Global Warming and the Only Question that Matters
"...you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?"
You know the question. It's iconic. Asked of a scumbag by Dirty Harry, who was pointing a .44 magnum at him; the question referring to whether there was one bullet left in the chamber or whether Harry had fired all six shots.
Our current failure to seriously address climate change raises a similar question.
Because the science on climate change is getting increasingly dire. There's a growing consensus among researchers that we have to get atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses (GHG) - now at 387 parts per million - down below 350 ppm as soon as possible, or risk self amplifying feedbacks that will result in abrupt, catastrophic and irreversible heating of the Earth.
Let's render that phrase "catastrophic and irreversible" a little less abstract with a few comparisons to things we now treat as important and urgent.
Global warming is killing more people right now each year than ten 911s. Triggering self-reinforcing feedbacks will accelerate this, killing more people than the worst imaginable terrorist attacks, the worst projections of H1N1; the most horrific efforts of even the most despicable despots; or anything else you can imagine short of an all-out nuclear war.
It will create more refugees than the Taliban, and more of the desperate, hungry and stateless hoards they, and others like them, exploit. It will destabilize governments and borders more than anything in history. Darfur may be the opening salvo in this unfolding tragedy. Many experts point out that land formerly capable of supporting both nomads and farmers can no longer do so as a result of desertification from climate change, contributing to the conflicts there.
It will impoverish more people than the current economic woes, or any economic downturn in recorded history; it will convert vast tracks of land to useless dust bowls, including much of the US and large parts of Europe; it will dry up farmland; destroy forests on a planetary scale - including the boreal belt which surrounds the entire Earth in the northern latitudes; it will melt glaciers, sources of drinking water and irrigation for more than 2 billion people; it will extend the range of tropical diseases and parasites to formerly temperate climates, killing and maiming millions, if not tens of millions.
It will destroy more species than any but the most severe events in the geologic record; it will turn the oceans into sterile, acidic crypts; and it will unleash a global inferno, as forests, savannahs and chaparrals - crippled by disease and lack of water - ignite across the globe. Indeed, these increases in wildfires have already begun.
Finally, it will inundate coastal cities and settlements, home to more than a billion people world-wide, and it will generate fierce storms and local floods at a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization.
To borrow from Dickens, these are not simply the "shadows of things that will be," they are happening now. The issue is will we act with enough conviction to avoid them before we "are past all hope," before we trigger feedbacks which make them irrevocable and uncontrollable.
There's evidence that the worst of these self-amplifying feedbacks has already been triggered. For more than four years now, methane - a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than CO2 -- has been bubbling up out of melting permafrost, peat bogs and clathrates in the northern latitudes. For the last two years, atmospheric concentrations of this powerful GHG have been rising rapidly.
Bad stuff happening now, and more likely to accelerate and become self-perpetuating each year we allow the atmospheric concentrations of GHG to stay above 350 ppm.
We have the renewable energy technologies and cost-effective energy efficiency opportunities to reduce the risk of abrupt climate change and it won't cost us much to get them into the market, as studies from the Congressional Budget Office, MIT, McKinsey, USGS, the Sterns Report, and the IPCC show. But we have only a year, perhaps two, to initiate the kind of action needed to escape it.
There are four impediments to taking such action.
The first is straightforward, and easy to dismiss: Republican and corporate misinformation campaigns that deliberately lie about the cost of mitigating climate and intentionally cast doubt on settled science.
Their lies are easily documented. For example, on April 1, 2009, John M. Reilly, Associate Director of MIT's Joint Program on Global Change, sent a letter to Republican House Leader John Boehner informing him that he and other Republicans were misusing his study and grossly overstating the costs of a cap and trade program. This wasn't Dr. Reilly's first attempt to set the record straight. He'd issued a verbal warning to a Republican Congressional staffer earlier. Despite these attempts by the author, Boehner and other Republicans continued to misrepresent the study, and some still do to this day.
This brings us to the second impediment. With an unbiased press interested in accuracy and facts, such transparent buffoonery would be exposed and neutralized in front page headlines immediately. Unfortunately, much of the press is more interested in controversy and "balance" than truth, so lies like this are only reluctantly confronted and often only when a conscientious blogger has embarrassed them into it. Even then, the MSM continues to play stenographer, allowing patently false statements by people such as Sarah Palin to find their way into print in major newspapers in the name of balance, even when their statements are contradicted by every credible neutral scientific and economic body. As a result, the public is left confused, and a "debate" between "sides" that has nothing to do with reality or science continues long after it should have been put to rest.
The third impediment is less obvious - it is those who champion the Waxman Markey Bill as a solution. Of course, it is better to have a piece of climate legislation - even a weak one -- than to have none. But any support of laws with near term targets as weak as Waxman-Markey must be accompanied by an acknowledgement that the Bill is little more than a game of Russian Roulette, exposing us to a significant risk of triggering feedbacks leading to abrupt and irreversible climate change that would render the more ambitious out year caps in the Bill completely irrelevant.
And now the last. We the people. We who would rather read about a deceased pedophile, or yet another fallen Republican hypocrite, or the latest "reality" show than educate ourselves about the planet we live upon. We who would rather consume gewgaws and spew carbon than threaten an end to our global economic Ponzi scheme, a strategy guaranteed to leave our children and their children a world profoundly diminished.
So given that global warming is the most devastating catastrophe humanity has ever faced, given that abrupt, irreversible climate change is a clear and present danger, and given that we are addressing it only halfheartedly with half measures, there's really only one question left for deniers, the enabling press, supporters of the politically possible rather than the scientifically necessary, and for all the rest of us:
"Do I feel lucky?"
Failing to take serious and immediate action to avoid abrupt climate change puts us in the same position as the scumbag - closing our eyes, crossing our fingers and cringing, hoping against hope that our moral failings have not caught up with us - or if the die has been cast and they soon will. And so, the rest of the question must be asked:
"Well, do ya, punk?"