Here in England, everything seems sort of normal. Admittedly, the summers are getting hotter and the weather suffers bouts of tantrum ransacking houses with vicious winds, flooding homes and leaving small towns in a twisted state of sprawling debris. Spring in the UK happens weeks earlier than it used to. Some bumblebees don’t bother to hibernate now, droning complacently as they continue year round business, feeding on exotic winter flowers and producing an extra generation.
We’re not so sure our complacency can match the bees, and when we look into it more, out of the twenty five resident bumblebee in Britain, nine are in severe decline, three are already extinct and things don’t look too good for the birds either as avian flu slips into France. To say that we live in a world of change is to state the fact of life. Passing years, seasonal fluctuation, traces of a wrinkle, birth of a child, demise of the Wayapi people and the extinction of the dodo, shape our lives. Yet the rate that change is happening in our everyday world has no precedence and comforting as it may be to keep our heads placed in ever warming sand, to be co-opted by our culture of denial is a dark closet of avoidance. Nearly 70 per cent of biologists think that we are in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction. And the cause this time is human beings. Greenhouse gases are being released into the atmosphere thirty times quicker than the time when the Earth experienced a previous episode of global warming 55 million years ago when palm trees grew in Wyoming and crocodiles roamed the Arctic. The summer of 2005 broke all records for melting in Greenland, the ice cap is breaking up twice as fast as it was five years ago and seems to be losing at least 200 cubic meters of ice a year. Inuit hunters stare at land with a dandruff flaking of snow, 4 inches this year compared with a deep 3ft in 2000. Polar bears, great swimmers, are drowning as they struggle to reach shrinking ice flows.
Nasa scientist Jim Hansen admits that today’s forecasts of sea-level rise use climate models that are being proved almost worthless in the face of dynamic rupturing of the Greenland ice cap. Once an ice sheet starts to disintegrate it reaches a tipping point beyond which break-up is explosively rapid. Hansen says it begs the question “how fast can this go?”
All the world is a stage and the stage seems set for a tragedy of epic proportions. The Greek chorus shadowed at the back quietly utter: “Bird Flu. CO2. What the hell are we to do?” Enter stage right. Man. All 6.5 billion of us.
Since the baby boom era of the late 50’s and early 60’s, the population of the world has doubled. In exactly a century before Dan and I were born, black gold spurted from the earth in Pennsylvania, heralding an explosion of productivity and pregnancy. The discovery of this combustive fuel has powered a technology-fired revolution that has given man dominion over nature with huge machines that consume vast reservoirs of oil and devastate habitats. Today, we live in a global community where our common fate is shared by the switch of a light and the rev of an engine.
Are we inducing a state of inertia, drawing the inevitable closer towards us as we look over the edge and wonder what it may be like to jump? Is there a collective suicide notion or are we caught basking in the shallows, whilst small fish fry beside us and coral pales into terminal insignificance?
John Schellnhuber, founder and director of The Potsdam Research Institute in Germany said: “ If climate change had been perceived as a military threat, industry would have been mobilized. Instead we have overemphasized the uncertainties and used them as an excuse to do nothing. We’ve missed a great opportunity to change how we live in the world. Being rich and powerful now does not mean we will come out alive. In fact, it will probably work against us. The planet is finite; we are finite.”
Schellnhuber has a map of global ‘tipping points’, 13 "hotspots" that have been identified so far, areas that act like massive regulators of the Earth's environment. If these critical regions are subjected to stress, they could trigger large-scale, rapid domino-effect changes across the entire planet. The limits of tolerance are still being predicted; we asked him which one he felt was most critical. “Actually it is one that is not even on the map at the moment. The acidification of the oceans.”
Oceans absorb more than half of all the C02 produced by our civilized activities. Come the dawn of the industrial revolution the chemical balance of the oceans had remained stable for millions of years, in the space of 100 years since crude oil supplanted the spermaceti oil of countless slaughtered whales as a generator of light, warmth and energy, the pH level of the upper ocean has dropped, becoming more acid, giving clear irrefutable evidence that climate change is a man-made phenomenon. If we continue unabated in our consumption of fossil fuels, the acidity of the oceans will incrementally increase and the tiny calcium carbonate shells, plankton and every bewitching coral will fizzle to death. Why has it taken so long for this crucial evidence to come to our attention? Man, a land-based creature, has tended to look to the skies not to the embryonic ocean we once evolved from for evidence of change.
Watchful eyes scrutinize the crashing collapse of the Greenland ice shelf with barely concealed anguish. The scientists admitted that when The Ward Hunt ice shelf – the largest in the Arctic, which had been in place for tens of thousands of years – suddenly ruptured and began to collapse, they began weeping with the same shock and grief felt by those who watched the Twin Towers fall to dust.
How do we begin to map an emotional response to standing on the edge of a world about to throw itself off the face of the earth?
Perhaps climate change in its complexity and life-changing implications echoes the process of grief induced through the experience of bereavement.
Numbness. Substitute denial for numbness, economic growth for lack of political incentive with a liberal dosing of deliberate muddying of scientific waters by vested lobbyists of oil and coal interests and we have a recipe for a deeply ingrained denial problem. Scientists admit their conservative streak; they are by training and nature methodically careful with little taste for public controversy. Schellnhuber says: “We scientists failed to tell the world what was happening and the world has failed to listen when we have tried.” Maybe we in turn are complacent and essentially conservative, fearful of criticism from peers, worried about disturbing the status quo and our carefully constructed livelihoods.
Anger. When you begin to excavate the disinformation about climate change cunningly wrapped up think tanks, media outlets, even civil rights groups and Exxon Mobil’s part in it, blood starts to boil. How does the Kyoto Protocol, the only official international attempt to deal with climate change, have true worth when the biggest CO2 polluter in the world, 25 percent of total world emissions, the USA, will not sign up?
Guilt. The life of an international jet-setting artist is starting to pall, though our livelihood and family connections depend on it, and we know that even flying 8 miles from Heathrow airport already pumps 2 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, about as much as we have saved by switching to a green electricity supplier.
Depression. Despondency seeps into the soul and rests there till it finds an emotional tipping point.
Begin to see life in a more positive light again, although it is important to acknowledge that you may not completely overcome the feeling of loss.
Enter stage left. Renewable energy, micro-generation, micro wind turbines, solar photo-voltaic, geo-thermal, tidal power, combined heat and power generation, hydrogen fuel cells. Our home as a living organism that provides intelligent energy. A growing counter culture that maven-like spreads information (email as a weapon of mass communication,) and ideas and aims to severe the fossil fuel ties that bind us. Create a community and celebrate in true style with a ZEP—a zero emission party. Bill Dunster, architect, is about to have such a bash in his intelligently designed London property, Hope House.
Artists, architects, scientists, journalists, media producers, theatre directors, arts managers, authors, educationalists are investing shared resources, ideas, space, imagination, information and energy in a dedicated attempt to tip a consciousness addicted to fossil fuel.
How long have we got? Jim Hansen prefers the evidence from history and his own eyes and thinks we have to stabilise emissions of CO2 within a decade or temperatures will warm by more than one degree.
“That will be warmer than it has been for half a million years, and many things could become unstoppable. We have to act with what we have. This decade, that means focusing on energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that do not burn carbon. We do not have much time left.“