Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

A New Metaphor

DISTURBED — Inside the Fire live.

DISTURBED — Inside the Fire live.

By George Harvey

Freedom of speech?

Imagine being in at a really great indoor rock concert. You got a really good seat, about five rows back from the stage and right in the center of the theater. Exiting will be a chore, because there are ten or fifteen seats between you and either aisle, but the seat is so good that you are willing to take a few minutes longer getting out.

The show starts. Things start heating up. The band’s signature fire display has tongues of fire leaping up from the stage. And then the curtains behind the band catch fire.

The next thing you know, the manager of the theater jumps up on the stage with an announcement. “Please don’t panic,” he says. “Everything is under control. The fire you see is all part of the show.”

People settle back into their seats, eyes wide at the realism of the act. The band plays on, acting a bit nervous. Within minutes, as the fire grows, firemen arrive, hauling in hoses. “Don’t worry,” the manager yells. “The firemen are all part of the act.”

A fire marshal comes up toward the stage. The manager sees him coming and says into a microphone, “And here is the fire marshal. He will ask you to leave. That is part of the act, as well.”

With the air becoming unbreathable, people start to head for the exits in a growing stampede. A kind-sounding announcement says, “There is no need to leave. You can get a refund for your tickets, of course, so do not be alarmed, but the show is still going on.”

But the show is not going on, because the band members are racing for the exits themselves. The firemen are wearing air packs so they can breathe, and in the heavy air, audience members are collapsing.

Not free to be false and dangerous

Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. We may say pretty much anything we wish. But there are limitations, and the best known of these, perhaps, is expressed in the metaphor of a person who is “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” The original of this metaphor arose with a legal opinion drafted by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in a case that focused on freedom of speech.

The story above may serve as a new metaphor we might think about. A group of people can be endangered by a false statement that nothing is wrong when, in fact, something is.

Rock concert fire show—Les Panchyshyn. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Rock concert fire show—Les Panchyshyn.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

We could argue that the theater manager was guilty of fraud. Fraud is covered by laws in the various states in the United States. It is covered both by civil law and criminal law. In the former case, it does not usually require clear and convincing evidence, but by the preponderance of evidence. Civil cases often result in financial awards to cover the losses of the victims.

On the other hand, if we could prove that the theater manager acted in a premeditated manner and someone died, he could be found guilty of homicide.

But even without proving that the manager knew something was wrong, we could prove he or she should have known and ignored the evidence, especially if warned by an expert, such as the fire marshal. Even without a death, the manager could be found guilty of reckless endangerment.

Climate denial as a violation of freedom of speech

There is a point at which climate deniers are exercising freedom of speech. And there is another point at which they are falsely endangering people. Under certain circumstances, whether a climate denier believed what he was saying becomes irrelevant, if it can be shown that he was acting in strong self-interest in the face of experts telling him he was wrong.

In this country, and elsewhere, we have industry leaders who may benefit financially from preventing action on climate change. We have political parties that they have supported. Politicians they support make pronouncements to move the public not to support moves that experts say are necessary. And the necessity can be a matter of life and death.

Indeed, this is not just about future projections. The environmental damage, the financial loss, and even the deaths, are already going on. We are seeing increases in all these things that are inexplicable, unless we account for climate change in the calculations.

It is not necessary to refer to sensational news stories, which abound but are anecdotal evidence. In Vermont, where I live, we have a series of diseases that have all been increasing greatly though they were absent in 1990. They include Lyme disease, babesiosis, West Nile virus, and eastern equine encephalitis. Hundreds of new cases of Lyme disease alone are being reported each year, but authorities estimate that only one case in ten is reported.

Arguably, these diseases are being impelled through the state by increasing temperatures. They, or their vectors, would be killed off by the coldest nights of the winter, but those coldest temperatures are, on average, about 10°F higher than they were 35 years ago.

Both animals and plants are also victims of the higher winter temperatures. Moose do not have any instinct to groom for ticks, because they have never lived in places warm enough for ticks to thrive. Now they are being bled to death. In some cases, moose have been found with as many as 70,000 ticks on them. One state scientist in New Hampshire told me that in recent years, 80% of moose calves born in that state and Maine were killed by ticks. But moose are just one indicator out of many. Species in all regions are affected.

