NY Times Gets Blunt: Climate Action Requires “Fundamental Remaking of … The Sinews of Modern Life”

John Broder had this remarkable sentence in his Sunday New York Times dispatch from Durban:

Effectively addressing climate change will require over the coming decades a fundamental remaking of energy production, transportation and agriculture around the world — the sinews of modern life.

This is uncharacteristically blunt for the Times.  It reflects a worldview that is generally not reflected in their overall coverage, as I discussed in “The New York Times Abandons the Story of the Century and Joins the Energy and Climate Ignorati.”

Broder’s point is that the UN process is simply not up to the task of addressing the climate problem:

It is simply too big a job for those who have gathered for these talks under the 1992 United Nations treaty that began this grinding process.

“There is a fundamental disconnect in having environment ministers negotiating geopolitics and macroeconomics,” said Nick Robins, an energy and climate change analyst at HSBC, the London-based global bank.

Unfortunately, most economics ministers are pretty clueless about the subject.  That said, I’ve never been a big fan of the current process, which requires near-unanimous consent by nearly 200 countries.

What’s most blocking action, from my perspective, isn’t the process so much as the failure of the media and policymakers here and around the globe to realize that failing to address climate change will lead to an even bigger remaking of what’s left of modern life in a world of 10°F warming (see An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

Inaction will create the almost impossible task of feeding 9+ billion in “the face of a rapidly worsening climate.”  And avoiding mass starvation and general chaos  will certainly require a fundamental remaking of the world.  The NYT‘s science reporter Justin Gillis gets this, as you see in articles like “Food Supply Under Strain on a Warming Planet” and “Global Warming Hinders Crop Yields, Study Finds.”

We cannot escape fundamentally remaking the sinews of modern life over the coming decades — in a sustainable way if we act on climate and in a catastrophic way if we don’t.  Now is the time for major media outlets like the New York Times to remake their coverage to inform the public of this far more clearly and unambiguously.

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24 Responses to NY Times Gets Blunt: Climate Action Requires “Fundamental Remaking of … The Sinews of Modern Life”

  1. DRT says:

    It takes a carbon tax… to fundamentally remake the sinews of modern life.

    A Fee and Dividend program, including a fee on the direct and indirect carbon content of all imported goods and services will kick start the remaking.

  2. “Fundamental remaking of the sinews of modern life” sounds a lot like “system change” which has long been the mantra of the climate justice movement, which has closed out Durban with a news release proclaiming “COP17 succumbs to climate apartheid”.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    It’s true that environmental ministers are not qualified to design the details of the new “sinews” of modern life. Where Broder gets into trouble is in quoting bankster Robins in asserting that macroeconomic specialists and geopolitical analysts should be in charge.

    That’s another way of saying that groups that have proved to be dysfunctional and corrupt- utility companies, politicians, and, yes, banks- need to remain in control of all key decisions. Business as usual, in other words, something the Times never strays very far from.

    The necessary decision is to abandon coal and other fossil fuels as soon as possible, through aggressive actions and tough decisions. Existing groups are either too invested or too unimaginative to effect the changes we so desperately need.

    Those decisions will have to be driven by scientists, public health specialists, and clean energy developers, and motivated by public pressure. BAU prevaricators will just have to be bypassed, as government and unconventional financing sources step up.

  4. We have, on smaller scales, encountered this kind of crisis before, but did not act in time. Collapse by Jared Diamond
    I am afraid we may not be willing to make the sacrifices needed… we’ll keep thinking there’s a miracle in the wings that will swoop in and save us.

  5. Dave Gardner says:

    And if we can even agree on the need for fundamental change, some will be thinking less fundamental than others. Many will cling to the notion that a technology switch is all that’s needed, while the real fundamental necessary change is to get over our obsession with economic growth and our avoidance of the issue of population stabilization/reduction.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the new documentary, GrowthBusters

  6. Climate change is a global challenge, but there is no effective global government to meet it. Nonlinear effects from warming are unpredictable as to specific local events (weather) but scientists can, and have, made reliable predictions for the long-term global events (climate). The public seems not to understand this distinction and are therefore easily misled by skeptical conclusions drawn from local weather. Individual contributions, like conservation, are of course good, but in the face of accelerating world power demand, conservation is immaterial for addressing climate change. Without a reliable low-carbon power source to substitute for coal, the expanding power demand will be met by the aging and polluting coal fleet.

