|Why the big deal about Climate Change?
By: John Gibbons
Typing the phrase ‘climate change’ into the Google search engine returns over 96 million results. Clearly, this topic is big, and not just online. How big? Well, that depends on who you believe. The received wisdom is that yes, it’s a problem, no doubt about it, but there are plenty more pressing problems – poverty, inequality, terrorism, racism – in the world, so surely that’s where our effort would be best focused.
Anyhow, surely climate change is in the future, so why worry about tomorrow when we’ve got so much to contend with – and when many of us in the Western world are having such a great time – today?
“The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others”.
This wasn’t spoken today or yesterday but almost exactly a century ago, by US President, Theodore Roosevelt in October 1907.
Roosevelt was so disturbed by the high toll a century of rapid and relentless industrialisation had taken on the US that he placed some 230 million acres of land in the permanent protection of the government by the creation of vast National Parks, Forests and other conservation projects. Without his foresight, there is no doubt this irreplaceable natural resource would have long since fallen to the ranchers, oilmen and property developers.
And yet, the 19th Century was but a dress rehearsal for what has been the greatest frenzy of human activity since man first harnessed fire – the 20th Century. In 2000, US academic, Prof JR McNeill published a brilliant survey of a turbulent era, entitled: ‘Something New Under The Sun – An Environmental History of the 20th Century World’ . Amazing things happened in this most recent century. Human population quadrupled, the global economy expanded 14-fold and industrial output increased by an almost incredible factor of 40.
One statistic stands out above all the others in McNeill’s book: in the 20th Century, humans used ten times more energy than all their forbears used in the preceding one thousand years. Truly, it was the century of energy, and with the ratcheting up of globalisation since the mid-1990s, the pace of globalisation, the planet’s most energy-intensive collective activity, has actually quickened significantly. In other words, we are using even more energy than ever before, and of course there are more of us doing so.
More people using more energy, more resources (mostly irreplaceable), taking over more and more land from nature to turn to ‘productive’ activity in feeding, watering, clothing and providing a huge range of goods and services for our almost 6.6 billion mouths. And of course, all this energy-intensive activity is producing pollution and resource degradation on a previously unimagined scale.
Of course, there have been environmental scares in the past, and environmental movements, especially in the US, sprung up. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big yellow taxi’ caught the spirit of the time: “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum. And they charged all the people A dollar and a half just to see ‘em. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.
This movement scored its greatest triumph with the enactment of the Clean Air Act in the US in 1970. This followed ‘Earth Day’, when more than 20 million Americans took to the streets to protest against environmental degradation. Sadly, today the US is one of the world’s worst polluters, and under the presidency of George W. Bush has set about asserting its right to pollute, degrade, exploit and consume without limits whatever resources, at home or abroad, it is able to control.
This is of course an over-simplification. The complex analysis is, however, even more damming and it’s available from multiple reputable sources.
Politics aside, the relentless buzz of human activity has let a genie out of the bottle that now threatens, quite literally, to destroy us all, and soon. The countdown can be thought of in years, rather than centuries, as we were led to believe until very recently. That genie is climate change.
Since the earth thawed out from the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, the climate has been remarkably stable – until very recently. Human activity adds some 7 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year, and once added, that climate-warming gas remains up there for at least a century. The funny thing about the atmosphere surrounding our planet is that it is in fact wafer-thin, really not much more than five or six miles deep. When you consider that the circumference of our planet is around 25,000 miles, you begin to see just how incredibly thin this veil in fact is. For Dubliners, it’s the distance from Blackrock to the city centre.
That few miles of atmosphere is all that stands between our planet being either hellishly hot, frozen solid – or simply a barren rock like our own Moon, floating lifelessly in space. And into that life-sustaining envelope we carelessly dump over one ton of CO2 for each and every one of the 6.6 billion people on this planet every year. Luckily for us, so far it has proven to be a pretty robust system, but every system has its limits. Like an elastic band, it will stretch to compensate for external stresses, but beyond a certain point, it snaps and that’s that.
When this system fails, it won’t fail a little, it will most likely collapse spectacularly and quite suddenly. We and the millions of species with whom we share this planet are ill-equipped to survive a sudden climate shift.
The title of this article posed the question: what’s the big deal about climate change? What we now know about this subject comes down to this: we are in a sense billions of microscopic organisms clinging to life aboard a sickly host that we have infested, infected and, unless we change course rapidly, will surely kill. To kill the host means the end of us as a species as well.
While the disappearance of homo sapiens should be very good news for millions of other species who compete with us for survival, the reality is that the circumstances of our demise will most likely signal a mass species extinction, the so-called Sixth Extinction. Many in the scientific community believe this to be already well underway, with species becoming extinct right now at one thousand times the naturally observed rate.
This small blue planet is all we’ve got. We’re not masters of the earth; we may succeed in killing it – and ourselves – but in no sense could it be said that we control it. That’s a big lesson that we all have to take on board, and quickly. Some of the experts say it’s five minutes to midnight, others believe it’s five minutes past. We can only hope the optimists are right.