On close inspection, the political and economic dynamics involving man-made global warming over the past 40 years resemble those of slavery in the United States from about 1790 until the Civil War.
In both the case of slavery and man-made global warming, an overwhelming moral imperative begs us to act as individuals and as a community, but action is forestalled to accommodate the economic interests of a handful of wealthy individuals.
Pretty much everyone except for the hard-core defenders of slavery knew that it was morally wrong by the end of the 18th century. Yet many people like Thomas Jefferson pretended (or stupidly believed) that the main impediment to ending the institution of slavery was the fact that the Black slaves were inferior beings who couldn’t cope with the demands of contemporary society. This belief, often based on a false science called “scientific racism,” persisted despite the preponderance of real-world evidence to the contrary. The lies and distortions used to justify slavery concealed the real reason the institution persisted: slavery was in the economic best interests of a handful of ultra-wealthy and politically connected Southern growers and Northern merchants. Even as more people began to oppose the horrors of slavery and Northern business interests developed alternative economic structures, slavery continued to spread West from the southeastern Atlantic coast towards Texas.
It took the savage butchery of the Civil War to end slavery in the Unites States. In the war to fight secession and end slavery more than 600,000 soldiers died, countless others suffered injuries and the slave-owning states that seceded from the Union saw their economies decimated. Before the war, millions of slaves died from overwork and murder or suffered beatings, whippings, rapes and other violence from their owners and a society that conflated their humanity with private property.
We can see the same dynamics that led to the Civil War working in the case of man-made global warming. It’s as morally wrong to avoid addressing a problem that could lead to the deaths and suffering of hundreds of millions of people in the near future as it was to enslave millions of human beings. BTW, some experts have shown that the adverse effects of environmental degradation hit the poor and people of color around the world much worse than they hit the wealthy.
Global warming deniers tell two kinds of lies to conceal that their main concern is their own selfish short-term interests. The first lie is to deny that the Earth is warming or aver that the warming is part of the natural unfolding of Earth’s history and not because of humans. Another variation of this scientific lie is to postulate that the impact of global warming will not be catastrophic. Just as the super-wealthy whose riches depended on slavery found so-called experts to tell the various lies that justified slavery, so have the ultra-wealthy whose riches depend on polluting our environment. A handful of scientists—less than 1% of those qualified to proffer an opinion—have received undue attention in the mass media for their misrepresentations of the science of climatology; we know that some scientists who deny global warming, like the disgraced and disgraceful Wei-Hock Soon, have been in the pay of groups that deny global warming.
The other big global warming lie is that an expeditious transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources will destroy our economy. Economic studies demonstrate that the impact of increasing pollution limits on fossil fuels and depending on wind, hydraulic and solar energy will be quite minor. Some people will lose their jobs and find others, but that happens in any dynamic economy that routinely introduces new technologies. New pollution controls, research and development into alternative energies, retrofitting manufacturing systems and delivering the new forms of energy to consumers and business will all create new jobs and economic wealth. The big change will be that those who own the means of producing and delivering fossil fuels and fossil-fuel based electricity and those whose industrial processes depend on fossil fuels will see the basis of their incredible wealth upended—which is what happened to slave owners.
Just as slavery continued for decades in the face of growing opposition, even as more people come to realize that continuing to rely on fossil fuels is immoral and short-sighted, the pollution not only continues, but grows.
There is one difference between the dynamics involving slavery. The death and destruction wrought by slavery was apparent to anyone who cared to read the works of abolitionists or to visit a large plantation. The harm caused by man-made global warming and other environmental degradations is harder to picture. We look at the ocean from a beautiful beach and do not see the increased carbon dioxide in the water that’s slowly killing important ecosystems. It’s hard for most people to connect the dramatic increase in extreme weather events with the increase in both average temperatures and ambient carbon dioxide. Moreover, the conflagration—which may involve environmental disasters, weather calamities and wars for resources—is still in the future.
Slavery was a horrible institution. Millions of slaves lived their lives under the yoke of violence, their freedom and dignity denied. I believe that every American should spend at least one minute every day thinking about our nation’s collective guilt in enslaving and mistreating millions of our fellow human beings.
But make no mistake about it. If we don’t act both quickly and radically to address man-made global warming, the death and destruction from it will end up being much greater than what Africans and African-Americans suffered under slavery.