“The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent”¦  Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place we are entering a period of consequences”¦.  We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now”¦”

Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace International, has another piece I’m reposting, “The Parallel Universes of Climate Change. Where do you live? You may remember Gilding from Tom Friedman’s Ponzi scheme column (see here).

Some days my head hurts, as I shift between what feels like two parallel universes in the climate change debate. First I have these conversations with world-class scientists who calmly lay out the scientific view of the various risks posed by climate change and their relative scale and likelihoods. They tell me the science says it is almost certain the impacts will be serious and destabilising for our society and our economy. The science also describes a lower level of risk – which they find hard to quantify but generally say between 10% and 50% – that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, perhaps even civilisation threatening. This could include widespread famine, war and economic collapse. Not certain, but a reasonable possibility.

It is very clear when you listen to these scientists and read their peer-reviewed reports that, on any calm and rational analysis, we should be preparing for a carbon reduction war. Yes, a war – with all that implies about focus, effort and sacrifice. The threat posed is, after all, a “clear and present danger” and the response should be strong, global and immediate. This should be a ‘whatever it takes’ moment.

Then I shift into the parallel universe.

I spend time in corporate boardrooms and listen to the analysis of business executives who explain how we mustn’t damage the economy by “over-reacting”. They explain their concern about protecting jobs and economic growth, how we must not jeopardise “our” (insert India, China, South Africa, USA, Australia etc) national competitiveness by acting “early” because, after all, without a global solution what difference will our actions make anyway? When I engage with policy makers, even those supportive of climate action, I get only a marginally stronger response.

Of course, each of these arguments has its narrow appeal. There’s always a bit of truth and rationality, and that’s why people use them. But the collective consequence of these arguments is the real story here – the story that historians will tell. We have had the risk thoroughly analysed and explained to us and we are choosing, with endlessly shifting reasons for prevarication and delay, not to act commensurate to the level of risk.

I wonder what it was like in the lead up to WWII, the last time we had a serious and clear global threat. When Hitler invaded Poland, did Winston Churchill order an economic modelling exercise to understand the implications of spending over a quarter of GDP on the war effort? When Pearl Harbour was bombed, did US industry argue we shouldn’t over-react, that America shouldn’t respond until there was a global agreement to act so as to avoid a disproportionate share of the cost?

No, fortunately for us, that wasn’t their response. In fact, just four days after Pearl Harbour was bombed, the auto industry was ordered to cease all civilian production in order to focus on the war effort. Such actions soon spread across the economy. I imagine US political leaders thoughts were something like this: “Well damn the objectors, this is a threat to our freedom and to our way of life. In fact, this is such a profound threat we will throw everything we have at it and make it work, even though we don’t know whether we will succeed nor the costs of trying.”

They would have said: “We will have to do this because if we don’t, our children will curse our lack of courage and our selfishness. If we act we may fail. But if we don’t act, we won’t be able to live with ourselves for not trying.”

In our present day to day lives, when the weather is a bit warmer than normal but often rather pleasant, and our economy is showing signs of improving, it is hard for most of us to think like this. The business leaders I talk to about this topic are not bad people. Nor are the policy makers grappling with the complexities of transforming an economy and the uncertainty of the outcomes. They are normal people with children and friends – they go to church, they volunteer in their communities and they care about the world. (OK, there are a few exceptions, but not many!)

But they still fall for the easy way out, the path of denial and avoidance. Not because they’re bad people, but because they’re not thinking clearly and courageously.

My message on this topic is clear and direct. We are at a crucial moment in human history. 2009 is to climate change what 1939 was to WWII. Poland has been invaded – the Arctic is melting, the bushfires are burning, the droughts are strengthening and the floods are sweeping away communities. There is only one question you have to ask yourself: “what will I tell my children?”

So now, imagine yourself in 2030. The world is teetering on the edge of geopolitical and economic chaos (this is not a certainty, but it is certainly a reasonable risk). You are talking to your children (add 20 years to their current age) and explaining what it was like in 2009 – what the scientific consensus was and how you personally responded, then and there, when the reality became clear. What did you do in 2009 and why?

