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More Thoughts on Climate
Alex Steffen, 5 Feb 07
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Now that I've had a chance to read the IPCC report and some of the media coverage about its conclusions, here are a few thoughts:

1) The climate debate is over, for good.

"In a grim and powerful assessment of the future of the planet, the leading international network of climate scientists has concluded for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal� and that human activity is the main driver..."

Heck, the climate lobby's taken to having to offer cash rewards to scientists for becoming "skeptics."

2) Climate commitment -- the fact that the actions we've already taken have doomed us to a very serious set of changes to our planet's climate, with disastrous results -- will require us, in some ways, to keep two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time: on the one hand, we need to fight like hell to reduce our carbon emissions to prevent disastrous climate change from turning into an unprecedented catastrophe for human civilization; on the other hand, we have to acknowledge that disaster is upon us, and start preparing our systems to be rugged enough for a world of rising seas, droughts and floods, ecological instability and mass migrations of refugees.

For example, planners in the Bay Area have begun to worry about the costs of dealing with rising sea levels; engineers in Seattle are running studies to anticipate the degree to which this city's water supply (which comes mostly from meltwater from the nearby, snowy Cascade mountains) will be impacted by drier, hotter summers; while in British Columbia, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is bracing itself for possible Katrina-like chaos and floods of climate refugees.

3) What's more, while we're heartened by the media's generally good reporting on the severity and unanimity of the IPCC's conclusions, we're a bit disappointed that more reporters haven't picked up on the fact that the IPCC's conclusions are baselines, conservative findings they were sure they could scientifically defend (and in some cases, even less bold than that) and (as Gil wrote yesterday), many serious scientists believe that the most accurate climate models suggest we can expect to see much more dramatic effects, much more quickly, particularly as regards how quickly the seas will rise. Worse, there has been little acknowledgment that some of the major wildcards, like the possible release of massive amounts of methane from melting permafrost, or a huge change in the climate functions of the ocean due to acidification leads to (as Andy Revkin puts it) "a more than a 1-in-10 chance of much greater warming, a risk that many experts say is far too high to ignore."

4) Climate foresight will be more necessary than ever, and much work remains to be done in both anticipating the possible effects of climate change and helping reshape the public's understanding of the world in which we now live and the futures we're choosing between. We will not do well in this new world thinking as we did in the old.

5) The rapidity with which industry is taking up the banner of building a climate-sane economy is heartening, but cautions remain. Are we aiming high enough: are we pushing towards a climate-neutral (and eventually a climate-restorative) civilization?

6) Carbon blindness should be a constant concern as well: climate change is dire, but it is far from the only problem we face, and if we attempt to tackle it abstractly apart from the myriad of interconnected challenges which face us, we will fail. If nothing else, the climate crisis should teach us that ignoring the big picture and the long term is ruinous to any society. What we need now is not only action, but action with an eye to holistic connections and long-term results. We have a sustainability crisis, of which our destabilization of the climate is but one symptom. We need not just a climate solution, but a bright green future.

7) If we can, in fact, bring our carbon emissions back to a sane level, and perhaps even gradually suck carbon back out of the air, and if we are lucky enough to avoid catastrophic feedback loops, our descendants may, one day in the future, find themselves living on a planet with weather something more like the Earth on which our foreparents lived in the 1700s -- perhaps not the same, but certainly gentler and more to our expectations than that which we will face for the next century or two. So, in some ways, we are squeezing through a bottleneck. Many fine things will be lost in the process. It is not too soon to begin to ask: what must we make sure is saved, and how do we save it?

From seed vaults to marine reserves to frozen arks, much difficult work full of painful choices awaits us. Yet, at the same time, think what a gift it will be to our future generations to have done such work!

8) Finally, I think it's important that we all start imagining that things will work out okay in the long run, and we have an opportunity for adventure and possibility now. The demand for this work is going to outlive everyone reading this today. We must learn to find happiness in the doing of the work, even when the skies are dark. We need, I think, to try to live as well, and fully, and happily as we can, even while we face tough challenges and bad news. We need to do our best to be the future we want to see in the world.


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I enjoyed your thoughtful comments, Alex. Thanks most of all for ending it on a positive note -- it's so easy to get caught up in the what-can-I-possibly-do doom and gloom of climate change. There are ways to make a difference!

Posted by: Patrick on 5 Feb 07

Ta. One of the popular objections against addressing climate change is that we should focus on immediate crises instead, but should we and can we focus on all at once?

What was the name of that movement or group again that says don't worry about the cost as it's affordable, we can do it all so let's do it all. 'All' being address longer term threats like climate change AND also address immediate problems like extreme inequality & dire poverty? There was a group mentioned on WCg... how's it going? Would like a report on that if possible, or at least a link! Seems very relevant again today.

