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The Titanic At 100 Years: We’re Still Ignoring Warnings, This Time It’s Climate Change, Says Director James Cameron

By Joe Romm on April 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm

"The Titanic At 100 Years: We’re Still Ignoring Warnings, This Time It’s Climate Change, Says Director James Cameron"

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One century ago this weekend, the great “unsinkable” ship ignored warnings of ice bergs in the vicinity, maintained a high speed, hit an iceberg because it couldn’t change course fast enough, and sank. Most passengers died, in large part because there weren’t enough lifeboats.

The New Yorker and the Washington Post have devoted major columns to “Why we can’t let go of the Titanic” and why ”fascination with it seems to be” unsinkable .

Director James Cameron offered his own answer this week, in Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron on National Geographic Channel, which I’ve transcribed here. Cameron, who has also released a 3-D version of his epic block-buster movie on the doomed ship, made the connection between what happened on the Titanic and our climate predicament:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before?

There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.

Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations.

You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn.

We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ‘em go.

Until they do we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water and so on. It’s going to be poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with Titanic.

I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people. Because it’s a perfect little encapsulation of the world, and all social spectra, but until our lives are really put at risk, the moment of truth, we don’t know what we would do. And that’s my final word.

If we don’t act soon, the latest science suggests that few will escape the dire consequences, but certainly the poorest will suffer the most and the very rich will be able to insulate themselves, at least for a while (see “The Other 99% of Us Can’t Buy Our Way Out of the Impending Global Ponzi Scheme Collapse“).

For the record, as the WashPost points out, “First-class men, though collectively glorified for letting steerage women and children go first in the lifeboats, actually survived at a higher rate than the third-class children.”

Stephen Cox, a literature professor at UC San Diego, and author of The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions, tells the WashPost, “I don’t think a myth can develop unless you have a choice that could be very unfortunate or tragic.” In the case of the Titanic, lots of tragic choices were made, including the decision to steam ahead at high speed in the face of iceberg warnings serious enough to cause other ships, like the Californian, to stop completely that night.

The tragedy today is not merely that we are ignoring multiple, highly credible warnings of disaster if we stay on our current course. The tragedy is that the cost of action is so low, one tenth of a penny on the dollar, not counting co-benefits (see “Introduction to climate economics“) — while the cost of inaction is nearly incalculable, hundreds of trillions of dollars.

The International Energy Agency warned last November that on our current path, “rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change” — warming of an almost unthinkable 6°C [11°F] — whereas “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

Cameron is hardly the first person to compare our current predicament with the Titanic. In fact, three years ago Newsweek’s Evan Thomas used the metaphor, unintentionally offering one explanation for why the “status quo” establishment media’s coverage of global warming is so fatefully inadquate.

Certainly media coverage of the problem and the solution has been poor (see “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and here). But why?

In a March 2009 cover story, Thomas provided the answer — the shocking, unstated truth about the media elite: They have “a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are.”

Assuming we don’t spend the mere 0.11% of GDP per year needed to avert catastrophe, future generations who are puzzled about our fatal myopia need look no further for explanation than Thomas’s full remarks. He begins with the amazing admission, “If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am),” and continues with words that should be emblazoned across journalism schools around the country and read out loud at every Ivy league college graduation:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence….

Thomas was writing about the current economic crisis, but his words apply far better to the global Ponzi scheme. Indeed, his use of the Titanic metaphor could not more ironically apply to the catastrophic global warming that he and his establishment buddies are all but blind to:

… the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking.

This might just be an epitaph for modern human civilization (see “JPL bombshell: Polar ice sheet mass loss is speeding up, on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050” and Greenland Ice Sheet “Could Undergo a Self-Amplifying Cycle of Melting and Warming … Difficult to Halt,” Scientists Find). The latest science makes clear that unless we sharply change course very soon, we may be irreversibly headed toward an ice-free hothouse planet with a carrying capacity far below 9 billion people.

