Sunday, April 15, 2007

Step It Up!

Yesterday I participated in a rally in Great Barrington, MA for action on global climate change organized by Step It Up. As Stockbridge Indian representative Steve Comer led a prayer at the Stockbridge Indian Burial Site, my mind wandered to the difficulty of communicating the gravity of the global warming crisis to non-scientists. One problem may be that people have trouble connecting warming temperatures to negative consequences for themselves. Indeed one of the most frequent comments I hear about global warming is "Why are our winters still so long and cold?!"

This is why I had mixed emotions about the recent articles in the popular press about global warming and polar bears. On the one hand, it does provide a great hook, a concrete way to appeal to people with a strong affinity for large, furry mammals. Unfortunately the true significance of global climate change might be lost. While the extinction of polar bears would be an unmitigated tragedy, the fact of the matter is their loss would have little effect on human economics. As Wilmers et al. points out in this month's American Naturalist, it is the highly fecund species most at risk. These are the bugs, worms and creepy-crawlies that do the heavy lifting in providing the ecosystem services our civilization is utterly dependent on. I think this argument bypasses the controversy over whether climate change is "natural" or human-induced, whereas the "Save the Polar Bears" argument might be rebutted by the "Well It's Just Part of the Natural Process" argument. One would not argue that one should not shelter from a hurricane because it is a "natural" phenomenon. I'm afraid, unless we make obvious in no uncertain terms that global warming is going to hit us squarely in the pocketbook, progress in mitigation efforts will be long in coming. Let us not forget that those that can most affect carbon dioxide emissions respond most strenuously to threats to their bottom lines.


  1. The problem with getting action from the public is that they can intuitively see the answer to massive problems like global climate change without spending years studying eco systems, industrial processes, agriculture, economics, or any of those nasty fact based sciences. A recent radio talk show had green proponents wanting an immediate cessation of heavy oil development, an immediate creation of a wind farm based electrical system and an immediate conversion to hydrogen fuel based transportation system. All this in a North American setting that can barely keep sewers, roads, bridges and other infrastructure in a functional condition.

    The world's approach to the problem of climate change is like that of an alcoholic suffering from cirrhosis who wants to keep drinking until a liver transplant can be arranged so that the binge can continue. No amount of cute and cuddly pictures of grandkids or puppies will make them change present life style options that will at least increase the window of availability for getting a new liver. There is no understanding that, even after the transplant, things will not be the same - the party will be over.

    Many who suffer from addictions claim they have to hit bottom before they seek help. Unfortunately, by the time we hit bottom on our addiction to emitting GHGs, the problems really get terminal. We need to provide an intervention. Speakers like Mr Dennehy have got to start saying things like "If we don't act now and suffer the short term pain, your kids and grand kids are either going to die, or curse your name." Unfortunately gov't , business, and the media brand folks who say things like this as fear mongers or fools.

  2. I like your metaphor of GHG emissions "addiction", however the prospects of "hitting bottom" before change can come is frightening.

    Let's hope the global community can change direction before we come to that.

  3. We have examples of coming back from near the bottom when we examine the recent history of the Great Lakes. In the late 60's the lakes were dying. The phosphates from detergents, chlorinated disinfectants in soaps, industrial pollution and municipal sewage were impacting the water quality and the fishes the sea lampreys had left.

    The States and Provinces bordering the Lakes got their acts together and today the situation is much improved. There is even a commercial fishery again.

    So it is possible to take effective action, at this "small" scale. Considering that the world approch to GHGs, the cure may involve a severe reduction of driving, consumer goods production, power generation and resource development as we stand on the brakes with both feet just to avoid the cliff edge, we might not get the same support as the IJC did for building waste water treatment plants and getting manuafacturers to remove the phosphates from detergents.

    We need folks to push for change through the grass roots organizations, through our elected officials. We need to increase the number of folks who demonstrably care.