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Monthly Archives: October 2014

October, 2014

Scientists … project a rise in sea water levels and the loss of coastlines around the world. Small island chains … might entirely disappear under the ocean. Snow atop many of the world’s great mountain ranges is melting … More than one-sixth of the human race lives in mountain valleys and relies on the snow for irrigation, sanitation, and drinking water. Relocating nearly a billion people in less than forty years seems unfathomable.

-from The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin

A few weeks ago I watched Jon Shenk’s documentary The Island President, a powerful film about former president Mohamed Nasheed’s fight to save his country from rising sea levels. For me, this film was a reminder of an issue that has – largely – faded into the background of our global consciousness (at least where mainstream media is concerned). And while we are growing less interested, climate change remains a threat. Though it may seem somewhat dramatic, I believe Jeremy Rifkin is correct when he writes that global warming is “the greatest challenge to ever face the human race.”[i] If anything is deserving of dramatic language, it is climate change.

For a couple of weeks I have been attempting to understand this challenge. This post (part one of two) is an effort to clarify a number of things: what global warming is, what it means for our planet, and why there is still resistance to the idea of human-caused climate change. (I apologise if this week’s post seems obvious or repetitive, however I believe there is value in getting the facts straight.) In my next post I will investigate how we should be responding to climate change as well as how we are actually responding (our actual response turns out to be a little more hopeful than I had originally thought it would be).

It should be noted that in both this post and the one to follow I have relied on three major sources for information. The first is Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution. Second, the UN’s summary of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment report. And finally Alex Magnin’s series of sustainability videos available on YouTube (wonderfully clear and beautifully drawn).

What is global warming (climate change)?

To understand global warming we first have to understand that Earth experiences regular and natural climate cycles. We know that over the last 400,000 years, for example, there have been four major climate cycles, all with similar ups and downs.[ii] These repetitive variations in climate are sustainable: that is, they occur as part of a delicate balance of rhythms that make our planet conducive to life.[iii] One of the reasons Earth is able to support life is the presence of gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in its atmosphere that trap heat and warm the planet.[iv] For hundreds of thousands of years these gasses have existed in our atmosphere in sustainable quantities, resulting in a climate that shifts back and forth slightly but remains supportive of life. Carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses are, in fact, largely responsible for our existence.

The second thing we have to understand is that the safe level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has increased dramatically since about 1960.[v] Warming since then cannot be explained by the Earth’s natural cycles – the (at least) 400,000 year old pattern has changed, and is no longer sustainable.[vi] The cause of this unnaturally large amount of greenhouse gas and the subsequent rise in the Earth’s temperature is – according to a majority of scientists – us. More specifically our recent enthusiasm (since the Industrial Revolution) for burning fossil fuels that release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[vii] The IPCC, in its Fifth Assessment of global warming which will be finalised this month, states that “the human influence on the climate system is clear.”[viii] Less clear is exactly is exactly how devastating the effects of this influence will be.

What does climate change mean for our planet?

At the moment scientists are predicting a rise in temperature of at least three degrees Celsius by the end of the century.[ix] According to Rifkin, the most serious aspect of global warming is the effect it has on the Earth’s water cycle. A change in temperature leads to an increase in the capacity of the atmosphere to hold water. This in turn changes the way water is distributed on Earth: in other words, global warming effects how often and how much it rains. Scientists believe global warming will cause rainstorms to be shorter and less frequent but much heavier, resulting in an increase in both floods and droughts.[x]

We are already starting to experience some of the effects of climate change. Longer and hotter summers mean more bushfires in certain regions of Australia, for example, and the number of serious hurricanes has doubled over the past forty years.[xi] Ocean levels are expected to rise more than 1 metre by the end of the 21st century due to the rapid melting of Antarctic ice – devastating news for island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives that sit just a few metres above sea level.[xii]

Predictions for effects in the near future are also sobering. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) a rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius could lead to the disappearance of 25% of the Earth’s plant and animal species (such a rapid shift in climate would leave most living creatures without enough time to adapt).[xiii] The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between the years 2030 and 2050 climate change will cause approximately 250,000 more deaths per year by directly contributing to the rates of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress.[xiv] And then there is the growing number of climate refugees from areas rendered uninhabitable by global warming. Already some Pacific islands are beginning to relocate communities: earlier this month New Zealand granted residency to a family unable to return to their island home because of the effects of global warming.[xv]

