Monday, May 15, 2006

After the Thaw

Great events in human history are captured in our memories like fish in ice at the sudden onset of winter. Frozen in time, to be thawed and trawled out in generations to come by curious grandchildren. What were you doing when it happened? Where were you? Who were you with? How did you feel?

Most of these defining moments are shared. The event happens. News flashes around the globe. For a moment we are transfixed, shocked, in awe. JFK has been assassinated…the Berlin Wall came down… the planes hit the twin towers… bonds are created as we share in the tragedy or the elation of the moment.

I recently experienced the defining moment of my generation - the event to dwarf all others. But strangely, I had it all to myself, staring at an email on my computer screen as I struggled to comprehend… humans are changing the climate.

My great grandchildren are unlikely to care about September 11, or about John Howard, or who won the world cup in 2006. They’re going to want to know how, in the space of only 4 generations, we created a mass wave of extinctions by triggering a climatic shift so dramatic that evolution was left flailing in it’s wake. And they’re going to want to know why my generation didn’t do anything when we knew it was happening.

Late last year, scientists revealed that the Siberian permafrost is melting. Researchers found that an area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres - the size of France and Germany combined - has started to melt for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago.

The area in question, covering the entire sub-Arctic region of western Siberia, is the world's largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that, as it thaws, it will release billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

It is yet another example of a scenario climate scientists have feared since first identifying "tipping points" - delicate thresholds where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures. The news managed to climb to the dizzy heights of story number 6 on the radio news. The lead story has already slipped from memory.

Much like the thaw of the permafrost or the dawn sweeping across the landscape, the realization that climate change is real and catastrophic spreads slowly. While I’ve had an intellectual understanding of climate change for many years and have followed the scientific developments with increasing concern, at some deeper level it just hadn’t sunk in. Now it has. And it’s not the loss of skiing holidays that is most concerning – it’s the loss of life.

A 2004 study published in Nature magazine examined the extinction risk from climate change in six biodiversity-rich regions, representing one fifth of the Earth's land area. The researchers concluded that from 15 to 37% of all the species in the regions studied could be driven to extinction by the climate changes likely between now and 2050. Climate change and the impacts of industrialization and over-consumption are driving a mass wave of extinction that is leading many scientists, like world famous paleoanthropologist, Dr. Richard Leakey, to predict that up to 50% of all species will be extinct within the next 100 years.

To put this in context, the fossil record reveals five great extinction episodes in the last half-billion years. The last happened 65 million years ago when dinosaurs became extinct. It has been calculated that the current rate of extinction is one thousand to ten thousand times the background rate – and rising. To draw the blunt but obvious conclusion - humans are now causing the sixth mass wave of extinctions in the 4 billion year history of life on earth.

Nature has always had to adapt to changing climate conditions. Indeed, it is one of the driving forces behind the process of evolution that has produced the staggering variety of life on Earth. But the very real fear is that the changes currently under way are simply too rapid for species to evolve new strategies for survival.

People can pack up their gear into cars and move (at least, wealthy people can). We can build dwellings. We can grow food in greenhouses. Other creatures can’t. Humans are incredibly adaptive to change – it is one of our greatest qualities, and, so it would appear, one of our greatest liabilities as we go about resigning ourselves to accept climate change.

A lot of us seem to have forgotten that our life depends on functioning ecosystems. Food, medicines, clean air and water are the obvious things. Maybe we really can keep living with dramatically reduced diversity of life on earth? But given that we only have the slightest clue about what life actually exists, let alone what functions it performs in keeping our global environment in equilibrium, it’s a pretty big gamble. It’s a bit like letting a neurologist remove 90% of your brain because they only know what 10% of it does. If there is one thing that we have learnt about ecology over the past 50 years it is that natural systems are complex and symbiotic. Changing one thing invariable results in flow on effects.

In the face of the enormous challenge posed by climate change, our elected political leaders are flailing aimlessly. The oil and coal industries have such a stranglehold over our economy and our public institutions that they stymie any attempts at change. Political parties on the right and left are beholden to big energy and are paralysed by a chronic failure of the imagination.

At this point, we don’t just need a 10% renewable energy target. We don’t need people just to buy energy efficient light bulbs. We certainly can’t pin our hopes on just cleaning up coal. We need a radical and urgent transition plan to a green economy. We need a green development programme that will make the Marshall Plan look like a Sunday school picnic. The transition away from destructive industries and their replacement with efficient, sustainable alternatives needs to be the basis of the next industrial revolution.

It’s not even worth saying that it won’t be easy. It will take the combined energies of our best planners, economists, artists, engineers, teachers, managers, scientists and farmers to make it happen. We already have a host of brilliant and practical ideas from some of the brightest and most creative thinkers of our time. What we lack is the collective courage and leadership to make the investments and to take risks - investments and risks that are commensurate with the size of the challenge. The consequences of the doing nothing are just far too devastating and irresponsible to contemplate.

My father spent his whole working life in the coal industry. The challenge of his generation of engineers was to grow and to manage the industrial revolution. They didn’t know about climate change back then. My first three years as a graduate engineer in the early 90’s were spent designing and building equipment for the coal, oil and gas industries. I didn’t really know about climate change then either. Now I do. And the thing about being human is that we have the capacity to learn from history. And between stimulus and response we have choice.

It seems clear enough. Either we rise to meet the challenge of our age - or we don’t. If we do, it will require a political movement to transform our economy – with a role for every single one of us. If we don’t, then our current political and business leaders will be inscribed in the record books as the drivers of, and collaborators in, the most senseless and destructive chapter in human history. And the rest of us will be secure in the anonymity of spectatorship – at least until those grandchildren start asking pesky questions.


sushma said...

Thanks John for your thoughtful essay on climate change. You mention that "We already have a host of brilliant and practical ideas from some of the brightest and most creative thinkers of our time." Could you list some of those? I find that while brilliant and practical ideas spring up everyday how to fix a browser, or start a new digital business that will sell even more things to people, this kind of energy has not really been put into sustainable energy.

Please prove me right that the some of the world's most important thinkers have spent more time thinking about the planet we live in than about how to digitize every bit of info in existence.


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