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Our Time

by William Prust

Every age has its defining moments. Every generation fights its own good fight. Across time and place, humans have repeatedly shown the courage to sacrifice for the sake of their children, their land, their community. Usually not by choice, but rather by forces often greater than they. And so it is today. For this is our time and this is our moment.

At some point this century the once vast and seemingly indestructible Arctic ice cap will slip beneath the seas forever. Though scientists disagree on the date, some claim that the Artic's perennial ice could disappear as early as 2012, others by mid-century, still others by 2075, none of them doubts that the icebound Artic, as we've come to know it, will be gone by 2100.

More than blood links us to our ancestors. Our history from the earliest cave paintings to today's complex science and technology depended on more than our genes. For the last 10,000 years the Earth's two poles have been icebound and the climate has remained stable. That stability made the human story possible. Now for the first time in our history, the North Pole will be essentially ice-free.

This isn't about right or left. It isn't about political attitudes or contrasting points of view. It's about the data, the numbers, the mounting evidence and how we humans have throughout our history confronted and surmounted the challenges before us.

Most of us have seen or heard at least some of the data: as atmospheric concentrations of gasses like carbon dioxide and methane increase, our planet is heating up; the world's glaciers are disappearing; our oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic; differences between daytime and nightime temperatures are diminishing; plants are blooming weeks earlier; winters in the Northern Hemisphere are shortening, etc. These changes can be easily measured and correlated. But what does it mean for us?

Data is open to interpretation and there are many well-intentioned people using this data to arrive at starkly different conclusions. One side claims that these changes are part of a natural cycle and there's nothing to worry about. The other side warns of catastrophe if we do nothing. Both sides profess to know the future but predicting the future has never been a human strong point. We are, afterall, merely mortal. Imperfect and fallible.

How best then to approach an uncertain future? Conservatively, with caution. Why? Because the future belongs not to us but to our children and their children. That's a sobering responsibility - a priceless inheritance not to be gambled away. Caution, vigilance, readiness have all served our ancestors well. Survival favored those who carefully anticipated any and every eventuality. Those who planned ahead for the worst case were more successful in peace and more victorious in war than those who were cheerily overconfident and, like the French in 1940, tragically unprepared.

Throughout the 1930s there were signs of the Nazi crisis to come but the French did not heed them. Is there a similar ominous, rumbling in the distance today that we, too, are not heeding? Maybe so. The most dramatic climate changes are happening in faraway places that don't impact our everyday lives and seem irrelevant but should give us pause.

The greatest increases in temperature have been at the North and South Poles. The Artic has lost more than half its ice mass since 1953. Last September, the Artic lost an area of ice the size of the state of Florida in just 6 days. The rate of glacial melt in Greenland has doubled since 1996. Recent satellite images of the South Pole reveal that West Antatica's ice is melting 75% faster today than it did just ten years ago. In 2002, Scientists were stunned when the 12,000 year-old Larsen B Ice Shelf broke up and disintegrated in a single month. Why should we care about the Poles' ice? For a couple of reasons. First, polar ice reflects the sun's heat and acts to air-condition the Earth. Second, that same ice influences the Earth's air and ocean currents which together generate our weather. Currents, like our jet stream and Gulf Stream, which produce our weather have followed the same patterns since the dawn of human civilization.

What will happen to our weather and Nature's ability to cool the Earth without an icebound North Pole? We can't say for sure. We can only look for clues. During the last warming period, 14,000 years ago, average annual temperatures shot up by 20degrees F in a single decade and ocean levels rose a foot every 10 years.

Every recipe depends on the right balance of ingredients. Any cook will tell you too much of any one ingredient will spoil the recipe. People, cars, coal burning plants are just like ingredients in a recipe. The more you add, the more you alter the recipe's balance. The exhaust from all the energy required to meet consumer demand the world over has altered the natural balance of ingredients in our atmosphere - ingredients like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide.

Take carbon dioxide for example: For the past 650,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels in our atmosphere never rose above 280 parts per million (ppm). Today CO2 levels are 382ppm. Unless we do something now, by 2050, CO2 levels are expected to be at 450ppm - a level many scientists consider unacceptably dangerous. Since CO2 is a heat-trapping gas and a byproduct of all the energy we use, the more carbon dioxide we produce, the more heat we trap in our atmosphere. That's why the Earth is heating up, our oceans are warming, and the poles are melting.

It's been said: what we do to Nature, we do to ourselves. Could the fate of the Artic ice cap and the fate of our children be related? That's a critical question because our first responsibility is the safety of our children. We adults, like the many generations of mothers and fathers before us, are both the guardians of the past and the stewards of the future. If there's the slightest chance that the scientists are right and carbon dioxide levels could reach a dangerous point by 2050, we need to wake up and act.

While the challenges of Climate Change are global, its solutions are best achieved locally within our home and work communities. That's a good thing because in every one of our communities, big or small, neighborhood or work, we have the knowledge, we have the people, we have the resources to confront and resolve this problem locally. And if we act locally, we can together beat this problem globally.

Americans have an expression which embodies the idea that everyone is responsible for the decisions they make and the actions they take: "There's no free lunch". We can measure the cost our work and home communities have on the environment. We can also measure the cost we as individuals have on the environment. This measurement is commonly referred to as our "carbon footprint" Reducing this carbon footprint is our individual and collective responsibility. There are many simple ways to do this. (See lists). This is not a case of unrealistic idealism but practical, achievable goals that businesses, communities, and individuals can set for themselves right now.

Our options include either making changes in our behavior, or choosing to pay for that behavior, or compromising and doing some of both. If a business, community, or an individual wants to pay to offset their carbon footprint, there are many ways to do this. Corporations can participate in cap and trade organizations. Cities and towns can calculate their carbon footprints and begin a program of voluntary taxation, using those revenues to invest in local ways to offset that footprint. Individuals and families can adopt their own green-goals and pay for the cost of any behavior they choose not to change. Those monies can be donated to their local community efforts or to groups who invest in clean energy.

The Nobel Prize winning members of the United Nations' Interngovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their latest findings in November 2007. Concerned scientists around the world view this report as a last warning for humanity. The IPCC's Chairman concluded the November session by saying: "What we will do in the next two, three years will determine our future. This is the defining challenge".

Fight or flight? Our legacy will be one of the two. We can fight. We can take the data at hand and act on behalf of our children. Or we can flee the data, run from the problem, and, like the French in 1940, simply cross our fingers and hope for the best. If we choose to fight, we can join the ranks of all our brave and wise ancestors who came prepared, who fought, and who sacrificed before us. They had their finest hour. We can too.

William Prust lives very carefully and thoughtfully in Medford, Oregon.

The Seven Steps

    1. No More Dirty Coal - stop now. Coal is the worst, most regressive, harmful carbon fuel, stop all use

    2. Transportation Efficiency - higher standards, ridesharing, carbon tax

    3. Energy Efficency Building Codes conservation

    4. Cap Emissions via a carbon tax rebated taxes for efficient cars.

    5. Clean Energy Build Non Carbon energy tax subsidized by carbon fueltax.

    6. Green Job Corps: American skilled labor to retrofit and deploy clean tech.

    7. Enforcable Global Treaty US leads by example, all nations agree

  Just how bad is it?   
A one page graph shows Global Warming projections by combining IPCC models with scenarious by Mark Lynass

More local steps listed:

speak (at) rpauli dot com