Tuesday, August 07, 2012

3 Stories of Today and the Future

Three important news stories of today illustrate likely features of the future as well as the present.

Two of these stories were widely reported.  The one that wasn't will likely be the most important, at least for what it portends.

That story was the release of a new study conducted by James Hansen, the most respected scientist in the world on the subject of the climate crisis.  It is a statistical study of recent summer heat waves.  Hansen previewed the findings in a Washington Post oped on Sunday: "Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."

"Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate (up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century), the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide. When we plotted the world’s changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe."

Hansen begins the oped with a confession: "When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988 , I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels. But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic." 

"My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather."

Other climate scientists responded to the study Monday.  According to the AP story: The science in Hansen's study is excellent "and reframes the question," said Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who was a member of the Nobel Prize-winning international panel of climate scientists that issued a series of reports on global warming.
"Rather than say, 'Is this because of climate change?' That's the wrong question. What you can say is, 'How likely is this to have occurred with the absence of global warming?' It's so extraordinarily unlikely that it has to be due to global warming," Weaver said. 

Hansen ended his oped discussing the new present his research suggests, and the future:

 "This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.
There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution."

So this is the story that was ignored: a story about how a new reality has begun and human civilization is threatened.  It got more attention in 1988 when it was a dire warning that it does in 2012 when it is a dire description of the future's leading edge cutting into the present. This new normal of climate cataclysm will mean that life is going to change as it takes hold, and eventually change almost completely.  So it is too big, too complicated and in some ways too familiar to take in, even though a lot of  thoughtful action is required.

Instead the news media paid attention to other stories, because there are always other stories.  There's the latest outrages of the presidential campaign, and the latest Olympic winners, both surprises and coronations.  But mostly there were these two stories, and in their own way, they bear upon the climate crisis future.

The first was the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars.  Ironically, Hansen is a scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and it was this amazing triumph of NASA that competed successfully with his study for media attention.  NASA has borne the brunt of criticism lately, for a lack of innovation, for an obsolete Shuttle fleet and nothing to replace it.  But this mission, in the works for a decade, engineered and deployed cutting edge technology in creatively designed and very daring combination to do something that has never been done--send a complex spacecraft to Mars and land a complex piece of engineering the size of a car on the Martian surface, exactly where it was supposed to land.  It is the greatest space achievement of the decade, perhaps longer.  No private corporation could have afforded to devote the manpower, the expertise and the time as well as the resources to such a feat.

As the climate crisis worsens and deepens, technology to fix the effects and stop the causes from wreaking fatal damage will become vital, essential.  And by sometime in the next century, even that may not be enough.  It may be then, or sooner, that humans look a great deal harder at the possibilities of survival in space.

But long before that, the climate crisis is likely to cause disruptions of a frequency and magnitude to challenge the social fabric, even in the U.S. which may well not bear the brunt of the physical changes, at least at first.  That's where the third story comes in.

The story about the attack of (apparently) a lone gunman on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where he killed 6 people and then died himself in an exchange of gun fire with police.  The apparent shooter was a white separatist, and the FBI is treating the attack as domestic terrorism.

This act of violence would be more shocking had it not been preceded by a lot of racist and xenophobic talk in the political world, including by candidates and elected officials.  Indeed, the very little made of this connection in the aftermath testifies to its pervasiveness in establishment politics.

 This dark trend in America right now is happening when the economy is weak and when a lot of society is changing, including demographically.  Even this level of disquiet is roiling up violence, and there are plenty of guns and bullets out there to create havoc.  Yet today's dislocations--and today's tragedies-- may be minor compared to what is ahead due to the climate crisis.

So this is not a happy trend.  It suggests the apocalyptic visions of the future all too common in movies and novels these days--of social breakdown, violent gangs, a blasted landscape ruled by medieval warlords.  But there is more to this story in Wisconsin.

Because it is also the story of heroes, of ordinary people who sacrificed themselves automatically for others.  The story now is of Sikh Temple of Wisconsin president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who fought off the gunman to protect others, and paid with his life.  And of  Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy, critically wounded as he came to the aid of wounded victims.

There were similar stories told about the all-too-recent rampage in the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre, when ordinary people--who seconds before were just there to watch a movie--sacrificed themselves to protect others, and endangered themselves to help others.  Like Kaleka and Murphy, they have little in common but their humanity, and the sense that helping others is just something you do.  Maybe it is their version of the American way, or it's just the human way--the simple conviction that "you'd do the same for me."

That's the humanity that is our best hope in the times to come, when because of the failures of many politicians, the insidious blind selfishness of certain corporate leaders,  and the exploitable weaknesses of the rest of us, we have not addressed the climate crisis in time to stop it from causing severe consequences.  Ordinary people will have to deal with those consequences.  Some will go crazy with blame, some will go crazy with fear and the impulse of violence.  But some will do the right thing.  Many will depend on them to right the balance--will depend on their intelligence, competence and their commitment.

For I don't agree with James Hansen that we can "solve" the challenge, nor do I agree with Al Gore that we can "solve" the climate crisis.  You can't solve a challenge, or a crisis.  You can meet a challenge, you can address the causes and effects of a crisis.  There will be no complete solution.  There will just be lots of attempts to deal with the crisis, to meet the challenges, and those efforts will go on for decades.  They will be the substance of people's lives.  If things go well enough, they will be their careers--very exciting careers.  Or they will be their jobs--relentless jobs.  Nobody will be untouched by what's got its foot in the door.

Because this is Hansen's message.  It's human nature perhaps--or at least the media attention span--that when a warning has been issued since 1988, it isn't noticed when the warning starts to come true.  In effect, it's the boy crying wolf.  When the wolf isn't at the door immediately, the next warning gets discounted.  But people forget what happened in that story, what that story is about.  It's not about a boy who was prone to panic, who rushed to judgment when his data suggested something really bad might happen.  It's equally about the people who didn't listen.  Because the wolf came, and they weren't ready.

That's what Hansen is saying.  The wolf is here a little early.  But the wolf is here.      

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