The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Butter Battle Warming

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The following is a rewritten version of an article I published on the original Climate Emergency website, on the occasion of the climate conference in Durban three years ago. The Durban conference laid the foundation for the current conference in Lima and for next year’s conference in Paris–it was the beginning of a multi-year process of negotiation that will (hopefully) result in meaningful change. And yet, it was and is disturbing that this late in the game we should count a mere agreement to keep talking a success. I wrote this article in protest and in anger. I re-post it now in order to put the current talks in a larger context.

When I was little, the big thing to be afraid of was nuclear war. This was the early eighties, and I was old enough to understand the threat of nuclear annihilation, but young enough that I was still getting some of my political commentary from Dr. Seuss. Anybody remember The Butter Battle Book? Adjacent populations of furry, orange people get into an arms race over an obviously pointless controversy, and end up simultaneously inventing bombs capable of blowing up both countries. As both sides square off, bombs in hand, a child ask his bombardier father “Who’s going to drop it? Will you or will he?” The adult answers, “Be patient. We’ll see, we will see.”

Of course, global warming was already a threat then, and nuclear weapons still pose a serious threat now. The world’s nations still face each other tensely across boarders and bargaining tables. Only now we are locked into an entirely different form of Mutually Assured Destruction.

M.A.D., of course, was the principle that as long as two countries were equally capable of destroying each other, neither side would actually press the button. It was a stalemate that ensured the status quo, and kept the bombs from going off.That was a good thing.

Now,we face stalemate over climate. Developing countries are understandably reluctant to bear the cost of fixing a problem they have done little to cause. Meanwhile, rich countries won’t sign a treaty that does not include the developing world doing its fair share. When climate conferences end with no agreement to reduce emissions we call it a success because at least no one left the negotiating table. Again, stalemate is maintained, because no one wants to take the risk to move first.

The big difference is that now sticking with the status quo is very, very bad. “Doing nothing” about the climate is actually a misnomer in that we are actually all working very hard on the climate all the time–we are warping it. If humanity really did nothing on climate change, that would mean letting all the fires in all the power plants and combustion engines in the world go out, mixing no more concrete, building no more air conditioners and refrigeration units, cutting down no more trees….Being in stalemate locks us into doing exactly what we should not do.

That climate change is a thing we are doing also means it is a thing we can stop doing. In principle, ending anthropogenic climate change is actually very simple–we just have to turn the machines off. But doing that is not without its risks and difficulties and no one wants to do it until the other guy does.

Stated that way, the impasse sounds as stupid as going to war over butter, but in real life the challenges we’re looking at are all quite real. We’re looking at problems of justice and fairness and survival on both the personal and the national levels. A certain reluctance to change is understandable–everyone “deserves” the comfort and power that fossil fuel buys.

Ok, so who’s going to drop it? Will you, or will he?

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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