Cliff Figallo is a man with deep roots in the evolution of the social internet. Currently a social web consultant advising three startups, Cliff began his career with the Point Foundation, which published the Whole Earth Catalog and operated the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, known as The WELL. As the second director of The WELL -- founded in 1985 -- Cliff managed its transition from a Bay Area computer bulletin board system for an eclectic combination of authors, journalists, deadheads and forward thinkers, to a globally linked online community and seminal influence on the social web -- the system that led Howard Rheingold to coin the term "virtual community."
Cliff has authored two books: Hosting Web Communities and with wife Nancy Rhine, Building the Knowledge Management Network. He blogs about climate change at Climate Frog., tracking climate-driven events, he says, "so that we can learn something useful for when those events are more widespread and severe."
"There are enough blogs out there urging us to reduce carbon emissions and reduce our environmental footprints," says Cliff. "Those actions are urgent and essential, but won't change whatever climatic developments are going to happen over the next four to five decades. During that period, we are likely to see many violent storms, extreme drought and flooding and sea level rise. We are not at all ready."
Part One of my interview with Cliff focused on his early history and his work on The WELL.
In this second, concluding part of my interview with Cliff, we discuss climate change, denial, and the possiblity of mitigation and adaptation.
Cliff: I got my first look at man-made climate change in Guatemala where we worked in a small village lost in the enormous expanse of the Motagua River valley. Eons ago the fault that caused the massive earthquake of 1976 created the valley. In the barren, jumbled landscape I viewed, it looked like a pre-life rendition of Earth.
We were building a school and a potable water system for the village, and a couple of the old geezers there remembered when this valley of sandy ridges and eroded gullies had been verdant and forested. Slash and burn agriculture had rapidly removed so much of the forest cover that, according to the old guys, the climate had changed. I'd believed it, though I figured was a lot more complex a causal relationship than that. I later read that such direct causal relationships – of local deforestation leading to more desert-like climates – are common.
During the 1980s I did a lot of backpacking in the Sierras and learned that the glaciers had been in slow retreat and the melt-off seemed to be accelerating. I was pissed about that discovery. Couldn't there be some places so inconvenient to man that they could escape his abuse? But scientists had begun to make the link between the shrinking glaciers and man's release of greenhouse gases. I read books and magazines about mountain climbing. Glaciers all over the world were shrinking.
I think it was Al Gore's concern about global warming, when he joined Clinton on the 1992 ticket, that first got me paying attention to a larger ongoing process driven by our increasing consumption of carbon-fueled goodies and energy. Though the subject of climate change was soft-pedaled all through the Nineties, I could never forget that a rapid carbonization of the atmosphere was happening. I couldn't ignore the fact that consumption was accelerating around me, fueled by the dotcom boom. The growing herds of SUVs and proliferation of McMansions had me worried.
But it's the recent increasing attention to amplifying feedback effects and tipping points that have lit a fire under my ass. If the Arctic icecap melts, the darker ocean absorbs more heat; more ice melts. As the permafrost melts, more carbon and methane released; more permafrost melts. As the ocean warms, more carbon released; more warming. If he Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets slide faster into the ocean, more sea level rise; more ice slides in.
If it all happens, changes could come a lot faster.
My focus now, as a non-scientist and concerned human, is more on the shorter-term planning for events and situations that might happen within 10 and 20 year horizons. What if, for example, the sea level rises by 2 feet by the year 2050 and we're seeing an expansion of the range of tropical storms and hurricanes? Many climatologists would consider that a very plausible scenario, looking forward from today's carbon concentration in the atmosphere.
If risk is considered high enough, then well before the sea rises, then we'll have to abandon whole coastal communities and cities, or protect them with massive sea walls and dikes. Is this science fiction or what? I know, this is very difficult to comprehend as a future reality. But if we can't trust science to help us identify new possibilities looming in our futures, what good is science?
Climate change is the biggest scary monster that's come across my path of 58 years, by far. The spectre of mutually assured destruction with the Rooskies was nothing in comparison, because it was ultimately under the control of humans, who were at least driven by a deep need for self preservation.
Now we have Nature driving the bus, and it may take an unprecedented level of international collaboration to even slow down the global warming process. I doubt that I'll be around to see that, and if that's the case, any effort may be too late. I'm trying to figure out how to talk to my kids and grandkids about this stuff. It ain't easy.
Jon: What are you telling them? Are they listening?
Cliff: Climate Frog is a relatively new blog, and I'm not a scientist. I'm also new on the climate change scene. So why would anyone listen to my blatherings? But time is on my side. There will be more evidence that the climate is, indeed, changing. There will be more questions about why people aren't adequately warned and prepared. We'll see more people asking themselves why they should live in places that are at risk, and more people removing themselves from those areas. By that time, I'll have been reporting on this topic for years.
They say that blogs build audiences by being consistently active over a long enough time, and heck, I've hopefully got a good 20 years left in my typing fingers. I'll attract attention somehow – through this interview, for example. In any case, the topic fascinates me and it's an excuse for me to keep up with the latest developments.
Luckily I'm not the only one reporting on this stuff. Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has all the bona fides and he's a great blogger – a good writer with a sense of humor, with direct access to scientific sources, who posts several times every day. He just reported that the Center for American Progress is about to release a report on the need to better prepare American coastal cities for more powerful hurricanes. The old model – where Floridians run out each year to stock up on plywood and tarps – is not adequate for the projected increase in intensity and frequency of this new generation of storms, so the CAP group is urging government and private business to find ways to increase the "resilience" of coastal areas.
