02/01/2012 02:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

Global Warming: The Un-tellable Story

The following is a transcript of a talk by British biologist Dr. John Stanley based on an interview with Rebecca Novick. It was presented at the Global Buddhist Congregation in New Delhi, Nov. 29, 2011. Dr. Stanley is co-author of A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency and runs the blog, Ecological Buddhism.


We know that 80 percent of global warming is caused by fossil fuels and 20 percent of it is caused by deforestation. This simple piece of information seems to have become very obscured. Why is there so much obscurity around this issue? And how much of that obscurity is due to the attitude or the fault of the individual, and how much of it is actually socially engineered? How much of it reflects the large amounts of money spent on public relations and advertising by the big fossil fuel corporations with the intention of casting doubt on the climate science?

I think that the key factor in this whole issue is the social psychology. The consensus among climate scientists is very strong. The effort is massive and we have 99.95 percent consensus, and yet there's this doubt, which is both sad and interesting.


For the last 10,000 years we've been living in a geological era called the Holocene. And it came at the end of a long period of ice ages. Human civilization and agriculture has developed within this benign mild climatic period, which has been very good to us. These geological climatic periods are governed by the carbon cycle of the planet and the primary factor that governs them is the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. In most of the Holocene this concentration has been between 280 parts per million and 350 parts per million as the upper limit.

Since the industrial revolution, humans have been releasing into the atmosphere fossil carbon dioxide, which was fixed way back in the Carboniferous period, a couple of hundred million years ago, and this has been extracted as oil and coal and we burn it. So right now in 2011 atmospheric carbon dioxide is 393 parts per million; 43 parts per million over the upper limit of the last 10,000 years. This means that we've entered a new geological era, which the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen has coined the Anthropocene from 'anthropos' the Greek for 'man'. It means that humans are now the primary geological agent on the planet. We are now fundamentally altering the carbon cycle of the planet. This has been amplified by our increasing population and consumerism. People's carbon footprint is essentially being dictated by advertising and the manufacture of desire. That's a real sucker punch we're delivering to the climate system, and it's inconceivable that we're going to get away with it.


The global average temperature increase for this 393 parts per million is 0.86 degrees centigrade, but you can see much greater temperature increases in certain areas such as the Arctic or at the top of the Tibetan plateau. All of the great rivers of Asia rise on the Tibetan plateau. In China the Yellow River, the so-called 'mother river' of China rises in Kham in Eastern Tibet, but the huge wetlands at the headlands that acts to regulate the flow is drying out. The Mekong, the Yangtze, in Burma the Salween, in India the Ganges, the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra, in Pakistan the Indus--all these great rivers are at risk because the glaciers that feed them are receding. There's been a lot of hoo ha about a particular small error in earlier estimates but the key point is that was merely an error in the rate of recession of a glacier, but the mass loss of glaciers have never been questioned. If you look at Rongbuk, one of the largest Everest glaciers, the mass loss is huge. The Third Pole is the Tibetan plateau because it contains the biggest ice fields outside of the north and south poles. The great mountain rivers that rise there are the water tower of Asia, and some of these rivers are under immediate threat, the Indus and the Brahmaputra in particular.


This is happening much faster than people thought it would. It looks like coral reefs are going to be the first entire ecosystem on this planet to go extinct en masse. And soon. By maybe 2040. When it was said that one third to fifty per cent of all species will be extinct by the end of the century, it now looks more like 2070. This huge loss of species is agreed by most evolutionary biologists to constitute the sixth mass extinction. This is actually going on all around us. It's largely unseen and largely unacknowledged. There is some kind of taboo about naming it for the public, as there is about many aspects of this whole ecological crisis, as someone said, "the un-tellable story of global warming."


Why is our collective response so feeble? It's like a slow-motion suicide movie. It's slowed right down, but it has the intensity of a thermonuclear war. Except that it's slowed right down and stretched out so that it's almost imperceptible. Although it's getting more perceptible because of the extreme weather events. People who have gardens are noticing that the seasons are out of whack and that birds are migrating at different times and that things seem 'out of order.' These are things that are available to our senses, but there definitely is a social climate of denial. Denial is a strategy that people use when things become too difficult to handle. And the immensity of this is extremely difficult to handle, without doubt. One type of denial is something called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when someone has two beliefs that conflict with each other on a fundamental emotional level. When this happens what people tend to do is to drop one of the beliefs. It's much easier to drop the awareness of global warming and the sixth mass extinction than it is to drop the need to go to the office on Monday and bring home the bacon, pay the mortgage and plan the family holiday. So people tend to focus on these immediate things because sadly governments and corporations have learned to 'green wash' the situation.


Green washing is the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) deflections of attention that are being created around the environmental issue. For example, there is a trend called 'green consumerism'. People think, "I've got to insulate my house, buy a hybrid car, and this will makes a difference." But the reality is that individual behavior is not the cause of the warming. The cause of the warming is the large fossil fuel companies whose emissions are gigantic. But since these corporations have so much influence with governments, which should be regulating them, and aren't, the attention is deflected onto the individual consumer. So then individuals are dis-empowered as citizens, as voters and as reasoning beings because they are treated only as consumers.

Texaco even has adverts telling you how to be a better green consumer, and they'll help you, so long as no questions are raised about their emissions or why they happen to be financing think tanks to create doubt about climate science.

Well over one hundred countries at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference signed up to the 350 parts per million target, led by countries like the Maldives, of course. This target was defined by the work of Dr. James Hansen of NASA because it represents the upper limit of the Holocene period. We have to get back to the Holocene. If we don't, what we are risking is an entirely different planet. It's a bit like all those science fiction fantasies of visiting other planets that humans have been having for the past century or so. We can go to another planet all right, but it's going to be this planet. We fantasize about going to another planet than this, but we are actually creating a different planet out of this.


It's a very key point that nine professional bodies of engineering in 2011 issued a declaration which said we have every technology we need to fully decarbonise the global economy by 2050. The main one that didn't sign was the U.S. body. This is a matter of intention. It is a moral issue of the first order. We are the ancestors of those who come after us. The previous generation of adults didn't know what they we're doing, but we do. And if we know what we're doing and we deliberately steal from the future just to feed artificial desires in the fleeing present, then that's completely unforgivable. Isn't it?