Wednesday, July 25, 2012 5:05 PM
Carl Safina is a MacArthur fellow, Pew fellow, and Guggenheim fellow, an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, and president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include among others Song for the Blue Ocean,The View From Lazy Point, and his book about the 2010 Gulf blowout, A Sea in Flames. He is host of "Saving the Ocean," on PBS television. Safina was named an Utne Reader Visionary in 2011. Keep up with him and his work at CarlSafina.org.
can’t remember who dragged me to see the movie Jurassic Park, but one resonant
line in that movie was worth the price of admission, this unforgettable sentence:
“Life finds a way.” It popped out at me because it so economically summed up a
truth behind all of nature’s stunning diversity and the continuity of the
living adventure of Life on Earth.
Australian ecologist Roger Bradbury has recently asserted that coral reefs are doomed, living-dead, “zombie ecosystems” that
will inevitably—and soon—utterly collapse under the multiple fatal blows of
overfishing, pollution and the ocean acidification and warming resulting from
the global buildup of carbon dioxide. (See his New York Times op-ed, “A World Without Coral Reefs.")
says we should give up. Any hope for reefs, he says, is a delusion. (Andy
Revkin collected a few responses from scientists at his New York TimesDot Earth blog.)
that really be so? Certainly things die, lineages go extinct—and coral reefs
are in a world of hurt. All true. Also true is the existence of heat-tolerant
corals, corals that are regularly exposed to (and routinely survive) the
extreme stress of finding themselves out in the tropical air at low tide, and
many ocean organisms that live through large swings in pH through tidal cycles.
Yes many coral reefs are degraded. Yes it doesn’t look good. But sometimes
living diversity supplies marginal adaptations that suddenly fit perfectly into
new conditions. Someone (not Darwin) called it “survival of the fittest.”
That’s what the phrase means; not survival of the strongest but of the ones who
find themselves in the right place at the right time as conditions change to
suddenly suit them. Look around; it works.
Agreed, it is past due to raise the alarm that coral reefs in many areas have
largely collapsed, and that their future looks bleak. As an anguished lover of
reefs and living things generally, and as an ecologist by profession, I cannot
picture what it will take for coral reef systems to survive and thrive. But I
also cannot picture a world in which no reef corals adapt, persist, and
flourish, simply because it’s true: Life finds a way.
Bradbury suggests giving up and spending money on what to replace the values
(for example, fish) that coral reefs have provided to humans. But what would
giving up look like? Overfishing is old news, and plenty of people are, in
fact, spending money trying to raise fish. Some are making money.
Overpopulation: also old news and crucial to everything from water supplies to
prospects for peace. One doesn’t need to certify future coral reef destruction
to realize that overpopulation is bad for human health and dignity, not to mention
a catastrophe for wild living systems. These problems have caused the losses to
date and they continue. Warming and ocean acidification are also building.
But to accept that reefs are doomed implies that the best response is to give
up hope, thus give up effort. That means we give up on curbing overfishing and
allowing rebuilding (yet these two goals are in fact are increasingly working
in many places, specifically because people have not given up, and because
letting fish recover can work). It means we give up on controlling pollution
(in the U.S., the Clean Water Act brought great improvement to rivers so
polluted that they actually caught fire multiple times; developing nations
deserve to do no less for themselves). It means we give up on population, whose
most effective solving strategy is to teach girls to read and write.
Giving up, while reefs still flourish in many places, means accepting what is
unacceptable, and abandoning work on situations that can likely be improved. It
means deciding to be hopeless. It means giving up on the reefs, the fishes, and
the people, who need all the combined efforts of those who both know the
science best—and who, while life exists, won’t give up.
The science is clear that reefs are in many places degraded and in serious
trouble. But no science has, or likely can, determine that reefs and all their
associated non-coral creatures are unequivocally, equally and everywhere,
completely doomed to total non-existence. In fact, much science suggests they
will persist in some lesser form. Bleak prospects have been part of many
dramatic turnarounds, and, who knows, life may, as usual—with our best
efforts—find a way.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011 4:28 PM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama’s announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in -- and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change.
