Monday, July 23, 2012

In the Ruins of the Holocene Era

I've been writing and thinking about nuclear pollution and the nuclear nightmares that haunted my adolescence. I noted that in recent years, I had been more worried about global warming. An article by the ever-wonderful Bill McKibben in the current Rolling Stone confirms that we're right to worry. The damage to the planet has accelerated in ways that have surprised even the most sober of scientists.

It's hard to imagine that the planet can regroup after the kind of disaster we're foisting upon it--but it's recovered before. This NPR piece reminds us of an earlier global warming event that killed off an estimated 95% of life on Earth. As we know, life has come back.

Still, I'd prefer not to have this front seat admission to the Holocene extinction. McKibben begins his article this way:

"If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."

The article gives important background in terms of the science of what the planet can stand. McKibben understands what we're up against, how hard it will be for humans to change. He says, "This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders."

McKibben is clear that the true villains in this story are the petroleum companies--that idea will probably not be new to most of us. He concludes this way:

"The week after the Rio conference limped to its conclusion, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever recorded for that date. Last month, on a single weekend, Tropical Storm Debby dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Florida – the earliest the season's fourth-named cyclone has ever arrived. At the same time, the largest fire in New Mexico history burned on, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's annals claimed 346 homes in Colorado Springs – breaking a record set the week before in Fort Collins. This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust."

I'm convinced by his argument, although to be accurate, I agreed with his points before I read the article. What is unclear to me is what we can do as individuals.

McKibben references the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980's, which made me think of other sweeping social justice changes that once seemed impossible but then happened.  Nelson Mandela is in jail for longer than I've been alive, and then he's released and then, not many more years later, he's elected President.  If we went back to 1984 and told people this would happen, we'd be dismissed as crazy.

Could we do the same thing with global warming?  The science is clear:  we are running out of time.  If we don't do something soon, we'll look back on this time and think, "Really?  We worried about student debt and the national debt and all those other things which turned out to be so inconsequential in the face of the other changes already set into motion?"

1 comment:

Hannah Stephenson said...

It's overwhelmingly scary. I also wonder what individuals can do. Are there small things? Or is it so drastic that it's going to take something huge?