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Oct 15, 2009

My 'Oh Shit' Moment: Crikey readers tell

We asked Crikey readers if they’ve ever experienced an “Oh Shit” moment on climate change. You know, when suddenly all the science becomes clear and the future seems quite scary.

This post on our environment blog Rooted is currently going off like a (slowly boiling) frog in a sock.

Crikey asked readers if they’ve ever experienced an “Oh Shit” moment on climate change. You know, that second the penny dropped, the article on page 13 that sent a little shiver through you, the study that lobbed that made you think hmm … maybe there’s something to this after all … the doco that gave you nightmares, the book you read that kept you up nights …

As Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation put it:

They say that everyone who finally gets it about climate change has an “Oh, shit” moment — an instant when the full scientific implications become clear and they suddenly realise what a horrifically dangerous situation humanity has created for itself.

Of course, you could be in the other camp, one of those Australians polled in the latest Lowy Institute survey who’ve pushed climate change down the list of concerns, to, oh, seventh — behind job security, the economy, terrorism and the threat of nuclear weapons…

But if you do buy into the idea that we’re in big trouble, it’s especially alarming to hear people who, ahem, know their shit and speak about their own personal “Oh Shit” moment.

Take Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chair of an advisory council known by its German acronym, WBGU, and a physicist whose specialty is chaos theory.

Speaking in July at an invitation-only conference in New Mexico, Schellnhuber divulged the findings of a study so new he had not yet briefed chancellor Angela Merkel about it. Schellnhuber and his WBGU colleagues’ study states that the United States must cut emissions 100% by 2020. Yep, that means quit carbon completely within 10 years. Germany, Italy and other industrial nations must do the same by 2025-2030. China only has until 2035.

The world as a whole must be carbon-free by 2050. This kind of timetable is light years from what the IPCC is proposing and failing to get agreement on.

But even this “brutal” timeline of the WBGU study, Schellnhuber admitted, wouldn’t guarantee staying within the 2C target. It would merely give humanity a two-out-of-three chance of doing so — “worse odds than Russian roulette … But it is the best we can do.”

To have a three-out-of-four chance, countries would have to quit carbon even sooner.

“I myself was terrified when I saw these numbers,” Schellnhuber said. Hans’ suggestion to push past that rising “Oh Sh-t” feeling and avert paralysis? “Wartime mobilisation.”

This is what commentors on the website have to say on the subject:

EnergyPedant says: “I saw the long-term rainfall pattern for the bottom corner of WA. Average rainfall in the last 30 or so years is dramatically less than the previous 100+ years of records.”

Evan Beaver: “I think mine was probably reading an article in New Scientist talking about the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and stopping the gulf stream. I had just started understanding chaos theory and the implications in very big systems.”

Wyane: “… my real ‘oh shit’ moment is the the realisation these past 2 years or so that precisely 3 quarters of 4 fifths of bugger all is going to be done by governments, industry and us (collectively) to address CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.”

Scott Grant: “My own attitiudes shifted from ‘this will happen some time in the next hundred or so years’, to ‘this will happen in my lifetime’, to ‘this IS happening’, over a period of a couple of decades.”

Matt B: “I’ll admit it. I’m still not totally sold. I want to be! Honestly! But I’m just not … That said, I have had an ‘oh shit’ moment of my own. It was mostly in regards to the global security implications.”

HelenMac: “My Oh Shit moment was the evening I read The Road by Cormack McCarthy in one sitting.”

FredEx: “We live on a cliff top overlooking a 4-5 square km wetland backwater of the River Murray. Been here most weekends and holidays for 10-12 years then permanently for the last 7. The wetland is now gone, probably never to re appear. It one of 80 wetlands between Lock 9 on the river and the Lakes. All but one have been dry for more than 3 years. Why? Over irrigation along the river. Drought.”

michael james: “Mine came when I saw statements like “the science is proven” and “the evidence is in”, despite reputable scientists still questioning the analysis of the IPCC and their supporters. Until you can produce results of research that are replicable outside your own lab or computer model, the science is not proven. The mess over claims of cold fusion are a perfect example.”

Nigel Molesworth: …Durkin’s masterpiece The Great Global Warming Swindle was shown on the ABC at the behest of the Right wingers on the ABC board. I watched it, found it convincing, then watched the panel discussion afterwards where it was shown to be completely misleading. I remember David Karoly answering every point the denialists came up with. I remember the humiliating interview with Durkin where, when he was asked some quite reasonable questions, appeared to panic.

I also remember the graphs that Durkin produced and how they were shown to be a complete fabrication. His excuse for dropping the last 15 years off the graph and fabricating several hundred years of data was “an underling did it”.

