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Climate change 2010: time to get our shit together

How we respond to climate change will demonstrate what kind of people we really are.


Funny what flipping a calendar page means to us. This last week of the year we assess our failures and successes, recall people we've lost. The newspapers break out their "best of 2009" lists and, next week, the "what to look for in 2010" lists pop up. A lot of this reflection is playful, but there's an underlying seriousness that rolls out, forward looking, with New Year's resolutions: this coming year we'll get our act together.

But, sentimentality aside, do we really give a shit? I mean, if we're truly going to reflect on the past, and make commitments for a better future, let's not avoid the elephant in the room: climate change.

The calendar page we're flipping, December 2009, is a heavy one, weighed down with the failure of supposed world "leaders" to reach any meaningful agreement at the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

"The reality of the situation here is that global leaders have abdicated their responsibility," Andrew Weaver told me last week, in the wake of the "disaster" at Copenhagen.

Weaver knows what he's talking about: He's Canada's top climatologist and co-author of the IPCC reports on climate change.

The science of climate change is unambiguous---humanity is either going to very quickly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or we'll reach a tipping point of two degrees global warming in a few decades, beyond which no human action can avoid increasingly cataclysmic climate change. And reducing GHG emissions is an urgent matter---because CO2 and other gases stay in the atmosphere for centuries, and because it will take enormous efforts to change our industrial infrastructure, we can't change on a dime. Every hour of inaction makes the situation much more dire.

Weaver, like many other climatologists, came out of Copenhagen with an attitude bordering on defeatist---"frankly, you can kiss two degrees good-bye," he said. "We are self-centred, and we care about the individual over the collective, in terms of the environment in which we live. We're a selfish species, and this was clearly demonstrated in Copenhagen."

"Weaver's right, we're a selfish species," one of my scientist friends told me the other day in an online exchange. "There's nothing we can do; we're not smart enough to address climate change." I could almost hear him stroking his chin in deep contemplation at the fate of humanity.

James Hansen, the world's most well-known climatologist, has shown that, in order to avoid irreversible climate change, we'll have to get the atmospheric concentration of CO2 down to 350 parts per million within a few decades. We're now at 387 ppm, increasing at two ppm per year.

But that plan "has no chance in hell. None. Zero," says one respected climatologist in Scientific American. Why? Because it's just impractical to expect humans can rise to the occasion. More chin-stroking.

Hansen looks at the prevailing political order and also sees disaster in the making. "Hillary Clinton recently signed an agreement with Canada for a pipeline to carry tar sands oil to the United States," he writes in a recent essay. "Australia is massively expanding coal export facilities. Coal-fired power plants are being built worldwide. Unless the public gets involved, young people especially, CO2 of 450 ppm or higher may become unavoidable."

I don't know why getting involved should be limited to young people, but the defeatist, wizened fatalism of the older generation is really pissing me off. All appearances are that older people in fact don't give a shit, and aren't willing to get off their reflective asses to actually do something to address the situation.

"Are we going to stand up and give global politicians a hard slap on the face, to make them face the truth?" continues Hansen. "It will take a lot of us---probably in the streets. Or are we going to let them continue to kid themselves and us, and cheat our children and grandchildren?"

This week, as we flip our calendars, reflect on our past and make commitments to future action, maybe we can decide what kind of people we really are. Is all that reflection just a game? Or do we really give a shit?

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