Tag Archives: Climate Change

How Climate Change Became Un-American

American FlagSuddenly, we seem to have entered a new phase in climate change. Tipping points, which a short time ago lay ahead of us, if not comfortably ahead, are now either staring us in the face or passed us by. The West Antarctic ice sheet is melting away, one among many, setting in motion irrevocable changes in sea levels. An El Niño event, building across the west coast of South America now threatens to spread warmer than normal temperatures across the equatorial East Pacific region, bringing devastating droughts to Australia and floods to the southern U.S. And still, Republican politicians feel the need to pledge allegiance to the non-existence of climate change.

Sociologists, pollsters and psychologists have been bearing down on the phenomenon in the hope of discovering why the U.S, the lead country for climate science, is also where skepticism is most prevalent, and why concern for the effects of climate change has been sliding downwards as knowledge about it has increased.

The role of the U.S. is crucial. Not only because it spews out 25% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, but because of its economic and cultural hegemony. Canada can attest to that. The Harper government insists Canada won’t/can’t/shouldn’t work harder than the U.S. to lower fossil fuel emissions. It also happens to provide a convenient cover for not facing the implications of our home grown, petro-economy.

Living in DenialIn Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, author Kari Marie Norgaard breaks down climate change denial into three forms: outright skepticism; interpretative denial (sort of accepting it but reinterpreting its consequences); and the mushier, more pervasive denial, which is worked in with passivity, guilt, and helplessness.

The U.S. ranks around the bottom globally for acceptance of climate change. The well documented, richly funded efforts by the fossil fuel industry, in league with conservative think tanks, to deeply massage the American psyche have been hugely successful because climate change grates on Americans in all the wrong ways .

“What to pay attention to and what to ignore are socially constructed,” writes Norgaard. “Whether something is considered morally offensive or not is a function of whether it is inside or outside socially defined limits of concern. Our social environment provides us with what we should repress from our consciousness and ignore.”

Climate change is too pervasive, too needing of collective action to jive with Americans’ heightened sense of individualism and their distrust of government and institutions—the flip side of their can-do attitude. Climate change is un-American. It runs counter to the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ethos, so ignored it.

Something that is likely to make you feel powerless should be avoided. The more climate change info out there, the less personal responsibility is felt, hence concern drops.

Norgaard argues that Americans, (she is one by the way) while disengaged politically compared to other advanced nationalities and ignorant of the mechanics of government, do perceive climate change as a function of weak government action. They just can’t see a way around it. American exceptionalism essentially blocks discussion of alternatives.

Inaction around climate change also flows from the poor standing of science in American political decision-making. Despite the high regard in which American science is held around the world, the American public has proved receptive to the idea that science is just another institution to be skeptical about. (They haven’t bought into evolution either.)

tree against skyThe misinformation-climate-change denial-campaign, just like the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer campaign aimes to stay clear of evidence-based everything. Winning arguments isn’t the objective, just sowing doubt. There is always another side, goes the thinking and so the American media find a debunker for “balance” what reporters in other countries might view as a case of straight reporting. Human survival gets reduced to a political issue; this, when there is more scientific evidence in support of climate change than any other contemporary scientific discovery argues Norgaard.

Of course there are great and compelling reasons why climate change gets a yawn. We’ve normalized it. We’ve allowed environmental disasters into our worldview. There are limits to how long we can maintain a level of anxiety appropriate to the level of threat we face, especially one that isn’t knocking us down right now.

The problem created by fossil fuels at least in its outline, is easy to understand, but the solutions aren’t. What exactly would the consequences of reducing carbon emissions by 60% over the next 50 years look like?

But now the fight has left the phantom boxing ring where the scientists and the deniers who have been squaring off since the 1980s. Because floods, droughts and wildfires are no longer far-off problems, governors of some affected U.S. states (Maryland, New York and Washington) are bearing down on climate change damage and pointing accurately to its causes. Nine northeastern states and California have adopted cap-and-trade policies. Eight states have passed legislation calling for a reduction in carbon emissions, according to the New York Times.

The paper quotes California Governor Jerry Brown as saying that his state “is at the epicenter of the impact of climate change. We have to adapt because the climate is changing. There’s no doubt that the evidence has been strong for quite a while, and it is getting stronger. We have to get other states and other nations on a similar path forward and that is enormously difficult because it requires different political values, to unite around this one challenge of making a sustainable future.”

The insurance industry, not noted for getting lost in esoteric, ivory tower discussions is seeing the damage, estimating its costs and pointing fingers—and their lawyers—at those responsible for insuring that homes and infrastructure are built for the future.

“Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. is suing Chicago for failing to prevent flooding related to climate change in what experts say could be a landmark case that accelerates local efforts to grapple with the impacts of climbing temperatures, ” reports E&E News.

Now that climate change has arrived on U.S. shores, the nomenclature has gotta change. The shrill skeptics have already muted their language somewhat if not their message. But it doesn’t really matter. Events have passed them by.

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard, The MIT Press

E & E News: Insurance Company Sues Ill. Cities for Climate Damage http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059999532

New York Times: In California, Climate Issues Moved to Fore By Governor, Tuesday, May 20th, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/20/us/politics/in-california-climate-issues-moved-to-fore-by-governor.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

Putting climate change in its cosmic context

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth KolbertLook Both

The sixth extinction referred to in the title  is of course the extinction Homo sapiens are bringing about through the agency of climate change. Situating our extinction in a cosmic context sets an entirely different tone from say, the panic engendered by the recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is grown-up time. Take in the very big picture.

