Friday, November 22, 2013


November 22, 1963 was one of the defining days of my lifetime, and of my life.  It was the day that everything changed.

But my suspicion and even despair that the future--and my future-- had turned very bleak coexisted with the sense that I must find a way to carry on what I felt was the Kennedy legacy.  I was 17, a student at Greensburg Central Catholic High School and the following piece was published in the school newspaper, the Centralite.  I probably mentioned the bells of St. Matthew's church in Georgetown partly because it was there, on the Sunday of Inaugural weekend, that I shook hands with President Kennedy--one of the first non-dignitaries to shake his hand as President.  I saw him speak in Pittsburgh little more than a year before his assassination.

The slow cadence of the muffled drums reflected the mournful heartbeat of Washington.  The bells of St. Matthew's were echoed across the nation.  The world heard them, and knew for whom they tolled.  They tolled for the departed President, John F. Kennedy.

When a man and the Presidency meet, profound changes are worked upon both.  John Kennedy brought to his office an immense intellect, a dashing style, a will to serve, a ready wit, an enormous potential, and a courage based on trust in God.

He gave the Presidency heightened prestige, grace and dignity, a foundation of leadership, and a position of strength.

The man who had been described by his queenly wife as "an idealist without illusions" came to the White House with a view that did not permit him to stand and watch the world march by, but demanded that he take an active part in determining its route and its final goals.

He was, as a British commentator described him, "a man so utterly right for the job."  He molded the presidency as a citadel of power in the Cuban crisis.  He provided moral leadership in civil rights and the nuclear test ban treaty.  He set a new intellectual tone for the nation, and dedicated us to the adventure of conquering space.  He showed through action his conviction that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

His work was not done in the first one hundred days, nor in his lifetime.  But he began.

He will be more than a footnote in history.  His spirit will live on, especially in the Peace Corps that he founded.

In his last public speech, he pointed out that the new frontier of which he had so often spoken was not a political program but an existing reality.  For the first time in history, man has the material power to abolish many forms of human suffering and want.  The challenge is to apply our knowledge and resources to the problem.

John Kennedy's message was repeated over and over: "There is great unfinished business in this country."

His death brought an end to his efforts, but not to the problems themselves.  There are still forty-two million Americans--a fourth of the nation--with levels of income, health, housing, and food below standards tolerated by society at large.  There are still millions of unemployed, lacking the skills and education to support their families.  There is still a large segment of our population who are insidiously denied their basic rights because of color.  There are still the old people who suffer sickness three times as often, yet earn half as much, as younger Americans.  There is still one third of a world rocked with poverty, hunger and disease.

The death of John Kennedy does not discharge us from our obligations.  It rededicates us.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Climate Crisis Generations

Publication of this study by the University of Hawaii has prompted me to add some more or less recent book reviews to the collection of pieces here on the climate crisis.  This study, using existing data and models, attempts to figure out when the permanent change in the world's climate will happen: that is, when the coldest years will begin being hotter than the hottest years of the past.

Their conclusion is that for most of the world it will be by the mid-21st century.  The first tropical countries to pass the tipping point may do so in 2020 to 2025--just seven years from the date of the study.  North American cities like New York and Washington will pass it in 2047.

These estimates (with a plus or minus 5 year range of error) are predicated on carbon pollution continuing as projected--the "business as usual" scenario.  But their second scenario, positing reduction in carbon pollution, doesn't offer an "out," or even much of a postponement for this tipping point.  The 2047 date becomes 2069.

This study just came out, and so far there's a remarkable lack of response, especially from climate activists.  They may be as shocked at the nearness of the change as anyone else.  It's very hard to take in, to admit into consciousness.  But there it is.

That the world now inevitably will shift into a hotter climate has been admitted for a few years now, and these books that I have reviewed in this period are really about this.  So I present them in order of their publication, to suggest how this story is evolving.  I begin with the first one I read that  acknowledged this new context, and in some ways it remains for me the most eloquent: David Orr's Down to the Wire.

These aren't the only books on the topic I've reviewed, either for the North Coast Journal or only on Books in Heat.  Here are links to some of those:

Sixty Days and Counting
Books on the 35th anniversary of Earth Day in 2005
Conservation Refugees
Earth Day Classics (occasion of 40th anniversary of Earth Day in 2010)
Climate Refugees
Atlas of the Oceans
The Fate of Greenland
The Man Who Planted Trees
Small, Gritty & Green; Earthmasters; Birthright; The Incidental Steward

Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse
 By David W. Orr
Oxford University Press, 2009.

 Because environmental studies professor David Orr’s book is gracefully written, with a lucid and comprehensive vision, it is easy to read. But because of its subject and its messages, it is very difficult to read. For all of those reasons, it is important that everyone reads it, because it is about your future, which is likely to be very different from the present.

 Orr begins with a view of the future that close observers of climate change are increasingly coming to, and it’s a real difference from just a few years ago. Despite current denialist noise and other snowjobs, it’s not a question of “if” anymore. It’s how fast, how bad and how long.

 For those playing catch-up: Even Al Gore’s expositions of the massive evidence, for example, were accompanied by suggestions on how to “solve” the Climate Crisis. For awhile there was a popular impression that changing light bulbs would do it. Though it’s true that a shocking amount of of carbon could be kept out of the atmosphere with some simple efficiencies, that wasn’t going to change what had already been set in motion.

Some experts (like Mark Hertsgaard) cautioned that because of a 30 year or so time lag from cause (greenhouse gas pollution) to effects, the crisis was already underway, and we need to prepare for some consequences.

 After more climate data was collected and evaluated, books by respected figures like Martin Rees and James Lovelock in the UK that foresaw more cataclysmic consequences were taken seriously but still seemed extreme. Then came observations of Arctic sea melts in 2007 that were far sooner and far more advanced than climate scientists had predicted.

 “Instead of the long, slow problem many had imagined climate change to be, we seemed to be staring at a dynamic system bent on flipping into some new state,” writes Bill McKibben.

 More urgent warnings followed, by the chief U.S. climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, among others. So the dire situation that Orr outlines is becoming more generally accepted: Continued greenhouse gas pollution will result in an unrecognizably hot planet for hundreds of thousands of years, shorn of the life we know.

 “But a sober reading of the science of climate change indicates something else: we have already set in motion forces and trends that threaten the stability of the biosphere in a few decades and that will persist far longer.” This is the growing consensus: severe and long-lasting effects are already in the cards. They may well be so overwhelming and persistent that they will absorb most of our attention and resources.

Orr discusses some of the variables, and I’ve seen recent comments by climate scientists suggesting a time frame of from ten to thirty years before the cascade of multiple and interacting crises become painfully apparent.

Orr writes: “Climate change, like the threat of nuclear annihilation, puts all that humanity has struggled to achieve—our cultures, art, music, literatures, cities, institutions, customs, religions, and history, as well as our posterity—at risk.”

 “Climate change, in other words, is not so much a problem to be fixed but rather a steadily worsening condition with which we must contend for a long time.”

 Orr looks at issues of governance and attitude as well as more specific ideas for getting through the coming climate collapse, and what elements of human civilization and human beings will help that process, while suggesting that the survival of these qualities—from inventiveness to compassion and community--are reasons for the human adventure to continue.

 For instance, we will need to understand and put into practice the home truth that the global economy is a subset of the biosphere. In this period of fear, anger and stress, personally and nationally, we will need to learn and employ the skills of peace, or we will lose what chance we have to survive. “The long emergency ahead will be the ultimate challenge to our political creativity, acumen, skill, wisdom and foresight,” Orr writes.

Though he doesn’t dwell on the worst implications—like deaths in the millions or worse—he realizes that such crises in the past led to war, tyrannous gangs, barbarism and the haunting ignorance that characterizes a Dark Age. In a coda, he even suggests the added difficulty of keeping a cool head in a hot world, when the heat itself is bending and breaking the world we assume and depend on.

