Climate Change: The Bitterest Cup

Think Progress has the details on another clarion call from climate scientists as “Scientists issue first ”˜State of the Planet’ declaration at the world’s largest gathering of experts on global environmental and social issues in advance of the major UN Summit Rio+20 in June.”:

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale….

The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health….

As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: civilization itself is at stake, within the lifetimes of many of the readers of this blog.

Yet all the indications are that we have already failed to protect civilization from serious problems. Politicians more concerned about their own “top ask” of gravy and their campaign contributions than the long term security of the people they represent are largely to blame for a lack of serious action which means we are still adding to the world’s greenhouse gas burden at an ever-growing rate so late in the game. Catastrophic climate change is a given at this stage. We can now only ask how we might mitigate that change somewhat (stop global warming from being even worse than the 6° C (about 10.8° F) we can already expect by the end of this century and how we can prepare to protect the nation, the world and civilization itself from the knock-on effects of that change.

The consequences of climate change will be found, and are being found now around the world. New climate conditions will drive human beings to move in ever larger numbers, seeking food, water, shelter and work. No region will be immune. Climate refugees will increasingly cross our own borders. The stress of changes in the environment will further weaken marginal states. Failing states will incubate extremism. In South Asia, the melting of Himalayan glaciers jeopardizes fresh water supplies for more than one billion human beings. In North America, agriculture could be disrupted by increases in temperatures and shifting weather patterns that limit rainfall. Globally, major urban centers could be threatened by rising sea levels. Malaria and other tropical diseases are moving into new areas, and outbreaks are increasing in frequency as the planet warms and weather patterns change. All of this is just the foretaste of a bitter cup from which we can expect to drink should we fail to address, urgently, the threats posed by climate change to our national security.

Within the national security arena, there are some good people working to bring the consequences of climate change to the forefront of debate. That’s where it should be. After all, none of the short-term obsessions of the natsec community – be it Iran, Syria, AlQaeda or the pivot to China – are anywhere near a threat to civilization on a worldwide scale in the way that climate change is. Unfortunately,

social science research has shown that the human mind is hard-wired to prioritize immediate dangers and risks over long-term threats. We also tend to prefer immediate benefits, rather than the prospect of future rewards. Thus, many lawmakers and the constituents who elected them are hesitant to support taking action on climate change now since it could result in economic costs in the short term, despite the evidence that shows that addressing climate change now would reduce future risks.

The 2010 Defense Department Quadriennial Review (PDF) gave only four short paragraphs over to the implications for national security of climate change. While the Pentagon is vocal in its need for change in the way it uses its energy resources, mainly in response to rising costs, it’s said precious little about changing postures, training or equipment to meet rising climate change threats. Almost no-one is talking about the need to ramp up the nation’s ability to deal with epidemic and pandemic disease outbreaks, even though such outbreaks are predicted to be one of the biggest direct causes of deaths from climate change, with expected fatalities in the hundreds of millions. No-one I know about is discussing the additional policing challenges of coping with an expected massive influx of migrants over the US Southern border when instead of having local support the federal government must cope with a swathe of the nation from West Texas to the Pacific which has become a dustbowl punctuated by a few huge cities and thousands of ghost towns.

Climate change is the only remaining existential threat to the United States and to global civilization today. Yet we’re still acting as if it’s somewhere well down a long list of threats. That needs to change. Cold War hawks convinced Western nations to orient their entire national postures towards the Soviet threat. War On Terror hawks convinced the U.S. and its allies to spend trillions on invasions, interventions and homeland security, maybe climate hawks can convince the powers-that-be of the need to take their eyes off short-term gains and focus on the massive long-term loss barrelling down the track. We need more climate hawks, and far more urgency in what those climate hawks are saying.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • It’s been my experience that national security think-tank Very Serious Persons on the left and center-left don’t like the folks at the loud end of the left’s spectrum much. Not serious enough, not enough dispassionate analysis, too much rhetoric and advocacy, too shrill. The Right’s VSP’s, on the other hand, uses their loud colleagues to move the Overton window of debate and thus give the VSP’s more intellectual space to maneuver. I can’t help but think the latter is the cleverer tactic. With that in mind, here’s a loud and shrill piece on climate change and national security wonks.

