Twilight of Our Despair

"And I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair, with a love so vast and shattered, it will reach you everywhere." - L. Cohen
An interesting pattern is developing in the responses we're receiving from people, as we go out into the world to talk with strangers and acquaintances alike about the upcoming hazards of global climate change. A few, like us, are already following the developments with dismay and bravery, preparing to act when the ripe moment reveals itself. Others are tuned out, vaguely familiar with the concern, where it flits on the periphery in the company of remote possibilities like the explosion of the Yellowstone super-caldera, or the fissure of the Canary Islands leading to a massive tsunami that flattens the cities of the Atlantic Rim.

A surprisingly -- no, unconscionably -- large number of people seem to be in a state of flat-out denial about the freight-train of global warming that is riding the rails on a collision course with our way of life, while we play chicken on the tracks. A fair number of these people are so-called progressive thinkers, individuals who in virtually every other case stand for social justice, honoring the environment, championing the way of social collectivism over competition, and highlighting the forgotten, the broken, the ruined people and places, as we charge toward development and "greater" wealth.

However, when it comes to climate change, they retreat to alternative explanations for the evidence that were maybe plausible ten or 15 years ago, but have been soundly eliminated from consideration as major causes of the surge in the Greenhouse Effect. They continue to pounce on the wildly overblown controversy of "Climategate," as if that teapot tempest ever represented a legitimate reason to doubt the great volume of evidence illustrating climate change. Melting glaciers and ice-sheets get a ho-hum, as if we were beset by a kind of fatigue and will just deal with it later, deal with later.

Some of us continue to fly to the outrageous lie that climate scientists are in a vast conspiracy to earn vast amounts of grant money by hyping a bogus theory of global warming, or by setting the stage for the widespread promotion of alternative energy. Proponents cling to obscure data to support this -- for instance, that Al Gore was, in 2009, reportedly set to become the world's first "carbon billionaire," thanks to his investments in green energy companies -- despite that Occam's Razor suggests the much greater likelihood is that already-made carbon billionaires such as William Koch are orchestrating a deliberate plan of misinformation on climate change.

 Leave alone that men (and women) like William Koch seek, at every turn, to deny the truth of global warming. The Global Humanitarian Forum, founded by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, calculates that 300,000 people currently lose their lives every year due to climate change, and that number will climb to 500,000 or more by 2030. More people killed by global warming than by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, yet we change nothing -- nothing -- about our daily routines. Why?

There are some straight-forward reasons why people are not treating climate change as the unequivocal disaster that it is. The first reason is that, as a matter of public policy, the whole affair has been handled terribly. I do not say that as a discredit to the scientists that have obviously worked long and hard to refine their experiments and scenarios, and glean ever-more certain projections from the data. But, let's hope that if the World Health Organization ever has to deal with a pandemic on the scale of global warming, they act with a lot more certainty than the International Panel on Climate Change has done.

Most people's information about climate change is about twelve years out-of-date (aside from hearing warnings, out-of-context, that the arctic ice has melted more than ever before this summer, or that polar bears will die out soon, and a few items of that nature). Twelve years ago, the approach that the IPCC took to modeling climate change was much more open-ended. Several future scenarios were plotted out for what our future carbon gas emissions might be like, depending on what way society evolves in the 21st century, and a target of 2ยบ C total rise in average temperature was chosen, largely for political reasons. It would be yet far in the future, according to the scenarios, when the Earth would be approaching that temperature, and the date by which we would necessarily have cut our emissions significantly was comfortably far out – 2050. Even still, it took until 2009 to get all major countries (including the U.S.) to agree to those reductions by 2050...and those are non-binding.

Twelve years ago, and even in 2007, the publicly reported debate around the IPCC's summary reports centered on whether to officially declare climate change as “unlikely” or “likely” caused by human actions, and whether it was “extremely unlikely,” or merely  “unlikely” to take us into dangerous temperatures, if we delayed our mitigation efforts until much closer to 2050. No wonder people tuned out.

Scientists being scientists, the IPCC members were very reluctant to declare that any weather extremes we are experiencing currently are connected to climate change, and they spent a good deal of time trying to demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that our civilization's CO2 emissions are contributing to rising temperatures. They also worked meticulously to show that temperatures are rising, that they are closely correlated to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

In the meantime, they were terribly circumspect about it. The oil, coal, and gas industries used the lack of decisive statements from the IPCC, the fractured Kyoto Protocol, and the dearth of political leadership, as opportunity to push back with denial of climate change, and misinformation in the form of false graphs and cherry-picked data-sets that give the impression that global temperature is stable, or even falling.

