(Swans - March 12, 2012) Can humanity unite to stop climate change?
There is a thirty-year lag between the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its effect on climate dynamics. Today's climate is being affected by 1980s emissions. Today's emissions will alter the climate of the decade of the 2040s. The climate system is a myriad of interwoven processes described by nonlinear differential equations; so, the evolution of climate could have a sudden shift from its current global pattern of stability to another as yet unknown and possibly quite undesirable pattern of stability, when the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide rises above an as yet unknown triggering threshold. (2)
Humanity will not alter course. You can bank on every graspable barrel of oil, and every accessible cubic meter of natural gas being burned. There will always be someone somewhere who will not want to miss out on the advantages of possessing and using fossil fuel immediately to increase their power and wealth (in all the forms in which those two temporal quantities can be accumulated). The impossibility of global cooperation to arrest the anthropogenic emission of heat-trapping gases and vapors is the psychology described by the Prisoner's Dilemma. (3)
We do not have a climate change problem, nor even an unregulated capitalism problem. We have a human development problem. Humanity is insufficiently developed to conduct itself equitably and in harmony with nature. Species come and go, and humanity's prospects of long-term survival are as uncertain as its likelihood of developing the advanced social behavior needed to adapt to an emerging new climate. Nature will continue.
Just as the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous were insufficiently developed to anticipate the arrival of extraterrestrial rocks, and to devise rocket-borne interceptors to destroy the 10-km-wide bolide that would fall to earth creating the Chicxulub Crater and an environmental catastrophe lasting years, which caused their extinction 65 million years ago, (4) so humanity today is psychologically underdeveloped to anticipate the emergence of a new equilibrium state of earth's climate, which will result from shifts of atmospheric and ocean currents, the quantity and distribution of ice, the degree of humidity, and the abundance of liquid water. This climate shift will be (is being) caused by the accommodation of excess heat trapped in vaporous organic compounds and molecular gases released into the atmosphere primarily during the 20th century as waste products of industrialization and as a consequence of natural outgassing from warming oceans, tundras, and land masses. (5)
Our problem is one of revising an entire system -- industrialization -- by which modern human society exploits exosomatic energy. Industrialization may seem as complex and convoluted a system in the realm of human affairs as the earth's climate is in the natural realm (to which humanity also belongs, though it usually forgets this). It is the sophistication and extent of our exploitation of exosomatic energy (i.e., energy from outside the human body), rather than our use of tools, that distinguishes humankind from the other forms of life on earth.
We know humanity has a direct impact on climate -- industrialization heats the biosphere -- but our quantitative knowledge of the sensitivity of climate dynamics to anthropogenic inputs is never exact, though it is extensive, highly detailed, of increasing precision, and compellingly persuasive. It is beyond a reasonable doubt. (6)
New knowledge always confronts psychological resistance to altering human inertia: we resist thinking and behaving differently, especially religiously, politically, and economically.
People are accustomed to assuming that climate and weather are constants, that environmental conditions have long-term stability with known regional variations, known seasonal cycles, and which occur within known short-term fluctuations. Our economic activity is based on a traditional and limited set of expectations about local weather and climate, in the same way as we walk with unthinking assuredness on ground we always expect to solidly support us. We do not wish to change our industrialized economic behaviors to "pay more," or even "pay for" the consequences of our many forms of self absorption called "business," until forced by external conditions that no longer support our preferred assumptions.
There is a certain moralistic resentment here. Those who are willing to sacrifice "pleasure" today in order to contribute to the "good of society" resent those who remain profligate and "liberal."
Climate moralists resent the selfish capitalists, the Republican climate-change deniers and the modern "drill baby, drill!" neoliberals. These latter in turn hate the climate evangelists for trying to force their climate religion down neoliberal throats, and for calling to cut off capitalism's rapturous resource exploitation orgies.
The resentment of climate missionaries by heathen capitalists is mirrored by the resentment of religious fundamentalists and political reactionaries, who seek to forcibly evangelize the atheist and "liberal" masses to "conservative" psychological repressions and monetary obsessions, instead of having their orgies of free sex, free thought, free drugs, free abortions, and socialist politics. Like an American Taliban, these atavistic fundamentalists resent missing out on all the good fun the unrepressed leftist sinners are having; they can only find satisfaction by shutting down the good times for everybody.
I believe a transition to a post-coal and post-nuclear future could be a very exiting and rewarding national effort, one that would offer many young engineers (as I can remember being) fulfilling lifetime careers, and energize the unfolding of a new Renaissance. (7)
However, for minds mired in reactionary and regressive attitudes, either because of religion, or an attachment to money, or xenophobic fear born of willful ignorance, the entire discussion triggers instant panic, as in an earthquake with the ground giving way beneath them. So, I am pessimistic humanity will anticipate climate change, though I expect it will try to adapt after the fact.
Science has given us enough information to "verify" the anthropogenic climate effect; yes, we can always add more data and make our simulations more precise, but we already have more than enough information. Our globalized problem now is simply to arrive at a decision: either act to modify our climate karma, or consciously accept becoming the victims of nature's future circumstances. At the typical level of current public discussion about climate change politics, the question "what are we going to do about it?" boils down to "who is going to pay for what has to happen, and how do I get out of it, or make money from it?"
All of the "controversy" today about climate change is just the verbalization of the psychological resistance of human inertia: "I don't want my world to change," "I don't want to miss out," "I don't want to pay," and "I don't want to stop what I like doing." All these are expressed in class- and group-specific ways, disguised in terms of economic harm and scientific doubt.
And so, like a dinosaur chewing its cud on a lazy humid summer day on the savannas by the Tethys Sea, we may sense a momentary chill as the shadow of a doubt about a dark future lurking unseen among the clouds crosses over us like a bolide streaking across the face of the sun, but that apprehension instantly evaporates as the warmth of our sunny expectations returns to flood our consciousness once again. What we can't imagine can only erupt as surprise.
The best way to face an uncertain future is joyously, wide-eyed with enthusiasm, like seven samurai united for battle: "This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself."
The real challenge for us, humanity, is learning how to consciously evolve.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)