  7. B Waterhouse says:

    Libertarians and others who hate “big government” are going to have an unpleasant revelation when it becomes apparent we will need even bigger government to help us adapt to climate change. To cite just one example, sea level rise is going to require vast new public works projects ranging from higher sea walls to huge moveable sea barriers in many places in the US, including NYC and San Francisco Bay. Those who reject the reality of climate change because of fear of big government would be much better off advocating a carbon tax now that would allow the free market to quickly transition to renewable energy. The later we reduce carbon emissions the more we are going to need big government to help us adapt to greater climate change.

  8. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “This is uncharacteristically blunt for the Times.”

    No worries. The NY Times will now return to its regularly scheduled programming: ignoring the role of global warming in weather of mass destruction, and bashing the solar energy industry.

  9. catman306 says:

    Maybe somebody is starting to get it.

    Developer drops plans for Ga. coal power plant

    By Ray Henry
    Published Monday, December 12, 2011

    ATLANTA — An energy company is dropping its bid to build Georgia’s first new coal-fired plant in years amid opposition from environmental groups, who say it would produce too much pollution.

  10. That is not as scary as it sounds in actual practice.

    My experience in moving this year to a developed country that has 80% renewable electricity (New Zealand) has been that nothing changes for the average person “living in the clean powered future”.

    Clean power just means using one kind of power plant rather than another – no biggie to average folks.

    The only “fundamental” change will be to the coal plant owner bottom line.

  11. catman306 says:

    The longer we wait the more we are going to need even BIGGER government…
    Talk about ‘even bigger’.

    That will put real fear into those bozos.

    We need a carbon tax right now and renewable energy a little later today.

  12. “The growing crowd saw more smoke and flames coming from the house. Yet nearby firefighters were not moving. The horrific realization spread – there would be little help in putting out the fire. It was up to them.”

  13. Joan Savage says:

    You named it, that “miracle in the wings” thinking.

    It’s way past time to give up the notion that another people’s environment is available to be raw material for the next miracle.

    The past five hundred years of “discovered” Americas, Africa and the Pacific rim was full of bogus miracles derived from exploitation of everything from humans to minerals.

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    Well the pressure isn’t letting up –


    It was the warmest and driest November on record for many parts of Europe. Almost all of central Europe received no precipitation whatsoever and most Alpine locations reported their lowest snow depths ever for this time of the year. ……….

    Danube’s near-record lows strangle shipping

    Severe drought has hit Europe’s second largest river, the Danube, turning it into a navigation nightmare for shipping companies all the way from Germany to Bulgaria.

    According to Bulgaria’s Danube exploration agency, the levels of one of the continent’s most significant commercial waterways dropped to near-record lows in the past month, making it barely passable at several critical points.

  15. Colorado Bob says:

    And low rivers mean problems cooling reactors :

    Bucharest also feared it would have to shut one unit of its sole nuclear power plant at Cernavoda if levels dropped further, as the reactor uses water from a Danube-Black Sea canal for cooling.

    Such a shutdown already occurred in 2003 when the river level hit an all-time low, a record now less than half a metre away.

    Meanwhile, Romania’s state-owned Hidroelectrica company, 40 percent of whose production depends on the Danube, has said it is cutting electricity supplies.

    With no rain clouds on the horizon, prospects for improvement were dim as experts forecast that water levels would drop even further or stagnate at best.

  16. dick smith says:

    To my surprise, economists agree on a carbon tax almost as much as climatologists agree on the nature, cause and extent of global warming.

    I agree with you. A fee-and-dividend carbon tax will allocate the costs (which are not that great) most fairly among individuals, countries and generations.

