So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

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Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.

Global Warming, Climate Change, Climate Disruption, Climate Crisis, or Catastrophic Climate Destabilization: What Shall We Call It and Why?

What’s in a word? Or phrase? Well, a lot sometimes. In the case of anthropogenic alteration of the complex ecological and climate systems, it all started with “global warming.” It was a simple and accurate term. The emissions of primarily carbon dioxide by the steady increases in burning of fossil fuels throughout the industrial era have warmed the atmosphere. “Greenhouse gases” have caused the retention of heat; it is that simple. But the earth systems and the effects of warming on them are extremely complex. No word or phrase, it seems, is adequate to convey the full complexity of the problem or point to a clear path to a solution.

Denial

The “climate deniers” early on attacked the concept of global warming, claiming various forms of “evidence” to the contrary. Many such claims were absurdly irrelevant. Nevertheless, “Global warming” was an easy target. It was so general that specific instances of unusually cold weather in particular places were argued to refute the idea. For the uninformed, that made sense, although the obvious variability of weather from year to year and place to place meant that the claim didn’t pass logical muster. But demagoguery is not bounded by logic. As long as one didn’t get into the specifics of how the planet is warming and the variability of conditions the added heat produced, then the concept was an easy propaganda target.

Then environmentalists and the media shifted to using “climate change” as the generic term to refer to the complex changes that are disrupting previously relatively stable weather patterns around the globe. The new term had two contradictory effects. First, it was even more general, failing to indicate anything in particular, especially temperature change. It was probably meant by some to disarm critics (deniers) by not mentioning warming and thereby avoiding non-heating contrary specifics. I think it was also meant to be “not so alarmist.” Such watering down of an idea is akin to the big failure of the big environmental groups when they wasted decades of environmental action by trying to “work within the system” by aligning themselves with big polluters and achieving small symbolic changes in exchange for big donations. They were effectively co-opted.

Disruption

I began using the term “climate disruption” in conversations and in working with various environmental groups locally a few years ago. I remember once an official of the Sierra Club asked me where I got that term. I simply said that I thought it more accurate and pointed to the nature of the problem. He reported that the Sierra Club had recently begun using that term for much the same reason. I also have used the term “climate crisis” because it conveys the urgency of the rapidly growing risks of not taking major actions to counter the disruptive effects of global warming such as extreme floods, heat waves, and droughts.

The idea of climate destabilization is very close to climate disruption in meaning and effect. But it conveys another important element in our consciousness of the problem (or the lack thereof). We humans (especially in the U.S.) seem to have very short historical memories. We have had many decades of essentially very stable climatic conditions, punctuated by the occasional 100-year storm, hurricane, or tsunami. We have come to expect stability. Not only that, but we have come to depend on stable climates for our vastly expanded industrial agriculture as well as diverse other industrial activities. Climate destabilization is changing all that.

Destabilization

However, the crisis of climate change, aside from the many complexities that no single phrase can capture, has become so acute that none of these terms seems adequate. I have read some authors who refer to catastrophic changes that are beginning to appear around the planet. One important example is Christian Parenti’s book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Parenti talks of the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change.” He reviews examples of the growing chaos that results from the convergence of these factors that is well underway in places like Northwest Kenya, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, as well as the slums and deserts of Brazil and Mexico. The point to be remembered, of course, is that these catastrophic effects of climate disruption will not be limited to the more geographically vulnerable regions where they began. As the disruptions intensify, their effects will encompass the entire planet. The only chance we have, Parenti points out, is to entirely transform the energy economy to heal capitalism’s “metabolic rift” with nature.

Catastrophy or Creativity

Paul Cienfuegos, a regional leader in the Community Rights movement, prefers to call the problem, “catastrophic climate destabilization.” That describes our likely prospects. We must recognize the catastrophic consequences of climate destabilization and their inevitable spread, as Parenti describes. Then we might be able to muster the collective will to launch the massive social reorganization necessary to at least have a chance to exclude ourselves from the “sixth mass extinction.” Cienfuegos advocates “local governance,” achieved by municipalities and other local entities. The strategy is to pass ordinances to stop environmentally destructive actions ordinarily condoned by regulatory agencies that are largely controlled by corporate polluters.

Rapid growth of national and international movements to divest from fossil-fuel related corporations, protect indigenous environments, and reassert native and local sovereignty will be essential. The weakest links in the chain of actions necessary to avoid full-on catastrophic climate destabilization are corporations and governments. Powerful social movements must force them to change. Otherwise, prevarication and avoidance of action by national governments and international corporate and financial powers will lead to humans joining the sixth mass extinction.