The pipeline decision was a true upset. Everyone -- and I mean everyone who "knew" how these things work -- seemed certain that the president would approve it. The National Journal runs a weekly poll of “energy insiders” -- that is, all the key players in Washington. A month to the day before the Keystone XL postponement, this large cast of characters was “virtually unanimous” in guaranteeing that it would be approved by year’s end.
Transcanada Pipeline, the company that was going to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the tar-sands fields of Alberta, Canada, through a sensitive Midwestern aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico, certainly agreed. After all, they’d already mowed the strip and prepositioned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipe, just waiting for the permit they thought they’d bought with millions in lobbying giftsand other maneuvers. Happily, activists across the country weren’t smart enough to know they’d been beaten, and so they staged the largest civil disobedience action in 35 years, not to mention ringing the White House with people, invading Obama campaign offices, and generally proving that they were willing to fight.
No permanent victory was won. Indeed, just yesterday Transcanada agreed to reroute the pipeline in Nebraska in an effort to speed up the review, though that appears not to change the schedule. Still, we're waiting for the White House to clarify that they will continue to fully take climate change into account in their evaluation. But even that won't be final. Obama could just wait for an election victory and then approve the pipeline -- as any Republican victor certainly would. Chances are, nonetheless, that the process has now gotten so messy that Transcanada’s pipeline will die of its own weight, in turn starving the tar-sands oil industry and giving a boost to the global environment. Of course, killing the pipeline will hardly solve the problem of global warming (though heavily exploiting those tar sands would, in NASA scientist James Hansen’s words, mean “game over for the climate.”)
In this line of work, where victories of any kind are few and far between, this was a real win. It began with indigenous activists, spread to Nebraska ranchers, and eventually turned into the biggest environmental flashpoint in many years. And it owed no small debt to the Occupy Wall Street protesters shamefully evicted from Zuccotti Park last night, who helped everyone understand the power of corporate money in our daily lives. That these forces prevailed shocked most pundits precisely because it’s common wisdom that they’re not the sort of voters who count, certainly not in a year of economic trouble.
In fact, the biggest reason the realists had no doubts the pipeline would get its permit, via a State Department review and a presidential thumbs-up of that border-crossing pipeline, was because of the well-known political potency of the jobs argument in bad economic times. Despite endless lazy reporting on the theme of jobs versus the environment, there were actually no net jobs to be had from the pipeline. It was always a weak argument, since the whole point of a pipeline is that, once it's built, no one needs to work there. In addition, as the one study not paid for by Transcanada made clear, the project would kill as many jobs as it would create.
The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson finally demonstrated this late in the game with a fine report taking apart Transcanada’s job estimates. (The 20,000 jobs endlessly taken for granted assumed, among other stretches, that modern dance troupes would move to Nebraska, where part of the pipeline would be built, to entertain pipeline workers.) Still, the jobs trope remained, and you can be sure that the Chamber of Commerce will run 1,000 ads during the 2012 presidential campaign trying to hammer it home. And you can be sure the White House knew that, which was why it was such a tough call for them -- and why the pressure of a movement among people whose support matters to them made a difference.
Let’s assume the obvious then: that one part of their recent calculations that led to the postponement decision might just be the suspicion that they will actually win votes thanks to the global-warming question in the next election.
For one thing, global warming denial has seen its apogee. The concerted effort by the fossil-fuel industry to underwrite scientific revision met its match last month when a team headed by Berkeley skeptic and prominent physicist Richard Muller -- with funding from the Koch Brothers, of all people -- actually found that, what do you know, all the other teams of climate-change scientists were, um, right. The planet was indeed warming just as fast as they, and the insurance companies, and the melting ice had been insisting.
Still, scientific studies only reach a certain audience. Weird weather is a far more powerful messenger. It’s been hard to miss the record flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and across the Northeast; the record drought and fires across the Southwest; the record multi-billion dollar weather disasters across the country this year; the record pretty-much everything-you-don’t-want across the nation. Obama certainly noticed. He’s responsible for finding the cash every time some other state submerges.
As a result, after years of decline, the number of Americans who understand that the planet is indeed warming and that we’re to blame appears to be on the rise again. And ironically enough, one reason may be the spectacle of all the tea-partying GOP candidates for the presidency being forced to swear fealty to the notion that global warming is a hoax. Normal people find this odd: it’s one thing to promise Grover Norquist that you’ll never ever raise taxes; it’s another to promise that you’ll defeat chemistry and physics with the mighty power of the market.
