Providence Fox Hopes to Change Minds About Climate

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

Providence resident David Fox says manmade climate change has put humanity in uncharted territory. (Courtesy photo)

Providence resident David Fox says manmade climate change has put humanity in uncharted territory. (Courtesy photo)

David Fox’s 16-page pamphlet “Climate Change: A Common Sense Approach” begins with the tale of rising sea levels in Norfolk, Va. In 2012, a Dutch consulting firm had estimated that the cost of mitigating just a foot of sea-level rise would be $ 1 billion, equal to the city’s annual budget.

And with a 5.5-foot rise predicted by 2100, to say nothing of the release of toxic waste from local Superfund sites that this would probably prompt, Fox writes, “There is simply no way to pay [these costs], particularly with large, wealthier cities such as Miami and New York equally vulnerable and looking for federal assistance. Climate change is not some abstract ‘debate’ in Norfolk, Virginia.”

Fox, who is 81, traces his interest in environmental issues back to an unlikely genesis way in 1970.

“It was the first Earth Day,” he recalls. “My daughter was all excited about cleaning up a local park. She asked what I was going to do for Earth Day. I said I’d pee outdoors all day.”

Flip as his comment may sound, it was a turning point of sorts. “After that I started paying attention to environmental issues,” he says.

With a Ph.D. in math from New York University, and having “programmed my first computer in 1954,” he describes himself as an avid reader of Scientific American magazine who began to notice more and more articles about the impact of human activity on the planet as the environmental movement picked up steam.

He didn’t, he says, get actively involved at the time, but, as his interest whetted, he paid increasing attention to environmental issues.

Fast forward to the late 1980s, when Fox retired as CEO of Manhattan-based Container Transport International and commuted off and on to Providence to work with Brown University professor Leon Cooper on Nestor Inc.’s artificial intelligence projects. Fast forward from that to 1998, when Fox and his wife, Ginny, moved to the East Side of Providence full time.

“I retired from Nestor in 2002. That’s when retirement really stuck,” Fox says.

He began paying more systematic attention to environmental issues. He became involved with the Rhode Island chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) and began regularly attending environment- and climate change-related lectures, to say nothing of increasing the breadth and depth of his reading.

“The more I read,” he says, “the more convinced I became that people were not using common sense. They were either using religion if they were against climate change, or were using too much scientific language if they were trying to defend it. But there wasn’t much common sense on either side.”

Common sense had always been important to Fox. His father, who had worked as a physicist on the Manhattan Project, had emphasized a commonsense approach to problems, as well as instilling in Fox a respect for science. He cites as an example of a large-scale commonsense policy his decision as CEO of the container-leasing company to shift from flat-rate pricing to a system which made sure that containers were full both coming and going.

“Containers were stranded in countries that didn’t have anything to ship, so we figured out how to reward the re-use of containers in both directions,” he says. “It was just a commonsense decision, but it revolutionized the business.”

Gradually, Fox began to move from being an environmentally concerned citizen to becoming an active one.

Reading an article early in the George W. Bush presidency about the undoing of the agreements President Clinton had entered into with the coal industry showed Fox how precarious environmental protections were. About the same time, he says, he found himself speaking with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., about environmental issues.

“I decided to corner him after a speech he gave as he was exiting the building, and I realized I could have a voice, even if it was something of a contrarian one,” Fox recalls.

In 2012, armed with his long-standing interest in environmental issues, an approach to problem solving that tended to boil things down to their basics, and free time, Fox set out to write what would become Climate Change: A Common Sense Approach.

“There was no ‘Aha!’ moment” that got him to start writing the pamphlet.

“I just learned more and more and got more and more scared when I realized that what’s different about today from the past is the rate of increase [in carbon emissions], not just the absolute value, but the rate, going from 280 ppm [parts per million] to 400 in the past fifty years,” Fox says. “That’s what the deniers don’t understand, that it’s the rate that matters.”

In 2014, he published the pamphlet, the cover announcing that it is “An invitation to make up your own mind: Is climate change real? What are the causes and effects? Is action called for? You be the judge.”

He makes and elaborates on a number of points, complete with graphs and statistics. First, that we’ve been digging up “dangerous substances [that] are now spread in the air, water and topsoil” that have been buried in the earth for millennia, and by doing so we have “dangerously thickened nature’s protective CO2 blanket.”

One major result of this change is that “storms become more frequent and more severe.” Probably most provocatively he argues that “We human beings need the courage and will to walk away from known fossil fuel reserves that are owned by profit-making interests. ... We must demand the abolition of fossil fuel exploration and expansion,” since “we are releasing roughly 3500 Mount Helens-sized events … every year.”

He concludes, “The way forward is clear and doable. ... We have to change what we’ve been doing for three centuries. ... Survival depends on it. It can be done.”

Fox’s experience “explaining complex things in simpler ways, a trait I inherited from my father,” was part of what inspired him to write the pamphlet. The 2014 publication in The Nation magazine of Chris Hayes’ The New Abolitionism, which insisted that “Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth,” convinced Fox he was on the right track.

He published the pamphlet later that year, and has distributed it in a variety of ways, including at presentations by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and through the CCL. Fox has been encouraged in his work by Jim Head of Brown University’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, who has bought and distributed the pamphlet to students.

Fox’s pamphlet is intended to contribute to public awareness, and he hopes that “climate skeptics who are not yet deniers will read it” and that it can be used by the already-aware to bolster their understanding of what we’re up against.

Fox is a level-headed man, not prone to emotional excess, but as he views the situation we face he says, “The more that I read, I am faced with the fact that we are in uncharted territory. Anybody who thinks we can find historic precedents for what we’re experiencing now is just burying their heads in the sand.”

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international development worker who lives in Providence. He blogs from time to time at waitingforthebarbarian.wordpress.com.