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Jim Garrison

Jim Garrison

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From Climate Change to Climate Shock: The Result of a Perfect Eco-Political Storm

Posted: 08/31/10 05:20 PM ET

Something momentous is happening in the combination of events in the world today that demands serious reflection by us all. This is the admixture of Copenhagen, the U.S. Senate Climate Bill, the BP oil spill disaster, and the climate itself. We just had a perfect storm and the world is now fundamentally changed.

The perfect storm began with the virtually complete inability of the environmental movement to have any impact on the climate debate or climate decisions. An unprecedented coalition commanding hundreds of millions of dollars, at the helm of which was Al Gore and a range of VIPs and celebrities as well as the major environmental, labor and social justice organizations, failed in their effort to secure a treaty in Copenhagen last December. They were in an alliance with a massive international effort. This same coalition then worked furiously to ensure passage of the Senate Climate Bill, only to see it dropped by the Senate this July without even a peep from the president. The airways have been full of "Climategate" and the histrionics of the climate deniers.

Such has been its collective failure that the climate movement itself has been set back, particularly with revelations that many of the biggest environmental groups have been in bed and in league with the major corporations throughout the drama. Probably the biggest factor, however, is that it was unprepared for the cynicism of the vested interests, the tenacity of Republican obstructionism, and the insidiousness of the climate deniers. It could not put together a winning coalition in the media, Washington, or internationally to either counter their claims or set forth a winnable agenda.

President Obama played the leading role in creating the perfect storm. The last twelve months have been corrosive for his presidency. One of the casualties of his diminution has been his Administration's ever weakening support for the climate agenda, even though he has pumped billions in Federal funds into clean technology. This temerity on his part played a substantive and contextual role in the failures of Copenhagen and the Climate Bill as well as contributing to the ascendancy of the climate deniers. His failure has also given cover to leaders all over the world to renege, delay and obstruct meaningful change.

The stark fact before all of us who take global warming seriously is that none of us have made any meaningful difference in the overall equation. None of us have succeeded in creating a way through to real effect. In fact, the climate situation now stands as worse than ever before both in terms of government willingness to engage meaningfully and in the equally obvious fact that the climate crisis is dramatically escalating with one blow after another. The world is headed deeper into catastrophe and our governments are asleep at the wheel, while the populace, though concerned and actually knowing there is a problem, prefers to stay satiated with private concerns. SUV sales are slightly up.

The perfect storm was completed with what the earth herself was doing as the world dithered its way through Copenhagen and the U.S. failed to pass a climate bill. Epic storms, two in a row, pummeled Washington. A volcano in Iceland erupted with a plume that shut down northern European airports for a week and in England much longer; unprecedented flooding inundated Louisville; a huge block of ice broke off of Antarctica the size of Rhode Island; another huge block of Greenland ice broke off nine times the size of Manhattan; scorching heat plagued Russia, bringing life virtually to a stand still and devastating crops; torrential rains and river flooding ravaged Pakistan until fully 20% of the entire nation was underwater; mudslides devastated China with towns up to the third and fourth stories inundated with mud; and scientists reported a 40% decline in phytoplankton, the basis of the oceanic food chain. And these are only the events that hit the mainstream media.

Then at the end of it all came the coup de grace, the BP oil disaster, the largest spill in U.S. history, showing in vivid detail the hubris of the oil companies, the ruinous effects of our addiction to oil, and the devastating effects of technology gone awry. It also created the absolutely perfect antidote to the perfect storm, a golden opportunity for the president or senior "wise ones" or the environmentalists to connect the dots for the public and for the United States, or any other nation for that matter, for the whole world was watching, to rise up and make a commitment to get off oil and establish a war mobilization to develop clean and green technologies. But no, instead the White House and BP essentially worked together to obstruct access, manipulate information, minimize long term effects, and, in short, to make the issue go away as quickly as possible. And this did not happen accidentally, it was White House strategy, with the rest of the world staying conspiratorially silent.

Such a response is important to contrast with a similar situation in 1971, when a comparatively small oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara created such a scandal that both President Nixon and the Congress worked to get the Clean Air Act passed and the EPA created. For President Obama and the Congress to forfeit the opportunity inherent in the largest spill in history is a dark mark against his presidency as well as the Congress, and also, again, the environmental movement, which turned out as ineffectual with the PB disaster as it was with Copenhagen and the Senate.

Following the demise of Copenhagen and the Climate Bill, BP was the third strike. We have all just struck out. Whether this is just the end of an inning or the beginning of the end is too early to tell, but a colossal failure just took place the consequences of which will be with us for some time.

