Climate Emergency, Melbourne, Australia

The world is being killed. And if they were space aliens who had come down from outer space and they were systematically deforesting the planet and vacuuming the oceans and changing the climate, what would we do?Derrick Jensen

Aside from brief references to it, I’ve hardly written anything, ever, about climate change.  It isn’t because I don’t “believe” in it. It’s because I’ve been so disgusted by the ignorance and denial surrounding the fact of it.  In the mid-1980′s, I attended a seminar on climate change in Boulder, Colorado.  At that time, Stephen Schneider, working at Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), was already issuing warnings about global warming that were reported in the Boulder Daily Camera. As a rainforest activist and proponent of deep ecology, I understood the interdependence between climate and biodiversity, and the impact that climate change was having on the tropical rainforests of the world and on biodiversity.  I also was working on a book called Lessons of the Rainforest (published in 1990 by Sierra Club Books).  So learning about the dynamics of climate change was both natural and essential to my work at the time.

Stephen Schneider

After Stephen Schneider passed away unexpectedly in July 2010 at the age of 65, Warren Washington, a colleague of Schneider’s during his NCAR tenure, said, “Steve became one of the world’s strongest voices articulating climate change science and its societal consequences.” Schneider was another Cassandra who died this year, leaving the rest of us to carry on the defense of life on Planet Earth. Stephen Schneider: An extraordinary life, a summary of his career, tells us,

Eminently quotable, Schneider long served as a lightning rod for climate skeptics. In recent months, he was outspoken as always about the dangers of climate change while calling attention to the increasing risks of being a researcher in the aftermath of the so-called Climategate controversy, including an onslaught of vitriolic e-mail. “I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted,” Schneider told the London Guardian in early July.

My disgust with the ignorance and denial around climate change is fueled by the knowledge that the oil industry and governments have been colluding to deny and ignore climate change through disinformation and propaganda in order to perpetuate the fallacy of economic growth – in exactly the same way they have denied the fact of peak oil. After all, oil is what fuels both economic growth and climate change.  Duh! Admitting that oil production has passed its peak and that climate change is accelerating would imply that economic growth and consumerism must end – which they will, of course, one way or another.  However, politicians are as addicted to promoting economic growth, which keeps them in power (and makes them rich), as the global economy and wealthy societies are addicted to oil.  It’s shameful and stupid that climate change has not been effectively addressed by now.  In fact, it’s a crime against Nature and the future of life on Earth, including the future of our species.  But that’s where we are – both as participants and witnesses.

Jeff Foott

Last summer, my first and oldest Dharmagaian friend, photographer Jeff Foott, wrote me of the alarming and widespread phenomenon of forest death in the American West due to infestations of Mountain Pine Beetles (aka bark beetles), and sent me photos. The beetle infestations are a result of climate change, and Jeff wanted to draw attention to climate change by showing what’s happening in America’s own back yard. I had learned about bark beetles killing forests in Colorado over a dozen years ago. But since I’m in Europe now, I was unaware of the extent of forest death due to climate change and beetle infestations.

Thinking about doing an article on the scourge of my beloved American forests, I did a little research and found that photographer Subhankar Banerjee had also written about the death of forests due to the bark beetle and climate change.  In Could This Be A Crime? U.S. Climate Bill Is Dead While So Much Life On Our Earth Continues To Perish (8/26/10), Banerjee tells the story of the death of piñon pines, the state tree in New Mexico, where he lives. He also cites an article published in Forest Ecology and Management that lists the names of 30 countries where forest mortality has been recorded since 1970. He says climate change is already a catastrophe for thousands of species and millions of human and nonhuman beings who depend on forests.  But the death of forests is also accelerating climate change by adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Forest Death due to Mountain Pine Beetles © Jeff Foott

Only a couple of weeks after writing “Could This Be A Crime?”, however, Banerjee declared in Climate Educators Wanted (9/13/10):

We’ll look back at 2010 as a critical crossroad for climate campaign. The new U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres has made it clear that an International Climate Treaty is basically dead while at the same time she is urging the world leaders to take some practical steps to deal with climate change. And national approaches? It has failed this year both in Australia and the U.S. It is clear now that serious action on climate change is not possible through government actions, at least not anytime soon. In the U.S. we know far too well that big oil and big coal will try to kill whatever threatens their astronomical profits.

We ought to acknowledge that climate campaign is far more complex and far more difficult than any campaign for social justice humanity ever had to deal with. All justice movements of the past dealt with issues within a single nation (or few nations at most) and primarily fought people’s prejudices and passion (some cases money was involved too). Climate campaign on the other hand is a planetary crisis for every inch of our earth, every human being regardless of race or class, all animals and birds… for all life, and the climate campaigners need to tackle the largest corporations, corporations who have very serious amounts of money at stake. But its us too –– why would any American give up the quality of their life (even though this level of consumption is not sustainable no matter what clean technology one invents) and why would anyone in China or India give up their dream to have the American way of life? Go figure — we’re totally screwed!

