Sunday, April 12, 2009
By: John Collee
The world has about a decade left to sort out the climate-change mess. John Collee sees lessons from his medicine days as parallels for the future of our planet.
Every patient with an incurable illness will ask how long they have to live. The answer goes something like this: "No one can say how long you may live, because every individual is different, but focus on the changes you observe and be guided by those. When things start changing for the worse, expect these changes to accelerate. So the changes that have occurred over a year may advance by the same degree in a few months, then in weeks. And that is how you can judge when the end is coming."
Apply that thinking to climate change. When An Inconvenient Truth opened in 2006 it was generally supposed we had a window of two or three decades to deal with climate change. Last year that shrank to a decade. Last month Australia's chief scientist, Penny Sackett, told a Canberra gathering that we have six years to radically lower emissions, or face calamitous, unstoppable global warming.
Six years. Given that this problem is usually described as a process unfolding over centuries, how can it be that things have spun out of control in such a short time? The worst case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dismissed a mere three years ago as remote possibilities, are now given very short odds: the death of the Murray Darling, the drying of southern-east Australia to a tinderbox, the increased flooding in low-lying areas, the defrosting of the Siberian tundra, the dramatic loss of rainforest and the break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf. All these things are happening as predicted but - if you believe the evidence - at several times the expected speed.
I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed. The current financial crisis is merely the curtain raiser to a grand opera of social and ecological collapse. Our children - forget our grandchildren, I'm talking about my own kids, aged 14, 11 and 9 - are going to live in a world in which major cities are flooded, fertile plains become deserts, populations run out of food and water, rivers run dry, fishing grounds become dead zones, our rainforests and living coral reefs become curiosities of history.
Of course, there is a great problem with declaring that point of view because one immediately becomes labelled as a mad Cassandra spouting visions of the apocalypse. Passionate yet sober scientists like Tim Flannery in Sydney and Steve Schneider in San Francisco have so far avoided this trap, insisting there is still a chance to fix things. I've discussed the issue at length with both of these men and I accept their view that to contribute usefully to this debate one has to offer solutions. One has to offer hope. This is the view of Al Gore also, but remember big Al was preaching until recently that the financial markets would save us from destruction.
I've talked also to the other camp: to experts like James Hansen - the doyen of climate change at NASA - who has recently become so frustrated by political inaction that he has almost reached the point of declaring the game over. Jim is by nature a soft spoken and moderate man, a lifetime career scientist. Yet he's also very courageous. This is the man who effectively led the charge against the Bush regime's war on science. Increasingly, he seems to believe we're losing the war for the planet.
Three years ago, when Marian Wilkinson and I were researching a documentary on global warming, Hansen seemed sure communication was the answer. Once people properly understood the facts they would become sufficiently alarmed and then sufficiently enraged to affect real change. He now admits - before the US Senate - that the current enlightenment had no effect. In the past three years the climate modellers' predictions have been publicly vindicated by hard facts. Predictions then dismissed as theory are now history. The parlous state of our planet's health could not be more evident, and still nothing has happened, except that eminent scientists like Jim Hansen have been driven to join the barricades. Demonstrating last month in Britain for a complete moratorium on new coal-fired power stations he said with typical understatement: "The democratic process doesn't quite seem to be working."
Why isn't it working? Why have we been so slow to grasp the bleeding obvious? And why, having grasped it, do we seem so powerless to make real changes? In Australia Kevin Rudd came to power, with no less an inspirational figure than Peter Garrett, on the implied promise that he would tackle the big C02 polluters and deliver real action on climate change. How can it be that Rudd has been allowed to gag our Pete, renege on his core promise, and still command approval ratings of 70 per cent?
Polls by GetUp! consistently show climate change as the big issue for the public. What will it take before we drive up to the Hunter Valley and chain ourselves to the gates of coal-fired power stations? I'm worried it will never happen. We would rather watch TV shows glorifying some brainless criminal underclass than engage in meaningful civil disobedience. Since Greenpeace went corporate there has been a global shortage of eco-warriors, and most scientists lack the mongrel element to start a revolution.
I've begun to wonder if climatologists are necessarily the best people to frame the problem. Many climatologists (and most sceptics) come from a background in earth sciences, where change - such as erosion - occurs so slowly it may as well be linear. My background is in medicine, and it's a general rule that changes in the human body occur exponentially. The development of the foetus, the growth of a child, the process of ageing and, finally, the sequence of organ failures that lead to death can generally be mapped as an accelerating curve rather than a straight line. Once you get your head around that, you begin to understand the curly timelines of human health and sickness.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (a major contributor to sea level rise) cannot be included in sea-level predictions because we have no model for such a process. Their solution, bizarrely, is to ignore the potential contribution of a mountain of ice three kilometres thick poised to melt and slide into the sea. The great insight offered by James Lovelock in Gaia is that we are the model. Planet Earth, being a web of complex self-regulating systems, operates very much like a human body. Terminal illness gives us the template for most forms of ecological collapse. One set of changes initiates another, and so on in a downward cascade of negative feedback until the whole system falls apart.
Lovelock turns 90 in July. In the autumn of his life he is widely regarded as one of the great scientific visionaries of his generation. He has read the signs. He can see how it will end and he does not mind calling it like it is, with the cheerfulness of a man who has gone beyond terror and outrage to a sort of contented fatalism.
The rest of us are less evolved; my suspicion is that most of us still don't get it. Because here's the paradox: wherever you look in the natural world the message of exponential change is reinforced, yet humans have a weird predisposition to see change as linear. I'm guessing this is a throwback to the caveman days when, if someone threw a rock or a spear at you, it was sensible to assume that the missile would keep coming at a constant speed. Strangely, we unconsciously apply the same neanderthal logic to our understanding of ageing, birth and climate change.
The process of labour and childbirth follows a classic exponential curve: a long deceptive period in which apparently nothing is happening, followed by a period in which the changes become perceptible, and then a great calamitous rush in which the baby makes its appearance. As we watch our own parents age, the same pattern is obvious - a long period in which nothing much seems to happen, followed by a few years in which the deterioration becomes pronounced, and finally the rapid decline in which our loved one quickly expires - a process which will always seem cruelly sudden but, like the eventful "second stage" of labour, is really entirely predictable.
Climate change is often described as linear decline followed by some kind of distant "tipping point". But consider these statistics: in 1979 Arctic sea ice cover remained above 7 million square kilometres all summer; from 1989 it was consistently above 6 million; in 2002 above 5 million; since 2007 above 4 million. I read recently we may have reached a tipping point and the ice will be gone in 20 years. But there is no tipping point - a curve is always tipping, and each new finding redraws the curve. If this year's figure comes in under 4 million square kilometres the patient could be dead inside five years, and ships will be crossing the North Pole in September 2014.
The same kind of graph applies to most aspects of climate change - species extinctions, ocean acidity, loss of rainforest. These probably can be equated to the multiple indices by which we plot human health - white and red cell count, blood pressure, temperature and so on. For the planet, these have been tracking downwards for 30 years and, yet, we find comfort in distant thresholds, burning coal as if there is nothing to panic about.
It's like walking across a dome of rock in a fog. To begin with, the surface seems flat, then a gentle incline, then a bit less gentle until the tilt cannot be ignored. Shall we stop what we're doing? Nah, she'll be right, mate. And in a couple more paces the steepening slope beneath our feet becomes a vertical drop.
John Collee practised medicine before turning full-time to writing. His screenplays include Master And Commander, The Far Side Of The World and Happy Feet.
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