Climate change: The global Jenga game – The Hill

It has been 34 years, an entire generation, since the U.S. government’s top climate scientist warned Congress the planet was warming with potentially dire consequences. “It is already happening now,” Dr. James Hansen testified in 1988. “It is time to stop waffling.” Scientists have struggled ever since to communicate this to the public and government officials.

Scientists and their translators have explained the pollution from burning fossil fuels is collecting above the Earth, where it acts like the glass in a greenhouse and holds the sun’s heat close to the planet’s surface — the “greenhouse effect.” Or they have described the gases as an invisible blanket covering the Earth and getting thicker with every ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) civilization emits.

But before metaphors and analogies can explain climate change, audiences must be open to hearing about it. Unfortunately, the message is not good news. Many people with the power to do something about global warming have not listened because it’s easier to deny a harsh reality than it is to fix it.

Those of us who try to break through the communications barrier about climate change get fixated on that crisis and fail to point out an even harsher reality: Climate change is only one manifestation of adverse human impacts on nature. What’s really at risk is the biosphere — the atmosphere, the hydrosphere (oceans), and the lithosphere (the Earth’s solid surface). These are where all life on the planet exists, working together like the organs in our bodies.

The best metaphor for this is the popular game Jenga. Players build a tower out of blocks, then take turns removing them one at a time. The loser is the person who removes the block that topples the tower.

With industrialization and population growth, civilization has been pulling blocks out of the Jenga tower for centuries, including many vital to the structure’s integrity. The disturbing reality that many people don’t want to accept, or even hear about, is that the hospitable Earth we have known for the last 10,000 to 12,000 years is on the verge of collapse.

Some years ago, the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University convened 28 renowned scientists to identify the planet’s “safe operating spaces” and the boundaries humankind can’t cross without creating large-scale, abrupt, irreversible changes in the biosphere. The team came up with nine critical spaces. Only one is climate change. Others include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, land-use changes and freshwater losses.

Geologists believe the human impact on the biosphere is so extensive that it has created a new era in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history. They have proposed calling it the Anthropocene, a term signifying that humankind is now the most influential and destructive force on Earth. The evidence, which ranges from plastic pollution to the fallout of nuclear weapons testing, reads like an indictment of modern civilization because that’s what it is. Humanity is on trial, with little time left to fix things before the verdict is in and the planet imposes its most severe penalty.

We must answer some questions if we are generous enough to care about the future. What happens if we remove the biodiversity block, the freshwater block or the block representing fertile soils? What if we remove the blocks representing the Earth’s carbon and water cycles or the oceans’ chemistry? For that matter, how many blocks do we dare add to the tower’s top to represent the human population’s growth?

If the U.S. Congress, other world leaders and the general population had heeded Hansen’s warning about climate change 34 years ago, we could have made the necessary corrections with much less expense and disruption. Instead, the use of fossil fuels over the last three decades has made the blanket thicker, while urbanization, agriculture, deforestation and pollution have moved us closer to the planet’s boundaries.

The Jenga tower is teetering while we blithely remove its blocks. Its loss of stability is too gradual to shock us awake. But all life will suffer when it collapses. Here the Jenga analogy falls apart because, unlike the game, we will not be able to rebuild the structure and start over.

This is not a message that political leaders, policymakers or friends and neighbors want to hear. It’s the ultimate inconvenient truth. And yet, pulling civilization back from collapse would be the present generation’s most precious gift to our progeny, the biosphere and the incredibly beautiful web of life.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.


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