Letter from an unapologetic alarmist

These are our last unhurried moments to make all haste, to prepare for the worse, to make sure the climate change lifeboats are all stocked, and more importantly, that there are enough to go around for all. 

Daniel H. Garrett
18 August 2012

 “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”  Wendell Berry 

The most recent analyses, using better models, and providing both a better fit to paleoclimatic records and current trends, show that climate sensitivity is probably at least twice as high as the levels presupposed for purposes of national and international climate change planning.  Given this, and the continuing increased emissions of GHGs into the atmosphere - because of false confidence there is more time, and the political and economic dominance of traditional fossil fuel interests - coupled with the vast increase in climate-change linked extremes over the last few years, means that any sensible risk analysis must conclude that we have already entered an epoch of violent and disruptively chaotic climate regimes for which this nation, and the world are unprepared. 

 “If our model results prove to be representative of the real global climate, then climate is actually more sensitive to perturbations by greenhouse gases than current global models predict, and even the highest warming predictions would underestimate the real change we could see.” Kevin Hamilton, International Pacific Research Center.     

9/11 pales by comparison

Were our intelligence agencies to get wind of a plot that would make our nation’s situation so bad that vast tracks of its lands would be rendered practically uninhabitable forcing tens of millions of Americans to move, a plot that would inflict a minimum of 50 billion dollars of damage on the nation’s capital alone, a plot that would cripple the nation’s food system, and destroy its forests to boot, the president would soon be on TV ordering a national mobilization.  Indeed it is likely that every resource at the nation’s disposal would be mobilized to prevent the disasters from occurring.  So it is indeed exceedingly strange, that a nation that was able to launch massive wars at a cost of trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives lost, mostly on the basis of false and/or manufactured premises coupled with bad advice and hubris, finds itself unable to rise to the real, scientifically validated challenge of climate change.  This lack of action on actionable intelligence verges on the edge of unbelievable, particularly when the level of damage already known to have been inflicted by this “plot” exceeds the hundreds of billions of dollars mark.

 “We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community.  If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous.” Aiguo Dai, National Center for Atmospheric Research.

It must be concluded that this US government has failed the primary test of any government: the protection of its peoples, its resources, and its borders.  It must be concluded moreover that in addition to the virtual abandonment of vast areas of its own habitable, productive national space, it has similarly abandoned to fate vast areas of the earth, primarily inhabited by those least able to fend for themselves. 

It might be argued that there is much that is being done in terms of preparations for climate change adaptation (and eventually mitigation) at every level from the local, to the regional to the national to the international, and this is true: but the simple test of the effectiveness of all of these well-meaning, and indeed noble activities is whether CO2 levels in the atmosphere are dropping: they are not, they are rapidly increasing. 

We must therefore conclude that all of our efforts to date have been a failure.  Similarly, while we must commend adaptation efforts, it is highly unlikely that the types of efforts being considered now will be adequate to the magnitude of the changes that are coming.  We do not have a way of dealing with the mega-drought regimes which are quickly coming into play in Earth’s arid and semi-arid regions; we do not, even in advanced countries, have the type of hydro-infrastructure that can easily deal with storms of greatly increased intensity and unpredictability.  The one in a thousand year floods, fires, droughts which we are already experiencing and which climate change attribution studies show are –surprise- largely attributable to climate change, can be expected to strike with increasing frequency: the world does not have the ability to deal well with even one of these types of events, much less multiple events occurring with near-simultaneity.  No, the United States has not faced the reality of climate change in a way that is commensurate with either its responsibilities, or its abilities.

"The dangerous level of global warming is less than what we thought a few years ago. It was natural to think that a few degrees wasn't so bad.... (But) a target of two degrees is actually a prescription for long-term disaster." James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.   

There is something wrong with the decision making process when the nation’s’ leading climate scientist has to get himself arrested in front of the White House to get his point across: that the tar sands need to be left unexploited because we are already teetering on the brink of GHG-caused climate disaster.  When one has been running full-tilt toward a cliff-edge, it really does make a lot of sense to stop cold.  A step or two more at that point, makes a very big difference.

Similarly there is something wrong with a decision-making process that encourages shale gas development as a clean bridge to a clean energy future, when - water problems aside - given the rate of fugitive methane emissions, the known increased sensitivity of methane in the atmosphere, and the fact that we are temporally speaking on the climate change brink and slipping fast, the relative to CO2 short-lived but potent life of methane in the atmosphere just isn’t short enough at this critical point in the crumbling climate picture for it to be thought of as a bridge to anywhere but mid-GHG polluted-air. 

