The Informed

Climate Change: On Naomi Klein, The Deniers and Learning To Swim

Climate change is real and it is upon us. But what can we learn from volcanoes in Siberia 250 million years ago and the geoengineers who want to reshape our world today? And more importantly, will Naomi Klein help manage to save us in the end?

Banksy near the Oval bridge in Camden, London. Zak Hussein/PA

If I asked you what you thought the biggest event to cause a mass extinction in the history of our planet was, what would you say? Most people would tell you it was caused by a giant meteor hitting the Earth 65 million years ago, and they'd be wrong - most people do believe this, however, and most people also believe a great deal of other falsehoods in regard to science, but we'll get to that in its due course. Although a giant meteor about the size of Mount Everest did hit the Earth roughly 65 million years ago and did cause a mass extinction, it was not the biggest in Earth's history, although it is a close second to be fair. The largest came about over a 50,000 year period beginning some 250 million years ago, and it began, many scientists now believe, in Siberia, in a stretch of volcanoes called the Siberian Traps, today a region of volcanic rock stretching two million square kilometers. Massive volumes of basaltic lava spewed out for thousands of years and with it, large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas. This resulted in highly sulfuric acid rain to come down and create hydrogen sulfide in the oceans, which warmed the planet by more than 10 degrees centigrade. This led to the loss of 90 percent of the Earth's species and took tens of millions of years to recover from. When a world gets warmer, as it did then, its poles heat faster than the equator, and when an equilibrium exists, winds stop and ocean currents no longer move and our oceans become anoxic, without sufficient oxygen and unable to sustain life. And science can measure these changes in levels quite accurately by studying layers of rock and other techniques.

An event which affected only 1.3% of our planet's surface rendered it impossible for 90% of life to survive and it destroyed our atmosphere planet-wide in the process. There is so much that this story can teach us about the effects that climate change will have upon our planet and the fragility of our ecosystem, and we need to heed those lessons. Although this event was a natural one and ours is arguably man-made (and even if it's not, it is happening regardless), the plot-lines follow very similar paths and we would be fools to not listen to the evidence. Sadly, some of us still refuse to. Regardless, as dramatic as that period was in its utter devastation of life, its mechanics don't look all that dissimilar to the data we're seeing today. The planet has already heated up by 1.3 degrees, and the scientific community now concedes that 2 degrees is the maximum temperature increase that we can sustain - at that point, crops will fail, and ocean levels will rise, amongst a host of other repercussions. (Source - Peter Ward, 2013)

Let's focus our attention for a moment on the rising ocean levels - the repercussion of climate change that will have the most impact on human life. The conservative estimate is that by 2100, ocean levels will have risen by 1.5 meters, 1 meter of that being built-in due to the thermal expansion of our oceans resulting from the aforementioned 1.3 degree increase in Earth's temperature compared to pre-industrial times. If the snow in the Arctic melts, it won't have an impact on our rising sea levels (think of an ice cube melting in a glass of ice), but it will allow for a release of an estimated 50 gigatonnes of methane gas, which will  contribute another 1.7 degree temperature increase, well above the 2 degree limit. But if the ice on Greenland and Antarctica melt - ice on land - that will have a dramatic effect on ocean levels. It would result in a three meter rise if Greenland's ice melts and a whopping thirty meter rise if Antarctica's melts - and these are real possibilities in the next century. Here's what North America and South-East Asia would look like with a 30 meter rise in ocean levels:

Sea level rise: N. America (top) & Asia (bottom) by Kees Veenenbos
Hundreds of millions displaced, but what's ultimately much more devastating will be the resulting crop failure. If you think of the world's deltas, our most abundant and productive agricultural regions, they are often at or near sea-level. In fact, only a one meter rise in ocean levels could destroy 25% of the world's agricultural regions, and this is a reality we are facing already in the next century even if we stop now. And as carbon dioxide levels rise, this becomes an even more looming threat to our health on the planet. The Netherlands is already spending 18% of its GDP on building and maintaining dams to keep the waters at bay. We are almost at an alarming 400 parts-per-million carbon dioxide count in the atmosphere and it is increasing by 2ppm per year. (Source - Peter Ward, 2013) Add to this the methane being released by permafrost melt in the Arctic Circle coupled with our increasing use of fossil fuels and we are looking at a very bleak future indeed.

