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The Arctic Is the First Line of Defense Against a Climate Transition to an Uninhabitable Earth

Nature is not an ATM, and our survival depends on acting on that understanding.

“I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.”

Richard Buckminster Fuller

Humanity – and the Earth system it is a part of – is moving toward an Anthropocene Thermal Max (ATM), which will be cataclysmic for the ecosystem and the human societies it sustains. Despite the fact that climate scientists are uniform in stating that remaining hydrocarbon energy resources must be kept in the ground if we are to have a chance of stopping at a peak temperature that affords a chance of adaptation, the world’s major transnational energy companies and the world’s arctic nations are moving at breakneck speed to develop arctic resources. This is the story of three ATMs. First: the earth system can no longer be treated as an ATM; capitalistic economics as currently configured is dangerously out of kilter with real costs. Second: the great focus of both global and local efforts must be on making the ATM (Anthropocene Thermal Max) as low as possible. Third: an ATM (Arctic Transnational Moratorium) must be put in place now if the great majority of humanity is to have a reasonable prospect of adapting to climate-change-induced, nonlinear changes already programmed into the Earth-climate system.

In considering how realistic the implementations of these three ATMs are, one veers from despair to hope and back again … and back again. Despair is the more realistic of these poles: At the same time that we are careening full-tilt toward worse-case climate change scenarios, we also are engaged in a mad dash for the last remaining hydrocarbon energy (and other) resources, the development of which will be resounding nails in the coffin of any hope at all of preventing runaway climate change. The hope is there, because we must have hope in a situation like this. It is an Apollo 13 moment. But this time, instead of representing the fate of three astronauts, it is the fate of all humanity and most of the life forms on the planet that is at stake. And this time, instead of Houston being helpful, Houston, as representative of the old ways of making energy and making money, is the problem. It is time for people of good will to come together, worldwide, to come together, to save themselves, save their children and to save any prospect of a habitable planet. Sadly, much of the work will have to be done without sufficient help from many of the governments that supposedly have our best interests at heart and without the help of most of the corporations that have made us into a new class of serfs entrapped by the illusions of commercial happiness they saturate us with.

” … All humanity is scheduled by evolution (not by any world planning body) to become physically more successful and, metaphysically more interestingly occupied than have any humans ever been in all known history – provided that humanity does not commit ignorance-, fear-, and panic-induced total-species suicide.

Why might they panic? All the present bureaucracies of political governments, great religious organizations, and all big businesses find that physical success for all humanity would be devastating to the perpetuation of their ongoing activities. This is because all of them are founded on the premise of ameliorating individual cases while generally exploiting on behalf of their respective political, religious, or business organizations the condition of nowhere-nearly-enough-life-support-for-all and its resultant great human suffering and discontent.”

Buckminster Fuller

The First ATM (Anthropocene Thermal Max)

Part of the problem is simply the problem of a failure of imagination. The rate of climate change, although almost instantaneous on geological time scales, is just slow enough on the human time scale that we do not react with sufficient alarm, not, say, with the panic and alarm of a terrorist attack on iconic skyscrapers. Had the United States, for example, spent at a rough approximation $4 trillion on climate change mitigation, instead of two major and many minor failed wars against “terrorism,” the world would be very far along toward a credible defense against climate change. But most human brains react well to an immediate threat and seem poorly adapted to large global threats that will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or next year or the year after that.

