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The Sky Really Is Falling
Posted on May 30, 2011
By Chris Hedges
The rapid and terrifying acceleration of global warming, which is disfiguring the ecosystem at a swifter pace than even the gloomiest scientific studies predicted a few years ago, has been confronted by the power elite with two kinds of self-delusion. There are those, many of whom hold elected office, who dismiss the science and empirical evidence as false. There are others who accept the science surrounding global warming but insist that the human species can adapt. Our only salvation—the rapid dismantling of the fossil fuel industry—is ignored by both groups. And we will be led, unless we build popular resistance movements and carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience, toward collective self-annihilation by dimwitted pied pipers and fools.
Those who concede that the planet is warming but insist we can learn to live with it are perhaps more dangerous than the buffoons who decide to shut their eyes. It is horrifying enough that the House of Representatives voted 240-184 this spring to defeat a resolution that said that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” But it is not much of an alternative to trust those who insist we can cope with the effects while continuing to burn fossil fuels.
Horticulturalists are busy planting swamp oaks and sweet gum trees all over Chicago to prepare for weather that will soon resemble that of Baton Rouge. That would be fine if there was a limit to global warming in sight. But without plans to rapidly dismantle the fossil fuel industry, something no one in our corporate state is contemplating, the heat waves of Baton Rouge will be a starting point for a descent that will ultimately make cities like Chicago unlivable. The false promise of human adaptability to global warming is peddled by the polluters’ major front group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which informed the Environmental Protection Agency that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” This bizarre theory of adaptability has been embraced by the Obama administration as it prepares to exploit the natural resources in the Arctic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced recently that melting of sea ice “will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves.” Now that’s something to look forward to.
“It is good that at least those guys are taking it seriously, far more seriously than the federal government is taking it,” said the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben of the efforts in cities such as Chicago to begin to adapt to warmer temperatures. “At least they understand that they have some kind of problem coming at them. But they are working off the science of five or six years ago, which is still kind of the official science that the International Climate Change negotiations are working off of. They haven’t begun to internalize the idea that the science has shifted sharply. We are no longer talking about a long, slow, gradual, linear warming, but something that is coming much more quickly and violently. Seven or eight years ago it made sense to talk about putting permeable concrete on the streets. Now what we are coming to realize is that the most important adaptation we can do is to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere. If we don’t, we are going to produce temperature rises so high that there is no adapting to them.”
The Earth has already begun to react to our hubris. Freak weather unleashed deadly tornados in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It has triggered wildfires that have engulfed large tracts in California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. It has brought severe droughts to the Southwest, parts of China and the Amazon. It has caused massive flooding along the Mississippi as well as in Australia, New Zealand, China and Pakistan. It is killing off the fish stocks in the oceans and obliterating the polar ice caps. Steadily rising sea levels will eventually submerge coastal cities, islands and some countries. These disturbing weather patterns presage a world where it will be harder and harder to sustain human life. Massive human migrations, which have already begun, will create chaos and violence. India is building a 4,000-kilometer fence along its border with Bangladesh to, in part, hold back the refugees who will flee if Bangladesh is submerged. There are mounting food shortages and sharp price increases in basic staples such as wheat as weather patterns disrupt crop production. The failed grain harvests in Russia, China and Australia, along with the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, have, as McKibben points out, been exacerbated by the inability of Midwestern farmers to plant corn in water-logged fields. These portents of an angry Gaia are nothing compared to what will follow if we do not swiftly act.
“We are going to have to adapt a good deal,” said McKibben, with whom I spoke by phone from his home in Vermont. “It is going to be a century that calls for being resilient and durable. Most of that adaptation is going to take the form of economies getting smaller and lower to the ground, local food, local energy, things like that. But that alone won’t do it, because the scale of change we are now talking about is so great that no one can adapt to it. Temperatures have gone up one degree so far and that has been enough to melt the Arctic. If we let it go up three or four degrees, the rule of thumb the agronomists go by is every degree Celsius of temperature rise represents about a 10 percent reduction in grain yields. If we let it go up three or four degrees we are really not talking about a planet that can support a civilization anything like the one we’ve got.
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