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Climate Change: An Emergency But For Denial

By Bill Henderson

12 March, 2012

“The world is perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius increase in temperature. Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us.”
International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook report

Polar Bear on Bernard Harbor, Beaufort Sea coast of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,
Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2001

My argument as a climate activist and in my last forty or so op-eds is that  scientifically we are so obviously in extreme climate change danger that we should be in emergency mode; but our awareness of climate dangers and all our mitigation planning remain completely within - ideologically trapped within - business as usual (BAU): the present socio-economy in which we are all so fortunate to live.

Several years ago I postulated what I called society-wide denial : because we have been so slow to react and begin effective mitigation - because the economy and especially economic stability in our service sector dominated economies has been the prime focus of business and government - effective mitigation must now happen at a scale and pace that is not possible within, is not compatible with our present socio-economy. "We're  stuck between temperatures we can't possibly accommodate and carbon reduction pathways we can't possibly achieve. A rock and a hard place." The default mode is BAU and so we are in denial and don't think or talk about real mitigation.

The science is clear. Effective mitigation (I argued) to stay under the agreed upon 2C 450ppm precautionary ceiling required a 100% emission reduction by 2020 in countries with a large personal carbon footprint like the US, Canada or Australia. Systemic change, a massive reconfiguration of our economies, was now necessary, but such systemic change was not only not possible it was heretical to even consider in our dominant free market ideology.

Therefore, even though informed publics recognized that climate change was a building threat to everything we know and love and for species we share creation with on this small blue planet, the only mitigation planning allowed was incremental change within continuing BAU:  green consumerism, greener building codes, electric cars, clean coal, etc., a slow transition to a green economy - obvious crackhead addict denial given the pace and scale of emission reduction demanded by state of the art climate science, especially the global carbon budget science.

A couple of years later the economy is still perilous and economic insecurity keeps us in even deeper denial of the brutal logic of needed emission reduction. The ever emerging picture of climate change as a growing catastrophe now views 2C 450ppm as deep into extremely dangerous climate change. Conservative projections of our present emission trajectory - without consideration of positive feedbacks and tipping points - indicate 4 to 6C degrees of warming by the second half of the century. Four Degrees Hotter (PDF) is game over for everything you love and care about, everything,  and a 6C rise ...there are no words.

But we do less than nothing. We lie to ourselves about how green we are as emission levels continue to rise. The deniers and delayers have won.

Is it too late?

"What researchers who do this consistently find is that it's already too late to prevent a two-degree increase because of the inertia in our global energy system, which is 85 per cent based on burning coal, oil and natural gas. We would have to blow up our factories, electricity plants and vehicles to achieve that goal."
Mark Jaccard arguing against tarsands expansion

Is it too late to even stay under even an extremely dangerous 2C rise in temperature? Sure, we just keep on enjoying the benefits of fossil fuel use and refuse to consider our culpability in dithering and refusing to recognize the emergency.

Are you going to stay walking around in denial while this slow motion catastrophe destroys all you care about - while you and the rest of us good Germans needlessly exterminates nine-tenths of our descendents in the second half of the century? Because we can't even talk about needed change? Because we can't even connect the dots between our use of fossil fuels today and death and destruction in a hell on earth and act responsibly with an emergency plan?

It better not be too late and those that do know the science and the need for  emergency action must get out of denial and force governments locally and globally out of denial and into emergency measures legislation and action now, today. This is possible if we get out of denial and try.

Scientists, activists, opinion shapers and other informed citizens must force legislators to consider climate change an emergency. After at least two decades of failure, wishing and hoping in incremental change is delusional.

As evidence that we are in extreme climate change danger, that greenhouse gas emission reduction now requires emergency mode, I'm directing you to what many consider the most informing single climate paper of 2011: Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world , Kevin Anderson and Alice  Bows and two commentaries by David Roberts at Grist: The brutal l ogic of climate change and The brutal logic of climate mitigation . (For those of you who favor video there is an excellent presentation by Kevin Anderson here. )

Roberts writes with insight in applying the Anderson Bows paper to the questions about climate danger and emission reduction needed and how the bottom line science doesn't fit into American BAU. A recent blog post has some useful graphs illustrating the daunting challenge of energy change required.

But before you leave for some real stimulating reading (if you don't normally read science, go to the Roberts' columns first) take just a second to consider the difference between considering climate change as a problem that must be shoehorned into continuing BAU and our concept of precautionary planning including emergency planning and legislation. Markets have great utility in uniting buyers and sellers, but to ideologically preclude proper planning and due diligence to future generations isn't just myopic - it's insane, and in an evidence-based rule of law, it's criminal .

Consider these two nautical examples of the difference between BAU and emergency action:

You're out fishing and it's rough and you have been taking on a little water. The fishing's great but bailing in between fish isn't keeping up to the water coming in. At some point you might be in danger of sinking (and maybe losing all the fish you've just caught) and well before that you should have interrupted fishing to at least bail your boat out completely and/or keep the water from coming in. If you are in danger of sinking you better take emergency action and head for a beach or send out a mayday or prepare to swim, but you are now in an emergency and it doesn't matter how good or how important the fishing is (now was).

Here's an institutional or governance example:

A coastal pilot guiding a freighter to port would have a detailed plan that depending on the tide and winds would include setting a course using the ships power; altering that course if the tide or wind is proving too strong; precautionary calls to whatever tug capacity is in the area and free for his use; and a range of emergency measures that he would rarely need but should be competent in calling for and using if through engine breakdown or storm the ship is in danger.

At a certain point in situations that have the potential to become emergencies there is a phase transition where the fisherman or the pilot or an airline pilot or a hospital administrator or a finance minister, etc. may have to stop doing business as usual and take remedial action with the possibility that if they wait till too late they might have to take emergency measures.

Scientifically are we not obviously in extreme climate change danger?  Should we be in emergency mode? Instead of wasting several more decades of ineffectually trying to shoehorn climate change into continuing BAU? Because we are ideologically trapped within BAU where only incremental and not systemic change is allowed?

Five long years ago Sutton and Spratt argued convincingly in CLIMATE CODE RED (PDF), still the best description of our climate change predicament, that the Arctic is melting, we need to get back below 350ppm (less than 1C rise) immediately, and that our present political and economic systems were too slow and path dependent for emission reduction of a scale needed and that emergency legislation and wartime-style mobilization and economic reconfiguration was therefor urgently required.

Time to wake up. Last call to wake up if you recognize the horrific climate change dangers. Time to overcome society-wide denial and the limitations of BAU. Time for those who do recognize the emergency to stand up and force emergency action and to accept nothing less. 

Bill Henderson is a frequent contributor to Countercurrents on climate change. He can be reached at bill (at) pacificfringe.net


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