Loud and clear

By Bryan Walker 31/03/2011

There is a strange difficulty in talking publicly about the enormity of the danger which human-caused climate change threatens for human civilisation. Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding discuss it in the introduction to their paper One Degree War Plan, referred to by Gilding (pictured) in his book The Great Disruption (reviewed here).

They speak appropriately of the sense of the surreal. Vast issues such as self-reinforcing runaway loops in climate change, geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation, figure in the thinking and the private conversations of those who appreciate the full seriousness of climate change as it will unfold if we allow it. The prospect is fearful. But it seems too fearful for daily intercourse. “It’s a very strange thing to calmly pontificate the realistic risk of the collapse of civilisation and then go back to work!”

Experts have veered away from the hard public conversations, the paper suggests, partly through fear of generating a backlash and partly through not wanting to be written off as too extreme, or at a personal level to lose motivation. Publicly they have put a positive slant on their warnings, urging action but holding back on the full consequence of inadequate action.

Meanwhile the scientific evidence has become overwhelming and with few exceptions has tilted all the uncertainties the wrong way.

“The Arctic melting way ahead of all previous forecasts including worst case scenarios, the constantly increasing forecasts for sea level rise, the accelerating species loss, the worsening droughts, the melting glaciers, the tragic fires and so on, all take us to the unavoidable conclusion – things are indeed, to use that delightfully understated English term, rather grim.”

It is hard to believe that things can be as bad as they are shaping up to be. I’ll leave Randers and Gilding briefly and turn to an article published this week in Yale Environment 360.  The author, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes editorially for the New York Times, ponders on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as reminders of the vast stretches of geologic time. Although the 10,000 or so years of human civilisation have been relatively uneventful geologically speaking we are merely a moment in the ongoing migration of the tectonic plates. The Tohuku earthquake reminds us that in geologic time catastrophic events capable of dwarfing our outposts of civilization do occur.

Uneasily, Klinkenborg goes on to reflect that when we look at the spectre of climate change unfolding and try to grasp the shifting, accelerating likelihoods, in fact “we’re looking at potential change of a kind normally associated with geologic time”.

We run the risk of raising global average temperature at a rate faster than any time of the past 50 million years (5 degrees by 2100).  Among the consequences of the melting of the ice masses and rising sea levels he includes that “the load on the Earth’s crust will change, with the likelihood of what is gingerly called ‘geospheric response’ ‒ ie. more earthquakes and volcanoes.  This is a subject only beginning to be understood by geologists.”

He speaks of the terrible uncertainty that follows a major earthquake. We have to live with such uncertainty and it dies down after a time.

“But there’s a more terrible uncertainty in how we live and where we’re headed ‒ the uneasy feeling that we’re entering geologic time in a way we’ve never known before.”

Klinkenborg expresses the sheer magnitude of the changes we seem increasingly likely to be causing. He’s not saying anything that would come as a surprise to those who follow the science, merely highlighting its implications. But it’s very hard to find at the centre of public life voices which squarely and unequivocally put those implications before us. There’s nothing like the focus one would think appropriate to such a threat in government or the media.  Here in New Zealand we have suffered the shock of a major earthquake and are facing up to the costs of rebuilding, with much talk of preparedness in advance for such events. No one is saying we can’t afford to rebuild, or to build with earthquake preparedness. But when it comes to the widespread and profound risks associated with climate change we ignore, or deny, or make only token gestures towards a risk which, unlike earthquakes, can be lessened if we choose.

Returning to Randers and Gilding, they next tackle the question of whether it is already too late.

“…given the physical momentum for change already in the climate system and the continuing lack of action on the scale and with the urgency required, it is now too late to prevent major disruption and damage in the decades ahead, as a result of inaction over the past several decades. We believe there will now be an ecological and economic crisis, of a scale that is significant in the history of human life on earth.

“But we certainly do not believe it is too late to prevent the collapse of the global economy and civilisation.”

This is the point at which they talk about the level of mobilisation required, some of which I indicated in my review of Gilding’s book. I won’t develop it here, but pause on their characterisation of the level of required mobilisation as “so far beyond the current debate that it will seem incomprehensible to most readers”.

There’s the rub. Nothing in public discourse has prepared the population for the kind of measures that would be needed to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So far as I was aware as a child during World War II no-one questioned the need for the drastic wartime restrictions that were imposed. It was called it the war effort and it was woven into our lives. We knew how much depended on it. A mobilisation today to fight global warming would be much less demanding, but currently even the tiniest moves in that direction evoke vociferous and bitter opposition.

Randers and Gilding consider a ”Great Awakening” will occur before too many more years pass, whether because of a climate event or political leadership or the sheer mass of evidence, and at that point public perception will change rapidly and demand rapid intervention. Let us hope so. But in the meantime, and towards that end, those who understand the best scientific evidence should surely overcome any lingering hesitation to be publicly forthright. We need scientists and politicians and media people who will say loudly and clearly that the risks in global warming are extremely high and we must do what is necessary to avoid them.