Mark McCaffrey's picture

Bad News/Good News

"The Place of Skulls" is the nickname someone has given our new conference room at NCSE, which is otherwise known as the Blue Room on account of its sky-blue walls.

The skulls in question are facsimilies of hominid skulls. They decorate the shelves around the room, but on occasion we lend them out for educational purposes.

The room itselfcool in the hot summer months and downright nippy this time of year around the winter solsticeserves as our venue for staff and board meetings, and a private space for conference calls or quiet contemplation.

Recently, looking at the skulls and meditating on the dialectic "out with the old and in with the new!" of year's end, I was struck anew by how we Homo sapiens stand on the proverbial shoulders of our ancestors who not that many generations ago, were small in number, struggling for survival.

At the end of the last Ice Age 14,000 years ago, there were perhaps a million or so of us on the planet. Having mastered fire, we began to domesticate water, livestock and grains. Today, with seven billion strong, we're clearly surviving and thriving, but in many ways we're still struggling.  According to a recent Gallup survey, one in three people on the planet live in deep poverty, getting by on less than $2 a day, 

And even many of us who are among the upper 20% of the planet's people pyramid and are responsible for some 80% of carbon emissions that alter the planet's climate system experience pain and suffering that is somewhat cushioned by, sometimes caused by our "quality of life."

Years ago, a mentor of mine suggested that news is neutral, and it's our interpretation that puts a "good" or "bad" spin on things. The same goes for the facts of life: we deny it or convince ourselves that all will be well on the "other side." Simply put, death comes with the territory. It's not good or bad. It just is.

Looking at the skulls of our ancestors, a "no brainer" occurs to me: all seven billion of us alive today and all those who replace uswill, sooner or later, die. As Homer Simpson would say: D'oh!

Thus far, humans have been remarkably adaptable, becoming, through our ability to work together and harness technology, a force of nature. But now, thanks to our impact, the future of our planet and by extension humanity itself doesn't look good.

In reading some of the latest end-of-the-year summaries of how destructive we have become on the Earth system, it is easy to conclude that the news is "bad." Dahr Jamail's summary of recent research is decidedly gloomy and doomy: a litany of extreme events, the prospect of abrupt climate change, and other impending horrors. A new paper in Nature on clouds indicates that projections substantially underestimating how much things will heat up.

Naomi Klein concludes that "science is telling us all to revolt," and even the World Bank has begun to prepare for a 4C/9F warmer world. The momentum of "business as usual" global economic policies fueled by debt and buried solar energy suggests that the Copenhagen COP15 goal of limiting global temperature increases to 2C is wishful thinking.

Given the "bad news", ignoring, downplaying and denying the science or being skeptical of whether we'll pull ourselves out of the proverbial fire is totally understandable; 45% of Americans in a recent poll said they felt we could reduce climate change, but it was unclear whether we will do so.

Is there any silver lining or relative "good news" to be gleaned from this "out with the old and in with the new" reflection?

Every generation has the potential for renewal and refreshment. Educationinherently and ideally an optimistic enterpriseis the key to such rejuvination.

Here in the United States, climate/global change topics are considered by many science educators to be high priority, and the Next Generation Science Standards provide a framework to teach climate, energy and related topics in a robust and integrated way. After years of largely missing in action, climate science and solutions are becoming an integral part of education.

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester argues we should let go of our wishful thiking for a 2C temperature cap and look toward stabilizing at 4C. This will still be a challenge and mean that the hottest days in New York will be 10-12C (18-21F) warmer than they are now.

He argues that on a purely practical level, change needs to occur among the 1-5% of the population who are responsible for around half of the global emissions. These people include climate scientists,climate journalists and pontificators, academics, people who fly on planes, and basically anyone earning over $50,000 a year. He asks "are we sufficiently concerned to make or have enforced substantial sacrifices/changes to our lifestyles now?"

The answer is obviously "time will tell", but there are some glimmers of change growing through cracks.

As Anderson and his collague Alice Bows summarize in their 2010 paper "Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world

“… this is not a message of futility, but a wake-up call of where our rose-tinted spectacles have brought us. Real hope, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a bare  assessment of the scale of the challenge we now face.”


Image: "Still Life with a Skull" by Philippe de Champaigne. Public Domain.