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The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate

Page 4 of 6

The heating of the oceans not only melts the ice and makes hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons more intense, it also evaporates around 2 trillion gallons of additional water vapor into the skies above the U.S. The warmer air holds more of this water vapor and carries it over the landmasses, where it is funneled into land-based storms that are releasing record downpours all over the world.

For example, an "April shower" came to Pensacola, Florida, this spring, but it was a freak – another rainstorm on steroids: two feet of rain in 26 hours. It broke all the records in the region, but as usual, virtually no media outlets made the connection to global warming. Similar "once in a thousand years" storms have been occurring regularly in recent years all over the world, including in my hometown of Nashville in May 2010.

All-time record flooding swamped large portions of England this winter, submerging thousands of homes for more than six weeks. Massive downpours hit Serbia and Bosnia this spring, causing flooding of "biblical proportions" (a phrase now used so frequently in the Western world that it has become almost a cliché) and thousands of landslides. Torrential rains in Afghanistan in April triggered mudslides that killed thousands of people – almost as many, according to relief organizations, as all of the Afghans killed in the war there the previous year.

In March, persistent rains triggered an unusually large mudslide in Oso, Washington, killing more than 40 people. There are literally hundreds of other examples of extreme rainfall occurring in recent years in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

In the planet's drier regions, the same extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by man-made global-warming pollution has also been driving faster evaporation of soil moisture and causing record-breaking droughts. As of this writing, 100 percent of California is in "severe," "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. Record fires are ravaging the desiccated landscape. Experts now project that an increase of one degree Celsius over pre-industrial temperatures will lead to as much as a 600-­percent increase in the median area burned by forest fires in some areas of the American West – including large portions of Colorado. The National Research Council has reported that fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago, and in California, firefighters are saying that the season is now effectively year-round.

Drought has been intensifying in many other dry regions around the world this year: Brazil, Indonesia, central and northwest Africa and Madagascar, central and western Europe, the Middle East up to the Caspian Sea and north of the Black Sea, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, Western Australia and New Zealand.

Syria is one of the countries that has been in the bull's-eye of climate change. From 2006 to 2010, a historic drought destroyed 60 percent of the country's farms and 80 percent of its livestock – driving a million refugees from rural agricultural areas into cities already crowded with the million refugees who had taken shelter there from the Iraq War. As early as 2008, U.S. State Department cables quoted Syrian government officials warning that the social and economic impacts of the drought are "beyond our capacity as a country to deal with." Though the hellish and ongoing civil war in Syria has multiple causes – including the perfidy of the Assad government and the brutality on all sides – their climate-related drought may have been the biggest underlying trigger for the horror.

The U.S. military has taken notice of the strategic dangers inherent in the climate crisis. Last March, a Pentagon advisory committee described the climate crisis as a "catalyst for conflict" that may well cause failures of governance and societal collapse. "In the past, the thinking was that climate change multiplied the significance of a situation," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald. "Now we're saying it's going to be a direct cause of instability."

Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told the press, "For DOD, this is a mission reality, not a political debate. The scientific forecast is for more Arctic ice melt, more sea-level rise, more intense storms, more flooding from storm surge and more drought." And in yet another forecast difficult for congressional climate denialists to rebut, climate experts advising the military have also warned that the world's largest naval base, in Norfolk, Virginia, is likely to be inundated by rising sea levels in the future.

And how did the Republican-dominated House of Representatives respond to these grim warnings? By passing legislation seeking to prohibit the Department of Defense from taking any action to prepare for the effects of climate disruption.

There are so many knock-on consequences of the climate crisis that listing them can be depressing – diseases spreading, crop yields declining, more heat waves affecting vulnerable and elderly populations, the disappearance of summer-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, the potential extinction of up to half of all the living species, and so much more. And that in itself is a growing problem too, because when you add it all up, it's no wonder that many feel a new inclination to despair.

So, clearly, we will just have to gird ourselves for the difficult challenges ahead. There is indeed, literally, light at the end of the tunnel, but there is a tunnel, and we are well into it.

