Dropping in on the Apocalypse
By Tom Engelhardt
It’s global-warming time again at Tomdispatch; or perhaps it’s the more neutral “climate-change” time favored, for its non-apocalyptic mildness, by the fossil-fuel enraptured Bush administration and by others for its temperature inclusiveness (after all, there may be freezing wrapped in global warming); or perhaps it’s the time of “climate destruction” or even “the heat death of humanity,” phrases evidently being used by the young activists who are about to bestow the latest Flat Earth Award; or perhaps we should choose no name at all in honor of the native peoples of the north whose lands have by now been invaded by well-warmed southern species of insects, plants, and animals that they have no words for in their languages. (“We can’t even describe what we are seeing,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.)
Or maybe we should skip the issue of names for the moment while I sum up a little of the latest news that has continued to flood in, as if from so many melting glaciers, on the [unnamed subject or, for short, US] since last I wrote about it. If start down this path we must, then why not start with the iconic casualties, which, when it comes to the [US], are conveniently confined to the far, far north where only the hardiest of explorers once went to freeze to death and, of course, where the Inuit live. This is a region — aka “the only virgin territories left” — that the Great Melting may someday open up to a final round of land-and-water grabs and mineral over-reaches before we start exporting ourselves and our extra greenhouse gases to Mars to help create a more hospitable planet there (as recently suggested in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets, published by the American Geophysical Union) or even to other solar systems. The iconic [US] topics most likely to be found melting into your local paper (along with the Arctic ice cap, which has shrunk by 20% in the last three decades) are, in descending order: polar bears, glaciers, and native peoples.
So let’s start with those bears. They fall into the new environmentally inspired category of “charismatic carnivores” because they’re keystone critters — top-o’-the-food-chain large predators — cool to look at and they can eat you up, which always adds a hard-to-describe shiver of I-don’t-know-what to the subject (except in the case of alligators and crocs which, unlike lions, tigers, pumas, and grizzlies, seem to have the unique ability to chomp away on humans without any charisma whatsoever). Bradley Klapper of the British Guardian, reporting on a recent major [Unnamed Subject] conference in Europe, writes that the conservation organization WWF believes polar bears, lacking the melting summer sea ice they normally hunt on, could be extinct within 20 years.
Klapper quotes an expert as saying, “Polar bears will be something that our grandchildren can only read about in books.” Of course, for us non-Inuit, polar bears are already something we (and our children) can only read about in books or perhaps watch on the Discovery Channel where nature is always alive as well as red in tooth and claw. So as long as our visual archives don’t biodegrade, polar bears will be with us, as they are now, forever and ever.
Okay, then, what about those glaciers, already oft-reported to be retreating worldwide — from Mt. Kilimanjaro to the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest, which, thanks to the [US], is possibly four feet shorter than it once was. Well, the news on this — if you happen to see the slightest value in your basic glacier — is meltingly grim. (It’s worth remembering that unlike sea ice whose loss won’t raise sea levels — think of a melting ice cube in a drink — glaciers, which are essentially frozen rivers sitting on land, have enormous potential to raise those levels and so sink islands as well as low-lying farm lands and cities.)
The latest bad news on glaciers is just now emerging from the previously frozen, now thawing, deep south of the globe: Michael McCarthy of the British Independent (which has consistently had the best coverage around of the Unnamed Subject) reports that scientists from the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey “have discovered that a massive Antarctic ice sheet previously assumed to be stable may be starting to disintegrate Its collapse would raise sea levels around the earth by more than 16 feet [someday] putting enormous chunks of low-lying, desperately poor countries such as Bangladesh under water — not to mention much of southern England.”
Larry Rohter of the New York Times (Antarctica, Warming, Looks Ever More Vulnerable) recently took a Chilean Navy plane over “the weak underbelly” of the southern continent, where individual ice shelves can be “as large as Texas or Spain.” He quotes one glaciologist as saying that the region is “competing with the Yukon for the title of the fastest warming place on the globe” and reports on the impending collapse of “seemingly impregnable formations that have developed over thousands of years.” Especially unnerving to those studying the thinning ice shelves and “large growths of grass appearing in places that until recently were hidden under a frozen cloak” are the disappearing glaciers. Scientists, Rohter comments, “like to compare the spot where the ‘tongue’ of a glacier flows to sea in the form of an ice shelf to a cork in a bottle. When the ice shelf breaks up, this can allow the inland ice to accelerate its march to the sea.” They fear the catastrophic loss of those “plugs.” The information being gathered in Antarctica, Rohter concludes, matches similar information contained in “the recent publication of a report [underwritten by seven nations including the United States] on accelerating climate change in the Arctic.”
