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From the Solar Eclipse to Global Heating, Dr. Peter Kalmus on the Importance of Science

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Three of the most significant greenhouse gases contributing to global heating — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — reached new record highs again last year, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global CO2 levels are now over 50% higher than they were before mass industrialization, due to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and livestock agriculture. Meanwhile, climate scientists continue to raise alarm over the catastrophic impacts of rising temperatures in Antarctica after researchers in 2022 recorded the largest hike in temperature ever measured in the coldest region on Earth. “All of these records that are being broken should be absolutely no surprise to the public,” says NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, speaking with Democracy Now! in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the agency. “The cause is the fossil fuel industry. The only way out of this heat nightmare is to end the fossil fuel industry.” Kalmus also discusses Monday’s solar eclipse across much of North America, saying the celestial event should cause introspection about humanity’s place in the universe and lead to better stewardship of the planet. “We live on a very fragile and beautiful rock in space, the only place we know in the cosmos to support life,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, people will be donning their glasses today to watch the solar eclipse across parts of United States. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In a moment, we’re going to look at that. We’re also going to look at the climate crisis, as scientists warn three of the most significant human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — reached new record highs again last year. That’s according to U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, which said global carbon dioxide levels are now over 50% higher than they were before mass industrialization, due to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and livestock agriculture. New data has also confirmed that March was the hottest ever recorded and the 10th consecutive month to set a global heat record. Meanwhile, climate scientists continue to raise alarm about the catastrophic impacts of rising temperatures in Antarctica, after researchers in 2022 recorded the largest hike in temperature ever measured in the coldest region on Earth.

For more, we’re joined by Peter Kalmus, climate activist and a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, speaking on his own behalf, not on behalf of NASA. He’s joining us now from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Dr. Kalmus. Before we go to the climate catastrophe, I want to talk to you about today’s much-anticipated solar eclipse, millions of people across North America donning protective glasses this afternoon to witness the eclipse, when the moon covers all or a portion of the sun. Beginning in Mexico’s Pacific Coast, from there, the path will continue into Texas and across dozens of other states before the eclipse enters Canada in southern Ontario. And here in New York, six prisoners in Sullivan County at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility will be among those gathering outside to view the rare event, after winning a lawsuit that argued forcing them to remain indoors was a violation of their religious beliefs. The prison had issued a lockdown during the time of the eclipse, which will peak in New York at 3:25. It’s been what? Seven years since the last total solar eclipse? Can you explain it to us?

PETER KALMUS: Yeah. So, I did have the good fortune to see the eclipse in 2017 in Oregon, and it was quite stunning, actually, quite amazing, something to see. So, you know, I was trained as an astrophysicist. My training is in physics, and I was an astrophysicist before I was a climate scientist. And I’m going to take this back to kind of my understanding of global heating.

This planet — we live on a planet. It’s a sphere. It’s going around the sun. There’s a moon going around this planet. And every so often it’s going to go right in front of the sun, and we’re going to have a shadow on the Earth, and that’s all that’s happening. It’s exactly the same as any object blocking a light source and creating a shadow, except it reminds us that we are on a planet and we are in the vast, vast cosmic space, right? The distances between planets, between planets and the sun are so huge that it’s very infrequent that you get the moon lining up just so in front of the sun to create that shadow that completely blocks out the sun for a couple of minutes. We are on a very fragile place with a very fragile climate system, that is very much able to be pushed by humans burning fossil fuels, for example. And that’s what we’re starting to see as things get hotter and hotter. So, I think this is a good opportunity for people to reflect on the fact that we live on a very fragile and beautiful rock in space, the only place we know in the cosmos to support life.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is it important that we wear these glasses? As I put them on right now, and now people — there is a rush to get these — I can see nothing, just sitting here in the studio, through these kind of sunglasses. Explain what they do.

PETER KALMUS: Yeah, they basically block a lot of the light from the sun so that you don’t go blind and you don’t hurt your eyes. So, please don’t look directly at the sun.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about pets? What about animals? What happens to them?

PETER KALMUS: I mean, eyes work the same in humans as in animals. So, don’t — you know, I think most animals will have enough sense to not look directly at the sun.

AMY GOODMAN: Or to don these glasses. The New York Times had an interesting piece, “The Eclipse That Ended a War and Shook the Gods Forever: Thales, a Greek philosopher 2,600 years ago, is celebrated for predicting a famous solar eclipse and founding what came to be known as science.” Your final thoughts on this, Dr. Peter Kalmus?

