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Letter from Tällberg: We are about to leave the Holocene
Alex Steffen, 29 Jun 07
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Here at the Tällberg Forum, both daylight and heady discussion about sustainability and global understanding seem to go on around the clock, but the show-stealer so far was the panel on climate change.

"Rogue" NASA scientist James Hansen lead the panel off with a grim pronouncement, saying that there looms a "huge gap" between what is understood (by scientists) about global warming and what is known by the public. In short, Hansen says, the climate crisis is a far more dire and present danger than most of us like to think. "We are closer to a level of dangerous, human-made interference with the climate than we realize. ... We are about to leave the Holocene"

Hansen is particularly concerned about the timeframe within which we must act. There is increasing evidence that we are rapidly approaching a series of climate tipping points, where feedback loops in the environment (the march of forests pole-wards and melting glaciers and sea ice, meaning the Earth's darkening surface retains more of the sun's heat; melting tundra releasing increasing amounts of methane as it thaws; etc.) began to contribute to a galloping greenhouse effect brought on by our actions. (For a particularly elegant discussion of the concept of climate tipping points, I highly recommend the Real Climate post on the subject.) If we wish to avoid crossing these thresholds, we need, Hansen (and others) say, to try to restrain global temperature increases to two degrees celsius above the pre-industrial norm.

Because we have already committed ourselves to a certain amount of climate change (temperatures have already risen about a degree, he says), and because the emissions we are now putting into the climate will be there for a long while, time is not on our side here: since no matter how great our resolve, our emissions will not cease immediately, and many decisions being made now (power plant construction, urban planning, forest clearance) will continue to have climate implications in the future, we really have run out of time to delay change. We need, Hansen says, to have start acting like a climate neutral society within the next ten years.

"We're really at the crisis point," Hansen says.

C. S. Kiang, chairman of the Beijing University Environment Fund, reminds us that China has just recently become the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gasses. He goes on to joke that the Swedes shouldn't be to proud of themselves for the leadership they're showing on shrinking their climate footprint, since changing "23 million people is relatively easy -- try changing 1.3 billion!"

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the German Government's Chief Advisor on climate change, minces no words, either: "Our environmental maneuvering space is shrinking very fast now."

Schellnhuber, however, is somewhat hopeful about the precedent set at the recent G8 summit in Heiligendamm. There, the leaders of the world's richest nations agreed not only to creating a follow-up agreement to Kyoto by 2009, and to giving "serious consideration" to halving global climate emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by the year 2050, an achievement which he says is, compared to recent political realities "almost a revolution."

Indeed, many think there are reasons to believe that a 50% global reduction by 2050 is possible, if undertaken on an aggressive enough timetable. Though it's very worthwhile remembering that the 50% reduction is global, which means -- given the higher current and historical emissions of developed nations and the need for climate equity if we are to expect emerging nations like China, India and Brazil to participate (and without them, the reductions are meaningless) -- that we here in the developed world will probably be looking at far deeper reductions, far more quickly, perhaps as much as 80-90%.

Still, Schellnhuber says we have little alternative but pushing our political leaders towards real action. "We see the symptoms of a serious collapse looming now... we will have to reinvent our civilization."

Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, completes the discussion by reminding us that threatening people (with the degree of catastrophe looming in front of us) can back-fire. People may well decide that the problem is so severe there is no point in acting.

Instead, she urges a pragmatic optimism, one that acknowledges that "things are not getting better, they're getting harder, and we're going to have to work very hard" to continue to experience the increases in standards of living that we enjoy today in the developed world and that so many others in the developing world aspire to, but that we can do -- solutions are possible.

Which, if anything, is the point of this site: the problems are big, but the possibilities, if we change our thinking, may be bigger still...

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"We will have to reinvent our civilization" to quote Schellnhuber, is the solution in a nutshell and the time to act is now. "Reinvent" may be the wrong word and "Invent" may be more apt.

Society, as far back as we can tell, never sat down and invented itself. It has always been and naturally so, an organic growth molded by life expediencies, parochial and short-term thinking, greed and agendas of the movers and shakers of the planet, be it Alexander the Great, the Roman empire, Colonial powers, Standard Oil, Rothchilds, Carlyle or GM on whose board, for example, sat the man responsible for the massive highway program in the US. For one thing they, in the past, had no need to do otherwise, and did not have the reach and means afforded by the Internet for two-way full-duplex communication.

If transportation and HVAC used non-fossil based energy and the building trade mended its ways to heed Bucky fuller in the next five years, we would make a dent in the problem and have "hope" that may be we will come through for the sake of our progeny. As Ms. McGlade points out "threatening" people is not effective at all.

Providing alternatives that are cheaper (subsidized if needed) will ensure immediate adoption of systems by simple market forces. If you give me a car for $5000 that gives me 150 miles for every $3 I spend for propulsion, I will buy it immediately. Why should an electric car cost much more and using France's example of using nuclear energy for 95% of its electricity needs, the 150 miles for $3 is a clear option. Yes, Chernobyl should be in our minds, but safety and waste disposal is a "solvable" problem with today's knowledge base and we should get on the job posthaste. To heed Gorbachev, solar initiatives need to be launched so that they can come to fruition in about a decade, including Bucky Fuller's half-a-mile dome with possible solar panels.

Who should be doing this? The governing bodies of societies is who. Assuming that the governing bodies of societies are formed by the members of the society, and they use the funds contributed by the members, why is that so difficult. One reason for the difficulty is that 60% of the literate and educated members are intellectually lazy to even confront and think through these issues and the blame squarely rests on them. You cannot blame the bottom non-literate sections (the 3 billion in poverty) to comprehend and act on these complex global inter-connected causalities and so cannot we blame the top 20% "owners" of the world to not maximize their returns when there is no personal downside to it. The Internet today provides us a means to slap those 60% of the middle section to snap out their intellectual slothfulness to participate in "inventing" sustanable SOPs - "standard Operating Procedures" for the globalized society.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 30 Jun 07

"Leaving the Holocene" is a powerful meme, and Hansen wields it to accentuate urgency. But credit where credit is due: atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term "Anthropocene" and suggested that we left the Holocene back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, when global effects of human activity first became noticeable.

See for more on this.

Regardless, the idea that we are not just entering a few warm decades or centuries, but an era worthy of its own name in the annals of geological time should be a powerful motivator. Let's use that motivation to maximum advantage.

Posted by: Ted on 30 Jun 07

"But such strong measures will harm our economy!"

You've probably heard this shrill retort from various political figures (usually the ones who are shifting tactics from outright denial and suppression to foot dragging). Meanwhile, many businesses are quietly getting on with it.

Since we're speaking of tipping points, I hope that these businesses will show that the innovations that arise from pursuing a carbon neutral business model will actually improve the economy. If this can be demonstrated, that 80-90% target won't seem like such a ridiculously masochistic prospect.

I hope so, because without an environment, we won't *have* an economy!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 1 Jul 07



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