(Image Credit: http://www.netgalley.com)
Imagine four clocks bearing an asymmetric relationship to each other. The first clock represents the ‘reality’ of climate change. In other words, this clock is Mother Nature herself. The second clock is the barometer for the state of Science. Whether we like it or not, Science will always lag behind reality in decoding, deciphering and deciding on the occurrence, impact and consequences of reality in the form of climate change. The penultimate clock is public awareness. This is the most ‘malleable’ of the four clocks, susceptible to contradictory messages fusillading out the chambers of various vested interests. The final clock is made up by the world of finance and industry. An unrelenting machine of capitalism who levers are greased in perpetuity by the ever improving lubricants of profits, growth and earnings. The clocks of Science, public awareness and business always lag behind (invariably and at times conveniently) vis-à-vis the clock of reality.
Eugene Linden has been covering seminal issues dealing with global warming, climate change and its attendant environmental impacts for the Time magazine since the 1980s. In what arguably has to be his most hard hitting work till date, Linden in “Fire and Flood” lambasts the head in the sand approach that seems to be adopted by a majority of stakeholders in combating the pernicious evil of climate change, an evil which to a large and unfortunate extent, has been birthed by man himself.
As Linden illustrates, climate change is not a novel concept that has reared its ugly head in the new millennium. In the late 1970s President Jimmy Carter commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to investigate The Carbon Dioxide Problem. Even before such a study was commissioned, committed environmentalists of the likes of the immortal Rachel Carson had spawned a veritable movement/awakening on the evils of climate change. Carson’s “A Silent Spring” a work that laid out in eviscerating terms the impact of the chemical DDT on sentient beings.
The report presented to Carter by renowned scientists Roger Revelle and George Woodwell warned about induced climate change as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions. This alarm was followed up by James Hansen’s passionate testimony in 1988 to a US Senate committee. However, both these reports represented a mere blip on the horizon of consciousness and conscientiousness. The Reagan administration that stood for furthering the interests of business, cut back on funding for climate management as industry and commerce ran amok to obfuscate all potential moves to battle global warming.
Linden takes his readers decade by decade beginning with the late 1970s to illustrate both awareness on rampant climate change, as well as concerted attempts to sabotage such awareness. For example, Charles Keeling, an American scientist who assiduously recorded carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory thereby confirming the possibility of anthropogenic contribution to the greenhouse effect and global warming saw a cut in funding because his painstaking method of observation could not be classified as ‘research’.
The 2000s, represented the zenith of climate denialism. As Linden writes, merchants of doubt peddled and triggered heated deliberations over the ‘hockey stick’ graph (showing an abrupt rise in temperatures over time) and whether global warming had ‘stalled’ after the powerful 1997–98 El Niño event. These purveyors even fueled the 2009 Climategate scandal over scientists’ internal discussions.
As linden illustrates in chilling terms, it is not that the industry is unaware of the ramifications of climate change. An insurance broker’s honest assessment observed that weather-related disasters cost the world US$1.8 trillion between 2000 and 2010, and $3 trillion between 2010 and 2019. In 2021, according to the insurance giant Swiss Re, natural disasters around the world cost insurers $111 billion, on overall economic losses of $270 billion. Wildfires in Australia in the years 2019 and 2021 resulted in close to 2 billion animals being killed.
Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina warned the world about the untrammeled release of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the ozone layer. While this finding resulted in the duo bagging the Nobel Prize, it took a lackadaisical world almost two decades after the finding to take some form of concrete action. Renewable energies are still in an exploratory phase despite solar power being the cheapest in terms of cost, as fossil fuel subsidies reach a burgeoning $400 billion, in the United States alone.
But as Linden tries to assure us, it is not all doom and gloom, and it need not be either. Using a mix of innovative technologies and designs, we can still save the only inhabitable Planet – yet. For example, taking advantage of satellite based remote sensing technologies, green house gases can be monitored at the point of their origin. This can pave the path for establishing a baseline and tariffs adjusted based on success or failure in adhering to such baselines.
Introduction of a Carbon Tax regime and simply curbing illegal deforestation are two other areas that are ripe for ecological reform.
Fire & Flood – An urgent choice to either preserve or perish.