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|Written by Mike Soron|
|Monday, 09 July 2012 00:00|
Humanity's disruption of the climate is the greatest adventure in our history. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are a participant in the most massively multi-player game of all time. Seven billion of us are playing a game like no other—and with terminal stakes. The game board is global in scope; the timeline measured in centuries. There are heroes and villains; players who trumpet fantastical myths, others who proclaim or deny grim warnings. A few players promise world-changing magics that could save or destroy us all. There are acts of bravery and of suicidal madness, secret factions colluding, and popular armies working to unseat corrupt power. Anthropogenic global warming is a perilous, defining adventure and it is both our burden and privilege to be a part of it.
Like any good adventure, ours is filled with dangerous possibility and uncertainty. What we know for certain is that global warming is happening, it is caused by human action, and it demands an extraordinary and urgent response. Thinking about global warming as a massive, shared adventure—with real risk and danger—can help us understand our situation. It can also help define our own roles, and recognize the consequences of our gameplay.
Launching our Adventure
Looking back, it is easy to understand why this was done by our forebears, who unwittingly set in motion our current adventure. The energy return on energy invested from extracting and burning fossil fuels was extraordinary. It is no wonder that it seemed like a time of magic. A small effort at the 19th century oil fields in Ontario or Baku returned fantastical power and possibility because of the energy density of fossil fuels. A task that would have taken thousands of person hours could now be done with a few dozen litres of fuel. It was as if humanity had entered a cheat code. From Imperial Russia to pre-ConfederationCanada, societies "levelled up" with easy energy. This upgrade let us achieve comfort, speed, power, and security as we never had before.
The long-adhered to strategy of burning fossils for energy now poses an apocalyptic threat to all of us born into the already running massively-multiplayer game. Our fossil-based adventure has dramatically changed the composition of the atmosphere, filling it with heat-trapping gasses emitted by the burning of coal, oil, and gas. And the most accessible sources of fuel are tapped out.
In our pursuit of scarcer fossil fuels, we are performing feats unimaginable until recently:
With adventuresome abandon, we are now using fantastical, planet-smashing tools to reshape our surroundings and gain control over what's left of this fossilized power. We have become weird, energy-crazed magicians and siege engineers, with secret potions to pull reluctant gases up from underground, and explode the tops of mountains.
Great power comes at a cost
Research and writing on why these astonishing acts are so ill-advised are staggeringly numerous. More energy is often expended on fossil fuels than returned, their impacts on people and communities are devastating, and emissions from burning them are hazardously warming the planet.
Yet, we are still racing into disaster, not from it. NASA scientist James Hansen recently warned that if we do nothing to stop projects like the Athabasca tar sands it is "game over for the climate". Hansen, like others, points to a grim future for our shared adventure. If we do not change our strategy, Hansen warns, "civilization would be at risk".
In the long term, Hansen anticipates a climate more extreme than in the Pliocene era, when sea levels were at least 50 feet higher than today. Scientists project semi-permanent droughts, raging wildfires, food riots, deadly heat waves and storms, and the destruction of coastal cities. Gwynne Dyer writes that a few thousand people huddled together around a warm Arctic Ocean on an otherwise inhospitable planet will be a likely future if we do not adjust course. Sounds like quite the adventure, no?
Yet, this is not just a problem for the future; it is not some curse that we leave to our children. Evidence of our adventure is all around us. The United States and the Middle East are battling unimagined droughts, food riots spark revolutions, melting permafrost is belching methane, heat waves smash through recorded highs every week, and bridges, homes and people are washed away by hundred-year floods that now return every year.
The long game is one of survival; our immediate mission to make the world safer and more resilient. So how well are we playing?
Like in most games, there is a score. For our purposes, the score is the atmospheric concentration of carbon—and by that measure, we are losing. Atmospheric carbon has risen from 280 parts per million to 396 ppm over the last 150 years. The last time concentrations of atmospheric carbon were this high, a UCLA scientist tells us, "global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland."
At a certain concentration of carbon, the planet will be warm enough to trigger feedback loops that create runaway climate change. The deeply conservative IEA warns that climate change will be irreversible by 2017 if we do not take aggressive action. Others suggest it may already be "running away" from us, pointing to melting, methane-rich permafrost and decaying forests - killed by warming - morphing from carbon sinks to carbon sources.
Unprecedented risk and bizarre, unfamiliar dangers are now permanent parts of our lives. They are not side missions or optional quests: this is the main challenge. If you are a gamer or one for adventure, this is unquestionably the most significant, most massively-multiplayer challenge we have ever faced. While the response to anthropogenic global warming is indeed an intimidating project on a planetary scale more of us are "suiting up," joining together, and jumping into the fray.
Thankfully, scientists and other researchers methodically work to better understand our predicament and develop tools and strategies to reduce the danger we are in. Less harmful technologies are being developed and policies and practices promoted to put them to use. Journalists and whistleblowers seek to expose corrupt power and disrupt those who oppose urgently needed change. People are organizing, individuals are reducing the impact of their own lives, and groups are helping others adapt to the changes and disruptions around us. Many do this under intimidation and threat of deadly violence and we must celebrate their courage. Players bravely working to protect our communities and stabilize the climate are also spied on, abused and jailed by factions with an interest in preserving the status quo.
Yet, they carry on. Heroically.
You log in, but you can never log out
Whether you choose to be inspired to action by this persistence and courage is up to you. You can choose to only play a minor role, to be a sprite in the background.
But you cannot log out of this adventure.
All the planet's a game; and all its people players. It began before we were born and will carry on for generations after we die. Every action we take affects our score and the prospect and conditions of our survival. What once was a quest to improve our lives through abundant energy has become an urgent struggle to stop the runaway disruption of our one (and only) planetary game board.
Combatting global warming will be the most significant project humanity has yet undertaken. So, if you are looking for an epic adventure, suit up and start to play, because this is it.
Mike Soron is a writer, researcher and activist based in Vancouver, BC. Mike works toward resilient, just and low-carbon cities and communities that can prosper past the 21st century. Find Mike on Twitter.
Tags: activism, adventure, bp oil spill, canada, climate change, floods, gaming, global responsibility, global warming, intimidation, keeping score, mpg, multiplayer, pipelines, politics, protest, step up, suit up, take action, wake up