Finally, there’s one last amazing and relevant piece of the Titanic story that must be mentioned — the disaster was “predicted” 14 years in advance.  I first heard about this back in college because one of my dorm mates was a huge Titanic buff. And I was reminded of it reading the New Yorker piece:

The Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to founder after hitting the berg—which is to say, about the time it takes for a big blockbuster to tell a story.

Tragic déjà vu, classic themes, perfect structure, flawless timing: if you’d made the Titanic up, it couldn’t get any better. But someone did make it up. Perhaps the most unsettling item in the immense inventory of Titanic trivia is a novel called “Futility,” by an American writer named Morgan Robertson. It begins with a great ocean liner of innovative triple-screw design, “the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men…. Unsinkable—indestructible.” Speeding along in dangerous conditions, the ship first hits something on its starboard side (“A slight jar shook the forward end”); later on, there is a terrifying cry of “Ice ahead,” and the vessel collides with an iceberg and goes down.

As the title suggests, the themes of this work of fiction are the old ones: the vanity of human striving, divine punishment for overweening confidence in our technological achievement….

Robertson published his book in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic sailed. If she continues to haunt our imagination, it’s because we were dreaming her long before the fresh spring afternoon when she turned her bows westward and, for the first time, headed toward the open sea.

Surprisingly, the New Yorker omits the full title of the 1898 book — Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan!!! Yes, the ship was named the Titan. And it had a shortage of lifeboats, and more than half the 2500 passengers died (compared to more than half of the Titanic’s 2200 passengers dying).

In the case of climate change, it’s not a fictional novel that is predicting what will happen, it is science. Full steam ahead.

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35 Responses to The Titanic At 100 Years: We’re Still Ignoring Warnings, This Time It’s Climate Change, Says Director James Cameron

  1. Dan Ives says:

    Joe, have you seem some of the climate cartoons relating to the Titanic? Truth Dig has been posting some great ones:

    http://www.truthdig.com/cartoon/item/unsinkable_–_in_a_bad_way_20120412/

    http://www.truthdig.com/cartoon/item/titanic_tribute_cruise_20120410/

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    Thank you for mentioning Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novel “Futility”. As the Wikipedia article you linked to discusses, not only did Robertson’s imaginary “unsinkable” ship “Titan” have almost the same name as the Titanic, but the details of its physical specifications, and the manner and circumstances of its sinking, were almost identical to those of the Titanic.

    Moreover, construction of such a ship was actually impossible in 1898 given the technology of the time.

    Robertson’s book is sometimes given as an extraordinary example of the phenomenon we call “precognition” — ie. that Robertson had a prescient vision of the Titanic and its fate 14 years later. Whatever one may think of that, it is certainly hard to dismiss it as mere “coincidence”.

  3. Toby says:

    I read the New Yorker article, and here is my own favourite metaphor.

    Two ships were not far away as the Titanic sank.

    One ship, the Cunard liner Carpathia, heard the wireless SOS 58 miles away, steamed at full speed to help (in spite of the icebergs), and accepted some discomfort in turning off all heating on the ship to make the engines more efficient.

    Another ship, the Californian, just 10 miles away, eschewed new technology that could have saved lives – it kept no radio watch. The watch could see signal flares from the sinking liner, but it occurred to nobody that these had a particular meaning. One officer asked why would a ship be sending up flares at this hour of the night?

    In the New Yorker article, Mendesohn remarks that the Carpathia had the force of human striving, while the Californian had the force of human stupidity.

    Which ones were the hawks, and which ones the deniers?

