Ch. 2: The End of Life As We Know It

Syrian food line

It is not possible to address the psychological dimensions of climate chaos, or to propose realistic reparations, without first confronting the scope and extent of the problems we are facing. This is especially true when those problems by their very nature must grow worse before they can be adequately addressed, which happens to be the case with a systemic, ‘time-release’ problem like climate change.

The real ‘inconvenient truth’ – one that is rarely brought up in discussions of climate change – is that there is approximately a forty year lag-time between global emissions (what we do) and climate impacts (what we experience). In other words, the record average temperatures of the last decade are a consequence of emissions from the 1960’s, and that the acceleration in climate changes we are now witnessing is locked in till at least 2050. As if this was not itself alarming enough, there has been as much CO2 emitted since 1970 than during the entire period of the Industrial Age before 1970.

Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University and a member of the IPCC, recently stated that a two degree celcius (3.2F) rise in average global temperature is already ‘baked in,’ thanks to the time lag, which in itself will cause substantial changes to ecosystems and large scale transformations of the biosphere, such as loss of the coral reefs. Thus, as reported in the New York Times, as climate negotiators prepare for the talks in Paris later this year:

“The objective now, negotiators say, is to stave off atmospheric temperature increases of 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century; at that point, they say, the planet could become increasingly uninhabitable.”

So we know that things are going to get at least twice as bad as they are right now in the short term, and it is looking like they are going to get a lot worse than that in our children’s lifetimes. Now you might think to yourself things don’t really seem all that bad right now, apart from a freak storm now and then and unusual heat waves and cold snaps. So before going any further in this assessment, let us ask ourselves what we know about the impacts of climate change in the world right now.

All we really need to know is what we can see happening right now, before our collective eyes, which is a great extinction unfolding. Nearly half of all wildlife has been wiped out during the short time in which our global population has doubled. The oceans are in deep trouble. 

This, to me, means that it is abundantly clear that life as we have come to know it and think of it is ending. And we are just at the beginning of this process. From the standpoint of a global population of humans and all other species, that is tantamount to the kind of terminal diagnosis that triggers hospice care for an individual. There is no reason to go any further than that, as it is definitely a terminal condition for many species, and as it implies a tremendous amount of human suffering that we would be well advised to begin preparing to alleviate as much as possible right now.

I actually believe that adversity brings out the best in human beings — and this is going to be the greatest adversity that we have ever faced. Therefore, it is going to bring out something better in us than we have ever known we are capable of. 

The concern is neither with saving nor condemning the world during this time of great dying and grieving, or needlessly speculating about our uncertain future. Instead, the over-riding, if not sole, concern is to alleviate the suffering attended with these most unfortunate times we find ourselves living in. That is the essence of compassionately responding to our climate in crisis. But in order to be effective caregivers, it is first necessary to process our own repressed grief over the rupture between humans and nature that began with the splitting of the atom, and has been escalating ever since. And that is the concern of the rest of this book.

 (c) 2015 Zhiwa Woodbury: No reproduction of this and related pieces without express authorization from the author

3 thoughts on “Ch. 2: The End of Life As We Know It”

    1. The question presumes that methane will ‘engulf’ the earth. Lord knows, that’s worst case scenario. But it also happens to be speculative at this time. Climate science is hardly an exact science, and the truth is that while we are playing an incredibly dangerous game, the most dangerous game ever, we do not know how things are going to play out. The Yellowstone Caldera could suddenly blow in 2020, plunging us into a volcanic winter. The Earth is not a steady state system, and if we’ve learned anything so far from climate models, it’s that there are just so many unknown or unfixed variables in play. It’s why I prefer to focus on what we do know, and resist the temptation of projecting future scenarios in areas of real uncertainty – like methane emissions. We know about CO2 and climate uptake and lag times and average temperature increases. We really don’t have the same kind of baseline information on CH4. I’m all about managing risks (unlike our so-called political leaders), but I fail to appreciate the utility of assuming worst case scenarios are somehow inevitable. I suspect that is another form of despair. But for those who persist, hey – the hospice model is right for you! Check out the paper “The Planetary Hospice Movement” for more on applying hospice principles to the climate crisis.

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