Like polar bears, however, glaciers are seen by most of us, if at all, on TV, picturesque certainly but not exactly in their melting state like losing transportation to work or having the local mall wiped out by a tornado. And the same, of course, might be said of the native peoples of the north who are, at the moment, deeply aware that they are directly experiencing the results of the [US]. Reports on melting Alaska and its ever hotter native inhabitants have become a near commonplace in our media, but their lives too undoubtedly seem, at worst, a case of so many distant tragedies ambushing small numbers of marginal people. Few of us, I suspect, see them as harbingers of our future lives.
Recently, for instance, Alaskan NPR reporter Gabriel Spitzer, living in a region where temperatures have risen an average of 4 degrees since the 1950s, visited Shishmaref, one of a number of native villages that will soon simply be swept away by newly energized seas. The villagers of Shishmaref will have to move their entire village to a new location (at the cost of millions of as yet unfound dollars) or they may simply be relocated (that is, dumped) into Alaska’s cities minus land and culture. (You can listen to Spitzer’s report or read the script here.)
Xtreme Weather and the Planet’s “Human Carrying Capacity”
I don’t particularly like “global warming” as a term, but I wouldn’t want to confuse the Unnamed Subject or US with our United States or U.S. for too long in this piece, especially since we Americans largely prefer to lead our lives as if global warming were either nonexistent, fraudulent science, or something to be faced in a distant future and preferably by others with far more to lose.
In any case, such casualties — bears, glaciers, native peoples — are but the tip of the global-warming iceberg; a metaphor, by the way, that the 87th International Conference of Linguists (ICL), in a recent seventy-two nation summary report suggested might cease to exist before the end of the first half of the 21st century.
Okay, that was a joke, but this isn’t: One of the special ironies (or perhaps I mean injustices) of global warming is that the people it hits first and hardest, those who live on tiny, low-lying islands and in the distant north, are those least associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Right now, it looks as if global warming’s main producers — us, the Europeans, the Japanese, and soon enough the onrushing economies of Asia — will suffer the least immediately. Though the degree to which we’re already experiencing global warming is perhaps less apparent than it should be.
Our media, of course, adores Xtreme weather events. Dan Rather’s CBS prime-time news show, for instance, never saw an El Nino effect, a hurricane, a major flood, or an onslaught of snow that it didn’t rush right to the top of the news; while those once Weather-Channel-restricted scenes of reporters, their bodies oddly angled, shouting into mics and staring into water-smeared lenses in the pelting rain of an onrushing storm are now commonplaces of the national news; and yet you can search the television news and our mainstream press almost in vain for anyone even willing to speculate that the increase in Xtreme weather events which has brought us multiple massive hurricanes in Florida, a prolonged drought in the southwest, Europe’s burning summers, Brazil’s first South Atlantic hurricane ever, the storm of the century on Canada’s east coast, and Japan’s worst season of typhoons in memory might have anything to do with global warming.
So the idea of warming has perhaps remained too far north, too distant, too Discovery Channel for most Americans to have to take seriously. But what if you skip the iconic and move closer to home by focusing on the bigger scientific picture? What about the latest studies, reports, and conferences? Well, you want those, we got ’em. Dime a dozen, in fact, and one scarier than the next.
In a new study published in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature, to take but one recent example, researchers from some of Britain’s leading universities used computer modeling to predict that global warming might prove “twice as catastrophic as previously thought, flooding settlements on the British coast and turning the interior into an unrecognizable tropical landscape.” The Earth, the study found, was “far more sensitive to increases in man-made greenhouse gases than previously realized.” The study’s worst-case scenario, a rise in average global temperatures 11C greater than today, according to Professor Bob Spicer, of the Open University, would be “unprecedented in the long geological record of the Earth. ‘If we go back to the Cretaceous, which is 100 million years ago, the best estimates of the global mean temperature was about 6C higher than present.'”
