Did you feel a sense of dread about the way things were going, even before the Corona virus pandemic? Five years ago when clinical psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon claimed a climate emergency she was called alarmist and extreme. Now cities and countries all over the world call a climate emergency. Margaret has a new book on how to overcome eco-anxiety. Forget the year 2100 – new science shows ocean systems begin to die off during this decade, with land ecology soon after. Dr. Alex Pigot joins from London to explain this major paper published in the journal Nature.
While all things Corona overwhelm our lives and the news, greenhouse gas emissions have not stopped, and climate change continues to drive more vicious events, including fire, floods, extreme storms, drought, and soon extreme heat in the Northern Hemisphere. It is news we need to know now.
Following our guests, I have a few observations: we are being totally misled about “opening the economy” any time soon, and what that means for our lives. Forget that forced optimism. We need to concentrate on just two things: keeping people alive until help comes as a vaccine or treatment; and using this great pause to kick-start a new economy to survive the other emergency: climate change and the era of mass extinction.
DR. ALEX PIGOT: CLIMATE COLLAPSE SOONER THAN WE THOUGHT
People ask “What will happen after this pandemic?” The answer is: the next emergency is already upon us. Many species alive on Earth will collapse due to climate change, and it could be much sooner than you think. That is the next great emergency.
According to new science, if we go succeed in going back to “normal” business, masses of species are going to die together, abruptly, possibly starting within this decade. But we can still flatten that curve and give all those animals, plants and other works of Nature several more decades, so we don’t overload ecological systems with mass deaths.
That’s all in the striking new paper published this April in the leading journal Nature. Despite the current health emergency, you need to hear this news. These scientists warn “potentially catastrophic loss of global biodiversity is on the horizon.” One of the three authors is Dr. Alex L. Pigot. He is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, located at the University College London. Dr. Pigot has coauthored at least 33 papers, and specializes in the distribution of living things on this planet. This paper is: “The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change”.
Dr. Alex Pigo, UCL
This new work suggests we may not lose a steady trickle of species as the climate warms year-by-year. Instead, living systems could hit a brick wall where whole webs collapse together. It reminds me of the spread of COVID-19, which shows up as a few cases, then a cluster, and then a steep rise like an explosion of cases. We may tolerate the loss of a few species, not realizing that could be a signal a whole system is about to crash. It is going to be difficult to get people and governments to get serious about this before it happens.
In addition to “when” whole webs of living things could fail, this team also provides a handy YouTube video showing “where” the greatest devastation of the species is likely to happen. The worst is around the Equator, where the richest bank of living things are found. The paper and graphics show the eastern Pacific has one of the greatest losses, around Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. It looks to me like the chart shows in a worst case 100% species loss in some places. Surely I am reading that incorrectly. But Pigot confirms in the interview: 100% species loss is possible, even probably on the path we are on.
If we continue with our high emissions of greenhouse gases, as some politicians are anxious to do, this research also shows staggering loss of species in India, West Africa, and the Northern Amazon. In an article Pigot and a co-author published in The Conversation, he writes “sudden loss of animal communities… could also reduce the long-term ability of tropical forests to lock up carbon – if the birds and mammals that are important for dispersing seeds are lost.”
In her Nature commentary, Dr. Jennifer M. Sunday from Canada’s McGill University cautions more research is needed. For example, she wonders if species might be able to survive beyond their thermal niches, and so extinctions might be fewer than this paper projects. But the only way to know that would be to continue warming the Earth and see what happens, which seems like a harsh and risky experiment.
Alex and his team have done an exemplary job of making this paper and the data available to all for free. You get well-written coverage in several major publications, including a great article by Fiona Harvey in the UK Guardian newspaper. And yet there is a danger even this important warning will be lost in the current virus emergency. Can we handle two major problems at once?
“However, it is not too late! Keeping global warming well below 2°C ‘flattens the curve’ of biodiversity exposure, buying 6 decades for the most sensitive species to adapt and averting exposure across more than half of biodiversity.”
He also Tweets: “This early projected onset of exposure is consistent with the recurrent mass bleaching of coral reefs which are happening right now.”
HANDLING ECO-ANXIETY – MARGARET KLEIN SALAMON
Last week while people huddled in their homes to slow the pandemic, a string of strange and strong tornadoes struck the American South and wild storms knocked out power to about a million people in the Northeast. Extreme weather, hot oceans and the coming heat waves tell us climate change has not self-isolated to fit the times. Now we have double anxiety, where even the safe and dependable are suspect. We are literally out of touch with people we love. How can we grow out of that? Margaret Klein Salamon was a clinical psychologist in New York City. Then Hurricane Sandy struck. Life was not the same, and Margaret’s journey took a big turn toward facing the climate threat.
In June of 2015 I interviewed Margaret about The Climate Mobilization movement she organized. Since then cities and countries over the world have declared a climate emergency.
Now Margaret has a timely new book out: “Facing the Climate Emergency – How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth”. Let’s find out if that still works during the battle against Coronavirus.
Margaret warns “my goal is not to make you happy, and it’s certainly not to help you avoid pain. This is not about feeling good or finding satisfaction”. That sounds strange coming from a clinical psychoanalyst. But it is real and true, given our current predicament.
Here is the kind of hard truth you can expect from Margaret. She writes:
““Suicides are up – at their highest point in 50 years – and are now the second leading cause of death for Americans under age 35. One in six Americans takes psychiatric medication, primarily for depression and anxiety. Opioids kill more Americans than car crashes. Virtually all of us resort to something fro numbing and distraction: We watch 33 hours of TV a week, scroll endlessly on social media, play video games, and watch pornography. We drink too much, eat too much, work too much, compete too much, and buy too much. simply put, Americans – and people all over the world, are in pain.”
