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Wars, Wackos and Warming

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
08.25.2002 | ENVIRONMENT

In the late 1980s, just when the atomic clock was inching back from midnight, a new threat was introduced to the world. Scientists were noticing recurring anomalies in weather patterns, and to explain them they referred to decades-old theories of man-made climate change. The braver of these researchers began ringing lonely alarm bells. Against the fading noise of Cold War emergency test patterns, they warned of tropical diseases moving north into temperate climes, rising sea-levels, heavy flooding, and record-breaking droughts and heat waves.

Just ten years ago, it all seemed so far-fetched. But no more. The scientists were right. Their predictions have come true, and sooner than most thought possible. Last week the two biggest stories in North America and Europe involved the spread of an African virus and biblical flooding. Look out your window.

The existence of climate change has ceased to be a subject of mainstream political debate. It is now the overwhelming fact of our new century, and the only debates left involve the pace of its assault and our response strategy. Clearly, a rational defense--"adaptation"--is needed alongside a fierce offense. Climate change is in motion, and we should be actively preparing to cope with the instability already triggered by almost two hundred years of industrial civilization. The challenge ahead is akin to turning around an oil tanker in mid-sea during a hurricane. The effects of what we do now will not be felt in our lifetimes. They are gifts to the 22nd and 23rd centuries.

It may in fact be too late to stop the apocalyptic version of the warming scenario. "Feedback loops"  have taken on lives of their own and could speed up and spin out. The biggest of these loops involves the frozen tundra of the far northern hemisphere: As permafrost thaws and releases heat-trapping carbon gas, the heat trapped will create more water vapor, which in turn will trap more heat and contribute to further thawing and the release of yet more carbon. Such cycles could eventually nullify altogether our ability to control the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Even if we never release another metric ton of CO2, the greenhouse genie may be fully out of the bottle.

But perhaps not. If the human race can activate and direct the collective intelligence that put Pepsi on the moon and pig hearts in little girls, maybe we can still land this thing. Maybe we can successfully lay the foundations for a global economy with a logical outcome other than species death.

The technology is more ready than people think. There are photovoltaic panels that can power heavy appliances and computers, hydrogen fuel cells that can drive a small train and wind mills that, if wired to harness the "Saudi Arabia of wind" between Kansas and California, could supply half of the U.S. with electricity year-round.

So what the fuck are we waiting for?

Two years ago, a combination of oil industry dollars and SUV-driving voters planted George W. Bush in the White House. His administration's ties to Big Oil are well-known and best symbolized by the fact that his national security advisor has a Chevron oil tanker named after her. The Bush team came in sneering at the Kyoto Protocol like it was a bong Clinton left on the Oval Office desk, then proceeded to co-write (along with a few Enron executives) a supply-side energy plan that called for expanding oil drilling and exploration, pooh-poohed conservation efforts and reduced federal funding for the research and development of alternative energy. The plan, unveiled by Dick Cheney in early 2001, is the policy equivalent of a global suicide note.

Further evidence of warming, both empirical and theoretical, has done nothing to pull this administration into reality. This summer, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a sober report on climate change, Bush took a moment to publicly scoff at it and then returned to the dirty business of planning an invasion of Iraq. The logic that says Saddam Hussein poses a bigger threat to the world than climate change is, of course, insane. It is particularly insane when you consider that one of the reasons hard-liners want war in Iraq--oil thirst--is intensified by the very supply-side energy economics they're busy promoting when they aren't rattling sabers. The same bunch that argues for war to secure "America's energy future"--both in Iraq and pristine Alaskan wilderness--also spits on rational plans to reduce energy consumption through manipulating demand, i.e. conservation.

Theirs is the worldview of bombs, not brains; greed, not guts.

Until the infrastructure for large-scale alternative energy is in place, conservation is our best hope of limiting greenhouse emissions. It works. The conservation efforts of the 1970s were bearing remarkable fruits before getting crushed by "The Reagan Revolution" in the 1980s. (Reagan's first act in office was to order the removal of halogen light-bulbs from the White House, and his Secretary of Interior, James Watt, was a man who described trees as "stumps with dollar signs on them, and old growth trees as old stumps with dollar signs on them.")

During Jimmy Carter's presidency, American-built cars gained seven miles per gallon, and oil imports from the Persian Gulf region dropped steeply. In the 1980s conservation and energy efficiency were officially discouraged, and oil imports and consumption increased. If Carter's initiatives had been built upon instead of razed, it is possible the U.S. would no longer require Middle East oil at all--and policy-makers could focus on things beside oil wars, like protecting the atmosphere.

Instead, we're getting ready to fight another war with tanks that move at .56 mpg and aircraft carriers that travel 17 feet per gallon. It's enough to make you slam your head against a flagpole over and over again. But there's precious little time for self-flagellation. We need to train our anger--and our heads--in other directions. Let's get to it.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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