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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.

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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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