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Earth's Altered States | The Nation

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Earth's Altered States

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Scott Thill

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“We are in the classic fog of war,” says Stephen Cohen.

April 18, 2007

The recent Oscar may have gone to Martin Scorsese for his remake of the Chinese thriller The Departed, but the film that should have beaten it--and Al Gore's similarly hyped An Inconvenient Truth--was Alfonso Cuaron's disturbing, destabilizing Children of Men. A dystopian sci-fi of mammoth proportions, Children of Men is nevertheless harrowing cinema precisely because--as Cuaron himself explains in one of the featurettes contained on the film's recently released DVD--without the love story between Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, it is essentially a documentary about the ravages of climate change, mass migration and resource wars going on as I write this very paragraph.

Perhaps not in America or its native U.K. as of yet, but as everyone from the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to the famed Mexican director has agreed that it is simply a matter of time. And time, as the cliche goes, is definitely running out. Which is not to say that the type of dystopian environment illustrated all too vividly in the movie is a lock for the future of humanity. As we have seen before, life is not the movies. But then again, as we have seen before, sometimes it is too close to call.

Consider the IPCC's most recent report on global warming, which is a doozy straight out of sci-fi cinema. Over 2,500 experts, 800 contributing authors and 450 lead authors from 130 countries have crunched climate data from far and wide only to tell us what we already know: Our reliance upon fossil fuels could spell the end of our species as a whole if we don't get our shit together. Chew on these facts from the report's executive summary, usually the only thing policymakers and politicians read at all.

Coastal areas everywhere "are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion, due to climate change and sea-level rise, and the effect will be exacerbated by increasing human-induced pressures on coastal areas." In addition, "many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise by the 2080s. Those densely populated and low-lying areas where adaptive capacity is relatively low, and which already face other challenges such as tropical storms or local coastal subsidence, are especially at risk."

Africa, in particular, is in trouble. By 2020, "between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to an increase of water stress." Even worse, "agricultural production, including access to food ... is projected to be severely compromised" and "the area suitable for agriculture, the length of growing seasons and yield potential, particularly along the margins of semiarid and arid areas, are expected to decrease. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition in the continent." All told, the IPCC confirms that "Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity," and while there are some efforts underway to adapt to its changing environmental situation, they "may be insufficient."

Asia fares no better. Himalayan glacier melt will flood surrounding areas, and eventually rob them of river flows altogether. Freshwater availability in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia is "expected to decrease" and "could adversely affect more than a billion people by the 2050s." Meanwhile, developing Asian countries are in for everything from decreased crop yields and compromised sustainable development to "endemic morbidity and mortality due to diarrhoeal disease."

Australia and New Zealand? Forget about it. Like Africa, they're already under siege. In January 2007, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a Kyoto Protocol holdout and not exactly an environmental progressive, announced a $10 billion package to tackle his country's water scarcity as it tried to survive its sixth consecutive year of drought. In reality, the package was a program designed to nationalize the country's water system, a strange move for a Western power as in love with privatization as its cousins in the United Kingdom and America. Perhaps he was moved by the report released by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation explaining that Sydney, perhaps Australia's most recognized region, would fall into a state of permanent drought by 2027 (the year Cuaron's Children of Men takes place) if its citizenry did not cut their water consumption by 50 percent. The rest of the country may share the same fate.

Speaking of permanent droughts, the United States fares no better in Earth's payback war on humanity's maddening reliance on dinosaur waste. A recent report from Columbia University published online in the journal Science warned that Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and California are in for water wars and mass migrations that would creep even Cuaron out. Everyone relying on the Colorado River, which is all of the aforementioned states and their citizens, would be exchanging blows and bullets trying to stave off dehydration, and that's just those that stayed behind. Those migrating out of the cities would have to fight for space for those whose states they are migrating to, creating refugee and rights crises wherever they traveled. Country-to-country migration would only be worse. You saw these "fugees" everywhere in Children of Men: They were in cages, on buses, in body bags.