 He titles one late chapter "Hope at the End of Our Tether," which is a pretty direct reference to H.G. Well's last book, Mind At the End of Its Tether, in which he found humanity fated to fail because it was too late to save itself. (The expression, by the way, means to have exhausted one's options, like an animal tethered, unable to go farther than the rope will allow. It goes back to the 16th century, but became an expression with this meaning early in the 19th. Like a lot of cultural metaphors from agriculture, it's pretty much lost its referent, except of course for dog-walkers.)

Orr ends this chapter with this paragraph: "At the end of our tether we must imagine the unimaginable: a world rid of nuclear weapons and a world powered by sunlight, safe from the possibility of catastrophic climate change. Utopia? Hardly. But those are the only realistic options we have."

 That's a powerful, present-tense restatement of how far we've stretched our possibilities. In 1960 and especially in his 1961 Inaugural, President Kennedy noted that humanity now had the power to abolish poverty, and also to abolish human life. Humanity could choose utopia, or it could choose oblivion. But as Buckminster Fuller and others soon suggested, the power of nuclear weapons etc. really meant that either we choose Utopia or we get Oblivion. It's an either/or.

 Orr stretches the tether even tighter, by noting that resource problems and catastrophes from the Climate Crisis make nuclear war more likely and therefore more dangerous. So we don't have much of a choice--though as Orr notes, even if we save ourselves from our two principal scourges, without losing civilization in the process, we still won't wind up with Utopia, the perfect society. That at least forestalls the objection that he's asking for perfection, which is by definition impossible. He's just saying the just about impossible is just about essential.

 “There is no historical precedent, however, for what we must do if we are to endure,” he warns. And though he admits “I know of no purely rational reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future,” he opts for hope—but of a particular kind: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds.” He quotes Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope as “an orientation of the heart” and “ability to work for something because it is good.” Orr believes the only thing that will save us is “people behaving heroically.”

 Orr begins his book by noting that UK scientist Martin Ree’s 2003 book (Our Final Hour) which suggests that humankind has about a 1 in 2 chance of surviving the 21st century, was almost entirely ignored. Orr’s book has been out since last spring, I believe, and has also been pretty much ignored.

 In one sense it’s not surprising: even if the science is admitted, the message is so apocalyptic that it cries out for a grief response, starting with denial and anger, and maybe moving up to bargaining (i.e. technological fixes that few believe will change the immediate future, even if they work.) I had a tough time with this book myself, and only copious amounts of high-quality chocolate and some sleepless nights got me as far as this review.

 But while this is one of the first books about how to contend with the coming “long emergency,” (and this phrase devised by Jim Kunstler looks like it will stick) it won’t be the last. For instance, Bill McKibben’s new book to be published in April, bears the subtitle: “Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.” Maybe it's groupthink, but I don't think so: these sentiments are becoming pretty common among those closely observing climate and climate science. If we keep hearing this, and evidence piles up (and we have the wit to understand it--for instance, that the northeastern snows this month support global heating theories, they don't contradict them), sooner or later we’ll move through depression to acceptance, and then maybe we’ll get to work salvaging a civilization.

Meanwhile, we ought to be grateful for writers like Orr who are preparing us for this future, as well as the scientists and scholars who are bringing their skills to bear on these topics, regardless of the terrified barbarians at the gates.

 And this future doesn’t include continuing global failure to cut greenhouse gases, which makes the farther future even bleaker. “I also write with the assumption that we will succeed in reducing atmospheric CO2 below the level that would cause runaway climate change,” Orr adds, “otherwise, there is no point in writing anything other than an elegy or funeral dirge.”

 How hard it is to read and then write these words, because it’s real now: very probably, the world we’ve known is ending, and humanity faces its greatest challenge, including the dual tasks of living in this harsher world while still doing what is necessary not to make things worse. Ending greenhouse gas pollution is still necessary, but it alone is no longer enough. We enter the age of consequences.

Eaarth Day Books 2010 (Eaarth, Gaia in Turmoil)

Besides the deafening silence today versus the two million shouting voices forty years ago, this Earth Day has some significant differences from the first. For example, there is 40% less sea ice in the world, and much of what remains is melting. There are 8.5 million square miles more that must deal with a tropical climate; half of Australia and much of the American Southwest are in permanent drought. River water has shrunk by a volume equivalent to the Mississippi. Glaciers worldwide are shrinking, and some are virtually gone.

 There are tens of thousands--probably hundreds of thousands--fewer species of life. There are fewer edible fish in the sea, and life there is dying out fast. There is less water in many places on land, and partly as a consequence the world produces 40 million fewer tons of wheat, corn and barley per year. There are more storms, more heat waves, more diseases in more lifeforms, more forest fires and other destruction, not only in the U.S. but in the Amazon. "We're seeing the end of some forests as we know them," says a U.S. forester.

 At the foot of a melting glacier in northern Tibet, a young man from a small village there was asked to explain the reason for the change. His answer was neither ethereal or complicated. "Global warming," he said. "Too many factories." A simple and much more than an inconvenient truth.

 The Climate Crisis is not some vision of the future--it's been with us these forty years, it's gotten worse, and now it's having effects that only the self-blinded and deluded can deny. But still...we can stop it, right? We may be able to prevent the very worst--runaway climate change in the far future, although what governments around the world are so far willing to do won't be enough. In any case, for the foreseeable future, it's only going to get worse. And then at the very least it is going to stay that way, for thousands of years.

 That was the message of David Orr's book, Down to the Wire, last year. This year it is no longer a new message-- not among climate scientists and those who follow their work. It is the starting point for Bill McKibben's new book. We no longer live on the same planet as existed on the first Earth Day. He gives the planet we will be living on from now on a new name: Eaarth. So in a sense, this is the first Eaarth Day.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
by Bill McKibben
Times Books, 2010

 McKibben's book uses only about a quarter of its pages to describe the current situation and trend lines, and another quarter to explain the inadequacy of the proposed responses to the Climate Crisis, and the extreme unlikelihood that large-scale changes in policy, energy generation etc. can be made in time to head off very major changes in how human life on this planet is to be lived. "And if our societies start to tank, we'll be in worse shape than those who came before. For one thing, our crisis is global, so there's no place to flee. For another, most of us don't know how to do very much--in your standard collapse scenario, it's nice to know how to grow wheat."

 McKibben comes right up against the logical conclusions, the doomsday scenarios of nuclear wars over oil and water, mass migrations, a dieback of half or 3/4 or more of humanity, leading to the day-to-day life for the survivors imagined for us in a host of grim movies, from Mad Max to The Road.

Instead he backs off, partly because (I imagine) it's as David Orr wrote--if this is indeed the future, there's not much point in writing a book about it. Instead, McKibben writes: "The rest of this book will be devoted to another possibility--that we might choose instead to try to manage our descent. That we might aim for a relatively graceful decline." [Emphasis is his.]

 So the second half of the book is about how to do that. It emphasizes local and small-scale solutions--living "lightly, carefully, gracefully." Locally generated clean power, focus on maintenance instead of growth, no more consumer culture or the world it represents. Except for the Internet. Because local utopias are likely to get stifling without contact. "Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I'd keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else."

 McKibben makes his case for all this being well within the possible, sometimes persuasively ( although I'm dubious about the Internet surviving.) He notes that part of the problem is that "We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale." He offers his "candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future." They are: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust.

 Good words, and useful for the kind of society he foresees. McKibben made a choice in both the language and content of this book: not much philosophy or generalizing, a lot of practical specifics and common sense. But I doubt that this vocabulary is going to be enough. For one thing, there are some slightly higher-order words that will be very important, like courage, compassion, attention, dedication, fairness.

 But even beyond that, people need a larger vision, to guide and inspire them. And if it's going to really work, it has to be the right vision. There were good words and visions at the first Earth Day, that helped inspire the effort leading to most of the environmental progress that was institutionalized in the first decade of the environmental movement, and has continued on that momentum. But mostly, environmentalists have been terrible at vision, and especially at "good words."

