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Editorial: The Cassandra curse continues

Remember Cassandra, from ancient Greek mythology? The story is that the god Apollo fell in love with Cassandra, but she did not return his passion.  Attempting to win her love, Apollo gifted her with true knowledge  of the future, with truth-telling – but despite that amazing gift, she still didn’t return his love.  Angry and bitter, Apollo was unable to revoke the divine gift of prophesy, so instead he added a curse which would render his gift worse than useless. 

The curse was that no one would believe the truths Cassandra spoke -- her warnings about the future.

Now, anyone predicting unpleasant events may be called a “Cassandra.”  Modern scientists can relate.  They know the feeling expressed in this line of the poem “Cassandra” by Robinson Jeffers:

              Truly men hate the truth,  they’d liefer meet a tiger on the road.

Locally, maybe an angry grizzly bear in the woods.  Many people don’t seem to believe that the truth will set us free – perhaps they fear it would bind us;  they choose to believe falsehoods instead.

Why do people doubt science?

The role of science is explained by one scientist in an article in The Guardian; Ian Boyd, a professor of biology at the University of St. Andrews  in Scotland, said,

“Scientific research is built on the idea of learning from mistakes in order to come closer to the truth. It involves a combination of ambitious conjectures, blunt criticism and humble admissions of error.  Misunderstandings arise when the scientific method meets social and political intolerances; uncertainty and doubt can be interpreted as a sign of weakness or vacillation.”

Scientists are accustomed to couching their findings in cautious words that allow for future experiments and discoveries to modify their conclusions – they very seldom state findings in terms of absolute, conclusive, unalterable, inarguable, detailed fact.  Unfortunately, that leaves much room for the uneducated to loudly accuse them of falsehood,  secrecy, ulterior motives or hidden agendas.

Professor Boyd goes on to clarify,  “Those who have looked to science for answers may be confused; rather than asserting facts, science is about understanding and narrowing down uncertainty.”

Things change

Our evolving understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic is a very recent example. Advice on wearing masks has changed over the course of the pandemic as new evidence has come to light, and some have seized on those changes as reason to distrust the more up-to-date advice.

The history of scientific understanding of climate change is another, but it has been evolving for a much, much longer time.  In the early 1800s – around 1820 – a French mathematician and physicist, Joseph  Fourier, postulated that some of the sun’s energy must remain within the earth’s atmosphere, keeping the earth warmer than it would be if all that energy radiated back out to space and left our whole planet frozen. He thought the atmosphere acted a bit like a blanket, keeping some of the heat in. 

In the mid-1800s, Eunice Foote, an American scientist, was the first one known to have experimented on the effect of sunlight on various gases, and their relative effects on warming; as a result of her tests, she thought that increasing the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would bring about a warming effect.

About three years after Foote’s paper on this topic was read out at the 1856 American Association for the Advancement of Science, Irish physicist John Tyndall tested a series of gases – including nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane,  and water vapour – for their heat-absorption and retention capacity, and showed (among other things) that carbon dioxide could absorb different wavelengths of sunlight.

Then a Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, wondered about the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and whether decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide would cool the earth, and subsequently, whether increasing it would warm the earth.  He did experiments in the 1890s which led him to estimate that doubling CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to a temperature increase of about 5 degrees Celsius.  Over a century and a quarter later, we can see that his calculations were not far off.

We’ve known for decades – it’s not new

I mention these early explorers to demonstrate that the science of climate change is nothing new.  The basic science was first demonstrated over one hundred and fifty years ago. It has been confirmed and extended by many scientists since. For a brief history of climate change and some of those who have predicted it and the danger it poses for human civilization and much of life on earth, read this brief history.   

One example: measurements taken for 47 years by American scientist Charles Keeling  at a weather station on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, starting in 1958,  strongly suggested that carbon dioxide from human use of fossil fuels is causing climate change. 

In 1965, the US President’s Science Advisory Committee released a report titled “Restoring the Quality of our Environment” which addressed various forms of pollution, and included a section on the effects of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  It warned of effects including sea level rise, melting ice caps, acidification of water sources, and more.

Frank Ikard, President of the American Petroleum Institute at the time, responded to the report in his 1965  address to the Institute.  He stated, “this report unquestionably will fan emotions, raise fears, and bring demands for action.” 

He also noted, “The substance of this report is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out.”    [Emphasis added.]

He went on to explain, “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.”  Prescient comments, indeed.

And then – industry cover-ups and a denial machine

But did the API member corporations immediately set to work to reduce the danger of the “catastrophic consequences” Ikard mentioned back in 1965?  It seems not.

A 2015 article in Scientific American magazine revealed the cover-up and denial work done by one member of the petroleum industry: the headline reads “Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago” and the subtitle carries on, “A new investigation shows the oil company understood the science before it became a public issue and spend millions to promote misinformation.”  Of course it understood the science.  The science was well-established by then.

Now there are many foundations, institutes, associations, and “centres for public policy” largely funded by the fossil fuel industry, still dedicated to convincing the voting public that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or beneficial.  How many?  Well over 200.  Many of them have names that include words like “freedom,” “prosperity,” and “science.”  Here are just a few:  Alberta Prosperity Fund, Heartland Institute, Friends of Science, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change, the Fraser Institute . . . and so many more, all beavering away.

The despair of Cassandra’s curse

Many climate scientists are now facing personal and professional despair  as their truths are ignored or denied, and climate change has become catastrophic already for many places – and roars on with no serious attempts to curb it.  The above-mentioned “catastrophic consequences”  are beginning to seem inevitable as governments declare a “climate crisis” but still forge blindly ahead on the many well-paved roads to more pollution, more habitat destruction, more extinctions and more extreme climate change.

Warnings from scientists continue. But so do potential plans to avoid catastrophe.  Recently, the  International  Energy Agency released a “Sustainable Recovery Plan” –  “not intended to tell governments what they must do. It seeks to show them what they can do,”  said Dr. Fatih  Birol, the IEA Executive Director.

“Governments have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot their economies and bring a wave of new employment opportunities while accelerating the shift to a more resilient and cleaner energy future. Policy makers are having to make hugely consequential decisions in a very short space of time as they draw up stimulus packages. Our Sustainable Recovery Plan provides them with rigorous analysis and clear advice on how to tackle today’s major economic, energy and climate challenges at the same time.”

Feeble targets

We should bear in mind that most current climate targets are inadequate, according to the IPCC.  A 2018 article in Business Insider explained,

            The goal of the global Paris climate agreement, which was signed in 2015, was to keep the world's temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times. To do that, nations agreed to cut their emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

“But the agreement's more ambitious goal was to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees C. That's because even 1.5 degrees of warming will cause catastrophic effects, including more intense storms, searing heat waves, mass extinctions, and droughts. If we hit 2 degrees of warming, the effects will be even worse.”  [Emphasis added.]

Not only that, but Canada has failed to meet any of its climate targets at all, so far. We just blunder along, business as usual.

Climate scientists are truly suffering the curse of Cassandra: they speak truth, and too few believe them.  No leader in power in North America, at least, believes them enough to act effectively.

 

Now, in case you were interested, here’s the complete poem “Cassandra”  (1944) by Robinson Jeffers:

The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall,
The storm-wrack hair and screeching mouth: does it matter, Cassandra,
Whether the people believe
Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they'd liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion-
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kind
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.
No: you'll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And gods disgusting—you and I, Cassandra.