Saturday, 9 June 2012

Fighting Climate Change: the invisible enemy -- by Hugh Robertson

16th in a series on ecologyeconomicsethics by an Ottawa Friend. With the author's permission, we have printed many of the previous reflections in this blog.

As weather records topple like ten pins and climate instability escalates, we seem to sink ever
deeper into apathy, denial and paralysis. The gloom grows with every new announcement.

In the US, the number of people doubting the existence of anthropogenic climate change has
been steadily increasing. However, a poll just published in the NY Times indicates that the
recent erratic weather has persuaded more Americans that there is some credence to the
concerns of climate scientists. The poll was still not enough to persuade President Obama to
mention “climate change” in his Earth Day message for fear of a right wing reaction. Politics not
only interferes with science, it also intensifies the risks of social confrontation.

In Canada, public opinion on climate change is more closely correlated with the economy
than with weather developments. When the level of economic activity drops, so does our
concern for the environment. We do not experience the same extreme weather events that
the Americans do, except in the Arctic; sadly that area has slipped off our radar screens. Not
even warnings about the possible disappearance of two of our iconic symbols – polar bears and
shinny rinks – can jolt us out of passivity.

Now David Suzuki, another of our symbols – though far from disappearing – has acknowledged
that the environmental movement has hit a dead end. Partly, he believes that it is because
environmentalists have failed to sell the right message. The real question is whether any
message would have been heard.

As a sentient species we are remarkably deaf to scientific evidence. Perhaps it is because
science is so dispassionately rational that it does not possess the same power to move us as, in
the past, the call to arms has inspired us to resist those foes who have threatened our freedom.
Our need to mitigate the destructive effects of climate change has to be expressed with the
same inspirational energy which gave our predecessors the determination and courage to
defend themselves against a more visible and tangible threat.

Confronting the climate crisis is an undertaking that may not have any historical precedents but
it certainly has prescient parallels. Unlike previous conflicts, we are facing an invisible enemy
and, moreover, an enemy of our own creation. To complicate the battle scene further, we are
not only fighting ourselves, both in our attitudes and in our actions, but we are also fighting
among ourselves. In Pogo’s immortal words: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Our fight must be aimed primarily at anthropogenic greenhouse gases (ghgs) – a foe as
insidious as it is invisible. The main culprits are carbon dioxide and methane, both colourless
and odourless gases that circulate in the upper atmosphere where they trap the heat that is
inexorably warming the planet.

Global climate and weather aberrations clearly indicate that a war is already underway. Nature
has struck first, provoked by constant abuse into launching an offensive. From the outset we
are on the defensive, divided and unprepared with no clear tactical or strategic objectives.

Unlike World War II, when, except for a lone dissenter, the House of Commons was unanimous
in its declaration of war on Nazi Germany, we are hopelessly divided. The battle lines are
blurred because there is no common enemy, nor can we even agree on the enemy. We are
shell shocked because we are caught in both the crossfire and friendly fire and we cannot
distinguish one from the other. We are confused and demoralized.

The external threats, in the form of weird weather and changing climate, are not yet urgent
enough to create a sense of national emergency. In 1939 the fear of German aggression in
Europe was palpable and the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in late 1941 transformed the
US into a belligerent overnight. Future generations may well apply President Roosevelt’s
famous phrase, “a day of infamy,” to our timid response to combat the serious threats to the
environment upon which we are so dependent for life itself.

The economies of the allied powers were immediately converted to war-time production;
within days tanks replaced cars on the assembly lines. Ironically, we cannot summon that will
today and force manufacturers to scale down the size of the peacetime descendants of those
military vehicles, such as jeeps, hummers, trucks, land cruisers and suvs to compact hybrids in
order to wage war on ghgs.

Why have we failed to designate the automobile as “a weapon of mass destruction?” We
declared war on tobacco but we refuse to launch a war against one of the major contributors
to ghgs. Is it because of the power of consumers, voters, unions, executives, shareholders,
the advertising industry or politicians? Perhaps we have to investigate more ethereal enemies
in the form of ideologies that hold us captive, such as free market capitalism or unfettered
economic growth, in an effort to isolate and understand the enemies of nature.

World War II entered a period known as the “phony war” from September, 1939 to April, 1940
when there was little military activity in Western Europe. We are well into our phony war –
a “war” characterized by phony ghg targets, phony policies such as cap and trade, and phony
political rhetoric. Even the platitudes ring phony. As the planet heats up and the weather
gyrates, there is a surreal phoniness to our efforts to combat climate change. “Fighting for the
future” had meaning in Europe in 1939. Today it is an eerily empty phrase.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in December, 1997 is part of a tradition of multilateral diplomatic
conferences aimed at maintaining international peace and security. Kyoto is different because
it targets environmental peace and security by laying out a strategy to mitigate the growth of

global ghgs. Kyoto can also be viewed as a declaration of war on behalf of the environment.
But in an endless series of rancorous UN sponsored conferences over the past 14 years, the
signatories have failed to agree to any binding international commitments on ghg targets.

