“It’s Global Warming, Stupid” ran the headline on the cover of the conservative Bloomberg Businessweek on Nov. 5. The article’s lead stated: “If Hurricane Sandy doesn’t persuade Americans to get serious about climate change, nothing will.”
With about 100 people dead and $50 billion in economic losses, this storm was one of the largest and deadliest in recent U.S. history. But will it be enough to persuade people that climate change is real?
While a tsunami of available facts on global warming exists, we are so overwhelmed by data and rhetoric that we seem not to be able to absorb, much less make sense of the phenomenon. Many Americans must either be tuning out or surfing past these data bits.
For while our nation bakes, burns and floods, we continue to entertain ourselves to death and reel at once from boredom and overstimulation, emotional numbness and information overload. I am afraid that it will take a lot more than this one storm to persuade nonbelievers of the reality of climate change.
Our nation has a large anti-science, anti-intellectual segment that is dead-set against evolution, climate science and numerous other forms of intelligent discourse. Yet, there is a vast consensus among moral, intellectual and scientific leaders about climate change being real.
Climate action is a moral responsibility. As moral beings we are called to environmental action. To remove the ability of power elites to destroy the Earth, we must take ourselves seriously as moral agents with the right to live.
Environmental degradation and the resulting global climate change are immensely dangerous to all life on our planet. Devastatingly, while activists are clearly vocalizing the dangers we face, our nation’s leaders do not act nor create policies to avert future harm.
Part of the problem is the tone of the arguments. Often, policy wonks debate with facts that lack moral conviction and facts alone cannot tell us what we ought to do. And what should we do?
We have a moral obligation to take action to protect the future of the Earth because the survival of humanity depends on it. An action is right if it protects what we value, and there is no higher value that the well-being of ourselves and our planet. Our collective survival is entwined with the survival of our ecosystems.
Climate scientists argue that environmental change threatens the very basis of life on Earth. The vast growth of human populations and economic activity is imposing huge costs on the Earth’s climate. If we keep doing what we are doing today, even with no growth in population or the world economy, we will destroy the planet’s climate and ecosystem.
Greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere at current rates will make the world unfit to live in by the end of this century.
Given that human activities are dramatically accelerating and that the world’s economy will double in size in the next generation, we face the possibility of enormous environmental degradation.
Recently Bill McKibben, one of the deans of ecological movement, had an influential article in Rolling Stone magazine (August 2012) titled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” It has gone viral. So far it has 124,000 “likes” on Facebook, 13,400 “tweets” and 5,328 comments. Because of the importance of the essay, let me summarize some of the main points of McKibben’s article and briefly comment upon it.
“Do the math,” McKibben seems to be saying. He presents three numbers that add up to a global catastrophe and does a bit of arithmetical analysis.
First, two degrees Celsius (2 C) was the number agreed upon by the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009 as the amount of the increase in global temperature below which we as a planet must hold ourselves. That is about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Copenhagen Accord set purely voluntary agreements to cut carbon emissions, but without any enforcement mechanism.
While the agreement upon two degrees Celsius figure was initially hailed, it is now seen by McKibben and others as a far too lenient figure. We have already raised the average temperature of the planet about 0.8 degrees Celsius and the damage is a lot worse than expected.
Many scientists have come to believe that two degrees is too much and is a prescription for disaster. Many small island nations will not survive a two-degree rise and drought-stricken Africa will not fair well.
But 167 nations responsible for 87 percent of the world carbon’s emissions have signed onto the Copenhagen Accord making it the world’s official position.
Second, McKibben tell readers that humans can place about 365 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050 and remain below the two degree benchmark. One central problem is that previously released carbon will continue to overheat the atmosphere even if we stopped increasing CO2 now. Computer models calculate another .8 degrees in temperature increase, bringing us to 1.6 C or three-quarters of the way to the 2 degree target.
Now no one “knows” exactly how good these numbers are, but there is a general consensus that they are generally right. Moreover, studies predict that carbon emissions will grow by about 3 percent per year and that by 2028 we will reach our 565 gigaton level.
Third, McKibben gives the number that is scariest of all. The amount of carbon contained in already proven coal and gas and oil reserves is 2,795 gigatons, a number that is five times greater than 565.
In order to avoid disaster, we would have to keep 80 percent of these reserves underground. According to McKibben’s research, that is $20 trillion in assets in a “carbon bubble.”
McKibben presents a grave choice: “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance or a relatively healthy planet … you can’t have both.”
Thus far, environmental efforts to get a handle on global warming have failed, McKibben argues, and as we take stock of these strategies we can learn what does not work: So far, neither changing individual lifestyles nor working through the political system convincing our leaders of our looming disaster have led to the desired results.
McKibben argues that we must keep the fossil-fuel industry from burning the carbon in the soil. He argues that we need a “real” social movement and “movements require enemies.”
McKibben concludes that the fossil-fuel industry is “Public Enemy Number One.” It is a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth.
The profits of the fossil-fuel industry stem from a single historical accident: they dump their waste for free. No one else gets that reprieve, McKibben notes. Now we understand that CO2 is dangerous. McKibben argues that the fossil-fuel industry gets a “special pollution break” and urges us to put a price on carbon through a direct tax.
Moral outrage might give rise to a “real movement,” he states. He observes the role that anger had in changing investment patterns through the divestment movement of the early 1980s concerning South Africa.
While McKibben emphasized the burning of fossil fuels in his article, we have also degraded the ecosystems to the point where they are releasing billions of tons of stored carbon. Grasslands, forests, wetlands and rivers all play a central role in absorbing carbon as well as regulating weather and temperature.
While I agree that the fossil fuel industry is reckless, I think that we must also admit that we are the enemy. Those corporations only have power if we give it to them. We need to reclaim our power and change our everyday behaviors.
While the numerical analysis McKibben presents is important, I think that we need to change the tone of the argument. Wonkish arguments about 365gigatons turn a lot of people off.
McKibben still writes as if reforming the systems is the answer, while I am convinced that we must transform the whole economic system.
Climate change is a social justice issue because the people who will suffer the most from the effects of environmental disaster caused by our comfortable lifestyles are the people of the future, especially those in the poorest situations. Thus, those causing the problems will not pay the costs of these problems. That is not fair. Making others bear your burdens is unjust. We are obliged to fix the problem now because we are the ones making the problem.
If we do not take responsibility now to protect the climate system for the sake of present and future generations, victims will suffer horrible harm for what which they are not responsible. For us who bear the burden of responsibility, and who have reaped the benefits of living in the wealthy societies that created the problems, we must take action.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).