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Snap into Action for the Climate

The terrifying new speed of global warming and our last chance to stop it

by Mike Tidwell

Published in the May/June 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Painting: Guy Nindorera, Age 12, Burundi

RECORD HEAT and wind and fire displace nearly one million Southern Californians. Record drought in Atlanta leaves the city with just a few more months of drinking water. Arctic ice shrinks by an area twice the size of Texas in one summer. And all over the world—including where you live—the local weather borders on unrecognizable. It’s way too hot, too dry, too wet, too weird wherever you go.

All of which means it’s time to face a fundamental truth: the majority of the world’s climate scientists have been totally wrong. They’ve failed us completely. Not concerning the basics of global warming. Of course the climate is changing. Of course humans are driving the process through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. No, what the scientists have been wrong about—and I mean really, really wrong—is the speed at which it’s all occurring. Our climate system isn’t just “changing.” It’s not just “warming.” It’s snapping, violently, into a whole new regime right before our eyes. A fantastic spasm of altered weather patterns is crashing down upon our heads right now.

The only question left for America is this: can we snap along with the climate? Can we, as the world’s biggest polluter, create a grassroots political uprising that emerges as abruptly as a snap of the fingers? A movement that demands the clean-energy revolution in the time we have left to save ourselves? I think we can do it. I hope we can do it. Indeed, the recent political “snap” in Australia, where a devastating and unprecedented drought made climate change a central voting issue and so helped topple a Bush-like government of deniers, should give us encouragement.

But time is running out fast for a similar transformation here.

A CLIMATE SNAP? REALLY? It sounds so much like standard fear-mongering and ecohyperbole. But here’s proof: One of the most prestigious scientific bodies in the world, the group that just shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for its climate work, predicted fourteen months ago that unchecked global warming could erase all of the Arctic Ocean’s summertime ice as early as 2070. Then, just two months later, in April 2007, a separate scientific panel released data indicating that the 2070 mark was way off, suggesting that ice-free conditions could come to the Arctic as early as the summer of 2030. And as if this acceleration weren’t enough, yet another prediction emerged in December 2007. Following the year’s appalling melt season, in which vast stretches of Arctic ice the size of Florida vanished almost weekly at times, a credible new estimate from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, indicated there could be zero—zero—summer ice in the Arctic as early as 2013.

Five precious years. An eye-blink away.

So the Arctic doomsday prediction has gone from 2070 to 2013 in just eleven months of scientific reporting. This means far more than the likely extinction of polar bears from drowning and starvation. A world where the North Pole is just a watery dot in an unbroken expanse of dark ocean implies a planet that, well, is no longer planet Earth. It’s a world that is destined to be governed by radically different weather patterns. And it’s a world that’s arriving, basically, tomorrow, if the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School has it right.

How could this be happening to us? Why is this not dominating every minute of every presidential debate?

Actually it’s the so-called feedback loops that have tripped up scientists so badly, causing the experts to wildly misjudge the speed of the climate crash. Having never witnessed a planet overheat before, no one quite anticipated the geometric rate of change. To cite one example, when that brilliantly white Arctic ice melts to blue ocean, it takes with it a huge measure of solar reflectivity, which increases sunlight absorption and feeds more warmth back into the system, amplifying everything dramatically. And as northern forests across Canada continue to die en masse due to warming, they switch from being net absorbers of CO2 to net emitters when forest decomposition sets in. And as tundra melts all across Siberia, it releases long-buried methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than even CO2. And so on and so on and so on. Like the ear-splitting shriek when a microphone gets too close to its amplifier, literally dozens of major feedback loops are screeching into place worldwide, all at the same time, ushering in the era of runaway climate change.

“Only in the past five years, as researchers have learned more about the way our planet works, have some come to the conclusion that changes probably won’t be as smooth or as gradual as [previously] imagined,” writes Fred Pearce in his new book With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. “We are in all probability already embarked on a roller coaster ride of lurching and sometimes brutal change.”

GLOBAL WARMING is no longer a hundred-year problem requiring a hundred-year solution. It’s not even a fifty-year problem. New data and recent events clearly reveal it’s a right-here, right-now, white-hot crisis requiring dramatic and comprehensive resolution in the next twenty to thirty years, with drastic but achievable changes in energy consumption required immediately. But even a near-total abandonment of fossil fuels might not be enough to save us, given how fast the planet is now warming.

So the rising whisper even among many environmentalists is this: we might also have to develop some sort of life-saving atmospheric shield. In a controversial but decidedly plausible approach called geo-engineering, we could do everything from placing giant orbiting mirrors in outer space to seeding the atmosphere with lots of sulfur dioxide, basically becoming a “permanent human volcano.” More on this in a moment.

