My octogenarian aunt and uncle and their two adult daughters visited my extended family last week for three days. They were so excited to see green trees and fields of living crops in our state. They reported that back in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois, all the corn and soybeans and other crops are dead and the vegetation is brown. On July 19, 2012, Reuters confirmed this report:
The most expansive U.S. drought in more than a half century intensified this week and stretched further into major farm areas of the western Midwest where crops had largely been shielded from the harsh conditions that decimated yields further east.
The moderate drought in parts of eastern Nebraska, northern Illinois and much of the top corn and soybean state Iowa was downgraded to a severe drought in the past week, climate experts said Thursday, and forecasts showed little relief in sight.
Prices of both corn and soybeans soared to all-time highs on Thursday, with corn climbing more than 50 percent in the past four weeks alone due to the worsening drought, squeezing ethanol and livestock producer margins and chilling export demand.”
We ate lots of sweet corn on the cob during the family visit. When my relatives left, my friend Jerry directed me to Bill McKibben’s July 19, 2012 article in “Rolling Stone” entitled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” with warnings that it put him on the floor! McKibben’s article is based on three crucial numbers:
- 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees F.) is agreed upon by leading scientists and listed in paragraph 1 of the Copenhagen Climate Accord of 2009, as the absolute maximum we can allow the planet to warm without utterly disastrous consequences. As McKibben writes in his article, “The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.” He also reports that many scientists and nations feel that 2 degrees C is far too high. The planet has already warmed .8 degree C and there is another .8 degree C of warming built into the system through inertia, even if we were to stop emitting all greenhouse gases now. So… we are already ¾ of the way to the 2 degree C maximum, and massive damage has already been sustained.
- 565 Gigatons of carbon dioxide can be released by mid-century without destroying the planet. At current emission rates, we will emit that amount in 16 years, by 2028.
- 2,795 Gigatons of potential carbon dioxide emissions are currently held in the proven coal and oil reserves of fossil fuel companies and countries that behave like them. That represents at least five times more carbon dioxide than we can safely emit without destroying the planet as a life-sustaining habitat. Fossil fuel companies and nations are planning to burn all that carbon, and they have based their shareholder profit forecasts and national economies on this $27 trillion worth of carbon. We are in very big trouble.
About 12 years ago I heard a brief report on NPR about how the polar ice caps were melting and I suddenly understood for the first time that all life on earth is in peril. I fell into a year-long, low-grade depression about this tragedy and felt constantly nauseated. But I recovered to create a “survival strategy” for Robert and me, which involved selling our big 5-bedroom/ 3 bathroom house on 1.1 acres in the suburbs of a major U.S. city, and moving to our current humble digs on 12 acres deep in the woods at the end of a dead-end dirt road, where no cell phones ring and we must have satellite dishes to receive TV and Internet service. We’ve been here, living intimately with nature in our woods, by our half-acre pond and our little stream for six years, loving it more and more as every month passes. It is an abundant green paradise where pure drinkable spring water flows out of the hillsides, and wildlife abounds. It’s Heaven! Or, at least, I often tell Robert that if Heaven turns out to be anything like our woodland retreat, I won’t be a bit disappointed.
When I read Bill McKibben’s article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in “Rolling Stone” a few days ago that low-grade depression and nausea returned. I couldn’t read it all at once. I had to take it in two sittings, because the implications are so devastating. Climate degradation is moving much more quickly than I thought, caused by human behavior and specifically caused by the greed of fossil fuel companies – the most profitable businesses in human history. I had selfishly hoped that at age 63 I might be old enough that I would not see the worst effects of Global Climate Change. McKibben dashed those hopes. He reports that without a miracle, we will pass beyond the maximum threshold of safe emission levels in about 16 years, as I approach my 80th birthday. My maternal grandmother lived to 103 with all her marbles, and virtually all my relatives live well into their 80s or beyond. My parents are now in their late 80s. Conclusion: Robert and I must revise and accelerate our survival strategies for living to the end of the world. We have a whole lot to learn and much work to do, if we plan to live 20 more years.
I was shocked to learn that we have already warmed the planet .8 degrees C and that same amount (.8 degrees C) of additional warming is built into the system even if we stop burning carbon today. I guess I was still in some partial state of denial, despite all the dramatic climate developments recently:
- We had no winter this past year where we live. For the first time our pond did not freeze over and our big koi did not bury themselves in the mud and sleep through cold weather.
- 260 homes and cabins and over 100 out buildings were destroyed in the Colorado fires.
- In June 3,215 high temperature records were broken after the warmest May in U.S. history. This was the warmest spring ever recorded in the U.S.
- For the 327th consecutive month global temperatures surpassed 20th Century averages.
- The world’s oceans are now 30% more acidic than ever before.
- The air over the oceans is 5% wetter, causing massive storms and floods. Think Katrina.
- Climatologists report a dramatic increase in the likelihood of severe heat and drought, and we are experiencing the beginning of those conditions now, even before August.
- Arctic sea ice is at the lowest levels ever recorded. And what are we doing about it?…
- Fossil fuel companies are taking advantage of receding ice masses to explore for more and bigger oil reserves. The tragedy is compounding itself: Ice loss = more oil = more greenhouse gas emissions = more ice loss.
I have rather sadly worked as a creativity consultant to Fortune 500 companies for 22 years. One thing I know about them is that they only speak one language — the language of MONEY. Nothing else gets through. All things are viewed and judged through a cost-benefit analysis lens relative to the bottom line — profit. If it doesn’t enhance profits, walk away, fight it, condemn it, deny it, and discredit it if you have to. The fossil fuel industry has done a good job of discrediting climate change science in an effort to protect profits and forfeit the planet in the process. Can anybody explain to me how that is good for the bottom line? Extinction is not good for business!… They need living customers, right?
