I’ve just returned from a 6-week trip to the United States and I am now dealing with the intensity of things left undone for so long [sigh]. But that trip was interesting for many reasons. First, and as I’ve already posted, I finished a book with Paul Ehrlich that will be out sometime early in 2013 (but I won’t deal with that here). I also attended an interesting, if slightly confusing, conference on ecosystem services. And finally, I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Barnosky in person, and we decided that we should definitely collaborate on a few things.
Another thing that struck me – and this happens no matter how often I visit the U.S., is just how completely insane that country’s politics are. The extremist, libertarian, plutotheocratic bullshit spewed by the far right to the detriment of the very people who support them is enough to make you vomit. And this startling and thoroughly backward world-view is now starting to penetrate more and more into Australian society and politics. From an environmental perspective, it’s a continuation of a downhill slide that started with Reagan’s destruction of environmentalism in the U.S., and Joh Bjelke-Petersen‘s war on the environment in Australia, and will only continue to get worse.
Of course, the main victim of reason in all these polemic politics is that we are doing next to nothing to mitigate horrendous climate disruption. Only yesterday, George Monbiot was lamenting (nay, pleading) that our governments are doing practically nil to avoid what can only be described as the greatest threat to our way of life since the World War II – in fact, the War and its associated holocaust is small bikkies compared to what awaits us.
And this is the most stressing part – even people who choose to use their brains and accept that we have an immense, global problem on our hands generally are not even remotely concerned enough.
This fact was brought home to me in a plenary lecture by Clive Hamilton who was visiting the U.S. while I was there. Now, I haven’t yet met Clive, but he’s the sort of bloke who should be running the country (Australia, in this case) instead of the drongos now in office. Clive is Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University , and has written some pretty hard-hitting books. He ran for the Australian Greens in a by-election in the federal seat of Higgins in 2009, but came second. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see him speak at the American Sociological Association conference in Denver, but I read his lecture in essay form passed on to me by Paul Ehrlich. The essay is now available online. I’d like to reproduce some of the most distressing components of it here.
Let’s assume a completely unrealistic scenario where the world gets its shit together immediately. Here, (1) global emissions peak in 2020 (thereafter any increase in emissions from poor countries is more than offset by declines in rich countries), although realistically, emissions are more likely to keep growing until 2030 or beyond, and (2) emissions fall by 3% per year after 2020 until they reach a minimum necessary to supply the world’s population with food; this translates into a 6-7% per annum decline in energy and industrial emissions in rich countries. So what would happen under this ‘optimistic’ case? Clive explains:
“would see concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reach 650 ppm (the pre-industrial level was 280 ppm and it now stands at 392 ppm). That level translates into warming of 4°C above the pre-industrial global average. As oceans warm more slowly, a global average of 4°C means warming of 5-6°C on land, and even higher closer to the poles. Warming on this scale and at the expected rate, would radically change the conditions of life on earth. The world would be hotter than at any time for 15 million years, yet this is now regarded by leading climate scientists as the most likely future before the end of the century”
“Warming approaching 4 °C is uncharted territory. …the climate system would cross several tipping points and trigger various feedback effects that would render the climate system largely beyond human control. The idea that when things get too hot we can then turn the thermostat down is not how the climate system works. On the road to warming of 4 ºC the Earth system would cross several thresholds that would amplify warming and make the climate system unstable. The planet has warmed by 0.8 ºC above the pre-industrial average already and inertia in the system means that 2.4 ºC of warming is already locked in, with heating reaching 4 ºC perhaps in the 2070s.”
He goes into some more detail here, but the upswing is that even the once-possible 2.0 ºC increase cap by 2100 is now so completely unrealistic, that we can effectively bin that pipe dream (I can’t believe that a 2 degree increase is now considered a utopian ideal). In essence, we are now committed to such an increase that our entire society, biodiversity and life as we know it will be severely diminished by the end of this century.
So what are we doing about it? Bugger all. Instead, we have to listen to the likes of Gina Rinehart tell Australians that they just need to work harder to get rich, to Mitt Romney tell Americans that as ‘citizens’, corporations’ profits trickle down to the rest of us poor sods, and to Tony Abbott who stated in 2011: “Whether carbon dioxide is quite the environmental villain that some people make it out to be is not yet proven”.
So stick your fingers further down your earholes, close your eyes and sing loudly and joyously your favourite ‘la-la-la’ lyrics as we race towards oblivion.