by Frank Sherman
A few years back Chris and I went to the Grand Canyon. Gas was cheap and we had a full size rental car: we were kings of the road. We were determined to go right to the edge. For anyone who has been there, the Grand Canyon is a photo-op like no other. The funny thing is the Grand Canyon is so immense that it is hard to fully appreciate its power and meaning until you stand at the brink.
We were determined to get that photo. We even got a couple, who pulled into the parking lot with their RV about the same time, to snap our picture. They were well meaning and willing to go along with our request. The wife had us backs to the rail, telling us to get closer to the edge so she could get a better shot. That’s when Chris looked backward and saw just how close to the edge we were and said we were flirting with disaster.
We got the photo, but it was unnerving to say the least.
I think about our experience as a parable for what we collectively do in the face of our changing global climate. We flirt with disaster, we allow ourselves to go right to the edge of an ecological abyss before realizing how far we have to fall, and when that fall begins, there is no turning back until we hit the bones of extinction at the bottom of the canyon. We haven’t jumped yet, although we have pushed some other species over the edge.
The world scientific community is in agreement about the pace of global climate change. It is no longer a debate about whether it is or is not happening. It is no longer a debate about whether change is happening naturally or caused by humans. The climate is always in a state of change, and the action of humans, starting roughly with the industrial era have set in motion a continually increasing chain of climate events that have disrupted the equilibrium of our global climate system. We have inadvertently pushed the feedback loop button, and no one can agree which is the OFF switch. The climate is changing. In many places it is not for the better. We collectively are creeping to the edge of the cliff; flirting with disaster.
Bill McKibben is perhaps our most eloquent spokesperson for where we are heading. Although he must feel like the GPS voice telling us to “turn right here” as we sail past the off-ramp, barreling down a highway we really do not want to be on. His refrain is the same; “recalculating, recalculating, recalculating”. McKibben’ s excellent piece in July’s Rolling Stone lays out what the scientific community now knows, but what the political community cannot bring themselves to acknowledge; The climate is changing rapidly, the global atmosphere is getting warmer due to increasing levels of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases, we are activating feedback loops over which we have little or no control. We are flirting with disaster.
McKibben sums up the math and science: the world scientific community believes that we must collectively keep the increase in global temperatures to below two degrees Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the current location of the edge of the cliff, and the benchmark that forward thinking world leaders endorsed in 2009. As McKibben says “It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets”. Yet even with this knowledge, American political and business interests are driving the bus straight towards the cliff, in spite of the repeated “turn right here” warnings and a goodly amount of the passengers yelling to stop the bus. Perhaps we are not yelling loud enough.
Chris and I went to the Grand Canyon nine years ago. We saw the edge and were alternately thrilled and horrified. We walked away in awe of what nature can achieve. Nature and the world will get along just fine without humans. It will restore itself to a state of equilibrium, that soothing hum of balance amidst fluxuation and change. Humankind on the other hand continues to live recklessly in the face of knowledge that we should act otherwise. If it were simple to change, we would have by now. But it is not, and our collective actions and inactions are unleashing global changes that we will not be able to control. The closer we creep to the edge, the harder it is to step away from the global climate consequences of our actions. Do we have the moral and political will to change course? Or will we continue to flirt with disaster?
Frank Sherman is an architect and green consultant based in Philadelphia PA. Frank is East Coast managing partner of Alpine Green Solutions, a national green building and energy efficiency consulting company, and maintains a design and consulting practice Terrain Consulting+Design focused on green building design and construction. Frank is a green building expert, educator with Cleanedison, and aspiring beekeeper.