Along these lines, Mitt Romney made an important unforced error last month. Earlier in the primaries, he and Jon Huntsman had been alone in the Republican field in being open to the idea that global warming might actually be real. Neither wanted to do anything about it, of course, but that stance itself was enough to mark them as realists. It was also a sign that Romney was thinking ahead to the election itself, and didn’t want to be pinned against this particular wall.
In late October, however, he evidently felt he had no choice but to pin himself to exactly that wall and so stated conclusively: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” In other words, he not only flip-flopped to the side of climate denial, but did so less than six months after he had said no less definitively: “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer… And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.” Note as well that he did so, while all the evidence, even some recently funded by the deniers, pointed the other way.
If he becomes the Republican presidential candidate as expected, this may be the most powerful weathervane ad the White House will have in its arsenal. Even for people who don’t care about climate change, it makes him look like the spinally challenged fellow he seems to be. But it’s an ad that couldn’t be run if the president had okayed that pipeline.
Now that Obama has at least temporarily blocked Keystone XL, now that his team has promised to consider climate change as a factor in any final decision on the pipeline’s eventual fate, he can campaign on the issue. And in many ways, it may prove a surprise winner.
After all, only people who would never vote for him anyway deny global warming. It’s a redoubt for talk-show rightists. College kids, on the other hand, consistently rank it among the most important issues. And college kids, as Gerald Seib pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, are a key constituency for the president, who is expected to need something close to the two-thirds margin he won on campus in 2008 to win again in 2012.
Sure, those kids care about student loans, which threaten to take them under, and jobs, which are increasingly hard to come by, but the nature of young people is also to care about the world. In addition, independent voters, suburban moms -- these are the kinds of people who worry about the environment. Count on it: they’ll be key targets for Obama’s presidential campaign.
Given the economy, that campaign will have to make Mitt Romney look like something other than a middle-of-the-road businessman. If he’s a centrist, he probably wins. If he’s a flip-flopper with kooky tendencies, they’ve got a shot. And the kookiest thing he’s done yet is to deny climate science.
If I’m right, expect the White House to approve strong greenhouse gas regulations in the months ahead, and then talk explicitly about the threat of a warming world. In some ways it will still be a stretch. To put the matter politely, they’ve been far from perfect on the issue: the president didn’t bother to waste any of his vaunted “political capital” on a climate bill, and he’s opened huge swaths of territory to coal mining and offshore drilling.
But blocking the pipeline finally gave him some credibility here -- and it gave a lot more of the same to citizens' movements to change our world. Since a lot of folks suspect that the only way forward economically has something to do with a clean energy future, I’m guessing that the pipeline decision won’t be the only surprise. I bet Barack Obama talks on occasion about global warming next year, and I bet it helps him.
But don’t count on that, or on Keystone XL disappearing, and go home. If the pipeline story (so far) has one lesson, it’s this: you can’t expect anything to change if you don’t go out and change it yourself.
Bill McKibben is an
visionary and founder
, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben
Image by tarsandsaction, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, March 19, 2009 11:36 AM
Have you heard? In 2007 a record-breaking number of U.S. babies—nearly 40 percent—were born to single mothers. But the stat that’s not making headlines, writes Julia Whitty for Mother Jones, is the one we ought to heed: 2007 also holds the title for most babies born annually in the United States ever, period. That’s 4,317,119 bundles of joy.
According to a study published in Global Environmental Change, which Whitty cites, every American baby “costs” six times a parent’s own carbon emissions. “The bottom line is that absolutely nothing else you can do—driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing lightbulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling—comes even close to simply not having that child,” she writes.
Assuming perpetuation of the standard U.S. lifestyle, true indeed. But Whitty mitigates her argument with a final stat: “In comparison, under current Bangladeshi conditions, each child adds 56 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female.”
And in a snap, we’re back where we began. Our spiraling global population is part of the climate equation, no doubt. But sitting heavy on the scales is a disparity in consumption so vast that a single U.S. newborn can be charged with 169 times the environmental havoc as a Bangladeshi infant. So much for the innocence of youth.