PETER KALMUS: I’m not — you know, I really want to talk about global heating and the climate crisis. So, you know, I think science is — it seems strange to have to remind people this, but science is just an incredibly — it’s a treasure. It’s a human treasure. And we’re seeing so much anti-science right now, which breaks my heart. So many people are easily misled by disinformation from the fossil fuel industry, from politicians. It breaks my heart that somebody, for example, who spreads lies and who is anti-science could actually be elected into public office and continue the damage. As a society, we’re also very fragile. We live in a very fragile climate system, but we’re very easily misled by disinformation. And science is essentially antidote. Science is how we understand reality. And when we don’t pay attention to what’s really happening, for example, on planet Earth, it’s incredibly dangerous. And right now we’re in a situation, in my opinion, with global heating where billions of lives are at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about global heating. The solar eclipse apparently brought down empires because people were so frightened by it. We’ll see if climate activism takes on governments to change their positions. If you can talk about these firsts that we’re experiencing — the last one I talked about, in Antarctica; the hottest year on record, we just passed there? What does all of this mean, Peter?

PETER KALMUS: Right. So, the fossil fuel industry is still expanding. They’re controlled by very rich people who have all the power. The power structures in the society, as you well know, are geared towards the very rich. They control a lot of the media. They spread disinformation. The public right now, because the planet is getting so hot and as we’ve seen since March of 2023, as you mentioned, the last 10 months being the hottest on record, we are — it looks to me like we are entering a sort of potentially new regime, a potential acceleration in global heating. The climate scientist community does not have a very good understanding on why things are going so off the charts over the last year or so. It’s deeply disturbing to me. The fossil fuel industry is the cause, make no mistake. When that gets expanded, you release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more methane into the atmosphere, and that is going to make the planet get hotter.

In 2021, six fossil fuel executives went in front of Congress. They were asked directly, “Is climate change, is global heating an urgent crisis?” They said, “Yes.” They were asked directly, “Will you stop spreading disinformation?” They would not agree to doing that, which is tantamount to them saying that they will continue spreading disinformation. I cannot think of anything more evil than for people, for these executives and lobbyists and their lawyers, to be continuing to profit, to line their pockets, at the irreversible habitability — the destruction of habitability of the Earth. I should probably mention who those CEOs were in 2021 who went before Congress. They were Darren Woods, the CEO of Exxon; Michael Wirth, the CEO of Chevron; David Lawler, the CEO of BP; Gretchen Watkins, the president of Shell; Mike Sommers, the president of the American Petroleum Institute; and Suzanne Clark, the CEO of the Chamber of [Commerce].

So, when they are able to kind of block action by essentially bribing politicians, when they control the mainstream media — right? — when they buy advertisements in The New York Times and Reuters, so that these trusted news sources will not connect the dots — these news sources will report on a heat wave, they’ll report on a flood, they’ll report on a wildfire, which is climate-related, but they will not say that the cause is the fossil fuel industry, that the fossil fuel industry has been lying for decades, has essentially pledged to continue lying, that we’re on a trend getting warmer and warmer every single year, getting hotter and hotter, which is why all of these records that are being broken should be absolutely no surprise to the public, right? If you’re on an escalator towards hotter planetary temperatures, of course you’re going to be breaking records over and over again.

And again, I want to reiterate the cause is the fossil fuel industry. The only way out of this heat nightmare is to end of the fossil fuel industry. They will try to distract you as much as possible, talking about things like carbon capture, talking about things like nature-based solutions. It’s all distraction. We have to end the fossil fuel industry. Until we do that, the planet will keep getting hotter. We’ll see more deadly heat waves. We’ll see them coming more frequently and more intense. We’ll see more crop failures. We’ll see more flooding. Eventually we’ll see mass amounts of climate refugees, geopolitical destabilization like we’ve never experienced before. And the public is still essentially asleep, because the media is not — the mainstream media is not reporting this with the urgency that it demands, as an actual emergency.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was detained twice by police at a protest at The Hague in the Netherlands. Before she was arrested, she addressed journalists. This is what she said.

GRETA THUNBERG: We are here because we are facing an existential crisis. We are in a planetary emergency. And we are not going to stand by and let people lose their lives and livelihood and be forced to become climate refugees, when we can do something.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Greta Thunberg at The Hague. Peter, you also have been arrested protesting around climate change. And I wanted to end by asking you about this Yellen meeting, Janet Yellen meeting, in Beijing. It is said that one point of contention is China’s production of green technologies, like solar power, electric vehicles and lithium batteries, Yellen refusing to rule out tariffs on Chinese green exports despite Biden’s declaring climate change an existential threat to the world. If you can weigh in on this?

PETER KALMUS: You know, I remember a moment back when President Obama was elected to a second term, I wrote a letter to The New York Times saying this is a huge opportunity —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

PETER KALMUS: — for the United States to take leadership on climate change and all the economic benefits, the jobs that will come from that. And instead, President Obama expanded the fossil fuel industry. And after his presidency, he bragged about expanding it.

We should be looking for all sorts of ways to expand solar and wind and to end the fossil fuel industry. Those are two sides of the same coin. The harder side is actually ending fossil fuels. We should focus on that. But I don’t care where solar, where wind comes from, where any of these solutions come from. We need all hands on deck right now. We should —

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kalmus —

PETER KALMUS: A lot of — a lot more of us should be getting arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, climate activist, climate scientist. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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