Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"But This Ship Can't Sink!"

Course correction neededThis is a repost from the Hydrovolts blog, oringially posted on 3/22/09.

Climate Progress is, without exception, the best source for factual information on the science and politics of climate change.

However, Joe Romm, the former Department of Energy official who largely is Climate Progress, says we shouldn't call it "climate change" anymore, since that is too unalarming a euphemism for the dire future that will arrive later this century:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 15°F over much of the United States
  • Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Widespread desertification — as much as one-third of the land
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — 50% or more of all life
  • Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
  • More severe hurricanes — especially in the Gulf
Read the post. It's an excellent and succinct summary, with references. The consequences of not stabilizing atmospheric carbon levels are growing more severe. The costs of mitigation are today still relatively modest, but increasing; the costs of adapting in later decades to a changed world and coping with multiple failures of economic systems, the environment, and public health will be substantial.
Now if only the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives could start articulating this reality cogently.
If only.

The problem is that the timescales are enormously long compared to the attention spans or even the planning horizons of most people. We live in times that emphasize the short-term in everything. Quarterly earnings reports. This year's model. Spring fashions. Low teaser rates. 90 days, no interest. How do you galvanize people to respond to an emergency they can't see and which takes decades to wreak its havoc? I am reminded of a scene from the movie Titanic, after the iceberg has struck and gashed the hull: the naval architect, Thomas Andrews, breaks the bad news to Captain Edward J. Smith and Cunard White Star Line honcho J. Bruce Ismay:
Thomas Andrews: ...As she goes down by the head, the water will spill over the tops of the bulkheads at E deck from one to the next. Back and back. There's no stopping it.

Smith: The pumps... if we opened the doors...

Thomas Andrews: [interrupting] The pumps buy you time, but minutes only. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder.

Ismay: [incredulously] But this ship can't sink!

Thomas Andrews: She's made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can... and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.
Meanwhile the passengers continue on, unaware that their current experience is not their future--the ship is doomed. The lights are still on, the music is still playing; to them, the ship looks just the same. The fleeting concern of the moneyed and comfortable is quickly allayed by those for whom reassurance is their job. Steward: "I shouldn't worry ma'am. We've likely thrown a propeller blade, that's the shudder you felt. May I bring you anything?" While it is yet level, anyone hurtling about the deck screaming that the ship is sinking would be ignored or dismissed out of hand (as Ismay does: "This ship can't sink!")

This Titanic scene is a parable for us passengers on the Earth. For the most part, everything looks OK, but we are taking on water. People with expertise, who are knowledgeable on the particulars, are sounding the alarm, and urging response and preparation. Others, who may be experts in their own fields, insist that nothing is amiss. Maybe in our case we can buy enough time with the pumps, and the repairs, and the ship needn't sink. Denial and delay, however, ensures a steep plunge, and an ugly lifeboat exercise where none of money, status or morality will hold much sway.

Ismay's incredulous outburst, "But this ship can't sink!" comes from his belief, not his expertise. He lacks the understanding of engineering and physics to make such a statement of fact; instead it is a desperate attempt to arrest the vanishing permanence of a state of mind: too much would change or be lost were it to happen, so the ship can't be allowed to sink. But of course, it can, and it does.

The biggest impediment to acceptance of, and action upon climate change, the sinking of our ship, is the inchoate belief that it is unsinkable.

Update: Corrected Titanic's ownership

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