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The Age of Inhuman Scale: on the 'Bigness' of Climate Change

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

It was the stuff of fantasy, of repeated failed expeditions and dreams that wouldn't die.  I'm talking about the Northwest Passage, that fabled route through Arctic waters around North America.  Now, it's reality.  The first "bulk carrier," a Danish commercial freighter with a load of coal, just traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to Finland, cutting a week off its voyage, skipping the Panama Canal, and even, according to the Finnish steel maker Ruukki Metals, for whom the coal was intended, "reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings."

When dreams come true, it's time to celebrate, no?  Only in this case, under the upbeat news of the immediate moment lies a far larger nightmare.  Those expeditions from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries failed to find the Northwest Passage because Arctic sea ice made the voyage impossible.  There simply was no passage.  No longer.  Thanks to global warming, the melting of ice -- glaciers are losing an estimated 303 billion tons of the stuff annually worldwide -- staggers the imagination.  The Greenland ice shield is turning into runoff ever more rapidly, threatening significant sea level rise, and all of the melting in the cold north has, in turn, opened a previously nonexistent Northwest Passage, as well as a similar passage through Russia's Arctic waters.

None of this would have happened, as the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out in its latest report, if not for the way the burning of fossil fuels (like that coal the Nordic Orion took to Finland) has poured carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  In other words, we created that Arctic passage and made it commercially viable, thus ensuring that our world, the one we've known since the dawn of (human) time, will be ever less viable for our children and grandchildren.  After all, the Arctic with its enormous reservoirs of fossil fuels can now begin to be opened up for exploitation like so much of the rest of the planet.  And there can be no doubt about it: those previously unreachable reserves will be extracted and burned, putting yet more CO2 into the atmosphere, and anyone who tries to stop that process, as Greenpeace protestors symbolically tried to do recently at an oil rig in Arctic Russia, will be dealt with firmly as "pirates" or worse.  That dream of history, of explorers from once upon a time, is now not just a reality, but part of a seemingly inexorable feedback loop of modern fossil-fuel production and planetary heating, another aspect of what Michael Klare has grimly termed the Third Carbon Age (rather than a new Age of Renewables).  


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