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A Recent Victory Versus A Global Threat

 

   
▲ A polar bear which suffers from malnutrition because of the climate change is wandering on the iceberg.
 

/Photography from facebook.com/Kerstin.Langenberger.Photography

 
 
   Consider this thought experiment. If 95 percent of the world’s scientists were convinced that a particular threat was going to cause massive and irreparable harm to all human life in 50 to 70 years, do not you think most people would say that we should act now to prevent it from happening? In this hypothetical case, one might imagine a huge volcano that now and then spews out fire and death on a local scale. News stories about these eruptions are available though most people do not take this problem seriously. Bad stuff happens all the time. But experts warn that the BIG ONE will definitely occur before long and the consequences will be dire and global.

 

   If that scenario sounds like a pure science fiction, consider what is happening now in the real world. Today’s crisis is actually much worse than that hypothetical one. Scientists have known about the dangers of overloading the atmosphere with CO2 since at least the 1970s. And in a story from DemocracyNow.org, from September 24th of this year, reporters at Inside Climate News found that, “By 1977, Exxon’s own senior experts had begun to warn the burning of fossil fuels could pose a threat to humanity.” So even the bad guys have known for decades about the potential harm of their activities. What did ExxonMobile do with the knowledge? They started funding global warming denial research. Moreover, they did it in order to dampen the urgency behind calls for change in environmental and energy policy. In short, their motive was greedy.

   How is the ongoing climate change crisis relevent to the volcano in our thought experiment? Looking at the details, we can see that our real problem is worse than the fantasy one for a few reasons. First, unlike the eruption of a massive volcano, climate change is a threat we can do something about. It is caused by human activity and is therefore a problem we can actually work to solve. Furthermore, the solution is relatively clear to see: rapidly decrease the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, thermal, and so on. Even if the social transition would be difficult, at least the right path is as plain as day. Second, a volcano does not  do much harm until it finally goes “pop!” But climate change is having a destructive effect now, with each year, as global average temperatures rise.

   No scientist feels confident saying this or that storm was directly caused by climate change. However, on average the total amount of destructive storms and draughts has increased and will continue to increase if global temperatures rise.

   Then there is the issue of rising sea levels. A recent study by James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, concludes (from Slate.com) that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur in this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization. A multi-meter sea level rise means that New York City, London, Shanghai, and every other coastal city will be under water and possibly uninhabitable before the end of this century. Obviously, the consequences of unchecked global warming are mind boggling.

   Once a serious problem is acknowledged, it is natural to seek for solutions. And here it is helpful to see first what will not work: individuals gradually change shopping patterns and purchase hybrid or electric cars, switch to more efficient lightbulbs, and other similar suggestions. None of these things will prevent the crisis. Because as experts like Bill McKibben pointed out in a famous Rolling Stone article (“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” July 19, 2012), if we allow fossil fuel companies to extract more oil and coal from the earth, and bring their current reserves to the market, it is “game over” for human civilization. The reason is that burning such an amount of much fuel will release 2,795 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in a rise of global average temperatures six to eight degrees Celsius higher. A world that hot will be straight out of science fiction.

   Activists and environmentalists with this new sense of urgency have started to take direct action against the fossil fuel companies. In a case from this summer in Oregon, activists gathered in kayaks to block the passage of a ship commissioned by Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic sea. Shell’s oil rig, the Polar Pioneer, eventually reached its destination after being delayed by the protestor’s blockade. Fast forward to this fall, and just a few days ago, when Shell announced it was shutting down its offshore drilling operations in the Arctic. In any mass movement the leaders get all the credit. In today’s climate justice movement, the names Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and James Hansen are well known and rightfully so. However, I also think about those nameless people, brave and committed men and women, working together with a sense of purpose to correct.

Nick Cody  nick_cody@me.com

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