Later, as the collected evidence grew that global warming is most definitely real and dangerous, these industries employed scientists to engage in the creation and promotion of spurious theories to explain rising temperatures, including sunspots, decreased aerosols in the atmosphere, or that temperature naturally varies more than the IPCC allows for; they focus on such events as the medieval “Little Ice Age,” or the warm spell during Roman times.

If you are confused, that is exactly the point. These scientist-lobbyists were hired to muddy the waters, many of them are not experts in climatology. Unfortunately, their wrong information, as well as misleading charts and graphs, are still widely available on the internet.

It took the IPCC seven years to declare that people do indeed make global warming happen.

The carbon-fuel industries should not be forgiven. They tricked lay-people into a complicit negligence of the issue, on a par with the willful ignorance by ordinary Germans (not to mention Americans) of Nazi atrocities, as they were happening. Sadly, in this case, the scale of the consequences will be far larger.

However, confusion and doubt are not enough to explain our current ostrich behavior. For at least the last four years, we have known that the IPCC's future scenarios are way off the mark in terms of how hot things are going to get, how bad the consequences will be. What is more, we have pretty specific information available now on what we must do if we want to manage a survivable outcome to this emergency, and how little time we have to do it. Our politicians (at least in the U.S.) don't mention it, take no action on this information, and they get away with it because...why? Because nobody cares? Because we are, in the final analysis, really unwilling to go without our SUVs and jet planes, and abundant electricity in our “climate-controlled” buildings? Are we really unwilling to move our truck shipping industry to rail, or scale it back, and have local economies?

People say that we have not the backbone of the generation that endured World War II, which, in addition to all-out fighting and the largest relocation of refugees in history, also engendered rationing of food and basic supplies. However, in talking with people about climate change recently, I see, in our defense of our homes and our cars and our lifestyles, not greed and mere convenient rationalization so much as compartmentalization, the walling-off of some basic, natural response to the situation.

My guess is that we are, in the heart of our natural selves, aware of the Earth still, and, like prodigal children, we are ashamed to return to the bedside of our dying parent. Our grief is too great to listen to what intimate words she would whisper to us. She might even forgive us. It is possible that we are not paying attention to global warming because we feel that we deserve to be punished somehow, and we invite the end of our species with a kind of gleeful abandon.

Many of the people alive now to confront this most pressing issue have grown up steeped in the knowledge of our transgressions against the planet. The litany is torture for the soul: deforestation, the extinction of many creatures that were cute and fuzzy or fantastically wonderful, and the extinction of many more whose names and features we barely knew, variations on the theme of beetle or fish or bird. We have lately become aware of the great raft of plastic debris that has gathered in the middle of each ocean, almost too big to fathom how it ever got there. Did we really do that? We have devastated mountains, manhandled waterways the world over, drawn the fresh water down to the bone, in many places. We have synthesized thousands upon thousands of chemical compounds, and used them heavily, their by-products and residues landing in the water, the air, and the soil of the Earth.

The same period that has seen us increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has also seen us dramatically degrade the beauty, intricacy, and wholeness of the environment that holds us. It seems that we, most of us, must carry a great, largely unspoken, grief for such ruination. At best, we channel our sorrow into tenderness for our gardens, a favorite tree, a fondness for natural materials, a hike in the wild spaces now and then.

Some transform their lives so that they can return to the fold of nature, it is true. But, we don't have a cultural forum for sharing our feelings of horror and sadness for the genocide and vandalism we have done. We are left with an undercurrent sense of something wrong, that accumulates in the morass of sadness about the state of the Earth.

We read in the news as people in more powerful positions make strange bargains about what matters and what doesn't matter, what is precious and what is not, on a very big scale. Every day, they have the effect of millions upon the environment. Try to understand why, and all that you or I have for comparison are small awkward moments where we exert the fiat of our whims upon our personal environment: pouring a toxic chemical down the drain, driving when we could have walked, spraying the walk with herbicide and hoping it fades into the environment before the children or pets encounter it. We know we all make compromises. Our hearts hurt when corporate industry makes big ones on our behalf. But,  big and small, all the kinds of sins we have committed against nature leave perpetrators and witnesses alike feeling dirty and broken. It adds up. We are so tempted to hide.

We need venues where we can take an honest accounting of what we've done to the environment, without conspiracy theories and without trying to shift the responsibility. We need to support each other when the tidal wave of that collective realization comes to the surface.

The irony is that, if we're going to do something meaningful to contain climate change, we don't actually have time to linger in grief. When we share our sorrow, and it seems that we must do, we need to move, as quickly as we can, to a place where we remember that we rightfully belong in the infinite fragility of this planet, devoting our power and love to it, rather than spinning out the story of our fall from grace, in the shadows. 

-by Gavain U'Prichard