AP Calculus, 2007 High School senior year. AP Calc was the class that taught me that a career in high-level mathematics just wasn’t in the cards for me. As much as I loved all the previous math courses I took-from the eclectic nature of algebra and trigonometry to the real-world applications of geometry and statistics, the intricacies and complexities of calculus simply blew me away. Naturally, I had an immense amount of respect for not only my classmates who were able to effortlessly grasp it, but towards our teacher who mastered it enough to be able to teach it.
So imagine my shock when, in a pre-class discussion about the blockbuster climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, my teacher off-handedly remarked that climate change was simply a conspiracy peddled by Al Gore and the green energy industry to cash in on environmentalism. Never mind that a study of independent scientists established a 97% consensus that there are significant changes in the Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activity. Ignore the fact that we can observe the devastating results of these changes, from extreme weather patterns to drowning polar bears.
High School Atif was flabbergasted and horrified that a man of math-and surely by extension, science!- could deny what was an objectively measurable scientific reality. Yet even today, I have to remind myself that my calculus teacher is by no means an anomaly-at least in the US. Estimates of climate change skepticism to outright denial are staggering, and is predicated on both “gut feelings” as well as ignorance of facts. For instance, Only 12 percent of Americans knew that an overwhelming scientific consensus of over 90% even exists. Many of these views stem from a vast campaign by the fossil fuel industry, which has both funded studies and launched a decades-long PR campaign. Standing to lose an estimated 33 trillion dollars if they fail to switch their operations to environmentally sustainable alternatives, their desperation is understandable.
Yet the consequences of such views are devastating. Climate change denial is not just some innocent quirk. It is not just a difference of opinion or personal preference, akin to whether a particular candidate is “Presidential” or a politician seems “trustworthy.” Climate change denial has devastating consequences for millions of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. It’s a potential death sentence for up to 30 million Bangladeshis who may become climate refugees once anywhere from a quarter to a third of Bangladesh’s landmass is lost to rising sea levels. As a first generation Bangladeshi-American who has lived in Bangladesh, I have seen the impact of climate change on coastal and riverine communities throughout Bangladesh. This bleak reality exists not only for the people of Bangladeshi, but for millions in the Maldives (the entirety of which may disappear under rising sea levels!), Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and dozens of other climate hotspots around the world. A denial of the simple reality that human activity-and in particular, industrial waste products from North America, Europe, and China-directly threatens not only the livelihoods but the existence of millions of people. Such a willful denial is paramount to being an accessory to climate genocide.
In 2015, a remarkable story unfolded. A Pakistani farmer-turned-lawyer who still relied on agriculture for his livelihood sued the Pakistani government for their failure to implement the country’s national climate change measures. The court upheld his suit and issued two separate orders to the government to enact those measures, declaring:
“For Pakistan, climate change is no longer a distant threat – we are already feeling and experiencing its impacts across the country and the region. The country experienced devastating floods during the last three years. These changes come with far reaching consequences and real economic costs.”
When Trump declared that the US would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, he largely did so not only to appease the fossil fuel industry, but also to cater to a significant segment of the American public which support support climate change denial. Given how much we Americans tend to “look down” on the government and judicial systems of other countries (especially in the developing world), such a progressive, scientifically-based, and forward-thinking verdict is a stunning indictment on our own prejudices. I yearn for the day in which climate science no longer becomes a socially acceptable tool for political football, and instead takes its rightful place in the realm of science and objective fact.
On a broader and deeper level, I yearn for a day where we can have an uniformly educated and informed public. An education system capable of creating citizens who are capable of fact-checking and discerning fiction from objective reality. A population that is able to embrace science, evidence, critical reasoning, while rejecting superstition, rumor, and innuendo. Yet millions of people on the front lines of climate change cannot wait that long. They don’t have the luxury of waiting around for us to get our intellectual house in order. Hell-the people of Florida may not have that luxury within a few short decades.
Therefore I have a simple proposition: If in 2017 you still deny that climate change is an objective reality-if you truly believe it is no big deal-then prove it. Put your livelihood where your mouth is, and switch homes with someone from coastal or riverine communities at risk of increased sea levels.
So climate change “skeptics”, prove us wrong. The ball’s in your court.