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Guest Opinion: The environmental tipping point

 Part two

This moment in our history is unlike anything mankind has ever confronted. It is not a crossroads or a place where two roads diverge and we have the choice of taking one or the other. That option was once before us but for reasons as simple and complex as is human nature, it’s now behind us. By not choosing, we have chosen and the tipping point, as it’s called, has already occurred, only to vanish in the haze of events and the exigencies of life.

Future generations will likely look back in anger and judge harshly our stewardship of the earth, its resources and species, and wonder at our passivity. How could we have missed what was a massive global crisis so completely? Why did we fail to act?

Of course we answer this hypothetical question by insisting that we did try, we made an effort: We pushed bins up to the street, filled with papers and glass, for recycling; we drove more fuel-efficient cars; we worried about the polar bears and the rivers and the oceans; we considered solar and wind power.

But the reality is that ultimately there was very little we could do — not as a world community. And this environmental crisis demanded a global response, one that was beyond our ability to construct.

And yet voices filled with gravitas or desperation are still raised, apocalyptic scenarios fashioned and warnings posted.

And that is why diplomats from the United Nations have gathered in Lima, Peru, to negotiate once again a worldwide agreement that will stop current rates of greenhouse gas emissions.

Implicit in this convocation are the questions: do we simply do nothing? Or can we still do something? It is our existential dilemma and of course our inclination is to answer in the affirmative. It’s not too late; yet time is of the essence.

But know that those who gather in Lima are fully aware that there is embedded in every meeting, in every gesture, a futility that can be ignored but not denied.

The truth, as reported in the New York Times, is that U.N. scientists and climate-policy experts warn that at this point it may be impossible to prevent the planet’s atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the point when extreme planetary changes will reach critical mass (some argue that hints of what lies ahead are already evident, though they still characterized as black swan events): droughts, food and water shortages, widespread flooding, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels; coral reefs will die as the oceans acidify and species will quietly go absent.

Earth’s inhabitants will begin to redefine what it means to live on our warming planet. And for many, adaptation and ultimately survival will become paramount, representing a dramatic and inalterable shift.

I realize that this sounds like an elegy for the planet we’ve come to know and love and assume it will always be as it is today. For us — the antecedents of our children and their children — things still work. All seems relatively benign, though marred by an occasional Sandy or Katrina or a record-breaking winter or an epic California drought; however, the 3.6 moment is on the horizon.

Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University and a member of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel, has expressed doubts that 3.6 can be averted. “What’s already baked in are substantial changes to the ecosystem, large-scale transformations.”

The hope today, given the amount of carbon already released, is that we can stave off atmospheric temperature changes of 4-10 degrees, beyond which the planet will become uninhabitable.

Regarding Lima, promises will be forthcoming: the U.S. will cut emissions 28 percent by 2025; China will begin to decrease emissions by 2030; India will not arrive at its peak moment until 2040. And yet experts warn that peak emissions must be reached globally within the next decade and reduced by half by mid-century.

As well, any deal reached in Lima will not go into effect until 2020. Until then it will be business as usual. The context: According to the National Atmospheric Oceanic Administration (NOAA), 2014 was the warmest year on record.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.