The parties made progress at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 by drawing a line in the sand
and agreeing that anything in excess of a 2 degree C increase in global temperatures in this
century would catapult the planet into runaway climate chaos. Scientists now estimate that we
are on our way to reaching this critical threshold by 2050. Unmoved by the warnings, countries,
both developed and developing, are stampeding across that crucial line in a frenetic race to the
bottom as they pursue the dream, or rather the nightmare, of perpetual economic growth.

The scourge of nationalism, precursor of so many wars, still haunts us today. As resources
become increasingly scarce, it will be economic nationalism this time pitting country against
country in ruinous conflicts. The failure of international cooperation will initiate a free-for-all as
conventions and protocols break down. Next on the feeding list will be the melting Arctic as its
oil, minerals and fish become more easily accessible. The major players are already lining up at
the starting line in the north as the last frontier opens up for exploitation.

“Truth” is invariably the first casualty in war. Despite warnings, such as the thawing Arctic and
the increased frequency of weather blitzes and the virtually unanimous scientific consensus
that global warming heralds major climate changes, the denial camp is undeterred. Their
propaganda machine, bankrolled by corporate money, has been in combat mode for years.
Their storm troopers are actively promoting climate heresies in a compliant media that is
always anxious for controversy. By creating doubt in the public mind, the climate contrarians
are thwarting the formation of a common front in the battle against global warming.

In the words uttered by Abraham Lincoln shortly before the Civil War, are we in danger of
becoming “a house divided against itself”? At the very time we should be uniting against an
overwhelming threat to our survival, we risk unleashing a fratricidal civil war. Society could
fragment in multiple ways. We could split into climate believers and non-believers, reminiscent
of earlier religious wars. Alternatively, because high income earners create a disproportionate
percentage of ghgs, society could fracture along socio-economic lines igniting a class war.

Earlier this year, some politicians suggested that environmental groups with “a radical
ideological agenda,” acting as proxies for foreign organizations, are undermining our national
economic interests by “hijacking” regulatory processes. Our environment minister, who is
charged with protecting our natural endowment, accused foreign environmental groups
of “laundering” money through Canadian charities, while a Conservative senator suggested that
the environmental movement was engaging in “influence peddling.”

According to the news media, the government is even considering changing the definition of
domestic terrorism to include environmentalism. Instead of declaring and promoting a united
war on ghgs, the government has declared war on free speech, intimidating and vilifying its
citizens in the process. Implying that those committed to the cause of global survival are a
foreign financed fifth column sounds like George Orwell in modern guise. It also smacks of the
repugnant McCarthyism of the Cold War era. Witch hunts do little to forge national unity.

In the midst of these accusations, Postmedia reported that the government had been quietly
working with the oil and gas lobby to gild its climate change policies to avoid punitive European
Union fuel sanctions on tarsands bitumen. Government documents allude to environmental
organizations as “adversaries” while fossil fuel companies are regarded as “allies.” Does
government collusion with the oil industry portend the emergence of a new triangular version
of the “military-industrial complex” in President Eisenhower’s memorable phrase?

Decisive leadership, so crucial in prosecuting a successful military campaign, is lacking in the
climate confrontation. We are leaderless at a time of crisis. The government is consorting with
the enemy. The brass have gone AWOL and deserted the troops. Our armchair generals are
busy concocting technofixes, such as carbon sequestration and storage rather than focusing
on the real enemy – consumption and lifestyle. Other “weapons,” such as buying offsets for
our “carbon sins” are more closely linked to the medieval religious practice of selling papal
indulgences than modern warfare.

The possibility of a common front in the climate campaign has just suffered another major
setback. The government has launched a preemptive strike on the environment by using the
budget bill as a Trojan Horse to conceal numerous measures attacking nature. We are faced
with a crisis of conscience: do we fight for the future or do we capitulate to political bullying?

The war for planetary and national security is not only a just and a moral war, it is also a
revolutionary war because we have to change basic societal values regarding consumption, self-
interest and waste. The war can never be won unless there is a fundamental transformation of
our lifestyles which, at present, far exceed the sustainable capacity of the planet. Above all, it is
a war of principle because we are fighting for the rights of unborn generations who have played
no part in the desecration of nature. There can be no conscientious objectors in this war, no
passive resistance, no surrender to political threats and corporate propaganda.

Individually, we are responsible for taking action; we can no longer rely on the state. We
have to answer the call to arms by waging a personal war, in the peaceful tradition of Gandhi
and Martin Luther King, against pollution, fossil fuels and environmental degradation. It will
undeniably require sacrifices in lifestyle but our commitment and dedication to the cause will
surely be reinforced by the troubling questions our grandchildren will soon be asking: Which
side were you on Grandma and Granddad? Did you fight for my future?

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