With the switch from the soft-sounding and not even accurate "greenhouse effect" to the vaguely pleasant sounding "global warming" and "climate change," the response to global heating has especially suffered. As for the titanic struggle ahead between those who want to use resources to stop the cause of global heating to those who insist we can only afford to fix the effects, what environmentalists offer us is the mind-numbing choice of mitigation versus adaptation. Which more or less guarantees that a sensible discussion of these issues won't occur in enough time to have clear policies before the panic and politics combine to drive the situation out of control.

 But in the past thirty years there is one word, one concept and one vision that has the proven power to move human souls: Gaia. The sense of our planet as a living organism, prefigured in myth and science, proposed as a hypothesis by James Lovelock and refined by him and others into a real scientific theory, it has also proven to be an inspiration and a possible focus.

Gaia in Turmoil
edited by Eileen Crist & H. Bruce Rinker
MIT Press 2010

 The breadth and depth of what Gaia can mean for the future is brilliantly suggested in the new compendium of essays, (with an introduction, by the way, by Bill McKibben.) This volume includes various views of the science (including its relationship to systems theory and cybernetics),the historical resonance of the ideas, the applications to policy and how people relate to their planet in their moment-to-moment lives.

There are trenchant essays on Gaia and evolution, forest systems, water, biodiversity, and on its relationship to ethics, education and governance. Particularly striking are the essays by Martin Ogle on Gaia as model and metaphor, and David Abram on Gaia and the transformation of personal experience of the everyday world.

 I don't think I am exaggerating when I suggest that an entire curriculum could be built around this book, producing a very valuable education for the future. Together with McKibben and Orr--and one other book , A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)--I place this at the top of my indispensable Eaarth Day books. Solnit's book explores responses to recent disasters to pose the key questions "Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life-and-death questions." This is another component of how we realistically face this tougher future.

 Another useful anthology, with an emphasis on social questions regarding future environment, is Human Footprints on the Global Environment: Threats to Sustainability (MIT), edited by E. Rosa, A. Diekmann, T. Dietz and C.C. Jaeger. This volume may be of interest primarily to scholars, professionals and policymakers, but it does indicate the seriousness and sophistication of a growing multi-disciplinary approach to larger scale issues of the onrushing future.

 A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature by James William Gibson (Holt), on the other hand, is a marvelous synthesis for the general reader as well as specialists looking for a broader and deeper view. Not as squishy as the title might indicate, it narrates pertinent history and it's a good introduction to classic authors and important if more obscure books that combine the practical with the necessary spiritual dimensions of approaching our relationship to the natural world.

Though these relationships faded in our current built environment, a hotter climate and all that it brings will force humanity to once again confront the power of nature. When humans were closer to nature by necessity--when humanity developed by means of its relationship with the rest of nature--the spiritual dimension was very important. It likely will be again.

 Other useful approaches can be found in Living Through the End of Nature by Paul Wapner (MIT) and Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order by Thomas Princen (MIT.) Wapner looks at the attempts to master nature through the history of civilization, and proposes practical ways to redress some sort of necessary balance. Princen grapples with the persistent basic issues of economy and ecology, at best using direct language to untangle them. Though that effort isn't always successful, there's enough merit to add it to the Eaarth Day reading list.

Preparing for Climate Change

Preparing for Climate Change
by Michael Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider
 Boston Review/MIT Press 2010

 As a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for more than 20 years, and a lead author of one of the UN climate reports, Stephen Schneider was known for his ability to explain the intricacies and the meaning of important and complex issues, especially the Climate Crisis. As such, he was the go-to guy for a lot of journalists over the years, including me. His sudden death this past summer was a blow to both science and journalism, as well as his students at Stanford.

This book, written with another Stanford climate scientist, may be his last statement on the issue that he recognized as the most important of his time, and ours. It is a short book—just 100 pages-- but it is a substantial contribution. It moves from the most succinct explanation of “The Scientific Consensus” that I’ve read (covering the physics and chemistry, observations and modeling) to chapters on “Impacts,” “Understanding Risk,” and then to the new ground of “Preparing for Climate Change.”

 It is these last chapters that this book reflects realizations that are beginning to become the new scientific consensus: that climate change is not just likely in the future, it is happening now, and it will happen to some serious extent no matter what is done to stop it from becoming even worse in the farther future.

 The authors make a brief but sophisticated argument for acting on both fronts: to stop future heating by controlling emissions, but also (and equally) to prepare for inevitable consequences, including complex and multiple emergencies when the readiness will be all.

 This is a trenchant summary for policymakers and others that derives much of its power from being so concise. But to have wider impact, it may require less of the envirospeak abstractions that have unfortunately muddied the meaning of the Climate Crisis in public perception. For example, the authors adopt the terms current in scientific and environmental bureaucracies of “ mitigation” and “adaptation”—words so vague, bloodless and at times misleading that they inspire only mental numbness.

 What the authors mean is that we must deal with both the causes of the Climate Crisis (“mitigation”) and the effects (“adaptation.”) As simple as that seems, it may well become the center of a major political argument in decades to come. But if we’re to get a handle on it now, we need to be a lot clearer in what we say and how we say it.

 Still, this book both summarizes important facts and discussions (like risk assessment, which Greg Craven writes about so well in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?) as well as signaling the terms of future debates, like how to decide what to do to deal with climate change consequences. It is also a fitting memorial to the brave and persistent work of Stephen Schneider.

The Great Disruption

The Great Disruption
 by Paul Gilding
 Bloomsbury Press, 2011 

 Our first truly human evolutionary test was whether we could anticipate the future catastrophe we were blindly causing, and act effectively in time to prevent it. Well, we flunked that one.

Like other recent books on the climate crisis, this one asserts that the global catastrophe is unstoppable. Gilding, an Australian former human rights and environmental activist as well as a businessman and corporate advisor, is forthright on the irrefutable factors besides the climate crisis that are converging: unsustainable population and economic growth outrunning and crashing resources. He says straight out what others have avoided for years: “I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.”

 Yet the buzz about this book is that it’s optimistic. Gilding asserts that there will come a point, perhaps an event, when the crisis will be really obvious, and humanity will respond in its characteristic “slow but not stupid, late but dramatic” way, as for example when the West geared up to defeat Hitler.

 There will be what he calls the Great Awakening: “an exciting and ultimately positive transformation, with great innovation and change in technology, business and economic models alongside a parallel shift in human development. It could well be, in a nonbiological sense, a move to a higher state of evolution and consciousness.” (Presumably that’s if you’re not one of the lost billions.) It’s humanity’s second evolutionary test—and if we blow this one, it’s pretty much over for civilization.

And this transformation could begin in this decade. At least half the book is devoted to Gilding’s ideas of what must be done over the next 40 years to create a sustainable no-growth economy and the values that go with it--ideas tested so far in his speeches and peer-reviewed papers, but now available for wider scrutiny and participation.

Though he uses big labels and inspirational generalities, he’s practical and subtle on the process and on as many details as he musters. Gilding acknowledges the emotional impact of a future of earthquake-like disruptions, and a transition that “will shake us to the core, forcing a substantial rearrangement of human values, political systems, and our physical lives.” This has happened before, but perhaps never so intentionally. He writes that “Grieving is an appropriate response” for the world we’ve destroyed and the resulting pain, “but sustained despair is not.” Any chance for civilization surviving depends on “active, engaged and strategic hope.”

Hope is not a response but a commitment. Optimism is “the most important and political choice an individual can make.” This hope must be enacted partly by working to define the plans necessary to meet this crisis, so when society demands them, they’ll be ready. That makes this a book to keep.

 It takes awhile to absorb its information and the emotions it evokes. But there’s getting to be a consensus that the catastrophe “that will shake us to the core” is coming. It’s time to choose this way to be human, face the grief and think hard about the future.

