Elizabeth Sawin from the Sustainability Institute posts a lovely essay on seeing climate change as a window of opportunity (via our climate ourselves).
On the surface, says Sawin, our lives run on as usual, yet "we’ve also been adding to levels of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere."
How can it be, wonders Sawin, that we have ten years to address a problem of human survival when the world outside our windows looks more or less as it always has?
The problem, says Sawin, is that "by the time climate change looks and feels like a survival crisis to most of us it will be far too late to do anything about it."
Of course, climate scientists aren't saying that our Earth could slide from today’s relative normalcy into something so inhospitable in ten short years.
Sawin likens this situation to a house fire that can be addressed in its early stages, but which can feed upon itself and grow stronger than any human intervention if it is allowed to progress too far.
"If climate change were a house fire, we would be at the point in the drama where the smoker has already fallen asleep in bed. His mattress is already smoldering. The only question left is whether he’ll wake up in time to keep the whole house from catching fire."
The largest danger, says Sawin, is that human-induced warming has the potential to set off cascades of changes in the Earth itself, just as a smoldering mattress has the potential to engulf the rest of the house.
- High enough temperatures could cause significant amounts of polar ice to melt, replacing white, heat-reflecting ice, with dark, heat-absorbing water, leading to more heating, and thus more melting and even more heating.
- Human-induced warming could thaw frozen soils releasing more heat-trapping gases and causing still more warming and more thawing.
- Human-induced warming could weaken carbon dioxide-absorbing ecosystems, leaving more heat-trapping CO2 to accumulate in the atmosphere, causing more warming, further weakening those carbon-absorbing ecosystems.
Once any of these cycles takes off it will run under its own power in the same way that a house, once fully afire, will continue to burn even if the mattress that sparked the conflagration has been completely extinguished.
Stopping the mattress fire before the curtains and walls catch fire can save the house; stopping it once the house is burning is futile.
That’s what defines a window of opportunity – decisive action at the right time saves the day, the same action, delayed, is close to useless.
The sobering news is that seizing this window of opportunity will require extremely large cuts in global warming pollution, cuts of as much as 70%, worldwide.
The mattress may be smoldering, says Sawin, but most of us appear to be still slumbering atop it.
"We haven’t fully awoken to what it means to be one of the grown-ups in charge during the last ten years to address climate change" says Sawin.
Wot she said...