No time to say hello – goodbye! – we’re late, we’re late, we’re late! (1)

White Rabbit

Why do we, the People, ignore the urgency of global warming? Sure, since Gore’s movie we’ve been paying more attention to a careening climate, but we don’t write home about it. We’re willing to change a few lightbulbs, but not to make any of the fundamental changes necessary to save the future (near as well as distant). We act like there’s a dribbling leak in our bathtubs, denying that it’s a gusher in our teetering lifeboat. Why?

For one thing, as passionate environmental writer Derrick Jensen stated in his incisive 2006 article, “Beyond Hope” (2), people may “fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.” And given the extent and imminence of the urgency (our Climate Chronicles theme), we would have to make major changes not only in the way we live our lives, but also in how we view ourselves and our privileged hyperconsumption in the world. This would all be most inconvenient if not downright painful.

But there’s something else as well: the people who should be screaming emergency from the rooftops are instead spouting platitudes and counseling calm. Climate activists are sternly advised that telling the truth would so distress us, the public, that we would wilfully ignore the grim reality while shopping our way to oblivion.


Well, aside from being a climate activist, I’m also a person who lives among that ubiquitous cohort, “the public” – and frankly, I’m insulted. We all should be (3). Because how can we possibly respond to an emergency if we don’t know there is one?

There are many threats in our lives that lurk below the threshold of easy perception. Take radiation poisoning, for example, which is why people working with x-rays wear little badges to track their exposure. Or mercury in the fish we eat. Or infections whose symptoms appear only after we’re irretrievably ill. Or the long latency period for cancers. We have devised all manner of tests and strategies to warn of and prevent harms that are beyond our five senses.

Global warming is like that. The symptoms may look like weather incidents, sometimes extreme but mostly in keeping with what we more or less expect the physical world to do. There are also some odd behaviors of plants and animals, appearing in a season sooner or later than usual, or in places where they’ve never been seen before. Might be some very dry droughts or fat wet floods – but that’s just nature in a bad mood, we may croon to ourselves. As individuals and in our local communities it’s impossible for us, with our normal apparatus of perception, to assemble a picture called “global warming.” It’s not at all obvious to our unaided eyes, ears and noses.

But when we collect a mega-mountain of data, and when an army of trained professional scientists puts the pieces of the puzzle together, then we can see. But only if those upon whom we rely to tell us – environmentalists, climate activists, political leaders, and even the news media (!) – tell the story, and tell it straight (4).

If we flail in the dark, we’re cooked. If we know that the emergency is now, we have a fighting chance to turn it around. Come on, experts, talk to us, before too late is way too late!

The Dead

Next time: With Friends Like These: The Nation Magazine Cruises Off the Edge of the Iceberg (which is a pretty good trick, considering the increasing rarity of icebergs).

Copyright 2007 by Adam D. Sacks, all rights reserved.

1. The White Rabbit paraphrased, from the Walt Disney version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

2. Derrick Jensen, “Beyond Hope,” Orion, May/June 2006,

3. Sustainability consultants such as Futerra in the U.K. emphasize the positive, admonish us not to scare people and cheer us along with sustainability nostrums (, which of course we should try. But it’s a leisurely and inappropriate response to an explosive problem.

4. A remarkable report was issued last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a mainstream think-tank. Entitled “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implication of Global Climate Change,” CSIS brought together an “eclectic group [which] occasionally struggled to ‘speak the same language,’ but . . . shared [a] sense of purpose [to help] us develop a common vocabulary and mutual respect.” Stating that “[n]o precedent exists for a disaster of this magnitude-one that affects entire civilizations in multiple ways simultaneously,” CSIS developed three plausible global warming scenarios, expected, severe and catastrophic. Given the tipping points that we have already tipped (e.g., melting of ice and permafrost), the catastrophic scenario is far from unlikely. This is the conversation we should – every one of us – have in every corner of our lives, far beyond prattle over squiggly lightbulbs.,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,4154/type,1/