Are we up for it?

Published Monday, July 9, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Years ago, a television commercial for a popular beverage hinged on the slogan, “Are you up for it?” 

As the slow train of climate change picks up momentum, I find myself pondering a variant of that ad line: are WE up for it?  In other words, are we up to the challenge of solving climate change?  We have the technology, but do we have the desire, focus and commitment? 

Biting reality
You’d have to be blind to not notice signs of a changing global – and local – climate:

  • According to NASA, the hottest 12 years on record globally have included every one of the past 11 years
  • In 2011, floods in Thailand and Australia caused $45 and $30 billion in damage respectively – equal to a quarter of Canada’s 2012 federal budget.
  • In 2011, the US experienced a record 14 extreme weather events causing more than $1 billion in damage.  The previous record was nine, set in 2008.  
  • Over 2,100 new record high temperatures were set in the US in June; over 100 million people have been living under extreme heat advisories; and record wildfires are raging in several states.
  • According to Environment Canada, 2010 was the hottest year on record across Canada, a full 3°C warmer than normal.  2011 was the eighth warmest.
  • Record rainfall wreaked havoc in parts of BC last week
  • Southern Ontario and Quebec have been sweltering in record heat already this summer
  • By my count, there have been 105 new record high temperatures so far in 2012 across Atlantic Canada, versus just one new record low
  • Then there was the flood in Perth-Andover...

Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer last week referred to such extreme weather – floods, heat, wildfires – as “a window into what global warming really looks like.”

In denial
Serious symptoms, yet our collective global reaction still seems to be a yawn:

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions skyrocketed by 6% in 2010 to a new record level, and then rose by another 3% in 2011 to yet another record high level.  Fast movement, just in the wrong direction.
  • In contrast to the hopeful aura surrounding the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, last month’s Rio+20 environmental conference failed to yield significant progress.  Perhaps that’s an appropriate symbol for 20 years of global political ass-sitting.
  • Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson recently called climate change “an engineering problem” that simply needs “an engineering solution.”  Evidently record profits stimulate delusional thinking.

This we know: each year, humanity consumes more than the planet produces, building up an ever-greater eco-debt.  If everyone lived like a Canadian, we would need 3.5 Earths.  But it would seem we are so addicted to our comfortable, carbon-fired lifestyles that our ability to reason has become obscured, and it’s easier to deny or ignore signs of trouble than to contemplate changing. 

Uncommon thinking
Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  In other words, we need to reflect on the way we live and consume, and perhaps we will need to make a few hard choices.  And even as we remind ourselves that long-term sustainability is much more important than short-term plundering of non-renewable resources, we especially and urgently need to remind our leaders of that reality.

Are we up for it?
American novelist Kurt Vonnegut mused that if aliens or angels were to visit Earth in 100 years and find us gone, perhaps the epitaph we ought to leave for them to read should be, “We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard... and too damned cheap.” 

I hope and pray we can do better than that.  I hope and pray that we are up to solving climate change.  But we’d better get busy, because that slow train of climate change gets harder to stop the longer we allow it to speed up.