When it came to climate change in 2012, the operative word was "hot" (with "record" a close second). The continental U.S. broiled. Drought struck with a passion and, as the year ended, showed no sign of going away any time soon. Water levels on the Mississippi River fell so perilously low as to threaten traffic and business on one of the nation's busier arteries. Meanwhile, it's estimated that record greenhouse gas emissions were pumped into the atmosphere. And just in case you were thinking of putting those words "hot" and "record" away for a while, the first predictions for 2013 suggest that, drearily enough, they are once again likely to be much in use. None of us should really be surprised by any of this, since the ill effects of pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere have for years been outrunning the predictions of sober climate scientists.
Surprising numbers of Americans, from the Jersey shore to the parched Midwest, have met the effects of climate change up close and personal in these last years as billion-dollar "natural" disasters multiply in the U.S. As a result, there seems to be an increasing awareness that it isn't some vague, futuristic possible disaster but a growing reality in our lives. On the TV news, however, "extreme weather" -- a phrase that sounds awful but is meant to have no larger meaning -- has come to stand in for examples of the climate-change-induced intensification of global weather patterns. After all, no point in drawing too much attention to a dismal reality.
That's perhaps why, as last year ended, the only "cliff" we heard about ad nauseam was the "fiscal" one, which would prove a very flexible part of the American landscape. For a while, in mixed-metaphorical fashion, it "loomed" endlessly, and then it proved to be erasable or moveable -- in reality, something closer to a "fiscal bluff," with whatever double meanings you care to read into that. But why no emphasis on the "climate cliff" in a year in which, as George Monbiot recently wrote in the Guardian, "governments turned their backs on the living planet, demonstrating that no chronic problem, however grave, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial"?
Whatever your mixed metaphor for it might be -- melting glacial vortex, drought abyss, or maybe just hell (in the burning sense) -- climate change certainly deserves some imagistic attention in a world in which, as TomDispatch regular and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben suggests, time is not on our side. Tom
Obama Versus Physics Why Climate Change Won't Wait for the President
By Bill McKibben
Change usually happens very slowly, even once all the serious people have decided there's a problem. That's because, in a country as big as the United States, public opinion moves in slow currents. Since change by definition requires going up against powerful established interests, it can take decades for those currents to erode the foundations of our special-interest fortresses.
Take, for instance, "the problem of our schools." Don't worry about whether there actually was a problem, or whether making every student devote her school years to filling out standardized tests would solve it. Just think about the timeline. In 1983, after some years of pundit throat clearing, the Carnegie Commission published "A Nation at Risk," insisting that a "rising tide of mediocrity" threatened our schools. The nation's biggest foundations and richest people slowly roused themselves to action, and for three decades we haltingly applied a series of fixes and reforms. We've had Race to the Top, and Teach for America, and charters, and vouchers, and" we're still in the midst of "fixing" education, many generations of students later.
Even facing undeniably real problems -- say, discrimination against gay people -- one can make the case that gradual change has actually been the best option. Had some mythical liberal Supreme Court declared, in 1990, that gay marriage was now the law of the land, the backlash might have been swift and severe. There's certainly an argument to be made that moving state by state (starting in nimbler, smaller states like Vermont) ultimately made the happy outcome more solid as the culture changed and new generations came of age.
Which is not to say that there weren't millions of people who suffered as a result. There were. But our societies are built to move slowly. Human institutions tend to work better when they have years or even decades to make gradual course corrections, when time smooths out the conflicts between people.
And that's always been the difficulty with climate change -- the greatest problem we've ever faced. It's not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn't be more different at a fundamental level.
We're talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn't care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.
Physics doesn't understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It's implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.
We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible -- all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there's not much reason to act at all.
Unless you understand these distinctions you don't understand climate change -- and it's not at all clear that President Obama understands them.
That's why his administration is sometimes peeved when they don't get the credit they think they deserve for tackling the issue in his first term in office. The measure they point to most often is the increase in average mileage for automobiles, which will slowly go into effect over the next decade.
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