Monday, July 07, 2008

Tipping Point

When I was thirteen, I was inordinately concerned with girls, music, movies and television. I read compulsively, played a little basketball, still watched Saturday morning cartoons, and played video games. In fact, quarters still hold talismanic power over my psyche, owing to the hours spent in dark and smoky arcades, blue light flashing onto my face, rarely blinking, learning to swear colourfully, and standing nearly motionless.

Those were the days.

I was oblivious to the coming crises, I had never heard of the famous Chinese curse*, and I wanted to be a forensic scientist when I grew up. I still liked Jesus, but I was starting to have some doubts as the veracity of the claims made by my previous pastor, and since I was rarely attending church, I was not receiving religious booster shots.

At about that time, James Hansen told the US Congress that man's activities were changing the climate, and shortly after that, I started hearing things about the "greenhouse effect". I was fascinated by astronomy at the time, so "greenhouse effect" was quickly linked to Venus in my mind, and climate change briefly supplanted nuclear war as the apocalypse of choice in my nightmares. Zombies have usually remained a distant third.

Nothing happened after that, and the greenhouse effect receded from my consciousness, to be once again replaced by a less-than-total nuclear exchange as the end-of-the-world scenario that haunted me. (I wasn't afraid of dying in a nuclear war. I was afraid of surviving it.)

Apparently, the rest of the world thought, "Oh my god. That's awful," and climbed back into their cars to drive to the mall, as I did. It receded from the consciousness of everyone, except David Suzuki and Al Gore, I guess. Only now do I realise that the greatest horror of climate change is that it will kill most of us, but not nearly all of us, and few of us right away. In fact, I'm likely to survive the coming crisis for quite a while, and will be lucky enough to watch the world spiral into desperation and my daughter's future dry up.

Recently, Hansen reappeared before Congress:

Earth near tipping point, climatologist warns

WASHINGTON–James Hansen returned to Capitol Hill a hero yesterday, but certainly not a conquering hero.

The soft-spoken scientist, hailed as the "whistle-blower for the planet,'' tried to quiet a standing ovation from environmentalists here with a typically blunt admonition.

"It is not a time to celebrate,'' said Hansen, 20 years to the day since he became the first leading scientist to warn of the dangers of global warming before a congressional committee.

He returned not to bask in any adulation, but to warn that the Earth is nearing a tipping point, to call for a national carbon tax and to say that CEOs of energy companies may be guilty of crimes against humanity and nature.
Excellent. We've had at least twenty years to get our shit together, and how have we spent our time?

Imagine if there was a meteor headed toward our one and only planet, with the potential to do devastating and possibly lethal damage to the planet. Imagine that we had the technological capability to divert the course of this weapon of the massiest mass destruction, and all we needed was the will to do so. And imagine that we chose to focus our society's energies instead on ... gay marriage. Or illegal immigration. Or premarital sex. (
It seems like I'm picking on the US, and if I am, it's only because it's so fucking easy. However, Canada has done a kickass job of actually breaking the Kyoto protocol, because we signed it, we ratified it, and then we got back into our SUVs for our 62 minute commute. Our hypocrisy is astounding, but much quieter. We haven't actually invaded a country for oil (just for natural gas, it seems), for instance.

This is the classic frog in the pot scenario, and we've found all sorts of things to distract us while the water heats up, and all sorts of justifications for the status quo. We've credited our explosive growth to democracy, for instance, when in fact it was cheap oil that made shit so fucking tickety-boo. Some of us look at the coming droughts, floods, plagues and mass extinctions and see the prophecies of Revelation. Some of us claim that it ain't the oil that's killing everything, it's the gays. Some of us look for certainty in our leaders, and scientists are rarely 100% certain, so climate change isn't real. Some of us feel that our way of life is a god-given right (Cheney famously said that the American way of life isn't negotiable), and that we're being rewarded from up on high for our chastity, purity and moral strength. Some of us say who cares if the climate's changing or we're running out of oil, because Jesus will be here any minute. Much of the crisis seems to be framed in religious terms, probably because we're dealing with armageddon, and that tends to make people think of god. This only exacerbates the problem, because, as we've seen, religion and science may be able to recognise each other, but they're hardly on speaking terms.

