ABSTRACT – There Won’t Be a Bailout for the Earth by Johann Hari November 26, 2010 by The Independent/UK.
Why [did] the world’s governments bother to jet to Cancun to discuss what to do now about global warming? The vogue has passed. The fad has faded. Global warming is yesterday’s apocalypse. Didn’t somebody leak an email that showed it was all made up?
Alas, the biosphere doesn’t know that global warming is so 2007. All it knows are three facts:. 2010 is globally the hottest year since records began; 2010 is the year rapid increase in catastrophic weather events caused by humanity’s emissions of planet-warming gases reached its highest level ever; and exactly as climate scientists predicted, we are seeing rapid increase in catastrophic weather events, from the choking of Moscow by gigantic unprecedented forest fires to the drowning of one quarter of Pakistan.
Before the Great Crash of 2008, people who warned about the injection of huge destabilizing risk into our financial system seemed like arcane, anal bores. Now we all sit in the rubble and wish we had listened. The great ecological crash will be far worse, because nature doesn’t do bailouts.
That’s what Cancun should be about – surveying the startling scientific evidence, and developing an urgent plan to change course. The Antarctic – which locks 90 percent of the world’s ice – has now seen eight of its ice shelves fully or partially collapse. The world’s most distinguished climate scientists, after recording this, say we face a three to six feet rise in sea level this century. That means the drowning of London, Bangkok, Venice, Cairo and Shanghai, and entire countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives.
And that’s just one effect of the way we are altering the atmosphere. Perhaps the most startling news story of the year passed almost unnoticed. Plant plankton are tiny creatures that live in the oceans and carry out a job you and I depend on to stay alive. They produce half the world’s oxygen, and suck up planet-warming carbon dioxide. This year, one of the world’s most distinguished scientific journals, Nature, revealed that 40 per cent have been killed by the warming oceans since 1950. Professor Boris Worm, study co-authore, said in shock: “I’ve been trying to think of a biological change that’s bigger than this and I can’t think of one.” That’s the result of less than one degree of warming. Now we are on course for at least three degrees this century. What will happen?
The scientific debate is not between deniers and affirmers. Every major scientific academy in the world, and all the peer-reviewed literature, says global warming denialism is a pseudo-science, on a par with Intelligent Design, homeopathy, or the claim that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. The scientific debate now is between those who say the damage is a disaster, and those who say it is a catastrophe.
Yet the world’s governments gather in Cancun with no momentum and very little pressure from their own populations to stop the ecological vandalism. The Copenhagen conference last year collapsed after the most powerful people in the world turned up to flush their own scientists’ advice down a very clean Danish toilet. These leaders are sometimes described as “doing nothing about global warming.” No doubt that will be the report from Cancun too. But it’s false. They’re not “doing nothing” – they are allowing their countries’ emissions of climate-trashing gases to massively increase. That’s not failure to act. It’s deciding to act in an incredibly destructive way.
The Copenhagen collapse did not shock people into action; it numbed them into passivity. Last year, we were talking about a legally binding cap on carbon emissions, because scientists say this is the only thing that can preserve the climate that sustains human civilization. What are we talking about this year? Almost nothing.
They will talk about how to help the world’s poor “adapt” to the fact we are drying out much of their land and drowning the rest, but back off from one of the few concrete Copenhagen agreements: to give the worst-affected countries $100bn. Privately, they say this isn’t the time – they can come back for it, presumably, when they are on rafts. Oh, and they will talk about how to preserve the rainforests. But Greenpeace reveals that the last big deal to save the rainforests – with Indonesia – was a scam. The country plans to demolish most of its rainforest to plant commercial crops, and claim it has been “saved.”
Karl Rove – George W. Bush’s chief spin-doctor – boasts: “Climate is gone.” He means off the political agenda, but he is more accurate and more cursed than he realizes.
In this context a new, deeply pessimistic framework for understanding the earth’s ecology – and our place in it – has emerged. Many know the warm, fuzzy Gaia hypothesis that claims Planet Earth functions as a single living organism called Gaia. (Eiwa in James Cameron’s Avatar). It regulates its own temperature and chemistry to create a steady state that can sustain life. This process expands outwards. Life protects life.
Now there is a radically different theory gaining adherents, ominously named the Medea hypothesis. The paleontologist Professor Peter Ward, expert in the great extinctions in earth’s past, believes there is a common thread between them. With the exception of the meteor strike that happened 65 million years ago, every extinction hypothesis, successful species destroy their own habitats, was caused by living creatures becoming incredibly successful – and then destroying their own habitats. So, for example, 2.3 billion years ago, plant life spread incredibly rapidly, and inhaled huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. This caused a rapid plunge in temperature that froze the planet and triggered a mass extinction.
Ward believes nature isn’t a nurturing mother like Gaia. It is Medea, the figure from Greek mythology who murdered her own children. In this theory, life doesn’t preserve itself. It serially destroys itself. It is a looping doomsday machine. This theory adds a postscript to Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. There is survival of the fittest, until the fittest trash their own habitat, and do not survive at all.
But the plants 2.3 billion years ago weren’t smart enough to figure out what they were doing. We supposedly are. We can see that if we release enough warming gases we will trigger an irreversible change and make our own survival much harder. Ward argues that it is not inevitable we will destroy ourselves – because human beings are the first and only species that can consciously develop a Gaian approach. Just as Richard Dawkins famously said we are the first species to be able to rebel against our selfish genes and choose to be kind, we are the first species that can rebel against the Medean rhythm of life. We can choose to preserve the habitat on which we depend. We can choose life.
At Cancun, the real question will be carefully ignored to preserve big business as usual. Do we want to ramp up global warming with filthy fossil fuels, or make the leap to a clean planet fuelled by the sun, the wind and the waves? Right now we are making the wrong choice. But we could change the end of this story, if we act decisively. Long after our own little stories are forgotten, this choice we make now will still be visible – in the composition of the atmosphere, the swelling of the seas, and the crack and creak of the great Antarctic ice. Do we want to be Gaia, or Medea? – Johann Hari is a columnist for the London Independent. His journalism has appeared in publications all over the world. READ MORE: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/11/26
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