We are all polar bears
The significance of the first of the two reports this month from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is not that they had anything surprising for those of us who have been following the articles that have been appearing regularly in scientific journals. It only confirmed what we already knew, and feared.
Rather, the importance of this 32-volume, 2,610 page report, based on more than 12,000 peer-reviewed (hence, unanimously approved) studies was its "call for action," as Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, put it. Composed of conservative and progressive voices, alike, this 100-nation body tells us clearly that, "It’s us and now."
This was particularly evidenced in the fact that, having ignored this question in earlier reports, the present edition emphasized the importance of adaptation. It encouraged societies to prepare for harsher heat waves, deeper droughts, stronger storms, as well as other impacts that we will be experiencing in the years ahead due to phenomenon known as "climate lag," where past emissions are front-loaded into our climate system.
Citing the great death and destruction that it has already caused, the report emphasizes that climate change is not a crisis for some distant future. Its summary uses the word "risk" an average of five-and-a-half times per page. These included the price and availability of food, vanishing water supply, spread of diseases, inundation of coastal cities, financial costs, and the threats to world peace through failing states, displaced populations and resource wars. (These are "risks" not only of the future, of course, they’re also present realities.)
One of the biggest dangers is tipping points. With increased warming, climate events, such as the melting of the Arctic ice and the Greenland ice sheet, can initiate exponential, irrevocable consequences for the globe.
All of which underscored another major point of the report. While adapting to the climate change that can’t be avoided, we must also at the same time be greatly reducing our carbon emissions so as to avoid societal collapse and human extinction. Failure to do so will render null and void all of our efforts to adapt and transition.
"Things are worse than we had predicted" in 2007 (the date of the last report), concluded co-author Saleemul Huq. "We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated." Added one of the study’s authors, Maarten van Aalst, a top official at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, "The horrible is something quite likely, and we won’t be able to do anything about it."
All of which brings us back to the report’s urgent "call for action," underscoring what is the greatest risk and danger of all, the possibility that we, as a people, will not heed its call.
According to opinion polls, while there’s a growing awareness and acceptance, most Americans rank climate change near the bottom of their public concerns. And understandably so. For many of us, there are more pressing, more essential needs to attend to, like staying afloat from one day to the next. Another reason, suggested by climate author, Mark Hertsgaard in a recent Nation article, "may be the assumption that climate change is a distant problem -- a concern for polar bears, future generations and the poor of Bangladesh but not for me and my loved ones today." It’s also true that as we begin to grasp the significance of climate change, and appreciate the enormity of what’s involved, we can easily be overwhelmed into inaction
And yet, there are Transition Towns and Resilient Communities, doing the good work that needs to be done, building sustainable communities by neighbors learning to be more self- and community-sufficient. This is the heart of the adaptation that the IPCC report calls for. It’s the development that has to take place if we’re to at least be moving in the right direction as the crisis grows worse; towns and communities which are making Transition and Resilience-like initiatives, will not be starting from square one. Fortunately, there are many such groups throughout the country, and especially here in our region and state, as well.
But sadly, these same essential communities are not enough by themselves. We are faced with an equally challenging political situation, which if we fail to successfully resolve, could very well render null and void our efforts to build adaptable communities.
To avoid the 2-degree Centigrade rise in atmospheric temperature, beyond which it is generally agreed all bets are off, we need government policies, now, that finally act in ways that are appropriate to the unprecedented crisis at hand.
Unfortunately, our government is a captive of the corporate world, and specifically, the oil industry. While elections may be useful to vote for the few good guys, and even for a lesser-of-two-evils holding action, we have to accept that democracy-of-the-people, while not entirely dead, is fatally compromised to address the needs other than those of the class that owns and controls Washington. I know of no other correction to this situation than an aroused grassroots citizenry who act in concert with a sense of urgency, not allowing their lives, and those of their children, to be sacrificed at the altar of corporate profit.
How do we realize this citizenry, one that recognizes that we, too, are polar bears, trapped on our own rapidly melting ice flow, and who need to respond with the focus and purpose that climate change demands? How do we engage the unengaged?
We’ll examine those questions in next month’s column, as well as the Climate Change Café that gathers on Tuesday, May 27, at 6 p.m., at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro.
Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and can be reached at 802-869-2141 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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