 Combining a brief sketch of the depth and extent of catastrophe with a brief sketch of a program to get through it and make things better seems a proper enterprise, but it makes for a very weird book. The implications of living through the death of millions--as we're seeing right now in the climate-related starvation in the Horn of Africa--as well as the chaos, the fear, uncertainty (is this intractable recession the beginning of the permanent economic growth collapse?) and denial--seem to need more than a simple acknowledgement they are coming.

 A moment's reflection makes the rest of the book seem like whistling in the dark, and the occasional inspirational self-help book tone doesn't help. That's not to say that his program isn't a useful one, or that it won't work. It just makes for a schizoid reading experience. Also, its subtitle is so silly I can't even bring myself to use it. But all of that just has to be acknowledged--then the content of the book worked with and absorbed.

I'm With the Bears

I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet
 Edited by Mark Martin
 Verso 2011

 As noted in Bill McKibben’s introduction, this collection of 10 stories arrives in the growing shadow of the Climate Crisis. But these are not stories primarily about the Climate Crisis, and only a few mention specific manifestations. Instead they are meant to illuminate (as McKibben says), “not to push us in some particular direction.” Still, sales of this book benefit, McKibben’s advocacy organization dedicated to reducing the still-climbing output of greenhouse gases.

 The book starts with T.C. Boyle’s account of an environmental action in Oregon, and the complex emotional lives of participants. Lydia Millet’s story, “Zoogoing” concerns a man’s response to animals and the animal in himself. It’s not as potent as Michael Ventura’s novel, The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God, but it does illuminate. Kim Stanley Robinson contributes a chapter from one of his Climate Crisis trilogy novels (though it’s about a hike in the Sierras.) In Robinson and Millet, characters contemplate the already visible implications of the destruction of the natural world as we know it, which the Climate Crisis may well complete.

 Nathaniel Rich contributes a fantasy that illuminates the inadequate smallness of our scientific approach to nature. Then there are several post-apocalyptic stories—a disturbingly popular genre. Helen Simpson and Toby Litt provide their variations on the breakdown of society. David Mitchell’s “The Siphoners” that combines futuristic horror with a teaching folk tale is more like traditional apocalyptic stories, which tended to be cautionary tales, saying basically that if we let this or that aspect of our society or technology play out to its logical conclusion, this catastrophe will result. There’s conspicuously little of that here.

 Wu Ming’s story depicts persistent human and cultural qualities in post-apocalyptic circumstances, while Paolo Bacigalupi suggests a culture of survival in an ongoing ecological catastrophe that the previous stories imply. When I saw Margaret Atwood’s name as a contributor, I immediately anticipated her contribution might be “The Bad News” from her most recent story collection. It’s the best story that subtly illuminates our current condition that I’ve read since Charles Baxter’s “Through the Safety Net” in the 1980s, only then it was nuclear war while today it is the slower specter of the Climate Crisis. But Atwood is instead represented by a shorter 2009 piece, “Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet,” a trenchant elegy for Earth, and fatal human hubris.

   I don't know where the title comes from but it reminds me of Paul Shepard, the patron saint in many ways of future ecological thought. These stories speculate on a variety of fates for the Earth. We could use more stories that explore how to best navigate the major and painful changes that probably are ahead.  This provocative collection is a start, and it’s for a very good cause.


HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years On Earth
 by Mark Hertsgaard
 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011

 In 2005 environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard began hearing some deeply unsettling news, primarily from scientists in Europe: climate disruption was no longer something that might happen in the future. It was already happening, and it would continue getting worse for at least the next 25 years, even if carbon emissions were suddenly slashed to nothing. (In the book, Hertsgaard dates this insight to an October 2005 meeting with David King, science adviser to the British government. But he's heard similar analysis before, and wrote about it in the San Francisco Chronicle that February--an essay which affected me deeply at the time, and led me on my own researches.)

 Of course, if emissions of greenhouse gases aren’t stopped, the future beyond 2020 gets even worse. But in 2005 American activists didn’t want to talk about dealing with the effects that were surely going to happen, even if they accepted this science. Al Gore and others thought this would distract from the efforts to control emissions so ultimate catastrophe could be avoided.

 In the last few years, when it became apparent that climate change was happening with unexpected speed, American activists (including Gore) began to accept that the world would need to deal with the effects (floods, storms, heatwaves, drought, disease, sea-level rise, etc.) now and in the near future, and they would need to simultaneously address the causes of global heating (emissions), to save the farther future.

 Unfortunately, they adopted the confusing technocratic terms of “adaptation” (dealing with effects) and “mitigation” (the causes.) Hertsgaard had (to my mind) done a better job in that 2005 essay referring to "protection" and "prevention," but in this book he's deferred to the now conventional nomenclature of adaptation and mitigation. He does pass on what is apparently a practical mantra for those involved in planning along both tracks: "Avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable."

 Hertsgaard’s book distinguishes itself partly by dealing with what’s needed and what’s being done along both tracks. A lot is being done at the city, state and regional levels in the U.S, including in California. He reports on Seattle, Chicago (where the city government has a climate plan and an office of climate change) and New York, as well as internationally in China, Africa, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

 He finds public officials both talking the talk and walking the walk, like Kings County Washington county executive Ron Sims, who convened a conference in 2005 called "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be: Planning for Climate Disruption." Sims combines vision, perseverance, practicality, humor and straight talk, always asking "the climate question" for any county plan.

 Though a pioneer, Sims was not the only such official Hertsgaard found. New York climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer described the various possibilities for Manhattan and how to respond, while believing that "we have a duty to the future" and to the past. New York's efforts to anticipate their needs in dealing with flooding effects are especially eerie, after Hurricane Sandy enacted some of their fears. (The book's research seemed to have been completed in 2010.)

 For all that's being done, the tasks along both tracks are still immense. Looking at what's required in dealing with both causes and effects simultaneously, Hertsgaard writes a sentence that I've written myself: "...I have come to see the climate crisis as a major evolutionary test for our civilization and perhaps our species."

 The other distinguishing element of this book's approach is a very practical and personal framework: Hertsgaard is trying to figure out what the world is going to be like for his very young daughter back in San Francisco. That’s also part of the impact of understanding that the climate change future has begun. It was his first thought in 2005, he writes: “Chiara will have to live through this.”

 Hertsgaard travels, reports and describes, compares and evaluates with informed objectivity, but Chiara is never far from his thoughts. He realizes that stories—from myths and fairytales to comic book heroes—can tell her important things in addition to what science says. Just for its comprehensive and clear information and how it is presented, this is the book I'd recommend as a starting point on the subject.

 Because of the reporting on what is being done it's also more heartening than many, at least for the near future. Not everyone is in as much denial as the oppositional and the popular media suggest. That only makes the final chapters more powerful, when he shows how little time there is to save the farther future. Yet even there he finds practical possibilities.

 Even with a book as solid as this one, reading about the climate future is not easy. It requires emotional work just to allow into consciousness this onrushing future dominated by climate change. But of course it's necessary to confront it anyway, especially now. Hertsgaard ends with a letter for his daughter to read in 2020, when much more will be known about the farther future, depending on what gets done in the next seven years. Chiara will be fifteen.

Plato's Revenge

Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology
 By William Ophuls
 MIT Press 2011

 If a stream of recent books are correct (including those by David Orr, Bill McKibben and Paul Gilding), much of this century is going to be significantly and catastrophically different from today, due primarily to energy and ecological limits amplified by the Climate Crisis. These books all made strong cases for what is likely to change, but less impressive suggestions on how to think constructively in the coming context.

 Now there’s another generation of books that take a deeper and more comprehensive look, however preliminary, at what might constitute a way forward in the inevitable cultural shift. Two very impressive ones have been published almost simultaneously by MIT Press. This is a brief review of the first, by political scientist and veteran author William Ophuls.

 He starts with the stark if now familiar premise:“Modern civilization lives on depleting energy and borrowed time. Its day of reckoning approaches.” So we need a new ideal that “makes a virtue out of the necessity of living within our ecological means.” In this very blunt book-length essay, Ophuls puts the emphasis on the word “virtue.” Our failures can’t be remedied by “smarter management, better technology, and stricter regulation” because they are supported by “a catastrophic moral failure that demands a radical shift in consciousness.”

