Posted 11 months ago on Feb. 27, 2014, 3:40 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Interpreting the Climate Impasse: A View from Indo-America
Thursday, 27 February 2014 12:30 By Subhankar Banerjee, Climate Story Tellers | News Analysis
The two countries I know best are India and the US. I spent the first 22 years of my life in the former, and the following 24 in the latter, where I continue to live. Recently I returned home, after spending three months in India. The combination of what I saw there in plain view, and what I see here in America, may shed some light on—why we have arrived at the climate impasse.
Soon I'll get to—what is climate impasse, but first, here is what got me motivated to write this piece, before even I could recover from the jet lag.
As soon as I sat down in the shuttle van outside the Seattle airport, the discussion with fellow passengers turned to the severe snowstorm in the East Coast that killed at least 18 people. That day, all of us had contributed to global warming, in varying amount, through the burning of jet fuel, and then gasoline. It was February 13.
Scientists were quick to point out that the rapid warming of the Arctic will continue to cause longer and harsher winter over North America and northern Europe. The Arctic is warming at a rate of two to three times more than the rest of the planet. This has reduced the temperature differential between the cold Arctic air and the warm air from the south, causing the Arctic jet stream to weaken, and "meander, like a river heading off course."
That the Arctic is warming rapidly is not news anymore, nor is the melting of the Arctic sea ice, or Greenland ice sheets, or even the subsea methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
But have you heard about—Fires in February, in the far North?
Alaska gets few hours of sunlight during February—a bit more in the south, a bit less in the north; temperatures stay well below zero. During those cold, dark, long, winter nights, Alaskans are used to seeing, not dancing flames of forest fires, but instead, dancing curtains of—green, yellow, pink, red—aurora borealis. On 5 November 2001, I was lucky to photograph an extremely rare display of red aurora over the Brooks Range Mountains and the Hulahula River valley, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (here). The display was so intense that it was visible as far south as Alabama, Georgia and California. On seeing red in the sky people of the south had thought it was a terrorist attack and called the police department. In the Hulahula River valley, it was minus 50 degrees F; I got frostbite on my nose and three fingers.
Fran Mauer had worked as a biologist with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge office in Fairbanks, Alaska, for 23 years, until he retired in 2002. Over the past 14 years, for all things Arctic, I've reached out to him for advice. "There continues to be significant weather events that are out of the 'normal.' During January, Alaska experienced very warm temperatures and some all time records were broken," Fran wrote to me in an email on February 11. "Last week, the weather service had extreme fire warnings out for the Kenai lowlands and Anchorage area. The warm temperatures have melted the snow and dried the grasses and shrubs, creating extreme fire danger, as winds up to 80 mph were forecast. We are not used to having a fire season in February!" The exclamation mark in the end is Fran's, not mine.
Moreover, with a map (here), NASA's Earth Observatory has shown vividly how winter heat has swamped Alaska, from the Aleutian in the southeast, to the North Slope of the Arctic. "While much of the continental United States endured several cold snaps in January 2014, record–breaking warmth gripped Alaska. Spring–like conditions set rivers rising and avalanches tumbling," NASA reports.
The winter heat in Alaska and the snowstorm in northeastern America—are likely linked through the Arctic warming. Additionally, these, and other recent extreme weather events, from around the globe, including drought in California and floods in the UK, should be understood and discussed within the context of a globally warmed Earth, in which extreme weather events aren't exceptions, it's the norm. Sequence of extreme weather events across geographies also happened in 2013, and in 2012, in 2011.
What is new this year, however, is the realization that we have arrived at a climate impasse. The US government hasn't done anything meaningful to address the climate crisis, despite lofty rhetoric from Obama. On the contrary, the government has done, what it can, to foil the international efforts to address the crisis. Recently leaked documents by Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA had spied on the delegates of other countries during the 2009 UN Climate Conference COP15 in Copenhagen. Moreover, last year Chris Williams made an assertion that "it was, after all, he [Obama], who was the lead protagonist in wrecking the international climate talks in Copenhagen." But why did the US wreck the Copenhagen climate talks? This will become clear a bit later. Additionally, the dismal failure of the subsequent UN climate negotiations has made abundantly clear that most nation states are not interested in solving the climate crisis, either. I'll call this collective global inaction—climate impasse.
The burning of—first coal, then oil and gas—since the beginning of industrialization in the mid 18th century, has brought us to the anthropogenic climate crisis that we now find ourselves in. We know this already.
What I'm urging us to consider now, is why we have arrived, not at the crisis, but at the impasse. There are three agents—the governments, the corporations, and the human animal—all are implicated, and interlinked in intricate ways, in the drama of this impasse.
The climate impasse is rooted, not simply in our dependence on a fossil fuel economy, but more broadly, in our love affair with mass consumption, made possible by global capitalism, and in our faith in Progress—that science and technology will forever improve the conditions of human life.
In this piece, I'll discuss mass consumption—with a view from India. I must admit though, that what I'm sharing with you here is not an in–depth social science analysis of mass consumption in contemporary India, but instead, what I saw during my three–months long sojourn there; a kind of breezy travelogue you might say.
India's road to—roads everywhere!
During my stay in India I had a chance to visit a few places—to see birds and animals, coffee and tea plantations, attend wedding receptions. Northeast, southeast, southwest, everywhere I went, I saw brand new roads, completed or being built. In Maharashtra, I saw dividers on four lane highways that were lined with plants, packed with magnificent flowers. Line of bullock carts carrying sugarcane on the highway, however, reminded me that I was indeed in India.
New roads everywhere—is the face of economic development in India, I was reminded, again and again. "What's an XUV," I inquired. "Don't you know? It's bigger than SUV," I was told. Fair enough. With great excitement a young person told me that before the end of this decade, India will become the third largest auto—producer or consumer, he wasn't sure which—in the world.