Elizabeth Kolbert is one of the most thoughtful climate journalists. Her terrific 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, famously ends, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”
Seven years later, we’re still doing it (see “Into The Valley Of 400 PPM Rode The 7 Billion“). Kolbert has a great New Yorker piece this week, “Lines in The Sand,” on crossing the 400 parts per million threshold of CO2, as measured at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory.
She quotes one marine geologist who said that hitting 400 ppm, “feels like the inevitable march toward disaster.” Of course, it isn’t inevitable, which was the point of Kolbert’s quote above — it is a choice.
That said, most people do feel powerless to change direction, since the choice to avert disaster isn’t directly in our hands. It is in the hands of the most powerful opinion makers and political leaders, like President Obama.
Kolbert concludes her piece:
Were we to burn through all known fossil-fuel reserves, the results would be unimaginably bleak: major cities would be flooded out, a large portion of the world’s arable land would be transformed into deserts, and the oceans would be turned into liquid dead zones. If we take the future at all seriously, which is to say as a time period that someone is going to have to live in, then we need to leave a big percentage of the planet’s coal and oil and natural gas in the ground. These basic facts have been established for decades, and every President since George Bush senior has vowed to do something to avert catastrophe. The numbers from Mauna Loa show that they have failed.
In rejecting Keystone, President Obama would not solve the underlying problem, which, as pipeline proponents correctly point out, is consumption. Nor would he halt exploitation of the tar sands. But he would put a brake on the process. After all, if getting tar-sands oil to China were easy, the Canadians wouldn’t be applying so much pressure on the White House. Once Keystone is built, there will be no putting the tar back in the sands. The pipeline isn’t inevitable, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. It’s just another step on the march to disaster.