Sunday, September 30, 2012

Climate: a 9/11 moment?

The North Pole has never been ice-free for the past 3 million years, at least. Is what we have seen this summer dramatic enough to spur people to action to fight climate change? Apparently not.

Maybe the moment will come when everyone will wake up to the climate situation. Something will happen; something so big, so horrible, so terrifying that people will watch the news in TV while telling themselves: "it is happening now, it is happening to us!" That could be a "9/11 moment" or, perhaps, a "Pearl Harbor" moment. Then, we may finally start doing something against climate change.

On the other hand, a general "aha" climate moment may never come. Already plenty of big, horrible, and terrifying things have happened, with most people barely noticing. Think of the melting of the North Pole of this year. It had never happened on this planet for the past 3 million years, possibly as many as 13 million years. Isn't that dramatic enough? Apparently not, because the mainstream press barely mentioned it.

Most people just don't seem to be able to connect the dots, to see the relation of climate change to all what is happening around us. Will we boil a little more every summer, always expecting next summer to be better? Will we run out of oil and blame speculation? Will we starve and blame the financial crisis? We have already seen environmental concerns being swept away from the political agenda by concerns about the financial crisis, the cost of gasoline, jobs, security, and all the rest. So, how are we going to react to the next climate crisis? Maybe retreating even deeper into denial.

Back to many centuries ago, Rutilius Namatianus left us a report from the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He saw disaster all around him: Rome sacked, the roads destroyed, the legions defeated, people dying. And yet, he couldn't understand the reasons for what he was seeing. He saw all these events just as temporary reverse of fortunes. Rome has been in trouble before, Rome will be great again, he says.

But none of those in charge during the last decades of the Empire could understand what was happening (with perhaps one exception). They could only keep doing what they had been doing before, always hoping that the following year would be better than the past one. Perhaps that will be our destiny, too. There is a difference, though. If the Romans were blind to what was happening to them, we were warned in advance but we chose to close our eyes.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)