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Earth Day 2014: Getting your head around Climate Change, Part 2, the problem

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This is part 2 of a series of essays leading up to a major public discussion of Climate Change in Rochester NY on Earth day. On April 17, 2014 at 7PM, the Rochester Sierra Club will host a community discussion on Climate Change in our region with Mark Lowery, Climate Analyst, and manager of the state’s Climate Smart Communities program. The program is called 2014 Earth Day Forum “Climate Smart Communities: Let’s Get With the Program." This “Earth Day” event (I know, April 22 is actually Earth Day) will be held at the First Unitarian Church, 220 Winton Road South, Rochester, NY. We hope to reach the entire public—community, faith, and business leaders, students, the unemployed, the employed, young and old, healthy and not so healthy, rich and poor, and folks busy with other stuff —and have an old-fashioned community talk about the world crisis called Climate Change. Join your neighbors in a town hall meeting free from activism, ideology, politics, and denial.

However your favorite group may frame Climate Change, it is the mother of all problems. It is unlike any other problem humans and all life on this planet have endured thus far. It is a problem where one species (our own) is putting all life on Earth through a wormhole, a possible collapse where none but a few hardy bacteria might emerge on the other side. For some reason or another [20 Excuses US public uses to dismiss the urgency of Climate Change], most of us in our Rochester region don’t appreciate the urgency of Climate; we feel no alarm. I know, this January we almost froze our butts off here, but in Australia, Argentina, Austria, China, France, Spain and Switzerland—not so much. To get a sense of the big picture, check out this one-minute animation of “Amount of old ice in Arctic, 1987-2013”by NOAA.

Climate Change is not a problem where you can simply vote the solution into office, or send in the marines, rage against the fossil fuel companies, change your light bulbs, attend a rally, browbeat your representatives online, travel less, eat less, recycle more, increase your taxes, or have fewer kids—though certainly these would help tremendously. Your government already knows Climate Change is happening, and they know about it in exhaustive detail. They’ve got lots of solutions. But these solutions aren’t going to work unless you and the majority of humankind are on board. A few angry activists with signs and a lot of passion for their planet isn’t enough.

Here are some reasons why Climate Change is the mother of all problems and needs your attention—and why in order to understand what to do, you have to get your head around the kind of issue this is:

  • The US military is spread around the world ready to address major conflicts. Wars--big ones or a lot of small ones at the same time--begin over things like water shortages (caused in part by Climate Change). These wars could quickly overwhelm our financial resources rendering us incapable of addressing other issues like extreme floods of our own.
  • Unlike the threat of nuclear war, where a small mistake or misunderstanding between warring countries could end the world as we know it, Climate Change unfolds even if we do nothing, if we continue business as usual.
  • Climate Change is occurring as the accumulated abuse from our past environmental problems are catching up with us: The Sixth Great Extinction, the collapse of our ocean’s biota, ocean acidification, and toxic pollution of our air, water, and land.
  • Ad hoc solutions won’t work for a worldwide crisis dependant on bringing greenhouse gas (GHGs) concentration to a level we evolved and thrived on in the Holocene. Only top-down, worldwide binding agreements to bring down GHGs to a sustainable concentration level (many say 350ppm, as opposed to our present 398ppm) will truly address the problem. That will take unprecedented cooperation among nations still mostly concerned about short-term self-interests.
  • The warming that has occurred since the 1850’s is ten time faster than any point in the last 10,000 years. This means very few plants and animals can adapt to this warming quickly enough to survive.
  • There is no reason to believe that the present economic system that got us into this mess can carbon-tax or greenize-its-transportation out of this mess. For too many centuries, our economic models have treated our environment as an externality. This gap is too big to fill using our modern dysfunctional economic models.
  • There is no example we can point to where we have demonstrated that we can muster the will on a large enough scale to turn warming around. It would mean that all of us on this planet would have to change how we consume, what we consume, what we build, and how we get around.
  • There are a lot of unknown unknowns (including tipping points whose consequences we don’t understand) about how our planet’s environment works, plus centuries of information missing about when we began drastically changing it. So we are trying to plan for a problem we still don’t completely understand—and the deniers are no help.
  • There are innumerable legal issues and national boundaries limiting our ability to act comprehensively on an issue that is ignorant of arbitrary human borders.
  • While energy needs grow, and our population grows, there is little indication that folks will accept lower energy consumption despite the cause-and-effect relationship between energy use and Climate Change. Even if we find more efficient and cleaner energy, this may only enable more vehicles and gadgets that require more energy rather than an overall decrease in per-capita energy consumption. We might not be able to grow ourselves out of this problem, and that may cause many to lose interest.
  • Climate Change is not a problem that we can high-tech or engineer around because we have perhaps centuries of warming that will play out even if we stop more GHGs right now. Adaption means we will have to undergo a lot of extreme weather and do so in a way that doesn’t further exacerbate the condition of the poor, animals and plants—Climate Justice. Even if we invented something that would suck carbon dioxide right out of the air, we’d still have a major problem.
  • Most politicians will balk at difficult adaptation and mitigation strategies. Even if they succeeded, the public (without adequate information) will vote them out and install someone who’ll pander to their comfort level—as has happened recently in Japan, Canada, and Australia.
  • It is unlikely that endless growth, a tenant of our present economic system, can survive on a finite planet. As a matter of fact, FEMA is already reeling from trying to pay of Hurricane Sandy. Not only is our ability to prepare for Climate Change in our telecommunications, transportation, and water infrastructure in jeopardy, we might not be able to afford the insurance bill for Climate Change.
  • In the past, a relatively few environmentalist have helped address some of the localized symptoms—accumulated toxins, floods, loss of forests, lead poisoning, and much more—of environmental abuse. But with Climate Change, everyone will have to work on the fundamental causes of environmental problems. Only lowering GHGs will solve Climate Change—it cannot be reinterpreted or framed in any other way that will lead to an adequate solution.
  • Climate Change has a time limit. We have avoided taking worldwide comprehensive action and that has only made the warming accelerate. But past a certain point, say 6C increase since the 1850’s, we may reach an upper limit where no actions will work.
  • Climate Change makes our previous philosophical values questionable. What will Freedom, Justice, and Equality for all actually mean if surviving through the wormhole of Climate Change trumps everything we have come to cherish? We should be figuring out what values we have the potential to save and work on those and cut our losses with a lot of values that we thought we believed in. For example, many of our wildlife may not adapt quickly enough to save or put in a zoo because we won’t have the resources to put their environment back together again once it’s gone. We might have already gone past the point to save much wildlife—except as artifacts in a zoo.
  • There are no winners in Climate Change. Anyone or any corporation that thinks they will flourish as Climate Change moves our planetary environment towards collapse hasn’t thought through all the implications. Climate Change cannot be segmented; it is a continuum where breaking it apart (say, into something quantifiable like air quality or water quality) only blinds us from the big picture, since solving it will be ‘all of the above.’ The rich will still need clean air and water. Corporations will still need a healthy workforce. Food production will only benefit a little from more carbon and heat. After that, the insects and weeds take over.
  • Even if a large proportion of us work full-throttle on adapting to and mitigating Climate Change, a relatively few polluting nations can thwart the efforts of all.
  • Climate Change, unlike the world wars, will have to be waged decade after decade, perhaps century after century—if we can keep the major tipping points at bay.
  • Many of the rich and powerful who will fight the efforts of everyone else every step of the way—which may render the efforts of the rest null and void.

If we seize on solutions to Climate Change without seeing the big picture, we may fail altogether to address and mitigate Climate Change. Ad hoc solutions, ones that aren’t comprehensive enough or waste precious time and resources, may doom potentially workable strategies. On the other hand, ‘business as usual’ will inevitably speed up our arrival at the point of no return.

Instead of adopting a grand strategy to solve Climate Change, we might have to change who we are in order to solve this problem. We have no issues in the past to compare with the issue coming at us.

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