In the mid-1800s, people, organizations and companies were in the midst of a major shift in how they met their everyday energy requirements. Wood was being phased out. Coal was in. Shortly natural gas and oil, in addition to coal, would provide energy on a scale that had never been seen before.
Fossil fuels became the drivers of the industrial society. The expansion of the United States and progress around the world over the next 150 years would have only been a dream without cheap, readily available fossil fuel energy.
The energy revolution not only fueled the growth of industry and the life style we currently enjoy, it also created some of the largest personal fortunes ever amassed. Many of the dominant companies in existence today and some of the wealthiest individuals on the planet were able to harness energy supplies for their personal gain.
However, an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the massive increase in burning fossil fuels is climate change. It took us a long time to recognize this phenomenon.
It was well into the 1950s before there was any real concern expressed about climate change. Even the few voices speaking out at that time were rarely heard and were seldom given an audience in the public domain.
The momentum of good things happening due to cheap energy was very seductive. The increasing influence of wealth, both individual and corporate, was a powerful force. No one wanted to look too closely at some of the darker side effects of our wonderful achievements. Even so the warning chorus got louder.
In 1969, humans were looking at the earth from the surface of the moon for the first time. The fragility of the planet became clear. "Spaceship Earth" became more than an abstract concept.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the First Assessment Report in 1990. This effort clearly identified the causes of, and problems associated with climate change. United Nations-sponsored work has continued and the Fifth Assessment Report was published in 2014. Each succeeding report has further identified the immediate and growing threats to all species on the planet as a result of the changing climate.
During the 21st century, we have seen an overwhelming increase in hard evidence detailing the extent and impacts of climate change.
Of the 10 warmest years for the planet, nine have occurred since 2000. The amount of sea ice in the Arctic is in steady decline. We have just witnessed a purported 1,000-year rainfall in Louisiana produce record flooding. Devastating wildfires in the West are commonplace. Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy are still fresh memories.
Weather events have influenced public debate on climate change. Large corporations and big money representing the fossil fuel interests have a very loud and often dominant voice. There is understandable opposition to moving away from what has been successful (and extremely profitable) in the past.
Every four years, we have an election and the opportunity to reset our climate change initiatives. Our record in doing so is not very good.
In the 2008 presidential election, both Barack Obama and John McCain recognized the threat of climate change. During the campaign both authored or supported proposals to significantly reduce carbon emissions by 2050. However, after the election, climate change efforts largely stalled.
Climate change was a muted issue in 2012. Both Obama and Mitt Romney expressed some concern about the environment and the need to deal with climate change. Neither candidate was willing to carve out a bold initiative. Again, after the election, few policy initiatives saw the light of day.
This election cycle, the climate debate is largely drowned out by discussion of less pressing topics and extreme personal attacks. Digging deeper, there are real differences in the candidates' positions on climate change and the actions that should be taken. These need to be exposed for everyone to see.
We do not have many four-year windows left before a climate tipping point is reached. Climate change is a threat to all life on the planet, perhaps as nothing else. It needs to be broadly debated.
It can, and should be, the defining issue of the presidential campaign.