A Reckoning Came

Hot Peppers from the Garden, Oct. 12, 2018.

Even if we knew our ecosystem was close to the tipping point of global warming and its consequences, it is hard to be ready for the recent Washington Post headline, “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest report a week ago. 10-14 years remain to address global warming and climate disruption to which it contributes, according to the authors. If our global society doesn’t address it, scientists find we will likely pass a tipping point toward climate breakdown from which there is no return.

Can we take adequate climate action in time?

“Even if it is technically possible, without aligning the technical, political and social aspects of feasibility, it is not going to happen,” said Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. “To limit warming below 1.5 C, or 2 C for that matter, requires all countries and all sectors to act.”

I’m not hopeful society will react adequately.

Recycling programs are a case in point about society’s failures.

Driven by a desire to take volume out of waste streams, curbside recycling programs came up after the environmental awareness created by the Apollo moon flights and the widely circulated “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble” photographs. It just made sense to recycle materials like metal cans, cardboard, paper, glass and plastics that could be re-used. Along with that came a push by manufacturers to create containers that were recyclable. By any measure the programs were successful for a long time.

Time intervened and today, more and more communities are either scaling back or dropping their recycling programs. The reason? Contamination of waste, increased collection and processing costs, and lower sales prices for recycled material. Who is getting blamed? China. Here’s an explainer from a Pennsylvania television station:

The recycling markets, whether it’s paper, plastic, glass, or other items, are financially unstable now, local recycling coordinators said.

The cost of recycling, including collection and processing, is increasing, while the prices for recyclables sold is decreasing.

One reason, they said, is China. They control a huge portion of the world’s recycling markets and they now insist on taking recyclables that are not termed “contaminated,” meaning mixed with other materials. In fact, China is no longer accepting any recyclables from the United States.

Recycling is something individuals and families can get their arms around. To hear this story, Americans are no good at it. If we can’t do something as tangible as recycle plastics, cans and glass in a way to enable them to be recycled, how can we be expected to reduce vehicular fossil fuel emissions, use of lawn fertilizers, home heating oil and gas, and a host of other consumer products right in front of us? Take that to the next level and how are we to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by changing our food choices to reduce consumption of meat, corn and soy found throughout grocery store aisles? What about the unseen manufacturing plants that use coal, oil and gas to create mundane products like cheap cat litter, toilet paper, hot dogs and home appliances?

What the IPCC is saying is time is short and we have a difficult task in front of us. It involves personal behavior which we have been no good at, and collective behavior that in the current political environment seems impossible.

An obvious precedent to these times is the extinction of Neanderthals after the rise of so-called “modern humans.” How they went extinct is not fully understood, but several theories have been advanced.

“Hypotheses on the fate of the Neanderthals include violence from encroaching anatomically modern humans, parasites and pathogens, competitive replacement, competitive exclusion, extinction by interbreeding with early modern human populations, and failure or inability to adapt to climate change,” according to Wikipedia. “It is unlikely that any one of these hypotheses is sufficient on its own; rather, multiple factors probably contributed to the demise of an already widely-dispersed population.”

Where do we go from here? The IPCC report is no surprise. It is a wake-up call for folks who haven’t engaged in mitigating the effects of global warming and climate disruption. At what point do we get enough people engaged? The day of reckoning has passed, now it’s up to us. We’ll see if we can become better at it.

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