In 2030, the parallel universes will have closed and there will only be one left. It will be called reality and you and your children will be living in it. Imagine the conversation. Do it now, then decide what to do.

30 Responses to “The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

  1. pete best says:

    Consider the issue so intractable for without fossil fuels, the lead times to replace them, our utter dependence on them, the globalisation of the economy and the political will to do it and we can see how hard it is to change anything in time to avert anything.

    1.4C guaranteed and probably more if we clean up the present levels of fossil fuel pollution with presently no effective strategy to do anything about it on either a local or global scale. Demand for energy is increasing by 2% per annum and hence present non fossil fuel energy supplies might only offset that.

    We need a major agreement this year, without it fossil fuel usage will grow and its either peak oil or/and climate change that will cause us issues.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    In the present circumstances, no one can afford to assume that someone else will solve their problems. Every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction. Good wishes are not sufficient; we must become actively engaged.
    (Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama)

    Her greatness lay in doing what everybody could do but doesn’t.
    (Jennifer Granholm, first female governor of Michigan, speaking of Rosa Parks)

    Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
    (Martin Luther King Jr.)

    The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.
    (Mahatma Gandhi)

    Hope lies in dreams, imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.
    (Jonas Salk)

    We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.
    (The Russell-Einstein Manifesto: Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and others)

    We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
    (Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream” speech)

    What good am I if I know and don’t do,
    If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you,
    If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky,
    What good am I?
    (Bob Dylan, “What Good Am I?”)

    The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.
    (Machiavelli: oft-quoted paraphrase, in keeping with his point)

    We won’t find anywhere as nice as Earth unless we go to another star system.
    (Stephen Hawking)

    Character is destiny.

  3. Cait says:

    Now then Joe, for God’s sake don’t you give up on us. Much as I read Climate Progress through my fingers most days, your dogged, never ending repetition of the major issues, the focus of attention on what we’ve got to do and the absolutely necessary backing up of the whole enterprise with hard research makes you an Important Guy.

    I have mixed feelings about the present situation. Visibility, and a sense of urgency is (at last) increasing by the day, and let’s not forget that it’s not just the US in this – the Senate playing their deck of cards so criminally isn’t the end of everything. Japan is moving, Europe, Australia *and* China.

    I seriously believe we’ve got to all do everything we can for 24th October. It has the potential to be a BIG day if we shout about it enough now. Write letters, wave banners, plant trees, and tell every single person we know to do the same. Send a message, not just to govts but to business too. Your consumers want you to change.

    I’ve said it myself, we’re in a phoney war right now but my God, it’s starting to change for the worse all around us. Too late? How can we tell. But we have to fight this war just the same.

  4. Barry says:

    My experience from years of talking to people about climate chaos is that people under-react because it is all invisible to them.

    Our littering of fossil fuel residue in the form of CO2 is absolutely massive. Literally tonnes. But humans can’t see, taste, feel or experience any of that CO2 in any way. So we discount it.

    Similarly the changes to the climate are massive and yet also removed from our daily lives. The biosphere is feeling the changes very strongly and struggling to react to the unprecedented pace of change. But humans have so far insulated ourselves from even the big fluctuations of weather…to say nothing of the slower shifting of climate.

    So we don’t see our contributions and we don’t experience the effects yet.

    Until we do we won’t give it the priority it requires.

    If we could see CO2 we wouldn’t be in this mess at all. We are good at fixing the big pollution problems we see. Scientists are concerned because they can “see” and “experience” CO2 via their data and charts. They have learned to experience the world at an unconscious level via these abstractions. But for most people who aren’t data-heads these are too abstract…too removed from daily life.

    What we need to do is to give even more focus and creative effort to creating visual analogies for people so that when they look at a CO2 source they “see” the CO2 and quantities involved. We need to help people visualize carbon to the point it becomes unconscious part of daily life. Then we have an excellent chance.

