A Crisis? Or Something Else?
It also reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend the other night about the nature of global warming and the challenge it poses to humanity. This friend, it's worth noting up front, is no dope. He's on the masthead at Scientific American and has testified before Congress on radical energy technologies that might eventually come to our rescue. So, while h's a firm believer in the reality of anthropogenic warming, he also believes that calling global warming a 'crisis' is a mistake. It's not a crisis, he insists; rather, it's a "chronic, multi-generational challenge" that is unlike anything we've faced.
Calling it a crisis, he says, is problematic because societies can only stay in 'crisis mode' for a few years at a time, whereas warming is going to require an ongoing, unflagging commitment of many, many decades. This seems right to me. On the other hand, in what it portends for civilization, global warming certainly has all signs of being a crisis and an existential one at that -- or as Gore calls it, "a global emergency."
As Joseph Romm notes in this thoughtful post, the most common analogy used by Gore and others who are sounding the alarm on warming is WWII. But the comparison seems wrong on a few counts: First, there has been no, nor is there likely to be, any equivalent to Pearl Harbor in this struggle; second, there is no enemy to give it the same Us v. Them dynamic that all wars have (it's more like Us v. Us); and, third, unlike an enemy force, warming will not respond to even our most concerted efforts in the short-term for the simple reason that the carbon we are emitting today will remain in the atmosphere for a century or so.
I asked Gore about some of this when I had the opportunity to interview him last year for Sierra magazine. Here is one relevant exchange:
Sierra: In your movie, you cite U.S. determination in World War II as an example of the kind of resolve we need to confront global warming. But it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to galvanize the country. Are we going to have a similar moment in this crisis?
Gore: Obviously, we all hope it doesn't come to that, but for hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans, that moment has already been reached. And for millions of people in Africa's Sahel, that moment has already been reached with the disappearance of Lake Chad. For an untold number of species, it has been reached. The challenge for the rest of us is to connect the dots and see the picture clearly. H. G. Wells wrote that "history is a race between education and catastrophe." And this is potentially the worst catastrophe in the history of civilization. The challenge now is to seize our potential for solving this crisis without going through a cataclysmic tragedy that would be the climate equivalent of wartime attack. And it's particularly important because, by the nature of this crisis, when the worst consequences begin to manifest themselves, it will already be too late.