**This post was originally a personal email that I sent to friends (and may get slightly editted…). I’m responding to Stephen Chu’s appeal “to convince your friends and neighbours of this”. I have a hunch that we need more people doing the convincing directly and one on one, rather than through the “pull” media of websites, newspapers, tv, etc. If it’s coming from reasonably well-informed old hockey teammates, etc., rather than a Nobel physicist, perhaps all the better…**
Well, I know that this note will be a bit out of the blue for many of you, but like the post title (and Neil Young) says – “there comes a time”… This is something important, something I want to “pay forward”.
Right now, we are all understandably concerned and immediately focussed on the global economic turmoil – politicians, business leaders, the media, etc.
But I am convinced we face even larger, urgent challenges with respect to our global energy-environment-economy dilemma.
Why am I writing to you about this? Well, partly because I was inspired by new US. Secretary of Energy Dr. Stephen Chu’s words the night of the recent U.S. Presidential inauguration. At the Environmental Ball, commenting specifically about climate change, he said:
“We all know how serious our challenges are and what the implications would be of unchecked climate change… We are on a path that scares me… We have a hard task ahead of us. What unites us is a concern for a better world for ourselves and our children… You have to convince your friends and your neighbors about this.”
So, that’s what I am trying to do.
First, I am going to make a brief case for just how urgent some of these issues really have become, pointing to some of the most current science and empirical evidence. Then I want to highlight one important and hopeful process that is taking place over the balance of this year, why I think we should put our best efforts behind it, and what each of us can do to help ensure its success.
Comes a Time – Part I: The Oceans.
The single issue that comes up most often in the energy-environment-economy dilemma I referred to above – as it did in Dr. Chu’s comments – is climate change.
And yet, the public-at-large still seems to have some difficulty relating to why some far-away, gradually melting glaciers represent a truly urgent threat. And, it is understandable. It is the type of problem that society seems to have systematic difficulty dealing with: The underlying problem builds up slowly over time, without any apparent immediate consequences. The real damages tend to lag – often by decades – the behaviour that fundamentally causes them. Familiar examples could include the recent build-up of excessive debt in our financial institutions, poor personal diet, etc., etc. But when the damages are apparent, they can be devastating.
So, I am not going to start my case for “urgency” by focussing on some theoretical future environmental damage, but rather just look at our oceans. The damage there is already stark and easy to comprehend.
My case is simply the following table:
I have been following the relevant science on various environmental and energy issues for some years now. I still get way too many “omfg!” moments when I see some of the findings, and that table is one of those moments. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) in August of 2008. Even a cursory look at the table shows that by almost any measure – large mammals, tortoises, seagrass, seabirds, large fish, small fish, crustaceans – we have devastated our vast, beautiful oceans in a remarkably brief span. And it is not “early innings”. We are looking at declines of 60%, 85%, 90%, 99%…
That paper, which is a survey of the current literature on marine ecosystems and which is quite accessible for non-science types, was developed after a lecture Jeremy Jackson gave to the NAS. I really recommend you listen to/watch Jeremy Jackson make his presentation, to get a true sense of how heartbreaking the situation really is.
Towards the end of Dr. Jackson’s entertaining (and eye-opening!) talk, he says:
“I mean, the amphibians may be disappering, but if you look at those photographs that David showed yesterday of the Sierras, it’s still beautiful. Right? There are still forests. There are still lots of other animals. (In the oceans) we’re talking about a situation where there are no forests, no grass, no birds… You know… when you change the rules to the point that are no more forests, you’ve jacked the stakes up a whole level. And that’s where we are in the oceans…”
As he describes, if we wanted to intentionally design some kind of ‘shock and awe’ assault against the oceans, we could hardly do ‘better’ than what we routinely abuse it with: habitat destruction, overfishing, introduced species, warming, acidification, toxins, massive runoff of nutrients, etc.
My point is that in the oceans we have – already – let these long-lag assaults silently progress far too long until the environmental damage is remarkably grim.
So these kind of lousy outcomes can occur and are, in fact, currently occurring. Climate change is another long-lag dilemma with the potential to create an even larger ecological catastrophe. As I describe next, we are closer to crisis there than most of us realize.
Comes a Time – Part II: What’s New on Climate Change.
Last week, possibly the largest academic conference on climate change ever convened was held in Copenhagen, with over 2,000 climate scientists, economists and social scientists attending. They were assembling to provide input for the important United Nations COP-15 climate change negotiations scheduled for November-December 2009, also in Copenhagen.
