Politicians Must Respond to Climate Tipping Points

By Ted Glick

There’s a famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” However, according to Wikipedia, it may be that this concept was first expressed by a U.S. labor leader, Nicholas Klein of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, in 1914.

According to a report of the union’s convention that year, Klein said, “… my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”

Darfur: Foretaste of Resource Wars

I thought of this insightful and concise set of observations recently in connection with the statements by various members of the 21st century equivalent of the Flat Earth Society about the mid-Atlantic snow storms of February 5-10. I’m referring to people like James Imhoff, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Their ignorant statements are the latest in a series of efforts by the coal industry, oil companies, their public spokespeople and the climate change deniers — the fossil fools — to prevent strong action toward a desperately-needed, clean energy economy.

Why “desperately-needed?” There are two primary reasons.

One is the climate change impacts already being felt around the world, most particularly, but not only, in parts of Africa, like Darfur.

An article by Stephan Faris in the April, 2007 issue of The Atlantic, “The Real Roots of Darfur,” explained the connection between climate change and the war in Darfur:

“The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. . . Until the rains began to fail, the (nomadic herders) lived amicably with the settled farmers. The nomads were welcome passers-through, grazing their camels on the rocky hillsides that separated the fertile plots. The farmers would share their wells, and the herders would feed their stock on the leavings from the harvest. But with the drought, the farmers began to fence off their land — even fallow land — for fear it would be ruined by passing herds. . .In the late 1980s, landless and increasingly desperate Arabs began banding together to wrest their own (tribal lands) from the black farmers. . .

“Why did Darfur’s lands fail? For much of the 1980s and ‘90s, environmental degradation in Darfur and other parts of the Sahel was blamed on the inhabitants. But by the time of the Darfur conflict four years ago, scientists had identified another cause. Climate scientists fed historical sea-surface temperatures into a variety of computer models of atmospheric change. Given the particular pattern of ocean-temperature changes worldwide, the models strongly predicted a disruption in African monsoons. ‘This was not caused by people cutting trees or overgrazing,’ says Columbia University’s Alessandra Giannini, who led one of the analyses. The roots of the drying of Darfur, she and her colleagues had found, lay in changes to the global climate.

“Some see Darfur as a canary in the coal mine, a foretaste of climate-driven political chaos.”

Indeed, the U.S. military, for at least six years, has identified climate change as a national security threat, not in the far-off future but during this decade.

Climate Tipping Points

The second reason why things are desperate is because of climate tipping points, points after which it will be extremely difficult for human society to prevent runaway climate change and the breakdown of what we call “civilization” all over the world.

Scientists have identified four main climate tipping points.

One would be the melting of a significant amount of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets. Both of these huge expanses of ice are on land, so that as they melt, a process that is rapidly intensifying, sea level rise will accelerate. James Hansen, the U.S.’s foremost climate scientist, has written that before this century is over, if serious action is not taken very soon, sea level worldwide could go up 40 feet.

A second tipping point would be the melting of significant portions of the permafrost regions in the Arctic, Alaska, northern Canada and Russia. The melting is already happening, releasing frozen-in carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than CO2. A recent study headed by Edward Schuur of the University of Florida estimated that there is roughly twice as much carbon in the permafrost as exists in the atmosphere.

A third tipping point would be the warming of the ocean such that even more extensive amounts of methane, found in crystals of ice on the bottom of the ocean — clathrates — would be released. Although I have read of no scientists who believe this is imminent anytime soon, it was disturbing to read in England’s Independent newspaper over a year ago, that “scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia’s northern coast have discovered intense concentrations of methane over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.” Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University was quoted: “An extensive area of intense methane release was found. For the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface.”

The fourth tipping point would be the drying out of the massive Amazon rainforest, whose function for the Earth has been likened to the lungs within human beings and animals. It plays a huge role in relation to climate change through its natural sequestration of carbon dioxide in both living plants and trees and in the soil. It is a shrinking entity as trees are cut down for timber or for industrial farming. There are already changes in weather patterns in the area such that there is less rainfall than normal.


It is a positive thing that, over the past year, leading up to the Copenhagen international climate conference, people, organizations and governments over the entire world mobilized behind the demand for strong action on climate. We rallied behind the objective of reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million; they’re currently at 387. The organization 350.org deserves much credit for the over 5,200 actions in 181 countries on October 24th that they organized, and the 350 leadership will soon be announcing their ideas for how to keep building this absolutely essential worldwide movement.

It is also a positive thing that, in a U.S.-Congress-kind-of-way, there is renewed hope that a half-decent piece of climate legislation could be passed this year that will represent a step forward by that often-maddening body of elected officials. There is hope primarily because of the introduction two months ago by Senators Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, of a piece of legislation called the “Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act,” or CLEAR Act.

This bill will put a cap on carbon as it enters our economy and lower the cap each year. It auctions 100% of the steadily-decreasing number of carbon permits, allows for no problematic carbon offsets, and prevents Wall Street involvement in the carbon market. It returns 75% of that permit revenue to the American people directly in monthly payments to help deal with higher prices in the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. It uses the rest to spur investment in conservation, efficiency and clean energy while creating millions of jobs.

Significantly, it allows for the President and a simple majority in Congress to strengthen the emissions reduction target, which at 20% below 2005 levels by 2020 is not strong enough. The target should be at least twice that much but, hey, this is the U.S. Senate. This relatively simple process for changing the target as our climate movement grows stronger, broader and better able to isolate the fossil fools is a key provision.

It will be hard to get the CLEAR Act passed without weakening as the fossil fuel polluters ramp up their corrupt lobbying operations. Indeed, just today, ClimateWire reported that, in the words of E&E Publishing Service reporter Christa Marshall, “companies and groups with deep coffers are lining up to change climate legislation emerging as an alternative proposal to cap and trade in Congress. The growth in lobbying from well-funded players signals that the bill from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) has potential to gain momentum on Capitol Hill, analysts say. Since the two senators introduced their bill in December, more than 40 businesses and organizations announced plans to lobby on the measure via official disclosure forms filed with Congress.”

Now is the Time for Action

It’s time for the climate movement to come together, right now, to defend the best option that we have to get decent, badly-needed legislation on climate passed this year, and to push back against the fossil fools. Passage of the CLEAR Act would be a definite step forward, a political tipping point, not the end game, but a victory for sure.
For more information on the CLEAR Act go to http://www.supportclearact.org.  Φ

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and an author of a book manuscript, Love Refuses to Quit: Climate Change and Social Change in the 21st Century, available to read and download online at http://www.tedglick.com. He goes on trial on February 24th in D.C. for hanging a banner in the Senate Hart Office Building.

Photos: http://farm2.static.flickr.com;  revcom.us/a/020/images/tedglick001.jpg

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