Viewpoint: Brits panicking at global warming; U.S. yawns

This is an age of strange happenings and peculiar attitudes. One of the most peculiar has emerged in the past year. It was submerged by the London subway bombings last July 7.

The event was the split between Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush at the G8 Summit on the issue of global warming.

The New York Times recently said: “For almost a full year British papers and other media have been screaming about the imminent danger of global warming and climate collapse. It is just amazing to see something so important in Britain and so significant for all of us buried in the American press. It’s like the American media believes that we live on some other planet. Britain knows where it is situated and it is already in deep water.”

At the end of last month, Blair issued a blunt warning about what is happening with the climate. He said the effect may be much more serious than was previously thought. The warning emanated from a government report, published in book form, and titled Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change.

Blair said: “It is clear from the work presented that the risks of climate change may well be greater than we thought.”

The report expressed fears that the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets may melt with disastrous results. It warned of huge and irreversible disruption if temperatures rise by more than 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 3 degrees Celsius. That is within the range of climate change projections for this century.

In his announcement, Blair told the British people: “It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialization and economic growth from a world population that has increased six-fold in 200 years, is causing global warming at a rate that is unsustainable.”

On this side of the Atlantic, the Bush administration continues to kowtow to ExxonMobil and other big oil companies on this issue. While conceding finally that human activity may have some effect on rising global temperatures, Bush has steadfastly refused to do anything about it. The large oil companies are hoping for disintegration and melting of the ice sheets because they believe they will then be better able to drill for oil in those areas.

In the British report, Professor Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey, states the immense West Antarctic ice sheet may be starting to collapse. Scientists think that event would raise sea levels by up to 16 feet, putting coastal cities like New York under water.

Rapley said it has become necessary to revise the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “The last IPCC report characterized Antarctica as a slumbering giant in terms of climate change. I would say it is now an awakened giant. There is real concern.”

U.K. Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said it is more urgent than ever to quickly halt the rise in global temperatures. She said reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by mid-century may not be enough.

Britain’s Guardian Unlimited recently carried a column by Robert Newman with the headline “It’s capitalism or a habitable planet—you can’t have both.” That idea, of course, is anathema to American political and business leaders.

Newman wrote: “There is no meaningful response to climate change without massive social change. Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production on a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organizing principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so, it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with.”

Newman noted that private ownership of trade and industry puts the decisive political power in the hands of the corporations. “The corporation will outflank every puny law and regulation that seeks to constrain its profitability,” he said. “It therefore stands in the way of the functioning democracy needed to tackle climate change.”

He sees the monster peering at us out of the darkening skies. “…The point is that supermarkets are over. We cannot have such long supply lines between us and our food. Not anymore. The very model of the supermarket is unsustainable, what with the packaging, food miles and destruction of [British] farming. Small, independent retailers or community-owned shops selling locally-produced food provide a social glue and reduce carbon emissions. The same is true of food co-ops.”

Newman goes on to say: “We are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of climate change and Peak Oil. Once we pass the planetary oil production spike (when oil begins to rapidly deplete and demand outstrips supply), there will be less and less net energy available to humankind. Petroleum geologists reckon we will pass the world oil peak sometime between now and 2010. It will take, argues Peak Oil expert Richard Heinberg, a second world war effort if many of us are to come through this epoch. Not least because modern agribusiness puts hundreds of calories of fossil fuel energy into the fields for each calorie of food energy produced.”

Contrast that level of concern with the approach in this country. The New York Times, in its Jan. 29 editions, reported James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading climate scientist, told them that NASA officials instructed their staff to review all of Hansen’s upcoming lectures, papers and media interviews.

That move to gag Hansen came after he accused the White House of trying to silence him because he called for urgent and immediate cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming.

Hansen said he intends to ignore NASA’s restrictions and to speak his mind.

NASA’s deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, Dean Acosta, denied there was any effort to muzzle Hansen. Acosta was quoted as saying: “That’s not the way we operate here at NASA.” He said Hansen was subject to the same constraints as all other NASA employees who might be viewed as representing official policy of the agency. Scientists, he said, may freely discuss scientific findings, but policy statements come only from official spokesmen.

The Times quoted Hansen as saying that nothing in his career has been equal to the pressure applied to him since December. “He’s not trying to create a war over this,” said Larry Travis, Hansen’s deputy, “but [he] feels very strongly that this is an obligation we have as federal scientists—to inform the public.”

Newman concluded his article with these words: “If we are all still in denial about the radical changes coming–and all of us still are–there are sound geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and never again will be consumption like we have known.”

From the Feb. 8-14, 2006, issue

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