There is a great difference between being still and doing nothing.
When I speak about catastrophic climate change and the likelihood of near-term human extinction, I am often accused to “giving up” or choosing to “do nothing” about climate change. Even more charged for some is the notion of “living in hospice” which I argue is now the unequivocal predicament of our species. The typical rebuttal goes something like, “Instead of contemplating our navels or rolling over and preparing for death, we have to do something about climate change!”
Thus, I feel compelled to genuinely ask: What does it mean to actually “do something”?
First, I want to clarify that when I speak of preparing for near-term extinction by surrendering to the severity of our predicament or adopting a hospice attitude, I do not mean that we put on our favorite pair of pajamas, ingest a large dose of Ambien, draw the shades, lie down and set the electric blanket on “womb,” and then proceed to play dead and become comatose as we approach our demise. In fact, there is far too much we can do, both externally and internally to succumb to such meaningless sloth.
Each of us, whether we contemplate near-term extinction or not can consciously reduce our personal carbon footprint. We can drastically curtail our consumption and waste; we can grow our own food and eat local, organic food. Some individuals choose not to have cars or travel by air. Some people choose not to have children; some choose to unplug from empire as much as humanly possible. And yes, we can become climate activists—we can march in protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, we can join the Great March For Climate Action, we can write letters, and as a last resort, move to an area of the planet, such as the Southern Hemisphere, where it appears that the impacts of global climate change may not be as severe as in other regions–maybe. We owe these actions to ourselves, to other humans, and to the plethora of other species that are going and will go extinct. As my friend and colleague, Francis Weller, notes, this is a time to develop really good manners toward other species and make their demise as easy for them as possible. In summary, there is much within our power as individuals that we can do to lessen greenhouse gas emissions and lower the impact of catastrophic climate change.
However, the tragic reality of our personal efforts, as noble or as fervent as they may be, is that they are not enough to prevent near-term human extinction. Why?
In the first place, the impacts of catastrophic climate change are routinely minimized by the scientific community as Guy McPherson points out:
Mainstream scientists minimize the message at every turn. As we’ve known for years, scientists almost invariably underplay climate impacts. And in some cases, scientists are aggressively muzzled by their governments. I’m not implying conspiracy among scientists. Science selects for conservatism. Academia selects for extreme conservatism. These folks are loathe to risk drawing undue attention to themselves by pointing out there might be a threat to civilization. Never mind the near-term threat to our entire species (they couldn’t care less about other species). If the truth is dire, they can find another, not-so-dire version. The concept is supported by an article in the February 2013 issue of Global Environmental Change pointing out that climate-change scientists routinely underestimate impacts “by erring on the side of least drama.” Almost everybody reading these words has a vested interest in not wanting to think about climate change, which helps explain why the climate-change deniers have won.
What is more, despite the efforts of some nations to “do something” about climate change, the harsh, cold (no pun intended) reality is that it is too little too late. Halldor Thorgeirsson, Senior Director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change remarked in September, 2013, stated, “We are failing as an international community. We are not on track.” Now realizing the dire state of warming due to inaction on climate change, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that “Global warming is irreversible without massive geoengineering of the atmosphere’s chemistry.” Of course, we already know that there is probably nothing that geo-engineering cannot make worse—for example the radical altering of rainfall patterns and the assertion by Live Science that “Current schemes to minimize the havoc caused by global warming by purposefully manipulating Earth’s climate are likely to either be relatively useless or actually make things worse, researchers say in a new study.” And earlier this month, Skeptical Science published an article entitled, “Alarming New Study Makes Today’s Climate Change More Comparable To Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction.” Moreover, according to the National Academy of Sciences “A Four-Degree Rise Will End Vegetation ‘Carbon Sink’ Research Suggests.”
For those who “don’t like” Guy McPherson’s analysis, Dr. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University earlier this month penned an article in Scientific American “Earth Will Cross The Climate Danger Threshold By 2036” in which he stated in protest of the voices who assert that global warming has ‘paused,’:
To my wonder, I found that for an ECS (equilibrium climate sensitivity) of three degrees C, our planet would cross the dangerous warming threshold of two degrees C in 2036, only 22 years from now. When I considered the lower ECS value of 2.5 degrees C, the world would cross the threshold in 2046, just 10 years later. So even if we accept a lower ECS value, it hardly signals the end of global warming or even a pause. Instead it simply buys us a little bit of time—potentially valuable time—to prevent our planet from crossing the threshold.
Yes, Michael Mann is hoping that we can still “do something” about catastrophic climate change, but his assertion more closely aligns with Guy McPherson’s projection that even if we “do something” about climate change there are likely to be few habitable places on the planet by 2030 at the earliest and 2050 at the latest.
Less widely discussed in the mainstream climate conversation is the ghastly rate of Arctic melting and the resulting release of methane into the atmosphere. In the video Arctic Death Spiral And The Methane Time Bomb, David Wasdell, Director of the Apollo-Gaia Project explains the absolute runaway nature of Arctic melting. Self-reinforcing feedback loops, he asserts, have taken over, and it is now becoming increasingly obvious that the Arctic will be mostly ice-free by the end of 2015. Other presenters in this video further clarify that we are approximately fifty years ahead of the worst case scenario in terms of Arctic melting. Dr. Peter Wadhams of the University Of Cambridge states that the effect of an ice-free Arctic on the world is enormous because it goes far beyond the Arctic itself in terms of the methane that is released as the ice retreats. Due to self-reinforcing feedback loops, once the melting process generates more CO2 than humans do, it will not matter what humans do to reverse the melting. In Arctic Methane: Why Sea Ice Matters, Dr. Natalia Shakhova notes that Arctic permafrost is losing its ability to seal in the methane, and even more troubling is the increase in seismic activity in the Arctic which creates additional pathways for methane to be released.