    The same is true of the climate changes. We need more creative juices devoted to making these visually real. For example the recent work Joe featured on Photographer James Balog’s time-lapse filming of glacial retreat.

    Joe often says we need a climate “Pearl Harbor” before most people will prioritize climate change. I’d like to think we can help people visualize the problem sooner than that. And I’m convinced that people will prioritize the problem in direct relationship to the level they visualize our ghg and their effects.

  5. Dean says:

    The Era of Procrastination?

    It’s the Age of Warming, which we will all be dealing with for the next 500 years and more. It followed the Industrial Revolution, but what will follow it?

  6. alexy says:

    Perhaps equating action on climate change to “war” highlights a key issue. In your post, war is a total commitment to victory. Yet the war on poverty has not vanquished poverty nor has the war on drugs triumphed over drugs. Yet, these conflicts have been in existence for decades at costs well over a trillion dollars each. And lets not forget the war on cancer. Even the actions in Vietnam and Korea, never actually declared wars, yet there too we were less than victorious at great expense. And of course the war on terror has had somewhat mixed results, note in particular that Bin Laden’s recent communication indicates that our key nemesis continues his efforts. Our most recent major conflict, for which the pain is still current and for which the mission was declared accomplished, drags on, incomplete, ambiguous and unsatisfactory.

    And now we are asking to commit to global conflict, indeed the first true World War. Given the uncertainty of the science (Yes, I know it is largely certain. But, inherently it is never absolutely certain.), the uncertainty of the solutions and their potential costs, is it any wonder that progress is also uncertain.

    Perhaps the war metaphor has been so debased, the results so unsatisfactory that it is appropriate to choose another, more uplifting and positive message.

  7. Gail says:

    Barry, I agree and that’s why I think it is important to educate people to start really seeing. It’s not that the effects of climate change and CO2 emissions aren’t visible. They are quite obvious. It’s that people REFUSE to see what is in front of them, and to consider the significance of what is already occurring.

    Most of us who don’t live near glaciers can’t see the ice melting, unless they go out of their way. And many people are so unfamiliar with nature they just don’t pay attention. But anybody in the vicinity of a tree on the East Coast of the US, and for all I know other places, should be asking themselves why the leaves are falling off in September. It’s not normal, and it’s a direct result of the polluting greenhouse gasses we are dumping into the atmosphere.

    If we don’t stop, and soon, the entire ecosystem will collapse.

  8. Bob Horn says:

    Best description of the consequences is Gynne Dyer’s recent book Climate Wars. Have you reviewed it?

    Best book on the mess we’ve made of climate change is Mike Hulme’s Why we don’t agree about climate change. Have you reviewed it?

  9. Lauren says:

    “When Pearl Harbour was bombed, did US industry argue we shouldn’t over-react, that America shouldn’t respond until there was a global agreement to act so as to avoid a disproportionate share of the cost?”

    If only we DID use the hesitation and second-guessing we’re using now on climate change for the war in Iraq.

    Excellent post.

  10. Evolutionary psychology:

    Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived if they had an irresistable emotional reaction to an attack, including a strong impulse to fight back.

    Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not think about long-term threats. And so we are less emotionally equipped to deal with the greatest threats that we face today.

  11. Jim Eager says:

    “When Pearl Harbour was bombed, did US industry argue we shouldn’t over-react…”

    Actually, it did. The automobile industry initially resisted conversion of their plants and tooling to produce military aircraft on the grounds that it would reduce their capacity to produce private automobiles. Reportedly FDR then personally summoned them and informed them that they had misunderstood the situation: they were to cease producing private automobiles for the duration of the war and devote their full production capacity to the war effort.

  12. Jim Prall says:

    Re: Bob Horn’s two book picks:
    The correct title of the 2nd one is: Hulme, Mike. Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, [Cambridge UP, 2009] ISBN 978-0521727327. link:
    This looks very interesting – thanks Bob. I see they’ve got it in our science library already – will add it to my “must read” (oh no another must read!?) list.