But first, if there’s any good news surrounding the sudden and unexpected speed of global warming it is this: it’s nobody’s fault. New evidence shows that we were almost certainly locked into a course of violent climate snap well before we first fully understood the seriousness of global warming back in the 1980s. Even had we completely unplugged everything twenty years ago, the momentum of carbon dioxide buildup already occurring in the atmosphere clearly would have steered us toward the same disastrous results we’re seeing now.

So we can stop blaming ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal and the father-son Bush administrations. Their frequently deceitful lobbying and political stalling over the past twenty years didn’t wreck the climate. The atmosphere was already wrecked well before the first Bush took office. These staunch conservatives simply created a “solution delay” that we can—and must—overcome in a very short time.

The tendency toward denial is still very much with us, of course. From this point forward, however, there can be no hesitation and no absolution. In a world of obvious climate snap, any obstruction, any delay, from any quarter, is hands down a crime against humanity.

AMID THE SUDDEN need to rethink everything a.s.a.p. comes another piece of good news: the clean-energy solutions to global warming grow more economically feasible and closer at hand with each passing year. Europeans, with a standard of living equal to ours, already use half the energy per capita as Americans. If we just adopted Europe’s efficiency standards we’d be halfway to fixing our share of the problem in America.

We can’t do this? We can pilot wheeled vehicles on Mars and cross medical frontiers weekly and invent the iPhone, but we can’t use energy as efficiently as Belgium does today? Or Japan, for that matter? We can, of course. Wind power is the fastest growing energy resource in the world, and a car that runs on nothing but prairie grass could soon be coming to a driveway near you.

But to achieve these changes fast enough, the American people need a grassroots political movement that goes from zero to sixty in a matter of months, a movement that demands the sort of clean-energy policies and government mandates needed to transform our economy and our lives. We need a mass movement of concerned voters that “snaps” into place overnight—as rapidly as the climate itself is changing. Skeptics need only remember that we’ve experienced explosive, purposeful change before—quickly mobilizing to defeat Nazism in the ‘40s, casting off statutory Jim Crowism in a mere decade.

What just took place in Australia could be seen as a dress rehearsal for what might soon happen here in America. The underlying factors couldn’t be more similar. A historic drought (similar to current conditions in the U.S. Southwest and Southeast) with an established scientific link to global warming had become so bad by 2007 that 25 percent of Australia’s food production had been destroyed and every major city was under emergency water restrictions. The conservative incumbent government, meanwhile, had denied the basic reality of global warming for a decade, refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol. But voters were increasingly traumatized by the drought and increasingly educated. (Proportionally, twice as many Aussies watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as Americans.) Against this backdrop, Labor Party candidate Kevin Rudd made climate change one of his topmost issues, talking about it constantly as he campaigned toward a landslide victory. It was good politics. The electorate had snapped into place and so had Rudd. His first official act in November was to sign Kyoto and commit his nation to a major clean-energy overhaul.

That time must come soon to America. November 4, 2008, would be a nice start date. And when we go, we must go explosively. Voters, appalled by the increasingly weird weather all across America—weather soon to be made worse by the bare Arctic Ocean and other feedback loops—must finally demand the right thing, laughing all the way to the polls over the recent congressional bill requiring 35 mpg cars by 2020. By 2015, we need to have cut electricity use by at least one third and be building nothing less than 50 mpg cars. And constructing massive and graceful wind farms off most of our windy seacoasts.

That’s our snap. That’s our glorious feedback loop, with political will and technological advances and market transformations all feeding off each other for breathtaking, runaway change.

BUT WILL IT BE ENOUGH? As inspiring and unifying and liberating as this World War II–like mobilization will be for our nation, it sadly will not. Getting off carbon fuels—though vital and mandatory—won’t steer us clear of climate chaos. We’ve delayed action far too long for that tidy resolution. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for up to a hundred years, and there’s already more than enough up there to erase all the “permanent” ice in the Arctic.

This leaves us with a huge decision to make. Either we fatalistically accept the inability of clean energy alone to save us, resigning ourselves to the appalling climate pain and chaos scientists say are coming, or we take one additional awesome step: we engineer the climate. Specifically, human beings must quickly figure out some sort of mechanical or chemical means of reflecting a portion of the sun’s light away from our planet, at least for a while. Whether you’re comfortable with this idea or not, trust me, the debate is coming, and we’ll almost certainly engage in some version of this risky but necessary tinkering.