Or what about the new report, “Meeting the Climate Challenge,” just issued by the International Climate Change Task Force, co-chaired by a Tony Blair confidant, Stephan Byers, and U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine:
“The countdown to climate-change catastrophe is spelt out by a task force of senior politicians, business leaders and academics from around the world — and it is remarkably brief. In as little as 10 years, or even less, their report indicates, the point of no return with global warming may have been reached And it breaks new ground by putting a figure — for the first time in such a high-level document — on the danger point of global warming, that is, the temperature rise beyond which the world would be irretrievably committed to disastrous changes. These could include widespread agricultural failure, water shortages and major droughts, increased disease, sea-level rise and the death of forests — with the added possibility of abrupt catastrophic events such as ‘runaway’ global warming, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or the switching-off of the Gulf Stream.
“The report says this point will be two degrees centigrade above the average world temperature prevailing in 1750 before the industrial revolution, when human activities — mainly the production of waste gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which retain the sun’s heat in the atmosphere — first started to affect the climate. But it points out that global average temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees since then, with more rises already in the pipeline — so the world has little more than a single degree of temperature latitude before the crucial point is reached.”
As Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, wrote for the on-line environmental magazine Grist.org, in one of a series of provocative reports from a recent Vermont meeting on the state of (or end of?) environmentalism as we know it: “In one sense, [the task force report is] nothing new: yet another document from moderate world leaders calling for urgent action and imploring the U.S. to join with the rest of the developed world to get something done. File it with similar reports from the National Academy of Sciences, the Nobel laureates, all the rest.”
And he’s right too. Another sober conference or peer-reviewed scientific paper or multinational report sounding alarms and sirens you didn’t previously even know existed — and ho-hum, it’s neither news here — did this latest one make a single front page in America? — nor perhaps would it matter if it were. The global-warming crisis is so wide-ranging, so dire, so necessarily based on elements of guesswork (so much of it being set in a future world that we have little basis in human experience for understanding), so aimed at our well dug-in, difficult-to-replace, fossil-fuel-burning way of life, so threatening and yet not individually affecting (if you have no Inuit neighbors) that perhaps turning away is almost the only understandable response. The question is where exactly to turn.
After all, a new national report from The Wildlife Society whose authors represented universities, environmental groups, and hunting organizations “paints a bleak picture for the wilds of North America if global warming continues.” It suggests, among other things, that on a warming continent, many plants and animals may have trouble keeping up with the changes. Nature magazine has estimated that, based on global-warming scenarios, more than a million “discrete forms of life” might be extinct worldwide by 2050. And then, of course, there’s the probable loss of coral reefs globally in warming and acidifying ocean waters. (Perhaps, though, the bleached, lifeless reefs will still have their charms for tourists — like so many undersea Pompeiis.) And don’t get me started on the way the warming is affecting animal food chains, spreading drought conditions, causing the loss of forests, creating conditions for extinction cascades, or the possibility that “runaway global warming” might one day be triggered — all subjects brought up by one set of scientists or another.
Even the past, it seems, offers no comfort. As Guy Gugliotta of the Washington Post wrote recently, scientists are now positing that “the Great Dying,” “the biggest mass extinction in Earth’s geologic history” which took place 250 million years ago and wiped out 90% of ocean species and 70% of those on land, may have been caused by a pre-human form of global warming rather than an impact from an asteroid or comet.
And as for the American future, the National Intelligence Council, a “center of strategic thinking within the US Government reporting to the Director of Central Intelligence,” recently included pressure on our government due to climate change (“There is a strong consensus in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is real and that average surface temperatures have risen over the last century”) among various fantasy scenarios in the futures its experts cooked up; while in 2003, the Pentagon issued a futuristic global-warming study under the apocalyptic subhead Imagining the Unthinkable (pdf file), a friendly nod to 1950s nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s famous work on nuclear weaponry, Thinking the Unthinkable.