  4. FerranPVilar says:

    Here is a climate change Titanic’s analogy from the ‘systems thinking’ point of view. This text has been awarded by a Spanish official body. English translation at:
    http://climateoftheclimate.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/the-mathematical-certainty-of-the-titanics-5c/

  5. Raul M. says:

    In the 14 years had the individual builders and financiers of the ship developed so far beyond the previous groups desires to have the playful maiden voyage. There ware a number of groups who were competing to have the mostest luxury liner. That they were succeeding to have the best was a triumph. And the group had brought enough drinks to ensure that all would forget the stress of their efforts. Afterwards the survivors could settle back to the escalating economies of the times but not those builders and financiers who had invested and lost.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    Perhaps we need a literature contest of futuristic scenarios that take place in 2026.

    That’s a fourteen year interval, like the one between the Titan of “Futility and the Titanic’s sinking.

    • Sasparilla says:

      That’s a very good idea Joan.

      Maybe a novel about the unexpected consequences of the arctic going ice free in the summer – sorta close on the timeline (although I think it’ll happen sooner than 2026).

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Perhaps a mega-tsunami caused by massive submarine landslides caused by rapidly melting clathrates. I believe similar things have happened before. As the survivors search the rubble for loved ones, the denialist cuckoos are hears hooting ‘It’s all happened before. We must adapt to mega-tsunamis. I’m still alive, so who cares?’

        • Joan Savage says:

          On a roll here, or more aptly a mudslide —
          post clathrate mudslides un-hinge oil and gas rigs,
          combination of mud and oil contaminate the Arctic food chain,
          and the mud flow shifts the temperature and density of deep water
          which in turn alters ocean currents,
          which affects northern hemisphere weather…

          Just fiction, for now. Actually multiple scenarios, like this combined with Raul’s and more, would give a more stereoscopic view of inherently possible consequences.

          • Raul M. says:

            humanities fail would have to be based of the concept that even though we are wrong, we have gotten better at being wrong.
            Woven within a straight jacket of denial of our failure we cannot accept individual and collective limitations to our actions.
            We can say what we like to justify and excuse or even rebel. But without change to our individual way of life we have only become revolting not the good husbandry of mother earth.
            So as humanity learns of it’s fail, we will find we are disabled and no longer the powerful ruling force of the world.
            Then we may argue about who should be given the credits to the failure as some bow their heads and withdraw from the forum.

          • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

            Life on this planet is completely inter-connected. Gaia decrees that we are all part of a whole, that goes on long after we are dead. The deranged egomaniacal fraction of humanity says there is nothing but my ego, or, more often, my id. We are all island universes, totally unconnected to each other, the past or the future. ‘God’ is My ego-projection, and I say that I can do whatever I will. With the monsters from their own ids clearly dominant, humanity approaches its true singularity, where all human history, experience and ambition implode into eternal darkness.

    • Raul M. says:

      Difference being the vast number who were not involved and only heard of the tragedy.
      A fine foreshadowing could give broad examples in how to cope with daily life between the stoppages of the weather. Of course how to see could be a problem with the rising extremes of UV rays.
      Nah no way out and too sad.

      • Raul M. says:

        Yes my straight jacket of denial, it helps me to remember not to try to help others learn the truth of climate change for it might be too unsettling for them and everyone could agree that childhood should be fun.
        As I learn to be comfortable within this straight jacket that has been fashioned for me for my own safety and to allow for the freedom of others to enjoy their own lifestyles, it is nice that they continue to release me so that I may tend to the veg. garden.
        Happy gardening.

  7. Tim says:

    You are precisely correct that Thomas’s comments are far more applicable to the establishment’s response to climate change that they were to the financial crisis (in which we are continually feeling aftershocks that seem likely to be foreshocks of worse to come). Thomas was writing about Paul Krugman (as your links reveal), and he is completely wrong about the establishment “Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, [that] can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. ” The status quo before the housing bubble and the financial crisis included Glass-Steagall and didn’t include credit-default swaps enabled by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. If Thomas wasn’t an idiot, he’d know that, in fact, the establishment favored regulation that right-wing radicals dismantled. Dick Durbin, an establishment Democrat, and William Safire, an establishment conservative columnist, both warned that the radicals were undermining a sixty-year period of financial stability.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Wrecking the economy through financial malfeasance, rank speculation and outright fraud, was only part of the plan. The hyper-profits, the larcenous pay and bonuses were all lovely, but the main course is the massive onslaught of ‘disaster capitalism’ now being imposed on Western societies.
      After handing over trillions to the kleptomaniacal banksters, their political stooges, bought by political contributions, presented the bill to society. The massive wave of austerity, of social retrenchment, of unemployment, wage cuts, welfare cuts and general immiseration is deliberate, coldly calculated and has only just begun. When you hear of retrospective wage cuts, as is the new sadistic innovation in Greece, you know, if the unbroken historical record had not already told you, that the global economic elite is ruthless and endlessly sadistic.