 “Ecological scarcity is not a problem that can be solved within the old framework but a predicament or dilemma that can be resolved only by a new way of thinking.” But Ophuls does not develop a new futuristic system replete with its own jargon. He critiques the failures of our simplistic cultural context, and returns to forgotten sources for conceptual tools that might equip us to deal with the onslaught of rigorous change, in the currently ignored classics of western civilization. Yet this isn’t a scholarly rehash either: it uses these ideas together with current ecological understanding to inform decisions on how we should live and organize ourselves, and cope with a future of immense challenge.

 His chapters examine “law and virtue,” ecology, physics, individual and cultural psychology, and politics in the larger sense of how societies are organized. Plato, Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau, Jung and other ancient, modern and contemporary thinkers are consulted. But he proposes neither an intellectual new order nor a return to some bookish Golden Age. He argues for adherence to better interpretations of natural law, and for a balance found in Thoreau: “The civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage” who forgoes superfluities for “a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.”

 To me there is something very encouraging about his general approach. It says that even in the intensity of the coming confusion, we have the tools to think and feel our way out of it. Ophuls bravely and succinctly offers his synthesis, which at the very least is a well-constructed springboard to fruitful debate and further thought.

Indra's Net and the Midas Touch

Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World
 By Leslie Paul Thiele 
The MIT Press 2011

 Why do we glorify the “Midas Touch” and forget the rest of the story? That everything King Midas touched turned to lifeless gold, including his daughter?

 Leslie Paul Thiele points out that this is a cautionary tale about unintended consequences, which pretty much characterize what we’ve done to our society and our planet. With many painful examples, Thiele describes how unintended consequences of clear-eyed altruism as well as stupefied greed have characterized our era, because we treat the world like a machine that needs a technological fix or two.

A more realistic metaphor is Indra’s Net, a figure of interdependence and interpenetration from Eastern religions which ecology and systems theory confirm. With William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge  this is a notable attempt to think through the climate crisis future. “Sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary” Thiele writes, so like Ophuls he covers a lot of ground and many important authors, in chapters on ecology, ethics, technology, economics, politics, psychology, physics and metaphysics. He also mines western classics and other wisdom traditions (just as Ophuls also mentions the Indra’s Net metaphor.)

 But Thiele brings a younger point of view, and a very disciplined, trenchant and elegant style as well as wide-ranging scholarship. There are no wasted words in his sentences, and no wasted sentences in this book. He goes beyond the usual questions and conclusions to tougher applications and more subtle synthesis.

He integrates fresh concepts from the front lines, such as safe-to-fail experimentation, cascade effects, resilience, ecosophic awareness. But he also finds new relevance in dismissed principles, like courage, respect and gratitude, and the determinative roles of imagination and story. Sustainability requires a new understanding of soul.

 My favorite guiding quote on thinking about the future is from H.G. Wells: “The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis.” This book is the best exemplar of such a synthesis I’ve encountered in awhile. The individual ideas may not be shockingly new, but the logic of the connections is revelatory.

 Theil ranges from Sophocles to systems theory and the remarkable knowledge of squirrels. An entire curriculum could profitably be based on this book—a curriculum to save the future. But even by itself, this book is a handbook of conceptual tools for making a better future. Or for reading about the future that could be. I may question some of his assertions, but at least he’s providing sturdy transport for the journey.

 One message in both Thiele and Ophuls is that individuals and small groups can make ultimately large differences. “Hope is our greatest resource in these troubling times,” he writes. “But the hope we claim and cultivate must come from decidedly new ways of thinking and acting.”

America the Possible

America The Possible: Manifesto For A New Economy
 by James Gustave Speth
 Yale University Press 2012

 James Speth is a veteran environmentalist, and this is the latest book by an environmental veteran about how Americans can successfully address a future dominated by climate change. But his subtitle is not deceptive: he identifies the economy as the crucial element.

 The book is divided into four parts: what’s wrong now, a vision for a better future, what changes are required to get there, and how to build a political force to make those changes. The future he’s writing about is not far off— 40 or 50 years. The climate change he’s assuming is caused by the greenhouse gases that have already been spewed into the atmosphere, plus what’s added as we reduce to 40% of 1990 levels at mid-century. If greenhouse pollution is not reduced and acceleration becomes uncontrollable, or there’s unforeseen abrupt climate change, then the farther future looks more like slow motion nuclear war.

 Balancing “realism and hopefulness,” Speth is nevertheless convinced (and he is hardly alone in this) that addressing even the climate change that’s pretty definitely coming will require major political and economic transformation. He identifies precedents and experiments that show promise, but he believes that only an aroused citizenry can create the pressure necessary for fundamental change. (Once called the “ultimate insider,” Speth now returns to Washington as a protestor.)

 The good news is that changes needed to cope with the climate crisis--different economic values, restructured institutions (including corporations), etc.-- are both needed anyway for other reasons (including oil depletion), and are likely to make for a better country and a better world. Such transformations may seem impossible, but they’ve happened before.

 Speth’s prose is lean and non-academic. This book is clearly organized and well sourced. For covering so much ground it is amazingly short: under 200 pages of double-spaced print, with another 36 pages of notes. So apart from coping with possible emotional shock, it is readable and re-readable.

 On first reading, I’d identify two particular virtues. One is a specific point: Speth recognizes that an economically stronger middle class is essential to its ability to cope with what’s coming, including higher prices for just about everything.

 The general virtue is that he shows how interrelated the problems are, and how comprehensive the change must be. He doesn’t dance around this, and his knowledge is itself reassuring. The ideas he discusses aren’t usually original, but how they might work together is what’s important. Such conundrums as a steady state economy have been studied in more detail than the last time I checked into the subject. That's another reassurance: a lot of work in each separate area is being done. It just takes putting them together and acting.

 Some of those previous books (Down to the Wire, Eaarth, etc.) also suggested this. But Speth is perhaps both more concrete and succinct, folding everything into a comprehensive vision. But that very level of analysis, as well as the extent of the tasks, can be overwhelming.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

March on Washington Then and Now

August 28, 2013 was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963.  I am posting here two short pieces I wrote about it--fifty years apart-- from the point of view of a participant.

The more recent piece is available elsewhere on the Internet (at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Arcata Eye and my own Dreaming Up Daily) but I wanted it to be part of this site's archives.  I was 17 when I wrote an account for the Greensburg Catholic Accent which is not otherwise available (except at my Blue Voice site.)  This then will be the first and likely last time they appear together.  President Obama called the March one of the most important events in American history.  It is one of the great privileges of my life to have been part of it. 

An Altered State: My March on Washington 1963

I was 17 when I participated in what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. I was a student at a Catholic high school, and heard my own beliefs expressed by President Kennedy in his television address that June: “We are confronted primarily by a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

In the weekly newspaper for the Greensburg, Pennsylvania diocese, the Catholic Accent, I read about an organization called the Catholic Interracial Council that was inviting people to go to the March. I contacted the priest who was named and he talked to my parents. He must have been convincing because I got permission to go.

But I got my first indication of just how small this group was going to be when I attended a meeting, and it was two priests and me. A photographer from the Accent snapped our picture as I pretended to paint the already completed banner we would carry.

As it turned out we were the only three people from the diocese to march under that banner. We would meet many other people from the Pittsburgh area, organized by religious groups of various denominations as well as by labor unions and civil rights groups.

Many traveled to the March from all over the country by bus, and a few by plane, including celebrities from Hollywood and legendary entertainer and activist Josephine Baker from Paris. I boarded a special train from Pittsburgh, one of the twenty or so originating from various places that were added to take people to the March. Recently reviewing video from that day posted on YouTube, I was amazed to see a few frames of my 17 year-old self arriving at Washington’s Union Station (at about the 11:32, 11:33 marks), walking towards the camera and trying to look appropriately serious, in my dark suit, white shirt and tie.

