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Friday, November 3, 2006

No 1% Solution for Climate Change

A brilliant article by Julia Whitty in the latest Mother Jones sets it up for us vis-a-vis the global disasters being hatched by human-caused climate change. We need to realize these aren't happening somewhere else, they are in our neighborhood, in our back yard, and staying indoors is not an effective answer.

The twelve tipping points -- from the deforestation of the Amazon, which will turn that region from a huge CO2 consumer to a net CO2 producer, to the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the consequent 23 foot rise in sea level -- are cogently described. But what is brilliant is not these narrative clips. What is brilliant is the weaving in of the 13th tipping point, "the shift in human perception from personal denial to personal responsibility."

The author's dispassionate scientific eye lays out our near certain doom -- in this neighborhood -- should things not turn around. The same dispassionate eye deals with the scientific literature on the possibilities for salvation -- the potential for altruism, the dynamics of a society with cohorts of naysayers and of alarmists bracketing a range of other world views, the survival value of democracy, and more.

Her brief is fascinating and calming in a way for its vision -- vision both in terms of the view of the world and in terms of the process of seeing and that organ of insight which sees.

Whitty's piece gives a necessary balance to another piece out recently, the 700-page report by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, which concluded that a prudent approach to climate change which began immediately might cost only 1% of GDP and would avoid a price tag of up to 20% of GDP should we delay.

With all due respect to my fellow economist, and admitting I have not read anything other than the London Times account of the Stern Report, I object strenuously to the idea that we can manage the risk of continued environmental degradation with any certainty. We are not going to be able to send a check to the global warming account and drop it in the mail on our way to the Mall.

If one environmental system breaks, others will fall like dominoes, or like interrelated systems. It will do no good to live 30 feet above sea level, or far from a frozen Europe, or be able to afford some mitigating device. Part of the needed and eminently possible shift in perception is the fixing of a certainty that climate change is coming to our town.

Many of the studies cited and findings explored here in this look at the 13th tipping point posit small group or community frameworks. The shifts they describe will not work so long as we can hide out as one of a million, or one of a billion, or the one with a secret country home, or the one who doesn't have to take responsibility because we're doing other important work.