by Ross Gelbspan
As the pace of global warming kicks into overdrive, the hollow
optimism of climate activists, along with the desperate responses of
some of the world's most prominent climate scientists, is preventing
us from focusing on the survival requirements of the human enterprise.
The environmental establishment continues to peddle the notion that we
can solve the climate problem.
We have failed to meet nature's deadline. In the next few years, this
world will experience progressively more ominous and destabilizing
changes. These will happen either incrementally — or in sudden, abrupt
Under either scenario, it seems inevitable that we will soon be
confronted by water shortages, crop failures, increasing damages from
extreme weather events, collapsing infrastructures, and, potentially,
breakdowns in the democratic process itself.
Start with the climate activists, who are telling us only a partial truth.
Virtually all of the national and grassroots climate groups are
pushing hard to reduce carbon emissions. The most aggressive are
working to change America's entire energy structure from one based on
coal and oil to a new energy future based on noncarbon technologies —
as they should.
The Step It Up campaign inspired more than 1,500 protests in all 50
states this year, and is hoping to build on that impact by joining
forces with the 1Sky climate campaign. The Campus Climate Challenge is
planning a new and more energetic clean energy campaign. Focus the
Nation continues to exhort colleges and universities around the
country to green their campuses. Al Gore's dedication to bringing the
climate crisis to public attention won him a well-deserved Nobel
Prize, and he's using his newfound credibility to push even harder for
action against climate change. The large Washington-based
environmental groups are pressing to improve climate and energy bills
that are moving through Congress — even though the bills are clearly
inadequate to the challenge before us.
But even assuming the wildest possible success of their initiatives —
that humanity decided tomorrow to replace its coal- and oil-burning
energy sources with noncarbon sources — it would still be too late to
avert major climate disruptions. No national energy infrastructure can
be transformed within a decade.
All these initiatives address only one part of the coming reality.
They recall the kind of frenzied scrambling that is characteristic of
trauma victims — a frantic focus on other issues, any other issues —
that allows people to avoid the central take-home message of the
trauma: in this case, the overwhelming power of inflamed nature.
Within the last two years, a number of leading scientists — including
Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), British ecologist James Lovelock, and NASA scientist
James Hansen — have all declared that humanity is about to pass or
already has passed a "tipping point" in terms of global warming. The
IPCC, which reflects the findings of more than 2,000 scientists from
over 100 countries, recently stated that it is "very unlikely" that we
will avoid the coming era of "dangerous climate change."
The truth is that we may already be witnessing the early stages of
runaway climate change in the melting of the Arctic, the increase in
storm intensity, the accelerating extinctions of species, and the
prolonged nature of recurring droughts.
Moreover, some scientists now fear that the warming is taking on its
own momentum — driven by internal feedbacks that are independent of
the human-generated carbon layer in the atmosphere.
Consider these examples:
* Despite growing public awareness of global warming, the world's
carbon emissions are rising nearly three times faster than they did in
the 1990s. As a result, many scientists tell us that the official,
government-sanctioned forecasts of coming changes are understating the
threat facing the world.
* A rise of 2 degrees C over preindustrial temperatures is now
virtually inevitable, according to the IPCC, as the atmospheric
concentration of carbon dioxide is approaching the destabilizing level
of 450 parts per million. That rise will bring drought, hunger,
disease, and flooding to millions of people around the world.
* Scientists predict a steady rise in temperatures beginning in
about two years — with at least half of the years between 2009 and
2019 surpassing the average global temperature in 1998, to date, the
hottest year on record.
* Given the unexpected speed with which Antarctica is melting,
coupled with the increasing melt rates in the Arctic and Greenland,
the rate of sea-level rise has doubled — with scientists now raising
their prediction of ocean rise by century's end from about three feet
to about six feet.
