The Inconvenient Truth


    On Earth Day millions of people take action to conserve energy or resources.  In March, Earth Hour resulted in record numbers of governments, businesses and individuals, turning off “non essential” lights for an hour.  But the big question remains, what is "essential?"  What constitutes both an equitable and sustainable environmental footprint for nations and cities?  The  most inconvenient truth of all is that nothing now being done by governments or business even asks the question, let alone  reverses the tsunami of climate change. James Hansen, the “grandfather” of climate change research, believes that the four years of the Obama Administration offers the last chance to reverse climate change, before global disaster is unavoidable.  The same window exists for President Hu Jintao in China.  The world is approaching, or may have already reached, a tipping point.  This tipping point may not result in a long, gradual change, but a sudden, unpredicted catastrophic event, as in the 2004 U.S. film, “The Day After Tomorrow.” What we do know for certain is that virtually every scientific prediction of change rates has dramatically underestimated the pace of global ecological destruction.  In 2003 U.S. military experts (An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security)  projected an “Imagining the Unthinkable” scenario that abandoned the ‘gradual change’  scenario and  recognized that the changes in the biosphere could be “relatively abrupt.” 

    The most important cost of the “free market” system is not the current financial crisis, but the evolving threats of fuel scarcity, food scarcity, water scarcity, species extinction and climate change.  In fact, the steps taken to address the economic crisis, the exponential debt and the ‘bailout” measures, further insures the inability of government and the unwillingness of business to take the radical measures required to reduce and reverse climate change.  The G20 Summit merely rededicated trillions to the same states and institutions that created the current crisis.  The emergency presented U.S. President Obama with perhaps his only political opportunity to propose a dramatic restructuring of production, distribution and consumption tailored to curbing the unprecedented economic, military and ecological footprint of the United States.  Nothing like that was even discussed.  

    At least three motors are driving the prospect for such an abrupt change.  First, is the unprecedented pace of urbanization worldwide.  For the first time more people are living in cities than in the countryside.  The new urban millennium is on track to consume resources and produce wastes at unprecedented levels.  Today 80% of the countries and virtually all cities of the world use more resources than they can generate on their own land.   The most important battleground on which the fate of climate change will be decided is not the nation state but the cities of the world.  With a billion people in slums we have clearly failed to insure  the “right to the city,“ for everyone and therefore, are unlikely to create  the new “rights for the city” required to address climate change.  

    Second, is the United States.  The US deficit footprint has been escalating for nearly forty years.  With the most toxic ecological footprint of any large country and dedicated to maintaining some 800 military bases, the US remains the principal obstacle to curbing the human footprint on the planet. Yet President Obama seems committed more to a new “American Century” than a sustainable economic and political system.    

    Third, the deficit footprint of China began to exceed biocapacity with the advent of the socialist market reforms.  Now that China has integrated into the global market, they are told to slow growth and become sustainable because it would take an additional three planet earths to accommodate a standard of living in China comparable to that in the United States.  What Washington cannot understand is that the harder it pushes China, the harder China will push back.     How China reconciles the socialist state with the market economy may be the single most decisive factor in the course of climate change in our lifetime.

    As of today there exists no palpable evidence that the “free” market will be reconciled with the environment.  Carbon credits, energy efficient transportation or buildings, “smart” grids,  eco villages, individual lifestyle changes and the like can at best, have negligible global impacts.  Every new scientific report demonstrates that Plan A is failing.  Frequent evidence of huge ice shelves disintegrating has little impact on policy.  Today there exists no Plan B in which countries and cities would equalize and reduce biocapacity footprints.  The existing political and economic systems, pushing globalization, is preventing a Plan B from emerging.  We are thus in the most heinous situation imaginable, to be one day condemned by our children and grandchildren for selling their future to current greed. 

Earth Day, April 22, 2009