The study suggested the possibility, based on the then-latest global-warming research (less frightening than the present batch), that “abrupt” climate change was possible and might cause a “significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth’s environment,” which is a polite way indeed to write: Death! Destruction! Mayhem! Chaos! Such a development could, the report’s authors concluded, “potentially de-stabilize the geopolitical environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resources constraints Unlikely alliances could be formed as defense priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honor.” Amid all this, the Pentagon’s thinkers of the unimaginable and imaginers of the unthinkable came to believe that our country would, in fact, have a leg up in such a future world, but only, of course, if the Pentagon were gloriously funded.
The Quagmire of the Present
But enough, no? The past, the future, the northern and southern reaches of the planet, outlying islands, Xtreme weather, the struggling flora and fauna you might think this kind of news cascade (however diminished and disconnected in the American media) would have a certain effect on the greatest fossil-fuel burners on the planet. But while the native peoples of the north plead for their future; while polar bears starve and coral reefs whiten; while Europeans struggle to take modest steps toward controlling global-warming minus the United States; while even the Bush administration’s chosen man for the chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, tells an international conference that “very deep” cuts in greenhouse-gas pollution must happen fast or “we are risking the ability of the human race to survive”; while the Chinese and Indian economies are on a fossil-fuel based upward trajectory; while under-funded scientists and environmentalists look for alternative, non-fossil fuel methods or wonder whether, caught in the Scylla and Charybdis of planning for a catastrophe, even nuclear power might not be a better path than our present one; while political leaders elsewhere, including Bush ally Tony Blair of Britain, worry about how much warming is already “built into the system” and unavoidable given what’s gone into the atmosphere in the past three decades; the fossil-fuel-besotted Bush administration ignores the whole matter or does its best, which is pretty good, to slow down or undermine any multinational planning or progress whatsoever on global warming; our media acts as if it’s largely a problem of distant climes; and most Americans simply chug on with their lives, buy their SUVs, and go about their business.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that various government agencies have plunged into the regular production of the sorts of futuristic scenarios that were once left to awed journalists, sci-fi writers, utopians, and cranks; and yet we, as a nation, find ourselves in a kind of quagmire of what once would have been un-American futurelessness. It used to be said that we were a nation that never looked back, but never that we were a nation that dared not look forward. And yet here we are.
Denial is a bizarre thing. The mechanisms by which we look and yet don’t look, know and yet refuse to know, by which the melting north and the SUV go together without contradiction, by which a full presidential campaign unfolds without even a discussion of global warming and no one of any import considers that out of the ordinary or worth commenting on are — at least to me — reasonably mysterious. And yet, even though our demobilized media has done a dreadful job of connecting the dots on global warming (as on so much else), you can’t primarily blame the media for this. After all, people usually know much that the media doesn’t tell them.
Take oil, for instance. As I’ve often said, if Iraq had been the world’s capital of video games, the media would have been flooded with stories about the effects of the invasion, war, and occupation on children’s lives and on the video biz. But since Iraq is only sitting on a sea of oil and we all know that oil was a simple-minded left-wing explanation for the invasion/war, oil has mostly not been part of the media discussion. (Try to recall the last time you saw a major piece in the mainstream press or on TV about oil, Iraq, and the Bush administration.) Nonetheless, if you went out and polled Americans on why we’re in Iraq, I’d be willing to bet you that significant numbers would put oil somewhere near or at the top of the list (and a lot of them wouldn’t be war critics either).
When it comes to global warming, I suspect most Americans also “know” more than they are credited with knowing. So what to make of the general state of denial on the subject in word and deed, in conversation and life-style? (Even readership at this site goes down whenever I raise the topic.) There are undoubtedly several factors to consider. One certainly must be the scale and scope of global warming. It is, of course, planet endangering. It imperils our future in ways that previously only nuclear weaponry did. It involves entering new conceptual territory. Its time-scale, even in the worst (and so speediest) of scenarios, stretches beyond a single human life and off the charts into — yes, the Pentagon’s not wrong here — the unimaginable. And despite its potential dangers, our lives here in North America go on, fossil-fuel burning SUVs and all, pretty much as if nothing were really happening. In other words, it’s in part a case of not quite needing to imagine the unpalatable, not to say inconceivable. That’s certainly one quite natural form of denial.