“We are in pain because our world is dying and, through our passivity, we are responsible for killing it.”
“This pain has several dimensions. It is the fear we feel for ourselves for our loved ones, and for all humanity; it is the empathy and grief we feel for the people and species already immiserated or killed; it is the crushing guilt that we feel for continuing to let this happen. Our pain is the consequence of our participation in a destructive system. But we are not merely victims. Through our participation in this system through our passivity, we are also perpetrators.”
Many years ago I read the work of psychoanalyst and antinuclear activist Erich Fromm. We talk about his view of what Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychology, called “the death instinct” and how that applies to climate anxiety.
In her new book “Facing the Climate Emergency”, Margaret gives the example of being at work when a fire alarm goes off. We don’t see any fire or smell the smoke. Is it real or a false alarm? Our action may depend on how others react. Climate change can be here among us before we experience all the symptoms. That sounds so like COVID-19.
The story in Klein Salamon’s new book about her Grandmother’s life-long distrust of people due to experiences in Germany during the Holocaust – rang a bell for our times now. The Grandmother was aghast that ordinary Germans went to work and beer halls while their Jewish neighbors were hauled away. I found an similar eerie feeling watching big crowds gather at sports events and churches even as the pandemic was obviously coming ashore. The same for all those useless cruise ships each emitting as much greenhouse gas as a million cars, while climate wrecks living systems around the world. People will cling to normal even when the whirlwind is blowing things down. How can we let go and start anew with reality?
Find her new book “Facing the Climate Emergency – How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth” at New Society publishers, or anywhere books are sold online.
STUMBLING TOWARD EVEN GREATER DISASTER
- Alex Smith
In the sad passion play that pretends to be an American Federal Government, President Trump is stumbling backward into the right idea for once, sort of. As reported by Bloomberg news on April 15, Trump’s administration is proposing to pay U.S. oil producers to leave it in the ground. That is exactly the theme and goal of environmentalists around the world. We cannot burn all the oil, gas, and coal we have. If we do, the world will warm well past the limits of continuing civilization, wipe out entire chains of species, killing off millions of humans. We have to leave it in the ground.
Trying to stave off inevitable bankruptcy in the mostly Republican American oil and gas industry, Trump wants to buy up to 365 million barrels of crude oil, ostensibly for the Strategic Reserve. The U.S. taxpayers would hand more billions to the wealthiest companies and families on Earth. No doubt the surviving Koch brother would get another big piece of pie. The trouble is, there is no place to store the glut of unused oil and gas already. There are super-tankers full out in the ocean with no where to sell it. Some companies are leasing ships as portable storage.
So the Trump gang go the next step: the U.S. Treasury, which means American tax payers, would buy the oil in advance, give companies money for nothing, and keep an I.O.U. of oil for another time. Just leave it in the ground, they say. Has Trump gone over to the green side? Hardly. It’s just a give-away, and the government still hopes to burn all that oil and heat the planet, as soon as we go back to business as usual.
But “normal” is not coming back. For example, a new paper published in Science on April 14 suggests not only recurring waves of COVID-19, but a need to keep social distancing and other prophylactic protections until the year 2022, a full two years. Even then, if a vaccine is not found, this threat may be with us for a decade or longer. The paper is titled “Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the post-pandemic period”. Governments in various countries, including Australia and to some degree Canada, are beginning to let our the word: we may need a modified lock-down for at least a year.
The whole meme of “when will we re-open” is a cruel distraction.
This is no time for magical thinking. Governments and media should instead be directing attention to three things: immediate health care where clusters and hot spots spring up; keeping the food supply chain going; and climate emergency action to create a low-emission economy that works for all citizens, not just the billionaires at the top. None of that is unrealistic and optional.
Truly unrealistic is a desire to return to an economy that wrecks the world and tears down the future. That’s what we had. It was bound to crash or go down in flames sooner or later. Going out shopping for entertainment, burning fossil fuels without limit, like a birthright – that has to be over. This is a time to appreciate real essentials: an appreciation for all living things, an understanding of our small role in the web of life, and a humility in our demands on natural systems. It is a huge change for all of us. We are not consumers. We are participants in a complex planet, one species among the many.
I don’t care for preachy people. Radio Ecoshock keeps going for the voices of scientists and activists who cherish facts and real action. I don’t know where this is all going, any more than you do. But we can all see any attempt to return to the fossil-powered miracle with unlimited humans on a small planet is a death-wish. That is what most governments, the former big business and banks, and corporate media are selling you: let’s go back to shooting crack, inventing money for the few, and teetering on the edge of high roof tops. It’s the wrong conversation for where we are, and our limited possibilities ahead.
Dig in. This could be THE Great Depression and it could be the beginning of a new society worth living in – a civilization that plans to live beyond the next quarter, the next decade, and the next century. Don’t be fooled by regressive daydreams and inferior products. Dream big and start small.
I have new friends for the quarantine. My chickens arrived today. We have potatoes growing in buckets and plants in every window, ready for the new Spring. I don’t know what kind of co-op or telephone neighbor support network you can build where you are. But I know you can start something local and small to make lives better. Please play it safe and we can make something real and new.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening again this week, on Radio Ecoshock. Don’t forget to donate to keep this show going!