Monday, February 28, 2011



The world is warming. No arguing this. The Greenland ice shelf is melting, the Arctic's been ice-free for the last couple of summers, the West Antarctic ice shelf is starting to disintegrate. All of this guarantees sea-level rise, the question is simply how much (a meter and a half to 15 meters, excluding most of Antarctica). In an Oscar-nominated film, “Sun Come Up,” filmmakers document the disappearance of the Carteret islands off Indonesia, and the relocation of its people. Permafrost in the northern tundra is melting, releasing an accelerating amount of a vast methane sink, and methane is 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. Last summer there were widespread fires in Russia, disrupting grain production, blanketing Moscow in smoke for weeks. Flooding in Pakistan and Australia has come from unseasonable rainfall and disruption of the Indian monsoon. Deserts are increasing, including the North American southwest, which may now be in a fateful shift from semi-arid to arid. The oceans have taken up so much CO2 that they are acidifying, threatening creatures that manufacture shells and tiny plankton that form the base of the marine food chain. We are already past some key climatic tipping points.

In the face of all these undeniable facts, there are a disturbing number of public figures who claim that climate change is a hoax . But more generally, the argument is over the cause. It goes, sure there's warming, but it's part of a cyclical pattern. Moreover, CO2 levels do not predict warming, they follow it. These folks, who receive far more press than their numbers (in both senses) deserve, agree there's warming, but do not accept an anthropogenic cause. This despite the consensus of 99% of climate scientists backed up by over 20,000 data sets from across the globe that have produced models that have come ever closer to the global climate shift unfolding around us – ahead of schedule, and clearly linked to human burning of fossil fuels.

So, this mainstream of denial argues, either we shrug our shoulders and go on as if nothing were amiss, or we invest in geo-engineering at the last possible moment to prevent absolute catastrophe. Climate change deniers' typical option of no response leaves our planet to some freak of natural history to save us, or simply accept accelerating doom. There's a core of the rapturous right that is fine with that. Tired of exercising moral choice, confident that they are already saved, they are ready for a reckoning, the Rapture. But most tea-partyers are not enraptured, more worshippers of a misunderstood US Constitution than the God of Revelations. Faced with rapid climate change, they would simply retreat further into denial,lashing out at “communists” who urge responding with deep cuts in CO2 emissions, overseen by a U.N. treaty

It is true that, as a human trait, denial has evolutionary advantages. Putting aside looming problems, we focus on what works for our family and community (thus traditional farming and other forms of settled life). If we focused too much on the threat, we might be paralyzed by fear, losing hope, unable to respond. Because of this deep hard-wiring, there is some degree of denial in all of us. We deny the full consequences so that we can retain hope. One version of this is the normalcy bias, the inability to accept change due to the comfort of habit. Such was the case with the majority of Jews who stayed in Germany as the thirties rolled on, eager to hold onto their homes, communities, and fortunes. So denial has survival value only up to a point. If the problem (i.e. climate change) requires a total revolution in behavior and yet denial persists, then any hope gained is dishonest, undercutting the possibility of mitigating the problem.

Suppose you're not convinced that anthropogenic climate change is for real, but you concede that it may be. This is the position of many in the middle of the debate. My own organization, NC Interfaith Power and Light, held several meetings with our WNC Congressman Heath Shuler, a blue dog Democrat who was initially reluctant to support climate legislation in the House. In the end, Shuler embraced the precautionary principle, explaining his action to a dubious conservative electorate as an “insurance policy.” Active in his church, he did this not just as a practical matter, but out of a sense of biblically based stewardship. He was re-elected in November. Bravo for you, Heath!

As I noted in the last post, the issue has become politicized, the parties taking polar opposite positions. Just a few months ago, we were on the verge of a climate package in the Senate, with mainstream environmental organizations working carefully towards a compromise with US senators and more sober business leaders who understood this whole climate change business was for real. The collapse of those talks is painfully traced in the New Yorker, showing the weakness of the political process. Losing sight of the stakes, the climate issue has become political football, with many Republicans who agreed to some form of legislation prior to the last election undergoing a conversion during the campaign (John McCain, co-author of the first congressional climate bill, is a sad example). Cow-towing to the center of their own party, Harry Reid and Barack Obama have shown virtually no leadership on the issue. At this point, with a wave of tea-partyers assaulting Washington, climate legislation appears dead.

This dodging of the facts and repudiation of moral responsibility is unfortunately true of many failing leaders in both industry and politics. Short term gain, be it the corporate bottom line or political success, trumps the kind of long-term planning required for victory in the greatest war humankind has ever faced. Confronted with a crisis, we are better at fabricating short term strategies from what's at hand, seeing the situation in a local or perhaps regional context, than long-term global cooperation and planning. The ascendant right fears world federalism, which they feel would inevitably follow from U.N.-sponsored emissions monitoring, yet all of us would work together to help our neighbors during a flood or a fire. On the geopolitical stage, “national interest” - viewed narrowly and short-term – prevents cooperating with our “enemies,” as we have sadly seen in climate negotiations, especially at Copenhagen.

As for the local perspective, far too many of us are willing to ignore huge changes far away from us, swayed by two severe winters in a row in most of the US. But even here, a careful observer would note that winter is still shorter than it used to be – a lot shorter this winter in Western NC. And last summer was hotter than usual for most of us. Globally, 2010 tied for the hottest year on record. Just ask the Russians, the Pakistanis, or the Aussies.

Climate change progressives, “climate hawks” as David Roberts of Grist calls us, also harbor subtle forms of denial. Like others not so convinced of the evidence, we simply need to go on with our lives, going to work, enjoying our families and hobbies, taking a vacation now and then. I quit my job as a tenured professor to devote my life to fighting climate change, but I still fly airplanes to be with my family. And if I still taught college humanities, planning classes and conducting research would be a welcome buffer against reading scientific reports of accelerating climate doom. Even grading student essays would keep despair at bay! After ten years of studying climate science and nuclear safety, reading almost no fiction, only fitfully reading poetry, which was my field of study and a source of deep inspiration and wonder, I now indulge in the occasional novel and poetry. It's just too hard to stay with our current global reality on a daily basis.

Finally, the most harmful form of denial is not of climate facts, but of personal responsibility for political action. Scientists working on the Manhattan Project wore blinders to the possible fruits of their research. As the reports cascade in, climate scientists are challenged to speak, yet few of them will take a stand on the governmental action required. They approve in principle, but not with passion, perhaps risking their careers. Last summer I hosted an Asheville climate scientist, one of the lead authors of a section of the Fourth Assessment, thus a Nobel Prize co-winner, as part of a conference on preserving the Blue Ridge bioregion. After his presentation on the effect of climate change on the US and the South, I pressed him for support of climate legislation. He shook his head, saying that was the business of politicians.

James Hansen, on the other hand, whose seminal climate science work I have frequently quoted here, breaks the mold, aggressively lobbying for (sometimes being arrested) vigorous climate legislation. Some policy wonks complain that he sometimes backs the wrong horse because he doesn't fully understand the economics. But at least he takes a position, in contrast to the studied neutrality of my Asheville IPCC contact. Ecojustice requires that we take a stand, partaking in messy politics, risking being wrong. It keeps the conversation going, hopefully lurching towards political action that is informed and effective. Leaving politics to the politicians is ultimately moral suicide.

Next: A passage to India, and a swami's brand of climate denial.

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