A second factor would be the imperial one: We live in the heartland of the planet’s last great imperial power. Our empire, such as it is, is based on fossil fuels. Ours is a fossil-fuel lifestyle and a pretty good one at that. Americans, it seems, would have much to lose from a global-warming-preoccupied planet. Life-style, jobs, well-being — all may be at stake in a nation that’s also visibly growing more conservative. In addition, many Americans perhaps identify with imperial power (even if not thought of that way) — it’s certainly been the case in the “homeland” so many times before in history — and with the fun and games it offers. (As I write this on Super Bowl Sunday, I’m planning to break soon to join an estimated 100 million other Americans at TV sets absorbing what the radio news this morning called “the greatest sports event of the year” and, of course, the world of good living its famed ads so exuberantly celebrate.) Perhaps denial comes naturally in the Homeland.
A third factor that runs through my mind has to do with a sense of futurelessness which I believe first began to descend ever so invisibly upon Americans in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and which, almost six decades later, has left many of us, including the young, unable to imagine a future beyond our own lives. This, in turn, plays into a sense of helplessness in the face of something as large and seemingly intractable as global warming.
Nonetheless, you would think that even those who doubted the reality of global warming might still care to make a kind of Pascalian bet on preparing for the worst. I mean just-in-case-thinking isn’t so crazy. Imagine where we might be, for instance, if for the last, lost 15 years since global warming first reared its ugly head, Americans had actually poured massive amounts of R&D money into various alternative-fuel quick-fix solutions. (After all, once we felt ourselves endangered, no matter how inaccurately, by Saddam Hussein’s regime, we were ready to pour multibillions into an invasion and occupation pretty much without blinking a national eye.) And aren’t we the quick-fix nation? Didn’t we think of ourselves, not so long ago, as the ultimate can-do society? After all, were Americans to come up with real alternative-fuel solutions to the human future, wouldn’t we control matters globally far more effectively than by simply arming ourselves to the Pentagon’s institutional eyeballs? Under those circumstances, the threat of global warming might even have — gasp — produced not job losses but jobs, new industries, who knows what.
Instead, it’s quite clear that, faced with various scary scenarios, we’ve become a can’t-do nation; that conservatism has really meant a kind of conceptual hunkering down when it comes to anything but the present moment; and that an increasingly fierce imperial holding-on when combined with a sense of futurelessness and helplessness has consigned the environmental movement to the antlers of a dilemma. Some maverick environmentalists even claim that the environmental movement as it’s existed since the 1970s needs to think the unimaginable and die so that a new movement capable of
a different kind of politics, one more ready to deal with the varieties of denial Americans are now enmired in, might be born. It’s a dilemma that Bill McKibben in a series of articles at Grist.org has described vividly indeed.
But just when you despair, there’s always some weird, small glimmering of movement. In the Sunday Washington Post, for instance, Blaine Hardin wrote The Greening of Evangelicals, a fascinating piece that read in part:
“Some of the signatories [of an evangelical environmental statement] are to meet in March in Washington to develop a position on global warming, which could place them at odds with the policies of the Bush administration, according to Richard Cizik, the association’s vice president for governmental affairs. Also last fall, Christianity Today, an influential evangelical magazine, weighed in for the first time on global warming. It said that ‘Christians should make it clear to governments and businesses that we are willing to adapt our lifestyles and support steps towards changes that protect our environment.’
“The magazine came out in favor of a global warming bill — sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) — that the Bush administration opposed and the Republican-controlled Senate defeated Unusual weather phenomena, such as the four hurricanes that battered Florida last year and the melting of the glaciers around the world, have captured the attention of evangelicals and made many more willing to listen to scientific warnings about the dangers of global warming, [Rev. Ted] Haggard [president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals] said.”
After all, the fate of the Earth shouldn’t really be a political issue. It’s all of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose lives and welfare are at stake. As for me, I’ll disagree with evangelicals on many matters, but if any want to work to stop global warming, believe me, I’ll just say, let’s boogie.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.
Copyright C2005 Tom Engelhardt