Monday, July 09, 2012
Ours will not be the first civilization to foresee its own demise yet do nothing to prevent it.
It's sometimes called the "boiling frog" syndrome. Place a frog in a pot of hot water and it will leap straight back out. Put it in a pot of cold water atop a stove and gradually heat the water and the frog will stay put until it's boiled.
It's the disconnect that gets us every time. We become acclimated, accustomed to change and eventually we accept it as "normal." Jared Diamond gives the example of what he calls "landscape amnesia." He writes of driving past a beautiful valley vista. Then a shopping mall is constructed, blocking the valley view to passing motorists. Eventually commuters simply become accustomed to what they at first found jarring. Then they accept that as normal and gradually forget about the beautiful vista they previously enjoyed.
If you could compare a newspaper today to a copy of the same paper from 15 or 20-years ago, you might find the difference alarming. In the past, extreme weather events were a rarity on the front page. Today they're so commonplace as to be positively dull, numbing. Yes, yes, yes - Britain is suffering prolonged drought. Yes, yes, yes - Britain is experiencing widespread flooding. So what, that's normal these days isn't it?
As John Vidal writes in The Guardian, freak weather just isn't very freaky any more.
There's always been freak weather, but climatologists increasingly think these events are becoming less unusual. Instead of taking place every 10 or 20 years, they are happening every two or three. This, they are beginning to say, is the new normal, a taste of the future as the planet warms.
Last year was the 35th consecutive year since 1976 that the yearly global temperature was above average. Since 2000 we have had 11 of the 13 warmest years in 132 years and the patterns of global warming that scientists warned about – such as more droughts, sudden downpours, more widespread wildfires, volatile heat, violent storms and more frequent heatwaves – are all here now. This, say the scientists with increasing conviction, is what the early stages of global warming looks like.
So how much more extreme weather does it take for governments and individuals to act, or for the oil companies to withdraw from the Arctic, or the media to link global warming with the events now being witnessed around the world? Must the sea boil, the Seine run dry, New York flood and the London Olympics be consumed by fire before countries are shocked into taking concerted action? The reality is that even as the world experiences increasing numbers of weather-related disasters and extreme events, climate change has dropped off the rich countries' political and media agendas, and public concern is said to be waning – to the cheers of the sceptics and industry.
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson recently caused a ruckus when he admitted that global warming is real but dismissed it as no big deal arguing we'll simply adapt, we always adapt. Of course Tillerson is a fossil fuel snake oil salesman a lot like our prime minister. His bromide was notable for what it left out - that the most hard hit parts of the world will be the least able to afford adaptation; that, while the best off will have some adaptation strategies, they'll be of limited effectiveness and very costly; and that history is rich with examples showing that we do not "always adapt" as Tillerson claims.
The very first civilization, the Mesopotamians, didn't adapt. The Easter Islanders didn't adapt, nor did the Mayans. Societies and civilizations that don't live sustainably don't - well, they don't sustain. They end and they usually end both fairly rapidly and quite badly.
We are living unsustainably today not just regionally but, for the first time, globally. Yet our leaders' approach is to treat unsustainable as normal and to quest for ever greater unsustainability while selling the plebs snake oil about "sustainable growth."
Right now you're sitting in a still quite comfortable pot of lukewarm water but the burner beneath you is on "high" not that you're likely to figure that out in time.