JP Green House is an urban homestead in Boston.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ice Cold Truth

A lot of people are reacting to the news of the inevitable Antarctic glacier melt, and the inevitable sea-level rise (10 feet in this century) with calls for action, the creation of seawalls, a carbon tax, solar and wind power--the usual litany of fixes for climate change.
    But the word inevitable means "certain to happen, unavoidable". It means, "not preventable." While this may seem unreal or far off, the residents of island nations like the Maldives are already contemplating the certainty of the destruction of their homeland, the need to relocate their entire culture and people (where?). In our own privileged world, we face loss of many coastal cities, and major destruction to others; millions, perhaps billions, of refugees trying to relocate inland. This, on top of all the other horrors of climate change that are upon us. Inevitable.
    I am not proposing that we lie down and die. But I want to see some acknowledgment of the horror of this moment, when we should be realizing how thoroughly we've broken the planet. There should be grieving, wailing, and self-scrutiny. After that comes the resolution to continue, somehow--hopefully, very differently.
    I respect the reaction that demands action, rapid attention to the gravity of the problem. But another way is to see that we skip too quickly over our despair, our complicity and our guilt, to demanding fixes from science and technology. This is a terminal diagnosis for our civilization as it now exists. If it's not going to be a terminal diagnosis for our species (and most others), we do have to pause long enough to find our grown up selves and figure out how to change radically in order to survive this.

Please debate me if you find this analysis flawed, but I see in the climate movement, and even in the scientific community, a failure to use basic logic to connect the dots. I believe it’s based on a fear of looking at the totality of the horror we face. Yet anyone who follows climate science even the way I do--as an educated non-scientist--ought to be able to make these connections.
    Here’s an example: We now know that a temperature rise of 2C is inevitable, probably inside this century. And we were just informed that critical glaciers in Antarctica are doomed to melt away entirely. We also know the loss of the Albedo Effect, which is when white ice reflects heat back into space, causes significantly more warming (James Lovelock says it will be as great an effect as the sum total of human emissions). When you put these things together, you should be able to use simple logic to conclude that “runaway climate change”--i.e. unstoppable warming--is the result. 
    Add what is known about methane release from melting permafrost (methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2), and you can loop back and see that 2C is a very, very conservative estimate of how much warming we face. Add the warnings from the International Energy Association, the World Bank and the IPCC that 4C of warming represents a world to which humans may well be unable to adapt.
    If you dare to look at all these pieces (and there are a great deal more!), you find yourself on the edge of a cliff fighting vertigo. Human extinction is by no means an apocalyptic fantasy. The urge to throw yourself over is real and present. You realize you will have to watch, and then suffer, all that is now inevitable.
    If the climate movement were to tell us the truth about climate, there would be no climate movement. This paradox tortures me, and has stopped me in my tracks, as an activist.
But I am not a “defeatist”. This term is being thrown at people who are speaking plain about what climate science is showing us. Many of them are scientists (James Lovelock, James Hansen), some are science writers (Ross Gelbspan), and some are activists (Carolyn Baker, Paul Kingsnorth). Major teachers on a variety of spiritual paths are coming to the same realization (Thich Nhat Hanh and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee). Unfamous existential thinkers everywhere are quietly reaching the same conclusion.

     A new kind of activism is quietly developing among these desperate souls. It’s the activism of those who have to work from a place of truth, and of those who recognize this very grave and primary truth: There are powers greater than us. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Moderation Bedamned

I spent an evening recently in a room with a climate activist, saying "this is what the science demands..." debating a policymaker, saying "we're doing all we can do given the difficulties of getting stakeholder buy-in...". 

The forum was panel discussion between Massachusetts Energy Undersecretary Bobby Kates-Garnick and climate activist Craig Altemose of 350MA at the Brookline Public Library, part of Brookline Climate Week. Craig laid out the hard facts of what the science tells us we need to do. Bobby responded with a long list of things MA has already done, making it the most climate-progressive state in the nation, but with a lot of caveats about how hard it is to get communities to embrace wind (NIMBY-ism), the fact that the state has been repeatedly sued over the Cape Wind project, how communities face hardship when we shut down coal plants, etc. Like most of our politicians--even the good ones--she showed no true understanding of the level of urgency and the need to behave in unconventional ways in order to rise to the occasion. A liberal, in other words. They mean well...

She was right--on the terms of her own entrenched, short-sighted, incrementalist, liberal-government paradigm. But we know chemistry and physics will be uninterested in her arguments. I just wanted to walk away from the whole false dilemma and into some wholly other reality, someplace where we can speak the truth. Listening to her was like watching someone have a fatal stroke in slow motion. Horrifying, and also weirdly dull.

If you haven't yet read Wen Stephenson's classic essay on how climate change cannot be addressed with moderate thinking, here it is:

We're up against a very hard logic. Atmospheric physics and chemistry aren't persuaded to change course by the difficulties of making any headway in our political system. They aren't responsive to half-measures and good intentions. 

We've been taught to like the word "moderation". It represents a balanced, thoughtful view that every position is worth listening to, that the truth is not found in any single place. It's very nice. But niceness can be the enemy of real compassion. You can't be nice to psychopath, to a cancer, to a runaway train. Compassion--for the Earth, for our children, for the future--at this moment involves courage and a ruthless dedication to truth.

Bowing to Winter