The Climate Change Hullabaloo

Posted on April 4, 2011


I’ve always been somewhat prone to feelings of guilt. Things were my fault, for reasons I couldn’t necessarily explain. Sometimes I could draw a line from an action I’d taken and connect it directly to the disaster unfolding before me. At other times, I’d have to use a little imagination before comfortably ascending my throne of regret. Then I heard about reincarnation and past lives, and it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. I wondered if I might have caused the War of 1812, or even one of the major plagues in Europe. Maybe the Great Fire of London, the sinking of the Titanic, and the assassination of Gandhi all resulted from something I’d done. In other words, I’ve never had a problem accepting responsibility, even when it didn’t belong to me.

So the fact that I’m tired of being blamed for global warming is pretty revealing.

I keep hearing that we have to start taking care of the planet. Start? We’ve been listening to this lecture for forty years, but apparently no matter what we do, it doesn’t even constitute a beginning. I went to Epcot in 1995 and left almost every exhibit feeling racked with remorse. The audience was hammered relentlessly with the message that humans are ravenous, wasteful, and determined to destroy the environment.

But we’re not. Humans are the only creatures that give any thought to the environment, or try to help endangered species. We set aside millions of acres as national forests and parks. We re-use, recycle, and replenish. We pass laws designed to clean up the air and water. We turn off lights, crank down thermostats, and purchase biodegradable bags. Humans built Epcot, for crying out loud! Yet, even after taking these and hundreds of other steps, we still have to endure scoldings and threats. We still have to be told to get started.

The ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising, the islands are sinking — and it’s all our fault.

One solution is to cut down on our use of resources. Conserve, they tell us. But how do we conserve anything? And how do we measure what we’ve conserved? You can’t measure what you don’t use. My neighbor on this side of me puts in a swimming pool that holds twenty thousand gallons of water. I think I might want to do the same, but then my environmentalist neighbor on the other side tells me how precious fresh water is, and how so little is available for drinking. I change my mind about the pool. Have I saved twenty thousand gallons of water? What if the environmentalist is really bad at making his case and causes me to contemplate putting in a pool that’s twice as big, and then I decide against it on my own? Have I now saved forty thousand gallons? Is there any limit to the amount of water I can conserve by simply imagining larger and larger pools before reconsidering?

It’s the same with gasoline and electricity. A decade ago I thought about buying a thirty-foot RV that got seven miles to the gallon. By getting a Honda instead, how much fuel did I save? I just now had the urge to go toast an entire loaf of bread, one slice at a time, for no reason whatsoever, but at the last moment decided to reorganize all of my screwdrivers according to handle color instead. I may do this every day for the next four years, because I really want to reduce my carbon footprint. In that light, don’t I deserve the swimming pool?

The most extreme of these views comes from people who say that no matter what we do, we should leave no trace of ourselves. If you go walking in the woods, you should be careful to not move any rocks or even break a twig. Not break a twig. How, in our effort to honor and protect the planet, did we manage to forget that we’re part of the planet? Why is it that when a beaver builds a dam, that’s called nature, but when people build a dam, that’s called tampering with nature?

Of course, the organizations promoting such philosophies always seem to have a full line of merchandise for sale, including everything from beverage containers and keychains to hats and tee-shirts. But there’s an even greater price to pay. Their beliefs have made us neurotic and gullible. Consider the idea of disappearing islands. In his 2009 book Idiot America, Charles Pierce said this:

“…New Zealand agreed to accept all eleven thousand inhabitants of the Tuvalu atoll, which had been rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels.”

What image does that create in your mind?
I envisioned an evacuated island and thousands of environmental refugees struggling to resume their lives in a strange country. When I did an online search, I found countless websites bemoaning the imminent drowning of this, the world’s second-smallest nation. Type in “Tuvalu sinking” and notice how many results you get. I got 247,000.

In fact, Tuvalu consists of nine coral atolls and a population of 12,300. Its official tourism website features photos of people dancing, small children playing, beautiful scenery, and local culture. Hotels list their rates and offer vacation packages. I could find no mention of evacuation or inundation, and this was today, April 4, 2011 — more than a decade after the first reports appeared that Tuvalu would soon vanish under the waves.

You can find many frantic stories about numerous islands being swallowed up by the sea. If you wish to help, donations are gratefully accepted, even though the official websites for those islands seem to be unaware of the impending doom.

Are the oceans rising? Some reports claim levels had been increasing by a steady one millimeter per year for almost five thousand years, but have been rising by two millimeters annually for the past couple of centuries. How you measure such a tiny rise in something as massive and active as the world’s oceans is a mystery to me. It’s similar in ways to the question of how you go about detecting a one-degree increase in global temperature, spread out over a hundred years. What kinds of instruments were being used a hundred years ago? Where were the weather stations located, and have their surroundings changed since the equipment was first installed? How hard would it be to manipulate the data when you’re dealing with such a small change? And how tempting would it be to do so when your funding depended on the results?

The question isn’t whether or not the climate is changing. It’s been changing throughout the Earth’s history. There’s almost nothing in the universe that stays the same forever. Planets are bombarded by comets and asteroids, stars explode or condense into black holes, and entire galaxies collide. Yet somehow, the average temperature on our world spikes by a couple of degrees and we panic.

Whenever I hear the rantings of anyone predicting some imminent catastrophe, I ask one question: Is there money to be made from convincing people the end is near? Are there books and DVDs being sold? Bumper stickers, seminar tickets, calendars, and coffee mugs? Are documentaries being filmed and awards handed out? If so, I don’t believe a word of it. Faith healers make their living by convincing people they have some fictional ailment, then curing them for a price. They were preceded by traveling snake-oil salesmen, and have now been followed by global warming hullabaloo artists.

Turn on your television and you’ll likely hear someone lecturing you about your wasteful habits — your thoughtless use of electricity, for example. Yet not one of those shows will ever ask you to turn off your television in order to save energy. The authors and publishers of an endless stream of books warn us of the doom we’re causing, yet they hope for larger and larger printings of those books. That means more power to run the presses, more trucks making deliveries to bookstores. Think back to the Y2K frenzy, or the one focused on 2012. And as surely as there are opportunistic entrepreneurs, there will be other such calamities in the years to come. Experts will tell us it’s critically urgent that we pay attention, change behavior, and most important, shell out some money.

In the case of climate change, if we follow their instructions and the catastrophe doesn’t happen, they’ll claim the measures worked. If temperatures continue to rise, they’ll say we didn’t do enough.

I think the Earth’s climate is part of a complex cycle, one we haven’t been around long enough to witness, and one we may never fully understand. We surely have some impact on that process, but it’s likely minimal. It’s going to get warmer no matter what we do or don’t do. Instead of wasting time switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, maybe we should show nature some respect and assume the climate is going to keep changing. More than anything, we need to stop worrying about breaking a few twigs, and start taking better care of each other.

As usual , most of the original artwork for the cartoons in this post was done by Ron Leishman. I manipulate the images to fit my needs and add dialogue and captions, but the true brilliance is Ron’s. Visit his website to see what I mean.