“I am speaking from an area of water that has never been water before. It has always been frozen solid. It is uncharted. There are no depth readings on the map because no ship has ever been able to measure them. No one has ever been anywhere near where we are now. We have sailed for the last 100 miles through open seas in an area that in the past would have only been accessible to the biggest ice-breakers.
Now it is clear water.”
– Sir Peter Blake, Independent, 2001
Talking about climate change with western society is like talking to an alcoholic who just refuses to admit he has a problem, though his breath stinks and there are a pile of empty bottles surrounding him. There is undeniable evidence all around us, in every corner of the Earth, that the climate is changing. From the unseasonably warm March in Wisconsin (Monday, March 19th, Milwaukee, WI was shockingly enjoying weather warmer than Honolulu, Hawai’i and its early spring has seen temperatures remain at nearly 80° F over the previous two weeks), to the relentless rains throughout the tropics that has extended the rainy season far into the dry season (ruining corn, bean, and squash crops in subsistence farming cultures such as those in Guatemala), a changing climate is a phenomenon increasingly difficult to deny. Speak to any farmer, gardener, or beekeeper, or wildlife ecologist with their feet firmly planted upon the earth, and you will hear strange tales of early blossoms, early bee activity, early mosquito activity, or depending on where you are: late rains, late dry season, late cultivation, late harvests.
In fact, I was just in the highlands of Guatemala at the end of February, and the villagers of a small remote pueblo called La Pila, southeast of Patzún, pointed to their powdery mildewed corn stalks and snow pea plants and explained to me that their crops had failed because of climate change. They can no longer plant their crops at the end of the rainy season as they used to because the rainy season has not stopped to give them an opportunity. This means that annual plants that are susceptible to molds and mildews when exposed to excessive moisture are in danger of dying from too much rain. For a culture who lives directly off the harvests of their annual crops, this means their families have no food and as a result, the men of the village have to leave their villages to find work to buy food that has been shipped in from afar. For those considered “lucky”, some men are able to find enough work to earn as much as Q25.00 ($3.20 USD) a day, but this is not nearly enough to feed a hungry family. What struck me the most was the tone of this dignified Kaq’chi’kel Mayan man, as he spoke intelligently of climate change as both an obvious phenomenon and the greatest challenge facing his people. In this moment, I was newly astounded and ashamed at the arrogance of western culture, those privileged few who refuse to acknowledge the changing climate or the impact that human industry and their own consumption has had in accelerating the changes.
“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Geologists and climatologists and even anthropologists have long understood that the Earth’s climates shift throughout the centuries. Arctic and Antarctic glaciers have provided scientists with a clear idea of our global climate history: by drilling deep into an ice sheet, scientists can analyze the air bubbles that have been long trapped between the layers of ice and begin to put together a time line that includes CO² variance, volcanic eruptions, and temperature changes as indicated by oxygen isotopes. The UN Environment Programme has provided a record reaching back over 800,000 years through the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), and has seen that extreme climate changes have indeed occurred over the course of history. There is good reason to believe that our Earth is currently experiencing, in part, a natural cycle of climate change. Changes such as the amount of energy received from the sun, changes in the Earth’s orbit and changes in the way the ocean and atmosphere interact with each other occur regularly throughout the history of the Earth. However, these natural changes are being compounded by anthropogenic changes in land use, deforestation, a growing world population, and an increase in greenhouse emissions. In 2005, for example, burning fossil fuels released approximately 27 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. EPICA’s analyses of ice coring in the Antarctic indicates that the climate is warmer now than it has been since the beginning development of civilization, agriculture, and urbanization (J. Bouzel et al., 2007), a trend that coincides precisely with the development of the industrial revolution.