First of all, forget the giant mirrors in space. Too difficult and expensive. And all those lofty notions of machines that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere? At best, they are many years away, with significant cost hurdles and engineering challenges still to be resolved. More likely, we’ll engage in some combination of cruder efforts, including painting every rooftop and roadway and parking lot in the world white to replace some of the Arctic ice’s lost capacity for solar reflectivity.

After that, all roads pretty much lead to Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. In 1991 that volcano erupted, spewing enough light-reflecting sulfur dioxide and dust into the atmosphere to cool the entire planet by one degree Fahrenheit for two full years. Could humans replicate this effect long enough to give our clean-energy transformation a chance to work? Can we artificially cool the Earth, using sulfur dioxide, even while the atmosphere remains full of greenhouse gases? Several very smart climate scientists, including Ralph Cicerone, current president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, think the idea is plausible enough to investigate thoroughly right now as a possible “emergency option” for future policymakers.

Ironically, we could “harvest” ample supplies of sulfur from modern coal-burning power plants, where it is a byproduct. In liquid form, sulfur could then be added—ironically, again—to jet fuel, allowing passenger aircraft worldwide to seed the atmosphere per scientific calibrations. In theory, we could even use powerful army artillery to shoot sulfur canisters into the atmosphere. But supply and delivery would likely be less of a challenge than the inevitable side effects, including an uptick in acid rain. And then there are the unknown and unintended consequences of subjecting the atmosphere to a multidecade or perhaps multicentury Mount Pinatubo effect. We would need an urgent research effort to assess the possible negative impacts of this process so we can devote resources to ameliorating at least the anticipated outcomes.

But the answer to the question Can human beings artificially cool the planet? is almost certainly yes. That answer, I realize, poses a terrible conundrum for conservationists like me who understand it’s precisely this sort of anthropocentrism and technological arrogance that got us into the mess we’re in. But like it or not, we are where we are. And I, for one, can’t look my ten-year-old son in the eye and, using a different sort of ideological arrogance, say, No, don’t even try atmospheric engineering. We’ve learned our lesson. Just let catastrophic global warming run its course.

What kind of lesson is that? I’d rather take my chances with global engineering and its possible risks than accept the guarantee of chaotic warming. As respected climate scientist Michael MacCracken has said, “Human beings have been inadvertently engineering the climate for 250 years. Why not carefully advertently engineer the climate for a while?”

SO HERE WE ARE, stripped of exaggeration and rhetoric, and hard pressed by the evidence right before our eyes. Our destiny will be decided, one way or another, in the next handful of years, either by careful decision-making or paralyzing indecision. We stand at a crossroads in human and planetary history. Or as my southern grandfather used to say, “The fork has finally hit the grits.”

Try as I might, I truly can’t imagine the Arctic Ocean completely free of ice by 2013, nor can I extrapolate all the appalling implications, from the end of wheat farming in Kansas to more record-breaking heat waves in Chicago. It truly is a terrifying time to be alive. But also exhilarating. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

The part of the picture that I can see is our own snap. I can see potent political change coming to America with our nation passionately joining the Kyoto process. I can see layers and layers of solution feedback loops that follow. I can see national policies that freeze and then quickly scale back the use of oil, coal, and natural gas. I see multitudes of Americans finally inspired to conserve at home, their money-saving actions feeding and amplifying the whole process. I then see consumer and governmental demand unleashing the genius of market systems and technological creativity, accelerating everything until we as a society are moving at geometric speed too, just like the climate, and suddenly our use of dirty fuels simply disappears.

Snap!

I can see my son coming of age in a world where the multiplier benefits of clean energy go far beyond preserving a stable climate. No more wars for oil. No more mountaintops removed for coal. A plummet in childhood asthma. A more secure, sustainable, and prosperous economy. Although there are surely dark times ahead, I can see him living through them, living deep into the twenty-first century, when most of the lingering greenhouse gases will have finally dissipated from our atmosphere, allowing an orderly end to the geo-engineering process.

Best of all, I see spiritual transformation ahead. We simply cannot make the necessary changes without being changed ourselves. Of this I am sure. With every wind farm we build, with every zero-emission car we engineer, we will remember our motivation as surely as every Rosie the Riveter knew in the 1940s that each rivet was defeating fascism. A deep and explicit understanding of sustainability will dawn for the first time in modern human history, moving from energy to diet to land use to globalization.

We will know, finally, that to live in permanent peace and prosperity we must live in a particular way, adhering to a particular set of truths about ourselves and our planet. To borrow from the great architect William McDonough, we will finally become native to this world. We will have lived through the climate threat, evolved through it, and our new behavior will emanate from the very core of our humanity.

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Mike Tidwell is the author of The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities and Bayou Farewell, and is the founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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