To that insufficient grasp of the severity and immediacy of the crisis, must be added the crucial role that the oil and gas industries have played in successfully obfuscating the clear science.1 They also have been successful in obtaining large subsidies from governments, $500 billion per year by one recent estimate.2 The result has been that according to the most recent studies by the UNEP3 and the WMO,4 GHG emissions are increasing at a record pace and humanity’s chance of stabilizing at a 2 degrees Celsius increase is becoming increasingly remote. Even limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius is considered by many climate scientists – who understand the many nonlinear effects that essentially double climate sensitivity (Earth System Sensitivity) – as too high to avoid many very destructive effects.5 That said, this was the best global political will was able to do. We are asked to consider safe living in a building with a 50 percent chance of collapse by being told, well, there is a 50 percent chance it won’t collapse. And even that promise isn’t being kept. As Hansen puts it, “Most remaining fossil fuel carbon is in coal and unconventional oil and gas. Thus, it seems, humanity stands at a fork in the road. As conventional oil and gas are depleted, will we move to carbon-free energy and efficiency – or to unconventional fossil fuels and coal? “It seems implausible that humanity will not alter its energy course as consequences of burning all fossil fuels become clearer. Yet strong evidence about the dangers of human-made climate change have so far had little effect. Whether governments continue to be so foolhardy as to allow or encourage development of all fossil fuels may determine the fate of humanity.”6 Even the much more conservative (recently leaked) IPCC report – conservative because it uses a simpler measure of climate sensitivity that doesn’t take into account known nonlinear feedbacks – paints a dire picture if we don’t act now.7

So what are we doing? The world’s arctic nations and their transnational oil and gas company minions are scrambling like maggots on a carcass to fight over the large oil and gas deposits the arctic holds. Does this make sense in any belief system? Only in the hermetically sealed belief systems of profit-at-all-cost-driven capitalism coupled with nationalism coupled with an ideology that equates growth at all cost with corporate and national health, despite the fact that the real cost of this mad pursuit, the negative externalities if you will, is the loss of a habitable world. There is a paleoclimatic rough analogue for the world whose phase we are plunging into; it is the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum).8 This was a period about 55 million years ago when temperatures suddenly spiked, probably mostly caused by the rapid release of methane from methane clathrates. Because this paleoclimaticaly sudden event probably took around 1,000 years to unfold, despite widespread extinctions, some life forms were able to adapt. Life above the arctic circle was good, with even crocodiles surviving there. The rest of the Earth, though, was a hot, inhospitably stormy, largely desert place. The oceans were largely devoid of larger life forms, because these require cooler temperatures to survive. One of the problems with this analogy, though, is that, compared with the release of greenhouse gases in the PETM, the release in the Anthropocene is some 10 to 30 times faster. We are, in other words, in uncharted territory when it comes to understanding the forces we have unleashed.

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

– Buckminster Fuller

The Second ATM (Arctic Transnational Moratorium)

So here we are at the beginning of an arctic petro-carbon gold rush,9 and although it might pump money into a few oil companies for a while and a few national coffers for a while and keep a few factories and cars humming for a while, it is global suicide. It doesn’t take a degree of any sort, not undergraduate, not postgraduate, not honorary, to recognize that the exploitation of these resources at this time must be stopped, stopped cold. We need an ATM – Arctic Transnational Moratorium – and we need it now. Is there any hope of this? Perhaps if the countries and communities most immediately affected (in terms of communities, these are the arctic indigenous communities – and in terms of nations, these are the nations south of the arctic circle – hey, that’s everybody, isn’t it. … ) were to mobilize out of their own best survival instincts, then perhaps, just perhaps, something could be done. Oil prices would rise, as they must if we are to have the proper impetus to transition as soon as possible (now!) to a low-carbon, no-carbon economy. But will this happen? Probably not. Oil has driven humanity insane. No country wants to see its economic growth slowed by higher oil prices. No corporation wants to give up the billions of dollars it will lose if these resources aren’t exploited. As Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the Universityh of California-San Diego, put it in an address to the AGU’s 2012 Fall meeting, “Is Earth F**ked?”10 The answer without an ATM appears to be, yes. His argument was that there are two non-linear systems at work. Capitalism is a nonlinear system that requires constant growth to generate profits. Nature is a nonlinear system in which relatively small inputs (like greenhouse gases) can have major nonlinear (destructive) outputs. One system is destroying the other, and there is only one outside force that gives us any cause for hope: civil society, NGOs, nonviolent resistance, everyone outside of government and the big corporations who wants to have a habitable Earth for his or herself and their children.

I have slightly more hope than Mr. Werner. I do believe that governments can act in their own best national security interests to take the radical World War II-level steps necessary to immediately decarbonize. I do believe that corporations will understand that there is no money to be made in a world of collapsed societies but a lot of money to be made in full participation in as rapid a transition to a zero carbon world as possible. Perhaps I am naïve.