I also looked alert. Vigilance to the possibility of violence was universal that day. From police commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, to the murder of Medgar Evers outside his home in Mississippi, it had been a brutal summer in the South. It’s been estimated that over 14,000 demonstrators across the South (including high school students) were arrested during those months, with at least one death.

When I got home I wrote (in the Catholic Accent) of the “dedicated and dignified fervor” around me at the march. But high spirits were also part of that day’s rhythm. From Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial there was always singing. For me it started even earlier, when I restlessly explored the train, wandering through one quiet car after another until I suddenly pushed open a heavy door to a car literally packed to the rafters with young people. Some were perched in the luggage racks. Several at the far end of the car were playing guitars, and everyone was singing.

The march itself was like one long song. It is more powerful in my memory than the hours of speeches at the reflecting pool. Looking into the faces of the people nearest me, and all of us looking around, my feelings became a reflection of what we felt in common.

We were astonished by our numbers, by the fact of us all there, of the reality that was completely new. The overwhelming mood was wonder. It was a sustained altered state, a living dream.

We had a sense of unanticipated numbers on the march, but the dimensions of the day weren’t clear until we got to the reflecting pool. So many people (since settled at 250,000, the largest demonstration in U.S. history to that date) and yet the transfixing feeling of peace—I don’t think anyone had foreseen this.

I saw the joy and wonder and the tears as black people of different ages and from different parts of the country saw each other there. I was also aware that in this context they could see a young white face undistorted by hate or contempt.

We’d marched and sung together, but even as an audience for the program at the Lincoln Memorial, the interactions didn’t stop-- interactions that in the mid-1960s were still rare.

Now we stood in line together at portable water fountains and toilets. We bunched and sprawled on the grass together, sweating under the same steamy sun, both drowsy and responsive to the inspiring words and music coming through the not always comprehensible fuzz of the sound system. We felt careful courtesy becoming a release into a common regard. We looked at each other.

We listened to Dr. Martin Luther King together, quoting an American hymn—“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” We heard his American litany reach its crescendo: “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!...Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!”

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring... from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"

He spoke of a dream that he saw reflected in the water in front of him.

The official intent of the March was to support passage of the Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy sent to Congress a few days after his June speech. Immediately afterwards I recall commentary in the press calling it a failure because that bill was stalled in Congress (it would pass in early 1964.) Today the march is better remembered than the political reason for it.

Race has still not been erased as deep separation, nor has full racial justice been achieved. But fifty years after that day, my memories aren’t of politics or even history. They are physical. They are of a future glimpsed by being lived.

copyright 2013 William Kowinski

[The following was published in the Greensburg Catholic Accent weekly in September 1963.  The "favorite folk group" mentioned was Peter, Paul & Mary, singing their then-current hit "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan.  With the audacity of my youth, I had proposed to write several articles on the March, but the editor thought the one would be sufficient.  Perhaps I would have gotten around to Martin Luther King's speech in the next one.]

 Eyes of Youth
student gives his views on march
by Bill Kowinski
senior, Greensburg Central Catholic
 The big shock came to us when we returned home. After all the hours of standing, walking, riding, and marching: after seeing huge masses of dedicated and self-sacrificing people; after hearing the songs and speeches crying for freedom, we were vastly surprised to hear the dispassionate estimates of our effectiveness. The consensus seemed to be that we did little, of any, real good.

 Most of these opinions were in reference to civil rights legislation, but to the young people this was not the real issue. The legislation will inevitably come, and it is for future generations to make it work, and to promote the true social integration of the races.

 Is this impossible? Had there not been a march, there would be grave doubts about the practicality of realizing this American ideal.

 But today, after the march, there can be no doubt. When a mass of people roughly equivalent to the population of Syracuse, comprised of different backgrounds, religions, races, and coming from different regions, could converge on Washington with such dedicated and dignified fervor as to make thoughts of violence absurd, then hope for the future is supremely justified.

 It all held special meaning to the young people. They had come from many places, and for many reasons. Perhaps their thoughts were best expressed by a favorite folk singing group who sang these lyrics from a popular song at the march: "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

 From the singing on the Freedom Train, to the slow chant of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the young people brought spirit and compassion to a cause in which they deeply felt.

 While all the banners for "Freedom Now!" will have to be satisfied by the present generation, the young people of today will also face a great task.  As John Stuart Mill wrote: "I refuse to congratulate a man or a generation on getting rid of prejudices until I see what is substituted in lieu of them." Prejudice is based mainly on ignorance. It was evident to the marchers that once the races begin to live and work together, as we marched together, meaningful integration can be achieved. It will fall upon the shoulders of the young people of today to see it through.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Getting Real on Climate

I did several versions of the following piece in 2005 and afterwards, which I posted on sites including Daily Kos. I was most inspired by a Mark Hertsgaard piece in the San Francisco Chronicle that year. It was the first I’d seen to say that because the climate was already changed and changing, we were going to have to deal with that as well as preventing even worse changes in the future.

 In his more recent book, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011), Hertsgaard traced his own awakening to this that year to an interview with David King, chief science advisor to the British government. At the time this was controversial. As Al Gore admits in his new book, The Future, he was among those who didn’t want people talking about dealing with effects of what’s already caused, because it would distract from what had to be done to lessen greenhouse gas emissions and all the other efforts to prevent worse effects in the farther future. He’s changed his mind about it now.

 But it was shocking to me as well in 2005 that climate disruption had already begun and was going to be manifesting effects for decades no matter how much greenhouse pollution was lessened now. It started me on investigating just what this meant, which led to exploring the concepts in this essay.

 I saw that because of these relatively unfamiliar concepts, and in particular the need to think and act along two tracks simultaneously, dealing with the climate future was going to be an even greater challenge in the evolution of humanity’s ability to understand the world, and to apply that understanding to this complex problem of  survival.  If it passes that test, then humanity takes another step to a greater destiny. 

 When discussing this two track challenge, I came up against that all too frequently bedeviling factor of nomenclature. For once again, the scientific and planning experts chose really unfortunate words to attach to each of these tracks: adaptation and mitigation. Neither of these words clearly distinguishes itself from the other, either can be applied in some way to the other track, and neither adequately describes what it’s about. They are also distressingly flat and abstract.

 I struggled for years to figure out better words to apply. Hertsgaard actually did very well in talking about “protection” and “prevention.” But I notice that in his book he’s reverted to the adaptation/mitigation terminology. I suppose that’s because they’ve become the most widely accepted terms. But frankly, I can’t accept them. I just don’t think that way. These days I’ve settled on discussing addressing the effects of global heating already underway or in the cards, and addressing the causes of climate disruption in the farther future. While perhaps not scientifically precise, the distinction between effects and cause make things much clearer to me, and I hope to others.

 I’ve edited one version of these 2005 essays down to the basic contentions. I’ve included some of the evidence I used, although individual facts may have become obsolete. None I fear has been superceded by anything more cheerful.

I've edited out in particular a political argument that now seems obsolete, but in a few years, may not. I argued that if Democrats were only going to talk about the causes, Republicans were eventually going to do a quick 180 and say—yes, global heating is real, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it, so we should apply all our energies to dealing with its effects—even if the methods we choose involve spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Some seven or eight years later, this looks less likely in the foreseeable future, as Republicans have become officially the party of global heating denial. But it could still happen, and it still might cause political chaos. For now, however, the point is that we must urgently link the efforts to address cause and effects simultaneously, if humanity is to have a chance.

Getting Real on Climate
Part of the problem is that there isn’t one problem: there are two.

There is the Climate Crisis of the next fifty years, which will require society to deal with effects of what it has already caused.   And then there is the possible end-game of the farther future, which requires different sets of actions now to prevent it.

Two sets of problems with different actions required. Getting this wrong is politically suicidal, not to mention self-destructive on a vastly larger scale.