  17. dick smith says:

    I call it the “delay and pray” approach to GW.

  18. BA says:

    I think there are some positive signs that some people are waking up. I am sure the NYT has not changed their pro corporate stance but if individuals begin to say “to he** with it my future is at stake” it is going to be harder and harder for the powers that be to keep them in line. There are signs of this happening: OWS for one. I have also seen some of the starkest reporting and commentary in a very long time around the permafrost/methane release story.

  19. Leif says:

    In the words of Sailesh Reo in his book “Carbon Dharma”, humanity must metamorphose from our current caterpillar stage to Butterfly stage where we no longer consume voraciously but pollinate and rejuvenate. Many have already, many more are in the process. A caterpillar can not visualize themselves as a butterfly any eiser than the average human can visualize themselves as a guardian for earth’s life support systems. If humanity is to live a sustainable future it will happen. If not, toast-vill for all…

  20. dbmetzger says:

    Canada to Withdraw from Kyoto Protocol

    Canada becomes the first nation to announce its withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

  21. Lou Grinzo says:

    No one should be surprised that we economists are on-board with a carbon tax. We know a thing or three about that whole supply-and-demand thing, as well as the price mechanism, after all.

    The difficulty with a carbon price is not figuring out if it will work, but [1] finding the political spine to impose one and [2] finding the next increment of political spine to keep from fiddling with it to favor special interests or to tweak economic policy every year or so.

    The ideal is to make it abundantly clear to the entire economy that the cost of emitting carbon is a long-term aspect of economic life, that it won’t be fiddled with, and that it will increase according to a predetermined rate. This gives everyone, from local governments to corporations to universities to individual consumers the most certainty, and therefore allows them to make the greatest investment in change — which is exactly what’s in everyone’s best interest.

    Because of market psychology and our lack of time before we lock in truly nightmarish events, we need the economic policy to be as sure as the underlying climate science.

  22. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Re: Mike Roddy @ 3, beam me up Scotty @ 4, Dave Gardner @ 5, and Leif @ 14.

    Dave Gardner wrote:
    “…the real fundamental necessary change is to get over our obsession with economic growth and our avoidance of the issue of population stabilization/reduction.”

    That about hits the proverbial nail on the head. But I’d like to drive some more nails into the coffin of what’s called “business as usual.”

    Our obsession with unending economic growth could be compared to the biochemical signals that instruct cancer cells to grow in unrestrained fashion and ultimately destroy the host organism. The largely unrestrained growth of economies worldwide since about 1850, with concomitant exponential increases in world population, fed by the riotous exploitation of polluting fossil fuels and limited only by the rate at which humans have been able to get these fuels out of the ground, has led to poisoning of the air, water, and soil; ongoing destruction of the global climate; worsening ocean acidification; and the beginnings of the sixth great mass extinction in the last half-billion years of planetary history. The growth-at-all-costs mandate is an absolute disaster in that it is leading to destruction of the larger organism—the biosphere—that sustains humanity.

    Fundamentally, humanity’s problem arises out of a massive failure to understand that the economy (in the sense of the national or the global economy) and the ecology (the global ecosystem, the biosphere) are different levels of magnification upon the same thing. There are in fact no externalities which can be disregarded: we are dealing with an integrated global system. It is not just that all economies are interconnected today, but that the world economic system is part of a much vaster reality that encompasses the sky and earth, the oceans, the continents, the soils and forests, and all living things—in a word, the entire terrestrial biosphere.

    Americans now subjected to enough economic hardship to have opened their eyes and begun to ask, “What is wrong?” now profess a big worry about “the economy”—but mostly without understanding. The economy is the proximate issue, not the real underlying issue. To really fix anything you’ve got to address the underlying issue. (I’d actually thought of submitting a complete Climate Progress post entitled, “Forget the economy—it’s the ecology, stupid.”)