* Scientists discovered that a recent, unexplained surge of carbon
dioxide levels in the atmosphere is due to more greenhouse gases
escaping from trees, plants, and soils — which have traditionally
buffered the warming by absorbing the gases. In the lingo of climate
scientists, carbon sinks are turning into carbon sources. Because the
added warmth is making vegetation less able to absorb our carbon
emissions, scientists expect the rate of warming to jump substantially
in the coming years.
* The intensity of hurricanes around the world has doubled in the
last decade. As Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric
Research explained, "If you take the last 10 years, we've had twice
the number of category-5 hurricanes than any other [10-year period] on
* In Australia, a new, permanent state of drought in the country's
breadbasket has cut crop yields by over 30 percent. The
1-in-1,000-year drought exemplifies a little-noted impact of climate
change. As the atmosphere warms, it tightens the vortex of the winds
that swirl around the poles. One result is that the water that
traditionally evaporated from the Southern Ocean and rained down over
New South Wales is now being pulled back into Antarctica — drying out
the southeastern quadrant of Australia and contributing to the buildup
of glaciers in the Antarctic — the only area on the planet where
glaciers are increasing.
As one prominent climate scientist said recently, "We are seeing
impacts today that we did not expect to see until 2085."
The panic among climate scientists is expressing itself in
geoengineering proposals that are half-baked, fantastically
futuristic, and, in some cases, reckless. Put forth by otherwise sober
and respected scientists, the schemes are intended to basically allow
us to continue burning coal and oil.
Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, for example, is proposing to spray
aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight
hitting earth. Tom M. L. Wigley, a highly esteemed climate scientist
at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), ran scenarios
of stratospheric sulfate injection — on the scale of the estimated 10
million tons of sulfur emitted when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 —
through supercomputer models of the climate, and reported that
Crutzen's idea would, indeed, seem to work. The scheme was highlighted
in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by Ken Caldeira, a
climate researcher at the Carnegie Institution.
Unfortunately, the seeding of the atmosphere with sun-reflecting
particles would trigger a global drought, according to a study by
other researchers. "It is a Band-Aid fix that does not work," said
study co-author Kevin Trenberth of NCAR. The eruption of Pinatubo was
followed by a significant drop-off of rainfall over land and a record
decrease in runoff and freshwater discharge into the ocean, according
to a recently published study by Trenberth and other scientists.
The noted British ecologist James Lovelock recently proposed the idea
of installing deepwater pipes on the ocean floor to pump cold water to
the surface to enhance the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
Others suggest dumping iron filings into the ocean to increase the
growth of algae which, in turn, would absorb more carbon dioxide.
These proposals fail to seriously acknowledge the possibility of
unanticipated impacts on ocean dynamics or marine ecosystems or
atmospheric conditions. We have no idea what would result from efforts
to geoengineer our way around nature's roadblock.
At a recent conference, Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense
Council noted, "These types of proposals are multiplying around the
world, and there is no structure in place to evaluate if any of them
work. People are going after these gigantic projects without any
thoughtful, rational process."
What these scientists are offering us are technological expressions of
their own supercharged sense of desperation.
To be fair, the reality that faces us all is extremely difficult to
deal with — as much from an existential as from a scientific point of
Climate change won't kill all of us — but it will dramatically reduce
the human population through the warming-driven spread of infectious
disease, the collapse of agriculture in traditionally fertile areas,
and the increasing scarcity of fresh drinking water. (Witness the
1-in-100-year drought in the southeastern U.S., which has been
threatening drinking water supplies in Georgia and other states.)
Those problems will be dramatically intensified by an influx of
environmental refugees whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes
or whose freshwater sources have dried up or whose homelands are going
under from rising sea levels.
In March, the U.S. Army War College sponsored a conference on the
security implications of climate change. "Climate change is a national
security issue," retired General Gordon R. Sullivan, chair of the
Military Advisory Board and former Army chief of staff, said in
releasing a report that grew out of the conference. "[C]limate
instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact
American military operations around the world."
One frequently overlooked potential casualty of accelerating climate
change may be our tradition of democracy (corrupted as it already is).
