…Catastrophic Weather Events Are Becoming the
Are You Ready for Life on Our Planet Circa 2011?
Or 2014 ??
by Bill McKibben
AlterNet (February 02 2011)
If you were in the space shuttle looking down yesterday, you would have
seen a pair of truly awesome, even fearful, sights.
Much of North America was obscured by a 2,000-mile storm dumping vast
quantities of snow from Texas to Maine – between the wind and snow,
forecasters described it as “probably the worst snowstorm ever to
Chicago, and said waves as high as 25 feet were rocking buoys on Lake
Meanwhile, along the shore of Queensland in Australia, the vast cyclone
Yasi was sweeping ashore; though the storm hit at low tide, the country’s
weather service warned that “the impact is likely to be more life
threatening than any experienced during recent generations”, especially
since its torrential rains are now falling on ground already flooded from
earlier storms. Here’s how Queensland premier Anna Bligh addressed her
people before the storm hit: “We know that the long hours ahead of you are
going to be the hardest that you face. We will be thinking of you every
minute of every hour between now and daylight and we hope that you can
feel our thoughts, that you will take strength from the fact that we are
keeping you close and in our hearts.”
Welcome to our planet, circa 2011 – a planet that, like some unruly
adolescent, has decided to test the boundaries. For two centuries now
we’ve been burning coal and oil and gas and thus pouring carbon into the
atmosphere; for two decades now we’ve been ignoring the increasingly
impassioned pleas of scientists that this is a Bad Idea. And now we’re
Oh, there have been snowstorms before, and cyclones – our planet has
always produced extreme events. But by definition extreme events are
supposed to be rare, and all of a sudden they’re not. In 2010 nineteen
nations set new all-time temperature records (itself a record!) and when
the mercury hit 128 in early June along the Indus, the entire continent of
Asia set a new all-time temperature mark. Russia caught on fire; Pakistan
drowned. Munich Re, the biggest insurance company on earth, summed up the
annus horribilis last month with this clinical phrase: “the high number of
weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally
and in different regions of the world provide further indications of
advancing climate change”.
You don’t need a PhD to understand what’s happening. That carbon we’ve
poured into the air traps more of the sun’s heat near the planet. And that
extra energy expresses itself in a thousand ways, from melting ice to
powering storms. Since warm air can hold more water vapor than cold, it’s
not surprising that the atmosphere is four percent moister than it was
forty years ago. That “four percent extra amount, it invigorates the
storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms”, said Kevin
Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the government’s
National Center for Atmospheric Research. It loads the dice for record
rain and snow. Yesterday the Midwest and Queensland crapped out.
The point I’m trying to make is: chemistry and physics work. We don’t just
live in a suburb, or in a free-market democracy; we live on an earth that
has certain rules. Physics and chemistry don’t care what John Boehner
thinks, they’re unmoved by what will make Barack Obama’s re-election
easier. More carbon means more heat means more trouble – and the trouble
has barely begun. So far we’ve raised the temperature of the planet about
a degree, which has been enough to melt the Arctic. The consensus
prediction for the century is that without dramatic action to stem the use
of fossil fuel – far more quickly than is politically or economically
convenient – we’ll see temperatures climb five degrees this century. Given
that one degree melts the Arctic, just how lucky are we feeling?
So far, of course, we haven’t taken that dramatic action – just the
opposite. The president didn’t even mention global warming in his State of
the Union address. He did promise some research into new technologies,
which will help down the line – but we’ll only be in a position to make
use of it if we get started right now with the technology we’ve already
got. And that requires, above all, putting a serious price on carbon. We
use fossil fuel because it’s cheap, and it’s cheap because Exxon Mobil and
Peabody Coal get to use the atmosphere as open sewer to dump their waste
for free. And today you can see the results of that particular business
model from outer space.
Overcoming that will require a movement – a movement that is slowly
beginning to build. In 2008 a few of us started from scratch to build a
campaign with an unlikely moniker: we called in 350.org, because a month
earlier this particular planet’s foremost climatologist, James Hansen, had
declared that we now knew how much carbon in the atmosphere was too much.
Any value higher than 350 parts per million, he said, was “not compatible
with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth
is adapted”. That’s troubling news, because right now the atmosphere above
Chicago and Cairns and wherever you happen to be is about 390 parts per
million carbon dioxide. In other words, too much.
At the time, some of our environmentalist friends said that science was
too complicated for most people to get – that the only way to talk about
these issues was to simplify them. But we thought people could understand,
just as we understand when a doctor tells us our cholesterol is too high.
We may not know everything about the lipid system, but we know what ‘too
high’ means – it means we better change our diet, take our pill, lace up
our sneakers. And indeed 350.org has now coordinated almost 15,000
demonstrations in 188 countries, what Foreign Policy magazine called ‘the
largest ever coordinated global rally” about any issue.
That’s just a start, of course, and so far not enough to counter the power
of the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable enterprise humans have
ever engaged in. So we’ll keep building, and hoping others will join us.
But the good news is simple: more and more of this planet’s inhabitants
are remembering that they actually live on a planet.
We’ve been able to forget that fact for the last ten thousand years, the
period of remarkable climatic stability that underwrote the rise of
civilization. But we won’t be able to forget it much longer. Days like
yesterday will keep slapping us upside the head, until we take it in. The
third rock from the sun is a very different place than it used to be.
Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, and author most recently of Earth: Making a Life on a
Tough New Planet (2010).
2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.