As the world trundles from recession to man-made (‘natural’) disasters, we keep looking for scapegoats and quick fixes. Those who know what needs to be done are also keenly aware of so-called political realities. “Never gonna happen” seems to be the motto that carries the day.
–Lobbyists and fossil-fuel interests own the government. Kick them out and restore ethical democracy? Never gonna happen.
–Out-of-control US deficits stretch as far as the eye can see. Raise taxes from 4th lowest in OECD? Never gonna happen.
–As we pass 390ppm atmospheric CO2, 2010 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record. Put a price on carbon to reduce emissions? Never gonna happen.
–Hundreds of billions of dollars per year leave our country for energy imports. Jump start domestic renewables? Pay for them with a gas tax or feebates? Create a clean-energy economy and reduce the trade deficit? Never gonna happen.
–Unprecedented warming-related changes to the natural world create an accelerating parade of man-made ‘natural’ disasters. Respond with international agreements and responsible energy legislation? Never gonna happen.
We are ignoring the elephant in the room. The news cycle focuses on current near-zero interest rates, monetary policy (the “Fed”) and what can be done to stave off deflation or “fix” unemployment before the next election. Our eye is so far off the ball, we’re not even in the right stadium. Though exacerbated by corporate interests and decades of so-called “free market” (gang-bang) economics, every single last one of our economic problems relates to the unholy triad of unsustainable business practices, resource depletion and a warming world.
When the world finally wakes up to this terrifying reality in a few short years, the pundits will no doubt blame the scientists for “not making a convincing enough case.” I agree. That’s what I fully expect a sputtering Rush Limbaugh to croak out of his windpipe as the lights flicker out in his studio for the final time.
The case has been fully made, and we are seeing the results on a daily basis. While the right continues to insist that a warming world will be “more pleasant” and “good for crops,” the reality is different. This year’s firestorms in Russia and a year ago in Victoria, Australia are unprecedented events in human history. Flooding has increased dramatically worldwide. The dreaded tropical disease dengue fever is moving northward to Florida. The great lakes are heating up. Pine beetle larvae are no longer being killed by winter frosts in North America, and tens of thousands of square miles of formerly healthy forests are being destroyed, leading to a vicious cycle of increased carbon emissions as the dead trees decay. The winter 2009-2010 epic snowstorms in the US northeast are exactly what would be expected as warmer global temperatures force more moisture into the air. The pH of the ocean has decreased dramatically from about 8.2 to 8.1, leading to stress on coral reefs and a dramatic drop in plankton, the base of the entire marine food chain.
Yet the fossil-fueled denial machine continues to run in overdrive. Warren Buffet last year paid a 25% premium to invest $41 billion in Burlington Northern railroad, which delivers 297 million tons a year of coal to the nation’s power plants. Texas money is flowing into the 2010 California election to promote Proposition 23, a reversal of AB32, the nation’s most stringent greenhouse gas law. Though we are at or near peak coal, the coal industry continues to act as if coal is here to stay. Even as overwhelming evidence of a warming world is literally splashed across hundreds of millions of TV and computer screens, US public opinion on the reality of anthropogenic climate change continues to move towards skepticism.
In a private discussion which has spanned several years, a friend of mine maintains climate change is overblown, and that the real risk is “all of the taxes and regulations that are being proposed which will mean a longer period of economic malaise. And that puts it mildly.” I asked this friend if he would bet me $1,000 on the factual outcome of anthropogenic climate change, payable in 10 years (when it would presumably have become undeniable). He refused to take the bet. He won’t risk $1,000 of his own money, but implicitly he’s willing to sit by and risk trillions of dollars in losses to the global economy as we continue to destroy year on year the bounty of ecosystem services on which all industry rests.
This is a sad, sad state of affairs. And it reflects universal human tendencies to think locally and base calculations on a singular goal of short-term local gain. It stands to reason that our brains are wired that way, since for most of human history people stayed in their tribe of birth, and never traveled beyond their horizon.
The only thing standing between us and coming catastrophe is our ability to learn to think longer term and to face up to these problems we have brought on ourselves with filthy energy. Yes our behavior matters. Every time we fire up our car engine or flip a light switch or thermostat, we must remember that. We are killing ourselves with a quadrillion piston strokes. It’s no different than if we ate a little slow poison every day. And it’s not like with poison where one day we would suddenly just keel over.
At some point, if we don’t stop pinning our hopes on this bankrupt and unsustainable consumer economy, it won’t be that some of us will merely lose our jobs. We will wring our hands as the US teeters on the edge of losing its superpower status. More and more will be out of work permanently because the economy will stay broken. There’s not enough credit in the world to fix it. Little by little people will begin to accept that the jobs are not coming back. The social safety net will unravel, and once again the weak will perish. We will elect corn-pone fascists with their “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric and they will try to return to the old ways and crank up dirty and unsustainable production even more and still it won’t be enough. Unless we’re among the lucky few who’ve managed to become super-rich, we will watch as every modern convenience we enjoy is stripped from us, because we simply won’t be able to afford it anymore. We will despair as a warming world creates unending conflict, refugee crises, and a degree of instability we won’t be able to manage. For the first time in centuries, we could come to know global famine. Even the super-rich have to eat. And they alone can hire private armies to make sure they do.
That’s one possible future. Or we could close The Big Disconnect and do something smart about it. Thomas Friedman and many others have proposed solutions, but we don’t want to hear them. “Never gonna happen.” If you think so, please read the above paragraph again. If you think I’m exaggerating, you need to read Eaarth by Bill McKibben.
–President Obama needs to lay this out as a real, current, unprecedented generational challenge, not some kind of “energy independence” lip service such as has been parroted by the last seven American presidents.
–We need immediate revenue-neutral carbon feebates, coupled with tariffs on dirty imports to persuade other countries we mean business.
–A smart grid and national Renewable Portfolio Standard, with a phase-out of all US coal plants by 2025 at the latest.
–Active government participation in the renewable sector, with grants of billions for commercialization–not just research. This would lead to tens of thousands of new, non-exportable jobs. We don’t need alternative energy. We need energy that doesn’t kill us and that supports economic growth on a resource-constrained planet. And we need to re-frame the national discussion accordingly.
Some readers will no-doubt accuse me of alarmism or hysteria. They will compare these predictions to the way-off-base ones Elizabeth Clare Prophet (my mother) made in 1989 about a Soviet nuclear strike on the US. They will accuse me of fanaticism and apocalypticism.
To which I say, wake up, it’s later than you think!
The difference is that I’m not claiming inevitability. Nor giving unsupportable timetables. I’ll even link here to Ray Kurzweil, whose climate optimism I’m sympathetic to. Stephen Hawking, on the other hand thinks we are going to need to leave earth to survive, and he’s arguably the “smartest man in the world.” I’m hardly out on a limb.
Regardless of who’s right, these are slow-motion catastrophes that will unfold for all the world to experience. It won’t be a spectator sport. Because these conditions of ecological collapse took decades to set in motion, they will take an equal amount of time to slow or stop. And they are already underway. Unlike spiritual pronouncements of apocalypse, these are straightforward and observable movements of planetary physics. And that physics has begun to affect the global economy. Most importantly, unlike mythological threats of “divine retribution,” the outcome is completely in human hands.