Not all of the future effects of climate change are so easily predictable, largely due to something scientists call feedback loops. Rifkin gives a number of examples of feedback loops (or feedback events) in his book. Here is one:

[W]hen the ice in the Arctic melts from a rise in the Earth’s temperature because of increased CO2 in the atmosphere, it prevents heat from escaping the Earth. The diminished snow cover means a loss of reflective capacity – white reflects heat and black absorbs heat – and less heat escaping the planet. This, in turn, heats up the Earth even more and melts the snow faster in an accelerating positive feedback cycle.[xvi]

It is impossible to anticipate all of the changes that climate change will cause to the Earth’s natural systems, not to mention how those changes might feed back into the warming of the planet. Feedback loops are one of the reasons it is so difficult for climatologists to accurately predict just how much and how quickly climate change will cause the Earth to warm.

Why is there still resistance to the fact that humans are causing climate change?

In spite of the facts and urgent pleas from scientists for swift and strong action against climate change, many of us are still dragging our feet. Australia, for example, is the highest per-person greenhouse gas polluter among all developed nations.[xvii] Yet in July of this year the Abbott government repealed the country’s price on carbon (a tax designed to discourage the burning of fossil fuels).[xviii] How can we be so laidback when it comes to dealing with the human race’s greatest challenge?

The most obvious reason, of course, is the fact that modern society is built on the burning of fossil fuels. (As Rifkin notes, “virtually every commercial activity in our global economy is dependent on oil and other fossil fuel energies … We have built an entire civilization on the exhumed carbon deposits of the Carboniferous Period.”[xix]) Our survival, ultimately, depends on the restructuring of our entire system of energy production – a daunting (and for many a seemingly impossible) task. It also means a huge loss in revenue for those currently profiting from the coal and oil industries (companies and countries wealthy enough to influence government decisions when it comes to climate change).

A second reason for our collective reluctance could be a simple misunderstanding of how our climate works. Climate change ‘deniers’ will often point to a heavy dump of snow and say “How can the Earth be warming up if it’s snowing so much?” This sort of thinking is wrong because firstly, as outlined above, global warming doesn’t just cause heat waves but all kinds of extreme weather due to unpredictable feedback loops, and its effect on the Earth’s water cycles (this article from the Independent outlines how global warming can actually cause colder winters).  Secondly, a statement like the one above fails to recognise the difference between weather (short term fluctuations in temperature etc) and climate (greater changes over longer periods of time). Neil deGrasse Tyson explains this difference wonderfully in the final episode of Cosmos (watch his explanation here). The other major argument against the existence of human-induced climate change is that the Earth’s climate has shifted quite drastically over hundreds of thousands of years. This is true, but it has always shifted within the boundaries of Earth’s natural cycles; i.e. the peaks and troughs have followed regular patterns. The current warming of the Earth breaks this ages-old rhythm right at the moment when humans begin to pump massive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere – a gas that, scientists agree, works to trap heat and warm the planet.

Finally, I suspect that many of us are overwhelmed by the size of this problem. It seems too big to tackle, too enormous, even, to be real. The greatest challenge to ever face the human race? Surely that’s an exaggeration, surely it’s not that bad. The dramatic reality of climate change can lead us to either dismiss it as scaremongering, or throw up our hands in frustration. The problem is so big – what can I do? The good news is – as I will explore in detail in part two of this article – that there are many things we can do, and that we will be forced to do. The threat of climate change may actually push us in a greener, more sustainable direction. Global warming could be the kick up the arse we need to make our lives better.

Whatever the reasons for resistance, it is clear to me that global warming is an important and urgent problem that needs to be faced right now. In my next post I will look at what has already been done to reduce the effects of climate change, as well as what climatologists believe we should be doing, and what the future might hold.

[i] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.

