Jul 27, 2007

Facing Facts

A few more thoughts about the climate crisis;

First, the situation is beyond serious. Check out this article in the New Scientist for some hard science about polar melting.

In the article James Hansen (head of NASA's Goddard Institute) extrapolates our current situation based on geological history;

There is strong evidence that the Earth now is within 1 °C of its highest temperature in the past million years. Oxygen isotopes in the deep-ocean fossil plankton known as foraminifera reveal that the Earth was last 2 °C to 3 °C warmer around 3 million years ago, with carbon dioxide levels of perhaps 350 to 450 parts per million. It was a dramatically different planet then, with no Arctic sea ice in the warm seasons and sea level about 25 metres higher, give or take 10 metres.

...the palaeoclimate record contains numerous examples of ice sheets yielding sea level rises of several metres per century when forcings were smaller than that of the business-as-usual scenario. For example, about 14,000 years ago, sea level rose approximately 20 metres in 400 years, or about 1 metre every 20 years.
Second, even now there is a huge amount of denial. I'm not thinking here primarily of the dwindling breed of outright nay-sayers, but of the tendency to imagine things won't get that bad, or the gormless hope that some technological fix will save the day.

Hansen addresses one aspect of this, the strong economic pressure on researchers to downplay the data;

I was dismayed, because in conversations and email exchanges with relevant scientists I sensed a deep concern about the stability of ice sheets in the face of "business as usual" global warming scenarios, which assume that emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to increase. Why might scientists be reticent to express concerns about something so important?

...It seems to me that scientists downplaying the dangers of climate change fare better when it comes to getting funding. Drawing attention to the dangers of global warming may or may not have helped increase funding for the relevant scientific areas, but it surely did not help individuals like Mercer who stuck their heads out.
Of course there are powerful economic interests opposed to any restraint on burning carbon fuels. (Check out this two videos, both produced by public relations arms of the oil industry - Al Gore's Penguin Army and We Call it Life. ) But I suspect there is also something deeper going on. I think that many people who may intellectually accept the concept of anthropic climate change don't really believe in it on a gut level, because they are missing the idea of inevitable change, familiar to Buddhists as anicca. They find it difficult to imagine that things won't always be much the same as they are now.

Obviously, there is no justification for this erroneous assumption. Geology tells us that the earth has had many different climates, many different arrays of flora and fauna. It is only a scant fifteen thousand years since the end of the last ice age. Even on the scale of human affairs, history tells us that nations, races and civilizations rise and fall continually.

What may contribute to the inability to really imagine global change is the long era of peace and prosperity enjoyed by the developed countries since 1945. This is now coming to an end. In reality the only surefire prediction about the future is that it won't be anything like the present.

Third, there is almost no willingness to face up to what needs to be done. George Monbiot says it better than in could in a recent post, Eco-Junk;

Uncomfortable as this is for both the media and its advertisers, giving things up is an essential component of going green. A section on ethical shopping in Goldsmith’s book advises us to buy organic, buy seasonal, buy local, buy sustainable, buy recycled. But it says nothing about buying less.

Green consumerism is becoming a pox on the planet. If it merely swapped the damaging goods we buy for less damaging ones, I would champion it. But two parallel markets are developing: one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first. I am now drowning in a tide of ecojunk. Over the past six months, our coatpegs have become clogged with organic cotton bags, which – filled with packets of ginseng tea and jojoba oil bath salts – are now the obligatory gift at every environmental event. I have several lifetimes’ supply of ballpoint pens made with recycled paper and about half a dozen miniature solar chargers for gadgets I don’t possess.

... Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status. I have met people who have bought solar panels and mini-wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts: partly because they love gadgets, but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious (and how rich) they are. We are often told that buying such products encourages us to think more widely about environmental challenges, but it is just as likely to be depoliticising. Green consumerism is another form of atomisation – a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.

This aspect of the crisis has bothered me for some time now. There is a growing trend to want to do the right thing, the "green" thing. But only if it means no real sacrifices. Let's face the hard truth; switching to flourescent bulbs, putting your tins in the blue-box and buying bags made of hemp is not about saving the planet. It's about making you feel good. (The absurdity of off-setting carbon credits is an extreme example.)

I've said it before, the only thing that will work is a massive roll-back of consumerism. Never mind "green," the catchword should be "less."

And I have to respectfully disagree with fellow Buddhist blogger Cliff of Everyday Zazen who says, regarding the climate crisis;

as in all things,it comes down to individual effort. concern is not enough. it’s what i do that matters.
Given the scale of the problem, this kind of voluntarism is not merely disingenuous, it is actually dangerous. The damage to the environment is too massive to be met by the kind of paltry tinkering that individuals can accomplish. I agree with Monbiot that the only thing that would have a hope in hell of succeeding would be a strict regime of carbon rationing. Politically, there doesn't seem to be much chance of this happening.

However, people were willing to accept quite draconian rationing schemes during World War Two. Odd creatures that we are, we only seem to be willing to make real sacrifices in the interest of beating up on another tribe, not on securing the future for everyone.

Fourthly, The Prognosis is Not Good. Given the last point, it seems unlikely that anything significant enough to make a difference will be done in time. And to make matters worse, there is another consideration. Even if one or even several nations come to their senses and institute a Monbiot carbon rationing scheme, it still won't work. The problem is global and there is no global authority capable of addressing the problem. All the major carbon producing nations would have to get on board, and in the current state of the world, the chance of that happening before it is too late is between slim and nil.

It's just barely possible to imagine that some of the Europeans might be up to the challenge. But the largest single producer is the USA and 'nuff said about that. Also China and India are industrializing at a rapid clip and the middle classes are just beginning to taste the dubious joys of a consumer life-style. And there are an awful lot of them.

I'm sorry I couldn't end this post on a hopeful note. If it makes you feel better, sort the cans from the bottles until the endorphins kick in.