Climate Change, 2020, and the notion of ‘the new black’

Michael Glantz
CCB, University of Colorado
April 1, 2009

Fragilecologies Guest ArticleClimate Change, 2020, and the notion of
‘the new black’

The phrase “the new black" was used repeatedly in the 1980s to indicate that other colors (frequently brown, navy blue, or grey) had temporarily displaced black’s position in fashion or industrial design as the versatile trend around which all other fashion accessories were coordinated. It is a catch phrase used to indicate the sudden popularity of an idea at the expense of the popularity of a second idea.

So, what could such a fashion-related concept as, for example, “grey is the new black” say about climate change? Here’s the connection that I see:

For the past decade or so—especially as each year progresses into the 21st century—we (the public at large, which includes everyone, even scientists and policymakers) have been told by the media based on scientific and science media reporting that the atmosphere is heating up. The primary cause, we are told, is the buildup of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, which is influencing (augmenting) the naturally occurring greenhouse effect and is the result of human activities.

In the past few decades, scientists have learned a lot about those GHGs, especially about their sources, sinks and rates of change. Though their scientific findings might not yet provide a perfect picture, they are certain and reliable enough to generate concern, and are thereby usable. These findings serve as a warning about foreseeable changes in the global climate system and the impacts of those changes on ecosystems and societies. If we continue on a “business as usual” path and choose not to alter our types as well as patterns of energy consumption and land use, global warming will intensify.

Based on their data, scientists have developed scenarios that, in general, are focused on climate changes and their impacts that might plausibly be expected to occur in 2050 or 2100, if all of the science is proven correct. Though I tend to believe that the processes of change are relatively well understood given the state of the science of climate today, I have worried for a long time about both the projected rates of change and the processes of change, many of which are barely discernible over short time frames to the naked eye—or at least to the instruments that measure such changes.

Reports are coming in now from scientists and the media worldwide that the rates of change are happening faster than they had projected for a wide range of ecological and social climate-impact factors. As an example, one could argue that the most visible rate of environmental change is occurring in the Arctic with respect to the accelerated disappearance of ice cover. Using sophisticated computer models, scientists had projected a certain percentage loss in sea ice cover in the Arctic by the year 2020. Based on actual measurements, however, the sea ice disappearance (melting) had reached those projected levels by 2007—13 years early!!

Simply put, Arctic sea ice appears to be going to “hell in a handbasket,” as the saying goes. Polar scientists say it; I believe it; satellite images support it. The rapidity of this melt in the Arctic has sparked concern about other ecosystemic rates of change. Around the world, levels of warming and impacts from warming that had been projected to appear many, many decades into the future are emerging now before our eyes—and through the even sharper eyes of satellites and microscopes. In other words, “the future is arriving earlier than expected.”

the future is arriving earlier than expected

Now, let’s look at how the fashion concept of “the new black” noted at the opening of this commentary speaks to these impacts of a changing climate.

With the phrase “grey is the new black,” I am suggesting by analogy that scenarios for 2100, while interesting at some levels, are of much less concern to most decision makers than are scenarios more proximate to our contemporary time of life and governance. If science is going to be relevant to most policymakers today, then its projections must concentrate on times far closer than those that are still a century away. Therefore, 2020, in the minds of those who are concerned with societal responses to a “dangerous” climate change, must be seen as the “new black”; that is, “2020 is the new 2050.”

The problem is that the physical and ecological mechanisms involved in these processes continually seem to translate to shorter and shorter time frames for what once were distantly projected impacts. Not only does 2020 become the new 2050, but the impacts projected for 2100, for example, may now plausibly arrive as early as 2050. Clearly, the climate is changing, and apparently far faster than we had expected.

These accelerated changes create a major dilemma in thinking about and acting on climate impacts because the rates of change in the physical and the ecological realms are apparently occurring far faster than the rates at which institutional bureaucracies are designed to cope effectively. Furthermore, because in the past couple of decades we have focused on adapting and mitigating to future impacts, we seem to have abandoned the concept of prevention.

There are at least two options available to tackle these dilemmas: (1) organizations MUST rethink their structures and functions, asking if their 20th century (or 19th or 18th century) bureaucracies are prepared to address 21st century climate-related problems. Some are, but many are likely not; and (2) bring prevention back into the discussion. Any new activities that might worsen an already existing climate change-related impact could be avoided. Note that coal-fired power plants are still being constructed, emission violations still go unchallenged, deforestation is still allowed to continue for a range of revenue-generating, money-making reasons, and so forth.

We must now convince policymakers at all levels of social organization – from the local to the national to the global—that 2020 is the year to fear, not 2050 or 2100. I have often written about creeping environmental changes and problems, but I have come to realize of late that societies have, in a surrender-like mode, unwittingly accepted incremental, adverse environmental changes as inconsequential. This tolerance must no longer continue. There is still time to do something to roll back warming, but not much time.

Based on the belief that to be forewarned is to be forearmed, there should be an EPCC—Engineering Panel for Climate Change --- because it may be the engineers of the world who will unite across international boundaries to design effective and timely ways to control and remove GHGs released into the atmosphere. Might not they be viewed as the new set of brokers, acting between the sciences (physical, biological and social) and the policymakers?

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