  8. novenator says:

    If our species isn’t even strong or smart enough to stop the global warming or mass extinction event we’re creating, what hope is there?

    Will you sit idly by as the human animal destroys the environment, or will you do something about it?

  9. Peter says:

    Sadly- our whole civilization is healed for the same fate as the Titanic.

  10. momochan says:

    This past week NPR had an interesting piece comparing the sinking of the Titanic to the sinking of the Lusitania, in terms of passenger reaction. Relative calm prevailed on the Titanic, whereas panic reigned on the Lusitania.
    Researchers concluded that the difference could be ascribed to the differing length of time of the sinkings (over 2 hours for the Titanic, versus 17 minutes for the Lusitania). More time supposedly allowed “what will other people think of my behavior” thinking to kick in, establishing social norms.
    But I have to wonder whether perceptions of the cause of the sinkings played any role. The passengers on the Lusitania knew that they had been attacked (in fact the German embassy printed warnings in the newspaper specifically warning that the Lusitania was subject to “destruction”). Humans tend to react strongly when they feel under attack by an external agent.
    The corollary of that, and the point of my story, is that those who feel the situation is ‘natural’ will not react as strongly. If enemy bombs had caused the kind of damage that we have seen recently with the increase in tornadoes in the US, you can be sure that we would be taking decisive action.
    It’s a problem of how the human mind works — we’re still stuck in the Paleolithic.

    • steve reed says:

      I believe you’re right. I’ve done an analysis finding some 5 factors explaining the diff between 9-11 and the challenge of climate change.

  11. Raul M. says:

    The resurgence of the mermaids.
    Looking, looking for the parallel of the climate scientists who lost but lived ever after in mythology. Hairballs nah not sexy enough.
    Angles nah extremely copyrighted.
    Gollum nah to subservient.
    Me thinks it should be a new word as the stakes are new yet anciently foretold.
    Looking, looking

    • Raul M. says:

      Would a parallel to mermaids be women who loved the sea and the fish of it but were forlorn when their men would not return? Nah many women are climate scientists. Talk of tragedies befallen trying to get the truth. Maybe.
      Coworkers who spend all day after day to organize and
      interpret the data gained it the field only to learn after great effort that they are chasing the ball by walking on their hands. Nah too confusing.
      Mother Nature got a new boyfriend who abuses her and her friends who are so dependent of her keep trying to help him reform his ways, but tragedy befalls.
      That the viewer could walk away from the viewing to go and think but not changing of ways smacks of enabling? Nah too concern trolling.

      Issues, issues looking, looking

  12. Rachel Edwards says:

    I found this on Amazon, a great Collectible Version of the James Cameron Movie. http://tinyurl.com/7uupnlz

  13. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Even those who deny climate change, peak oil, income inequality drift, fisheries collapse and biosphere degradation still sense the impending collision.

    The whole fabric of society is stretched thin. Us and them thinking is evident everywhere and getting stronger. Irrrespective of the facts, us is right and them is wrong.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      The United States is drifting toward being a failed state. As long as people like David Koch and James Boyce control Congress, things will only get worse.