When governments have been confronted by breakdowns, they have
frequently resorted to totalitarian measures to keep order in the face
of chaos. It is not hard to imagine a state of emergency morphing into
a much longer state of siege, especially since heat-trapping carbon
dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about 100 years.
Add the escalating squeeze on our oil supplies, which could intensify
our meanest instincts, and you have the ingredients for a long period
of repression and conflict.
Ominously, this plays into the scenario, thoughtfully explored by
Naomi Klein, that the community of multinational corporations will
seize on the coming catastrophes to elbow aside governments as agents
of rescue and reconstruction — but only for communities that can
afford to pay. This dark vision implies the increasing insulation of
the world's wealthy minority from the rest of humanity — buying
protection for their fortressed communities from the Halliburtons,
Bechtels, and Blackwaters of the world while the majority of the poor
are left to scramble for survival among the ruins.
The only antidote to that kind of future is a revitalization of
government — an elevation of public mission above private interest and
an end to the free-market fundamentalism that has blinded much of the
American public with its mindless belief in the divine power of
markets. In short, it requires a revival of a system of participatory
democracy that reflects our collective values far more accurately than
the corporate state into which we have slid.
Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age of historical amnesia.
One wonders whether our institutional memory still recalls the
impulses that gave rise to our constitution — or whether we have
substituted a belief in efficiency, economic rationalization, and
profit maximization for our traditional pursuit of a finely calibrated
balance between individual liberties and social justice.
From a more personal viewpoint, an acknowledgement of the reality of
escalating climate change plays havoc with one's sense of future. It
is almost as though a lone ocean voyager were suddenly to lose sight
of the North Star. It deprives one of an inner sense of navigation. To
live without at least an open-ended sense of future (even if it's not
an optimistic one) is to open one's self to a morass of conflicting
impulses — from the anticipated thrill of a reckless plunge into
hedonism to a profoundly demoralizing sense of hopelessness and a
feeling that a lifelong guiding sense of purpose has suddenly
This slow-motion collapse of the planet leaves us with the bitterest
kind of awakening. For parents of young children, it provokes the most
intimate kind of despair. For people whose happiness derives from a
fulfilling sense of achievement in their work, this realization feels
like a sudden, violent mugging. For those who feel a debt to all those
past generations who worked so hard to create this civilization we
have enjoyed, it feels like the ultimate trashing of history and
tradition. For anyone anywhere who truly absorbs this reality and all
that it implies, this realization leads into the deepest center of
There needs to be another kind of thinking that centers neither on the
profoundly dishonest denial promoted by the coal and oil industries,
nor the misleading optimism of the environmental movement, nor the
fatalistic indifference of the majority of people who just don't want
There needs to be a vision that accommodates both the truth of the
coming cataclysm and the profoundly human need for a sense of future.
That vision needs to be framed by the truly global nature of the
problem. It starts with the recognition that this historical era of
nationalism has become a stubborn, increasingly toxic impediment to
our collective future. We all need to begin to think of ourselves —
now — as citizens of one profoundly distressed planet.
I think that understanding involves a recognition that a clean
environment is about far more than endangered species, toxic
substances, and the "dead zones" that keep spreading off our
shorelines. A clean environment is a basic human right. And without
it, all the other human rights for which we have worked so hard will
end up as grotesque caricatures of some of our deepest aspirations.
Fortuitously, the timing of the climate crisis does coincide with
other worldwide trends. Like it or not, the economy is becoming
globalized. The globalization of communications now makes it possible
for anyone to communicate with anyone else anywhere else in the world.
And, since it is no respecter of national boundaries, the global
climate makes us one.