Plainly speaking, there’s got to be a way to combine consideration for how many people with how much each individual consumes—before nudging the door open to preposterous scenarios where the childfree American can consume with impunity, or carbon-light countries encourage their populations to boom without concern.
As Utne Reader’s publisher Bryan Welch writes in our Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue: “Conservation alone cannot save us from ourselves. With the right combination of imagination and common sense, though, we can begin to address a hard reality: that although the world can always get better, it’s not going to get any bigger.”
Sources: Mother Jones, Global Environmental Change
Image by normanack, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009 3:30 PM
Writing for New Internationalist, climate activist Danny Chivers delivers an accessible roundup of several major climate change proposals on the table for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. (A longer version of the story is available on his blog.) His article focuses on climate justice, rating each framework on its fairness, effectiveness, and current level of support among world leaders. Cheeky analogies cut through the wonk to illustrate each option for addressing climate change.
The proposal with the most support is the grandfathering of Kyoto targets, which would require industrialized countries to reduce emissions to a certain percentage below their 1990 levels. According to Chivers, “It’s a bit like a group of wealthy tourists and destitute refugees have survived a plane crash and are stranded on a mountain. They decide to ration out the food based on how much each person ate in the week before the crash—the more you ate per day back then, the more food you get now.”
Chivers prefers Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs). Under this method, carbon targets for each country would be set based on how much money its citizens make and how much greenhouse gas they produce. In Chivers’ analogy, “It’s a bit like a city is razed to the ground by alien invaders. The people who escaped unscathed because they lived in solid houses built from money they stole from the aliens (thus provoking the attack) are expected to take on most of the rebuilding work. The people who had left the aliens alone, stayed poor, and lived in rickety houses that collapsed on them during the attack are allowed to recover in hospital before joining in the work.”
As for carbon credits: “It’s a bit like handing control of the Earth’s vital natural systems over to a bunch of grinning Wall Street traders. Oh no, wait: it’s exactly like that.”
Wednesday, February 18, 2009 11:12 AM
In an exhaustively researched piece on extreme weather in a time of global financial crisis, Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch connects all of the dots he can find and admonishes the mainstream media for not doing the same.
"You can search far and wide without stumbling across a mainstream American overview of drought in our world at this moment," writes Engelhardt. "This seems, politely put, puzzling, especially at a time when University College London's Global Drought Monitor claims that 104 million people are now living under 'exceptional drought conditions."
"We're now experiencing the extreme effects of economic bad 'weather' in the wake of the near collapse of the global financial system," he notes, wondering what might happen if the economic crisis "long enough to meet an environmental crisis involving extreme weather? What will happen if the rising fuel prices likely to come with the beginning of any economic "recovery" were to meet the soaring food prices of environmental disaster? What kind of human tsunami might that result in?"
Read the entire piece: What Does Economic 'Recovery' Mean on an Extreme Weather Planet?
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008 12:07 PM
The Seventh Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues kicked off this past Monday at UN headquarters in New York—and one of our Utne Reader library favorites is there: Cultural Survival, publisher of 2007 Utne Independent Press Award nominee Cultural Survival Quarterly, is co-hosting a roundtable discussion on Thursday about indigenous language revitalization.
Language revitalization might appear at odds with the session’s green theme—“Climate change, bio-cultural diversity, and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges”—but Cultural Survival argues endangered indigenous languages are warehouses of human knowledge regarding connections to the environment. (No, we’re not talking about the pervasive myth that Eskimos have innumerable words for snow. Read Language Log linguist Geoffery Pullum’s rant on that misconception here.)
As Cultural Survival executive director Ellen Lutz explains in a press release: “Future generations of all peoples will need to rely on the worldviews contained within Native Hawaiian, Native Alaskan, Native American and other indigenous peoples’ languages to adequately address threats to the global environment, including climate change and critical reductions in biodiversity.”
The session isn’t open to the public, but you can read more online about Cultural Survival’s Endangered Native American Languages Campaign.
Sunday, January 06, 2008 12:33 PM
With so much information available on the internet, many people stick to websites they agree with. Liberals tend to read liberal blogs, and conservatives read conservative ones. Techies interact with other techies, and artists with other artists. If you want to see the new Michael Moore movie, Amazon.com or Netflix can suggest dozens of other anti-war, anti-corporate films. People can spend a lifetime surfing the web, and never have to confront a dissenting point of view.
