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.

Local Community Resilience to Reduce Climate Disruption

In some ways, Northern New Mexico may be ahead of other regions in building local community resilience and adapting to increasingly difficult environmental conditions. Santa Fe sports a reputation for one of the lowest per capita water usage rates in the nation. On the other hand, its recycling program is dismally inadequate. Over-dependence on a national economy that infuses cash into local businesses through tourism may be a risky strategy as climate disruption intensifies. Tourism may become a declining economic asset as conditions become more severe.[1] It has become almost a cliché to say that local economies must increasingly rely on local production to be sustainable. As the converging crises of climate, economy, and energy intensify, conditions will be less stable.This calls for building community resilience. How can this resilience be accomplished? So far, we see too much image, not enough substance, but we know deep down that we must reorganize our lives in exceptionally challenging ways.

Critics of climate action and the “sustainability movement” look to an imaginary prosperity driven by international trade in a fantasy-world of ever-growing energy use and unacknowledged waste. Like most Americans, the people of New Mexico participate in that fantasy in various ways. Maybe the most obvious is the extravagant highways speeds at which we drive our over-powered pickup trucks. Then, look at those busy “big box” stores and ask what of all that stuff do we really need. However, the “slow food” and “slow money” movements are taking root at some moderate level here.

From Corporate Dependency to Community Resilience

A burgeoning local organic farming industry in Northern New Mexico struggles to mature in the sparse high-desert valleys as the record-breaking drought continues. Local communities still depend mostly on national food distribution as California’s ever more severe drought continues to damage production in the “nation’s bread basket.” The U.S. depends on California’s factory farms for over ninety percent of many staple food crops. The vast majority of grain and feed crops are produced by giant Midwestern factory farms. Systems science has known for decades that large complex systems are vulnerable to catastrophic breakdowns and even collapse. The signs are there. Dependency on these mega-systems puts us all at high risk.

Climate forecasters predict that total precipitation, in the near-term anyway, may not be terribly low in Northern New Mexico. But early snow melt and a moderate snow pack means premature runoff and less usable water. In the hotter climate, evaporation accounts for a large amount of water loss. As seen elsewhere, extreme storms with sudden downpours result in flash floods, rather than building reservoir reserves. This year’s spring and early summer rains may produce extra fuel for wildfires in the Fall.

The climate disruption we already experience is part of a planetary problem brought on by the carbon emissions the “advanced” industrial nations have caused since the dawn of the industrial revolution over two centuries ago. It is cumulative and accelerating. Worse, its effects lag its causes, making the nastiest effects seem far off. It is already here and the only mitigating response is to drastically reduce further emissions to stave off far worse climate catastrophe than we have yet seen. To merely adapt to the evolving disturbances in our climate will not suffice. In the vulnerable Southwest, as elsewhere, increasingly extreme measures will have to be taken to give relatively stable communities a chance.

The growing climate crisis is now and it is urgent. If recent (and past) world-wide governmental responses and voluntary “commitments” to arbitrary reductions in carbon emissions are any measure, we are in deep trouble. They are not only fictions, but they bear no relation to the real requirements of climate mitigation based on the best science. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that we can neither rely on rationality among politicians nor wait for them to take the drastic measures that are necessary to avert the catastrophic convergence of climate disruption, poverty and violence around the world.[2] All the most powerful incentives are provided by the lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry and its mega-corporate allies. These powerful incentives, of course, point the politicians in exactly the wrong direction.

Resistance, Replacement, Resilience

The accelerating climate crisis requires massive mobilization of populations to take back control of their lives through Resistance, Replacement, and Resilience. Relatively small groups of people around the world are beginning to resist the pressures of the hyper-consumer culture. But majorities have not “just said no” to the Big-Box stores. The few resistors are replacing corporate dependency by building local economies, producing and buying locally, forming co-ops and resilient community institutions. These movements must grow rapidly. It is a race against time.

To replace corporate dependency with local community economic independence in harmony with living-earth systems requires a new vision. Creating sustainable local communities requires forging new ways and adapting the old ways to transform our relations with the earth and each other. We must capitalize on the natural elements of working with instead of against the earth systems upon which we all ultimately depend.[3]

Resilience comes not from adapting to climate chaos, but from creating viable local living  economies not dependent on the mega-industrial endless-growth global economy that causes climate chaos. Such local community economies must adapt to the increasingly difficult environmental conditions we face while replacing dependency on corporate products with self-sufficient community economics. Such resilient local communities will be the most sustainable and better able to respond to increasingly severe climate conditions. No small task.

The first principle of this New Great Transformation is that control of economies must shift from multinational corporations to local communities. Corporate trade legislation such as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” attempts to steal national sovereignty over environmental, health, and labor rights worldwide. That, of course, would further constrain already subservient national governments. Control of the global economy is already mostly in the hands of the mega-corporations and financial elites. Power is concentrating in the largest institutions, which transcend location or nation. We need just the opposite.

The great challenge is to recognize our personal and cultural ways of living that must be changed, then figure out how to change them, together. Taking back control over community and economic life requires resistance to the mega-corporate domination of life ways, replacement of the extractive-industrial consumer culture of waste, and creating community resilience by living in harmony with the living earth systems we inhabit.

Only when many communities take these actions can the leviathan of extractive international-trade driven capital plundering earth resources and people be slowed. When earth-integrated local community resilience replaces profligate consumer culture, a social movement will have arisen from civil society, which will force governments around the world to constrain corporate plunder and slow carbon emissions to a point where human survival can be sustained.
_________
[1] NASA expects increasingly sever droughts in the Southwest and Central Great Plains, exacerbated by continued global warming. See Mark Fischetti, “U.S. Droughts Will Be the Worst in 1000 Years: The Southwest and central Great Plains will dry out even more than previously thought.” Scientific American, February 12, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-droughts-will-be-the-worst-in-1-000-years1/
[2] The “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change” across the latitudes most vulnerable to early extreme weather events, mostly near the equator, is well under way, as well documented by Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.
[3] To shape a living economy in support of resilient communities, a lot of good ideas are contained in David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.