[ii] Alex Magnin, “Is climate change human made?” – video

[iii] Alex Magnin, “Sustainability definition” – video

[iv] Greenpeace

[v] Alex Magnin, “Is climate change human made?” – video

[vi] Greenpeace

[vii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[viii] The UN

[ix] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[x] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[xi] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[xii] The Guardian

[xiii] WWF

[xiv] WHO

[xv] The Guardian

[xvi] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

[xvii] WWF

[xviii] The Sydney Morning Herald

[xix] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution

What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?

For my upcoming thirtieth birthday a friend bought me a pair of books by John Green: The Fault in Our Stars (possibly the most talked about young adult novel of 2014) and An Abundance of Katherines (much less discussed and Green’s worst-selling book to date). [i] At the risk of being labelled anti-popularist I must admit that I enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines slightly more than its bestselling follow up. While An Abundance is somewhat less plot-driven than The Fault in Our Stars, it is stranger, funnier, and more quietly philosophical.

An Abundance of Katherines is the story of Colin Singleton, a 17-year-old prodigy who has had his heart broken nineteen times by nineteen different girls named Katherine. Katherine Number 19 dumps him at the very end of his high school career, leaving Colin staring down a long summer of moping and anagramming (two of the things he does best). His best friend Hassan (a Muslim with a love of something called a Monster Thickburger from Hardee’s) suggests a road trip, and the coming-of-age adventure begins. Intrigued by a sign advertising the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s grave the boys end up in the wonderfully named town of Gutshot, Tennessee. It is here they meet Lindsey Lee Wells (paramedic in training) and her mother Hollis (owner of a local factory that produces tampon strings). While in Gutshot Colin attempts to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, a mathematical formula that can foretell the outcome of any relationship. Proving the Theorem, Colin hopes, will not only explain his nineteen failed relationships but also show that he is capable of doing something remarkable, something that matters.

The structure of An Abundance is, in many ways, common to the YA genre: the end of school, a road trip, the identity-moulding freedom of summer. It is what Green does within this familiar format that I found interesting. I enjoyed the way he uses footnotes to explore Colin’s character; the clever banter between Colin and Hassan (they almost have their own language); and the flashbacks to Colin’s plethora of past romantic relationships. An Abundance is a novel of very little action and quite a bit of introspection, however the use of maths (the Theorem really works: it was developed by mathematician Daniel Bliss for the novel) is an interesting way of illustrating Colin’s efforts to figure out who he is.

I did find the ending a little unsatisfying (as is often the case with largely uneventful, thoughtful novels); I wanted less repetition of Colin’s existential revelations and more about how the other characters (by the end of the novel we have been introduced to quite a number of Gutshot residents) were getting on. I also felt like the theme (established early on) of story – how and why we tell stories and their importance – got a bit lost.

I really started to enjoy An Abundance a little over halfway through the book. I was beginning to get a little bored, particularly with Lindsey Lee Wells’s character. But then, on page 148, Lindsey says this:

The thing about chameleoning your way through life is that it gets to where nothing is real … I’m what I need to be at any moment to stay above the ground but below the radar. The only sentence that begins with ‘I’ that’s true of me is I’m full of shit.

It was here that I realised An Abundance is a novel that considers identity in a much more complicated way than whether or not somebody (Colin) is a genius or just very smart. For young people (and adults) the question is not ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Which am I?’ Which of the identities we create for ourselves is the most authentic? The answer, I think, is the identity we choose; the one we like the most. In the same way, we decide what makes us remarkable: “What matters to you” Colin discovers, “defines your mattering.”

An Abundance of Katherines is itself remarkable in its unremarkable-ness. In many ways a classic and predictable YA novel, An Abundance re-imagines important themes of ‘specialness’ and identity. While it lags a little in the middle and right at the end, An Abundance is engaging, amusing, and thoughtful, and deserves at least as much attention as The Fault in Our Stars.

An Abundance of Katherines was first published in 2006. It was the 2007 Michael L. Printz Honor book, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. John Green’s other novels include Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Levithan). You can read John Green’s thoughts on An Abundance of Katherines at his website.