'Indifference' © Igor Kondenko, Ukraine

So that’s Banerjee’s assessment of why it’s so difficult to effectively address climate change – that is, to get binding international agreement on curbing emissions. In October, Rebecca Solnit contributed her own views on the subject in Jurassic Ballot 
- When Corporations Ruled the Earth (10/24/10):

This country is being run for the benefit of alien life forms. They’ve invaded; they’ve infiltrated; they’ve conquered; and a lot of the most powerful people on Earth do their bidding, including five out of our nine Supreme Court justices earlier this year and a whole lot of senators and other elected officials all the time. The monsters they serve demand that we ravage the planet and impoverish most human beings so that they might thrive. They’re like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, like the Terminators, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except that those were on the screen and these are in our actual world.

We call these monsters corporations, from the word corporate which means embodied. A corporation is a bunch of monetary interests bound together into a legal body that was once considered temporary and dependent on local licensing, but now may operate anywhere and everywhere on Earth, almost unchallenged, and live far longer than you.

The results are near-invincible bodies, the most gigantic of which are oil companies, larger than blue whales, larger than dinosaurs, larger than Godzilla.  Last year, Shell, BP, and Exxon were three of the top four mega-corporations by sales on the Fortune Global 500 list (and Chevron came in eighth). Some of the oil companies are well over a century old, having morphed and split and merged while continuing to pump filth into the air, the water, and the bodies of the many — and profits into the pockets of the few….

Gigantic, powerful, undead beings, corporations have been given ever more human rights over the past 125 years; they act on their own behalf, not mine or yours or humanity’s or, really, carbon-based life on Earth’s. We’re made out of carbon, of course, but we depend on a planet where much of the carbon is locked up in the earth.  The profit margins of the oil corporations depend on putting as much as possible of that carbon into the atmosphere.

As I continued to research climate change and the unhappy prospects for climate change negotiations, I began to remember why I’ve never tackled the subject of climate change. It is a Pandora’s Box of large, intractable issues, including human neuropsychology, which interferes with (or precludes) rational decision making. But the most intractable and central issue, it seems to me, is the power of large corporations to subvert democracy, as Solnit goes on to describe, and also to derail one environmental negotiating summit after another – including the recent COP 10 – the UN’s 10th Conference Of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  W. David Kubiak addresses this problem head-on in Big Bodies vs. the Biosphere – Confronting the global corporate hijack of Nagoya’s COP10 (2/01/10) and Evoking Earth’s Immune Response to Mega-Corporate Maladies (10/10).

George Monbiot comments on what happened at COP10 in The Deal To Save The Natural World Never Happened (11/4/10):

The so-called summit in Japan won’t stop anyone trashing the planet. Only economic risks seem to make governments act….

It strikes me that governments are determined to protect not the marvels of our world but the world-eating system to which they are being sacrificed; not life, but the ephemeral junk with which it is being replaced. They fight viciously and at the highest level for the right to turn rainforests into pulp, or marine ecosystems into fishmeal. Then they send a middle-ranking civil servant to approve a meaningless and so far unwritten promise to protect the natural world.

I think Monbiot misses the point that Solnit and Kubiak make – that it’s gigantic corporations, working behind the scenes of “governmental negotiations,” that are to blame for the failures of democracy and environmental protection.  Governments are no longer answerable to “the people,” but to corporate lobbyists.  What Monbiot describes are symptoms, not the disease.  Perhaps Derrick Jensen says it best:

[O]ne of the problems that I see with the vast majority of so-called solutions to global warming is that they take industrial capitalism as a given, and the planet must conform to industrial capitalism, as opposed to the other way around. And that’s literally insane, in terms of being out of touch with physical reality, because without a real world, you don’t have any social system. You don’t have any social system at all. You don’t have life.

Johann Hari puts Jensen’s point another way in “The Next Crash Will Be Ecological — and Nature Doesn’t Do Bailouts.” Framing the climate issue, and the current climate conference in Cancun, with some punch and a dose of irony, Hari brings the issue down to a simple choice.  I offer it here for your consideration:

The Next Crash Will Be Ecological — and Nature Doesn’t Do Bailouts

By Johann Hari

November 25, 2010

Why are the world’s governments bothering? Why are they jetting to Cancun next week to discuss what to do now about global warming? The vogue has passed. The fad has faded. Global warming is yesterday’s apocalypse. Didn’t somebody leak an email that showed it was all made up? Doesn’t it sometimes snow in the winter? Didn’t Al Gore get fat, or molest a masseur, or something?