I'm wondering when the question of mandatory relocation will be addressed, creepy as that might sound. If the sea level does rise, some areas will have to be abandoned. It won't be like river flooding, it will be permanent submergence. I'm sure the prospect mentioned at this point freaks many people out, but I'm just trying to be practical. If I can help get local planners to even consider these possibilities, I'll have moved the preparation factor along a bit.
Jon: You can see flood maps for various sea level changes at http://merkel.zoneo.net/Topo/Applet/. I'm not thinking you get the real impact of the changes from that map, it would be nice to see some close-up simulations, and some stats on how many people will really be affected. Some questions are hard to answer, I think. How fast will the water rise? What weather variations will be driven by the change? Also, other than spreading the word, how do you think social web guys like you and I can be most effective in addressing the climate change problem?
Cliff: It's difficult for any of us to imagine what any of these impacts will be like. If you've lived through a flood or a wildfire or a hurricane or tornado, you know how awesome and irresistable the power of Nature can be. I've seen the aftermath of Katrina firsthand, and it's still unimaginable to me what it must have been like as a resident, seeing the water rising inexorably into your living room. But even in New Orleans, the water eventually subsided. If you're flooded by rising sea level, you know the water will not recede. That's it. Glug-glug.
Goodbye, house. Goodbye, town.
lightblueline, based in Santa Barbara, promotes the painting of a light blue line in coastal cities to indicate where a 7-meter rise would put the sea level. I can see where this would be effective for some people, but we humans must have an innate capability for denial to protect our psyches against the stress of uncertain threats. Until the radar shows the storm is at our doorsteps, it's only a potential threat, not a priority.
It takes deliberate imagination to act in the present to prevent hypothetical damage in the future. But such imagination spawned the insurance industry. We should be able to apply the same kind of thinking to the potential threats of climate change.
I know that much of the news I post – about flooding in India and England, drought in Australia and the American Southwest – may look like gratuitously scary and remote stuff to some folks. It certainly doesn't prove that climate change is happening or that it will land on YOU. But I see that information as a growing body of public knowledge with lessons embedded. I don't mean to strike terror into the hearts of innocent readers. It's more like an ongoing study of a growing phenomenon. All of us reporting in this space recognize that we're a bit ahead of the curve.
As a social web guy, I'm inclined to use my searching and networking skills to gather and present evidence and ideas that will help people prepare on their own for whatever their particular climate change vulnerabilities may be. I plan to become more active in my own community in bringing more attention to our local situation, surrounded as we are by bay and ocean. Our community should know whether and how our planners are incorporating climate change scenarios.
Any citizen with concerns about the impacts of climate change should be able to get straight answers from their public servants. The answer may be, "We're not ready to plan, yet. The science isn't certain enough." If that's the case, the planner should at least be able to say what criteria would make the science certain enough for planning to become a priority.
I certainly don't have the answers to global warming preparedness. But I do believe that it helps to be part of a community in times of crisis.
I mentioned Joe Romm at Climate Progress. He's one of the climate writers I most respect. Better than any other writer I'm aware of, he presents the case that we need to act now – definitively and massively – to curtail carbon emissions. He uses science to point out the high probability that if we don't begin reducing the growth of carbon emissions immediately, and reducing the total concentration of carbon in the atmosphere before 2050, we'll reach a point of no return, where feedback effects will cause a snowballing effect of rising heat, extreme weather and sea level rise measured in meters, not inches. There's a legitimate question of how habitable such a world will be for humans. Indeed, a great many species are being and will be rendered extinct by climate change. We could conceivably be one of them.
I've read a lot of the science Joe refers to, and I'm inclined to believe his worst case scenarios. To not believe them is to open humanity to an untenable risk. You can't prove the future, but you can look at possibilities and work to avoid them if they present enough of a threat. The question is whether the human species – with its great capacity to think and reason – is smart enough collectively to plan ahead and preserve itself.
Joe believes that thinking in terms of adaptation to changing climate at this time is wrong. He points to the faction he calls "the Denyers" as advocating non-action today based on history that suggests humans have always adapted to change in the past. Therefore, they claim, we'll just adapt to whatever changes the climate goes through in the future.
Both Joe and I agree that in the long term, adaptation is not the answer to our predicament. Where we differ, though, is in my belief that we should be anticipating and planning for adaptation to the impacts that no amount of action today will mitigate.
From everything I've read, I conclude that we may still be able to limit the damage and avoid some of the worst climate feedbacks that would begin in the second half of this century. But even if we act effectively, it's likely to be because even more extreme weather and some demonstrable sea level rise have forced us to reckon with the changing reality.
Those are the conditions I believe we should be thinking about and preparing for as communities and nations. Call it adaptation or simply self-preservation, but I don't think we're in an either/or situation. We can work hard to reverse carbon emissions today, while making tentative plans for adapting to hard environmental changes we're likely to see in the not-so-distant future.
I've been paying attention to climate change for less than 20 years and I've seen how fast conditions have accelerated. It's urgent on a scale that we simply cannot ignore.
This morning I was reading Newsweek and the letters sent in response to its issue focusing on "the denial machine" that attempts to undermine climate change science. One letter really caught my attention. It's from a history professor at my alma mater, the University of Maryland. Based on his experience with today's college students, he writes, "...our society is more than happy to accept spin and cant because we have come to believe that all expertise is bias, that all knowledge is opinion, that every judgment is relative. I see this daily in my univesity classroom. Many of even my best students seem to have lost the ability to think critically about the world." This is how sophisticated our media-driven propoganda skills have become. Doubt has become the default for everything.
If this is the case, then we may be building to the ultimate human irony – that we have simultaneously developed technologies to doom us and to blind us to the approaching doom. Will Homer Simpson really become the mascot of Loser Humanity? Will there be a universal "D'oh!" resounding around the planet? Gee, I sure hope not.