WHY WE RESIST THE TRUTH ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE
By CLIVE HAMILTON
At some point—finally—the full truth of what the climate scientists are saying breaks through all of our defences.
We can no longer pretend the impacts of warming are too far off to worry about, or that the scientists must be exaggerating. We realise that our apathy is rooted in fear or that our hopes for a political upheaval are no more than wishful thinking. We concede that no technological marvel can arrive in time.
And the most insidious barrier of them all can no longer protect us—the wall that separates intellectual acceptance of global warming from the emotional meaning of a hot world. It’s the handy device that allows us to declare “Yes, of course, I am one of those who understands what is coming; I have known it for a long time”, while all the time shutting off the horror of a world at 4, 5 or 6°C, a world in which progress ends and human survival is in doubt.
For some, the realisation is a creeping one as the true meaning of warming leaks into consciousness. For others, the breakthrough is sudden and overwhelming. It’s been called the “Oh shit” moment, the instant when your whole world shifts and nothing is the same thereafter.
A few have described the trigger for their “Oh shit” moment: reading about the collapse of the Greenland ice-sheet, hearing James Hansen say we have 10 years to act and knowing it’s not going to happen, realising that China’s coal-dependent growth is unstoppable, and watching leaders proclaim their bold commitment then back-pedal as soon as the going gets tough.
My own moment came in September 2008 when I read an analysis by climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows. With relentless logic they set out the world’s carbon abatement task before reaching a shattering conclusion.
They make some optimistic assumptions. Let’s say global emissions reach their peak in 2020, a prospect faint before Copenhagen and fanciful now. Nevertheless, we’ll clutch at it and then assume that after 2020 rich countries cut their emissions by 6% each year for decades. That’s a rate of reduction equalled only by Russia in the 1990s, when the value of its GDP was halved. But we’ll clutch at that too.
With these heroic assumptions for how the world could reduce emissions, where would that leave us? Forget 450 ppm or 2°C warming. Forget 550 ppm and 3°C. This optimistic scenario would see the world warm by 4°C this century. Four degrees!
With 4°C of warming the Earth will be hotter than at any time for 15 million years. It will be an era of extreme weather events, with most species at severe risk. We will pass most of the tipping points—loss of Arctic summer sea-ice, melting of the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers, melting of the Greenland ice-sheet, loss of the Amazon rainforest, disruption to El Nino, and more.
The climate will be radically transformed and no longer subject to our influence.
Before I read the Anderson and Bows paper—and others since that have confirmed it—I knew we were in trouble. I knew that the Bali call for rich nations to cut their emissions by 25-40% by 2020 was scientifically necessary but politically almost inconceivable.
But I hoped for some great awakening that would prove it could be done, that our leaders would suddenly recognize how dire the situation is, or that the people would take to the streets to force their governments to act.
The truth is we have left it too late. Any clear-eyed look at the numbers will destroy mushy hopes that we can save the day. If the top world leaders all had an epiphany and decided to force through, against ferocious resistance, an economic transformation matched only in war-time, and did so in the next five years, we would still in all likelihood be on a path to 4°C of warming.
Yet around the world the political situation is deteriorating, not least after the failure of Copenhagen to galvanise international action. In short, we are stuffed.
After my “Oh shit” moment I walked around in a semi-daze for weeks. How does one come to terms with such a realisation? It was to answer that question that I decided to write Requiem for a Species. http://www.earthscan.co.uk/requiem
Despite the grim forecasts, we cannot maintain our dignity if we sink into apathy or party as if there are no tomorrows. We must act, and aim to make the best future in the circumstances we now face. We must build resilient communities, self-sustaining economies, and democratic systems that seek to spread the burdens fairly.
We have been conned. But it is also true that we have been conning ourselves. The sooner we face up to the full truth of what the climate scientists are telling us the sooner we can begin to prepare for a new world under a transformed climate.
Clive Hamilton is the author of Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (£14.99) published by Earthscan.
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