Our culture is killing us

We have to confront the fact that climate change is a global emergency before we can meet the real challenge, which is cultural change. [1 September 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Getting busy is a sure way to lose track of time. Since I busied myself with the problem of climate change, I’m often surprised by how quickly the months and years have passed.

It’s now approaching two years since Kevin Rudd won office promising decisive action on climate change. Over three years have passed since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth grabbed our attention, and this December will mark the 12th birthday of the Kyoto climate change agreement.

And it’s 17 years — racing towards two decades — since the world’s nations met in Rio de Janeiro and agreed to act on climate change “by limiting anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs.”

That 1992 pledge to curb emissions and protect natural ecosystems was an empty one. Carbon emissions kept on rising and forests kept on disappearing. When put to the test, the peoples and nations of the world have put more store in getting richer than in restoring our planet’s health.

I need to think about this. There’s no surer way to limit one’s social life than to rant about the nasty shocks our planet has in store for us. Who wants to be reminded of difficult times ahead with depleted energy and rising living costs? Pretty well nobody, that’s who.

On the other hand, in battles to win hearts and minds, where did polite euphemisms ever get us? How can we expect to stir people into action by camouflaging the warnings from science with meaningless reassurances and expressions of hope?

We need to see things as they are. Roughly, this is where we’re at:

• Global carbon emissions are rising faster than ever and the planet’s capacity to absorb excess carbon dioxide is very near its natural limits. Our chances now of limiting warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels are somewhere around zero.

• Today’s climate changes are the result of our greenhouse emissions between 20 and 50 years ago. The natural inertia in Earth’s oceans and atmosphere ensure that today’s emissions will continue to have an effect through all our lifetimes and beyond.

• Even without global warming, our relentlessly growing technology-driven culture is pushing Earth’s life-systems beyond the limit of their endurance, triggering a rising tide of extinctions, on land and in the ocean.

• One of the biggest threats to our future is in the changing acid-alkaline balance of ocean waters. Resulting directly from human carbon emissions to the atmosphere, ocean acidification threatens the survival of many species, including oxygen-producing plankton at the base of the marine food chain.

• In times past conditions on Earth have changed very rapidly, over weeks or months. There is ample evidence that we too face abrupt climate shifts, perhaps soon.

• Another outcome of burning fossil fuels is depleted mineral oil reserves. We’re now in the post-peak oil era, when transport fuels will be more scarce and more expensive.

We can’t hope to “win” the climate battle. Too many things have already been decided. We can still lessen our impact, but our track record tells us that unless we radically change the way we do things, we shouldn’t hold out much hope.

The numbers game — quoting the science and statistics of climate — is now being played by all and sundry, including politicians keen to justify their particular take on climate or emissions questions. But in battling over the numbers, they risk losing the war, and that war is a cultural one.

Science and technology won’t determine whether we ultimately climb out of this hole. It was our reliance on technology, remember, that got us into it. The problem and its resolution lie in our culture. We need to change things we’ve never had to change before. This is uncharted territory, and traversing it will demand courage, determination, integrity and imagination.

Somehow we need to maintain our passion for life with all its innate optimism, while abandoning the pretence that “everything will be all right”. This is such a delicate balancing act, and I’m not sure how long it’s possible to stay on the wire without falling. But we have to give it a try.

• Following my criticism of Cardinal George Pell over his view that there’s no climate problem, a Catholic parishioner has passed on an account of a meeting between the Archbishop of Hobart, Adrian Doyle, and Al Gore during the latter’s recent visit to Australia. I’m pleased to report that Archbishop Doyle is actively working with others to make the Australian Catholic church “an ecological leader” within five years. All power to them.

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