In November 1936, Winston Churchill stood before the United Kingdom's House of Commons and placed a period at the end of the misguided debate over the nature of the "gathering storm" on the other side of the English Channel: "Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. . . . The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences. . . . We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now."

Our civilization is confronting this existential challenge at a moment in our historical development when our dominant global ideology – democratic capitalism – has been failing us in important respects.

Democracy is accepted in theory by more people than ever before as the best form of political organization, but it has been "hacked" by large corporations (defined as "persons" by the Supreme Court) and special interests corrupting the political system with obscene amounts of money (defined as "speech" by the same court).

Capitalism, for its part, is accepted by more people than ever before as a superior form of economic organization, but is – in its current form – failing to measure and include the categories of "value" that are most relevant to the solutions we need in order to respond to this threatening crisis (clean air and water, safe food, a benign climate balance, public goods like education and a greener infrastructure, etc.).

Pressure for meaningful reform in democratic capitalism is beginning to build powerfully. The progressive introduction of Internet-based communication – social media, blogs, digital journalism – is laying the foundation for the renewal of individual participation in democracy, and the re-elevation of reason over wealth and power as the basis for collective decision­making. And the growing levels of inequality worldwide, combined with growing structural unemployment and more frequent market disruptions (like the Great Recession), are building support for reforms in capitalism.

Both waves of reform are still at an early stage, but once again, Churchill's words inspire: "If you're going through hell, keep going." And that is why it is all the more important to fully appreciate the incredible opportunity for salvation that is now within our grasp. As the satirical newspaper The Onion recently noted in one of its trademark headlines: "Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Technology Ready to Go Whenever."

We have the policy tools that can dramatically accelerate the transition to clean energy that market forces will eventually produce at a slower pace. The most important has long since been identified: We have to put a price on carbon in our markets, and we need to eliminate the massive subsidies that fuel the profligate emissions of global-warming pollution.

We need to establish "green banks" that provide access to capital investment necessary to develop renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and forestry, an electrified transportation fleet, the retrofitting of buildings to reduce wasteful energy consumption, and the full integration of sustainability in the design and architecture of cities and towns. While the burning of fossil fuels is the largest cause of the climate crisis, deforestation and "factory farming" also play an important role. Financial and technological approaches to addressing these challenges are emerging, but we must continue to make progress in converting to sustainable forestry and agriculture.

In order to accomplish these policy shifts, we must not only put a price on carbon in markets, but also find a way to put a price on climate denial in our politics. We already know the reforms that are needed – and the political will to enact them is a renewable resource. Yet the necessary renewal can only come from an awakened citizenry empowered by a sense of urgency and emboldened with the courage to reject despair and become active. Most importantly, now is the time to support candidates who accept the reality of the climate crisis and are genuinely working hard to solve it – and to bluntly tell candidates who are not on board how much this issue matters to you. If you are willing to summon the resolve to communicate that blunt message forcefully – with dignity and absolute sincerity – you will be amazed at the political power an individual can still wield in America's diminished democracy.

Something else is also new this summer. Three years ago, in these pages, I criticized the seeming diffidence of President Obama toward the great task of solving the climate crisis; this summer, it is abundantly evident that he has taken hold of the challenge with determination and seriousness of purpose.

He has empowered his Environmental Protection Agency to enforce limits on CO2 emissions for both new and, as of this June, existing sources of CO2. He has enforced bold new standards for the fuel economy of the U.S. transportation fleet. He has signaled that he is likely to reject the absurdly reckless Keystone XL-pipeline proposal for the transport of oil from carbon­intensive tar sands to be taken to market through the United States on its way to China, thus effectively limiting their exploitation. And he is even now preparing to impose new limits on the release of methane pollution.

All of these welcome steps forward have to be seen, of course, in the context of Obama's continued advocacy of a so-called all-of-the-above energy policy – which is the prevailing code for aggressively pushing more drilling and fracking for oil and gas. And to put the good news in perspective, it is important to remember that U.S. emissions – after declining for five years during the slow recovery from the Great Recession – actually increased by 2.4 percent in 2013.

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