  13. From Peru says:

    Do we really need a Climate 9-11,

    like a Category 4 or 5 hurricane destroying New York

    for the People to understand the seriousness of the climate emergency?

  14. glen says:

    It is interesting that P. Gilding has compared climate change to WWII.
    Dan Gilbert outlined(also put out a video) the reasons why humans are not responding to climate change as they would terrorism(if you like, WWII).

    Gilbert’s 4 features;
    doesn’t have a human face
    doesn’t violate or moral sensibilities
    seems to be a threat to the unseen future but NOT to the present
    human sensitivity to relative rather than absolute changes of the environment

    Terrorism(WWII) has all the 4 features, while climate change is absent all features

  15. From Peru says:

    Climate change HAS the third feature: is a treat to the PRESENT

  16. Peter Sergienko says:

    The average person can go through life in blissful ignorance of or with outright hostility toward actions to address climate change threats and be safely within the mainstream. Although America’s response to potential and actual threats before and after Pearl Harbor included many misguided policies, FDR’s auto industry takeover was politically possible because cultural unification around the threat posed by an attack on American forces was relatively easy. Today, if a politician or business leader openly acknowledges climate change science and the corresponding risks and demands appropriate action, they are marginalized by the media and defenders of business as usual (whether you agree with his policy ideas or not, bless Jim Hansen for taking a stand). Courageous leadership is a must, but who will give the speeches Churchill gave when members of Congress shout, “You lie! at the President and then raise $2 million in campaign contributions? Who will stand up to the fossil fuel industries when tens of millions of dollars in lobbying, advertising, and campaign contributions flow from these industries into politics and money is deemed free speech?

    We’ve created systems where it is incredibly difficult for leaders to speak the truth and do the right thing and where the average person probably won’t perceive climate change as a clear and present danger because there’s just too much noise in the system. Fortunately, in spite of these systemic problems and as Joe has repeatedly emphasized, there is still majority support for action. Our leaders need to be reminded of this support and how remarkable it truly is under the circumstances again and again. We need to do all that is politically possible within the constraints of the systems and cultural circumstances in front of us so that 2009 is seen as the year America came to terms with and started responding to climate change and not the year we failed to act in time.

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks Very Much to Glen (Comment 16)

    Glen, thanks! I found Daniel Gilbert’s video regarding climate change and the points you mentioned, and it’s great. Very helpful.

    Be Well,


  18. Gail says:

    Glen wrote that climate change does not have the impact of a terrorist attack because it:
    doesn’t have a human face
    doesn’t violate our moral sensibilities
    seems to be a threat to the unseen future but NOT to the present
    human sensitivity to relative rather than absolute changes of the environment

    I think it does have at least three, which just may not be apparent to everyone – but soon will be. The human face of climate change, which already exists, is all those people who are enduring famine, resource wars, loss of their home, drought and extreme weather, and the millions and billions more who will. The injustice of leaving an uninhabitable planet to future generations – as well as the unfairness of the poorest on the globe, those with the lowest contribution to carbon emissions, suffering first and most – violate moral sensibilities. The present is most certainly already displaying negative impacts, from rivers going dry and glaciers melting, to trees dying, to wildfires and bigger more powerful hurricanes, and buckling tundra in the far north, not to mention, all the biodiversity under the threat (certainty?) of mass extinction.

    I think this is a significant debate because I believe that blaming human nature, and proposing that it has evolved to not recognize distant threats, is a diversion from the fierce fury that should be felt by all towards the professional deniers out there, and those industries who bankroll their well-coordinated campaigns to confuse the public. I question whether it is so much indelible human nature leading the average person to ignore climate change and our role in it, and how much is due to deliberate and criminal lies. If it was innately ordained that people could not recognize and react with the necessary urgency, what of those scientists and lay people who DO recognize and feel the urgency? Are they genetic aberrations? Or are they just smart enough, or pragmatic enough, or well-educated enough, to see through the propaganda – or maybe, they live on a drowning island in the Pacific.

    That’s probably enough to focus the mind.

