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Eating Fossil Fuels for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

If you didn’t know better, you might think the planet was simply piling on to make a point.  The extreme weather events of the last year have proven little short of biblical.  As a start, 2010 had the dubious distinction of tying 2005 as the hottest year on record and the 34th year in a row with temperatures above the twentieth-century norm. Meanwhile, just to mention a few high (or low) lights of the past year: massive flooding hit the record books when 20% of Pakistan was engulfed, parts of eastern Australia (the size of France and Germany combined) went underwater, and the Mississippi River Valley was turned into Waterworld

Then there were fierce droughts and heat waves like the one that, with its associated wildfires, almost burned down Russia last summer, or the one that still has China’s Yangtze River region in its grips, or the “historic” drought and associated wildfires that continue to plague Texas, or the “exceptional dry spell” now settling into northern Europe (and helping send global grain and food prices soaring).

Look northward, and stunned scientists are reporting that anywhere there might be ice -- the arctic, its open waters, the Greenland ice sheets -- it’s melting faster than anticipated (which, of course, means earlier and more sizeable rises in sea levels and greater flooding of island and coastal areas globally).  Peer southward, and the vast Antarctic ice sheet is reportedly experiencing a similar more-rapid-than-expected meltdown.  And keeping to the theme of water, don’t even get me started on the increasing acidification of the oceans and its ensuing dangers.

And now, of course, the American West has been experiencing a record-tyingly fierce tornado season that has yet to end, with damage that beggars the imagination.  And yet if global warming comes up at all in the mainstream media, it’s generally only to argue about whether an event like those tornadoes is (or is not) connected to it -- a question that, at the moment, remains unanswerable and, in some ways, beside the point.  The danger to us from global warming is demonstrably real, a fact emphasized by the most recent record-breaking news: despite all the talk about mitigating it, more fossil-fuel burning led to more carbon dioxide being spewed into the atmosphere in 2010 than at any previous moment in history.

It’s a conundrum.  Our global civilization was built to eat fossil fuels for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to speak of those irresistible midnight snacks, while disgorging ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  And yet if we keep it up at this pace, somewhere not far down the line the adjective “biblical” will seem a paltry enough thing in comparison to the world of Xtreme weather we’ll experience.

Under the circumstances, you would think that all across the globe humanity would be launching the equivalent of Apollo programs not to catapult us to other planets, but to improve, enhance, and make ever cheaper alternative energy systems of every sort.  Instead, despite rare bits of upbeat news, human beings -- and we Americans in particular -- seem hell-bent on insuring that TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben’s remarkable new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, just out in paperback, has an endless shelf life warning us that we now inhabit an all-new, far less hospitable, far more rugged planet of our own making. Meanwhile, as McKibben points out in his latest piece, “Three Strikes and You’re Hot,” the former climate-change presidential candidate Barack Obama is morphing into a “full-on Carbon President.”

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