As well as being annoyed at being misled by Durkin, I found myself thinking that if the denialists had to manufacture evidence then their argument can’t be very strong. And I was right. I started reading and now find the evidence pretty compelling.

But it’s Stephen Moreland’s post that’s got everyone talking. Here’s an extract:

… When it comes to climate change, the choices between positive action and business as usual are clear, but I bet most people, even the people posting here, aren’t willing to make the many, seemingly hard, changes to their lives that we really need ALL people on the planet to make. Have you given up hooved red meat? Wine and dairy products? Driving to work? Plans for that trip to Europe or Bali with the kids next year? Products from overseas? The dream of a beach house? Signed up to certified Green Power? Moved your superannuation over to an ethical fund? Decided not to breed? I bet you’ve not done half of those things. Do you think we can reduce co2 levels without considering doing the above?

The truth is, if we are going to keep atmospheric carbon levels below a catastrophic level, you, me, and every one of the 6.8 million other buggers here should have started doing those things 20 years ago. Oh, shit.

The lesson I’ve learned is clear: when it comes to a choice between principle/social equity/sacrifice/effort versus self-interest/consumerism/fear/convenience, most people choose the former. Nations and governments choose the former. Obviously businesses, corporations, special interest groups (i.e. unions) choose the former. You might find a politician or two who might lip-sync support for the latter, but not at election time. Oh, shit.

In fact, in the political sphere, we don’t even have a language suitable to seriously debate short term self-interest and long term shared well-being. Have you heard Krudd or the Wongster mention the word “sacrifice”, or the phrase “changing our life styles and expectations”, or “live simply, so others (including non-vertebrates and plankton) can simply live”? They know that the ideas simply would be incomprehensible to the electorate, which has been born and raised on the (false) expectation of more more more and right now, thank you very much.

How would a political party go to an election as “Things are bound to get worse, but slightly less worse, under us”? Do you think cool Todd from The Gruen Transfer could sell the idea of Gandhi or David Suzuki as a pin-up boy to the X-Box generation via a stunning Labor Party TV ad campaign? Sh-t, yeah.

Homo sapiens are genetically and socio-politically incapable of weighing up long term versus short term and choosing long term. We’re not bred to think and act any further ahead than one generation. We can’t help ourselves from wanting more.

So the reality is this: We will experience runaway climate change. There will be mass extinctions. There will be millions, if not billions, of environmental refugees. In the end, it doesn’t matter what school one sweet four-year-old boy goes to next year, as long as I teach him the really important stuff — how to survive in a much harsher world.

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48 comments

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48 thoughts on “My ‘Oh Shit’ Moment: Crikey readers tell

  1. Adam Barker

    I think Steve Moreland hit the nail on the head. I haven’t had an ‘Oh Shit’ moment yet, and, if I can be completely honest, for just a moment, without getting a bottle thrown at me, I don’t care about climate change. There, I said it, I’m sorry, maybe it makes me an evil person, but I just don’t care.

    If I want 20 minute showers I will have them. If I want to drive my car down to the shops or run my A/C all night, I do it. I pay the bills so I decide how I use my power etc.

    On the other hand I get public transport to and from work everyday, and myself and my wife will not have children, but those are more financial decisions, and ‘what is best for us’ than ‘what is best for the environment’.

    The way I see it is, you only get one life, and mankind has been in a state of change ever since they got here. I only get one life and I’m living it for me. We will learn to adapt and change and deal with it, or we will die out. Either way, I will still run my heater tonight.

  2. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Nice one Adam, but in the end you caved in. You were honest for a moment…. “I only get one life and I’m living it for me”, but having hung out on the wild side for that moment you got a glimpse of the future and decided to swing right back in with the mob, viz. “We will learn to adapt and change and deal with it, or we will die out”. I suggest that when we (the mob) choose to do the learning, adapting and changing, you’d better get inside the tent – with or without a heater, 20 minute showers or aircon. And end the bravado.

  3. Roger Clifton

    Usually the oh-sh1t moment belongs to a crash, where realisation is immediately followed by impact. However with AGW we do have time to react, to mobilise, to fight back and to win. In our own personal moment of truth, each of us can say “Oh sh1t, now what can I do?”

    For the moment, let’s not stampede ourselves in the belief that the world is following us. It is not. In between disasters, people are enjoying the unusual sunshine and basking in the belief that all is well with the world that they will bequeath to their children.

    When they take to the streets, it will be after a series of worldwide horrors that alarm even the most complacent. That day is somewhere ahead of us, a Pearl Harbor day for which we should be preparing:

    Every profession must have something to offer. Lawyers for example, could frame a court for International Crimes against the Environment for the UN to install when the time comes.