    The real issue ain’t the vastly overplayed deficit, either. It is true that bankers and other speculators played fast and loose with the financial system, exploiting it for short-term gains to the long-term net loss of the other 99% of us. And incompetent Right-wing leaders emptied the nation’s coffers by giving budget-busting tax cuts to the rich while waging multi-trillion-dollar wars in pursuit of illusory power and black gold (oil)—an additional objective being to seem “strong on National Security” (i.e., score political points with the electorate) by feeding the insatiable beast of the Military-Industrial Complex. The monetary system is merely a system of accounting—an outdated and a very badly flawed one at that. What matters is true wealth—the thing that money is supposed to measure. The source of true wealth is what we may call the ecosphere—the seamless union of biosphere-lithosphere-cryosphere-hydrosphere-atmosphere which comprises the global ecosystem.

    The significance of the economy and the ecology being different levels of magnification upon the same thing cannot be overstated. Economic doldrums (such as prolonged or unusually deep recession) do not necessarily imply minor issues which can be resolved by systemic adjustments or tinkering around the edges of the problem. Today’s problem is of far greater depth, as in the case of those past civilizations which went through their own versions of a boom-and-bust cycle, collapsing in whole or part due to having deforested the land, depleted the soil, mismanaged water supplies, misused human capital, and otherwise exhausted their resources. At such a point of crisis, there’s no simple fix.

    It’s like trying to stabilize a failing heart which is starting to flat-line in the ER. Do we let our best doctors (our most gifted scientists, progressive thinkers, and forward-looking politicians) deal with the problem, or do we turn the patient over to the quacks—Mitt (“know-nothing”) Romney, Newtie Boy, and the rest of the stumbling, bumbling, fumbling idiots on the extreme Right?

    And if you can recover the patient, fundamental lifestyle changes will be necessary to sustain the recovery—equivalent to the “fundamental remaking of … the sinews of modern life” to which the NYT article refers. In essence, civilized humanity must now undergo a radical change—re-invent itself, from the inside out.

    Our problem, essentially, is that our type of exploitative, dichotomizing, us-against-them, and myopically self-serving civilization has passed its peak and entered into a period of steep decline—which looks to be terminal if we don’t soon turn the situation around. We’ve not only passed peak oil, but also peak agricultural productivity, peak fishing, peak minerals extraction, peak topsoil, peak arable land, peak forest productivity, peak almost everything. Anything that could easily be harvested or mined has by now been harvested or mined out. We may find substitutes for some nonrenewable resources, but those, in addition to being more expensive, will inevitably run out just as the earlier stocks did. Growth has its limits too, which (as the Club of Rome warned decades ago) would soon enough be reached—as they were a while ago. So we have passed Peak Growth as well. We seem even to have passed peak brains, to judge from recent debate performances of GOP Presidential contenders pretenders.

    Worst of all, we have now passed Peak Climate—the highly stable, generally mild and moist, 10,000-year long period known as the Holocene, during which civilization developed and virtually the entire land area of the earth (outside a few of the driest deserts and frozen wastes) was habitable to humankind. No more.

    Today’s worldwide economic crisis, then, is a long-term consequence of unsustainable use of resources (that is, exhaustion of nonrenewable stocks and overexploitation of renewable natural systems) and of mistaking money for real wealth, which generates trillion in assets for a chosen few over the short term but destroys irreplaceable ecological capital. As such, it is a sure warning sign of impending ecological collapse.

    Whether collapse follows depends largely upon whether we heed the warning signs in time, especially the signs of accelerating climate change as evidenced by the fast-increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, intensifying extremes (of drought and flood), worsening storm damage, and declining crop yields that are now stressing societies worldwide and eroding the foundations of our collective social and economic security.

  23. Alan Larkman says:

    FUWD – brilliant!
    It’s great to hear people saying loud and clear that Business Just A Little Bit Different From Usual is not going to turn this mess around.

  24. nofreewind says:

    >>re: New Zealand has 80% “renewable” electricity?
    That’s a stretch.
    Hydro makes 50% of their GWhrs and hydro is not considered renewable.
    Coal/NatGas creates 33%.
    Wind creates 2.5%