Regarding the "climate cliff": Time is not on our side -- Bill McKibben and Tom Engelhardt remind us
"We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible -- all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all."
-- Bill McKibben, in "Obama Versus Physics:
Why Climate Change Won't Wait for the President"
Why Climate Change Won't Wait for the President"
Environmental activist and polemicist Bill McKibben has a couple of points he wants us to understand in his contribution to a new Tomgram from Tom Engelhardt's TomDispatch. First, he wants us to understand that in a society like ours major changes in attitudes happen slowly, over a period of decades, for perfectly understandable reasons. And second, while in many other walks of life, this drawn-out period of adjustment is something we can live with and even in some cases in some ways benefit from, a life-or-death struggle with "physics" isn't one of them.
Here's some of what Tom has to say introducing the McKibben piece in the Tomgram "Bill McKibben, Time Is Not on Our Side" (links onsite):
Surprising numbers of Americans, from the Jersey shore to the parched Midwest, have met the effects of climate change up close and personal in these last years as billion-dollar "natural" disasters multiply in the U.S. As a result, there seems to be an increasing awareness that it isn't some vague, futuristic possible disaster but a growing reality in our lives. On the TV news, however, "extreme weather" -- a phrase that sounds awful but is meant to have no larger meaning -- has come to stand in for examples of the climate-change-induced intensification of global weather patterns. After all, no point in drawing too much attention to a dismal reality.
That's perhaps why, as last year ended, the only "cliff" we heard about ad nauseam was the "fiscal" one, which would prove a very flexible part of the American landscape. For a while, in mixed-metaphorical fashion, it "loomed" endlessly, and then it proved to be erasable or moveable -- in reality, something closer to a "fiscal bluff," with whatever double meanings you care to read into that. But why no emphasis on the "climate cliff" in a year in which, as George Monbiot recently wrote in the Guardian, "governments turned their backs on the living planet, demonstrating that no chronic problem, however grave, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial"?
MOVING ON TO "OBAMA VERSUS PHYSICS"
Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there’s a problem. That’s because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.Bill M cites examples:
* the perceived "problem of our schools," a change in attitude that, right or wrong, evolved over decades before action took hold -- in this very likely quite dubious action.
* the long evolution in social attitudes regarding "discrimination against gay people," which caused millions of people "terrible suffering" but at least had some advantage in that our society has evolved to the point where real changes are possible in a way that might not have been the case if everything had been changed all at once by judicial fiat.
"OUR SOCIETIES ARE BUILT TO MOVE SLOWLY"
Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.As you see, we've shifted now into that second point: that with climate change we don't have the luxury of accepting the standard human pace of attitude change.
And that's always been the difficulty with climate change -- the greatest problem we've ever faced. It's not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn't be more different at a fundamental level.
We're talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable."With climate change," says Bill, "unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there's not much reason to act at all. Unless you understand these distinctions you don't understand climate change -- and it's not at all clear that President Obama understands them."
Physics doesn't understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.
The administration, Bill notes, "is sometimes peeved when they don't get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue," as in the case of the auto-mileage increase enacted, which goes into effect over the next decade.
It's precisely the kind of gradual transformation that people -- and politicians -- like. We should have adopted it long ago (and would have, except that it challenged the power of Detroit and its unions, and so both Republicans and Democrats kept it at bay). But here's the terrible thing: it's no longer a measure that impresses physics. After all, physics isn't kidding around or negotiating. While we were discussing whether climate change was even a permissible subject to bring up in the last presidential campaign, it was melting the Arctic. If we're to slow it down, we need to be cutting emissions globally at a sensational rate, by something like 5% a year to make a real difference.
It’s not Obama's fault that that’s not happening. He can't force it to happen. . . .
BUT DOES THIS MEAN THE PRESIDENT IS DOING ALL HE CAN?
Bill contrasts his response with that of "the great president of the last century," Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dealing with the menace of Adolf Hitler over the general nonchalance of the country and active opposition from "the equivalent of climate deniers at that time, happy to make the case that Hitler presented no threat to America."
So Roosevelt did all he could on his own authority, and then when Pearl Harbor offered him his moment, he pushed as hard as he possibly could. Hard, in this case, meant, for instance, telling the car companies that they were out of the car business for a while and instead in the tank and fighter-plane business."For Obama," says Bill, "faced with a Congress bought off by the fossil fuel industry,"
a realistic approach would be to do absolutely everything he could on his own authority -- new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, for example; and of course, he should refuse to grant the permit for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, something that requires no permission from John Boehner or the rest of Congress.And "if he were serious, Obama would be doing more than just the obvious and easy."
So far, however, he's been half-hearted at best when it comes to such measures. . . .
He'd also be looking for that Pearl Harbor moment. God knows he had his chances in 2012: the hottest year in the history of the continental United States, the deepest drought of his lifetime, and a melt of the Arctic so severe that the federal government's premier climate scientist declared it a "planetary emergency."Even Obama's half-hearted gestures, Bill says, are likely to be rescinded. "It's as if World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had declared, 'I have nothing to offer except blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And God knows that polls badly, so just forget about it.' "
In fact, he didn't even appear to notice those phenomena, campaigning for a second term as if from an air-conditioned bubble. . . .
AND SO? HERE'S BILL'S PRESCRIPTION
The president must be pressed to do all he can -- and more. That's why thousands of us will descend on Washington D.C. on President's Day weekend, in what will be the largest environmental demonstration in years. But there's another possibility we need to consider: that perhaps he's simply not up to this task, and that we're going to have to do it for him, as best we can.
If he won't take on the fossil fuel industry, we will. That's why on 192 campuses nationwide active divestment movements are now doing their best to highlight the fact that the fossil fuel industry threatens their futures.
If he won't use our position as a superpower to drive international climate-change negotiations out of their rut, we'll try. That's why young people from 190 nations are gathering in Istanbul in June in an effort to shame the U.N. into action. If he won't listen to scientists -- like the 20 top climatologists who told him that the Keystone pipeline was a mistake -- then top scientists are increasingly clear that they'll need to get arrested to make their point.
Those of us in the growing grassroots climate movement are going as fast and hard as we know how (though not, I fear, as fast as physics demands). Maybe if we go fast enough even this all-too-patient president will get caught up in the draft. But we're not waiting for him. We can't.