Here we go! There are certain moments when the direction of human history reaches a crossroads, and even people at the time know it is happening. There has never really been a moment where human history and planetary history reached a crossroads at the same time — until now. The climate is changing.
In its long history, our planet has gone through many eras that were starkly different from what life on Earth is like now. There have been times when the Earth was mostly a searing desert, times when water covered much more of the planet than it does now, times when most of the world was a jungle, and yet other times when great portions of the globe were under an ice sheet two miles thick.
The vast differences in these environments, and the length of time that the planet featured any particular climate, boggle our human imaginations. Human history seems like a long time to us, but it is merely the smallest mark at the very end of an immensely long ruler that represents the time-line of Earth’s history. Take Wyoming, for instance — Wyoming has variously been a desert, lush forest, a sea, and an ice block. Our presumption that we “know” Wyoming, and how to live for generations upon that land (including into the future), is like the arrogance of meeting a person and concluding after thirty seconds that you can speak with certainty about how the rest of their life will unfold.
For ages upon ages, far longer than humans have walked the Earth, conditions on the ground were such that our life and civilization as we know it would have been impossible to carry out. We may now be inaugurating the next great era of Earth’s history, with its own climate — one that may well be inhospitable to us (and many of the animals and plants we’ve grown to love). And perhaps the most astonishing thing about this is that we are the ones creating the change. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that we have only a handful of remaining years to decide whether we, the human species, are going to throw our collective weight of technology and personal habits into continuing the present era of relatively benign, even life-friendly conditions, that we have enjoyed for the last 12,000 years…or whether we are going to continue engaging in behaviors that dramatically change life on Earth, for thousands, maybe millions, of years to come.
For the last 150 years or so, we’ve been having a very noticeable effect on our planet’s atmosphere. We are now nearing the culmination of that unintended process. If we act now, the average temperature on Earth may — with luck — top out at a 2° Centigrade (3.6° F) rise over its pre-industrial temperature. This, of course, does not mean that most locations will only experience a rise of 2° or so. Global average temperature is held steady by consistently low temperatures at the poles, at least so far. Regionally, temperature fluctuations will get very wild, as we have seen.
The global average temperature has already risen 0.8° C (1.4° F) since the dawn of the internal combustion engine. As I write this, we are experiencing the longest run of steady rising in seasonal temperatures in recorded history, vast areas of drought, other areas of flooding, a 30% increase in the acidification of world’s oceans, an increase in violent, landscape-changing storms. The reordering of the Earth’s surface into a very different network of environments from what we’re used to, the changing of the so-familiar global wind and water currents: these things are well under way already. A further rise of 1.8° C (3.24° F) will make much of the familiar landscape and weather patterns unrecognizable, perhaps uninhabitable.
We have sixteen years, at most. Three cycles of the United States presidency. Even that is a startlingly short amount of time in which to leverage such a colossal choice. However, that sixteen year estimate is wildly generous, and doesn’t factor in that we have not yet seen the total rise in Earth’s temperature resulting from the greenhouse gases we’ve added in the last 30 years or so. (People have, in fact, been increasing our carbon gas emissions exponentially.) Given that we haven’t fully reaped what we’ve already sown as of yet, it is highly likely that the time-frame we have to alter our planet’s future is even shorter than 16 years — very, very short. One of the leading climatologists for the International Panel on Climate Change recently figured that we have maybe five to ten years to do something, if that. This is why we are calling it a crossroads that dwarfs all other singular events in human history up until now. For, the consequences of that choice will be felt all over this blue-green planet, and will set the tone for a longer period of time than we can really even imagine.
If, during the next sixteen years (at most), we are still pouring greenhouse gases into the air, it is likely that we will set into motion further cascading releases of naturally stored greenhouse gases (in the frozen tundra, for instance), and we won’t be able to stop that. The Earth’s climate is regulated by a very complex system of variables, many that loop back into the system to affect other variables. The result is that the climate tends to settle out at different stable points, but not the points in between. Some of the warmer stable points next up the thermometer from where we are now are big intervals. In other words, if we can’t stop at 2° C warmer, the next time that the climate settles down might be at 6° C warmer. There are times in Earth’s remote past when the world was that hot…and the storms that ravaged the Earth, the rising seas, the droughts that happened then would make todays climate seem like a petting zoo by comparison.