“Doing something” implies that developing nations of the world and the fossil fuel industry will come together and: 1) Agree that climate change is actually happening; 2) Understand that the situation is so dire that humanity’s living arrangements must be radically altered; 3) Sacrifice their economic security and industrial profits to significantly reduce carbon emissions; 4) Agree to the reality of climate change and the altering of their living arrangements in time to prevent another 2 degree C rise in temperature.
I dare say that the same people who believe this is going to happen would vehemently protest a belief in Santa Claus, but nevertheless, they cling to this chimera.
Meanwhile, Dr. Tim Garrett, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah tells us that “rising carbon dioxide emissions – the major cause of global warming – cannot be stabilized unless the world’s economy collapses or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant each day.”
Collapse of industrial civilization? Lovely idea; I’ve been applauding it for years. However, there’s just one small fly in the ointment. The collapse of industrial civilization means no food in grocery stores, no fuel at the gas station, and the breakdown of electrical power grids. According to Physics Forums, here’s what happens when a nuclear power plant loses electricity:
Nuclear power plants as well as power plants in general are not self-sufficient in terms of electricity. If a nuclear power plant loses outside electrical power, the plant must then be powered with emergency diesel generators which typically have about 10-12 hours worth of fuel, and then emergency batteries. When the batteries lose power, and they still haven’t gotten electricity going back to the plant, the cooling systems for the reactors won’t work because of no electricity, and then the reactors will overheat and melt. Inevitably resulting in a total meltdown.
There are more than 400 nuclear power plants around the world. The collapse of industrial civilization, attractive notion that it may be, necessarily means a host of Fukushimas around the planet which in itself would be an extinction event.
On myriad levels, humanity is in territory it has never before navigated. Of this, blogger Robert Scribbler writes:
The last time the world saw such a measure of comparable atmospheric greenhouse gas heat forcing was during the Miocene around 15-20 million years ago. At that time, global temperatures were 3-4 C warmer, the Antarctic ice sheet was even further diminished, and sea levels were 80-120 higher than today. This combined forcing is enough to result in a state of current climate emergency. In just a few years, according to the recent work of climate scientist Michael Mann, we will likely lock in a 2 C short term warming this century and a probable 4 C warming long-term. If the current, high-velocity pace of emission continues, we will likely hit 2 C warming by 2036, setting off extraordinary and severe global changes over a very short period.
My question to climate “doers” is: What do you genuinely, realistically believe can be “done” on the real, external, national and international scene to reverse or end catastrophic climate change? At this point in the progression of catastrophic climate change, it is rapidly becoming impossible to keep up with the self-reinforcing feedback loops related to the release of greenhouse gases. These, of course, are the mechanisms within the progression of global warming that accelerate its severity, and humans have created at least 30 of those in our lifetime–and counting.
I am a two-time survivor of cancer. The first time a doctor gave me a diagnosis, I really didn’t like him. The second time, I liked the doctor even less. And yes, I got second opinions both times. Then I had four doctors I didn’t like.
It seems to me that we can yammer incessantly about how we don’t “like” the deliverers of bad news, or we can critically think their information. We can also consider that some situations like Stage Four cancer, Ebola, and cobra bites are terminal. And rather than responding like the heroic, hopeful, “there must be something we can do” puppets of empire, we might pause to consider that life frequently presents us with existential dilemmas about which there is nothing we can “do” except open to what the dilemma might want us to learn, feel, and experience— and to the relationships it might want us to deepen, evaluate, treasure, or eliminate from our lives. To this end, I wrote “Preparing For Near-Term Extinction” in 2013 and recently published Zhiwa Woodbury’s wonderful article “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth” on my website. They encapsulate what I am doing and intend to do about catastrophic climate change.
I’ve admitted myself to hospice, and I’m doing something about catastrophic climate change. I support those who join the Great March For Climate Action, but I will not be marching, nor will I write letters or sign petitions with the hope that omnicidal politicians and corporate profiteers will notice. What I will do is commit to a life of service, a life of creating extraordinary moments of beauty and love; I will immerse myself in nature, art, poetry, music, and really good stories. I will practice good manners with all beings; I will nourish my body with nutritious food and restorative movement. I will make every attempt to practice gratitude as often as humanly possible in one day, and I will give from the depths of my soul all of the love I can muster–to the earth and to every living being.
No argument at all with your plan of action summed up in the final paragraph. I find my own inclinations to be very much in alignment.
But I say this from a position where I can still get enough to eat and have a comfortable, secure place to sleep. I also know from experience that without the ability to keep up with these basic life functions, most notions of ‘higher good’ go out the window, and the reptilian brain with its drive for survival tends to dominate the thought space, which in turn contracts around it. Hospice works best with competent care-givers and appropriate resources available. When chaos takes over as a general condition, it may not be a model so easy to maintain.