"We've gotten the 'easy' part of the warming over with--the part where we have been poking sleeping giants, just not yet hard enough or long enough to awaken them."
California is parched, Antarctic glaciers are now in 'irreversible decline', tennis players are having Snoopy hallucinations and fainting in the new normal of the "it's always been hot, but not this freakin' hot" Australian Open. Climate scientists of every size, shape and political affiliation have long been on record that the only possible outcomes of our business-as-usual approach to climate change are "bad," "worse," and "children, please leave the room while the adults have a talk."
Naturally, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, of such an unmistakable "is the Pope Catholic?" threat to everything we hold dear, the House of Representatives of the most powerful democracy in the history of this blessed planet has acted decisively: They just selected a climate denier to chair the House Committee on Science.
Okay, fine. We have a "dumb, stubborn and blind as a box of rocks" problem in this country. We're not the only ones of course -- Canada and Australia also elect folks who seem to enjoy playing the Ostrich Game of seeing who can cram their heads most deeply into the sand. Let's not forget China, which has rocketed past the U.S. as the world's top carbon emitter and which, in 2013 alone, added new coal capacity equal to 10 percent of the entire coal production of the United States.
Who can we turn to in this desperate hour? Climate scientists and assorted (clearly rabidly socialist) citizens are shouting from the rooftops, only to be met with denigration or, at best, polite and sympathetic nods. But wait a minute!!! Out there, on the horizon, horsemen (and horsewomen) are approaching -- stalwart and brave as the original Texas Rangers or the Riders of Rohan. Could it be?? Yes, by gosh... it's the Coca-Cola Cavalry!
Yep. That's right. Coca-Cola. You want free market capitalism? You want an icon for corporate consumerism? Don't give me "The Swoosh." You can keep your "Golden Arches." Nope, it's the white-on-red script of "The Real Thing" that is most deeply imprinted on my free market brain stem.
A decade ago, Coke noticed that climate change was impacting its bottom line, disrupting its supply lines for sugar cane and sugar beets. Says Jeffrey Seabright, Coca-Cola Vice President for Environment and Water Resources: "Increased droughts, more unpredictable variability, 100-year floods... when we look at our most essential ingredients, we see those events as threats."
Lest you suspect Mr. Seabright to be some wing-nut that somehow snuck into the king of caramelized fructose-water's executive echelon, here is Coke's official stance on matters climate related:
"We believe that climate change, caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, is the greatest threat to our planet. There is an urgent need... to achieve not only the significant emission reduction targets we have set but also a low-carbon future... we're making a bold commitment: by 2020, the carbon footprint of the drink in your hand will be one third less than it was in 2007."
Level of "boldness" aside... wow -- 100 percent down-the-line, on-the-record agreement with the climate scientists. Hmmm. Perhaps bottom-line considerations are beginning to separate some of our corporate demigods from the true wing-nuts still in thrall to blindfolding ideologies and/or acting at the behest (and for the funding) of the fossil fuel-soaked corporate interests that depend directly on business-as-usual for their bottom lines. (Perhaps I should be kinder than to use the term "wing-nuts", but time is short and they stand in obstruction to needed changes. Some are truly self-serving or, perhaps, malicious, but I believe most are akin to one who believed in 1980 that smoking did not damage health -- simply mistaken and often not wanting to be corrected.)
So, okay, perhaps meaningful climate change legislation will ultimately be effectively championed by Fortune 500 behemoths and it will simply be a waiting game for their bottom lines to be sufficiently impacted by the developing weather extremes -- you know, let the free market work its "self-interest magic." But there's a problem with this scenario and it's a problem that a vanishingly small percentage of human beings seem to grasp: by then, it may be too late.
We humans tend to believe that, once we truly turn our minds to something, we can solve the problem, we can "lick it": plague, pneumonia, polio, slavery, the Nazis, acid rain -- whatever. We may wait a long time and experience an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering, but, when all is said and done, the cavalry will charge in and "good" will prevail.
But climate change is different. It is not an issue of morality or might -- it is an issue of physics. The greenhouse gas blanket, thickening from fossil fuel burning, is pushing our climate out of the zone that has birthed and sustained humanity. We must curtail fossil fuels quickly and drastically. We know this for certain. What most don't know is this -- once the extra carbon is in the atmosphere it stays there< for many decades. There is no known way to quickly reduce it. The cavalry may well charge in, but if we wait much longer (which we show every intention of doing) there will be nothing they can do to help upon arrival.
I mentioned the melting of an Antarctic glacier in the beginning. Scientists have determined that due to human-caused climate change the Pine Island Glacier "has started a phase of self-sustained retreat and will irreversibly continue its decline." "Irreversibly" -- we can't stop it now if we tried. This is For Whom the Bell Tolls kind of stuff. Pine Island Glacier is part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and is projected to add one centimeter of sea-level rise in the next couple decades. That doesn't sound like much but the glacier is the "canary in the coal mine" of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that, if it melts, adds ten feet of sea level. See ya, coastal cities.
We've gotten the "easy" part of the warming over with -- the part where we have been poking sleeping giants, just not yet hard enough or long enough to awaken them. There are all sorts of tipping points. They are impossible to precisely predict, but they are coming. For example, scientists suspect that the warming and melting Arctic is changing the jet stream and leading to more prolonged and intense weather events such as the California drought and the wildfires in Arizona and Colorado -- not to mention Super-storm Sandy.
Imagine if this turns out to be the case. If so, it's only going to get worse and then, much worse. What will California do?
We are at the beginning of something that we can barely envision. One tipping point then creates the conditions to set off another one and so on. And, excepting enormously risky geoengineering interventions, we won't be able to make it better. It will keep getting worse for decades at least (by which time, of course, more tipping points may be triggered.)
Most of us don't have a clear sense of this -- we simply may not be evolutionarily wired for it -- but the scientists do, and this is what they have been telling us. So far, we (and here I mean the "collective we" because that is the only "we" that matters when it comes to carbon emissions) choose not to listen. Fine. We get to choose.
Somewhere, perhaps unconsciously, we are saving our "ace in the hole" -- the cavalry will arrive, we'll come through in the clutch. The best policy when it comes to sleeping giants is to let them sleep. Once they awaken, whether the cavalry be Coke, Nike or you and I and everyone we know... it may be too late. It breaks my heart.