Space & Innovation

Climate Change: Why Haven't We Done More?

The latest U.N. report shows climate change is here -- and its effects will grow. So why haven't we done more?

The science has been clear for at least 20 years and the call for immediate action is getting louder every day. So why has so little been done about climate change?

The lack of action becomes even starker as a new report out today by a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out that the longer we wait, the harder and costlier it will be to do anything effective -- and the worse things will get.

Is it procrastination, politics, ignorance or something else? And is there any hope that the tide will turn in time?

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One cause of the delayed response is that when scientists started talking about the mounting evidence of global warming in the 1980s, powerful interests vested in fossil fuels wasted no time in executing a very effective campaign to muddy the waters, says Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of several books, including the relevant "Merchants of Doubt."

"There's no question that the disinformation campaign has been effective," Oreskes told Discovery News. "On the federal and international level we've made no real progress."

The tactics used to cast doubt on climate science are the same as those used to stall science-based controls on tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole and DDT. For climate, the effect is 20 or more years of inaction and lost opportunities.

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Another, often overlooked, problem is that climate science hasn't been taught in schools until very recently.

"Most Americans have never learned the basics of climate change at school," said Mark McCaffery, who directs the climate change program at the National Center for Science Education. "People have had to put together their own information. At the same time, 1 in 4 people in this country are students."

Search-and-rescue crews work in and around flood waters caused by the Oso mudslide on March 29, 2014 in Oso, Wash. A new climate change report predicts flooding will become more common as the planet warms. | David Ryder/Getty Images

Scientists are also part of the problem. They have failed to make their case in a way that the public and politicians grasp, said Oreskes. Climate change is alarming; it's also a political and financial problem.

"The science community has a hard time communicating because it's not supposed to be emotional," said Oreskes. "How do convey a sense of alarm without being alarmist? Scientists are not good at that. People don't really understand why climate change matters."

Yet another obstacle is the fact that climate change is bad news that requires us to make unpopular changes in our lifestyles.

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"We're talking about the entire economy of the world," said Oreskes. "The vast majority of us have built an economy that is built on fossil fuels. Changing it is not going to be easy."

This is not the first time Americans have had to face changes that threaten the fundamentals of their economy. Historians looking at the current situation see some parallels with the antebellum South. In that case it was slavery that provided the labor for goods that benefited the entire United States. Unfortunately, in that case it took a horrific civil war to change the country's economy.

It's in nobody's interest to go that route again. "The Civil War is a deeply troubling analogy," Oreskes said.

There is hope, however, based on what's now happening in education, McCaffrey said.

"We've been making enormous headway in just the last few years," he said. "Many teachers are stepping up with their own largely ad hoc efforts, but more is needed to provide the 1 in 4 people in the U.S. now in school with the knowledge and know-how they need."

A new U.N. report confirms climate change's effects are foreboding. So why haven't we done more?

April 19, 2012 --

Forty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 16 captured this image of Earth rising above the lunar landscape. The Apollo missions enabled humanity to see for the first time our planet as it appears from space. As Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell once said: “When I was orbiting the moon and could put my thumb up to the window and completely cover the Earth, I felt a real sense of my own insignificance. Everything I'd ever known could be hidden behind my thumb.” As we approach Earth Day on April 22, we look at the efforts of people throughout the ages to explore, understand and portray our world and its place in the Universe.

Babylonia Believed to be the earliest known representation of Earth, this stone tablet from Babylon shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River." The world is dominated by the area surrounding Babylon itself, and the Euphrates River bisects most of the inner circle. Unearthed in southern Iraq in the late 1800s, the tablet is housed in the British Museum.

Celestial Spheres In his 2nd century treatise, the "Almagest," Claudius Ptolemy proposed an explanation for the apparent movement of stars and planets, in which Earth was central and immovable, and surrounded by, at progressively greater distances, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and a sphere of ‘fixed stars.’ This geocentric view of the cosmos did not meet its first real challenge until Copernicus proposed that the planets revolved around the Sun, and Galileo used his telescope to observe the phases of Venus.

Flat Earth The Greek philosopher Aristotle determined that Earth was spherical and not flat almost 2,500 years ago. The notion of a flat earth retained at least a few die-hard devotees for a surprisingly long time. For example, this 1893 map by Orlando Ferguson, recently acquired by the Library of Congress, cites “Scripture that condemns the globe theory” and promotes a book that “knocks the globe theory clean out.”

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Lenox Globe It is popularly believed that ancient cartographers filled in unknown and unexplored areas of the world with the phrase ‘Here be dragons’. In fact, only one known ancient map – the so-called Lenox Globe, which is believed to date to around 1510 - displays the phrase ‘HC SVNT DRACONES’, from the Latin “hic sunt dracones.” (The phrase is written near the equator on the eastern cost of Asia.) Some nineteenth-century writers, however, believed that it referred, not to dragons, but to the ‘Dagroians’, a people who “feasted upon the dead and picked their bones.”

PHOTOS: Sea Monsters Real & Imagined

Terra Australis Incognita In this copy of a 1602 map that was created on behalf of China’s Wanli emperor by Italian Matteo Ricci and collaborators, the familiar outlines of most of the world’s continents are coming into shape, although obviously many details remain unfinished. To the map’s makers, however, the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica are not even figments of the imagination, replaced instead by an enormous southern landmass. The notion of an unknown southern land – a terra australis incognita - was first mooted by Aristotle in 322 BCE; not until 1820 did Fabian von Bellingshausen become the first man to see the Antarctic continent.

South Pole For centuries, gaps in maps were filled by explorers who set out across land and sea, often at immense personal risk. The true nature of “Terra Australis” had long been established by the time Robert Falcon Scott and comrades stood at the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912; but existing knowledge could not diminish the terrible toll the conditions exacted on the men. “Great God!” wrote Scott in his journal, “this is an awful place.” All five members of Scott’s polar team died before they could reach their base camp.

PHOTOS: Forgotten Discoveries of Scott's Antarctica

Moscow at night Time and technology have enabled us to explore, not just across the surface of the globe or even beneath its waves, but from on high. Here, Moscow is seen at night from the International Space Station, flying at an altitude of approximately 240 miles on March 28, 2012. A solar array panel for the space station is on the left side of the frame. The Aurora Borealis, airglow and daybreak frame the horizon.

Pale Blue Dot In contrast to earlier suppositions about our place in the firmaments, we know now that our globe is not at the center of the cosmos, and that other celestial bodies are not attached to interlaced spheres that rotate around us. We are but one world among many, in one solar system among many, in one galaxy among many. In this image, taken by the Voyager I spacecraft from a distance of 4 billion miles, Earth is but a speck – a pale blue dot – in the cosmic night.

Blue Marble If satellite images of Earth now seem almost routine, they never lose their ability to enthrall. This picture of the western hemisphere was captured on January 25 by NASA’s latest Earth observation satellite, Suomi NPP. By February 1, it had registered over 3 million views on Flickr – testament to the beauty and fascination of our Blue Marble.

PHOTOS: Earth's Blue Marble Beauty