This kind of filtering and self-selecting isn’t new, but it’s getting more extreme. “As a result of the Internet,” University of Chicago professor Cass R. Sunstein writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “we live increasingly in an era of enclaves and niches — much of it voluntary, much of it produced by those who think they know, and often do know, what we're likely to like.” These niches reinforce similar points of view, creating what Sunstein calls “enclave extremism.”
Extremism isn’t always a bad thing, according to Sunstein. Abolitionists and civil-rights activists were extremists in their time. Problems arise when the reinforced point of view is wrong. Global-warming deniers can find plenty of “evidence” on the internet that environmentalism is a fraud. Sunstein writes that a lack of dissent can also lead to “mutual suspicion, unjustified rage, and social fragmentation” if left unchecked.
Thursday, December 13, 2007 4:05 PM
A new tool in the fight against global warming might be hopping around the Australian outback. A recent report (PDF) by Greenpeace suggests that using kangaroos, instead of cows, as a source of meat could make a substantial impact on Australia’s carbon footprint. Eating cuddly marsupial for dinner might sound unnatural to Americans, but kangaroo has been a part of Australian cuisine from time immemorial. It fact, the practice fits perfectly with many established ideas of green living: eat local, free-range meats; raise animals that help sustain the land; cultivate indigenous plants and animals. Most importantly, according to Greenpeace, kangaroos don’t release as much methane gas as cows do.
(Thanks, Shameless Carnivore.)
Tuesday, November 27, 2007 4:12 PM
Electing the top science blog of 2007 should have interested only the nerdiest sector of humankind—who else would care about the wonky overlap between blogs and science? But no, throw in global-warming denialists, zombie vote robots, and a lot of name-calling, and what seemed like an average everyday blog contest became the bloody front line in a battle between the conservative and liberal blogospheres.
The players are Steve McIntyre, creator of Climate Audit, a site that fact-checks scientific claims that global warming is caused by humans; Phil Plait, an astronomer who writes about science and amateurish astronomy at the blog Bad Astronomy; and the 2007 Weblog Awards, the “world’s largest blog competition” that garners more than 500,000 votes each year.
Buoyed by strong support from the conservative blogosphere, Climate Audit surged forward early on (votes were tracked by a running tally on the Weblog Awards site). This was at least in part because Climate Audit, with its distinct anti–global warming slant, was being trumpeted by conservative blogs like NewsBusters. So, the only rational response was to have bastions of opposing blogs—like BoingBoing, Think Progress, and a host of science blogs—to urge their readers to vote for Bad Astronomy, which was running second. Voters on both sides used computer programs called “bots” to mechanically and repeatedly vote for the blog of their choice. (Whenever you have votes, it seems, you’ve gotta have hanging chads.)
The votes ballooned to unprecedented levels, and for a long while, Bad Astronomy and Climate Audit ran neck-and-neck. But no matter who emerged the winner, the contest was compromised: The Best Science Blog wouldn’t really be the best, or even the most popular, but rather the blog whose side had mustered up the most efficient robot voting program.
Two people managed to stay somewhat above the fray. McIntyre and Plait—the actual blog writers—took the brouhaha in good stride, and decided to share the award between the two of them. Which is a nice ending to an acrimonious process.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 2:02 PM
The struggle to stop global warming has suffered a major setback. Again. But this time it's the Brits' fault. The UK government, which had previously set ambitious plans to cut its reliance on nonrenewable energy, is already scheming to wriggle out of its commitment in the next couple of days. From the Guardian:
Leaked documents seen by the Guardian show that [prime minister] Gordon Brown will be advised today that the target Tony Blair signed up to this year for 20 percent of all European energy to come from renewable sources by 2020 is expensive and faces "severe practical difficulties."
The news doesn't bode well for the worldwide environmental movement. If a country whose people clearly support environmentally friendly policies can't get its act together to switch to renewable energy, then the United States, China, and other massive polluters with powerful contingents that don't even believe in global warming are just that much less likely to green up. —Brendan Mackie
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!