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Burn, Baby, Burn: A Climate Activist's Wish for Superstorms, Wildfires and Drought

Posted: 05/07/2013 2:15 pm

I want to let you in on a little secret. I am in it for love.

I am a climate change activist because, when all is said and done, nothing is more precious to me than that all living beings be treated with respect, kindness and, yes, with love. Human beings are far and away the most powerful creatures on this planet. We have "dominion" here simply because our actions disproportionately impact all life beings on Earth. They do not have much say in the matter. They are at our mercy.

I could well be wrong, but I believe that the desire that all beings be treated with respect, kindness and love (including our fellow Homo Sapiens) is a universal human trait. Of course, due to the extensive laundry list of our fears and confusions, we often become disconnected from this core understanding. But I choose to believe that a part of ourselves knows when our actions are causing unnecessary pain and suffering and that this knowledge is a wound to our souls that we carry throughout our days, numbed to it though we may be. Conversely, we experience a fundamentally irreplaceable joy to the extent that those in our dominion (again, including our fellow humans) feel well thought of, feel... loved.

Now I want to let you in on another little secret. It is not an easy secret to share. I am not even completely certain that it is true, but here it is: As a climate activist -- one among many -- who has been wracking his heart and brain to get the message of climate science across and, as a human being who harbors no doubts about the irreplaceably precious nature of loving dominion, I feel a new and terrible wish emerging.

The wish is this: " Burn, baby, burn!"

The summer Arctic Sea ice that has lost 80 percent of its volume since 1980 and is now projected to completely melt away within the next couple of decades? I want it all to melt away this summer.

The Australian meteorologists who added two new colors to their weather maps representing temperatures of 124-129 degrees Fahrenheit due to last summer's record-breaking heat? I want them to be forced to add two more colors next summer; let's take it to the 130's.

The historic wildfires that have scorched New Mexico and Colorado and are getting a very early start this year in California due to searing temperatures and severe drought? Well... burn, baby, burn!

Superstorm Sandy that fed itself on the warmest ocean waters since measurements began 150 years ago and that, it increasingly appears, took the very unusual 'October left turn' into New York and New Jersey due to unusual weather patterns related to the (see above) Arctic Sea ice melt? Let's crank up another one this autumn and really shut down the Eastern Seaboard. Maybe we can take out the subways for good this time.

I know. This is awful. It feels awful to think, it feels awful to say, it feels awful to write. Really awful. And on a "local" level, I cannot and do not wish suffering upon specific individuals. For those who lost their lives or their homes to Sandy, I feel great sorrow. To those individuals who will be chased from their homes as the wildfires continue to ratchet up in the West, I wish you safety and support. But from a wider perspective, if I am to be true to my wish that our planet become one where loving dominion is honored, where the greatest number of beings experience conditions supportive of a healthy and stable life, and, further, if I conclude that we will not act to substantially cut carbon until we experience significantly greater levels of suffering (see below), then my newfound wish, however hard to swallow it may be, is something else: It is logical.

Let's look at it this way: Somebody that you love, say your husband or father, is diagnosed with advancing heart disease. The doctors tell him that if he does not stop smoking and eating fatty foods he will get sicker and eventually experience a heart attack and possibly die. Of course, your first wish is that he stop smoking and start to eat healthier. But, sadly, even though he is experiencing onset symptoms of chest pains and shortness of breath, he is refusing to follow the doctors' advice. Assuming that you see and accept that he is not going to change his mind anytime soon, what then is your wish?

Possibility 1: You wake up each morning and think, "Oh please, let my loved one make it through another day without a heart attack." Meanwhile, he continues to smoke his pack a day and load up on high-cholesterol favorites. For each day that passes without a major heart event, the conditions are building for a more extreme event, one that his ever-weakening body is less likely to be able to recover from or to withstand at all.

Possibility 2: You are resigned to the reality that he will not change course until something drastic occurs. Until then, the pleasure he takes in his unhealthy habits will continue to outweigh the suffering that they cause. And so, though it hurts your own heart more than you can say, one day you wake up and wish, "Today let him have that heart attack. Let him live through it and not suffer irreparable damage, but let it hurt him enough and scare him enough that he changes his ways. Please, let this happen today because... I love him."

There are many climate activists out there, and I am supposing that their actions are also ultimately inspired by love. Go to http://neven1.typepad.com/, for example, for expert coverage of the Arctic Sea ice. Conversations center around the possibility that this summer the sea ice may experience as stunning a melt-off as it did last summer. Such an event would indeed bring the summer ice within striking distance of total melt-down. Most comments express the wish that this year the ice experiences some recovery. I no longer share this wish for two reasons:

Reason 1: To be clear and on the record, my first wish is for politicians, scientists, business leaders and 'regular folks' to get together and implement the programs to cut carbon emissions and transition to a low carbon world that scientists are calling for. However, we are showing no signs of following the "doctor's" advice. Our addictions are not fatty foods and cigarettes. They are oil, coal and gas. Our actions show that the pleasure and convenience we find in our unhealthy habits still clearly outweigh the perceived suffering. We are increasing carbon emissions three percent annually with no end in sight. We show no truly substantive signs of changing course anytime soon. However much we wish it to be otherwise, this is the reality.

Reason 2: Climate change damage is not reversible in our lifetimes, the lifetimes of our children or the lifetimes of our grandchildren. If we were to completely cease all carbon emissions today -- an obvious impossibility -- approximately 60 percent of the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere in the past two centuries would still remain in the year 2300.

"New normals" of ice melt, drought, and extreme weather are popping up all over. We can certainly limit additional damages but, minus astronomically expensive and highly uncertain geo-engineering interventions (much more expensive than simply transitioning to green energy now), we will have to live with already triggered "New normals" for decades and centuries to come.

For example, the Arctic Sea ice is not coming back. The new normal of little or no ice will likely endure through our grandchildren's lifetimes. New studies are finding that the ice melt is shifting weather patterns and "blocking" severe storms such as Sandy, which would otherwise have meandered harmlessly out to sea, into the East Coast of the United States: "With more solar energy going into the Arctic Ocean because of lost ice, there is reason to expect more extreme events, such as heavy snowfall, heat waves and flooding in North America." These and many other "new normals" will not improve anytime soon but, as we continue to feed heat to our climate system, they will worsen.

Your first wish may be that humanity wake up and take responsible climate action soon. Great. That is my first wish as well. But, sadly, sometimes first wishes do not come true. So what is your wish assuming that only wider and deeper suffering will wake us to change our unhealthy behaviors? What is your wish, knowing that any further damage we incur is cumulative and not reversible for many decades? Though it hurts my heart more than I can say, I can no longer escape this conclusion: If, as it seems, we are set on pushing the climate out of balance to the point where it becomes unbearable, then the quicker the better. "Burn, baby, burn", so that maybe, possibly, hopefully... the healing can begin.

 
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