Alas, the biosphere doesn’t read Vogue. Nobody thought to tell it that global warming is so 2007. All it knows is three facts. 2010 is globally the hottest year since records began. 2010 is the year humanity’s emissions of planet-warming gases reached its highest level ever. And exactly as the climate scientists predicted, we are seeing a rapid increase in catastrophic weather events, from the choking of Moscow by gigantic unprecedented forest fires to the drowning of one quarter of Pakistan.

Before the Great Crash of 2008, the people who warned about the injection of huge destabilizing risk into our financial system seemed like arcane, anal bores. Now we all sit in the rubble and wish we had listened. The great ecological crash will be worse, because nature doesn’t do bailouts.

That’s what Cancun should be about — surveying the startling scientific evidence, and developing an urgent plan to change course. The Antarctic — which locks of 90 percent of the world’s ice — has now seen eight of its ice shelves fully or partially collapse. The world’s most distinguished climate scientists, after recordings like this, say we will face a three to six feet rise in sea level this century. That means the drowning of London, Bangkok, Venice, Cairo and Shanghai, and entire countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives.

And that’s just one effect of the way we are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Perhaps the most startling news story of the year passed almost unnoticed. Plant plankton are tiny creatures that live in the oceans and carry out a job you and I depend on to stay alive. They produce half the world’s oxygen, and suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide. Yet this year, one of the world’s most distinguished scientific journals, Nature, revealed that 40 percent of them have been killed by the warming of the oceans since 1950. Professor Boris Worm, who co-authored the study, said in shock: “I’ve been trying to think of a biological change that’s bigger than this and I can’t think of one.” That has been the result of less than one degree of warming. Now we are on course for at least three degrees this century. What will happen?

The scientific debate is not between deniers and those who can prove that releasing massive amounts of warming gases will make the world warmer. Every major scientific academy in the world, and all the peer-reviewed literature, says global warming denialism is a pseudo-science, on a par with Intelligent Design, homeopathy, or the claim that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. One email from one lousy scientist among tens of thousands doesn’t dent that. No: the debate is between the scientists who say the damage we are doing is a disaster, and the scientists who say it is catastrophe.

Yet the world’s governments are gathering in Cancun with no momentum and very little pressure from their own populations to stop the ecological vandalism. The Copenhagen conference last year collapsed after the most powerful people in the world turned up to flush their own scientists’ advice down a very clean Danish toilet. These leaders are sometimes described as “doing nothing about global warming.” No doubt that form of words will fill the reporting from Cancun too. But it’s false. They’re not “doing nothing” — they are allowing their countries’ emissions of climate-trashing gases to massively increase. That’s not failure to act. It’s deciding to act in an incredibly destructive way.

The collapse of Copenhagen has not shocked people into action; it has numbed them into passivity. Last year, we were talking — in theory, at least — about the legally binding cap on the world’s carbon emissions, because the world’s scientists say this is the only thing that can preserve the climate that has created and sustained human civilization. What are we talking about this year? What’s on the table at Cancun, other than sand?

‘Welcome’, by Igor Kondenko, Ukraine

Almost nothing. They will talk about how to help the world’s poor “adapt” to the fact we are drying out much of their land and drowning the rest. But everybody is backing off from one of the few concrete agreements at Copenhagen: to give the worst-affected countries $100 billion from 2020. Privately, they say this isn’t the time — they can come back for it, presumably, when they are on rafts. Oh, and they will talk about how to preserve the rainforests. But a Greenpeace report has just revealed that the last big deal to save the rainforests — with Indonesia — was a scam. The country is in fact planning to demolish most of its rainforest to plant commercial crops, and claim it had been “saved.”

Karl Rove — who was George W. Bush’s chief spin-doctor — boasted this year: “Climate is gone.” He meant it is off the political agenda, but in time, this statement will be more true and more cursed than he realizes.

It’s in this context that a new, deeply pessimistic framework for understanding the earth’s ecology — and our place in it — has emerged. Many of us know, in outline, the warm, fuzzy Gaia hypothesis, first outlined by James Lovelock. It claims that the Planet Earth functions, in effect, as a single living organism called Gaia. It regulates its own temperature and chemistry to create a comfortable steady state that can sustain life. So coral reefs produced cloud-seeding chemicals which then protect them from ultraviolet radiation. Rainforests transpire water vapour so generate their own rainfall. This process expands outwards. Life protects life.

Now there is a radically different theory that is gaining adherents, ominously named the Medea hypothesis. The paleontologist Professor Peter Ward is an expert in the great extinctions that have happened in the earth’s past, and he believes there is a common thread between them. With the exception of the meteor strike that happened 65 million years ago, every extinction was caused by living creatures becoming incredibly successful — and then destroying their own habitats. So, for example, 2.3 billion years ago, plant life spread incredibly rapidly, and as it went it inhaled huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This then caused a rapid plunge in temperature that froze the planet and triggered a mass extinction.

