Thursday, April 22, 2004

Earth Day Essay: The Forgotten Apocalypse

by William S. Kowinski

Anybody here remember global warming? It's been more than a decade since a few horrendously hot summers in parts of the U.S. inspired a flood of books, articles and television reports on the grave dangers of climate change caused by fossil fuels and other "greenhouse gases." But now, despite continued rising temperatures, and increasing certainty among scientists that the climate change already underway will cause or at least exacerbate ruinous problems that may threaten humanity and the world as we know it for centuries, global warming has become the forgotten apocalypse.

It will undoubtedly be mentioned in various Earth Day perorations, and it is the subject of at least one new television documentary, "The Great Warming," which will be aired on April 22 (but only in Canada. A 90 minute version made by the same Canadian company---Stonehaven Productions---is tentatively scheduled for PBS in October.)

The real resonance test will come at the end of May when the world's first major global warming disaster movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," kicks off the summer season. Director Roland Emmerich has exchanged climate change for the alien threat of his blockbuster "Independence Day" (and the radiation monster of his unsuccessful remake of "Godzilla".) Though most scientific speculation on possible effects of climate change have evidently not limited the film's special effects, its web site includes some reference to the real problem. The film's ambition to raise awareness is suggested in the title's echo of the landmark 1983 television film, "The Day After," which changed public perceptions with its dramatization of nuclear holocaust.

But even big screen catastrophe may not be enough. The recent release of a Pentagon-sponsored scenario that described geopolitical as well as environmental effects of abrupt climate change---a few nuclear exchanges over water shortages, for example-- barely made a ripple in the news cycle. Nor has the growing concern beyond North America, which reached a telling apotheosis in the recent statement by Sir David King, chief science adviser to the British government: "Climate change is a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism."

So why are we so determined to be oblivious? The list of possibilities might include:

Monstrous message: Torrid temperatures for decades, abandoned coastal cities, food and water shortages, diseases, resource wars, not to mention no more SUVs---it's too big, too terrible, too far ahead in time; it's too extreme to believe, and if true, too awful to think about. Denial conceals despair: with no apparent easy solutions, we lack faith in our creativity or character, and probably in each other. Besides, after the Cold War's thermonuclear threat, and while trying to cope with international terrorism, we're suffering from apocalypse fatigue.

Dueling Experts: It's comforting as well as apparently sensible to buy the line favored by the Bush administration that if all scientists don't agree, it doesn't get on the agenda. Chronically indifferent media reporting on science adds to the impression that this is another case of experts saying coffee is good for you on Tuesday and bad for you on Wednesday. In fact, given the incredible complexity of what's involved in a number of scientific disciplines taken to their current limits, it's remarkable that a hefty consensus exists on the basic notions that climate change is real, that our fossil fuel use is largely responsible, and that consequences will be profound and possibly catastrophic.

The Usual Suspects: On the assumption that if Americans believed in global warming they might expect their government to do something about it, major elements of fossil fuel industries have conducted a skilled and relentless p.r.campaign of denial, while pressuring politicians to remember who is buying them. So a question of real economic as well as basic ecological consequence becomes part of the ideological and political shouting show, and America is either entertained or wearily tunes out.

Numbing nomenclature: In a world of warm and fuzzies, and "happiness is a warm puppy," it's hard to get upset about something that sounds so moderate and nice as "global warming." Even the old "greenhouse effect" sounds decidedly unthreatening. Who's afraid of a greenhouse? It sounds green, and warm. The currently popular "climate change" is similarly gentle and bland. People eagerly travel long distances for a change in climate. Various attempts have been made to heat up the nomenclature: "the climate crisis," "Thermageddon," but nothing has caught on.

No Rachel Carson: Books continue to be published that contribute solid information, but none has had the simple eloquence or impact of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," which got DDT banned and jump-started a new kind of environmental awareness.

Failed focus: Are increasingly bureaucratic environmental organizations dissipate their energies on their separate brand-name issues, refusing to set priorities and work together? So far it seems they've failed to focus on global warming as the keystone issue that not only is the most crucial, but addresses virtually every other significant environmental issue, from deforestation and pollution to species extinction.

What is newest and most challenging about global warming is that once its effects are clearly apparent, it's too late to stop them. This is where the fashionable concept of "the tipping point" transcends its usual trivial application. Once the tipping point of global warming is reached, nothing will stop it, and it will only get worse. We will then be forced to cope with it, and maybe slow down its progress. It is not the kind of crisis we're used to, that we can just wait until it gets bad, then fix it and go back to normal. It will change normal, probably for generations.

That's what makes leadership on this issue so dangerous, and so crucial. The basic tasks are easy to state but not to contemplate: first, face the problem. Then take the actions we can to slow down the warming, prepare for possible consequences, and foster the creativity and innovation that might blunt this crisis in ways now unforeseen. Not since Jimmy Carter challenged Americans to become more energy efficient during the last oil crisis has a president dared to risk the political consequences of suggesting such efforts and limits. Just how much this contributed to his failure to be re-elected is debatable, but in fact the combination of his leadership and the perspicacity of many American businesses resulted in a decade of substantial economic growth without using more energy. Now we're told this is impossible.

Now energy efficiency is no longer fashionable, excess is considered patriotic, and leaders avoid moral leadership by denying the dangers. Instead of building resolve and an emotional consensus, we are left with bewilderment. But not to engage, to inquire and do what we can, is to deny and damage the civic soul of America, long before we face the worst physical consequences.

Our failure so far to confront this threat exposes all our flaws, and so may begin our most profound tragedy. But here and there, some Americans are starting to notice changes---New Englanders who see the maple trees and the maple syrup industry dying, or Pennsylvanians who notice that the deer ticks are more active and virulent because of longer and warmer summers. If they begin to connect the dots on their own, will they demand leadership, or at least be ready to follow it? If so, they have in John Kerry someone who understands the issue and is ready to act on it.

This is an issue that more than any other tests our ability and willingness to think about and care about the future. The challenges are to think big, think ahead and take responsibility now. We have some tradition of taking responsibility for the future, in the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee: "In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation to come." Thinking ahead together, and thinking for the welfare of the whole planet, are new to us. But we know what the future means when we look into the eyes of children, and the climate crisis will likely be felt by those who are children now.

"If I were a young person being handed this problem by indulgent predecessors, I would be angry," writes James Speth, co-founder of the National Resource Defense Council, in his new book, "Red Sky at Morning." Perhaps that's why the aforementioned new documentaries on global warming are being hosted by young singer Alanis Morissette, and actors Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In what remains for me the most cogent media treatment of the subject, the 1990 international television production, "After the Warming," host and writer James Burke examines the crucial role of climate in western civilization and presents a plausible history of global warming from the perspective of a citizen in 2050. (It would be plausible, that is, if humanity had delayed action until only the year 2000, as he supposed it would.) Burke's future self compares us today to the man who falls from the top of a tall building. As he passes the 17th floor, someone asks him how he's doing. "So far, so good," he replies.

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