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Issue Date:  November 16, 2007

The world is about to change


For 15 years now, some small percentage of the world’s scientists, diplomats and activists has inhabited one of those strange dreams where the dreamer desperately needs to warn someone about something bad and imminent; but somehow, no matter how hard he shouts, the other person in the dream -- standing smiling, perhaps, with his back to an oncoming train -- can’t hear him.

This group, this small percentage, knows that the world is about to change more profoundly than at any time in the history of human civilization. And yet, so far, all they have achieved is to add another line to the long list of human problems -- people think about “global warming” in the way they think about “violence on television” or “growing trade deficits,” as a marginal concern to them, if a concern at all. Enlightened governments make smallish noises and negotiate smallish treaties; enlightened people look down on America for its blind piggishness. Hardly anyone, however, has fear in their guts.

Why? Because, I think, we are fatally confused about time and space. Though we know that our culture has placed our own lives on a demonic fast-forward, we imagine that the earth must work on some other timescale. The long slow accretion of epochs -- the Jurassic, the Cretaceous, the Pleistocene -- lulls us into imagining that the physical world offers us an essentially stable background against which we can run our race. Humbly, we believe that the world is big and that we are small. This humility is attractive, but also historic and no longer useful. In the world as we have made it, the opposite is true. Each of us is big enough, for example, to produce our own cloud of carbon dioxide. As a result, we -- our cars and our industry -- have managed to raise the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide, which had been stable at 275 parts per million throughout human civilization, to about 380 parts per million, a figure that is climbing by one and a half parts per million each year.

This increase began with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, and it has been accelerating ever since. The consequence, if we take a median from several respectable scientific projections, is that the world’s temperature will rise by five degrees Fahrenheit (roughly two and a half degrees Celsius) over the next hundred years, to make it hotter than it has been for 400 million years. At some level, these are the only facts worth knowing about our earth.

Reprinted with permission from Granta magazine.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2007

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