But I digress. There is a monstrous catastrophe not only headed our way, but actually already here. I'm not a climatologist, but my sense from paying attention to media reporting on this issue over the last two decades is that there is not only a one percent chance that global warming is both real and anthropogenic, but rather a ninety-five percent chance. Perhaps ninety-nine. Yep, sure, there are a few scientists out there still making the opposite argument. Probably some of them aren't even on oil company payrolls! But the vast majority of reputable climate scientists now agree that this is happening, that we are making it happen, and that the results will be catastrophic. This, after ten and twenty years of a (somewhat) healthy scientific skepticism about those claims, which only further underscores the validity of the findings.

Last week we had James Hansen reminding Congress, twenty years after originally doing so, of the gravity of this situation. One of the top scientists from one of America's premier science agencies -- who was told, by the way, to shut the hell up by the Bush administration -- was reminding us yet again that we are facing mass species extinctions and ecosystem collapse among the lovely perils awaiting us if we continue in the current direction. Assuming, that is, that it isn't already far too late to turn it around now.

Think about that for a second: Mass extinction. Ecosystem collapse. Meteor. Ninety-five or better percent chance.

Gay marriage...

...Indeed, we -- or at least some of us -- half-deserve this fate for choosing the likes of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, DeLay, Scalia and the rest these last decades. It's the rest of the world I feel especially sorry for...

...So, last week James Hansen reminded us that we are headed for such joyous 'lifestyle changes' as mass extinction and ecosystem collapse. Of course, most regressives continued to pooh-pooh such warnings as some sort of liberal conspiracy to undermine capitalism. Do climatologists seriously strike anybody as crypto-anarchists masquerading as scientists in order to destroy capitalism? And, if that was really their goal, wouldn't there be a lot easier ways to crash the system than to go spend years getting a PhD, do a bunch of boring research for low pay, and grade a million mind-numbing term papers written by a million grammatically-challenged college sophomores?

Then there's that pesky little problem of evidence. Every week there's more, though hardly any quite as egregious as what you could have seen on just a few days ago: "North Pole Could Be Ice-Free This Summer, Scientists Say"...

The whole thing scares the hell out of me, and I'm really angry that religious people have been able to co-opt the whole fucking debate, and twist it to justify war crimes, crimes against humanity, greed, duplicity, and xenophobia. If there was a Jesus, and he was the kind of guy I've been told he was, then he wouldn't work for Halliburton, Blackwater or KBR. Just a hunch.

I get angry when I'm accused of being a communist, or being arrogant, or trying some sort of grand social experiment, or being told I'm anti-progress, or when someone just dismisses me as a crackpot, a fear-monger, a hippie, an anarchist, or a collectivist, or some other label or shorthand in order to ignore me, my fears, my efforts, or my hopes. It's dismissive, demeaning and destructive.

I understand why people are reluctant to accept the realities facing them, but the fact that thigs will change, and there's very little they can do about it. Ignoring it just makes it worse. The end of cheap oil is here, the party's over, and things are about to get more difficult.

If we take steps now, we can avoid a catasrophic collapse of the economy, society, and our "democracy". If we continue blindly, we're all right fucked.

So here's my challenge. If your god actually cares about us, and if he actually teaches you to be nice to other people, and if he really wants to preserve creation, I'm going to need you guys to step it up. Stop bitching about abortion. Leave gay people alone. Stop villifying me because I like to have sex, and I don't want lots of kids. In short, keep your faith out of everyone else's underpants.

Instead, start actively pusuing alternative energy. Start trying to avert the coming humanitarian crisis. Start taking personal steps to be a part of the solution, rather than the problem. I don't care what Jesus, Mohammad, John Smith, Moses or the Buddha said, except that they all said we should take care of each other. Start fucking doing it.

Your religion is killing me.

*May you live in interesting times.

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