One of my fellow bloggers very respectfully asked if my environmental posts weren't too pessimistic? It's a question I ask myself a lot. Most of the information and opinions I post here are obviously much darker, far more pessimistic than anything you're going to hear from our political leadership and most of what you hear from contemporary media outlets.
In terms of relative pessimism, however, they are pretty close to the unfiltered opinions coming from leading climate scientists and experts in related fields including biology, botany, epidemiology, geology and hydrology among others. They also closely parallel a lot of the concerns shared by military experts from, among others, the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence.
Is it pessimistic to accept these opinions as most probably true? Isn't life itself a constant weighing of probabilities, a process essential for us to evaluate options, priorities and trade-offs and then make decisions, often very difficult decisions?
I have accepted that these opinions are probably right. These writings are aimed at getting this information in front of people to get people thinking and discussing and reading so that they too can decide whether to accept these opinions as probably correct. Because once you've evaluated the information and decided these opinions are probably correct, it gives you a compelling reason to begin to evaluate options, priorities and trade-offs and then reach your own conclusions.
As I pointed out, we're very good at this process even if we're not always successful. We use it at the individual, community and societal level all the time.
Having come to accept these scientific opinions as probably correct, it gives rise to a couple of other thing we've learned to do fairly well - risk management and risk avoidance. There is no way to avoid all risks so long as you draw breath. What you can do is work to improve your odds by figuring out what threshold of risk is acceptable and what risks can be avoided. It's a trade-off.
Fly across the ocean or the polar cap today and there's a good chance you'll be in a modern, twin engine airliner. It used to be we demanded four engines for this sort of thing (think Constellation, 707, DC-8) but then engines became not only more powerful but, most importantly, more reliable. At that point the risk management people inside our various aviation authorities decided twin engine aircraft could probably carry passengers across vast stretches of open ocean in relative safety.
Everything in an aircraft is a trade-off. A big trade-off is the extra expense, especially in fuel consumption, we accept to maintain a minimum redundancy standard. Two engines to keep your jetliner flying aren't enough. We demand that those engines be big and powerful enough that the aircraft can be flown on just one far enough to probably be able to reach a runway somewhere.
Now for something completely different - the Cold War. During the standoff between the Western nations and the Soviet bloc everyone accepted the threat of a global, nuclear exchange. As British economist Nick Stern pointed out, many Western nations considered the threat serious enough that they were willing to invest up to 4% of their GDP into their military forces, their deterrence. (Stern, as an aside, believes we can avert catastrophic climate change by accepting a GDP reduction of less than half that)
Thanks to that investment in deterrence, and a good bit of luck, that world ending nuclear exchange never happened. For a while top generals would debate survivable nuclear war, a madness based on pre-emptive attack. The thinking went, "If I launch everything at him without any warning, I'll be able to wipe out all his cities and most of his nuclear arsenal. Then, at worst, he'll probably only be able to wipe out 70% of my cities, so I'll have 30% of my cities left, enough to rebuild and I win!" Fortunately we got past that to the point of MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear Armageddon and rode that out to the end of the Cold War.
Now consider it this way. Is the risk of catastrophic climate change more or less probable than was the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War? If you fall back on your acceptance that the views of these climate scientists and military experts are probably right, the risk of catastrophic climate change is considerably more probable than nuclear annihilation ever was during the Cold War. A logical conclusion, even if dire, is not pessimistic.
So, if you have climbed down off the fence and accepted that catastrophic climate change will probably occur the way mankind is going, then you either bury your head in the sand or engage the risk management and risk avoidance mechanisms that have served us well in the past - well enough at least that you're still around to read this.
The Brits (bless them and their horrid, greasy food) aren't afraid of probability. That's clear from the report recently released by the British environment secretary detailing the amount of warming Britons can expect by 2070 based on the existing state of carbon emissions. They've been told there'll probably be two degrees of warming in most parts of Britain and possibly as much as six degrees in some southern areas, including the City of London. Now, if you accept that as the probable outcome based on the existing situation, it's a no-brainer to see that things are probably going to get worse, much worse, unless the community of nations accepts that they must do whatever it takes to decarbonize their economies and get it done very, very soon.
Why do we need immediate action now? Because replacing a carbon-based economy is a decadal job. According to America's leading climate scientist, the Goddard Institutes James Hansen, the latest research shows the onset of global warming is happening at a pace they could not have imagined just a few years ago. Hansen sees smoke billowing out beneath the door and wants to pull the alarm. He now says, quite unequivocally, that we have no more than 20-years to completely give up our dominant energy source, coal. Twenty years, that's it. If we don't give it up, Hansen warns that we will very probably be unable to avert truly catastrophic global warming.
Now I think it's logical enough to assume that we're probably not going to decarbonize our economies without drastic action by all the major emitters. This is where "think globally, act locally" comes in. Any hope of meaningful action is being blocked by the dissenters, the heel-draggers. How do you know who they are? Easy. They're the guys who've fallen back on the disingenuous claim that they'll cut their own emissions only when everyone else agrees to do the same.
What's disingenuous about this "all or nothing" tactic? Among other things, it throws us right back into the arms of MAD or mutually assured destruction. It's like a scene from a western where all the bad guys are gathered around the poker table, holding their cards in one hand and a six-shooter in the other hand underneath the table. It's really, really hard to step down from that mentality because it fosters suspicion, delay and inaction.
Then factor in logical inconsistency. How much credibility on the global scene can either of Canada's two major political leaders hold when both are openly committed to the expansion of the Athabasca Tar Sands? They want China to do what, shut down its coal plants?
The Copenhagen summit is coming up in December and the climate science community is doing everything in its power to convince the world's leaders of the very real, very high probability of runaway global warming if they don't commit themselves now to radical action over the next decade or two. That's a very high bar to clear and I really don't think they're going to make it.
Now back to probabilities. If you believe that catastrophic climate change is probable unless we act quickly to do whatever it takes to stop emitting greenhouse gases and if, following the Copenhagen summit it appears probable that the collective will to act effectively, globally and in time hasn't been achieved, then it's probably time to reset our risk management and risk avoidance parameters accordingly and, as James Lovelock has been urging lately, prepare for the worst.
Why prepare now? Because we're lucky enough that we can, that's why. We're not Africa, and we're not the Middle East. We're not eastern Europe or Central, South or East Asia. We're not South or Central America. If you believe these top climate scientists and military experts are probably right and you're not willing to bet the farm that the world leaders are probably going to act quickly and radically enough, then we had better begin looking at what that probably means for Canada, for us and begin evaluating the unique options - call them blessings if you're so inclined - that are open to us, how we can take advantage of those and even what we may be required to do to protect them.
That's not pessimistic. That's simply logical. Okay, if you want you can call it "positive pessimism."