[i] Just for the record, since it seems to be something of a contentious issue in the literary world at the moment, I enjoy reading (well-written) young adult novels. In case anyone’s interested, I also like well-written books for five-year-olds, and well-written books for regular adults.

“We can lose many, many battles, but we cannot lose the war.”

– Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives.

Global warming found its way back into mainstream news headlines this month thanks to the UN Climate Summit in New York. And while the summit itself wasn’t particularly useful in terms of producing any immediate action against rising temperatures, it did remind us that (a) climate change is still most definitely an imminent threat, and (b) a lot of people do give a shit (click here to see photos of the estimated 310,000 people marching in New York last week). The Island President, directed by Jon Shenk, is visually stunning (thank you, Maldives) and aurally beautiful (thank you, Radiohead). Most of all, however, it is a compelling story that forces us to view global warming as an urgent issue with real consequences for real people.

The hero of The Island President is Mohamed Nasheed, a man who endured torture, exile, and 18 months of solitary confinement at the hands of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime before co-founding an opposition party and bringing democracy to the Maldives in 2008. In his first year as president Nasheed found himself confronted with the greatest problem a political leader can face: a very real threat to his country’s survival.

The Maldives – a beautiful chain of 1200 coral islands off of the Indian sub-continent – is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. If sea levels don’t stop rising, global warming will destroy the Maldives. A rise of just 3 feet – a little less than 1 metre – will be enough to make the country uninhabitable. According to Mark Lynas (Mohamed Nasheed’s presidential advisor on climate change in 2009) if global warming continues at its current rate sea levels will eventually rise by 25 metres. It’s no wonder, then, that the Maldives has been dubbed a future Atlantis, and that Nasheed made fighting climate change his number one priority while in office (a fight that culminated in the 2009 Copenhagen UN Climate Summit).

As a film, The Island President is fantastic on all fronts. The Maldives is captured wonderfully throughout (director Jon Shenk is also an award winning cinematographer) with shots of its startlingly blue waters and white sand, crystal clear close-ups of crabs on rocks, aerial views of the island chain, and a frequent focus on the everyday lives of the country’s people. Much of the soundtrack was provided by Radiohead (Tom Yorke is quoted in Pitchfork: “Unless something is done to stop rising sea levels they [the people of the Maldives] will lose everything … Some of our music was used to help tell the story”); songs such as Kid A, Tree Fingers and Everything in its Right Place give this documentary the weight and atmosphere it deserves.

The best thing about The Island President, however, is Mohamed Nasheed himself, and his fight to save his country. Nasheed is immediately likeable – he is candid, concerned about people (not yachts), and his determination and stoicism are balanced by his sense of humour. Seeing global warming through Nasheed’s eyes (particularly in the context of the Copenhagen summit) made me realise (really realise, in a concrete way) the threat it poses. The Island President is a documentary, but it is a documentary that watches like a thriller – which is, of course, exactly how we should feel about climate change all the time. Terrified, but also motivated and energized. Compelled to do something.

The result of Copenhagen in 2009 was a decision to “take note of” an accord drawn up by heads of state (basically, governments agreed to think about reducing emissions, but no one was legally obliged to do anything). Five years later the recent New York summit failed to achieve much more; a number of world leaders didn’t even bother to attend, including Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, as well as the leaders of India, Canada, Russia, and China. And this was in spite of the fact that last August was the warmest on record: 0.75 degrees Celsius higher than the twentieth century global average of 15.6 degrees Celsius.

The Maldives is not underwater just yet. There is still time to counteract some of the worst future effects of climate change, but we have to act now. And there is hope – more than 300,000 people turning up to march (and that was just in New York) proves this, and a lot of governments are taking big steps to reduce harmful emissions.

Something else that The Island President made me aware of was just how unaware I am about global warming (both in terms of the problem and the solutions). Thanks to Nasheed (and Jon Shenk) I am now motivated to do my own research – watch this space for a much more comprehensive post on global warming coming soon.

The Island President premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2011. It was funded (in part) by the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Sundance Institute. In February of 2012 Mohamed Nasheed resigned as president of the Maldives, under threat of violence.

Read more about this documentary and watch the trailer at theislandpresident.com.