With the higher winter temperatures, the growing season is also longer. This has been really good for those of us in Vermont who want to plant paw-paws or peaches. It has not been so good for those who produce maple syrup. And it has not been so good for people who run ski resorts. And it is not good for tourism based on fall colors.

I am talking about damage that has already happened, and which is continuing. Nearly all experts agree that changes threatening our native species, our finances, and our health are coming because of carbon emissions resulting from our use of fossil fuels.

Air pollution in general

Greenhouse gases are just one set of air pollutants. There are types of air pollution that have been around for years but are not typically part of the discussion on climate change. They have been a problem for a long time, and they have been recognized for a long time.

Recently, a study from MIT found that 200,000 premature deaths happen every year in the United States due to air pollution. This was covered by CleanTechnica in the article, “This Stealth Terrorist Killed ~53,000 Americans Last Year,” by Zachary Shahan, which referred in its title to those that were caused by emissions from the transportation sector. The figure of 200,000 means another American is killed every 2 minutes and 38 seconds, on average.

The total number of deaths from air pollution worldwide is estimated by the World Health Organization to be about 7,000,000. That is another human being killed about every 4.5 seconds. It is comparable to deaths rates associated with World War II. The overwhelming majority of these deaths would be prevented by using renewable power instead of fossil fuels and unventilated indoor burning.


There is something rather horrifying about the idea that innocent human beings have to be put at risk for business to function. Nevertheless, the conventional economic wisdom of the past is that bad air was the “smell of progress” and deaths of innocent people was an unfortunate result of actions that were needed to keep the rest of us all alive. As heartless as that seems, the idea appealed to reason in a way that appeared hard to refute. Without coal and oil, we would all be cold and hungry, and the numbers of innocent deaths would only be greater.

This idea has increasingly come under scrutiny. One recent report questioning it by Mark Z. Jacobson et. al. was published in Joule. This was covered in the CleanTechnica article, “100% Renewable Energy For 139 Nations Detailed In New Stanford Report,” by Steve Hanley, and by my article in Green Energy Times, “Roadmaps to Slow Climate Change and Eliminate Air Pollution”.

Jacobson argues that the economic benefits of switching from the status quo to a system without burning fossil fuels or biomass and without fossil fuels would greatly outweigh the costs. Approximately two permanent jobs would be created for every one lost. Furthermore, the cost of switching away from fossil fuels is only a quarter of the cost of continuing business as usual. If these are the case, then there simply is no argument in favor of continuing the use of fossil fuels. In fact, the economic argument is against them.

My Chemical Romance concert. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My Chemical Romance concert. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Homicide without justification

The devastation of Hurricane Harvey brought the third 500-year flood in three years to Harris County, Texas, within which Houston lies. This is just another in a long series of bits of anecdotal evidence that climate change is real and dangerous. One funny thing about anecdotal evidence, however, is that when there is enough of it, it passes from being merely anecdotal to being statistically significant.

The statistical evidence for climate change can be seen in the fact that over the past forty years, the cost of flood insurance has increased at a rate that is seven times as fast as the combined effects of inflation, increases in real estate values relative to inflation, and population increase.

The argument that this is because of developments in vulnerable areas flies in the face of both simple mathematics, which would require huge percentages of the buildings to be in vulnerable areas for such to be the case, and the effects of the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2004. We might also wonder why the supposedly conservative people who suggest this argument would provide reasons to increase regulation, which they philosophically oppose, unless they are grasping at straws.

Manslaughter, murder, or crimes against humanity?

What we have before us is a situation in which innocent lives are being lost without any justification. Not only that, there are those in the political arena and in the market place who are actively promoting measures that would prevent the lives from being saved. They are the men and women who jump up on the world stage and yell that nothing is wrong, despite the fact that the evidence of accepted science is overwhelming against them.

Indeed, there is a movement to hobble scientific research. That movement is apparently aimed at preventing not only scientists, but the public, from knowing what is going on, and how wrong it is.

The arguments denying climate change appear to go far beyond what is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It would appear to be quite literally a cover for homicide, committed by certain leaders of industry, in which elements of our leadership are accomplices.

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