Martin Luther King, speaking about the Vietnam War and inequities associated with it, said: “We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued its fifth report (they do one every five years). Each report has indicated stronger and stronger agreement in the scientific community that climate change is happening, that humans are the cause of most of it, and the predictions of adverse effects are already visible. These reports are generally conservative in their conclusions and represent a consensus of the global scientific community.
Among the findings:
* “Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.”
* “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
(Note: scientists are reluctant to ever state that something is 100 percent true; the term “extremely likely” means 95 to 100 percent confidence, up from the level in the last report of 90 to 100 percent confidence.)
This “diagnosis” of a planetary illness argues for application of Dr. King’s words to the issue of climate change. Why is there not more urgency to address this issue?
A good friend recently connected me to a friend of his who lives in Jackson, Wyo., who also writes a column in his local newspaper. His column is not generally focused on climate change, but circumstances in his life led him to write about it.
Basically, he was diagnosed with cancer and he signed up for surgery and follow-up chemotherapy based on advice from doctors that even though they couldn’t tell him with 100 percent certainty that either procedure would work, or work for how long, the overwhelming consensus was that failure to do either would put his life in danger.
Knowing that he had cancer changed the way he looked at the world: taking more joy and wonder in the small things of life, but also being less patient with people who “put short-term gain ahead of long-term benefit.” Specifically, his experience with cancer suggested a metaphor for the world’s response to climate change.
Both the surgery and the chemotherapy were very unpleasant but he went through both because his doctors, the experts, advised him that to not do so would risk his life in the longer term. He identified the difference between his response to the danger of cancer and the global response to climate change as perhaps due to everyone having some personal knowledge or experience of people dying of cancer, but no one has ever seen a planet die due to global warming.
The fear of cancer is tangible in a way that fear of climate change is not.
But he challenges the climate deniers to see the parallels between the two and to acknowledge that if they were in his shoes, despite the fact that chemotherapy and surgery cannot be shown to be absolutely 100 percent certain to extend a person’s life, they would nonetheless feel an urgency based on statistical likelihood and undertake those procedures to save their life.
There is something about the immediacy of a threat on a personal level that grabs one’s attention and propels one toward solutions, even if they may, in the short term, be unpleasant.
Back to the IPCC report and King’s admonition about the “fierce urgency of now.”
The report, for the first time, posits a “carbon budget” for the human race and estimates the planet cannot burn more than 1 trillion tons of carbon and avoid the worst of the negative consequences of global warming. The report points out that adverse effects are already observable and will accelerate in their impacts. The trillion tons is the threshold beyond which the most far-reaching and dangerous impacts would be felt.
So how are we doing? The report indicates we are halfway there; that we have burned about half a trillion tons of carbon and the trillionth ton will be burned somewhere around the year 2040. I don’t know about you, but I plan on still being here then.
The scientific diagnosis is clear; the “cure” is not. The efforts of individuals, while important, are not enough to effectuate a change from a carbon-burning economy; such a change will require both policy and innovation. Thus far the world’s policy responses have been insufficient: There is not yet a level of motivational fear that enables tough choices in the near term in order to secure the long-term health of the planet.
Maybe the key will be innovation. When talking about the business interests that made him wealthy, the new owner of the Kings was quoted as saying “Five years from now more than half my revenue will come from products these guys (his employees) haven’t yet invented. That’s the blistering pace of innovation.”
In his case, innovation has been monetized. Making carbon cost money, either through a tax or a cap-and-trade system could likewise create the “blistering pace” of innovation necessary to avoid an ugly-looking year 2040.
Unfortunately, it takes policy, and a “fierce urgency of now,” to make this happen.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org