Scholars agree that the timing of Christmas has more to do with the end of winter than the birth of a savior.
The evidence that people celebrated the death of winter is literally everywhere. Five thousand year old structures designed to track the sun can be found in England, Ireland, and the Americas; the ancient myths of the Druids, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Crete, Greece, and Rome all speak of and celebrate the rebirth of sun as the days lengthened.
It’s not surprising that early humans were so concerned with the comings and goings of the sun, and that they viewed its return with a joy and reverence reserved for the gods. We were – and are – completely dependent upon our star and the climate we evolved in for our survival.
Each annual return meant that crops could be grown, animals bred, game and nature’s bounty renewed. With the whole cycle of birth and life and renewal once again assured, light banished darkness, warmth swept away cold, life vanquished death.
Joy to the world, indeed.
For much of our modern history, Christmas has been a time of inspiration, hope, and redemption. A time when we celebrated our brotherhood, our common connection, our capacity for compassion. A time when we tried to live to our highest ideals. A renewal of the human spirit, as well as the natural world.
This year, as we celebrate Christmas with our annual festival of gluttony, greed, and consumption, we are in danger of robbing our children of their right to a world that renews. Unless we act to stop emitting greenhouse gasses now, the Scrooge-like selfishness with which we live will leave them a world with diminished hope and diminished capacity.
But we show no signs of taking such action.
The recent climate talks in Doha were an abject failure, with the United States engaging in an orgy of self-justification.
And the future looks no better.
The nations of the world rely on the International Panel on Climate Change for their perceptions of the state of the science and the nature of the policies needed to address global warming.
Historically, IPCC reports have been out-of-date on date-of-issue.
Because the IPCC uses peer-reviewed studies that must go through extensive analysis and achieve a consensus, much of the data going into their reports have been at least a year old. And because it seeks to have a 90% confidence level, many of the most serious consequences we face have been left on the cutting room floor.
For example, by 2006 there was strong evidence that dynamic ice melting in Greenland meant that sea levels would rise much faster than previously thought. Yet the Fourth Assessment – issued in 2007 -- failed to consider dynamic ice melting in its forecast of sea-level rise. Most of the scientific community knew the IPCC forecasts grossly understated the rate and magnitude of sea level increases, but the lay public, the press, deniers and policy makers continued use the outdated assumptions in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment for years afterward.
And because the data on climate change is changing rapidly – and not for the better -- the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment, due out in 2014, is shaping up to be another report that is even more out-of-date on its date-of-issue.
The IPCC has already decided to ignore methane feedbacks from clathrates and melting permafrost in the Fifth Assessment. While we can’t say with 90% confidence that such feedbacks will occur, the evidence is mounting that they will, and that the consequences will be profound.
Similarly, a recent study by Ohio State found that the Western Antarctic has warmed nearly twice as much as expected. The consequences of this, if it continues, will also be devastating. Yet the IPCC report will in all likelihood not be able to include this data in their considerations, due to the long lead time required to achieve consensus. As a result, the IPCC will once again grossly underestimate sea level increases in its forecasts, and public policy makers will be operating on out-of-date data until the on-the-ground evidence blows away the insanely conservative assumptions in the report.
Almost lost in the climate change discussion is the devastating impact carbon emissions are having on the oceans. We are fundamentally altering the geochemistry of the seas in ways that threaten to cause mass extinctions, turning the oceans from fertile, life-sustaining environments, to sterile acidic crypts.
And so we continue to drill, frack, and mine our way into an inescapable ecological hell, celebrating each new barrel of oil, each new increment of natural gas, each additional ton of coal. Our children will drag them around the way Jacob Marley dragged around the chains of deeds undone.
The Earth will still respond to our annual trip around the sun with cycles and seasons, but they won’t be the ones in which the world as we know it evolved. They won’t include the kinds of renewals we’ve celebrated for our entire history. And they are not likely to be anything that our children’s children celebrate.