Setting the sixth extinction in its cosmic context tells you that the temperature change predicted for the next 100 years is similar to the range experienced during the last Ice Age, which left much of Canada buried under miles of ice. But as Kobert points out, while our “anthropocene epoch” is spewing carbon that took millions to years to bury, the temperature is changing ten times faster than it did at the end of the glaciation period.

Working through the devastation wrought by other cataclysmic events provides the perfect backdrop for understanding the implications of acidifying our oceans. Here’s a possibly incomplete list of what will be affected: metabolism of all kinds; enzyme activity; protein function; the availability of key nutrients like iron and nitrogen; how light passes through water; the passage of sound waves, making the oceans noisier; increased growth of toxic algae; photosynthesis; the reduction of carbonate ions, which hampers calcification; how compounds are formed by dissolving metals in ways that could be poisonous; and turning water corrosive. This is basic chemistry.

tout est possibleThe anthropocene epoch probably won’t be as bad as the day the asteroid hit earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period but we’re reaching into the bottom of all possible bad days to make the comparison.

“On an ordinary day sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid six miles wide collided with the earth, releasing 100 megatons of TNT, or more than a million times of the most powerful H-bombs ever tested. Debris, including iridium from the pulverized asteroid, spread around the globe. Day turned into night and temperatures plunged. A mass extinction ensued.”

Kolbert is not simply shoveling our environmental failings into a great pile (as I have done here.) She is making long strings of connecting dots. As the planet warms the critters of the world will attempt to move north or up the slope. Any species that can’t cope with temperature variation is doomed: that would include most of what now live in the tropics. The huge diversity of tropical species that co-exist in complex interdependencies typically live within very short thermal and spatial ranges and they ultimately depend upon constancy. Well they’ll be gone.

The ones that do manage to move up the hill in search of cooler temperatures, they’ll be  invasives and not welcome anywhere, and if they do get to the top they’ll have lots of company because there is less space at the top than at the bottom.

Elizabeth Kolbert, 6th ExtinctionMost species can’t move of course because our settlements are in the way, and the reserves we carved out at great cost to protect our charismatic species will be useless in the face of all pervasive climate change.

Where species aren’t killed outright, fragmented communities will survive and that means just a slower way of dying. Small environmental communities mean small populations of individual species, and small populations are particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Changes in land use affect air circulation so it is possible that if the Amazonian rain forests dry up or are cut down or die of some pestilence on a large enough scale, there may actually be no more rain.

For all the terrible evidence, this book doesn’t lash out at the pernicious obstinacy of our governments, or at our prestigious capacity to deny the facts staring us in the face or lament that the poor are bearing the brunt of our profligate use of fossil fuels. Instead Kolbert paints a picture of climate change as the (almost) inevitable result of our resourcefulness and our throwing arm. Other primates can’t play baseball or tennis or throw spears.*

Evidence is mounting that H. sapiens, emerging from east Africa 20,000 years evolved into “overkillers”, hunting down species, especially mega fauna at a rate that exceeded the prey’s ability to reproduce, so no evolutionary advantage possible. Getting big is a wonderful escape from predators (except from the likes of us) but it comes with the baggage of months or years in gestation.

The disappearance of the giant herbivores changed the landscape. They weren’t there to chew up the forests, which caused a build up of fuel, which caused fires, which favoured fire-tolerant plants—these would be grasslands that favoured upright runners with projectiles.

We did the same thing to Neanderthals and Denisovans except we had sex with them first. Neanderthals had good-sized brains, but they never got the hang of throwing things. That left them in dangerous proximity to the animals they were trying to bring down.

Kolbert makes the point that given all this killing, on so many continents and the number of species we’ve managed to finish off, you could argue that the anthropocene epoch began in the middle of the last Ice Age.

Kolbert concludes by describing our often-pathetic attempts to save the critters, lovingly tending to their needs, applying a lot of science to understanding their inner functioning. It is what makes us human, just as much as drilling oil wells.

Climate change will leave its own geologic traces, as will river diversions, monoculture farming, ocean acidification and the great spike in methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“One hundred million years from now, all the great works of man will be compressed within a layer of sediment.”

The writing is so wonderfully wry, you want to squeal with pleasure at times, which seems entirely inappropriate given its message. But there it is. Human beings can hold two opposing ideas in their minds simultaneously and live to fight another day. It would be nice if we could call God into action to fix this place but it is really up to us.

* Scientific American ran an intriguing article on how well our anatomy is adapted to hunting in its April, 2014 issue. A flexible, taller waist allowed our ancestors to release a great store of torque power as they threw a spear. A less twisted upper arm bone and sideways-facing shoulder enabled humans to hurl with great accuracy and speed but compromised their ability to climb trees.  A long thumb and strong wrist provided a powerful grip. We also excelled at understanding social cues and could hunt in concert.

The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt & Company, New York.

Correction: A correction has been made in the preceding blog concerning the Fair Elections Act. This is regarding the proposed transfer of the commissioner of elections’ powers from Elections Canada to the office of the Director of Prosecutions. See the third to last paragraph. My apologies.