It’s Here

This is what we must accept first.  It’s not “almost too late” to stop the Climate Crisis.  It is too late.  Moreover, it has been too late for decades.

It’s here.  It’s inevitably going to get worse for our lifetimes, and the lifetimes of today’s children and grandchildren.  We have to deal with it.

Perhaps the time beyond that can be affected for the better by what we do today.  And that’s the reason we should cut emissions.  For the farther future, beyond 2055.  So the Earth does not become an unrecognizable and unlivable planet.

Until then, the Climate Crisis will be our reality, and very likely our defining reality. 

But after that, things could get even worse.  And that’s something we probably can do something about.  And we should.

This is the framework we should be talking about. 

In this space I’m going to summarize a basic framework that I believe is emerging from the science and from the reporting on it by analysts with far more specific experience and better credentials in the field than me. 

The effects of global heating have been difficult for people to understand, as well as to face.  Global heating involves factors like time lag, feedback and tipping points, that are unfamiliar in political discourse and approaches to societal crises.

The Climate Crisis 2005-2055

These are rough approximations, meant to suggest that we have two problems: the first is the Climate Crisis we are already in, though these are early stages.  It will unfold over the next several decades, regardless of what we do about CO2 emissions.  We can’t prevent it, but there are other actions we need to take to respond.

Update 2011: According to Hertsgaard's HOT, UK climate expert David King told him that the effects of emissions up to that moment will cause climate effects for about 25 years, suggesting that's the lag-time.  But mid-century is still a pretty good guess as to when this could become the runaway cataclysm and collapse, if nothing about emissions is done soon. 

Climate Cataclysm and Climate Collapse 2055-2300

These are prospects for the long-term future if we don’t start cutting and soon stopping greenhouse gas emissions.  It is the outer limit of possibility, a virtually lifeless planet.

We don’t know if that’s what will happen, or if the climate will stabilize at some intermediate stage that nevertheless could mean the end of life as we know it on earth (killing many species of animals and plants, except those that can survive and evolve in the heat of the dinosaur age), which would include the end of civilization and probably our species on this planet.  If such Armageddon were to happen, we don’t know if it will take two hundred or five hundred years.  But in fifty years, it’s likely we’ll know a lot more.  But the end of this century going forward is likely to be frighteningly bad.

The important thing to emphasize about the far future is, because of time lag and feedback effects and tipping points, what we do now will contribute to this future, one way or another. 

It may already be too late.  But right now it’s most useful to look at this in two stages.  If we do, we’ll see that the actions necessary are different, and the actions that people are fighting about now aren’t the appropriate ones.  One thing is becoming pretty certain: even if Kyoto-style reductions in fossil fuel emissions were to actually be enacted, they will probably not reduce the Climate Crisis for the next several decades, and they certainly will not end it. 

 And when they don’t, and people have misunderstood why they are necessary (which is to possibly the farther future), they will feel lied to and cheated.  And if we don’t do what we really need to do for the Climate Crisis period, people and the environment will suffer because the kinds of actions that could ameliorate the effects of the Climate Crisis weren’t taken.

To understand how all of this is possible, we need to introduce a few basic concepts.


We’re used to dealing with crises when they become crises, not when someone predicts they will.  Most of the time, even though people have suffered and died needlessly, the problem is fixed before it gets out of hand, or the crisis ends (like an epidemic that runs out of victims without immunity) and eventually things get back to normal.

That’s not the nature of the Climate Crisis.  The Cause is cumulative over time. Once changed, it establishes a new baseline.  What’s done to cause it occurs decades before the effect.

And ending the crisis, changing the effect, is not a matter of slowly subtracting the stuff that caused it.  Because once the effect is caused, it takes on a life of its own.  

So the first factor is lag-time: the time between the cause and effect.  When that time is measured in decades, while so much of our political life is measured in much smaller increments of time (from tomorrow’s news cycle to next week’s poll numbers to four years at most), it is difficult for politicians to take responsibility.  Especially when nearly everything else in our lives geared to small time frames: the quarterly report, the yearly income, the flavor of the week.

Mark  Hertsgaard explained all this last February:
“At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of the debate likes to talk about: It is already too late to prevent global warming and the climate change it sets off. Environmentalists won't say this for fear of sounding alarmist or defeatist. Politicians won't say it because then they'd have to do something about it. The world's top climate scientists have been sending this message, however, with increasing urgency for many years. “

After studying the matter since 1988, the United Nations panel of some 2000 scientists issued its report in 2001: 

“The panel said that human-caused global warming had already begun, and much sooner than expected. What's more, the problem is bound to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better.”

“Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on how to prevent it -- for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol… But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. No matter how many "green" cars and solar panels Kyoto eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain amount of global warming is inevitable.
The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them. “
"Contrary to the impression given by some news reports, global warming is not like a light switch that can be turned off if we simply stop burning so much oil, coal and gas. There is a lag effect of about 50 to 100 years. That's how long carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere after it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home furnaces and industrial smokestacks. So even if humanity stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet would continue warming for decades. “

         But time lag isn’t the only structural element involved.  The climate is at its simplest a complex system, and systems have their own behaviors that “systems dynamics” and related disciplines are only beginning to understand. 

          Much system behavior is counter-intuitive.  My own example is sitting in traffic twenty or so cars away from a red light.  If you notice, you tend to move up when the light is red and stop when it is green.  That’s counter-intuitive, but it’s the way that system works.  A lag effect is part of the reason.  Counter-intuitive is not very helpful when you need to convince large numbers of people, in a society that prizes simple if not simplistic issues and solutions.


Feedback is another important factor in global heating.  Feedback is basically an effect becoming a cause of other effects, which affect the original cause.  Often it amplifies the original effect, like feedback from a noisy speaker into a microphone makes more noise, or distortion.

In the past year, climate scientists have studied several feedback effects. A study  of the 2003 heat wave in Europe—extreme summer heat which itself led to deaths estimated in the tens of thousands, making it a severely under-reported catastrophe—showed that plants expended more CO2 “breathing” in the heat than they took out of the atmosphere in photosynthesis.

 They were actually sending more carbon dioxide into the air than they were absorbing---a finding that shocked experts who believed that climate change would accelerate green plant growth in Europe, which normally would take carbon out of the atmosphere.  But extreme heat set up a feedback system, in which heat caused plants to behave in ways which would eventually increase the heating.

A related study showed that extreme heat waves also released CO2 stored in soil, which would add to the feedback effect of heat creating heat.

What feedback means for the Climate Crisis is substantially more trouble ahead than more linear analyzes suggested.  Because of lag time, experts expect that heat waves like the one in 2003 will occur every other year by the 2050s.  “By the end of the century,” one scientist warned, “2003 would be a cool year."   Add to that not-yet quantified increases due to feedback effects.

Another example is the melting of Arctic ice. One scientist explained: “What we're seeing is a process in which we start to lose ice cover during the summer," he said, "so areas which formerly had ice are now open water, which is dark."

"These dark areas absorb a lot of the Sun's energy, much more than the ice; and what happens then is that the oceans start to warm up, and it becomes very difficult for ice to form during the following autumn and winter. It looks like this is exactly what we're seeing - a positive feedback effect, a 'tipping-point'." 

Tipping Point

Over the period of the Climate Crisis half-century, feedback will worsen situations that seem to occur without cause, but are results of time-lag. What this might mean for this period of present to near future will be discussed a bit below.  But let’s follow the logic of the feedback effect to the ultimate danger.

The greatest threat scientists fear is reaching the point of no return, when a process takes on a life of its own and can no longer be stopped.  These days it’s often called the tipping point.

The tipping point might be described as the moment when positive feedback effects reacting to phenomena that can’t be controlled because their cause was in the past (time-lagged), creates catastrophic and self-reinforcing change. 

Where most of the world’s ice is now concentrated, once the melting ice passes its tipping point, it could mean complete melting, with huge rises in sea level that would inundate coastal cities. 

