The Climate Change in Our Veins

"At night I could hear the blood in my veins,
It was just as black and whispering as the rain,
On the streets of Philadelphia.
"

Bruce Springsteen, 'Streets of Philadelphia', 1994

My father was diagnosed with cancer at the end of the year 2000 and his doctors gave him just 12 months to live. They put him on chemotherapy in a bid to extend his life but in February 2002, he succumbed in something of a flurry, at home, in my arms.

Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" had been a big hit in Australia and it made a big impression on me; Tom Hanks' star performance in the movie, Philadelphia, too. When my dad was battling his cancer, I'd listen to the song over and over, striving to make sense of it, grappling to understand what it must be like to hear your blood in your veins, knowing that it was at once giving you life while simultaneously carrying the disease that would kill you. I imagined a terrible, desperate despair.

I'm starting to feel again like I did during my father's illness. I'm listening again to Springsteen's song. This time I'm hearing the blood in my own veins and it's tainted not by a privately borne disease but by climate change, the terrible malady affecting all humanity, all life on earth.

On Saturday, 9th April, I saw a tweet announcing CO2 levels at 407ppm. It wasn't so long ago that we all worried at breaching 400 yet here we are surging toward and presumably beyond the troublesome 450. I read about the extensive coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, acidification from CO2 and high temperatures doing for the little animals. 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded by an absolute mile and the trend has continued into 2016 with the maximum extent of Arctic ice the lowest ever recorded. Polar bears are starving.

Methane is bubbling up in an Australian river, local communities worrying that release of the highly potent greenhouse gas has dramatically increased because of nearby coal seam gas extraction. There are huge holes appearing in the Arctic permafrost and scientists now believe they're caused by explosive methane release brought on by rising temperatures. Ice caps and glaciers everywhere are melting. At the start of the year we had fires in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area, a place dear to my heart, ancient trees and alpine vegetation scorched and killed. "Lighting strikes," my forestry mates assured, "a natural phenomenon, don't stress." True enough about lightning being natural but this was lightning falling on land parched by hot and dry weather caused by humans; I felt responsible.

Tasmania's fires followed the devastation of more than 2 million forested hectares across Indonesia; people taking advantage of hot, dry conditions to set everything ablaze to clear for palm oil plantations, poisoning people and biodiversity like never before. Listening to my beloved Science Show on Australia's ABC Radio National last November, Robyn Williams introduced Dr Reese Halter who catalogued the slow collapse of the world's forests, dying on every continent from way too hot temperatures and associated insect infestations, intense wildfires and vicious droughts. Oh, and we're busy cutting a lot of them down too.

Just today I learned from colleagues that it's not a good time to visit Indian farmers, they're too busy worrying about the lack of rains to nourish their crops. I've long wondered if the world might finally take climate change seriously when failure of the Indian monsoon threatened the lives of one billion people; suffer the children.

Meanwhile we have the madness of the US election and politicians in my Australian homeland doing everything they can to achieve new levels of stupid when it comes to even considering climate change.

Two weeks ago I went to a stakeholder convening where NGOs and experts gathered to advise Nestlé on where they thought the food giant should focus its efforts to create shared value throughout its business. Hats off to the company for being so open but I left feeling dispirited and at a loss. The assembled stakeholders urged Nestlé to do more to assure farmer nutrition and to empower women, quite rightly, but I found myself increasingly disturbed that no one was talking about climate change. As lunchtime approached and mindful that Nestlé's CEO would depart, I found myself reaching for the microphone, "Dead farmers don't need to worry about nutrition" I suggested to the stunned group, and added that "Dead women don't need empowering," for extra affect. I reminded them that greenhouse gas emissions were surging and that unless we reigned in climate change, we wouldn't have to worry about farmers and women because they won't make it. After lunch, discussion turned back to food and empowerment, Ho Hum.

The world's best climate models are predicting we're on track for a 6oC warming, a point at which it is acknowledged that no large mammals can live on the planet. "You've all got that large mammal look about you," I reminded Nestlé's stakeholders.

We're in trouble.

People point to the Paris Agreement as a wonderful breakthrough. It was a breakthrough but that only demonstrates how little has been done until now. World leaders drew up an agreement that they said, if implemented, would keep temperature rise to 1.5oC. That all sounds great until you realise we're already there. Paris was human arrogance gone wild, only the latest nadir in our collective irresponsibility. Do we really think we have so much control over the planet that we can dial up our desired global temperature settings like an air conditioner in our living room? Only yesterday I read yet another headline shouting that experts have found new data to suggest global warming may be far worse than thought. Researchers report that they've vastly underestimated the role that clouds play and new models point to a 5.3oC warming. Paris, nothing more than an effort at crowd control from politicians worrying for their necks, is already out the window.

Back in 2013, researchers suggested a new scenario for what had unfolded on Easter Island. The common, convenient view until then had been that the Islanders had deforested themselves to a horrid existence and much death, to the point where their clearly advanced society had collapsed. The new research surmised that rats that had arrived on the island with the first Polynesian colonisers had caused the deforestation that led to severe ecological decline. As their environment deteriorated, Easter Islanders adjusted and developed clever means of enduring until Europeans arrived with their diseases and subsequently decimated the population.

This new finding has important implications for where we are today. Writing for NPR, Robert Krulwich noted that humans are very adaptable.

"We've seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant, animal after animal, forgetting what we once enjoyed, adjusting to lesser circumstances, never shouting "That's It!" - always making do, I wouldn't call that "success.""

Krulwich quotes author J.B. MacKinnon from his book, The Once and Future World: "If you're waiting for an ecological crisis to persuade human beings to change their troubled relationship with nature - you could be waiting a long, long time."

As our life support systems progress toward collapse, we continue walking streets enduring, waiting, worrying over our immediate day to day concerns or, like Nestlé's stakeholders, grappling with problems that are very real, in urgent need of attention but that will only be exacerbated unto death unless we turn climate change around.

I once wondered if humans would finally wake up and take the urgent steps needed to turn away from this fearful course. My worry is that unlike on Easter Island where a low quality life endured, with climate change and 6oC, there can be no life, not even a life of poor quality. Might we endure not just to suffering but to death and total demise, taking so many other innocents with us?

We lost Tom Hanks' character in Philadelphia, dying in the arms of his beloved. Today, we cradle our own lives in our arms, not in any movie but in real, raw life. As long as blood still runs in our veins we have hope, but that blood carries indifference, the disease that could ultimately kill us. We're fast running out of time to treat it and my despair is that we don't appear to have the inclination.