example, as a goddess. Plato said the Earth was the oldest of the gods (Timaeus 40c).

Christianity and Islam, in contrast, teach humans to master nature. The result of such Biblical indoctrination in America was the genocide of the indigenous people and widespread ecocide in nature. Hollywood captured this religious and racist policy with its endless movies on cowboys and Indians.

The continuing gun mayhem in America is a consequence of this cowboy mentality of shooting first and asking questions later. Yet no politician dares challenge this silent war, the murder of children by adults and younger killers. The almost daily / weekly fatal shootings have not prompted the passage of laws to outlaw guns and disarm Americans. With this mindset, climate change all but disappears from those carrying guns. They are probably deluded in thinking that guns can fight storms and heat waves.

The gun plague is also inflicting California, though not to the degree of other states like Texas or Florida. California has suffered tremendous damage from forest fires, storms, hurricanes. The governor of the state, Gavin Newsom, is smart enough to tell the people of California that we must fight climate change with a fast transition to clean energy like solar panels. California had incentives for putting solar panels on roofs of homes and buildings. I benefitted from that incentive in 2009 when I put solar panels on the roof of my house in Claremont. However, these incentives are almost ending on April 14th in order to please the billionaires behind the monopoly utilities of electricity. The same thing is happening to the federal government. President Joe Biden ordered the Department of Interior to license a petroleum billionaire to excavate Alaska’s Arctic for oil. Environmental organizations protested this obscene decision, but the harm to indigenous Americans and massive ecocide is being done. Unless a different President terminates this petroleum crime, it is designed to last for 30 years. Why should the animals and indigenous people of the Arctic suffer and possibly perish because a billionaire wants to maintain his feudal domain? Is this something you expect from a country selling democracy abroad but obeys the edicts of billionaires at home?

A friend asked me: “What will it take Evaggelos? What more irreversible destruction will it take before self-interest of a few will be reined in?” The answer is neither simple nor easy. We should know we cannot have democracy and billionaires together. It’s either billionaires (oligarchy / tyranny) or democracy. We cannot claim we have democracy while most of the wealth of the country is in the hands of the very few we call billionaires. They should be taxed out of their oligarchic status and, in most cases, ill-gotten wealth. Use their money to create small businesses, small organic family farmers, and fund the development of ecological technologies for fighting the giant in the room.

Without this political reform, climate chaos will wreck America and the world. On March 25, 2023, a tornado hit a small Mississippi town with enormous force: “An ominous wedge appeared in the night sky over one of the poorest regions of the American South late Friday,” reported the New York Times. “When it touched down, it nearly obliterated the small Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork in one of numerous scenes of destruction and heartbreak across swaths of Mississippi and Alabama. At least 26 people were killed, dozens more were injured, and homes and businesses were smashed to pieces.”

Should we keep bemoaning for each climate blow or act to diminish this onslaught? Or, perhaps, wait until rising waters cover Florida before we become serious about fossil fuels? I don’t think so. Remove billionaires from their secret monarchical power perches. This will open the door to see the coming climate storm for what it is, destructive and unsettling both society and civilization. I realize how problematic this proposal is at a time when the country is in the midst of a political war over the crimes of former President DonaldTrump and democracy. The Republicans are using lies, and religious superstition in their defense of Trump and their billionaire funders. The Democrats are reluctant, perhaps afraid to punish political corruption that, for instance, led to the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Donald Trump is still a free man.

Another cause of continuing business as usual, that is doing little if anything against fossil fuels and their owners, is the prevailing ignorance about the climate enemy.

My efforts at Claremont tell a story of some significance. I spoke in person and wrote a letter to the City Council in which I urged the mayor and his colleagues to put solar panels over buildings and parking lots belonging to the city. Furthermore, I urged them to talk to the presidents of the five colleges and one university in Claremont, bringing them together with the city. These schools have acres of roof space and parking lots for solar panels. My modest suggestions went nowhere.

You would think scientists and informed citizens would be out in the streets trying to convince their local, state, and federal governments to defend America against its real enemy, a warmer climate brought to us by fossil fuel companies and the industries hooked on petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, professors, scientists, teachers, and schools are in deep sleep. They like what they do and what they have. They refuse to challenge their business managers.

Epilogue

Change is unsettling. People learn to live under monarchies, tyrannies, and democracies, even corrupt democracies. The moment one suggests political change, he / she becomes “not a team player.” Some senior US EPA officials branded me “not a team player.”

All this is another way of saying that, like it or not, climate change / chaos is embracing us. Fossil fuel billionaires, and their supporters, will resist alternatives. Only a more democratic America without billionaires will fight climate change as if its life was dependent on the fight, which it is. I hope this transition to real democracy is fast. We don’t have much time.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.