Disasters and environmental awareness

Every day, I find myself thinking about the huge risks associated with unchecked climate change, as well as the reality of how little humanity is doing overall to counter them. One odd consequence of this is ambiguous feelings about disasters like the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. On the one hand, it is a human and ecological catastrophe. At the same time, part of me hopes that each of these catastrophes gives a bit more of a psychological push to the population as a whole to deal with our major energy and climate problems. We are driving straight towards the edge of a cliff, and perhaps it is bumps like these that will convince the population at large that we would be wise to slow down.

The same goes for things like summer Arctic sea ice minimums. On the one hand, I know that vanishing ice is a positive feedback, and that warming in the Arctic risks causing massive methane release. On the other, every time the decline of sea ice seems to slacken, climate change deniers and delayers make hay from it, and use public confusion to further delay effective climate policies.

The really worrisome thing is that by the time there is massive evidence of just how dangerous climate change is, it will be too late to prevent truly catastrophic outcomes. Having global emissions peak soon is essential, if we are not to pass along an utterly transformed world to those who will come after us. If some moderately sized environmental catastrophes help that outcome to occur, perhaps we should be grateful for them in the final analysis.

I have speculated before that perhaps only perceived crises can generate real change.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Disasters and environmental awareness”

  1. The thoughts in the post above remind me of a terrorist tactic I read about many years ago, and which Tristan reminded me of the name for: politiques des pires.

    The idea is to provoke the state into a harsh clampdown, which will in turn increase support for a terrorist organization or their political and ideological aims.

    Seeing environmental disasters as positive, in a certain sense, because they might lead to much-needed policy changes seems to have some of the same characteristics.

  2. What if the oil spill just can’t be fixed?

    I’m curious to see how the public’s mood shifts once it becomes clear that we are powerless in the face of this thing. What if there’s just nothing we can do? That’s not a feeling to which Americans are accustomed.

    Once we know that accidents can be catastrophic and irreversible, it becomes clear that there is no margin of error. We’re operating a brittle system, unable to contain failure and unable to recover from it. Consider how deepwater drilling will look in that new light.

    The thing is, we’re already operating in those circumstances in a thousand different ways — it’s just that the risks and the damages tend to be distributed and obscured from view. They’re not thrust in our face like they are in the Gulf. We don’t get back the land we destroy by mining. We don’t get back the species lost from deforestation and development. We don’t get back islands lost to rising seas. We don’t get back the coral lost to bleaching or the marine food chains lost to nitrogen runoff. Once we lose the climatic conditions in which our species evolved, we won’t get them back either.

    We’re doing damage as big as the Gulf oil spill every day, and there’s no fixing it. Humanity has grown in power, wealth, and appetite to the point that there is no more margin of error anywhere. We’re on a knife’s edge, facing the very real possibility that for our children, all the world may be one big Gulf of Mexico, inexorably and irreversibly deteriorating.

  3. “I think another big point you have to take away from this episode is that employing a bit of violence in your protest, enough to provoke a murderous reaction, is more effective than eschewing violence altogether. Five of the six ships taken over by Israeli commandos put up no resistance. They didn’t make the news. The sixth, the Mavi Marmara, had about 600 passengers on board, and of those, 570 or so appear to have stayed below deck as the commandos arrived. They didn’t make the news either.

    But here’s the thing: the violence employed by those 30 protestors is what achieved the Freedom Flotilla’s goals. No metal pipes, no Israeli shooting. No Israeli shooting, no dead protestors. No dead protestors, no recall of the Turkish ambassador or emergency UN Security Council meeting. The protestors who swung those pipes risked their own (and others’) lives; some of them are probably dead now. And, unlike the ones who joined arms below deck and sang “Kumbaya”, they succeeded in weakening the international negotiating position of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, placed the Gaza blockade on the international agenda, and may ultimately topple the Israeli government. Lesson: if you’re willing to die for your cause, punch a soldier in the face and try to get him to shoot you. It’ll get you a lot further than stuffing flowers in gun barrels.”

  4. Business and NGOs
    Reaching for a longer spoon
    The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is straining ties between companies and activists

    Jun 3rd 2010 | NEW YORK

    IT IS not just Barack Obama and Tony Hayward, BP’s boss, who are under fire because of the environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. In the decade or so since BP acknowledged the need to slow climate change and signalled its commitment to investing in cleaner sources of energy with the slogan “Beyond Petroleum”, many environmental activists and NGOs have laid down their placards and helped the firm execute its green strategies. They are now facing intense criticism of that collaboration from their own supporters, who say the oil spill has left BP’s (always contentious) green claims “Beyond Parody” and the company “Beyond the Pale”.

    The website of one such NGO, the Nature Conservancy, has been bombarded with complaints from donors horrified by the discovery (although it had never hidden the fact) that over the years it had received around $10m in gifts of cash and land from BP, and had even given the oil giant a seat on its “International Leadership Council”. Another, Conservation International, has accepted over $2m from BP, advised the firm on its oil extraction methods, and from 2000 to 2006 included on its board John Browne, BP’s boss at the time and the moving force behind the firm’s conversion to greenery. The Environmental Defense Fund, another big NGO, had helped BP develop its internal carbon-trading system, and more recently campaigned alongside it for a law to cap America’s emissions of greenhouse gases through the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), an alliance of NGOs and big businesses. Other prominent NGO members of USCAP include the Nature Conservancy, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute.

    The scrutiny of these ties to BP is intensifying the perennial debate about how long a spoon NGOs should use when supping with corporate devils. The failure of governments to make progress on a new climate deal in Copenhagen last December had already prompted some debate among activists about whether a more confrontational style of campaigning was needed to stir the world from its torpor.

  5. Not only will we probably be beyond 2ºC already by then (without serious mitigation), but much more will be in the pipeline.

  6. Perhaps the best thing we can hope for is for some indication of the seriousness of the climate crisis to appear in the next couple of years.

  7. Yes, that is why symbolic things breaking the Jan-Dec temp record (we’ve already broken plenty of 12 month running averages without a great deal of media comment) or breaking the 2007 Arctic ice extent record (we’ve broken the volume many times since then) might get people’s attention.

  8. Things like temperature records and Arctic sea ice seem to be too abstract to make people concerned, on a gut level. The same seems to be true of the pine beetle infestation.

    Sea levels rising to flood New York and London would probably do the trick, though by the time that happens we won’t have the kind of mitigation potential we do today.

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