[Marxism] Cancer and Climate Change

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 25 14:17:37 MST 2016

(This was written almost a year ago. The author just died. He was 
interviewed in Leonardo DiCaprio's very fine documentary on climate 
change "Before the Flood" that can be seen on-demand on the National 
Geographic Channel and on Amazon.)

NY Times Op-Ed, January 16 2016
Cancer and Climate Change

I’M a climate scientist who has just been told I have Stage 4 pancreatic 

This diagnosis puts me in an interesting position. I’ve spent much of my 
professional life thinking about the science of climate change, which is 
best viewed through a multidecadal lens. At some level I was sure that, 
even at my present age of 60, I would live to see the most critical part 
of the problem, and its possible solutions, play out in my lifetime. Now 
that my personal horizon has been steeply foreshortened, I was forced to 
decide how to spend my remaining time. Was continuing to think about 
climate change worth the bother?

After handling the immediate business associated with the medical news — 
informing family, friends, work; tidying up some finances; putting out 
stacks of unread New York Times Book Reviews to recycle; and throwing a 
large “Limited Edition” holiday party, complete with butlers, I had some 
time to sit at my kitchen table and draw up the bucket list.

Very quickly, I found out that I had no desire to jostle with wealthy 
tourists on Mount Everest, or fight for some yardage on a beautiful and 
exclusive beach, or all those other things one toys with on a boring 
January afternoon. Instead, I concluded that all I really wanted to do 
was spend more time with the people I know and love, and get back to my 
office as quickly as possible.

I work for NASA, managing a large group of expert scientists doing 
research on the whole Earth system (I should mention that the views in 
this article are my own, not NASA’s). This involves studies of climate 
and weather using space-based observations and powerful computer models. 
These models describe how the planet works, and what can happen as we 
pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The work is complex, exacting, 
highly relevant and fascinating.

Last year was the warmest year on record, by far. I think that future 
generations will look back on 2015 as an important but not decisive year 
in the struggle to align politics and policy with science. This is an 
incredibly hard thing to do. On the science side, there has been a 
steady accumulation of evidence over the last 15 years that climate 
change is real and that its trajectory could lead us to a very 
uncomfortable, if not dangerous, place. On the policy side, the 
just-concluded climate conference in Paris set a goal of holding the 
increase in the global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 
degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.

While many have mocked this accord as being toothless and unenforceable, 
it is noteworthy that the policy makers settled on a number that is 
based on the best science available and is within the predictive 
capability of our computer models.

It’s doubtful that we’ll hold the line at 2 degrees Celsius, but we need 
to give it our best shot. With scenarios that exceed that target, we are 
talking about enormous changes in global precipitation and temperature 
patterns, huge impacts on water and food security, and significant sea 
level rise. As the predicted temperature rises, model uncertainty grows, 
increasing the likelihood of unforeseen, disastrous events.

All this as the world’s population is expected to crest at around 9.5 
billion by 2050 from the current seven billion. Pope Francis and a think 
tank of retired military officers have drawn roughly the same conclusion 
from computer model predictions: The worst impacts will be felt by the 
world’s poorest, who are already under immense stress and have meager 
resources to help them adapt to the changes. They will see themselves as 
innocent victims of the developed world’s excesses. Looking back, the 
causes of the 1789 French Revolution are not a mystery to historians; 
looking forward, the pressure cooker for increased radicalism, of all 
flavors, and conflict could get hotter along with the global temperature.

Last year may also be seen in hindsight as the year of the Death of 
Denial. Globally speaking, most policy makers now trust the scientific 
evidence and predictions, even as they grapple with ways to respond to 
the problem. And most Americans — 70 percent, according to a recent 
Monmouth University poll — believe that the climate is changing. So 
perhaps now we can move on to the really hard part of this whole business.

The initial heavy lifting will have to be done by policy makers. I feel 
for them. It’s hard to take a tough stand on an important but long-term 
issue in the face of so many near-term problems, amid worries that 
reducing emissions will weaken our global economic position and fears 
that other countries may cheat on their emissions targets.

Where science can help is to keep track of changes in the Earth system — 
this is a research and monitoring job, led by NASA and the National 
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and their counterparts elsewhere 
in the world — and use our increasingly powerful computer models to 
explore possible futures associated with proposed policies. The models 
will help us decide which approaches are practicable, trading off 
near-term impacts to the economy against longer-term impacts to the climate.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the engineers and industrialists of 
the world to save us. They must come up with the new technologies and 
the means of implementing them. The technical and organizational 
challenges of solving the problems of clean energy generation, storage 
and distribution are enormous, and they must be solved within a few 
decades with minimum disruption to the global economy. This will likely 
entail a major switch to nuclear, solar and other renewable power, with 
an electrification of our transport system to the maximum extent 
possible. These engineers and industrialists are fully up to the job, 
given the right incentives and investments. You have only to look at 
what they achieved during World War II: American technology and 
production catapulted over what would have taken decades to do under 
ordinary conditions and presented us with a world in 1945 that was 
completely different from the late 1930s.

What should the rest of us do? Two things come to mind. First, we should 
brace for change. It is inevitable. It will appear in changes to the 
climate and to the way we generate and use energy. Second, we should be 
prepared to absorb these with appropriate sang-froid. Some will be 
difficult to deal with, like rising seas, but many others could be 
positive. New technologies have a way of bettering our lives in ways we 
cannot anticipate. There is no convincing, demonstrated reason to 
believe that our evolving future will be worse than our present, 
assuming careful management of the challenges and risks. History is 
replete with examples of us humans getting out of tight spots. The 
winners tended to be realistic, pragmatic and flexible; the losers were 
often in denial of the threat.

As for me, I’ve no complaints. I’m very grateful for the experiences 
I’ve had on this planet. As an astronaut I spacewalked 220 miles above 
the Earth. Floating alongside the International Space Station, I watched 
hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea 
through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic nighttime 
thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the Equator. 
 From this God’s-eye-view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the 
Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.

And so, I’m going to work tomorrow.

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