Two-thirds of the electorate in my state does not “believe” in climate change. All the major academies of science around the world and 98% of climatologists are shouting that climate change is real and caused by human activity. But two-thirds of my state does not “believe” in climate change. To me that’s like saying they don’t believe in the Pythagorean Theorem! It’s science, for God’s sake! It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of fact, like the earth being round and progressing around the sun every 365 days. What in the name of Heaven is wrong with people?! This is mass suicide, and it is becoming more and more evident. Look around!
A second chunk of very thick ice, twice the size of Manhattan, broke off of Greenland the other day and floated away. Just like the first time this happened, I heard one 30-second news story about it and nothing more. The first chunk that Greenland lost several years ago was four times the size of Manhattan. When I mentioned it just in passing during a lunch chat with a corporate client, he shouted, “Oh quick! Somebody call Al Gore!” Al Gore already knew about it, I’m sure, and I would have strongly preferred discussing it with him.
Okay… so the language of corporate America is MONEY. What will it take to persuade the fossil fuel companies to leave the carbon in the earth? Isn’t it worth any price to save the planet itself and as many life forms as possible that have not already gone extinct? I’ll give them ALL of my paltry little bank account if that will do the trick. If it’s Money that talks, let’s talk to them in the language of Money. Let’s lavish Money on them when they switch from fossil fuel development to clean energy, and then let’s slap severe economic penalties on them when they extract fossil fuels from the ground. Let’s make clean energy appealing and profitable any way we can. Let’s make fossil fuel extraction painful and costly.
But we will have to do our part too. We all have to be ready to give up our gas guzzling cars if we succeed in persuading the fossil fuel companies to switch to clean energy. I’m ready to turn my four-wheel-drive SUV into a storage shed and buy a mule to carry me up and down the steep hills on our land. But if you have more money than I do, you might be able to afford an electric car powered by your solar array. I saw a TV documentary about some guy who made a steam-powered truck. Horses, bicycles, hot air balloons, and our own two legs provide fine transportation options. We just can’t burn fossil fuels anymore.
I suspect that real change has to begin in our own minds and hearts. It has to happen very quickly and achieve critical mass virtually overnight if the human race is to tip the balance away from mass suicide and toward hope and life. As Bill McKibben wryly observes:
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.
Our way of life is going to have to change radically if we are to survive. I’m willing to grow my own food and learn how to can and preserve it. I’d live without electricity, and communications and entertainment, if I had to. After all, those things are very recent developments anyway. My father had no electricity or indoor plumbing in his early childhood home, and they certainly could never have imagined carrying phones in their pockets, or communicating with any corner of the globe in a flash via Internet, or watching hundreds of channels of images and sounds on a box called a TV in every room of the house. Those are all very recent innovations. We can break those habits and do without those luxuries. But we don’t have to if we follow Germany’s example and convert to solar and wind and geothermal power. We can still enjoy some luxuries if we use forms of energy that will not poison the planet. But here’s the crux of the fossil fuel problem as Bill McKibben defines it very succinctly in his recent “Rolling Stone” article:
Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.
The numbers aren’t exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won’t necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.
How can we stop this lemming-like mass suicide? How can we combat the overwhelming allure of massive profits for the fossil fuel industry and/or make it even more profitable for them to switch to clean energy? How can we overcome our own profound attachments to modern conveniences and return to living closer to nature? Or how can we power our beloved luxuries with clean energy? How can we stop Global Climate Change?
Will all the major coastal cities of the world have to be flooded and evacuated before we come to our senses? Will millions upon millions have to die before we stop poisoning the planet? Do we have to pray for another massive meteor, like the one that killed all the dinosaurs, to hit the earth, wipe out most life on the planet and surround it with a cooling dust cloud for a very, very long time? That would save the planet as a place where evolution could resume and populate this paradise with another intelligent race, granted yet another chance to develop and finally another challenge to live through its own technological adolescence – a test we are failing miserably and spectacularly.
According to Bill McKibben, it looks like I may live to find out what will happen, even though I already think of myself as an old man at 63. Global Climate Change is progressing very rapidly. Look around. It’s obvious. Planet Earth and all life forms upon it are in peril. It’s time to pray for miracles and use any and every talent and strength we may individually and collectively possess to turn the rudder on the ship of humanity away from the insanity of mass suicide and toward a vast ocean of hope for survival, because we believe that life has value beyond our comprehension, and we want to save this precious living planetary organism from becoming a lifeless desert for the remainder of its existence.
The immediate task in front of us may seem overwhelming and hopeless. But we cannot afford the luxury of despair, depression and self-pity. We have urgent work to do to save the Earth, if not for ourselves, then for all the innocent children, animals and plants that do not deserve to die of heat prostration, thirst, hunger and extreme climate disasters. We have to buck up and do whatever we can. And we need to be smart, quick and creative about it. Bill McKibben concludes his “Rolling Stone” article with a moral challenge:
The three numbers I’ve described are daunting – they may define an essentially impossible future. But at least they provide intellectual clarity about the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. We know how much we can burn, and we know who’s planning to burn more. Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell.
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.
From Bill McKibben’s website:
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009. Time Magazine called him ‘the planet’s best green journalist’ and the Boston Globe said in 2010 that he was ‘probably the country’s most important environmentalist.’