So what do we do? Well, on a personal level, the logical answer would be: if you like your lifestyle the way it is now, stop participating in the continued release of greenhouse gases (primarily by halting your use of carbon fossil fuels). But therein lies the tricky part. For most of us, stopping our use of gasoline and diesel for our cars, trucks, lawnmowers, ATVs, boats, tractors, ceasing our dependence on coal-fired electricity, heating oil, boycotting the internet trade industry that relies on shipping goods in diesel trucks, not using the thousands of products that require burning massive amounts of carbon fuels in their manufacture, all of that would entail and end to our way of life as it is now. So, either way, we are facing the end of our familiar, well-constructed habits and enjoyments, the end of an American Dream that things just get easier and more convenient, generation after generation.
There are, though, advantages, to choosing to change your lifestyle rather than have Nature thrust the necessity upon you, and/or kill you in the process. You get to pilot your life into new territory now, with as much grace and joy and freedom as you can create, rather than have the floor pulled out from under you.
Are there alternatives? Well, you might be tempted to hope that some scientists and engineers somewhere are devising a method of mitigating the greenhouse effect (and there are, indeed, people working on that). However, there are large issues to be solved. Technical aspects of implementing any of these fixes have to be tried out and improved. The U.N. or some other body needs to establish who has jurisdiction to combat rising temperatures. Not to mention, we may well have to deal with the unintended consequences of any cure put into action. We have scant time to work out these details.
That also doesn’t take into account the other issue.
Unfortunately, there are people right now, people in the highest positions of corporations that are the point-source of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, who are unwilling to change their behavior in the next sixteen years. They’re not willing to change their companies’ purposes or business models because they hold, in asset, more than five times the amount of carbon we can put into the atmosphere and still hope to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2° C. In fact, they have already borrowed money against those future profits (and those promised profits are, of course, what is driving their stock prices). The lifestyle that money buys for these barons of fossil fuels features indoor climate control, lavish beauty, and mindless ignorance of — or stunning callousness toward — the plight of those affected by global warming, which already includes millions of Saharan Africans who are fleeing the aggressive sprawl of that desert, islanders who know with certainty that rising oceans will make their very homes disappear beneath the waves, farmers in the U.S. midwest who are watching the worst drought in 70 years unfold as week after week of dry, sunny, 104° F days play out in an unending chain this summer. That does not mention all the people who will be affected by climate change in the future, which — if these millionaires get their way — will be just about everyone.
So, the millionaires (and many Billionaires) are actively organizing and pulling the strings of the American political/business power system to dismantle the few regulations that might hold them in check. It is, therefore, not enough to hope that some engineers will create a program of climate remediation in the mext 16 years. It is not enough, even, to make the changes to our personal lives (deeply altering though they may be).The only thing, it seems, that will really give us the power to choose whether or not we unleash a new climatic era upon the Earth, is powerful activism. I don’t mean just sign holding, chanting in solidarity, or occupying symbolic locations (although those all are important tools). This campaign must have teeth, must be able to get a grip on the status quo and rip it to shreds. It needs parallel streams of action. First, we need people who are able to engage the companies that extract more and more fossil carbon for the purpose of burning it, challenging them, with expertise, at every turn. We need a stream of people pledging their support for a government intervention in this industry, by means of martial law and executive order, if necessary. Finally, we need to work together to make the radical changes to our individual lives so that we can personally divest ourselves of our carbon burning regime.
Consider the other crossroads in history we have experienced. Although they are far smaller in scale than the one we come to now, they offer us the only lessons by example that we can study. Suppose, for instance, the passengers on flight 93, the fourth plane to be hijacked on September 11, 2001, had not summoned the courage to do whatever necessary to wrest control of that plane from the suicidal martyrs in control of it. Having learned that the other three planes were flown into buildings, to catastrophic effect, and determining that their aircraft was headed for the District of Columbia, the passengers looked outside of their own plight, set aside their regret, called upon each other for strength, and took that airplane into the ground before it could do greater damage.The terrorists were meaning to strike at our finances and the symbols of our way of life. The threat we now face is much, much more immense, and it is not symbolic; it is visceral. We must step away with grace from our attachments and our venality, and remember what is truly important, or we shall all lose much that is precious.