Nor of course is this problem limited to controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The rapacious scramble for what is left of Earth’s other dwindling resources also must be controlled. There needs to be a robust reflection in international law of the fact that the Earth system upon which we all depend for life is interconnected, and as such you cannot dam a river here, cut down a forest there, mine a mountain there, without affecting both the local and the global commons. Negative externalities must be internalized. An international ecological tribunal or some such entity must be able to look at our resource extraction activities, even in, especially in, remote places and weigh and assess the real-world effects: We live in a global commons, a globally interconnected weather and Earth system, and ecological tragedy in one area, loss of coral reefs, rain forest destruction, trans-boundary river pollution and damming affect all of us. Nature must be given the voice we are trying so hard to take from her, or she will howl us back into caves or worse.

“[My vision is] To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

– Buckminster Fuller

The Third ATM (Nature is Not an ATM)

Chief Seattle is said to have said, “The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” It is ironic that an American such as myself should quote a Native American, a people we perpetrated genocide upon. It is tragic that an American would quote a fellow human being who had a different relation with nature than the one my culture imposed upon his continent. I do not mean to romanticize traditional lifestyles, but the indigenous view of the world, in terms of the human intimate, important, connection with nature is correct. The understanding of the interconnection of all living things is perfectly scientifically accurate. It is we “moderns” in our boxes, in our cars, in our shopping malls, who have become very sick. You might ask, would it have been possible for America to become the powerful nation it has become – or was, if we are now in decline – had it not cut down its virgin forests, killed its buffalo in the millions, plowed its prairies, dammed its rivers and mined its mountains? Is there any way for 300 million people to live on a continent, any way for 7 billion people to live on a planet in such a way as to not have a very, very heavy footprint?

I think the answer is yes, because the answer must be yes. Certainly it wasn’t possible with the technologies we have used up to now. They are old, clumsy, destructive, primitive, one-dimensional technologies. We can have a civilization of the bees, if you will. The bees build their hive, their complex society, out of what is around them, but in such a way that their own bee-centered activities enrich their surrounding environment, enrich and make it fertile and productive. Humanity’s activities, too, in search of its own sustenance, can be re-understood in such a way as to recognize the necessity of these too becoming a supporting part of the web of life. What we take, we can give back, cleaner, purer, fresher. Our cities can be natural places, through which wildness walks in and out comfortably, as they can be places of repose, comfort and grace of the highest arts and sciences for all. This is the challenge of our time. To save the Earth. And in so doing, save ourselves. And in so doing, find once again a harmony, both inside and out, that is now desperately lacking.

“The best way to predict the future is to design it.”

– Buckminster Fuller

“Since it is now physically and metaphysically demonstrable that the chemical elements resources of Earth already mined or in recirculation, plus the knowledge we now have, are adequate to the support of all humanity and can be feasibly redesign-employed … to support all humanity at a higher standard of living than ever before enjoyed by any human, war is now and henceforth murder. All weapons are invalid. Lying is intolerable. All politics are not only obsolete but lethal.

– Buckminster Fuller


1 Merchants of Doubt, Orestes, Conway, Bloomsbury Press, June 2013

2 Time to Change the Game, Subsidies and Climate, ODI

3 The Emissions Gap Report 2013

4The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere Using Global Observations through 2012, WMO

5 Allowable carbon emissions lowered by multiple climate targets, Marco Steinacher, Fortunat Joos & Thomas F. Stocker, Nature 499, 197–201 (July 11, 2013)

6 Climate sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric carbon dioxide, James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Gary Russell and Pushker Kharecha, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 2013 371 2001 20120294; doi:10.1098/rsta.2012.0294 (published September 16, 2013)

7(LEAKED DRAFT) IPCC WGII AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability

8PETM Weirdness, Real Climate, Climate Science from Climate Scientists

9 The Race for What is Left, Michael Klare, Picador; Reprint edition (December 24, 2012)

10 “Is Earth F**ked?” Brad Werner, paper presented at AGU Fall 2012

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of State or the US government.

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