    As a voting public, we certainly need to advise both sides of government that whatever fears we had of nuclear energy, they have paled against the greater threat. It is time for uranium policy to shift from aversion to proaction.

    As a mining nation, Australia can offer to supply an international energy organisation with nuclear fuel to supply the world. To that end, we need to survey the resource in the interim.

    In the darkening storm, it is a time for prophets, poets and musicians. Beat the drum softly…

  4. Adam Barker

    @Hugh – when I said learn to adapt and change and deal with it, I meant the changing climate, droughts, warmer temperatures and the associated problems.

    Not pull up stumps and go back to living in a cave to cut emissions, which quite frankly doesn’t interest me. If people in the future have to wear stillsuits and run from Sandworms, so be it.

  5. MichaelT

    Schellnhuber (is he real or did someone make him up?) is proposing that governments shut down the car industry, make car-use illegal, shut down all our current base load electricity generation, which would lead to the consequential shutting down of much of the rest of our industry. It would be impossible to sustain our industrial civilisation on a zero-carbon basis within ten years. No government in the world will take this kind of crazy action on the basis of contestable predictions of the future based on computer modelling, so it is a completely academic debate. In other contexts, these sorts of demands would be regarded as extremism. Get real!

  6. john2066

    I still remain angry at the people have been dying in the recent heatwaves, particularly in Melbourne in January. These ‘deaths’ are an obvious scan perpetuated by the ‘global warming lobby’ to convince us it’s real.

    As well, these people complaining about the entirely normal and natural process of Victoria becoming a baking filthy desert that can’t feed itself, are also just whingers.

    Thank god the brave skeptics have stood firm at the science, logic and bloodshed now happening in front of their faces to make sure we do nothing.

    Its going to be really great in 15 years time, when the results are in, and we can give the climate skeptics the full, rich , credit they so rightly deserve. I mean, there’ll be so much gratitude!!!

  7. Alex Campbell

    The observations offered by Matt, Stephen, Adam and Hugh would, I think, form a pretty accurate cross-section of opinion and thought regarding Climate Change in this country. Trouble is that while most have gone some way to acknowledging the existence of Climate Change and its almost universal threat to humanity, people still feel the prospect of individual response to be limited in value when measured against the gargantuan nature of the problem facing them. It’s easy to be discouraged when the options available amount to turning against everything you’ve been conditioned to expect as an average citizen of the Western world; consumerism and wealth founded on relentless and cheap development, together with the exploitation of natural resources and offshore labour. Whatever the case, we had best not continue to wince at the prospect of more modest and appropriate living standards, as this will us inordinately worse-off when action to save humanity becomes unavoidable.

  8. Adam Barker

    Maybe this is supposed to happen. Like a mass level extinction from which will emerge a new world, the strong will survive and thrive type of thing. I dunno. At the end of the day how are we gonna feed 6 (or is it 7 now?) billion people without the social and economic construct we have now.

    And if we just turn that off, well, then you’ll see trouble. Cannibalism and hordes of marauding bandits on every continent. I don’t think I’ll live to see the day though.

  9. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Adam B and MichaelT want what nearly everyone else in the world wants: That adaptation and change to meet a supposed terminal climate crisis can be strung out over a couple of generations or more so that none of us has to change very much very quickly, if at all. And if that isn’t enough well, whatever!
    Schellnhuber (made up or not) and quite a number of other well credentialed and well intentioned people, including a considerable lump of the Australian electorate – bless its beating heart – are urging the governments of the world to lift the pace of change. They think that slow change or no change will actually be the death of us – or some unfortunates somewhere not quite identified yet. MichaelT says ten years to get to zero carbon emissions is completely out of the question, extremist and unreal. But doesn’t deny the necessity to get atmospheric carbon under some control.
    So now we’ve got a proposition – we just need the timing defined. It might be true that no government in the world will wreck its economy and society on a computer generated whim but history tells us that World War One started on less than that and WW2 was little more than a dispute over the spoils of the first. We are well and truly capable of extremism if we want to lift our hand to it. The pressure has tripled since those days. Things could happen real fast whether we like it or not. Then we won’t have the luxury of a choice, let alone an armchair to spectate and speculate from. In or out of the cave Adam B.

  10. GreenGuy

    My ohshit moment was in Nusa Dua Bali at COP13 in Dec 2007 when lining up to meet Rudd post his Kyoto speech (8 days in power!), I looked over his shoulder to find the coal, aluminium and other vested interest reps standing there smug and comfortable. I realised that no credible climate scientists (correction no scientists) were on the official delegation and that vested interests would continue to dominate and misrepresent climate policy as they had under Howard.

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