Consider this report:

Experts say Greenland's 3,000 metre (9,800 ft) thick ice sheet, which has been melting at ever higher altitudes in summers in recent years, may be vulnerable to a runaway thaw.

If the Greenland sheet melted entirely over the next few centuries, world sea levels would rise by about 7 metres (23 ft). Antarctica's far bigger ice cap is likely to be more resilient as the giant continent acts as a deep freeze.

A melting of the Arctic "may happen very abruptly. It's one of the big unknowns and would be irreversible," said Paal Prestrud, head of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

“The concern is that there are tipping points out there that could be passed before we're halfway through the century," said Tim Lenton, an earth systems modeller at Britain's University of East Anglia."

The infusion of cold water into certain warmer ocean currents possibly could create another tipping point, which would result in the ultimate paradox of global heating causing a new Ice Age---the scenario in a report to the Pentagon in 2004, and dramatized in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.
Atmospheric temperature change is itself a candidate for causing a cascade of effects that could radically change the planet. That possibility was given a dramatic and shuddering boost last week with the finding that CO2 levels are now higher by some 27 % than at any time in the past 650,000 years.  That’s a point in time at which our species still had nearly a half million years to evolve to the point we could be called almost human.

Back beyond 650,000 years is an earth that cannot support humans or much of any other familiar life forms. This is the ultimate end point: a planet too hot and dry to sustain much of life as we know it.

The 2 degrees of separation

The difference between the ongoing, onrushing Climate Crisis and Climate Cataclysm is a matter of degree.  Maybe one degree.

Mark Lynas in his Open Letter to the Montreal conference stated that at two degrees C above pre-industrial temperature or more, ”we'll likely lose the Greenland ice sheet - flooding coastal cities across the world - as well as coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, and many of the world's major breadbaskets, as deserts sweep across continental interiors.”  He reckons the planet has ten years to prevent this by seriously reducing emissions.

We’re at about one degree F higher now, about a half degree C.  Some predictions, based on our current rate of increasing fossil fuel CO2 levels through 2050, show a large rise by the end of the century of from 2 to 11 degrees C.

There are bound to be more surprises as information is gathered and calculations become more sophisticated.  No climate scientists, however, are looking for things to cool off anytime soon.
The lesson of 100 year predictions is this: we may be able to affect the future of our great-grandchildren’s children by moving aggressively to renewable and sustainable energy systems.  Some people alive right now will have to do something anyway when oil starts to run out, and renewable energy is likely to benefit people in their own lifetimes with better health, for instance. 

It may not save the far future, but if there’s any chance for us to save it, we should take it. That’s our responsibility, and I believe it will be the defining test of our civilization and of humanity itself.  If we don’t face this responsibility and Earth becomes barren because we didn’t, we don’t deserve to survive anyway.  Unfortunately we’ll take down the only known ecosystem in the universe with us.

The Climate Crisis

Even though cutting emissions may benefit the far future no matter why we do it, I believe it’s wrong to continue insisting that cutting CO2 is going to prevent the Climate Crisis, and especially that it is the single way to deal with the Climate Crisis.

If we insist that cutting emissions will do it, and the climate continues to get worse, all credibility will be lost.  Let’s do it, but for the right reasons.

More to the point, we’re going to have our hands full long before the end of the century, and we’d better face up to what might be needed.  That’s what our science fiction gathering of scientists and world leaders would be talking about now.

What are those effects?  As Katrina was about to hit the Gulf Coast, Ross Gelbspan wrote an oped piece that catalogued the year’s weather effects the press wasn’t reporting, at least not coherently as a gathering Climate Crisis.  They included: a two foot snowfall in Los Angeles, 124 mph winds that shut power in Scandavia, the Midwest drought that sent the Missouri River to its lowest recorded level, drought in Europe that caused wildfires in Spain and low water levels in France, 37 inches of rain in one day in Bombay that killed 1,000;, and a lethal heat wave in Arizona that killed 20 people in one week.

“The consequences are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying, “ he wrote. Yet the dots are not connected “because the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in doubt about the issue.”    

 Just this past week, studies on a couple of large but specific problems were released.

Disease: A World Health Organization study estimated that the Climate Crisis contributes more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year, now.  By 2030, a conservative estimate is they could double.

Why? Hotter temperatures mean that disease-carrying insects flourish where it was too cold before, and they live longer and reproduce more in places where cold winters kept their numbers down.  For example:

Just this week, WHO officials reported that warmer temperatures and heavy rains in South Asia have led to the worst outbreak of dengue fever there in years. The mosquito-borne illness, which is now beginning to taper off, has infected 120,000 South Asians this year and killed at least 1,000.

Senior U.S. and international officials said they now regard climate change as a major public health threat. Howard Frumkin, who directs the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called climate change “a significant global health challenge” in an interview this week.

Parasites that cause killing diarrhea flourish in the heat.  Though poor people and poor countries are the most vulnerable to disease as well as heat waves and hurricanes, being rich doesn’t guarantee immunity.  Rising temperatures also correlate with deaths from air pollution---from smog.

Water.  In a study also released last week: "Climate change experts led by Tim Barnett at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., found that at least one-sixth of the world's population, including much of the industrial world and a quarter of global economic output, appeared vulnerable to water shortages brought about by climate change."

Another study of 12 other models agrees generally with this conclusion. "I think this will be one of the first greenhouse gas-related problems that will fall on the civilized world," Barnett said. In particular, glacier and snow melt that furnishes fresh water to many places will fade in warmer climate.  This will also affect the ecosystems of rivers and their relationship to the ocean, and could lead to a lot of other effects, like a drain on protein from disappearing fish species.

This is another way that the Climate Crisis interacts with systems dynamics: it fools with the existing webs of life.  Species crash is already a problem, as habitats disappear or change because of development and exploitation.  The wetlands around New Orleans that used to protect the city against the force of hurricanes have disappeared, and the lack of them is an acknowledged cause of that city’s flooding.  Just because we ignore how the natural world supports our lives doesn’t mean we won’t suffer when those systems collapse, even before we’ve cared enough to figure out how they interrelate and are interdependent. Destroying keystone species and otherwise shredding the web of life can affect us even in the Climate Crisis period.

As it becomes worse, the Climate Crisis can unleash the ultimate human folly: warfare.

As Mark Hertsgaard pointed out, that Pentagon study “said that by 2020, climate change could unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes including mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war as countries like China and India battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce food and water.” 

What Should We Be Doing?

Mark Mark Hertsgaard:

"The need for such a two-track strategy of prevention and protection is gaining acceptance from most of the world's governments. In Britain, the Department of the Environment promises to publish its strategy for adapting to global warming by the end of 2005.
At the most recent international meeting on global warming, held in Buenos Aires in December, a majority of the delegates supported the establishment of a fund to aid countries already suffering from the early effects of global warming.

The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them.

Among the steps needed to defend ourselves is quick action to fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration flows by environmental refugees.We must also play offense. We must retroactively shrink the amount of warming facing us by redoubling efforts to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequester them where they are no longer dangerous." 

In addition a 2004 study suggested that global heating could mean the extinction of a million species by 2050. We need to put preventive measures beyond carbon on the Climate Crisis agenda.

There are so many specific areas to work on that regardless of what part of this two-track thesis anyone accepts, there's work to be done.  But ultimately an understanding and a working acceptance that this is a two track process is essential.  Because there may yet be temptations to argue about them as either/or propositions.  But this they cannot be.  That's part of the test for these generations.

There's much to overcome. As Ross Gelbspan wrote, "the ignorance of the American public about global warming stands out as an indictment of the US media.” But part of the problem, along with the millions spent on disinformation and on p.r. positioning,  is that people just don’t want to hear about it much---not in the way it is presented.  Because it seems so hopeless.  Even on these blogs, a piece on global heating is almost guaranteed to be unread.

But the emotional work to face the future must be done.  Hope isn't simply something you feel.  It's something you enact.  Hope for the future is made in the present.