  19. jcwinnie says:

    It would seem that the writers for Washington Theater are keying a new story line for the Fall season. Reuters quotes Secretary Chu as having said that “the outcome of the Copenhagen talks must not be so weak that they are a waste of time but added they should not be seen as the last chance to act on climate change.”

    Which begs the question, “When, Secretary Chu, does our best science indicate is our very last chance to act?”

    Now I would not ask this of your regular run of the mill climate change denier, nor would I even bother with your typical Regan Regime delayer. I do think it is a question worth asking the Nobel Prize winning physicist on point.

  20. Jeff Huggins says:

    Regarding Gail (20) and Glen (16)

    There is much truth in both of those comments. On average, “human nature” is not as well suited to respond promptly to a problem such as climate change as it is to a problem such as an immediate and visible threat.

    But, people are very social beings, and “culture” (news, information, response by neighbors and leaders, etc.) has a huge influence. And, humans have the ability to be intelligent.

    So, I agree with Gail that we should not use “human nature” as an excuse, nor should we dwell on it as we continue to mess up the culture. Indeed, the very people who are smart enough to point to human nature and how it isn’t ideally suited are many of the same people who COULD have a much larger positive impact by insisting (loudly) that we SHOULD and MUST address the problem.

    The media are FAMOUS for making these sorts of excuses. So, please, no more excuses, media.

    Good point, Gail!



  21. Jeff Huggins says:

    Mistake and Correction

    In my earlier comment (22), I meant to write “as we continue to mess up the climate”, not “as we continue to mess up the culture”, of course. Sorry.

  22. Phil Eisner says:

    PROTEST IS POWERFUL. All of us who can “see” the billions of tons of CO2 we are putting into the air must march on Washington and confront our representatives and our president. How else?

  23. Richard L says:

    At Pearl Harbor, the US was bombed by others. In global warming, we are bombing ourselves.

  24. Richard L says:

    My point was not well said – it is harder to mobilize people to fix our own selves than it is to point to an invader and say ‘fight’

  25. Monald M says:

    I see an increasing acceptance of faith going bad with climate change and accepting that nothing can be done against it and that “humans will survive it and we can live on happily ever after”.
    An attempt made to reestablish an extinct animal in an area near my home was commented : “What is it worth to bring back an animal that can not live here anyway”. There is no value left for the paradise we live in and nobody imagines what it means to llive on a dead planet. Some soylent green anybody ? So we also have to fight as being labeled “consertvative” and “not accepting reality”. hey, thats what we are, unless we did not create any real new species, we should conserve the current as we have nothing better.

  26. tallbloke says:

    “between 10% and 50% – that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, perhaps even civilisation threatening. This could include widespread famine, war and economic collapse.”

    This may be so for climate change caused by a biggish meteorite hitting Earth, or maybe even a Carrington Event sized solar flare knocking out the electronics which control our food distribution and power lines.

    But not a rise in atmospheric co2 from 0.028% to 0.038%.

    Joe and Winston Churchill do have something in common though. They are both given to hyperbole.

  27. glen says:

    “0.028% to 0.038%” CO2 is composition of dry atmosphere, by volume.
    looks correct.. however…

    Terrestrial greenhouse gases warm the surface of the Earth by 33C(this figure includes the water vapor and cloud feedbacks).

    The “0.028% to 0.038%” CO2 plus other non-volatile GHGs are responsible for earth’s temperature of 15C(59F) instead of the baseline -18C(0F).

    Tallbloke — i do not think this is hyperbole.

  28. Jim Eager says:

    Tallbloke is playing the “dilution” card, ignoring the fact that less than 0.5% of the atmosphere, including water vapour, is responsible for that 33C warming that Glen mentions.

    He’s also ignoring the fact that CO2 is not about to stop at 0.038%, and that as it continues to rise so will water vapour.

    And lastly he ignores the fact that the human species has almost certainly never experienced an atmosphere consisting of 0.038% CO2, and that human civilization, infrastructure and agriculture for sure never has.