At the same time, the coming changes clearly suggest that, to the
extent possible, we should be eating locally and regionally grown food
— to minimize the CO2 generated by factory farming and long-distance
food transport. We should also be preparing to take our energy from a
decentralized system using whichever noncarbon energy technologies are
best suited to their natural surroundings — solar in sunny areas,
offshore wave and tidal power in coastal areas, wind farms in the
world's wind corridors, and geothermal almost everywhere. (It may even
be feasible to maintain a low-level coal-fired grid, of about 15
percent of current capacity, as a back-up for days the wind doesn't
blow or the sun doesn't shine.) But it's critical to stop thinking in
terms of centralized energy systems and to begin thinking in terms of
localized, decentralized technologies.
At the level of social organization, the coming changes imply the need
to conduct something like 80 percent of our governance at the local
grassroots level through some sort of consensual democratic process —
with the remaining 20 percent conducted by representatives at the
For some years, I have been promoting a policy bundle of three
specific strategies as one model for jump-starting a global transition
to clean energy. Those policies, which are spelled out in my book
Boiling Point and on my website, include:
* Redirecting more than $250 billion in subsidies in industrial
countries away from coal and oil and putting them behind carbon-free
* Creating a fund of about $300 billion a year for a decade, to
transfer clean energy to poor countries; and
* Adopting within the Kyoto framework a mandatory progressive
fossil-fuel efficiency standard that would go up by 5 percent a year
until the 80 percent global reduction is attained.
The initial impulse behind these strategies was to craft a policy
bundle to stabilize the climate — and at the same time create millions
of jobs, especially in developing countries. Initially, I, along with
the other people who helped formulate them, envisioned these solutions
as a way to undermine the economic desperation that gives rise to so
much anti-U.S. sentiment. They would, we hoped, turn impoverished and
dependent countries into trading partners. They would raise living
standards abroad without compromising ours. They would jump the
renewable energy industry into a central driving engine of growth for
the global economy and, ultimately, yield a far more equitable, more
secure, and more prosperous world.
Unfortunately, given all the apathy, indifference, and antagonism to
taking real action, nature has now relegated that earlier vision to
the rear-view mirror.
But this kind of global public-works plan, if initiated in the near
term, could still provide a platform to bring the people of the world
together around a common global project that transcends traditional
alliances and national antagonisms — even in today's profoundly
fractured, degraded, and combative world. Along the way, it could also
provide decentralized stand-alone energy sources for disconnected
social communities in a post-crash world.
The key to our survival as a civil species during an era of profound
natural upheaval lies in an enhanced sense of community. If we
maintain the fiction that we can thrive as isolated individuals, we
will find ourselves at the same emotional dead end as the current crop
of survivalists: an existence marked by defensiveness, mistrust,
suspicion, and fear.
As nature washes away our resources, overwhelms our infrastructures,
and splinters our political alignments, our survival will depend
increasingly on our willingness to join together as a global
community. As the former Argentine climate negotiator, Raul
Estrada-Oyuela, said, "We are all adrift in the same boat — and
there's no way half the boat is going to sink."
To keep ourselves afloat, we need to change the economic and political
structures that determine how we behave. In this case, we need to
elevate the ethic of cooperation over the deeply ingrained reflex of
competition. We need to elevate our biological similarities over our
geographical differences. We need, in the face of this oncoming
onslaught, to reorganize our social structures to reflect our most
humane collective aspirations.
There is no body of expertise — no authoritative answers — for this
one. We are crossing a threshold into uncharted territory. And since
there is no precedent to guide us, we are left with only our own
hearts to consult, whatever courage we can muster, our instinctive
dedication to a human future — and the intellectual integrity to look
reality in the eye.
Ross Gelbspan is retired from a 30-year career as an editor and
reporter at The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post, and The
Boston Globe. He is author of The Heat Is On and Boiling Point, and he
maintains the website heatisonline.org.
 Author's conversation with Dr. Paul Epstein, of the Center for
Health and the Global Environment of Harvard Medical School,
 Raul Estrada-Oyuela, Argentine negotiator, at the U.N Convention
on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, December, 1997.
(c)2007. Grist Magazine, Inc.
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