The Climate in Emergency

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


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Considering 9/11

So, tomorrow is 9/11, a date that has become synonymous with an event. It’s been a long time, now. People born since those attacks are about to start turning 18; they’ll vote next year.

We don’t hear a lot about terrorism these days, not in the US–it’s no longer the dominant issue it was a decade ago, let alone nearly two decades ago, at least partly because violence tends not to be labeled terrorism if it’s perpetrated by white Americans who are not Muslim.

But it’s worth noting that attacks on civilians (not all of which ought to be called “terrorism,” but that’s another topic) are still very much an issue, and that climate change is making the issue worse.

Simply put, we know climate change makes terrorism more likely because it increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters to the point of putting large numbers of people in desperate circumstances–and desperate people do desperate things. Also, climate change makes certain kinds of attack easier to accomplish; during severe droughts, public drinking water is much cheaper to poison, since there is less water in reservoirs to dilute poison and wildfires are easier to start.

I’ve discussed before the way that political problems world-wide often have a climate-related component.

So it’s weird that we still tend to take terrorism (at least terrorism perpetrated by certain types of people) more seriously than climate change, given that climate change causes terrorism.

If you want to do something about the one, you must do something about the other.

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Je Suis Worried

Ok, so a couple of days ago a group of people variously blew up and shot up Paris in order to make everybody feel exposed and vulnerable. And in that they succeeded.

I always find these events frustrating and worrying, and not for the obvious reasons. No, I don’t get sad. There are too many people for the tragedy to feel real to me–if you want to get me to cry, tell me a story about one person in terrible circumstance, like a boy I saw interviewed some years ago–his family had fled a war-torn somewhere (Syria, I think) and he was in a refugee camp telling a reporter about the bomb that had gone off in the house next door–his neighbor’s head hand landed in the boy’s lap. Just the head. This poor little boy, telling his story, completely calmly. I will not forget that child. But tell me about 129 dead people and I don’t see the people, I see the number, 129. and I don’t get emotional about numbers. I also don’t feel especially vulnerable because it’s not news to me that there are people who want to kill other people and sometimes succeed. The world did not change for me this week.

But I am aware that the world is changing.

Everybody with a political bandwagon is trying to hitch it to Paris this week, including Mr. Trump’s bizarre insistence that more guns would have improved the situation. The governors of a number of states (including, sadly, mine) have tried to block the arrival of Syrian refugees, an act of reflexive xenophobia eerily reminiscent of our country’s reluctance towards Jewish refugees prior to WWII. People die from such policies. And predictably, we have calls for tightened security, increased militarism…I am worried that, as with 9/11, the Paris attacks will become an excuse to suppress dissent as unpatriotic–the thin edge of the wedge of fascism. That is one facet of my worry.

I was pleased to note the reluctance of Bernie Sanders’ campaign let the recent Democratic debates focus on the attacks–it suggests that he, at least, is not interested in public exhibitions of patriotic fear. He even, quite correctly, identified ISIS (or, more properly, Daesh) as a side effect of climate change, something I’ve addressed here before. I was definitely not pleased that climate change did not otherwise come up in the debate (except that one of the other participants stated, correctly, that “we all believe in climate change”).

Last week, just out of curiosity, I decided to research what would happen if we stopped causing greenhouse gas emissions. What I found spooked even me. Basically, there is a large chunk of this problem that we don’t have the power to stop anymore. Seen against this background, the reticence of the debate moderators, the general failure of even many environmentalists to take the problem seriously, all of it is extremely worrying.

Seriously? Terrorism is a serious problem, but no matter how abusive humans get with each other, the future always contains hope–peace and security can always return. Climate change, by contrast, is casting a shadow thousands of years long. The decisions we make today will, for better or worse, shape the options of generations. Why isn’t dealing with this everybody’s top priority?

The pictures making the rounds of Facebook over the last few days have been calling attention to the recent attack on Beirut and the sad fact that American media does not treat the tragedies of brown or non-Christian people as quite real. The point is well taken. I saw a documentary recently on brain function that described an interesting experiment: human subjects were wired to brain sensors and then shown video of hands being stabbed with needles. The participants’ brains registered an empathic response; the pain centers lit up, almost as though they had been stabbed themselves. But when the hands were given labels, like “Christian” or “Muslim,” the empathic responses stopped, unless the label matched the participants’ own identity. In other words, a visceral response, the ability to respond to the pain of others as if it were our own, can be short-circuited by the thought “that is not one of my people.”

Je suis Paris, but je ne suis pas Beirut, apparently. Je ne suis pas Syrian refugee.

The Karmapa Lama, a Buddhist teacher similar in stature to the Dalai Lama has framed climate change as a moral as well as a scientific and technical crisis–specifically that we are seeing a failure of empathy, a refusal to believe that the people being touched by the problem are really real. Such people include those affected by the killer heat waves in Asia, the firefighters lost out west, and the victims of the civil war in Syria and of Daesh. How do you act when a loved one is under clear and immediate threat? What hope might hinge on a single person being willing to stop at nothing? We need to act that way now.

Je suis humanity. Je suis the atmosphere.