Yawn - Just Another Climate Emergency

October 8, 2010

by Guy Dauncey

If the climate-denying leaders of the oil and coal industries think they can bribe, sponsor or advertise their way out of the problem, they should think again.

Wake up! There’s a climate emergency!!! We’re heading for catastrophe!

By almost every standard of scientific diligence, the warnings are accurate and real, but the world turns over, checks that the trees are still green, and goes back to sleep.

Emergency! is a hard word to use. If you over-use it, no-one pays attention. The guy stands sadly on the street corner with his sign saying, The end of the world is nigh!, and people pass quietly by.

Thanks to our long evolutionary past, we humans are first visceral, then emotional, and only finally are we rational.

Three kinds of emergency

v When a saber-tooth tiger attacks, it’s fight or flee! There’s no moment of choice - your instinct takes over, primed by millions of years of genetic selection. It’s a visceral emergency.

v When the enemy is coming and you’ve only got a day to prepare, your instinct to protect and survive kicks in and there’s a rapid fusion of analysis, planning and action, primed once again by millions of years of genetic selection. It’s an emotional emergency.

v When your scientific analysts tell you there’s an emergency coming, however, but your senses give you no evidence of it, you have all the time in the world to think about it, and to decide on balance that it would be much more convenient if the warning was false. It’s a supposed emergency, not a real emergency, so it can be ignored.

A rational emergency is an emotional emergency for which we have advance warning.

You’d have thought we’d be grateful for our ability to think ahead, and take advantage of the lead-time this gives us, but judging by historical precedent, our ability to act in advance of a rational emergency is almost zero. Our desire to enjoy comfort now seems to be far stronger than our desire to ensure comfort in some vague theoretical future, especially if it requires getting up out of our comfort-zones, and doing something.

Did we ever heed the advance warnings of a rational emergency?

v In the 3rd century BC Mesopotamian civilization, they failed to realize that their irrigation systems were salting the soil, making the land unfarmable.

v In 16th century Spain, they failed to realize that the massive influx of gold from the Americas would cause inflation and ruin their economy.

v In 1930s Europe, they failed to heed the warnings that Hitler’s Germany was re-arming.

In all our long human history, did we ever heed the advance warnings of a rational emergency, and act appropriately? The Great Wall of China was built after the arrival of nomadic hordes from the north. Canada’s moratorium on Atlantic cod fishing was put in place after the cod collapsed. On the other hand, Alaska is managing to protect its ocean fisheries before they collapse, so there’s reason to believe that wisdom can sometimes prevail.

If our ability to respond to a rational emergency really is very small, however, is the likelihood that we will prevent the looming climate emergency by acting now to phase out fossil fuels, protect our forests, and cut back on meat also very small?

Emotional resistance

“Cut back on meat”… did you feel the emotional resistance kick in? Scientific analysis tells us that the global livestock industry is causing 20% of global warming - but wouldn’t it be more convenient if it wasn’t? Maybe the data’s wrong. Maybe this whole climate thing is wrong. This is where emotional denial kicks in. Even in the heart of the environmental movement, among activists who swear off flying since it causes 2.5% of global warming, meat is still often on the menu at potlucks and barbeques. Being an environmentalist does not grant immunity to the experience of denial.

It’s not as if there weren’t people who warned us of looming rational emergencies, as Churchill did in the 1930s, and anti-nuclear activists did in the 1970s. But the message seems not to get through until it’s too late, or until the rational emergency is sufficiently close to be upgraded to an emotional emergency.

How many light bulbs?

There’s a second problem, too. Even when individuals are motivated to act by long-distance warnings - the last time the global temperature was 3°C higher, the global sea level was 25 metres higher - they quickly realize that it’s no use acting on their own.

How many light bulbs do you have to change to prevent the looming climate emergency? Even ten million will make no difference if that’s all that happens - but ten might be enough if the world’s top leaders all changed them simultaneously on TV, while pledging to achieve a rapid transition off fossil fuels.

It is not as if we don’t know what to do. We do know what we need to do - many books and papers have spelt it out - but there are forces at work with deep pockets and well paid lobbyists who are actively insisting that climate science is junk-science, and solar energy will never replace fossil fuels.

“Climate prosperity”

A Canadian government body - the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy - has just created an initiative called “climate prosperity”, sponsored by the oil giant Suncor Energy, putting colour posters in every school making out that Canada could be a happy prosperous land when temperatures are warmer, even if things are a bit difficult elsewhere.

Does this make for a hopeless situation? Is Suncor right, with its sponsored message “don’t worry, be happy, and enjoy the rising temperature”?

Absolutely not. The climate emergency is getting closer every day, whether or not people have registered, and the only rational response is to persist with public education, persist with political lobbying, persist with the warnings, and persist with the vision of a world that can flourish without fossil fuels, air pollution, tar-sands, and oil-fuelled terrorism.

The 10:10:10 global work party

This weekend, people in 188 countries - myself included - will participate in over 7,000 practical climate actions as part of 350.org’s 10:10:10 global work party, including in every US state and 47 European nations. We are all focused on the need to reduce the CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere from the current dangerous level of 390 (and rising) to 350 parts per million.

No-one pretends that these symbolic actions are enough - but equally, no-one pretends that standing on the sidelines shouting Emergency! is enough. We have to go on sounding the alarm bells, so that we may finally awaken the emotional response that makes people take the word “emergency” seriously, and we have to go on promoting, building and lobbying for the solutions, showing people that a world without fossil fuels, deforestation and excessive meat consumption will be a better, healthier, happier, and more peaceful place for everyone.

For many, the climate emergency is already very emotional: we can see the future for our children and grandchildren slipping away before us. So if the climate-denying leaders of the oil and coal industries think they can bribe, sponsor or advertise their way out of the problem, they should think again. This movement to head off the climate emergency and build a prosperous world without fossil fuels has hardly begun.

Guy Dauncey is author of the double award-winning book The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming (New Society Publishers, 2009), which lays out the solutions in considerable detail for every sector of society. See www.earthfuture.com. He is President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, which welcomes your membership.


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