  • …the left requires more data, as it requires a significant number of those who are influential to act against their immediate interest. Moving the window to the right is somewhat easier.

    Additionally, don’t presume that the right’s success in moving the window to the right is due solely to their loudmouths pulling effectively. I’ve watched them reap significant benefits from the “pushing” of various loud factions of the left.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • Byahh but my gloomy imagination always spews another fun scenario or 2. Aside from chance encounters with asteroids and comets, you have a few others. Massive solar activity like that seen in 1800s would cause the power grid to pick up magnetic flux and blow out the power plants. They have to put expensive grounding boxes all over the place to mitigate this. This would also cause multiple nuclear meltdowns, which cumulatively could really severely damage civilization on the global scale. Its a sad example of the kind of resources that could easily be deployed if not for the wars etc.

    Another one worth looking at is out-of-control GMO toxicity increasing to the point of making potentially billions of people infertile, as already happens with rats fed BT-toxified GMO corn over about 3 generations. It seems to me like the GMO disaster is happening at a faster scale than the climate disaster so it gets higher on my ‘stack of doom’ for now. I don’t think that GMOs are uniformly damaging but it seems pretty clear there is no level of scientific comprehension of the jumbled novel garbage proteins GMOs are filled with nor the long-term effects of those proteins.

    Additionally it is a travesty that even while things like climate stability accelerate, we hang onto corrupt 20th-century dogmas like the Disney-styled contrivance of so-called ‘intellectual property.’ It is ethically abhorrent to allow inanimate filing cabinets called corporations (not to mention places like the National Institutes of Health) to hoard ‘intellectual property’ such as energy technologies and methods that could relatively easily enhance energy efficiency and reduce fossil fuel pollution.

    And of course, if we allowed farmers to grow cannabis naturally, it would collect CO2, create alternatives to carbon-heavy industries like paper milling & conventional cotton textile agriculture, and help preserve topsoil from erosion. Topsoil depletion is another thing which could be more radically severe more quickly than climate shifts (though obviously as trends they can amplify each other, i.e. dust bowls).

    My point is that the dogmas, the waste and the GMO disaster are all quite severe, and the seemingly always-authoritarian solutions offered for climate change are certainly crafted with the preservation of elite rent-seeking rackets like “IP” and the beloved drug war in mind.

  • but here’s some back-up for you from Guy R. McPherson, author of “Walking Away From Empire”, on his “Nature Bat’s Last” blog.

    If we didn’t already have enough reason to terminate this absurd set of living arrangements, human extinction might do the trick. It might be too late, of course: More than two years ago Tim Garrett pointed out that only collapse of the industrial economy prevents runaway greenhouse. In those two years, we’ve set records for carbon emissions on this overheated planet. But if we act as if it’s too late, our actions become self-fulfilling prophecy.

    In the spirit of Edward Abbey, let’s channel some Kierkegaard-inspired anxiety to act as if the future matters. Let’s act as if we have a future. Let’s act now, while the idea of a future still persists. Before it’s too late. Before there’s no tomorrow for our entire species.

  • I’m glad somebody else is seeing that we have far more pressing concerns than global climate change.

    I would say we don’t have a problem with using energy efficiently, we have a problem with using too much energy period. No matter how efficient our energy use is there will always be a detrimental effect on the planet so long as we keep increasing our energy use every day.

    GMO is the monster that nobody seems terribly mobilized against, but it’s going to bring our civilization to its knees. I think of Mad Max type scenarios. How is going to be when we have to buy every single seed from some mega corp? How bad is it already that farmers who have had their land infiltrated by GMO that they don’t want are sued and have to settle with Monsanto? is very active against GMO. They could use support. It’s not as glamorous as climate change and the media seems completely blind to it, but it’s going to be one of the things that might bring our culture down.

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