Global Warming and Carbon Dioxide Ethics

Humanity is converting the Earth into a gas chamber by pouring lethal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The consequences are profound: Scientists estimate that in less than a single lifetime from now, we will be living in a planet far different from anything that our ancestors have experienced over the past two million years. Bill McKibben's widely read article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," tells our story with the stark simplicity of three numbers:

  • Global warming by 2 degrees Centigrade or 3.6 Fahrenheit is considered the threshold for catastrophe by the vast majority of the scientific community. This is a key tipping point. To cross the 2-degree threshold is to place humanity's future in grave danger.

  • We will rapidly reach this threshold if we place more than an additional 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere. At current rates, we will reach this level within 16 years! Indeed, we are now on a nightmare track to raise the Earth's temperature by 6 degrees Centigrade or nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.
  • The third critical number is the amount of carbon dioxide contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves remaining in the ground. Companies and countries rich with these fossil fuels are planning to burn an astonishing five times more than the critical threshold of carbon dioxide or nearly 2,800 gigatons.
  • How does mainstream science interpret these numbers? The following quotes are taken from the highly respected scientific journal, Nature. "The mean global temperature by 2070 (or a few decades earlier) will be higher than it ever has since the human species evolved." Humans are now forcing a transition with "the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience." "The net effect is that once a critical transition occurs, it is extremely difficult or even impossible for the system to return to its previous state." We are less than a single generation from crossing climate thresholds that will move the world into unprecedented chaos and devastation.

    In the past, the Earth's atmosphere was filled with a benevolent and congenial mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and other gases that have enabled life to flourish. We are radically changing the mixture and tipping the Earth into a new condition: The oceans are turning acidic and dying; prolonged droughts and historic floods from weather extremes are becoming the norm; heat waves beyond the tolerance of people, plants, and animals are more frequent; more powerful hurricanes and storms are spreading, tropical diseases are expanding into warmer zones and, eventually, a sea level rise will flood coastal cities around the world and produce massive migrations of people, animals, and plants. A climate crisis of this magnitude will result in massive crop failures, famines, food riots, and the breakdown of societies.

    Within a matter of decades, vast areas of the Earth are expected to no longer support human habitation or the plants and animals that have lived there for millennia. We cannot say we were not warned. Two decades ago, in 1992, some 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued a "Warning to Humanity" that concluded with the following sentence: "A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated." Clearly, the human community has not made a "great change" in our stewardship of the Earth and the biosphere of our planet is now being irretrievably mutilated!

    What are the ethics of irretrievably mutilating an entire planet? When will humanity express its moral outrage that it is wrong to devastate an entire planet for countless generations to come, just to satisfy the consumer desires of a fraction of humanity for a single lifetime? The Earth is our only home in our journey through the universe. What are the ethics of ruining our precious home within the space of a single generation? This generation of humans is committing "eco-cide" or the murder of the Earth's environment. This means we are committing more than an unimaginable crime against future generations of humans: We are committing the murder of a large portion of the Earth's biosphere with all of her animals and plants. How can this generation explain its inconceivable disregard for future generations and allow such a tragedy to unfold?

    This is runaway insanity! Where are the national and global political leaders of the Earth? For decades they have done little more than talk while we drift toward catastrophe. Where is the mass media that has a responsibility to inform the public they serve? They are abdicating their responsibilities and using adolescent entertainment to promote a superficial, consumerist lifestyle of ruin. Where is the ethical voice of our churches and great religious institutions? Many are preaching a gospel of material success as God's reward for the faithful. Where are the great educational institutions in this debate over humanity's future? Locked into narrow disciplines that ignore the global system in its wholeness, interactivity and vulnerability. Where are the psychologists and psychiatrists that work daily with delusional and insane individuals? Too ill-informed about our collective psychosis to step forth to declare the utter insanity of our inaction. Every major institution and profession with the responsibility to be awake, mature and engaged is, instead, either enabling or ignoring the Earth's slide into disaster.

    What words are adequate to awaken ourselves? What is the expression of moral outrage that is equal to our suicidal destruction of the biosphere? Perhaps the penetrating language of Frederick Douglas can break through our malaise. Douglas escaped from slavery in 1838 and became an important American social reformer, writer and statesman. His words come from another era but seem fitting for our times as well:

    "At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! Had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced."
    -- Frederick Douglass

    Feelings of rage and revenge for destroying our future are mixed with feelings of helplessness, victimization, futility, and shame. There is a more promising path for us! We can change our drift toward climate disaster into a future of opportunity and great transition. We can awaken our collective imagination and discover new narratives that serve as beacons for guiding us into a promising future. We can also summon the common sense of people around the world and give voice to our collective sanity. In an earlier blog I wrote about a new superpower that is rapidly emerging -- an "Earth Voice" movement that mobilizes the voice and conscience of the world's citizens through the global communications revolution. With new stories of our time of great transition supported by new tools of mass communication, we can cultivate a new level of collective consciousness that can transform our path of creating a gas chamber Earth into a path of sustainable prosperity.

    Duane Elgin is a speaker, author and trans-partisan activist for media accountability. He is the author of "Voluntary Simplicity," "The Living Universe," "Promise Ahead," and other books. Please visit his website, for free articles and videos on thriving in these challenging times.