Posted by: Funny flower on 5 Feb 07

I think we have indeed turned a corner in regards to the basic wake up and smell the coffee issue:

Yeah, the Earth is getting warmer, and we're to blame.

Now that that hurdle has been cleared, we're up against: Yeah? So whadda you want me to do about?

I'm picturing certain working-class relatives rolling things eyes, snorting, and gripping the keys to their Suburban all the more tightly.

The phrase bright green future is going to sound kind of fruity and hippie-flavored to these folks.

How do we get them on board?


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 5 Feb 07

I absolutely agree about increasing our focus on positive alternatives, but I think it's a bit soon to lose sight of the "is it or isn't it" debate. In fact, just this Saturday, I found myself talking with someone (who is otherwise fairly thoughtful and intelligent) who argued that "the whole thing is a sham." It seems the folks at Exxon/AEI have been more successful than we'd like to admit.

Posted by: Ken on 5 Feb 07

Alex, well reasoned post as usual.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that we have a "branding" issue here. Even some of the smarter people out there don't quite understand why "global warming" makes it snow in Malibu. I wonder if the label had been "climate change" from the beginning, acceptance would have been more forthcoming?

Posted by: Deepak on 5 Feb 07

Picking just one topic out of these musings, that of emergency preservation efforts; the most far-reaching suggestion I've yet encountered along these lines is Gregory Benford's proposed 'Library of Life' project. Most reading this may already be aware of it, and it bears some relation to the cited Frozen Arks approach, save that it tackles the problem of loss of context in the sample, as well as the question of time and the costs of analysis paralysis.

Actually more of an archive (for archives preserve, above other things, contextual relation), the suggestion is the wholesale cryogenic freezing of large masses of biomass, to preserve their context. A relevant excerpt will do:

"Our situation resembles a browser in the ancient library at Alexandria, who suddenly notes that the trove he had begun inspecting has caught fire. Already a wing has burned, and the mobs outside seem certain to block any fire-fighting crews. What to do? There is no time to patrol the aisles, discerningly plucking forth a treatise of Aristotle, or deciding whether to leave behind Alexander the Great's laundry list. Instead, a better strategy is to run through the remaining library, tossing texts into a basket at random, sampling each section to give broad coverage. Perhaps it would be wise to take smaller texts, in order to carry more, and then flee into an unknown future.
"While efforts to contain and control our accelerating biodiversity disaster are admirable, and should be strengthened, it may well be time to consider a similarly desperate method of salvage. I propose that the biological community ponder a systematic sampling of threatened natural habitats, with long term storage by freezing. This would more nearly resemble an emergency salvaging operation than an inventory, for there would be minimal attention paid to studying the sample. ... The essential aim is to save what we can for future generations, relying on their better biological technology to extract the maximum benefit."

A time of painful choices, indeed. Yet as reality catches up with us perhaps more rapidly than our ability to effect change in behavior, the fortitude gained by pondering such strategies can only aid our instincts as we race to respond.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 5 Feb 07

Funnyflower and Deepak both mention, in different ways, the issue of unifying the message enough to accelerate positive response. It may be that what is needed is a coherent -sequence- of interrelated factors, even though we realize they are a web of cause and effect, and not a simple sequence. I imagine it starts with Global Climate Change, as this goes down in history as the first element to be universally acknowledged. Like a domino, it falls.

GCC (Global Climate Change) is already pretty directly linked to automotive culture by common understanding, and automotive culture in turn relates to suburbanization as well as overconsumption. Suburbanization relates to the dissipation of compact / sustainable cities; overconsumption relates to global poverty. Few of those who now begrudgingly accept that GCC (Global Climate Change) is a reality are anywhere near accepting that global poverty could possibly relate to (say) civil war over land and resources, or other violent cycles. But, the sequence is there, waiting to be clarified. It is not in reality as simple as the above, and the above may not be the best way to catalyse a paradigm shift. Perhaps, though, the communication challenge is not intractable.

So, perhaps the next best topic to explore is the relation between automotive culture, overconsumption, and the dissipation of compact / sustainable cities. One good primer, aimed at the casual reader, is "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck. It, more cleanly than anything else I've yet read, bridges the mental gap between thinking about 'driven' culture and thinking about sustainable cities. Which is a start.

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 5 Feb 07

I don't know if everyone agrees the climate debate is over. President Bush just cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the US has refused to participate in France's call for a world environmental monitor.

Posted by: Elizabeth Neubauer on 6 Feb 07

It is refreshing to read a dialogue of the like-minded. I fear that the emphatic conclusions of the IPCC won't be enough to put an end to the foot-dragging. The risk appears to be that this new sense of urgency will dissipate into a million committees studying the problem. Here in Canada, at least, the political parties are being led almost entirely by their voters, in many cases to positions they'd never have thought they'd end up. So even the pessimists among us have to acknowledge that if ever there was a time to lead by example through individual choices, it is now.


