Critical Thinking, Constructive Action, and the Climate Crisis

The Cooperative Society Newsletter
November 2018, Issue 12
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.

climate changeAs I thought about what to write in this November article, two topics came to mind: critical thinking and the climate crisis.

Choosing a topic
The focus on critical thinking results from my fear that the ability, or at least the tendency, to “objectively analyze and evaluate an issue in order to form a judgment”[1] is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in the divisive, politically charged discourse in the United States, and also in a number of other countries that are experiencing polarization and acrimony around issues such as abuse of power, immigration, gender, ethnicity, religion, race, climate change, and others.

My alarm about the climate crisis increased because of the report just released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), entitled “Global Warming of 1.5° Celsius”[2] [2.7°F]. The reference in the report title is to the goal of keeping the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature less than 1.5°C above what the temperature was at the beginning of the industrial era. The report presents a dire warning of damage that would be done to the world if we exceed that temperature level by 2040 – which we are on track to do.

Then it dawned on me that these two topics are inextricably linked if we are going to avoid a climate crisis in the next 20 years or so. That is, if we as a species don’t think critically and act constructively during this time, we will be acquiescing to a predictable and avoidable worldwide series of climate-related disasters that will last into the 22nd century and, possibly, beyond.

So, these two interlinked topics are the subject of this article.

Back to basics
When I was a freshman at Harvard in 1966, I took a course called “Expository Writing.” All freshmen were required to take this seminar, which was taught in small groups by graduate students and junior faculty. An expository essay explains or analyzes something based on factual analysis and/or logic. The course consisted of students preparing a dozen or so brief essays which were then critiqued by the instructor.

I don’t remember the topic of my first essay, but I do remember the result. The instructor’s criticisms were about as long as the paper itself, and I got a D for my efforts. Why? Because I had no idea of how to think critically. My approach to a short essay was to propound a series of opinions and assertions without backing them up with real facts or careful analysis.

In retrospect, Expository Writing was the most valuable course I took as an undergraduate. It taught me to reason, to do research, to analyze, and to present the results in a clear, succinct manner to the reader.

I refer to this personal experience in order to call attention to, what I consider to be, a crisis of ignorance today in the United States, as well as in many other countries. When we don’t think about the causes of, and realistic solutions to, the problems of our day, we leave ourselves open to all kinds of bad results: rule by demagogues, ethnic and racial hatred, cold and hot wars, needless suffering, and a failure to address – and even an exacerbation of – real problems such as global warming, and quality-of-life issues such as hundreds of millions of people lacking access to  an adequate diet and healthcare, and living in extreme poverty.

climate changeAn example of critical thinking
Let’s focus on the recent climate-change report to illustrate the importance of critical thinking and constructive action, both by our leaders and by the rest of us.

  1. Ascertain the facts.
    There is an overwhelming consensus by the scientific community around the world that the surface temperature of the planet has been warming since the beginning of the industrial era, and that the rate of warming has been increasing in the early 21st century. The warmest four years since the late 1800s, when scientists first reliably collected data on the earth’s surface temperature, were 2014-2017.

The links between human actions – especially the burning of fossil fuels – and climate change have been well researched by scientists for decades. The increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere not only have warmed the Earth’s surface to levels that have not been seen for over 100,000 years, but have also resulted in a range of other negative impacts, such as life-threatening heat waves, droughts, major rain events, flooding, more intense hurricanes, the extinction of animal and plant species, rising sea levels and temperatures, and many other problems.

  1. Determine what can be done to slow, and then reverse the rate of global warming.
    We know what we need to do. We are just not doing enough of it, nor as quickly as we need to. We need to wean ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal, and rapidly convert to sustainable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. We also need to sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases to reduce their release into the atmosphere. Managing our forests better, reducing deforestation, and increasing afforestation are the best natural means to sequester carbon.
  2. Implement a plan for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
    The Paris Agreement is intended to secure commitments from all of the countries in the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has been signed by 195 countries (although Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the agreement in 2020). Aside from the irresponsible actions of the US President and his administration, the biggest problem with planning under the Paris Agreement is that the projected, cumulative impact of national goals related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to keep the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature below 1.5°C by 2040. So, the plans are in place, but in their current form they won’t prevent the climate from reaching a negative tipping point in the next 20 years or so.
  3. Review and revise the plans and implementation practices periodically.
    The Paris Agreement includes periodic evaluations of its effectiveness, compliance by plan participants, improvements in remediation approaches, and movement toward the goal of no more than 1.5°C by 2040. The first major evaluation is scheduled for 2023, followed by a review and revision in 2028, and, theoretically, every five years thereafter. So, there are opportunities for countries to strengthen their plans during the next decade and beyond, but, according to the IPCC Report, major revisions need to start right away – not in 2023 – if the 2040 crisis is to be avoided.

Given the severity of the climate crisis, the five-year review process isn’t good enough. Instead, each country’s performance should be evaluated and updated every year.

Heading off a climate crisis before 2040 is achievable. We understand the causes and effects of global warming. We understand the basic changes that need to be made in our sources and uses of energy. We have developed many of the renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and carbon-sequestration technologies required to make the changes. We even have a worldwide plan to implement these changes. The major missing ingredient is the urgent commitment to action by national, regional, and local governments; by businesses; and by all of us as citizens and consumers.

My son, Luc, and I just published the second edition of The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History. Our 148-page full-color book is available for purchase through bookstores and Amazon, or download a free PDF of [Download not found]

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