“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“You must feel vindicated, what with Hurricane Sandy and the way the weather and climate change has gone this year”. That’s how a business acquaintance of mine put it the other day during a pre-Christmas lunch. Her point was that now, at least, most people were no longer pretending climate change was some academic debate about what might or might not happen at some unspecified time in the comfortably distant future. It’s about now, and it’s about our immediate future.

Some vindication. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: nothing would make me happier than to be completely and utterly wrong about just about everything I’ve written here and elsewhere over the last five years and more. The scientific facts remain as stubborn as they were in 2007, and, as yet another tumultuous year of global weather extremes bears out, ‘facts on the ground’ overwhelmingly bear out the predictions of the climate modellers.

They are genuinely entitled to feel professionally vindicated, even if, as human beings, they feel little more than rising horror as they trace their modelling projections forward another five, 10, 20-plus years.

In recent weeks I’ve been collating some of the material I’ve published in this area over the last four or five years with a view to both updating and trying to hone it into a more coherent, relevant volume. Re-reading archive material also plunges you back into the mind frame that shaped each piece. In my case, this charts a chaotic zig-zag journey from problem-solving towards predicament-facing. There is a chasm between these two positions that is as difficult to describe as it is to bridge.

Back in the real world, the last five years have seen our existential crisis deepen yet our collective will remains as paralysed as ever. The disconnect between what we need to do versus what we are prepared to even contemplate is almost absolute.

A concrete example of this is the recent publication by the World Bank of a report entitled ‘Turn Down the Heat’. It argued persuasively that humanity’s predicament is dire in the extreme. “We’re on track for a 4C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim described the projected 4C rise this century as “a doomsday scenario”.

Clearly, only an organisation of lunatics or imbeciles would, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence they manifestly accept, continue to fund fossil fuel projects generally and coal-burning power plants in particular. The World Resources Institute points out that the World Bank “has actually increased lending for fossil fuel projects and coal plants in recent years.” Right now, it’s assessing whether to provide finance for a new coal-powered plant in Mongolia.

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink is nothing more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

The Autumn meeting of the American Geophysical Union featured a paper with an eye-catching title: ‘Is Earth F**ked?’, presented by geophysicist Brad Werner in response, he says, to questions from friends depressed about the future of the planet. The answer to the question he poses is, yes, it’s pretty much fucked, and yes, we all of us are responsible. “What happens is not too surprising: The economy very fast chews up the environmental resource, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in significant economic damage”

Stepping outside the usual parameters of scientist-as-observer, Werner posits that the only conceivable forces that could be brought to bear that might alter this trajectory with disaster are: “Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists, and other activist groups.”

Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s most respected experts on glaciers and paleoclimatology said in a speech to behavioural scientists back in 2010: Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

My postings to ThinkOrSwim have tailed off somewhat in 2012, but the articles do continue elsewhere, be it the Irish Times or Village magazine. The reason is not a loss of interest on my part in the subject, quite the opposite in fact. It perhaps reflects the almost radioactive nature of the subjects being covered.

Thinking about coming calamities is tough enough, reading about them is trickier still, but for me, hardest of all is writing about them, because then the demons become real and it’s impossible not to be pulled into the grim vortex of imagining or visualizing the awful harbingers of what lie ahead, out of sight yet close enough as to be a living, breathing presence in the daily lives of those you might call the “early accepters”.

I’m signing off now for 2012, but will doubtless continue to tweet away @thinkorswim. Let me sign off with a Seasonal thought that I try to keep in mind as I count my many present blessings:

“Learn to appreciate what you have before time makes you appreciate what you had”.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Tom O Donovan

    There is a continuing dumbing down of the majority of the world’s population by corporations,religions propagandists,braindead politicians and vested interests of all cathegorys.Unless all people wake up and take their protests to the streets continuosly this year the tipping point will be ireversible.Tom O Donovan.    http://www.saveplanet1.com     

  • econroy

    Thanks very much for all your heartfelt and thought-provoking commentary on Think or Swim. Its been compulsive reading over the years. Like you, I would love to be proved totally wrong about our climate change fears and that our wonderful world and its inhabitants (humans & animals) will continue to function for hundreds and thousands of years. I understand how you feel about writing around doomsday stuff, and that your contributions have reduced recently. I’ll just have to get that next edition of Village magazine…………….

    Happy New Year to you and your family.
    Eric.

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Tom, agreed. The irreversible tipping points you refer to are most likely already upon us, but like the cartoon character Wil E. Coyote, you don’t notice you’re over the cliff until you look down…by which time, it is of course far too late. Industrial civilisation is levitating, our ‘recovery’ looks like a classic ‘dead cat bounce’. In any event, re-booting the consumption economy merely hastens our drive towards full system failure…

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Eric, many thanks for your kind comments and good wishes, which I’d like to reciprocate. While throttling back on postings here, I aim to continue the fight in the new year wherever is available to me. I ran six articles in the Irish Times in 2012 – one every 2 months, and a few more in Village. Persuading national newspaper editors to give you space to cover climate change is an ongoing challenge, though I sense that ‘Sandy’ was something of a watershed (it certainly was in the US). 