When you combine collective political failure at the scale we just witnessed with the extraordinary climate activity in disparate parts of the world we just endured, you have the prefect storm. Just as we collectively kicked climate action down the road, climate change gave way to climate shock. What happened in Russian and Pakistan was not climate change, it was climate shock, just like the tsunami for Sri Lanka, Katrina for the U.S., and the Icelandic volcano for Europe. Thomas Homer Dixon talks about the coming "climate mega catastrophes." Paul Ray speaks of a "cascade of crises" as now inevitable. They are absolutely right. Our political process has broken down just when the climate situation has started to become really ugly.

In all likelihood, we will look back on the events over the past year and realize that our failure with Copenhagen, the US Climate Bill, and with BP was the point of no return. Now nothing short of climate catastrophes in accelerating frequency and intensity will suffice to compel the public to wake up and produce government action. That is the magnitude of what just happened. We are actually in a seminal transition. Because we would not prevent, we must now learn to cope. This has staggering implications. We are not dealing with abstractions anymore, we are dealing with real life, just made dramatically more precarious because of our collective refusal to act.

This is not to convey a sense of hopelessness or that the battle has been lost. In saying that we have passed the point of no return, I am very specifically saying, with Paul Ray and others, that a cascade of climate crises and mega catastrophes are now inevitable. We have to be ruthlessly realistic about this to inform our actions. Nothing is as insidious as ungrounded hope. If the world had seized the moment inherent in Copenhagen, the U.S. Climate Bill, and BP, and we were all mobilizing around an 80% reduction of CO2 by 2020, which Lester Brown calls for, and toward the 350 ppm goal articulated by Bill McKibben -- which is what serious climate action would entail -- that would be one thing, But we did not. We are still in collective denial and Big Oil still rules. And climate change is shifting to climate shock. These are the cold hard facts.

Only within the context of clear-eyed realism will our actions make the difference they need to make. The perfect storm has seriously circumscribed our room for maneuver and signaled that time is quickly running out. This calls for much more focused thinking and potent action than ever before. Can we turn things around? Totally. The situation is certainly redeemable if we can somehow find Ariadne's thread to the transformation of consciousness. But how do we do this? No one knows, thus our deepening predicament. And thus, sadly, our need to begin thinking of how to live life within the context of seriously turbulent climate changes.

The question now is how do we move forward, given the new situation. How do we somehow gain momentum again? What lessons can be learned from a perfect storm?

The most important lesson must be to come to terms with the fact that the axiom of Einstein's about consciousness pertains as much to the environmentalists as to the corporations and governments. We all failed because we were all trapped in old thinking. Perhaps this means that we should simply throw away all our old strategems and tactics. We ourselves need a new consciousness in order to create new means. How can we obtain this? Where do we go for inspiration? Like the butterfly, we are in critical need of imaginal cells. How we create truly effective imaginal cells and how quickly we deploy them to scale will have much to do with our future fate.

Fundamentally, our imaginal cells must be designed to enable new tactics for political action, focusing on changing consciousness, for that is what it boils down to: we somehow have to change public attitudes sufficient to create a critical mass on climate action. Because this is missing, nothing else is possible. Given the time constraints, we need to learn the science and art related to massive social change. How can this be understood? What are the laws that govern it? Can it be interacted and co-designed with?

We should apply this challenge to all sectors. For example, what would massive social change in the entrepreneurial community mean? If we could unleash the combined talents of the global entrepreneurial community on the extraordinary amount of money that will be made by a radical transition to clean and green technologies and sustainable lifestyles, that alone could potentially catalyze the entire transformation. Perhaps the public and the governments are irredeemable at this moment. Perhaps the quickest pathway to change is appealing to direct economic interest and focus on the private sector.

Whatever we do, we must be prepared to take full advantage of the next shock. We need to become much better educators of the public around disasters, for this is where the most acute pressure will come. How do we fully exploit the next tragic "opportunity"? How can we ensure that we both connect the dots for people and compel action?

These and many other ideas and questions should be seriously explored. Indeed, before jumping off our next cliff, perhaps the most prudent act of courage is simply to stop and reflect upon these matters - the gravity of our situation and what options there might be for deeply skillful and imaginal movement going forward. Most essentially, we must engage in imaginal cell creation in relation to what we seek to build for our own future. This means imaginal cells designed for both a total effort to wake people up and for living in a world increasingly characterized by climate shock.