Forces of Nature Don’t Make Deals

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Forces of Nature Don’t Make Deals

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by Jean Arnold

It’s time to get loud and clear on climate change. Enviro activist groups, such as 350.org, hope to make their point this October with an international day of action.
350Climate crisis is the most urgent issue facing the planet today. Urgent, because we have a tiny window of opportunity to reduce heat trapping emissions before the effects of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible. This is what the world’s best climate scientists say. Further, the climate is changing faster than even they anticipated. Millions of people around the world face starvation and dislocation if nothing is done. Especially hard-hit will be people of color, the poorest countries, the island nations and those in the global south.

Climate crisis is the most urgent issue facing the planet today. Urgent, because we have a tiny window of opportunity to reduce heat trapping emissions before the effects of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible. This is what the world’s best climate scientists say. Further, the climate is changing faster than even they anticipated. Millions of people around the world face starvation and dislocation if nothing is done. Especially hard-hit will be people of color, the poorest countries, the island nations and those in the global south.

Lucky number

For about 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution began belching dark clouds of coal dust over England, we’ve been burning fossil fuels to drive our turbo-charged economies—slowly at first, but ever-accelerating. Prior to that, atmospheric CO2 levels were at 275 parts per million (ppm). Now levels are at 388 ppm and rising about 2 ppm annually.

A series of landmark studies last year provoked a team of NASA climatologists to sound the fire alarm, asserting that atmospheric CO2 of 350 ppm is the safe upper limit before irreversible damage occurs; that we must begin to turn around this rising trajectory immediately and end fossil fuel use by mid-century to keep the rise in global temperature below two degrees centigrade. If we don’t, we will trigger climate chaos and the end of civilization—at least as we know it.

Flailing around

Can you say “unprecedented international cooperation and mobilization”? Heads of state have bickered and stonewalled on climate issues for 20 years: How will we reduce emissions? How much and by when? Who will take responsibility and who will pay? The United Nations gets it, and is working on a global climate treaty to be completed at a conference December 7-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Many believe this is the last big chance before the window of opportunity closes for good. Others say the current treaty is too weak and the targets and methodology outdated. Any useful plan needs a substantially high carbon price to force us to transition to clean energy, and it needs to ensure that poor countries have a fair chance to develop cleanly.

America is in the best position to lead the world in innovating and implementing a renewable energy infrastructure, right? However, in just the first three months of this year, oil and gas lobbyists spent $44.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies—more than $83,000 per elected official—prior to June’s passing vote by the U.S. House of Repre­sen­tatives on the American Clean Energy and Security Act—a bill so compromised that it’s worse than nothing, as it will delay for years doing what is needed. As of this writing, the Senate may postpone their own climate bill until 2010.

Partial or delayed measures won’t save us; in this situation, it’s all or nothing. Mother Earth’s geophysics cannot be fooled or bought off.

Happening now

We’re already seeing disastrous impacts all over the world. Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum reports climate change is already causing 300,000 deaths a year. Glaciers everywhere are melting fast, and half the world’s population depends on glaciers for their water. Warmth-loving mosquitoes are spreading, bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is increasing, making it harder to grow food in many places. Oceans are a huge CO2 storage system; however, as they absorb more CO2, they become more acidic, which is tough on sea life, making it harder for critters like clams and corals to maintain their shells and skeletons. As ocean temperatures rise, warm-water species are spreading and cold-water species are retreating.

Temperatures in the Intermoun­tain West are predicted to rise more than elsewhere in the continental U.S. Bark beetles surviving the warmer winters are already consuming wide swaths of Western forests, and forest fires have also increased.

The news from the Arctic Circle is that warming is occurring far faster than the wildest predictions. In the summer of 2007, sea ice was about 39% below the 20-year summer average. Many scientists now believe the Arctic will be totally ice-free in the summer in less than five years—80 years ahead of recent forecasts. The Greenland Ice Sheet is also in imminent danger. Melting ice may cause sea levels to rise several meters within this century, which would inundate many of the world’s cities, island nations and much farmland.

If we continue on our current course, Planet Earth will become a very different, far less habitable place for our children. The destruction of our climate won’t happen 100 years from now, in someone else’s future….it is happening now, and it is our children’s future at stake.

What can we do? We can pass the drinks on the dance floor of the Titanic and watch her go down, or we can respond. Leading climatologist James Hansen asserts that we need to quit coal within 20 years, phase out conventional petroleum and ban high-carbon fuels like tar sands. We need to improve agricultural practices, keep the trees we have while planting more, get electricity from wind and solar and electrify our transportation. All this and more can return greenhouse gasses to safe levels. We may not reverse extensive damage, but we can prevent it from worsening. Even though we really do have a global sustainability emergency, the changes we need to make are possible.

Earth to policymakers

Industrialized nations are historically responsible for climate change; it’s logical and fair that we need to reduce emissions disproportionately more than the developing world. Per capita, the U.S. is the highest emitter among large Western nations, though China has surpassed us in total output, with three times the population.

It all comes down to questions of financing and justice: How much should each country pay? Should it be based on current emissions or historic emissions? Tensions between rich and poor nations will likely predominate at Copenhagen. Climate justice is more than an environmental issue; it is also an economic issue, a security issue, and an issue for our very survival. It must be part of the equation.

The colossal failure of imagination and courage that plagues our so-called “leaders” is a symptom of deeper issues: Policymakers lack full-system thinking; they are in the pockets of corporations; and their allegiances are to nation-states, leaving them ill equipped to rise to our global challenges.

We must transcend short-term thinking and incremental politics-as-usual. When we demand that our leaders set limits on CO2 levels, we are requiring that they put the interests of human beings before the richest global corporations. A goal of 350 ppm eliminates the path of gradual reform, requiring no less than an energy revolution based on efficiency and a massive deployment of carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar. This is a unique opportunity to remake our communities in ways that are healthier and more locally self-sufficient. We have the technology to do what needs doing, which will unleash an enormous wave of human creativity and economic revival. This can be a truly transformative moment for our democracy and for all of us in the struggle for social justice.

Grassroots pressure

Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was possible after you are done.
—Paul Hawken, author & activist

We citizens can’t get there by each of us doing what we can. Changing our light bulbs and recycling more won’t get us there, not even close. Greatest change will come with policy changes. Leaders need to know we will no longer wait while they fritter away our chance for a livable future.

This fall activists are devising both creative and dramatic actions to send a strong message prior to Copenhagen: that equitable, science-based legislation is required before it is too late.

On November 30, BeyondTalk.net is planning a Day of Action/Civil Disobedience, calling for 10,000 people to commit civil disobedience—the largest climate resistance action thus far.

350.org, a coalition of climate justice activists, has called for a planetary day of action on October 24, with 1,500 gatherings planned in 100 nations.

Will activists be effective in their actions? Is there enough alignment to sound a clear voice? We need collective action—action that can make a difference. The environmental community has been divided on many details. Perhaps our best hope is to focus on Obama and what he can bring to Copenhagen. The Supreme Court has said he has the authority to regulate carbon via the Clean Air Act, so he can control the matter if he chooses. If activists can demonstrate to the politicians how to unite, perhaps we will be blazing the true path forward to Copenhagen.

350.org events

In Salt Lake: 2-5 p.m., Library Square. www.350slc.org. Contact Ashley Anderson: c.ashleyanderson@gmail.com. (See CATALYST calendar, p. 25.)

For info on all events around the state: www.350utah.org

Jean Arnold is responsible for making the term “peak oil” a household word among Utahns, the result of her epic article on the subject which appeared in the October 2006 CATALYST. She is a visual artist and has become an air-quality activist.

 
 
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