The IPCC has nothing nice to say to America either. According to its fourth report, the latest in a series that has been ignored by the White House since 2001, "warming in Western mountains is projected to cause decreased snowpack, more winter flooding, and reduced summer flows, exacerbating competition for overallocated water resources." Meanwhile, "pests, diseases, and fire are projected to have increasing impacts on forests, with an extended period of high fire risk and large increases in area burned."

According to the National Weather Service, Los Angeles is going through its longest dry spell in 130 years, which is, conveniently enough, when it decided to start keeping track of such things. The world at large just survived its hottest winter on record.

And if you feel like reaching for that trusty maxim about how global warming isn't a human-influenced phenomenon, feel on this: The IPCC's already killed that lame canard. It was in the last report, the one that talked specifically about how global warming is accelerating at an exponential rate due to, you guessed it, human influence.

The fact that we actually needed the report is a headache for most progressives, who have been reading the tea leaves on this long before the Bush Administration came on board with a plan that the Guardian UK literally outed as smoke and mirrors: "[The U.S. government says] research into techniques such as giant mirrors in space or reflective dust pumped into the atmosphere would be 'important insurance' against rising emissions, and has lobbied for such a strategy to be recommended by a major U.N. report on climate change." That U.N. report in question? None other than the one produced by the IPCC.

Indeed, the United States has been doing all it can to avoid reality by replacing it with such hyperrealities. The smoke-and-mirrors salve isn't as ludicrous as the Bush Administration's aborted attempts to name their Iraq campaign Operation Iraqi Liberation (Get it? O.I.L.?), but its refusal to mandate CO2 caps is, as is Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman's rationale for it: "There is a concern within this Administration, which I support, that the imposition of a carbon cap in this country would--may--lead to the transfer of jobs and industry abroad (to nations) that do not have such a carbon cap." In other words, job migration is worthy of full Administration support. The mass migration of that Administration's citizenry? Not so much.

That the economic rationale trumps the human one should come as no surprise to anyone with a sense of American history, or anyone who has seen "Children of Men." In the former case, this country was built by immigrants capitalizing, in every sense, on slave labor. In the latter, it is clear that Cuaron's dystopia is primarily about an economic collapse, where the haves and the have-nots are separated more than ever by bullets, bombs, bars and blind luck. In both cases, you are left with a simulation of epic proportions, one that speaks volumes about the lengths humanity will go before it is forced to face reality. And that's a circularity that can stop a brain dead in its tracks.

What you can do:

First off, know this: According to the IPCC, whatever you do today is great, but it won't stop any of this unless everyone does it, and then we do even smarter things. That'll take centuries. By doing the following, you're cleaning up the climate for those who will call you an ancestor.

Kill your carbons.

Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth site has a calculator (www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator) that can help you do just that, but the short version is this: Walk, don't drive, wherever you can. Get a hybrid. Take the train. Research your community's mass transit system, and bitch like hell if you don't have one. Find out how green your building is. Switch from incandescent to fluorescent bulbs. Beg your boss to let you telecommute. Better yet, ride a bike. Or a skateboard. Or use your feet.

Smarten up.

According to a recent report, 13 percent of Americans don't even know what global warming is. Tell everyone you know what you know and what you're doing. Read everything you can. Find a online news site worth a damn, hopefully a green one. (I recommend www.treehugger.com). Help your elders change their light incandescent bulbs and recycle their trash. Stop buying bottled water.

Harass public servants.

More and more, politicians are reliant upon Internet-savvy youth to get ahead, so give them hell if they don't do what you want. Harass them by snail, by email, by blog and by phone. Especially by phone. Get to the point with them when you call. Research who is funding them, then launch a blog or a boycott and tell them you did. Most importantly, start at your hood. Find out where your city comes from, where it gets its water, which corporations own it (stop laughing), whether or not it has an environmental policy at all.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared in Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

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