Posted by: Nick Garrison, Zerofootprint communications director on 6 Feb 07

Even though,I am coming from a layman's point of veiw,I thought maybe the hard thinkers can reiterate to those who can reach the masses.One point I'd like to make is the changing of money from the hands of the people who are tied to oil based revenues,to those who are growing in the fields of alternate energy sources.From a traveling sales man to a President of any country, I beleive fact based information has got to get to the people first.In a system of checks and balances always seperate the two.In this new fight to save our planet,there must come new checks and balances.Dont call the River boat to help you with your gambling problem.I look at this way,Our dependance on oil is like a living mass,with its tenticles running deep.So all of it has to be given the same consideration, where it came from and how to get rid of it.It's not that hard to understand why the United States has yet to sign the Kyoto Protocol.We need management from the top down.

Posted by: Jack on 6 Feb 07

Alex -

thankyou for this generally well reasoned overview of our position.

On one point I'd differ, being that of the need for a climate neutral society, and eventually a climate resorative one.

Neutrality is surely not our goal; we are highly partisan with regard to a stable climate.

Moreover, climate neutrality would be teiously difficult to monitor, given the swathe of consequences of any normal supply chain,
and we have to curtail opportunities for greenwash if we are to raise the credibility of taking positive action.

Therefore I'd urge that the language used should be reconsidered.

Personally I'm working (as a hill farmer in Wales) for a climate benign society.



Posted by: Lewis Cleverdon on 7 Feb 07

Elizabeth; a good point (about the debate not necessarily being over). My sense is that the debate may be over, but the willful blindness to causal connection between factors is not. I doubt that the current administration would posit any connection between Global Climate Change and other environmental factors by choice.

But as time passes, and events grow extreme, those who exercise willful blindness will appear more and more irresponsible; it will simply become an impossible stance to take. Bruce Sterling's recent essay is a reminder in this regard.

"The boiled frog is jumping. It turns out that a boiled frog always jumps. To think otherwise was a mere urban legend. The frog won't jump free from its dire, life-threatening menace at the first effort, but next year will be even hotter and scarier, and the frog will jump harder. From now on, the frog will jump all the time. Further urging to jump will not be required from the likes of us Viridians. The frog has gotten the message."

- Heath

Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 7 Feb 07

It is so easy to slide into doom and gloom... let's all make an effort to stay positive. What works for me is to do something about it. Pick some bad carbon habits of your own and bring some awareness to them. Baby steps won't save the world, but they are the basic ingredient of change. All those daily little choices deserve attention. Invest all things wisely. And... after awhile the neighbors start to notice.


Posted by: Gail on 16 Feb 07

Regarding "What we need now is not only action, but action with an eye to holistic connections and long-term results." I think that action will need to include training to change the way we think, plan, organise, govern and act.

The challenges we face in our economies and societies in our divided unsustainable world are perhaps greater than at any other time. These challenges have arisen because of how we have been trained to think, plan and act as individuals and how we have applied this training to the way we organise and govern ourselves. We have thought, planned, organised, governed and acted as though our world is comprised of parts that can be separately exploited by humans and managed by us from one stable state to another. We have forgotten we are just one species in a complex natural world. We have tended to act without a sense of wholeness - without integrity. Meeting these challenges will require new approaches to how we are trained to think, plan and act as individuals and how we are trained to organise and govern. These new approaches will need to be based on our current scientific understanding of our world and the human mind.

Integrative Improvement is such an approach. It focuses on connections, relationships and interactions and is demand-centred and technology-enabled. The Integrative Improvement Institutes Project has been launched to diffuse, refine and implement the Integrative Improvement approach.

Posted by: Graham Douglas on 16 Feb 07

While your post is great and nearly all of your points are right on the mark, you start off with a serious by error stating that "[t]he climate debate is over, for good." In an ideal world, the debate would indeed be over because the scientific evidence is absolutely overwhelming, with over 95% of all climate scientists worldwide convinced that (1) global climate change is real, (2) it is serious and accelerating and (3) at least 90% of that change we are seeing is attributable directly to human activity (greenhouse gasses).

With all these facts, you may ask how can your claim that the debate is over be mistaken? The simple -- and sad -- answer is that the clearer the proof is, the harder certain special interests will work to obfuscate the issue and confuse the public. Confusion leads to doubt, which in turn leads to inaction, which is exactly certain well-heeled groups want. While ExxonMobil is rightly seen as the "poster child" for the obfuscation and disinformation crowd, they certainly are not alone. A CNN article ( today shows that 38% of bloggers are still attempting to cast doubt on climate change, considerably more than the 31% who are willing to accept (and post) the facts as they are.

Of course, I'm not really complaining about your blog or your post. You are working to bring clarity. I'm making this comment only as another wake-up call so that those people willing to step up to the challenges we face understand how much is left to be done in convincing the American -- and world -- public.

Posted by: Ken on 17 Feb 07



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