Thank you, Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy did the planet a favor by hitting hard right at some of our most elite enclaves.

This time it’s not the poor residents of the Ninth Ward facing the horror of flooding, it’s the wealthy owners of some of the most valuable coastal property in the country.

When I heard Mayor Bloomberg of New York, one of the richest men on the planet, finally come and out say the words “climate change” with urgency, I had to smile despite the seriousness of the context, because it meant that at last the rich and powerful are getting the message that the status quo cannot go on—at least, not if we expect to survive as a civilization into the 22nd century.

The truth is that Americans in the ruling class—the business owners, the politicians, the finance and computer wizards, the media producers, the educators, even the artists–have been living in a luxurious gated community our whole lives.

We have been watching the travails of those outside, including the accelerating extinction of other species and the poisoning of the environment, from what has seemed like a safe, secure vantage point, behind several layers of bullet-proof glass.

Americans have watched impassively as people in other parts of the world have been forced to deal with terrible storms, flooding, and droughts with increasing regularity over the past decade.

As long as the electricity stays on and the supermarkets and gas stations are full and open for business, we just don’t pay much attention to what’s going on with the weather.  As long as our homes are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, what’s the problem?

People like James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and Elizabeth Kolbert have been knocking futilely on the windows for years, trying to get the ruling class to wake up and pay attention to the looming threat of climate change before it’s too late.

They’ve made little progress up to now.

But Hurricane Sandy is a game changer.  Blowing into town the week before the Presidential elections, she put climate change on to the front page of the New York Times at last.  She forced her way into the bland discourse of Presidential politics.

She tossed her windy head and in just a few hours paralyzed the “greatest city on Earth,” creating $50 billion of damage that will take weeks if not months to clean up.

All of a sudden, city planners are talking seriously about flood gates, and some are saying it might be foolish to rebuild in the same way, right down along the coast.

I don’t hear many in our ruling class yet saying what needs to be said, which is that our entire lifestyle has been built up in an unsustainable way, and must be changed if we are to leave a livable legacy to our children and grandchildren.

We must wean ourselves from the addiction to fossil fuels.  We must shift from highways and cars to mass transit.  We must immediately start reducing emissions in every way possible, with special attention to the agriculture sector, which has to be completely redesigned with sustainability and health—our own, and that of the animals and plants we cultivate—in mind.

We must build a much more resilient, collaborative culture.  Competition and aggression may have been the watchwords of the capitalist and imperialist 19th and 20th century, but following their star has landed us in our current grave circumstances. We can’t go any further down that path.

For thousands of years prior to the Christian era, human beings lived tribally and cooperatively in harmony with the land.  Our population has now grown so large that we are reduced to fighting each other for increasingly scarce resources.

Going forward, if we are to survive, we must transcend the pettiness of national boundaries and ethnic differences, recognize our common goals as humans, and start to work together to provide strategically for the good of all.

This may seem like an impossibly idealistic goal, but if there is one thing that I believe can unite human beings, it is the awareness now dawning about how interconnected we are through our dependence on the life support of our planet.

It is sad that the Earth has had to sink to such an unbalanced, depleted state before we began to pay attention.  I would not wish a Hurricane Sandy on anyone.  But it seems that we need wake-up calls of her magnitude to get us up and out of the stupor of denial and inaction.

As I step over the threshold into my sixth decade today, I can feel a new resoluteness building in me; a new determination to use my time in a more focused way.

I vow to give the best of myself to the struggle for a sustainable future, and to encourage others to join me in this effort.  There is nothing more important any of us can be doing now.

Help Wanted: Strong Leadership on Climate Change, Starting Immediately

Now if only President Obama could show the same leadership on climate change as he has just demonstrated on the divisive same- sex-marriage issue.

The same narrow-minded interests that made same-sex marriage such a boogeyman for the President are also controlling the GOP-dominated boardrooms of Big Oil, from Mr. Cheney on down.

These people seem to be motivated by one thing only: the bottom line.  And they seem to be able to think only as far as a quarter or two ahead.

They don’t see that they are driving us as fast as possible over a cliff from which there will be no recovery.  Or maybe they see, but just don’t care.

It was with great appreciation that I opened up The New York Times Opinion pages today and saw the indefatigable James Hansen offering the lead op-ed, once more displaying his vision and leadership in 1) insisting that the comfortable NYT readers pay attention to the imminent and grave threat of climate change, and 2) offering a practical solution for bringing about the swift change of course we need to avert disaster.

Those of us who have been thrown into gloom by the prospect of Canada scraping down the boreal forest to exploit their tar sands will be somewhat heartened by the strong language Hansen uses to condemn this approach to “solving” the peak oil crisis.

Alberta, Canada: from boreal forest to tar sand devastation

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

This is not some crazy Armageddon-spouting evangelical talking here.  This is James Hansen, senior scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The way to head off this catastrophic scenario, as Hansen and many other scientists have been telling us now for at least a decade, is to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense, and Hansen has an easy, no-nonsense solution for forcing Americans to change our ways and start doing what we have to do to save our planet and our civilization.

“We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny,” Hansen says. “This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

As Hansen observes, in practice what we have been doing is just the opposite: “instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.”

These subsidies must stop.

Canada and the US must stop playing poker with the future of our children and our planetary epoch.

All of us, from President Obama and Prime Minister Harper right on down to each one of us ordinary folks who drive cars, heat our houses and run our air conditioning, need to stop pretending that business-as-usual can continue any longer.

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