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Looking Ahead, Lookout Below

Perhaps some people still don't believe in global warming, but some people still think the Earth is flat, too.

Jeremy Russell

Wednesday, March 8 2000, 12:10 PM

If 1991 was "the year that punk broke," then 1998 should be remembered as the year that global warming broke. Technically, 1997 was the first year to win the dubious honor of being the "hottest year on record." But when 1998 topped every record that had been set in 1997, people really started to take notice. Perhaps some people still don't believe in global warming, but some people still think the Earth is flat, too. The central scientific debate is no longer whether or not the climate is warming, but what the effects of warming may be — a significant shift in perspective since the mid-90s.

I spent a couple of days at the end of February with a group of serious-minded law students from UC Berkeley's prestigious Ecology Law Quarterly (ELQ) and the expert panels they had assembled discussing the warming trend and also population expansion, environmental law, and public policy. The event was "Environment 2000 - New Issues for a New Century" and, although the speakers did their best to keep positive, the outlook is bleak. There was very little question among them that humans are a primary cause of global warming, with so many billions of us using resources so inefficiently. As moderator Kai Lee, Williams College professor of environmental studies and political science, remarked, "The human imprint darkens still further."

The basic problem that we will face in this century, if one looks beyond the environment for a moment, is the same problem that humans have faced since civilization was invented. That problem is regulating human behavior. And with several billion people now causing the extinction of 1,000 to 10,000 other species per year, the stakes are higher than at any other time in history. The basic questions of where will we put ourselves, how will we feed ourselves and what will we do to regulate our damaging actions are going to have to be answered.

Speakers who took a stab at answering these questions generally agreed that they are far too complicated to be addressed by top-down regulation, as the failure of the Kyoto Protocol demonstrated. Instead the speakers offered the concept of bioregionalism as the only viable option. This is regionalism defined not by arbitrary divisions but by ecosystems. A 'think locally, act globally' vision was touted as a possible way to make some significant gains. But, as William Clark, Harvard professor of international science, public policy and human development, was quick to point out, at this point the idea of actually avoiding a massive ecological crash through proactive action is not even on the agenda. By all reasonable projections, a massive and sudden systemic collapse of some kind is inevitable in the next seventy years. Perhaps, bioregionalism is what will follow yesterday's crash.

Several panelists suggested that corporate America is finally beginning to move towards a more environmental stance. After 1998, for instance, the infamous Global Climate Coalition (how do you spell "denial"?) lost both Ford and Chrysler. Speakers lauded many corporations for moving faster than the speed of regulation, which is not too much of a surprise since regulation is notoriously slow. The bottom line is that we have to do our best to ease the labor pains of our mutant future. The polluters have to be brought on board and coerced one way or another into obedience, and that task may be easier with the carrot than the stick.

This was a symposium for environmental lawyers, and they will be working either with or for corporations in the future, so it's good that they get constructive and applicable advice. The concerned but disenfranchised, on the other hand, have little choice but to keep up the adversarialism that reared up at the WTO meeting in Seattle. And maybe it'll do some good. Sherwood Rowland, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the Ozone Hole, noted to several of us over dinner at the close of the conference: "clearly adaptation will be necessary, because there's nothing we can do to stop these processes."

What he meant by adaptation, I shudder to think.

Jeremy Russell is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective 

Copyright © 2000 by Jeremy Russell. All rights reserved.