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No Option: An Adult Response to Climate Change

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"You should get a liver transplant within the year and you need to find a live donor for the transplant."

Some years before I'd been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease of the liver and recently symptoms -- jaundice, fatigue, weight loss -- had begun to manifest. Having studied my test results, Dr. Abraham Shaked, a renowned surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania, had just delivered the verdict: Get a transplant, get it soon and find someone to donate over half of his/her healthy liver to me for a 'live donor' transplant.

Ten months later I got that transplant. My youngest brother Jonathan was the donor (thanks, Jon!). I am alive today because I listened and I acted. If I had not, I would no longer be alive; pathology tests of my removed liver revealed extensive but still contained cancer.

In a sense, I grew up during those moments in Dr. Shaked's office; I became an adult. I could have disregarded his advice. In fact, as a younger man, suffering from a different but related disease, I had disregarded the findings of medical science that I needed major surgery. I experienced long and unnecessary suffering as a result and placed myself in grave danger.

It seems that I had learned. This time around I came to an understanding that saved my life: Sometimes there is no option other than the hard option, the scary option, the overwhelming option. I chose that option and, yes, sometimes it was hard and scary and overwhelming. But I also learned things about myself along the way that now I would not trade for anything. I am a better person for my experiences -- a stronger and wiser person. And I am healthy. And I am alive.

Of course, in the literal sense, I did have an option. I could have walked away from that office and the doctor's recommendation. To choose that option, according to the best science our planet has to offer, meant that I would surely get sicker and eventually die. But I 'got it,' I made the adult choice; if I wanted a chance to regain my health, walking away was not an option.

The climate change situation is exactly similar. The best science our planet has to offer (every national science academy in the world) tells us that there is no option other than that of immediately and substantially reducing carbon emissions: 35 percent by 2020, over 80 percent by 2050. Of course, in the literal sense we do have an option. We could walk away from their recommendations. What will happen if we go down that path?

Worldwide carbon emissions have accelerated beyond the projections used in many earlier climate studies. Updated studies now project a plausible scenario of a rise of 4 degrees centigrade as soon as the 2060s. According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, for example:

"Thus, given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees Celsius world is possible. A 4 degrees Celsius world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today. The projected 4 degrees Celsius warming simply must not be allowed to occur -- the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen."

This is the situation we face. To avoid visiting great suffering upon near future generations, there is no option other than that offered by science. This makes sense; it is the role of science to objectively evaluate data and arrive at viable options. But we don't get it yet. So far, we are not responding as adults, we are not growing up. It's scary. It's overwhelming -- perhaps inconceivable. And so we act as if there are other options where none exist. This has led to a kind of normalized collective insanity and has produced some curious behaviors:

Avoidance of Reality: The picture of the 4 degrees Celsius scenario depicted above puts us, by any rational standards, in an emergency situation. If the United States and Europe and China and India began to immediately implement policy to cut carbon emissions today, the task would still be an enormously challenging one. But the opposite is happening. Carbon emissions are rising 3 percent annually. Preliminary State Department reports on the Keystone XL Pipeline downplay its negative environmental impacts, clearing the way for its approval. We are on the verge of aiding and abetting the tapping of a completely new and particularly carbon intensive source of emissions. It is no different than supplying a lung cancer patient with a new high tar brand of cigarette or an alcoholic with a fresh batch of 180-proof moonshine. We are avoiding reality.

Economic factors are most often cited as reasons to avoid implementation of carbon reduction policy. Yet studies repeatedly show that mitigating climate change -- especially by placing a tax/fee on carbon emissions -- is significantly less costly than trying to adapt to climate change; as much as $8 trillion less worldwide by 2100. In the U.S., multiple projections put the cost of implementing a gradually escalating carbon tax -- essentially, the only free-market mechanism with the potential to effectively mitigate climate change -- that would reduce emissions an average of 75 percent below 2005 levels at less than 1 percent of GDP. Additionally these studies do not take into account the savings of avoiding damage due to climate change (Sandy, 2011-2012 drought, etc... with much more to come). Economic arguments against climate action and carbon pricing, in the context of any medium range time frame, are precisely upside-down. We are avoiding reality.

Inversion of Rationality: "It is impossible to have a debate with the orthodox priesthood of alarmist global warmers." Comments such as these can be found on almost every climate change comment thread. Somehow, adherence to basic, accepted science is being equated with blind, inflexible orthodoxy. This, of course, is precisely and exactly upside down. =Rationality and reality have been inverted. Adherence to basic science is, by definition, the direct opposite of unwavering belief in the absence of evidence.

Ignorance and/or Lying: Texas Governor Rick Perry, while seeking his party's nomination for President of the United States said, "There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their pockets." Governor Perry's statement is incorrect. No such findings actually exist. He made it up. I do not know whether he was lying or merely ignorant. I cite this example, not because ignorance and/or lying in the climate arena is not common (it is), but because of the circumstances: A powerful governor running for president felt free to blithely broadcast misinformation about a topic that is projected to cause great suffering and hardship. It is also telling that neither President Obama nor any other major political figure criticized Governor Perry for defamation and libel of climate scientists, which he certainly committed

No Option as Catalyst

Once the reality of 'no option' is accepted, the nature of how we relate with obstacles suddenly shifts:

  • "I could never ask my brother if he will volunteer to have over half of his liver cut out for me" becomes, "How do I ask him to do this for me?" (as it turns out, you just ask!)
  • "We can't cut fossil fuel emissions, it will hurt the economy" becomes, "How can we apply our creativity and know-how to get this done most effectively?"
  • "We can't institute a carbon tax, there isn't enough political support" becomes, "How can we create a carbon tax that effectively draws down emissions and is beneficial to the greatest number of citizens?" (Hint: 'Fee and Dividend' -- go to citizensclimatelobby.org)
  • "We can't cut emissions if China doesn't also" becomes, "Let's use every tool at our disposal, lead the way and negotiate a lasting and comprehensive solution."
  • "Wind and solar only supply intermittent power and can not replace fossil fuels" becomes, "We are innovators and problem solvers, so, like the scientists on watch during Apollo 13, let's get it done."

We are not there yet. We avoid reality. We invert rationality. We lie and ignore. Embracing the reality of 'no option', however challenging the viable option may be, allows us to finally open to new possibilities, to see obstacles as challenges to be overcome not as justifications to delay and dissemble. We are fortunate. The scientists tell us that we still have opportunity to change course before the direst consequences are locked in. Detailed and economically feasible policies are waiting to be enacted. Energy is energy, whether from dead plants and animals or directly from the wind and sun. The economics may be challenging at first but, in the medium and long run, are greatly to our advantage. But the window is fast closing. The carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere now remains for centuries. The effects are cumulative. The slopes of damages and suffering steepen exponentially.

Physics, of course, does not care how we choose. Physics did not care what choice I made that day in the doctor's office. If I had chosen not to have my overheated, inflamed liver removed, physics would have impersonally taken me down. Physics also does not care about you or me or our grandchildren. If we continue to pump carbon into our overheating atmosphere, we will lose the climate conditions that have birthed and nurtured humanity for hundreds of thousands of years. Our grandchildren and grandchildren-to-be are waiting and watching. No option.

(My next article will discuss means and methods by which an adult response to climate change can be catalyzed).

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