Archive for September, 2010

Cassandra Syndrome

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Cassandras are prophets who speak the truth, yet no one seems to listen.

The original Cassandra had a very hard and frustrating life. She was the king of Troy’s daughter at the time of the Trojan War. The god Apollo liked her, and gave her the gift of foretelling the future. Unfortunately, she didn’t much like Apollo, so he twisted his gift to her: in her prophecies, she would still speak the truth, but no one would believe her. After the war, Agamemnon took her home with him as a concubine, where – as she knew would happen – his wife Clytemnestra killed her.

Death of Cassandra (

Perhaps most prophets are unlikely to be believed, but it is most discouraging when their predictions are based on mountains of hard data. With increasing detail and breadth of evidence, environmental scientists have been warning us for two decades or more about the immense impact of global warming and the climate destabilization associated with it. They are the Cassandras of our times, for those who have the power to take action have chosen not to believe them.

Do you remember The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in a few volumes in 2005, involving more than 1300 scientists from around the world? It clearly documented the declining health of the planet, and explored in several distinct scenarios the major options we have. By far the bleakest was the take-no-action ‘business-as-usual’, scenario, which none of the authors expected would occur. But business-as-usual it has remained.

Considering the bad press of a year ago, you probably do remember the 4th Assessment Report published in 2007 by the
International Panel on Climate Change. Another huge multi-national, multi-authored effort, it got a couple of its facts wrong, but it also clearly presented the evidence for current rapid climate change. It almost certainly has underestimated the rate of change that is occurring. Yet, at least in North America, it has been ignored.

The 5th IPCC Report is underway, due in 2013 (

And who can forget the embarrassing and disastrous outcome of the ‘take-no-action’ UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December?

Many books of course have also been published. The most popular was The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. He followed it up with Now or Never in 2009. He has been a fluent and tireless critic of the inaction of the global community.

Tim Flannery

Gus Speth, one of the most experienced environmentalists on the planet, with the ear of US presidents over the past decades, has written two remarkable books, Red Sky at Morning , where he pointed out the ways we could have dealt with some of the challenges, and several years later with Bridge at the End of the World, where it was clear he feared how little time we have left to do anything meaningful. He initiated the unusually useful website environment360

Gus Speth

Have any policies changed? Not in the US, or Canada.

David Orr, in his more recent book Down to the Wire once again raised the familiar issues and their discouraging causes, but since time has passed, the challenges are both clearer and larger. As the time we have left to respond grows ever shorter, the necessary response grows ever larger and more complex.

Since just saying it is now too late to do anything useful is hardly a helpful message, Orr calls for transformative change – of how we govern ourselves, of our consumerism, of our use of energy and fossil fuel resources. He calls for an end of war and violence, and for global cooperation, as we become submerged in a long emergency for planet Earth.

David Orr

He says we have run out of time to do anything less, but that we do have the capacity to act. So will the US Congress finally listen? Will the Canadian Parliament begin to show some leadership? Will the massive corporate world recognize its responsibilities?

At some point, our environmental prophets will have to be believed, and cease to be Cassandras.
How do we get there?

Rising Seas

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Some places are, geographically, really unlucky.

The Marshall Islands, a Micronesian nation of 30 low atolls in the South Pacific, scattered half way between Hawaii and Australia, is such a place.

The Marshall Islands (

The islands were colonized unsuccessfully by Germany in the late 1800s. Japan claimed them in 1914, prepared them for war, then defended and lost them in the famous and horrible battle for the largest atoll, Kwajalein, in 1944. Though the UN made them part of a trust US territory in 1947, life did not get much easier.

Two of the atolls, Bikini and Eniwetok became the famous sites of US tests of both atomic and hydrogen bombs, and iconic footage of the tests are well known. Bikini inhabitants were ‘translocated’, and both atolls have remained uninhabited because of residual radioactive contamination.

Atomic bomb test, Bikini Atoll (

Frame of photo is 14 miles wide (

The bomb testing ceased in 1958, but Kwajalein has remained a US military base, and the US has continued to test missiles there – for a long time, lobbing them over from California into the Kwajalein lagoon.

Kwajalein Atoll - airport and lagoon (

Though the Marshall Islands became sort of independent in 1986, it remains reliant on the US for economic aid, and the US military have certainly not lost interest. Colonization, war, bomb tests, relocation, missile testing. Not an attractive picture, but apparently the cost of being sparsely populated and as far from the curious eyes of the rest of the world as one can get.

And now a new problem has arisen. Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the atolls. Tidal surges known a King Tides inundate shorelines, saltwater intrudes into the very limited cropland, shortages of potable water occur, coastal erosion increases, coral reefs deteriorate, and tourist sites are lost, while dependence on US aid, including processed food imports, continues to grow.

Sea levels have risen as a result of thermal expansion.

The leaders of the Marshall Islands have begun asking some critical questions. They recognize that global carbon emissions will not be stabilized any time soon, and that the warming seas will continue to rise, a result of thermal expansion. If they have to abandon their islands, is that the end of it? Do they still have rights as citizens of an abandoned country? Will they lose their rights to the fisheries and other resources granted them by the UN Law of the Sea? Who do they become?

They have asked their questions of Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School. His remarkable response has been to organize a conference to be held in May, 2011. This is an excellent move. It should raise the legal issues, give them context, perhaps suggest some solutions. At the least it will focus world attention on a problem that is going to grow relentlessly over the next century.


The island nation, Tuvalu, is perhaps the most vulnerable of all (

But who among the global powers really care about disappearing island nations – Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Maldives, Vanuatu, Fiji, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands? We shall see. But then there are the threatened Bangladesh lowlands, the Florida Keys and Everglades, 11 of the world’s 15 largest cities, and all the other estuaries on the planet.

Environmental migrants, within and between nations, are a certainty of our global future. As we appear increasingly to be incapable of preventing such catastrophes, adaptation is all we have left. Some of us will migrate, others of us will absorb the migrants, and we will struggle on, dealing with a mess that never should have happened.

Still, we must prepare, and seek a humane way through this. The conference at Columbia is a start, and the Marshall Island leaders are doing their job.

Marshall Islands: paradise lost? (