No, what is wrong with us is clear.  In addition to succumbing to the illusion of normalcy - leaving us essentially sitting complacently as fires rage ever closer - coupled with thinking and planning in our traditional stovepipes and boxes, when a big part of the problem is the very thinking that has gone on inside those boxes up to now – what is wrong with us is that the enemy is amongst us, in positions of honour, influence and respect.  They have funded lies and rumours and disinformation; they have bought off media outlets and so-called thank tanks; they have bankrolled politicians who have given off representing us, in order to have their campaign coffers filled by them. 

It is as deep a cabal of cowardly and unpatriotic people driven by greed, denial and hermetically-sealed ideologies as has ever been seen in the United States.  And it has hobbled us exactly when we needed to act boldly, and decisively.  That so many of us have believed the well-funded nonsense, that we could have allowed ourselves to be nationally paralyzed into continuing, even expanding the very things that were driving us into the gravest peril, well, this is our shame, isn’t it?  Some might naively say that it wasn’t enemies that did this to us, that it was just a few wealthy citizens and corporations exercising their free speech rights.  But just as free speech does not allow someone to yell fire in a crowded movie theater when there is none, so free speech does not allow someone to yell that there is no fire in a crowded movie theater when there is one. 

"There's evidence that climate sensitivity may be quite a bit higher than what the models are suggesting," Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University.

No, make no mistake about it.  The so-called “alarmists” have it right.  Their alarms were reasoned, clearly explained, and well justified.  The seasons and centuries of storm are now upon us.  We have perturbed 10,000 gentle years of summer and winter, of rain falling almost just right, and have instead created an angry beast.  This beast will not let us sleep peacefully for a very long time. 

There may be of course be some days, and some years perhaps if we are lucky, that seem so close to normal that we may be lulled into thinking it is not happening. But we must not be lulled: the climatic changes are here, and though some will be gradual, many will be sudden and deadly, as already many have learned.  No, we must not be lulled, as we have been up to now.  These are our last unhurried moments to make all haste, to prepare for the worse, to make sure the climate change lifeboats are all stocked, and more importantly, that there are enough to go around for all.  For those who are in steerage in our shared ship, are not likely to go down so easily. They will instead, those who can, come to find us where we cower and accuse us with their just accusations: it wasn’t they who caused it, and yet it is they, the poor, who will suffer the first and the most.

 “The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.” Aradhna Tripati, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, UCLA.      

We must be ready from tomorrow, if not today, for when the crops die from the floods or from the heat or from the droughts which do not end.  We must be ready for when the animals no longer have anything to graze on, for when the forests die from blight and the seas turn at last so acid they are no longer the Edens of verdant life they once were.

We will be hard-pressed not to die ourselves, hard pressed not for each person, each country to go it alone: but if we do, the long night of climate chaos will just grow longer.  We must remember that whatever we do to help each other, will be helping ourselves.  There are no borders in this war.  We have been fighting the wrong “Long War.”  Indeed not only are we fighting the wrong long war in the wrong way, but we won’t win the wrong long war unless we fight the right long war, which is climate change and the arresting and reversal of the ongoing tidal wave of ecocatastrophe.  If we do not lead, and lead compassionately in this struggle, we will go from claiming to be a city on a hill, to in fact the moral and ecological equivalent of being a city on a landfill, reviled for turning the Anthropocene, into the Anthropo-obscene.

 “Listen! you hear the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/At their return, up the high strand,/ Begin, and cease, and then again begin,/ With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in.” Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

We may in the end forget, that it need not have been this way.  We knew how to raise great armies to fight for whatever was the word of the day.  Why did we not raise a great army to save ourselves, and our children and our children’s children?  Those who knew, and used their fortunes to sow confusion and loyalty to ideologies that had failed, when clarity in the face of great danger was what was called for, for them I believe Dante has described a certain place of a circular structure. And for those who allowed themselves out of ideological ease, misbelief and basest comfort, to close their eyes to pleading truths, it is them and their foolishness as much as their greedy mis-leaders, who have condemned us all. 