  14. Consider this . . .

    As the Titanic sank in April 1912, the concentration of CO2 was surpassing the threshold of 300 parts per million for the first time in at least 2.1 million years. Here is an excerpt from one set of ice core data:

    1909 = 299.2
    1915 = 300.5

    See the Siple Station ice core data at http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ftp/trends/co2/siple2.013.

    A hundred years later, the CO2 level is just two or three years away from crossing the 400 ppm threshold. The rise is accelerating. Scientists at climateinteractive.org project a CO2 level of greater than 800 ppm by 2100.

    For those of us who want to turn this ship around, there is much that needs changing.

  15. Artful Dodger says:

    So then, 14 years until the Climate train wreck? I think by 2025, we will have already entered a period of irreversible consequences for the choices we made in Durban…

    • Joan Savage says:

      It’s more a case of imagining how many train wrecks we’ll see within fourteen years.

      The 2011-2012′s extreme weather news stories may be the climate change equivalent of a Titanic sinking, without anticipation of a forthcoming climate change equivalent of World War I, which eclipsed the Titanic in its horror and broad consequences.

      • Artful Dodger says:

        Yes Joan, you’re right. It is difficult to create a metaphor that hasn’t been overtaken by the pace of events.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        It will be the equivalent of a meteor or comet collision.

  16. Peter says:

    The Titanic was thought to be unsinkable. A technological wonder of her time. Many of Its passengers, the cream of the Edwardian/Gilded Age, paying for a first class ticket $4200 (equivalent today- cost of ($104,000)

    Actually the sinking of this ship was a turning point- that changed the rest of the early 20th century. In 2 years war broke out in Europe-, and after that war the peak of the Unfettered free enterprise economy which started in the 1880s on. The Jazz age came crashing down in October 1929, after 45 years of the rich becoming richer- and a growing underclass in the US and globally scraping to get by.

    We perhaps now are at an historic turning point as well. Something far more important- our home planets climate. C02 has risen nearly 100ppm since 1912. The vast problems that let up to WW I had been incubating for years globally in 1912.

    Today we are at another turning point- do we take action to begin drastic changes in our lifestyles and type of energy we use- or do we plow ahead like the Titanic did in the North Atlantic 100 years ago tonight?

    We are perhaps 10, 15 no more then 20 years away from chaos that will make October 1929 look like child’s play. Time is out now- just as it was at 11:40 pm April 14, 1912 100 years ago tonight for the doomed white Star Liner Titanic.

  17. Mike Roddy says:

    Message to Jim Cameron:

    Allegories don’t communicate the truths the American people need to hear. We need you to make a movie that tells a future climate change story that corresponds to the science. Please.

  18. dalloway says:

    And why was Titanic steaming full speed ahead through a field of icebergs? For the same reason our society chooses to be blind to climate change: greed. Many wealthy, influential passengers on Titanic had made big bets she’d beat a speed record, and the captain of the ship wanted to make sure the ruling class got what it wanted.

  19. The Titanic fits nicely as AGW metaphor – but we may have already struck the iceberg. The CO2 lag to warming means that even with halting all GHG emissions – warming will continue. And Arctic methane release maybe beyond our control – fed by rising sea levels.

    The gash along the ship of state grows longer, and the tipping points may be inevitable. We are a civilization in triage.

    Cameron may only be describing the lineup for the lifeboats.

  20. Bob Bingham says:

    For almost the whole of my life the supermarkets have been overflowing with food and although I am seventy I believe that I will live to see the day when there will be massive crop failure. At three degrees C virtually all the plants will start to die and even the rich can not escape that. With the temperature already up .8C and rising fast a combination of drought and floods is making agricultural failure not that far away.

  21. Steve says:

    I had a piece on the subject of the Titanic and climate change published last week in a (still afloat) New Jersey newspaper, the Trenton Times, and wrote a condensed version as a comment on the NY Times science section article on the Titanic. It’s important to do what we can locally–newscompanion.com, frugaline.org–to try to feed and reinforce what is dispersed more broadly.