Unprecedented struggle yet story with no name
For two decades it was the Great War.
Then, with the outbreak of World War II, it became the First World War. As a descriptive title, First World War says a great deal more than Great War. It would be even more descriptive, but less eloquent, as the First Industrial/World War.
With or without the adjective anthropogenic, none of the terms ‘global warming’, ‘climate change’, or ‘greenhouse gas effect’ convey even a modicum of what is communicated by that shortest of words: war. Various authors and activists have attempted to coin words or phrases to better describe anthropogenic global warming, some striving to avoid anthropogenic, postulating that short words win.
The slow-motion collision of global warming with a potential population of 16 billion is a train wreck for which none of the terms in common use are nearly adequate. Climate cataclysm comes closest to describing the unfolding crisis, not least of all the inescapable flooding from an eventual 70 metres of sea-level rise.
Reports of projected sea-level rise invariably reference the year 2100. But if, as glaciologists now grudgingly accept, sea-level rise exceeds one metre in the next 87 years, the end of the century will be staggeringly unimportant. Sea-level rise is no respecter of the Gregorian calendar—it will continue to rise until the phenomenon of ice sheets has been permanently consigned to the paleoclimate history books. What science has yet to quantify, however, is the rate of acceleration of sea-level rise likely this century.
In just two centuries, the industrialised world has prematurely sealed the fate of Earth’s great ice sheets. What would otherwise have been just another balmy interglacial period is now, thanks to profligate fossil fuel use, the end of the 2.6-million-year-old Pleistocene glaciations. For most of Earth’s existence, the planet has been ice-sheet free; it has required a fabulous combination of factors for ice sheets to form. So it was inevitable that, with the gradual but inexorable warming of the Sun, the Pleistocene glacial/interglacial would eventually end and Earth would lose the ice sheets that so nicely moderate the planet’s climate.
Against all reasonable human intuition, fossil fuel use is bringing about a premature and irreversible end to the ice sheets. That a colourless odourless gas, carbon dioxide, which currently makes up slightly less than 0.04% of the atmosphere, could wrought such a profound change barely seems credible. But looked at another way, it has been known for nearly two centuries that greenhouse gases were critical to maintaining a live-ably warm climate on Earth and, since 1859, that carbon dioxide, next to water vapour, trapped the most heat. Little wonder then that the 43% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial age has warmed the global climate, spawning record summer droughts in the United States and the diabolical wildfire season in Australia.
Climate action communicators seem compelled to accompany every warning with a message of optimism: If action is taken swiftly, there is still just enough time to avoid a climate cataclysm. Such communicators fear that, without such a disclaimer, their audiences will be plunged into a fatalistic stupor and fail to rally to fight the good fight. The strategy is both misguided and dishonest. Dishonest, because fossil fuel use ratchets up greenhouse gases—cutting back emissions doesn’t immediately allow greenhouse gas levels to fall. It’s analogous to a faulty thermostat, which can readily be turned up but can’t be turned down. Misguided, because by failing to spell out the global misery in store, the climate action mobilisation that is already decades overdue remains unplanned and unimplemented.
Possibly the climate action communicators greatest impediment is their failure to coin an adequate term for the ‘mobilisation’ that way probably always inevitable. Climate change, global warming, global weirding etc. describe the ‘enemy’, but not the ‘fight’.
Despite it rarely garnering a mention, an equivalent of mobilisation is now utterly inevitable. The tragedy is that delay is already coming at a staggering loss of life, property and productivity. Against global warming backdrop of less than 1°, the heat wave and wildfires that struck western Russia in 2010 killed 55 000 people, and 6° of global warming is possible this century. When Winston Churchill mobilised his country and its former colonies with his We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech of 1940, he repeated the word fight seven times. He is said to have used it an eighth time, to Clement Attlee seated beside him, during a pause for thunderous House of Commons approval:
And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!
While World-war-scale mobilisation begins to describe the scale of the response needed, there are a number of difficulties with using the term. Firstly, there is an urgent need to demobilise society, particularly the profligate use of the private car. This includes reversing the new Western norm that an annual holiday, to worthy of the name, must involve an airliner. Secondly, mobilisation doesn’t begin to describe the vast range of tasks that are needed to transition from fossil fuels and at the same time protect the billions most vulnerable to heat waves, floods, food shortages and sea-level rise.
It is possible that a powerful new term will be invented. Currently, adoption of the term Anthropocene is being advocated, in order to convey that the present geological epoch is scoured by anthropogenic activity. Anthropoaegis would classically convey the global campaign needed to protect the world’s weakest, most exposed, and often most blameless, communities. However, at two syllables longer than World War III, and utterly lacking in alliteration, it is unlikely anthropoaegis catch on. However, something more courageous than climate action is called for, something heroic. Something that signals the unprecedented sacrifice needed by one generation in particular, the generation that will largely be required to forgo procreation in order to take the sting out of the relentless growth that is forcing climate change.
While it is unsurprising that war provides the words for many powerful figures of speech, even stronger language is surely available to address the gathering climate cataclysm and the global response to it. In comparison to the global warming mobilisation, Churchill had a simple message to convey, which he did with brutal directness:
We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
The repeated use of the verb fight that so tightly binds the heart of a much longer speech could be reapplied, but that would be no compliment to the 20th Century’s greatest rhetoritician—the enormity of the global climate cataclysm demands original, prescient, prose appropriate to this unprecedented anthropogenic event. It also demands, of course, a leader of moment to emerge on the world stage. When Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, eight months into the war, he was 65, a similar age to Arnold Schwarzenegger today, as he is receiving well-deserved credit for clean-energy law that took effect in California on New Year’s Day. The deeply irrational and ironic insistence that its commander in chief be a ‘natural born Citizen’ of course disqualifies Schwarzenegger, otherwise he already might be the most popularly elected president since Ronald Regan.
President Barack Obama has used the opportunity of his reinauguration to elaborate on his election night pledge:
We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.
Obama, sadly, couldn’t resist dignifying that some ‘may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science’. This is about as unnecessary as saying that some reject the science pioneered by Charles Darwin, every time the word evolution is used—an unnecessary valediction of the phoney global-warming science ‘debate’. However, with the recent tectonic shift in public perception of climate, if the president leads, the people and their politicians will now follow. For too long, leaders, by acting to avoid alarm, have displayed an alarming avoidance of action. Unless humanity can collectively be convinced to quickly become engaged in the life-and-death struggle to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce population and to safeguard food production, armed climate war will be added to pestilence of the climate cataclysm.
Never have so many lives, so many species, depended on so few succinct words, to describe this unprecedented struggle for survival.