In the Norse sagas, Erik the Red is portrayed as establishing the first European settlement on an island geographically associated with North America. He called it Greenland because “men would be more readily persuaded thither if the land had a good name.” Never mind that the island is covered by an ice sheet that represents about 12 percent of all glacial ice on the planet. If this ice were to melt—and, by the way, it is beginning to do just that—sea level would rise by twenty feet.*
Not unlike modern real estate developers, Erik understood the importance of attaching a brand to property development. If the name tended to mislead, well, I say, let the settler beware.
More than ten centuries after Erik lured Nordic settlers there, another real estate tycoon, who happens to be serving time as our president, has his eye on Greenland. In a career shrouded in secrecy, loads of debt, and a long list of disgruntled acquaintances, Trump’s overture to purchase Greenland may best illustrate his essential virtue; the high art of gambling with other people’s money.
It’s too bad that he doesn’t even understand who owns the massive depository of natural resources because Greenland may actually become ripe for exploitation. As misnamed as it was a thousand years ago, Greenland seems poised to cash in on the giant craps game of climate change.
Lost in the dire warnings of the potential catastrophic effects of warming, i.e., islands and other coastal areas subsumed by rising sea levels, previously arable land made inhospitable, and the hottest places testing the limits of human habitation, the reality is that there will be climate change winners and losers.
For those with the means to adapt or migrate, perhaps to the moderate climes of a future Greenland, climate change presents vast opportunities. All others, of course, are at the mercy of Mother Nature’s reaction to a rapidly changing planet.
The warning bell was rung long ago. Indeed, as early as 1896, scientists began to speculate about the relationship between carbon dioxide and the natural cycle of warming and cooling throughout earth’s history.
In 1938, Guy Callendar postulated that increased carbon dioxide levels pumped into the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution and beyond could warm the planet. If this was an alarm, no one seems to have heard it.
It was not until 1979 that the threat we face today was spelled out clearly in the Charney Report:
“Since carbon dioxide plays a significant role in the heat budget of the atmosphere, it is reasonable to suppose that continued increases would affect climate…. These concerns have prompted a number of investigations of the implications of increasing carbon dioxide. Their consensus has been that increasing carbon dioxide will lead to a warmer earth with a different distribution of climatic regimes.”
Still, no one seems to have been listening. This is the legacy of Climate Change Denial Syndrome: decades of casting doubt and ridicule upon the clanging bell.
Forty years later, the prescient predictions made within the Charney Report have borne themselves out in relation to increased carbon dioxide emissions, global temperature, and the role of oceans in the whole affair.
In the 1990s, in deference to the presence of many climate change skeptics in my school community, I presented anthropogenic global warming as a debatable topic.
Today, the scant uncertainty that existed a few decades ago has evaporated into the atmosphere of a warming planet.
In 2019, the climate change debate is over. Time, as it often does, has settled the matter for us. The overwhelming percentage of scientists (97%**), world leaders, and sane people have reached the same conclusion: the planet is warming, man has contributed to this, and we should be doing something about it.
Alas, our nation’s history offers little encouragement. Over 100 years ago, rapidly expanding American industry did little to promote the general welfare of the people.
Rather, a handful of wealthy capitalists engaged in unbridled winner-take-all cutthroat competition while despoiling the landscape and polluting the air and water. This neglect gave rise to new thinking about the role the federal government should play in regulating big business and protecting the environment.
By the early twentieth century, Teddy Roosevelt embodied the need for a new economic, political, and environmental reality. He recognized that there are situations in a changing world where the greater good of our community, our nation, and our world is achieved only through a centralized effort where the good of the many—including the future many—is the priority.
Modern environmentalism and the conservation movement took hold and, as a result of this reform-minded thinking, our clean air and water have become one of the greatest, albeit underappreciated, government success stories of our lives; made possible only by regulating industry and taking a long view toward the environment.
We now face a similar and long-neglected threat, one that demands an increasing degree of centralized management and more sweeping cooperation among those whose collective actions are reshaping the habitability of the planet.
Some may scream about this—even come up with “dirty words” like socialism to describe it—but they are almost always doing their screaming from a position of comfort.
The last twenty-five years have provided a great deal of evidence that we can move forward wisely, responsibly, and in a manner that, not only does not cripple the economy, as critics have suggested, but offers opportunities in the development of new forms of energy and in the promotion of a clean environment in which to work, innovate, and live.
It is unfortunate that those with the greatest means to adapt or migrate are the very ones who have the power to mitigate the climate catastrophes that await billions of others.
Let’s just hope they can be encouraged to do a bit more than plan their escape to Greenland.