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Runaway Climate Change:
An Obesity Analogy

By Bill Henderson

30 May, 2007

(W)hat we see now, even in the most progressive governments as far as climate change is concerned, is that they're giving up on the key climate change target, which is preventing global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees centigrade, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above a pre-industrial level.

Now, this is a critical target, because if you get beyond that point, that's when the positive feedbacks start to begin. That's when the biosphere, the world’s natural systems, begins to produce far more carbon dioxide, far more methane. It begins to absorb less of the carbon dioxide, which we produce, and that is a point beyond which we can't do anything more about it. Two degrees of global warming, centigrade, leads automatically to three degrees, because of positive feedbacks. Three degrees leads automatically to four degrees. Once we get to that point, we wash our hands of it. There's nothing more we can do. So we must not get to that point. That is a critical thing. We can't allow two degrees centigrade of warming to happen. To have a high chance of preventing that from happening requires a 60% global cut in carbon emissions by 2030.
George Monbiot

So why are we still doing next to nothing as greenhouse gas emissions skyrocket? Why after two decades of procrastination are we now only aiming at woefully inadequate emission targets? At impotent caps and emission trading?

Well the usual suspects include the Church of Business which continues to use money from increasing returns in the fossil fuel economy to obfuscate and muddy climate change science, contain debate within sacred BAU and greenwash supposed green-lite consumption. The major media are, of course, CofB acolytes with no real interest in making any case for needed radical change. Politicians - well they're politicians.

The better half of the population seem to have an almost genetic predisposition against even thinking about potential catastrophe. Blonde, Oprah and Madonna have better things to do it seems than consider whether our present cumulative actions will win us the Supreme Darwin Award for self-extinction.

Runaway climate change is an insidious evil, an unmarked threshold not a flesh and blood enemy. Perhaps we would already be mobilizing into real action if the climate change danger had a sinister human face.

But maybe it is how the climate change - global warming story has been told; maybe the disconnect began with a faulted diagnosis that we as patient continue to cling to instead of undertaking life saving change.

Consider an analogy with the spectrum of health risks due to obesity: the doctor had first warned that we risk type two diabetes, arthritis, breathing problems and an increasing risk of certain cancers if we continued to add weight. When he first started alerting us to the risks of obesity he might or might not have mentioned that there was also an increased risk of cardiovascular disease but now, in our advancing state of obesity, he tells us that we have a serious, increasing risk of having a fatal heart attack too.

Sea-level rise in 2100. An increasing risk of hurricanes, weird weather and heat waves. Risks to farming and forestry; drought and famine leading to failed states and refugees. Corroding ecosystems; species extinction; disease migration and bug infestations. Predicted increasing but adaptable - not terminal - risks as the temperature rises.

Just don't think about the possibility of a life ending jammer at any time soon.

Our perception of global warming - climate change began with warnings about problems far off in the future. Because the immediate risk was negligible and life was good we never really considered the lifestyle change that was needed. We promised to go on a diet but never really stuck to it. Now, with our increased 'weight', change will be harder; we will need to make radical, maybe even enforced lifestyle changes not just pushing away from the table, maybe even have our stomach stapled and we really don't want to think about it.

So we don't focus on the increasing probability of death soon but content ourselves that the new diet - strict targets this time and better, cleaner food - and controlling the secondary health risks are enough. And everybody's happy. Don't have to give up the obese consumption economy.

And because economists, the parish priests or vicars of the CofB, seem to also share a congenital inability to appreciate our present predicament as potential jammer catastrophe, and because the whole spectrum of climate change awareness and possible mitigation is lead by economists, we will continue to have a public debate that is completely within BAU with the argument centering upon how strict a diet we must go on now in order to not have costs of 3.86 trillion pounds or such in 2050.

A qualifying phrase such as if there is an economy in 2050, if we survive to 2050, is never included. We, the patient, continue to expect a happy old age maybe a little tempered by bad weather. There will be an economy in 2050 surely? Life goes on surely?

Bill (at)

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