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Climate change: Should we be scared – and what should we do?

December 20, 2011

Is this enough to scare us?

A recent estimate suggests that the perennially frozen ground known as permafrost, which underlies nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, contains twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. …

If a substantial amount of the carbon should enter the atmosphere, it would intensify the planetary warming. An especially worrisome possibility is that a significant proportion will emerge not as carbon dioxide, the gas that usually forms when organic material breaks down, but as methane, produced when the breakdown occurs in lakes or wetlands. Methane is especially potent at trapping the sun’s heat, and the potential for large new methane emissions in the Arctic is one of the biggest wild cards in climate science.

Scientists have declared that understanding the problem is a major priority….. But researchers say the money and people devoted to the issue are still minimal compared with the risk. … the chief worry is not that the carbon in the permafrost will break down quickly — typical estimates say that will take more than a century, perhaps several — but that once the decomposition starts, it will be impossible to stop.     

Historically, tundra, a landscape of lichens, mosses and delicate plants, was too damp to burn. But the climate in the area is warming and drying, and fires in both the tundra and forest regions of Alaska are increasing.     …  

The Anaktuvuk River fire burned about 400 square miles of tundra, and work on lake sediments showed that no fire of that scale had occurred in the region in at least 5,000 years.

Scientists have calculated that the fire and its aftermath sent a huge pulse of carbon into the air — as much as would be emitted in two years by a city the size of Miami. Scientists say the fire thawed the upper layer of permafrost and set off what they fear will be permanent shifts in the landscape

Edward A. G. Schuur, a University of Florida researcher who has done extensive field work in Alaska, is worried by the changes he already sees, including the discovery that carbon buried since before the dawn of civilization is now escaping.

“To me, it’s a spine-tingling feeling, if it’s really old carbon that hasn’t been in the air for a long time, and now it’s entering the air,” Dr. Schuur said. “That’s the fingerprint of a major disruption, and we aren’t going to be able to turn it off someday.”

Okay, fine.  We’ve heard this before - and worse.  Many of us are in despair or denial.  Others hope, pray or assume technological response and salvation.  We all have other priorities.

But isn’t there a particular responsibility on the shoulders of those who are charged with the calculation of risk, the exercise of sound judgment and the taking of appropriate action in response?  In other words, leadership.

So what might we do to encourage a more serious acceptance of that responsibility?  Here’s one idea:

With respect to climate change, what are the responsibilities of current decision-makers and leaders?

At a minimum:

- to inform themselves of the evidence of climate change, its consequences and the risks to their organizations and to society

- to take action, appropriate to their powers, to mitigate the impacts and reduce risk for future generations

- to avoid, oppose and reject actions which would exacerbate the problem and increase risk

Reasonably, they should know – and be aware that they should know – that their actions or inactions will have consequences.

But how should they be held accountable?  There needs to be some mechanism that:

- summarizes the science and assesses the risks

- informs leaders of their responsibilities and the expectations of society

- monitors and documents their opportunities to take action, their responses, and their declarations

- maintains these records and informs the public in an accurate and verifiable manner

Eventually, when climate change is of a magnitude that demands accountability from those who were in a position to have made a difference, and did not, that there be a legal method whereby they are charged, tried and, if found guilty, punished.  And that this should be known beforehand to emerging leaders as well as those currently in positions of power.

At this moment, there should be discussion on what constitutes:

- reasonable knowledge of climate change

- likely risks

- appropriate actions

and, as importantly, what constitutes willful ignorance, refusal to act, or the sabotage of the actions of others.

A hierarchy of individuals and organizations needs to be refined, identifying those with the most opportunities to affect climate-change outcomes. Once an action plan and mechanism are formulated, funds acquired to establish a credible organization and priorities set, the top-ranked leaders and organizations need to be informed in a public way that their actions or inactions are being documented, and that they should reasonably expect in the future that they may be called to account, even if at the moment this seems unlikely.

Once the public record is up and running, those who are being documented should have the right of appeal to correct and augment the record.

The organization might propose mechanisms for accountability and prosecution – but need not be the judicial body itself beyond the public exposure of the actions or inactions of those who will be called to account as climate change affects the viability of our civilization.

Considerations:

The organization will require extensive and independent funding

- It will require a courageous board and highly reputable staff

- It will need to be scrupulously monitored, with an independent board of review and appeal

- It will have to recruit or have access to scientists, lawyers, researchers and journalists of high integrity

- It will have to be prepared to withstand intimidation and attack

If all that seems a tad extreme, well, there’s this:

Test trial convicts fossil fuel bosses of ‘ecocide’

.

Top lawyers put fossil fuel bosses on trial in the UK’s supreme court in a mock case to explore if ecocide – environmental destruction – could join genocide as a global crime

  

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 20, 2011 2:20 pm

    What is the source for that second big block quote – the one that begins “With respect to climate change, what are the responsibilities of current decision-makers and leaders?”

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