Ward believes nature isn’t a nurturing mother like Gaia. No: it is Medea, the figure from Greek mythology who murdered her own children. In this theory, life doesn’t preserve itself. It serially destroys itself. It is a looping doomsday machine. This theory adds a postscript to Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. There is survival of the fittest, until the fittest trash their own habitat, and do not survive at all.

‘The Hand’, by Tawan Chuntraskawvong, Thailand

But the plants 2.3 billion years ago weren’t smart enough to figure out what they were doing. We are. We can see that if we release enough warming gases we will trigger an irreversible change in the climate and make our own survival much harder. Ward argues that it is not inevitable we will destroy ourselves – because human beings are the first and only species that can consciously develop a Gaian approach. Just as Richard Dawkins famously said we are the first species to be able to rebel against our selfish genes and choose to be kind, we are the first species that can rebel against the Medean rhythm of life. We can choose to preserve the habitat on which we depend. We can choose life.

Yet at Cancun, the real question will be carefully ignored by delegates keen to preserve big business as usual. Long after our own little stories are forgotten, the choice we make now will still be visible — in the composition of the atmosphere, the swelling of the seas, and the crack and creak of the great Antarctic ice. Do we want to be Gaia, or Medea?

(The cartoons are courtesy of The IndependentNo words necessary: The cartoonists tackle climate changeThe results of a worldwide competition are sharp, satirical – and even funny)

Postscript:  see NATURE HAS NO PRICE on website for World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

Readers of this Dharmagaians blog: What do you think?

  • Dear Suzanne,

    I just happened to find your blog because I googled “Cassandra Club” – I was thinking of starting one and see that you already have.

    I am so impressed with your writing and the clarity of your thoughts. Many of the references you make – to Dark Mountain, Paul Chefurka, Schneider – are very familiar to me so I’m surprised that it’s taken me so long to find the Land of Dharmagaia!

    I’m leaving this note in case you are interested to know that, in my opinion, although I quite agree that climate change is going to destroy the ecosystem and in particular will kill trees if not make most of them extinct, that really isn’t what is killing them all over the world right now. Global warming isn’t evenly distributed and forests are in decline in places where there hasn’t been enough of a temperature or precipitation change to account for tree death.

    When I first noticed the ominous trend (2008) I assumed that climate change, probably long-term drought, was responsible. However as I continued to observe I realized that potted tropical ornamental annuals grown in enriched soil being watered exhibit the same symptoms – damaged foliage – as trees, and in fact so do aquatic plants that are in water all of the time. So drought simply doesn’t explain the empirical facts (although it appears to be nearly impossible to get a forester, ecologist or climate scientist to admit it).

    The only explanation that does make sense is air pollution, and it turns out that there have been decades of research, both in the field and in controlled fumigated chamber experiments, that have documented exactly how toxic tropospheric ozone is, more even for vegetation than human health. Not only does ozone directly injure plants, causing roots to shrivel leading to increased vulnerability to drought and wind, but it also causes trees and agricultural crops to lose immunity to insects, disease and fungus. So when climate people go on about the bark beetle killing trees because it doesn’t get cold enough anymore, it’s simply wrong. Studies in the 1950′s determined that conifers around LA were dying because air pollution caused the bark beetle population there to increase, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with temperature.

    I’ve had foresters tell me that the air in the Rockies is clean but that just isn’t true. Recent satellite research has documented a huge rise in ozone because precursors from Asia make it over the Pacific in about a week.

    It might be a distinction without a difference but I bang on about it because I think it’s quite important. Effects of climate change just don’t, as you noted, resonate with most people but I think (hope?) if it were clear that trees are dying and we are losing essential crops from air pollution, the direct loss of food on the table could be a much more powerful motivator for people to understand that we have to drastically reduce consumption especially from sources of dirty energy.

    If you are interested in this topic, I wrote a little book about this, that has many links to peer-reviewed research, which can be downloaded from drop box for free:

    Either way, Thanks so much for your wonderful essays, I plan to read more over the weekend.

    Gail Zawacki
    Oldwick, NJ

  • Dear Gail,

    Thank you very much for writing! I have looked at your blog and downloaded your book Pillage-Plunder-Pollute, which is as well written as it is well researched and disturbing. I don’t know what to say, except that the denial and obfuscation is even worse than I thought. Beam me up, Scotty!

    Seriously, Gail, thank you very much for your work and for getting in touch. I’m glad to meet another animal lover here.

    Best, Suzanne

Leave a Reply