The Climate Emergency: a need for radical honesty – laced with courage and compassion: Part 2

Aug 3, 2021

The sight of an ice-free Arctic or Siberia on fire is tantamount to the discovery of cancer spreading to the brain. Some mitigation is possible but the prognosis is bad.

In Part 1, I introduced Joan, a previously well 50-year-old woman, whom I had met in hospital whilst she received second-line antibiotic therapy for a refractory pneumonia. After three weeks an underlying lung cancer was discovered, although, of course, it had been present all along. This relationship resembles that of COVID 19 to the Climate Emergency, the two intimately related, but the immediate focus on the former, and indeed, radical treatment for both the lung cancer and the Climate Emergency must await a significant improvement in the acute crisis, namely the pneumonia or COVID 19.

As with climate change the lung cancer required further detailed investigation, to define the precise behaviour, rate of progression, prognosis and the possibility of meaningful intervention.

I had promised Joan that I would return to discuss these results as soon as they became available, and would then spend considerable time explaining the implications, openly and honestly. This would then allow a deep, balanced and realistic conversation about possible therapies, their efficacy and side effects, and importantly, a focus on her life ahead, its uncertainty, preciousness, meaning and brevity.

Unfortunately, the results of these various scans confirmed the spread of the cancer to a spinal bone and the brain. I gently conveyed this information to Joan and her daughter, both of whom wept and hugged one another. “Can anything be done to help me?” Joan asked between sobs. I replied with a tremulous voice: “Joan, unfortunately the cancer has spread. This means that it cannot be cured. The lung infection is still very active, so we have to be careful and all work together to try and avoid any complications of the cancer. Your lifespan is now very short. We must ensure that every moment is spent well. This a wonderful time to express and receive love, and likewise to offer and possibly receive forgiveness. It is also a time to consider a legacy, a memory of your invaluable presence on this Earth”.

With the overwhelming impact of COVID 19, not surprisingly, we have thought less about the Climate Emergency, although its manifestations abound, most recently with devastating wild fires in British Columbia and northern California, massive floods in China amongst many others, all with strong scientific attribution.

The further investigation of climate change confirms an advanced malignant process. Despite international commitments, global annual energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fail to diminish responsibly, and may actually rise back up to 33 Gt CO₂ if COVID 19 control allows industrial production to “bounce back”. Clearly the “Paris targets” were too conservative, did not include all the forcing factors and had little power of execution over myopic and delinquent nations such as Australia.

Whereas nations strive (to some extent) to achieve “zero emissions” by 2050, blindly believing that, thereby, they will achieve a remission from the climate malignancy, they forget that years (and decades) of inaction now requires zero by 2030 to prevent catastrophic temperature rise. This global warming is likely already 2⁰C, but distributed unevenly over the Earth. With accumulating CO2 (beyond our budgetary control) and the rise in other potent GHGs, with the fall in “cooling” aerosols, and changes in cloud behaviour, there may be a trigger to “hothouse” Earth, exacerbating the ongoing animal extinctions and threatening social viability, particularly in urban environments (with heat islands), and with great stress in poorer countries.

There is now clear Arctic amplification, whereby the rate and extent of climate warming is three times the global average, sea ice is now melting in an accelerating fashion, becoming thinner, with less winter recovery, losing its albedo effect, and soon to disappear entirely during summer months (sea ice-free Arctic by the 2030s), decades before previously anticipated, and representing the crossing of an irreversible tipping point. This will likely lead to the release of vast quantities of seafloor methane, also arising from melting permafrost (containing as much GHG as all other sources), which in turn has arisen sooner than predicted by climate models, and not even included in recent predictions of global warming. In Greenland, glacial loss is also accelerating, with the expectation that further tipping points will be crossed soon.

These changes, together with progressive Antarctic ice melting will contribute to a more rapid rise in sea level (in addition to oceanic heat expansion), exceeding 1 metre by late century or sooner. A significant rise has already been documented, impacting on coastal communities in the Pacific, on our own Torres Strait islands, Florida and elsewhere, with associated extreme weather events, and causing salination of fresh water estuaries and aquifers, the latter representing the world’s most accessed freshwater reservoir. Such progressive sea level rise will continue for millennia.

Alpine-glaciers in Europe, Asia and South America are also melting rapidly creating a major further threat to water supply and agricultural activity, potentially affecting 3 billion people.

The sight of an ice-free Arctic or Siberia on fire is tantamount to the discovery of cancer spreading to the brain. Some mitigation is possible but the prognosis is bad. An oncologist who truly cares for his or her patients must tell the truth, be radically honest, display some compassion and vow never to abandon them. We should expect and demand nothing less from our leaders, but we should also be wise and realistic enough to know that this is beyond them. Most will be condemned to eternal infamy for not undertaking sound policies with courage and maturity some 30 years ago.

At what level of risk do we start to sacrifice our dangerous and selfish behaviour for the lives of our living offspring (let alone future generations)? The need for planetary palliation has become urgent, and should focus on all species, in addition to our own.

We can still demonstrate our capacity for noble, contrite self-less-ness, by systematically reducing our carbon footprint. Without delay (days to months) we must cease all GHG emitting activity (transport, infra-structure, energy, agriculture, industry), enhance eco-recycling, begin active transport (walking and cycling), insist upon much smaller eco-designed homes, green cities (to counter heat islands), and begin the regeneration of all debilitated ecosystems.

Finally, we must attend to the psycho-spiritual assault upon humanity by the two synchronous crises, particularly the “bad news” that our precious and galactically unique biosphere is morbidly ill, with the knowledge that we are responsible, but with some distant possibility of atonement. There has been much wise reflection in the realm of psycho-spiritual support and the much broader concept of Deep Adaptation. Likewise, with the expectation of universal distress there are many compassion-based strategies (plus here) for specific demographic groups, in various cultures (children, adolescents, parents, the elderly, the chronically ill, the disabled and so on), and new approaches will undoubtedly emerge.

Ultimately, we will have an opportunity, as a species, to seek forgiveness from our fellow Tellurian life forms (from the koalas to elephants to whales to the albatross; all being species imperiled by human contact), and all of whom must wonder, that when presented with the ineffable, effulgent beauty of Gaia, the large-brained, self-described Homo sapiens chose willful Armageddon, strangely and compulsively enacting an ancient eschatology.

Life will continue but we humans (from the Latin “humus”, meaning soil or earth) will have a deservedly minor role

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