Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Climate Couch Potatoes

After a busy month or so at our regular jobs, and weekends working on media projects for non-profits, my wife and I were overdue for a little quality time.

A movie, a bite to eat, and a beer or two.

We went to see ‘2012’ - and while the story line was interesting enough - albeit a bit predictable - the special effects were amazing. Well worth a few bucks for a couple of hours of escapism. In fact, highly recommended!

Of course the movie figured largely in our conversation over dinner. Where did the real science end and the science fiction begin? Hollywood always manages to throw in a few tantalizing tidbits of fact to spice up disaster movies like this. It gives the story that special element of mystery that has filmgoers rushing off to ‘Google’ the topic the second they get home.

We got to talking about time-lines, and despite the fact that the leading scientist in the story accurately predicted what was going to happen - he obviously had no prior knowledge of the now famous Mayan hieroglyphs that pointed to December 21, 2012 as being a significant date in the history of the world. Well, the end, in fact.

In his considered opinion there was still sufficient time to make necessary preparations for the final cataclysm. As a consequence of his miscalculation, the scale of the human disaster was much worse.

In contrast to the secrecy surrounding the impending apocalypse in the movie, scientists in the real world have been warning us for years about greenhouse gases and climate change. Changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, desertification, land degradation, disappearing species, and a loss of biodiversity, these are all consequences of a fossil fuel based industrial revolution, unsustainable consumerism and waste.

But the question everyone asks: “How much time do we have?” is usually answered with a cryptic, “We’re not sure exactly when the tipping point will be, but time is running out.”

I always hate that answer. It suggests there is still time to prevaricate and dither. Still time, perhaps, to negotiate who should be held responsible, and who should shoulder the burden of paying for change. Still time, basically, to do nothing substantive.

Frankly, the evidence suggests that time has already run out. For the millions of ‘climate refugees’ who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of climate change, the ‘time’ came and went years ago. For millions of other island and coastal dwellers, the clock is ticking - measured by the surf that is breaking ever closer to their homes and livelihoods.

According to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, by 2010 there will be 50 million ‘environmentally displaced people’ worldwide.

But how can we get over this question of believing there is still ‘time’? How to explain it in simple terms that even a politician might understand? I like to think of it in terms of weight gain - and the dreadful pain and effort needed to take off those extra pounds!

Put it this way. A reasonably fit person with an existing exercise program can afford to eat that extra piece of pie; a little gain here or there isn’t going to make much difference. Getting back down to fighting weight won’t be any real problem.

But if they let their exercise regime slip, and put on a couple of pounds, or several - obviously the effort needed to shed the extra weight is going to be so much harder and take so much longer.

They way I look at things through this odd little analogy is that the Earth has now become dangerously overweight, and it has no cohesive or comprehensive training regime in place to begin losing those perilous pounds.

In fact, the negative and pessimistic comments we are now hearing on an almost daily basis about the dismal - or virtually non-existent prospects for a breakthrough at the Copenhagen Climate Summit - suggest that with the pain and effort needed to begin the process, nobody has much enthusiasm to even look at the stair-master, let alone actually get on it.

And the weight will just keep piling up. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.

So when do we reach the point where we are simply too fat to make a difference whatever we do? For the answer, don’t ask a scientist or a climate negotiator; ask any one of the 50 million environmentally displaced people.

Climate change and its impact on this and future generations isn't a Hollywood movie. Incredibly, however, it does sometimes seem that couch potatoes watching the latest weather disaster unfold on their television screens are treating the phenomenon as if it were just that – a movie.

And Copenhagen? It’s beginning to look like nothing more than a couch potato convention.

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