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Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing

By       Message Bill McKibben       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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From Rolling Stone

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The technology exists to combat climate change -- what will it take to get our leaders to act?

From youtube.com: Houston's flooding via Tropical Storm Harvey {MID-202647}
Houston's flooding via Tropical Storm Harvey
(Image by YouTube, Channel: CBS This Morning)
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If we don't win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win. That's the core truth about global warming. It's what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced. I wrote the first book for a general audience about climate change in 1989 -- back when one had to search for examples to help people understand what the "greenhouse effect" would feel like. We knew it was coming, but not how fast or how hard. And because no one wanted to overestimate -- because scientists by their nature are conservative -- each of the changes we've observed has taken us somewhat by surprise.

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The surreal keeps becoming the commonplace: For instance, after Hurricane Harvey set a record for American rain storms, and Hurricane Irma set a record for sustained wind speeds, and Hurricane Maria knocked Puerto Rico back a quarter-century, something even weirder happened. Hurricane Ophelia formed much farther to the east than any hurricane on record, and proceeded to blow past Southern Europe (whipping up winds that fanned record forest fires in Portugal) before crashing into Ireland. Along the way, it produced an artifact for our age: The warning chart that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency issued shows Ophelia ending in a straight line at 60 degrees north latitude, because the computer program never imagined you'd see a hurricane up there.

"When you set up a grid, you define boundaries of that grid," a slightly red-faced NOAA programmer explained. "That's a pretty unusual place to have a tropical cyclone." The agency, he added, might have to "revisit" its mapping software.

In fact, that's the problem with climate change. It won't stand still. Health care is a grave problem in the U.S. right now too, one that Donald Trump seems set on making steadily worse. If his administration manages to defund Obamacare, millions of people will suffer. But if, in three years' time, some new administration takes over with a different resolve, it won't have become exponentially harder to deal with our health care issues. That suffering in the interim wouldn't have changed the fundamental equation.

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But with global warming, the fundamental equation is precisely what's shifting. And the remarkable changes we've seen so far -- the thawed Arctic that makes the Earth look profoundly different from outer space; the planet's seawater turning 30 percent more acidic -- are just the beginning. "We're inching ever closer to committing to the melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which will guarantee 20 feet of sea-level rise," says Penn State's Michael Mann, one of the planet's foremost climatologists. "We don't know where the ice-sheet collapse tipping point is, but we are dangerously close."

The latest models show that with very rapid cuts in emissions, Antarctic ice might remain largely intact for centuries; without them, we might see 11 feet of sea-level rise by century's end, enough to wipe cities like Shanghai and Mumbai "off the map."


The warning chart that NOAA issued shows Hurricane Ophelia ending in a straight line at 60 degrees north latitude, because the computer program never anticipated a hurricane so far north.
(Image by NOAA)
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There are plenty of tipping points like this: The Amazon, for instance, appears to be drying out and starting to burn as temperatures rise and drought deepens, and without a giant rainforest in South America, the world would function very differently. In the North Atlantic, says Mann, "we're ahead of schedule with the slowdown and potential collapse" of the giant conveyor belt that circulates warm water toward the North Pole, keeping Western Europe temperate. Its tipping points like these that make climate change such a distinct problem: If we don't act quickly, and on a global scale, then the problem will literally become insoluble. We'll simply move into a dramatically different climate regime, and on to a planet abruptly and disastrously altered from the one that underwrote the rise of human civilization. "Every bit of additional warming at this point is perilous," says Mann.

Another way of saying this: By 2075 the world will be powered by solar panels and windmills -- free energy is a hard business proposition to beat. But on current trajectories, they'll light up a busted planet. The decisions we make in 2075 won't matter; indeed, the decisions we make in 2025 will matter much less than the ones we make in the next few years. The leverage is now.

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Trump, oddly, is not the central problem here, or at least not the only problem. Yes, he's abrogated the Paris agreements; true, he's doing his best to revive the coal mines of Kentucky; of course it's insane that he thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax.

But we weren't moving fast enough to catch up with physics before Trump. In fact, it's even possible that Trump -- by jumping the climate shark so spectacularly -- may run...some small risk of disrupting the fossil-fuel industry's careful strategy....That strategy, we now know, began in the late 1970s. The oil giants, led by Exxon, knew about climate change before almost anyone else. One of Exxon's chief scientists told senior management in 1978 that the temperature would rise at least four degrees Fahrenheit and that it would be a disaster. Management believed the findings -- as the Los Angeles Times reported, companies like Exxon and Shell began redesigning drill rigs and pipelines to cope with the sea-level rise and tundra thaw.

Yet, year after year, the industry used the review process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stress "uncertainty," which became Big Oil's byword. In 1997, just as the Kyoto climate treaty was being negotiated, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond told the World Petroleum Congress meeting in Beijing, "It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now."

In other words: Delay. Go slowly. Do nothing dramatic. As the company put it in a secret 1998 memo helping establish one of the innumerable front groups that spread climate disinformation, "Victory will be achieved when average citizens 'understand' (recognize) uncertainties in climate science," and when "recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'"

And it's not just the oil companies. As America's electric utilities began to understand that solar and wind power could undercut their traditional business, they began engaging in the same kind of behavior. In Arizona, whose sole reason for existence is the sun, the local utility helped rig elections for the state's public-utility commission, which in turn allowed utilities to impose ruinous costs on homeowners who wanted to put solar panels on their roofs.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
 

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