They felt such a meeting was necessary because new insight from the science and empirical data in the field of climate change is progressing remarkably rapidly. The most recent assessment report (AR4) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was originally released in February 2007. In order to complete their work, the various IPCC working groups had cut-off dates for published scientific literature they could consider. What this has meant in practice is that output of IPCC AR4 is based on our best understanding of our climate and climate science as of about late 2005.
Since that time, the scientific understanding of a number of key issues relating to climate change – the rate that we are emitting greenhouse gases, observations of potentially aggravating positive feedbacks from various natural processes, observed impacts – has suggested that we may be facing scenarios that are far worse and far more urgent than anything that the IPCC AR4 considered.
Reporting on last week’s congress, Naturenews highlighted exactly that: Copenhagen summit urges immediate action on climate change. Scientists report intensifying impact of global warming.
Climate experts who met this week in Denmark have warned that the overall prognosis on climate change is worse than previous estimates have suggested…
The latest results made for bleak listening at times. Scientists cautioned that some of the impacts of global warming, such as sea level rise and loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, are happening much sooner and more severely than scientists had estimated just two years ago. “What we are seeing now is that some aspects are worse than expected,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany…
Addressing congress delegates this morning, economist Nicholas Stern said that policymakers now need to consider the consequences of temperature rises of 6°C or more. Stern, who conducted a review in 2006 of the economic effects of climate change on behalf of the British government, was not alone in expressing a growing sense of urgency to policymakers…
… at the conference, there was a growing fear that the message is simply failing to permeate. “I’m frustrated, as are many of my colleagues, that 30 years after the US National Academies of Science issued a strong warning on CO2 warming, the full urgency of this problem hasn’t dawned on politicians and the general public,” says Rahmstorf.
Some excerpts from the official six preliminary Key Messages from the Congress:
Key Message 1: Climatic Trends: Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised… parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts…)
Key Message 3: Long-Term Strategy: Rapid, sustained, and effective mitigation based on coordinated global and regional action is required to avoid “dangerous climate change”… Weaker targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing tipping points and make the task of meeting 2050 targets more difficult. Delay in initiating effective mitigation actions increases significantly the long-term social and economic costs of both adaptation and mitigation.
Key Message 5: Inaction is Inexcusable: There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches – economic, technological, behavioural, management – to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented… A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.
Key Message 6: Meeting the Challenge: To achieve the societal transformation required to meet the climate change challenge, we must overcome a number of significant constraints and seize critical opportunities. These include reducing inertia in social and economic systems; building on a growing public desire for governments to act on climate change;… enabling the shifts from ineffective governance and weak institutions to innovative leadership in government, the private sector and civil society; and engaging society in the transition to norms and practices that foster sustainability.
Simply put, the crisis is real, it’s here and it is urgent. It’s why I am writing.
Ok. What I am asking you for:
I started off briefly describing the state of our oceans as an example of how bad things are getting, almost invisibly to most of us. And I discussed some of the current insights on where we are in our understanding of the climate crisis.
What can you and I do about it?
Well, we all know about the personal choices we can each make with respect to our choices in transportation, home heating and energy, diet, consumption, etc. And this is all important and necessary and shows leadership and commitment.
But the magnitude and speed of the changes facing us – to radically reduce our carbon emissions, fundamentally transition our energy systems, reorganize our agricultural practices – these are remarkably enormous undertakings. Changing light bulbs is not going to be enough! The shifts will have to be undertaken at a societal level, and require almost unprecedented international cooperation.
There are huge benefits to these changes, but we need to begin aggressively and as soon as possible. To do so, we have to overcome the frustrating – but understandable – inertia of “business as usual”. That will require strong and visionary leadership from our elected officials. They, in turn, need to know that there the necessary support is there amongst their citizens.
There is no “magic bullet”, but in my opinion, the best hope for significant early action is the already scheduled COP-15 negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, which I referenced earlier. The process is in place, momentum is building, and almost all the major world leaders will be attending.
Furthermore, although these negotiations are specifically about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, strong agreements there would have large complementary benefits for ocean health, pollution levels, etc.
There are less than nine months to those negotiations. They will be difficult negotiations – potentially with a continuing backdrop of the financial crisis, the balancing of wildly different national interests, etc., etc. But they have a real chance of substantial success, especially if our leaders are convinced that they have the support of large proportion of their populations.
So, I am asking you to whatever you can to communicate that support. Write to your representatives. Support the various advocacy groups. Educate yourself – and your friends and neighbours. We really need to get going on this. We have to build support very quickly and every little action and persuasion is going to count.
Thanks for your support. I’m counting on it!
Oh, and trust you are well! Sorry if it’s been a while – stay in touch! Enjoy the concert! Cheers, gwm