Climate Change: A Window of Opportunity

On the surface, our lives run on as usual, with ordinary obligations and ordinary successes - mortgage payments, leaking faucets, overdue library books, deadlines met, milestones marked and moved beyond.

And yet while all this ordinary life has been going on we've also been adding to levels of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere. And the climate scientists have been speaking out about the implications:

January 2005: Rajendra Pachauri Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: "We must have immediate and very deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions if humanity is to survive."

September 2006: James Hansen, the NASA climate expert: "We have a very short window of opportunity to address climate change. No more than a decade at the most."

How can this be? How can we have ten years to address a problem of human survival when the world outside our windows looks more or less as it always has? Are these scientists saying that our Earth could slide from today's relative normalcy into something so inhospitable in ten short years?

Well no. The problem is, by the time climate change looks and feels like a survival crisis to most of us it will be far too late to do anything about it.

Climate change is like a house fire or an infection or cancer, something that can be addressed in its first stages, but which can feed upon itself and grow stronger than any human intervention if it is allowed to progress too far. For familiar threats - fire, infection, cancer - we all know exactly what this means: prevention is best, early response is promising, and delay may be deadly. The same is true for climate change, which is why the scientists use strong words, like "survival," and short time frames, like "a decade at the most."

With climate change we are past the prevention stage, and have been for decades. If climate change were a house fire, we would be at the point in the drama where the smoker has already fallen asleep in bed. His mattress is already smoldering. The only question left is whether he'll wake up in time to keep the whole house from catching fire.
The largest danger of climate change is that human-induced warming has the potential to set off cascades of changes in the Earth itself, just as a smoldering mattress has the potential to engulf the rest of the house.

o High enough temperatures could cause significant amounts of polar ice to melt, replacing white, heat-reflecting ice, with dark, heat-absorbing water, leading to more heating, and thus more melting and even more heating.

o Human-induced warming could thaw frozen soils releasing more heat-trapping gases and causing still more warming and more thawing.

o Human-induced warming could weaken carbon dioxide-absorbing ecosystems, leaving more heat-trapping CO2 to accumulate in the atmosphere, causing more warming, further weakening those carbon-absorbing ecosystems.

Once any of these cycles takes off it will run under its own power in the same way that a house, once fully afire, will continue to burn even if the mattress that sparked the conflagration has been completely extinguished. Stopping the mattress fire before the curtains and walls catch fire can save the house; stopping it once the house is burning is futile. That's what defines a window of opportunity - decisive action at the right time saves the day, the same action, delayed, is close to useless.

The sobering news is that seizing this window of opportunity will require extremely large cuts in global warming pollution, cuts of as much as 70%, worldwide.

But, look around, from your own life to your national government. Do you see the kind of response you'd expect of people who are clear that they have only ten-years to accomplish such dramatic change?
The mattress may be smoldering, but most of us, from ordinary citizen to senior Senator, appear to be still slumbering atop it.

What else could explain the way we are driving, flying, and shopping our way through the opening year of a ten-year window to address a problem that threatens human survival?

I don't believe people are callous enough to do that on purpose, but I have no trouble believing that we haven't fully awoken to what it means to be one of the grown-ups in charge during the last ten years to address climate change.
My best evidence for this conclusion comes from my own life, much of which I still live as though these were ordinary times.

There are moments when the ten-year window comes into clear focus for me, moments when it stands out against the blur of obligations and worries and pleasures of my ordinary life.

It is in those moments - when I can see the ten-year window while not being too frightened by its seriousness - that I seem to know best what to do. It is in these moments that I find myself standing beside my neighbors with my "Stop Global Warming" signs, buying electricity produced from methane capture, and expanding the garden that feeds my family. It is in those moments that I feel most like the person I would like to be, someone who knows what to do when she is given a window of opportunity.

Elizabeth R. Sawin is the Director of Sustainability Institute's Our Climate Ourselves program and is a writer, teacher, and systems analyst who lives with her family as part of an intentional community and organic farm in Hartland, Vermont.

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