    On a positive note, the cabal of hard-core deniers is now reduced to a ragged bunch of half-baked conspiracy fantasists that even the Irish media are no longer that interested in providing regular oxygen to. So, while selling a positive message remains challenging, at least the anti-science messaging isn’t getting the airtime of a year or two back. More to the point, regular folk that I bump into who have no special interest one way or the other are increasingly restive about what’s going on with the weather/climate, and are prepared to engage seriously with climate science to try and better understand what we’re dealing with here. OK, it’s not much, but it’s a start, of sorts. And even if this is all far too little, much too late, what choice have we but to keep on trying to get the message out?

    All the best for the new year to you and yours.

    John G.

  • larusargentatus

    I add my
    congratulations to the others for your inspirational and informative
    pieces here and elsewhere over the last five years. I write belatedly as my
    computer was out of action for a while. I hope that you find more time to write
    your blog in 2013. From what you are saying, it seems you are putting together
    a book of your best articles, or some collection of your articles; I wish you
    the best of luck with that.

     

    As you say, there
    has been a sea-change in people’s understanding and appreciation of the global
    warming problem. People are waking up to the reality of global warming and the
    critical need to address it in a comprehensive and radical way. The global
    economy needs to be decarbonised by as early as 2028, according to some estimates;
    in other words, in sixteen years’ time we must no longer be using any fossil
    fuels at all, anywhere in the world. If we continue to burn fossil fuels after
    that, then it’s all over. But maybe it already is.

    Coilin MacLochlainn

  • http://twitter.com/think_or_swim John Gibbons

    Coilin
    Many thanks for the feedback. Rest assured, I haven’t gone away! Filed a new newspaper article yesterday and hope to see it in print fairly soon (will link to it here as usual when it surfaces). And yes, I pretty much have completed assembling a draft of an e-book that compiles around 100 Irish Times columns over the last several years. Thought it would be handy to have them all in the one – easily searchable – location. To add a little meat to this, I’m including graphics, some references and some general updating of content. 

    How to distribute it is the next part of the puzzle. Publishing it via the iTunes Bookstore seems to be the most logical route, as I’m editing the document in iBooks Author (though it may tie me in to them entirely). The back-up option to this is to also make a PDF available via this website, that people can download and use as a reference point (it’s big, though, around 5-60mb, and bigger still when more graphics have been added).

    Regarding whether we’re witnessing an actual sea change in people’s opinions or yet another spike of anxiety that passes in a week or two is a moot point. Experience suggests this is the case. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take some mega-horror weather event or series of events to permanently shift the needle – and realistically, even then, can you truly see the ‘people of the world’ setting aside their gazillion different political/cultural/religious/ethnic/ideological differences and all magically coming together to ‘fix this’? Me neither.

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    John, - What many people may not realise is that,
    the longer we delay reducing emissions,
    the more climate change we’re going to lock in. The cuts in emissions need to
    be frontloaded in order for climate to get back to where it was quickly.

     

    Some countries are looking to make cuts of
    80% in emissions by 2030, which is a good start, but it is estimated that the
    cuts really need to be 100% by 2028 or we will go over the climate cliff.

     

    For Ireland’s Department of the Environment
    to be proposing cuts of 80% by 2050 is pulling the wool over many people’s eyes
    because it looks like a decent target but it isn’t: all of the reductions have
    to happen very quickly and we have only 16 or so years left to do it.

     

    There is another very worrying aspect to
    this: because the Earth’s resources are finite and are being exploited faster
    than they can ever be replenished, economic growth will soon hit the bumpers
    and go into freefall. When this happens our ability to put in place the
    renewable energy infrastructure and other programmes needed to tackle climate
    change will be severely compromised, if not made impossible. That means it is
    imperative to do it all now while the economy is still fit for purpose.

     

    What that means for Ireland is effectively
    phasing out all fossil-fuel power plants as quickly as possible, abandoning all
    exploration for oil or gas on land or at sea, generating electricity purely
    from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, transforming
    agriculture (which has a huge carbon footprint) and turning it to agro-forestry
    or other permaculture, transforming transport so that electricity powers all
    public transport, and ultimately private motor transport too, and making it
    possible for the public to switch from oil and gas for home heating to
    renewable energy options such as biomass, ‘green’ electricity and geothermal.

     

    If we wait until mega-horror weather events
    prompt a shift in attitudes, it will be much too late to do enough to save the
    situation.

    Coilin MacLochlainn

  • Coilin MacLochlainn

    I don’t think I explained that very well.
    The reason the cuts need to be frontloaded is that, if the world waits another
    20 years before taking the necessary action on cutting emissions, there will be
    billions more tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as fossil fuels will
    continue to be burnt over the 20 years. So by the time we get around to dealing
    with the problem, it will have grown enormously and may be insurmountable and
    irreversible: the tipping points will have been passed, the feedback loops will
    be having cumulative and unstoppable impacts. So we have to do it all inside
    the next 20 years… by 2028, not 2050. I hope that’s clearer.