Global warming-8: The danger of complacency

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth provides a good introduction to the problem of global warming. The film has three interwoven threads: (1) a documentary showing a slide-show talk that former Vice-President Al Gore gives around the world on the facts of global warming, mixed with film footage of the impact of warming on the environment; (2) the story of Gore’s own interest in this topic; and (3) some self-promotion by Gore.

While I could have done without the last and was not particularly interested in the second, the first part was done very well. It captured most of the state of the science accurately and presented it in a visually captivating way. The film is sobering and well worth seeing to get an introduction to the science behind the problem and a sense of the gravity of the situation we are facing.

The August 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine has an interview with scientist James Hansen, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Scientists and a leading expert on global warming. He was referred to as the Paul Revere of global warming because of his very early alarm sounding, and was the scientist whom the Bush administration tried to gag.

Hansen has been relentless in trying to get people to care about what is happening to the planet. In 1981, Hansen and his colleagues were the first to introduce the term “global warming” in the scientific context in an article in the journal Science. Hansen’s lab monitors 10,000 temperature gauges around the world to get the average temperature and this value has been steadily rising. He says that further warming of more than one degree Celsius “will make the Earth warmer than it has been in a million years.”

He says that we have a decade, maybe two, to do something before we reach the tipping point where irreversible changes set in and we are consigned to a world vastly different from the one we are used to. He says that we have to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions within the next decade and cannot wait for new technologies like capturing emissions from burning coal. He says that we have to focus on energy efficiency and renewable sources and move away from carbon burning.

I had already been convinced for a few years that global warming was real and serious. But although I was concerned about the problem, I was not alarmed. I felt that since it was a serious problem, and one that affected everyone, political leaders would have no choice but to eventually address it. Although individual political leaders like George W. Bush or the Australian Prime Minister John Howard might choose to ignore the scientific consensus and do nothing that might harm the financial interests of their political supporters, I felt that eventually public alarm about their deteriorating environment would be so great that pressure would be brought on political leaders, whoever they were and whatever their own inclinations, that they would have no choice but to take appropriate action.

I was basically putting my faith in people taking action when a serious threat to their own lives was created. Simple self-preservation, and the desire to leave the world a better place for one’s children and grandchildren and generations to come, were such strong emotions that I was sure they would reflexively kick in when people realized that the planet was being threatened, and they would do whatever it takes to address the problem.

I now realize that I was far too naïve. I think that my complacent attitude (which I suspect is not uncommon) is totally mistaken.

Like many things, what caused me to change was something that was seemingly tangential. I attended Jared Diamond’s excellent talk at Case last year where he spoke about the ideas in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. He spoke of past civilizations (some great ones) that allowed their societies to be destroyed by not taking actions to halt the processes that destroyed them. He gave examples from Montana, Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi, the Mayans, Norse Greenland, Rwanda, and Haiti

The entire populations of these past and present communities seemingly did nothing as they destroyed their own environments. Even when the signs of decay and impending catastrophe had reached levels that seem, at least to us now, staggeringly obvious, they still did nothing, continuing to pursue short-term benefits at the expense of long-term protection of the very environment that sustained them and had allowed them to prosper.

Looking at them now, we wonder how the people and leaders of those societies could have been so blind to the fate that was so slowly but surely engulfing them and how stupid to not see the warning signs. Listening to his talk, I realized that I should not be so sanguine that people are any wiser now, and think that they will recognize and address problems that directly affect them. Self-delusion seems to be a hazard that afflicts entire societies.

Of all the examples that Diamond gave, the one that was most poignant and gripped my imagination was the case of Easter Island. For most people, the big mystery and romance associated with the island lies with its famous statues. Diamond describes them:

Easter Island’s most famous feature is its huge stone statues, more than 200 of which once stood on massive stone platforms lining the coast. At least 700 more, in all stages of completion, were abandoned in quarries or on ancient roads between the quarries and the coast, as if the carvers and moving crews had thrown down their tools and walked off the job. Most of the erected statues were carved in a single quarry and then somehow transported as far as six miles – despite heights as great as 33 feet and weights up to 82 tons. The abandoned statues, meanwhile, were as much as 65 feet tall and weighed up to 270 tons. The stone platforms were equally gigantic: up to 500 feet long and 10 feet high, with facing slabs weighing up to 10 tons.

The number, size, and quality of the statues seemed to indicate that there existed, at least at one time, a fairly large population that had the tools and resources and ingenuity to create them. And yet, travelers who arrived at the Island in the 18th century found quite a different situation, and that created a puzzle.

[T]he islanders had no wheels, no draft animals, and no source of power except their own muscles. How did they transport the giant statues for miles, even before erecting them? To deepen the mystery, the statues were still standing in 1770, but by 1864 all of them had been pulled down, by the islanders themselves. Why then did they carve them in the first place? And why did they stop?

The puzzle of the statues is just one of the many that involve the island. Unraveling them has resulted in a chilling story of how an isolated community managed to destroy its own environment.

Next: The demise of Easter Island

POST SCRIPT: The Simpsons

For all of us fans of the show, here is a live action version of the opening sequence. (Thanks to the editor of for the link.)

Which just proves my contention that we all benefit from the fact that there are a huge number of talented people out there in internetland with way too much time on their hands.

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