We have procrastinated for so long, we have allowed emissions to increase so much year after year, that there are no non-radical options left on the table. - Naomi Klein, The Guardian Live, 2014.

Let's take a look next at some of the proposed solutions to this mess then. There are many who feel that science and technology will save us from our fate, but time is running out and the measures that are being proposed are based, on the most part, on future technologies. Geoengineering, once the domain of kooks and retired engineers, is now being proposed by many, and if you aren't yet familiar with that term, it can be summed up thusly:

Geoengineering is the planetary-scale intervention [in] or tinkering with planetary processes. - David Bello, Scientific American, 2014.

While the idea of geoengineering is not new, it is only recently being applied to the science of climate change. Between 1958 and 1962, both the Soviet and American governments tried to figure out ways to detonate atomic bombs in space outside our atmosphere to modify the global environment for military reasons. These military manics clearly had no concern whatsoever for the stewardship of our planet. But those archaic concepts aside, the two ideas being proposed now involve either reflecting the Sun's rays back into space and away from the surface of Earth, or finding methods to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of the ideas proposed to reflect sunlight off the planet is to release massive amounts of sulfur high up in the atmosphere, which will cool the planet and, as a by-product, cause severe acid rain. There is currently no theory regarding how to deal with that eventuality. Dealing with pollution by creating more pollution seems like an insane idea on the surface, at least to me.

Using technofixes to tinker with global climate systems is an excuse to avoid unpopular but necessary measures to reduce carbon emissions. - Clive Hamilton, Scientific American, 2015

Another idea is to cover massive areas, like our deserts, with reflective materials to reflect the Sun's energy back into space. This also seems like a radical and short-sighted solution. In short, geoengineering is radical, controversial and not proven, and if we are willing to consider such radical ideas to combat the problem, then why not some other radical ideas, like challenging an economic system that conflicts head-on with our natural world?

What underlies the problem of climate change as well, is a broad scientific illiteracy in the developed world, particularly in the US. In 2009, according to ABC News, only 40% of Americans believed in evolution, 80% thought the government is hiding information about aliens and 54% believed in alien abductions. But here's the kicker:

In 2009, 54% of Republicans in the United States did not believe in climate change. - ABC News

There is an education that clearly needs to happen to increase the scientific literacy in the world, particularly in regard to climate change. Some even suggest that being a climate change denier is immoral in today's world, where science proves them wrong on every count. Rather than list every climate change denier argument, I will refer you to this great piece which lists every possible argument that a skeptic may have, and refutes each in turn with the science and references. It's a great read, and every activist should have this information in their back pockets. As serious and weighty as the issue is, it is still fun to completely shut down a climate change denier. Or at least make them think a little.

And speaking of great reads, Naomi Klein's new book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate" is being hailed as the greatest book on climate change since Silent Spring in 1962. Some say that she has changed the terms of the debate altogether, shedding light on our economic system and it's conflict with the planet. She argues that the time is over for half-measures and that a massive movement of climate action needs to happen, one that will fight for radical and fundamental shifts in our economic system, a system that is failing us on more levels than just an environmental one. She argues that our current economic system represents a conflict between our  neoliberal ideology and a worldview that supports sustained life on Earth. She champions interdependence over individualism, reciprocity over dominance and cooperation over hierarchy. There is an excellent resource on her website where she has partnered with Beautiful Solutions to look at economic alternatives and answers to the problem. She maintains an optimism that carries throughout the book, and leaves you speechless in the process. A must-read.

However, what with the media coverage of climate change having dropped dramatically in the past 5 years, when belief in climate change as a reality itself is dropping, it is critical for each one of us to bring this topic into the collective discussion again. We are clearly acting in a completely irresponsible way, acting like we are the last generation to have to live here. People take their personal finances and dental hygiene, for example, far more seriously than the issue of our imminent extinction. There is not nearly enough engagement with this issue, not nearly what there should be, and we need to create that engagement. Like Naomi said, the time has run out for moderate measures. There are no non-radical options left on the table. But, as she and so many others have said, it will take all of us to find a solution.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. - Voltaire

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