The Climate Emergency

Terrorist attacks in Paris.  Climate talks in Paris.  Which got saturation level media coverage?  The terrorist attacks, of course.  They were about life and death. 

And yet, so were the climate talks.  A lot more lives.  A lot more deaths.  Just not good fodder for action movies and the daily news cycle.

What I know about the Paris conference I learned from colleagues who participated. 

First, the bad news.  Go to:

You’ll find a chart that shows climate change impacts (general categories) as a function of temperature change (currently three quarters of a degree C vs. pre-industrial global average temperature).  2oC is a consensus limit initially adopted by Europe and thought to contain the most extreme impacts such as mass extinctions.  4.5oC will be reached if there is no further mitigation, 3.5oC if only current policies remain in effect, 2.75oC if pre-Paris pledges are honored.  Most impacts, including population displacement due to sea level rise are already occurring.  Even if the consensus limit is not reached, coral reefs apparently cannot be saved. 

Should be a wake-up call, eh? 

The good news?  Unanimous agreement among 195 UN members to try to keep global average temperature within 2 degrees centigrade of pre-industrial levels, and try to keep it within 1.5 degrees in deference to island nations impacted by any significant sea level rise (SLR).

Good enough?  Heavens, no. 

Arguably what we have, to borrow historian Barbara Tuchman’s term and the title of one of her books, is a “March of Folly”, but this time on a global scale, i.e. “the recurring pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, self-destructive acts carried out despite the availability of a recognized and feasible alternative, the impotence of reason in the face of greed, selfish ambition and moral cowardice”.     

For powerful national governments climate change does not loom as a matter of life and death. Not yet, even though it is already a matter of life and death for many communities and people.  Climate-driven death tolls increase every year.  Community collapse is happening.  Populations are migrating.  But the direct causes - floods, wars, droughts - mask the indirect and fundamental causes, i.e. localized climatic shifts that upset fragile ecosystems and economies.  The upsets will be increasingly numerous, and, thanks to globalization, the their secondary an tertiary impacts will reach everywhere. 

The situation is already basically unstable. 

If we recognize that for some, it is already an emergency, i.e. locally if not globally, perhaps the emergencies to come can be addressed by better local preparation, and this a reason the term resilience is suddenly so popular.  If our communities are resilient, they will be ok.  Right?  Every community for itself.  May the strong survive.

Well, maybe.  If we prepare for an emergency in the right way, we can reduce the risk.  And certainly, the right way to prepare locally for climate related emergencies on the horizon would be to break consumption habits that lead to climate change.  At some point, these habits will become prohibitively expensive, if only because globalization feeds on consumption.  The dominos of collapsing local and regional economies, and related consumption, will change the globalization game in a fundamental way. 

At a minimum let’s start using the accurate terminology.  Emergency, not mere change.  Change creates winners and losers.  For climate change losers, the result is tangible, i.e. an existential emergency.  Emergencies have happy endings only if the response is good and quick enough.  The larger emergency escalates as more and more people and communities find themselves in the loser column. 

The big climate emergency is a patchwork of local emergencies.  The only apparent feasible and timely response is a patchwork of decarbonization action, local and democratically determined.  Appropriately, the “patchwork project” envisioned above (and discussed in more detailed here) is a hopeful response to the patchwork of local climate related emergencies we have every reason to expect and are already seeing in places like Syria.

Decarbonization, decentralization, and democratization are the three imperatives of timely climate action.  They are inter-dependent.  Time is no longer on our side.  At this time decarbonization is stalled for lack of decentralization.  Centralized infrastructure has enormous inertia and can’t change fast enough.  Decentralization is stalled due to undemocratic governance.  Money consistently votes against it.  Democratization is impossible where people have to migrate because they can no longer find water and food and there is no help from centralized institutions.  The wars that result solve nothing.

This is the climate emergency, and the alarms are sounding.  Our present unevenly shared wealth is a fragile shield.  Let us each do what we can where we are.

-- Gerry Braun

Integrated Resources Network