FIDDLING WHILE THE PLANET BURNS: The Facts

By Bill Britton

Bill Britton is a freelance writer and formerly an editor for Johns Hopkins University Press, ABI Research, and Elsevier Science.  He is a frequent contributor to Vero Communiqué.
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In baseball, to be a good hitter, you must keep your eye on the ball. This can be a metaphor for human affairs in general. In the case of global heating, it is vital that governments’ primary focus should be on the fact, not the theory, that the planet is facing runaway heating. Some climate experts believe that we have already reached that point and that we are on the brink of catastrophic consequences. 

The most serious of these are massive species die-offs and habitat loss for all plants and animals, including humans. The recent weather extremes are symptoms of what will become the rule rather than merely instances of localized events. Examples of what we can expect include vast areas of drought in some areas and massive flooding in others; sea-level rise on the order of dozens of feet; starvation for millions of people; population concentration as people migrate to the remaining habitable areas; disease explosions as livestock and people crowd together; potable water scarcity, among others.

Roughly 634 million people live in coastal areas fewer than 30 feet above sea level. In total, there could be 1.2 billion people displaced as a result of global heating by 2050. Sea rise and desertification will be the main factors driving this migration. Even the most stable societies will be disrupted by the universal pressure of humans seeking the most basic of human needs: shelter, food, and water.

The primary cause of global heating is the burning of fossil fuels: natural gas, oil, and coal. A secondary cause is the release of methane and CO2 from methane hydrate and permafrost as ocean temperatures rise and northern regions warm, respectively. This is happening now and has been confirmed by many studies.

THE ONGOING FAILURE TO ACT

Corporations, special interests, and politicians stake out positions on matters lying beyond the centrality of the common good. K-Street lobbyists, Madison Avenue types, and right-wing politicians, whose raison d’etre is to serve capitalism, exert inordinate power in the marketplace of ideas and production. 

In opposition are a relatively weak amalgam of regulatory agencies, NGOs, public interest groups, and ordinary citizens. In between is government itself, one that loathes change but is most responsive to the brute power of capitalism. I include regulatory agencies because many of its members are drawn from the industries they are mandated to regulate; in essence, they are captives of those industries.

In the United States, the news is dominated by issues that obscure the reality of existential threats to its citizens and to the planet. Among those issues are gun rights, book banning, border walls and immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, election integrity, and health care, to name a few. I will not take sides, at least not here. I list them because their domination of the news cycle distracts the ordinary citizen from recognizing the calamity that will be visited upon coming generations.

This is no exaggeration. A cliché, yes, but the handwriting is on the wall. To stop global heating will require policy reversals by governments and huge sacrifices by individuals. Monster SUVs must be phased out; homes and businesses must be retrofitted with energy-efficient insulation and reflective exteriors; a crash program to develop renewable energy sources must be established; fossil-fuel-powered electrical generation must be phased out; single-use products must be minimized; efficient recycling regimens must be established; no-till agricultural methods and the planting of cover crops must be expanded to reduce the need for fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and chemicals; our addiction to animal protein must be minimized; tree-planting must be expanded to help sequester atmospheric carbon.

Climate researchers have warned in an analysis that the risk of global societal collapse or human extinction has been dangerously underexplored. “There are plenty of reasons to believe climate change could become catastrophic, even at modest levels of warming,” said Luke Kemp at the University of Cambridge who led the analysis. The researchers warn that climate breakdown could exacerbate or trigger other catastrophic risks, such as international wars or infectious disease pandemics, and worsen existing vulnerabilities such as poverty, crop failures, and water scarcity.

THE ENDGAME

There is a narrowing window of opportunity to reverse course. Whether humankind has the collective will to change is questionable, even doubtful. The next decade will be crucial for determining our survival.

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