And that is where we stand  

A nation that had the resources and the knowledge to act, but had its will sapped by the worse amongst it, and not only did not act, but actively made things worse in the illusion that continuing on the path of destruction was the right way to proceed because destruction was only something warned of by scouts ahead and anyway had not yet come to pass in the precincts where they lived.

For we thought somehow, that we lived by some economic science, though its profits were largely profits conjured by ignoring true costs, and as such was neither economical nor a science: it was instead a creed, a sordid scaffold of justification for pillage and plunder and rape: it cannibalized the vital organs of the planet and called it good.

 “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” Wendell Berry

It is no longer a question of whether or not we must change, whether or not we must transition to another way of living not on the planet, but with the planet, it is instead how many of us will survive the crossing; how many of us can we find a way to help across, and how much of the suffering can we reduce.  There are utopian sirens that are calling to us, just as there are dystopian urges that will seduce us almost as strongly, but what is important in this great transition, is that we do what we can to help each other across:  for we will need each other in this, and must at last come to realize in our hearts as in our heads, that the preciousness of each other, men, women, children, cultures, and all the non-human sentient beings we share this planet with, we must realize that this preciousness, this diversity, is the very essence of what we need to survive.  It is not a lovely, liberal indulgence; it is the sine qua non of the web of interdependencies that sustain us all. 

We do not need history to judge us; the earth is judging us now and finding us lacking; the poor are judging us now and have found us unfair. Our children and their children, if they are blessed enough to have them, will judge us, and howl at our utter depravity and absolute lack of moral compass. They will have not the least iota of sympathy for the political difficulties we face in acting responsibly and with sufficient alacrity to save ourselves and all of them.  

It’s not so much that the emperor has very few clothes, it’s that he seems to think that a Kevlar vest is going to protect him from mega-droughts and thousand year floods.  And yet, if we look around us with a different sort of gaze, one of hope and courage, there is in the midst of the danger, nothing but opportunity and growth.  This Great Transition which we must make, will not be just a Green New Deal, it can be a Green New Renaissance, in which we live, and live well, neither at the mercy of the planet nor at the expense of the planet, but of, by, and for the planet. 

We have demonstrated to the world our ingenuity and creativity when it comes to new and more exciting instruments of death.  But removing the trigger 10,000 miles away from the hellfire missile that slays a wedding party by mistake does not make it any less an illegal act.  We must demonstrate to the world a capacity for our creativity and ingenuity to be in the service of life: an ability to reach into every poor home everywhere on the planet and provide it with a decent standard of living that creates the dignity and equality that is the only strong foundation for lasting peace; an ability to make a quick transition to a new level of human technologies which weave seamlessly and productively into the fabric of the natural technologies of the earth and the earth’s interwoven communities.

 “Ask the questions that have no answers./ Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias./ Say that your main crop is the forest/ that you did not plant,/ that you will not live to harvest./ Say that the leaves are harvested/ when they have rotted into the mold./ Call that profit. Prophesy such returns./ Put your faith in the two inches of humus/ that will build under the trees/ every thousand years.” Wendell Berry

And this is where we are now.  We are both at the brink of catastrophe, and on the edge of a new world: a new world where everyone is not just energy self-sufficient, but also an energy donor/entrepreneur when and if they so desire; a new world in which every child no matter where they are has access to the best medical care, and the best, most nurturing level of world class education; a new world of robust, resilient, and sustainable personal and community freedom; a new world in which the age-old conflict between human technologies and natural systems, has been resolved and human technologies have reached a higher level so as to be seamlessly embedded; so that whatever is taken, borrowed, used, diverted from the earth systems of the natural world, is returned in naturally usable, naturally sustaining and nurturing and enriching form. 

This is not just sustainability in the sense of doing as little harm as possible to natural systems, this is sustainable, indispensible support for the natural needs of the earth system.  We will then have returned to be of the earth again, after a very long, physically and spiritually debilitating divorce; we will become again welcome citizens of the earth community, instead of a deadly dominating, selfishly self-engorging parasite.  Instead of depending on the destruction of earth systems for our human growth, human growth instead will help to repair the vast tears in the fabric of life we have caused, and re-garden the earth.  

This is the course humanity will take over the coming centuries, if we can just begin the transition now before too much damage has been done.  The technologies for this life already exist or are nascent and promising and only need a little more nurturing.  We can begin on this path now.  And moreover, we must begin on this path now. The other path is not worth considering.

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