Despite the controversy surrounding human-caused climate change, this idea is not new. In the years preceding his Nobel Prize in 1903, Swedish chemist and physicist, Svante August Arrhenius, introduced the connection between CO² levels in a warming atmosphere and human activities that increase CO² levels, such as coal burning (Nobel Lectures, 1966). Arrhenius’ hypothesis wouldn’t be demonstrated scientifically until David Keeling, from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawai’i, produced annual measurements of CO² concentrations that indicated a substantial rise from 315 ppm in 1958 to 392 ppm in 2011 (NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011). In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed to review scientific evidence on the causes and effects of human-caused climate change, and is comprised of scientists and government representatives from over 130 countries worldwide. In 2007, the IPCC published an extensive report representing over 6 years of research by over 2,500 scientists, stating that there is a 90% probability that recent rapid climate changes result from human activities (AR4, 2007). Some changes, such as the increased size of the hole in our protective ozone layer, are referred to as having a 99% probability of being caused by humans and carbon emissions (2007). The report indicates effects of these climate changes such as a global warming of the climate by conservative estimations of 3°-8° F (1°-6° C), resulting in rapid arctic glacial melting and flooding of global sea levels by 3-6 ft. (1-2 m), putting cities such as London, Mumbai, Boston, Miami, and New Orleans under water (2007).
In 2011, NASA’s Earth Observatory reported: “before the industrial age, the ocean vented carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in balance with the carbon the ocean received during rock weathering. However, since carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased, the ocean now takes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases. Over millennia, the ocean will absorb up to 85 percent of the extra carbon people have put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but the process is slow because it is tied to the movement of water from the ocean’s surface to its depths” (NASA 2011). (Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov)
Already we are seeing these changes faster than even the IPCC report estimated. In 2009, government officials of Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific that is located between Hawai’i and Australia, spoke with the UK about the very real threat of rising ocean levels submerging their small island, and the prospects of “climate refugees” : people displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters. The prospects of mass global migration in an already compressed world brings certainty to future conflicts along political borders. According to a documentary entitled, Climate Refugees (2010), “for the first time, the Pentagon now considers climate change a national security risk and the term climate wars is being talked about in war-room like environments in Washington D.C.: (2010). Indeed, for the first time in history, these natural disasters and projected political conflicts result from rapid ecological changes that are largely anthropogenic, changes such as “increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires, mass flooding and tornadoes” (Climate Refugees, 2010).
You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem
– Albert Einstein
It is clear to me that we cannot begin to address solutions to climate change with the same degree of denial that has contributed to its anthropogenic acceleration. Like an alcoholic struggling to come to terms with his addiction, before we can begin to undo all the harm we have done, we must first understand the depth of our involvement and admit our part in it all. With this in mind, Cape Farewell, an innovative non-profit organization has begun to “instigate a cultural response to climate change.” Since 2003, the organization has worked in partnership with scientific and cultural institutions to deliver a climate program centered around engaging the public, “using the notion of expedition – Arctic, Island, Urban and Conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that lead to climate disruption, and to inspire the creation of climate focused art which is disseminated across a range of platforms – exhibitions, festivals, publications, digital media and film” (2003). All this is to begin the dialogue that challenges our communities to look at how they interact with each other and with the Earth and its resources in a new way.
My hope lies with the young creative minds, who see the ecological and social profit in planting trees that bare fruit while they cycle carbon emissions back into the soil, in areas where massive deforestation has led to desertification and food insecurity. My hope lies with the solution-oriented minds who look to Nature’s pattern of resiliency for clues as to how science and engineering can reintegrate with cycles of renewable energy and waste cycling. My hope lies with those social entrepreneurs who see that economic abundance is only possible when the Earth’s natural ecological abundance is intact. Climate change has been accelerated in just a few generations by models of industry that are incompatible with the very Earth it stands upon. The future of how humans live upon the Earth, how we design our homes, food systems, energy systems, waste cycling, and ecological restoration depends on creative, innovative minds that are unbound by traditional forms of thought that have led us down this path of ecological, economical, and cultural destruction.
Cape Farewell. http://www.capefarewell.com/climate-science/the-science.html. 2003.
Climate Refugees. http://www.climaterefugees.com/, 2010.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assessment Report 4 (AR4), 2007. http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/
J. Bouzel et al. EPICA Dome C Ice Core 800KYr, Deuterurm Data and Temperature Estunares. UN Environment Programme, 2007.
NASA Earth Observatory. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/printall.php, 2011.
NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, 2011.
Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966.