Thursday, September 11, 2014

Accidents and Imperatives

Leslie Thornton

For some reason I visited a 7-Eleven yesterday. On my way out I glanced at the newspaper rack and noticed a story on the front page of the Washington Post: CO2 levels in atmosphere rising at dramatically faster rate, U.N. report warns. Excerpt from the online version:

The WMO’s data for 2013 shows the global average level of atmospheric carbon at just under 400 parts per million, about 40 percent higher than in ­pre-industrial times and higher than in any other period in at least 800,000 years. The symbolically important threshold of 400 parts per million — described by scientists as the level at which more dramatic climactic impacts become likely — will probably be crossed in the next two years, the report said.

“It’s the level that climate scientists have identified as the beginning of the danger zone,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor of geosciences who was not involved in the WMO report. “It means we’re probably getting to the point where we’re looking at the ‘safe zone’ in the rearview mirror, even as we’re stepping on the gas.”

A landmark report last year by a U.N.-appointed panel of climate scientists warned that, if current trends continue, the world could soon see major disruptions to both natural ecosystems and human civilization, including rising sea levels that could swamp many of the world’s coastal cities. That report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projected a rise in temperatures of up to nine degrees in the next century unless action is taken to lower carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Below this was a story about the effects of climate change on birds in the United States:

By the turn of the century, global warming will threaten the survival of more than half of all species of birds in the United States and Canada, a new report says.

Warming temperatures will dramatically alter the habitat ranges of birds in nearly every state, including Baltimore orioles and eagles in the Washington, D.C., region, forcing them to migrate to unfamiliar areas where they will have to adapt quickly or possibly perish, the study published by the National Audubon Society says.

Of the 588 species studied, 126 species will experience severe declines as soon as 2050, as half of their range, the sprawling areas they inhabit in summer and winter, becomes unsuitable because of increased dryness caused by warming.

A few hours later I ended up at a café in DTSS (that's how the DC youngsters refer to downtown Silver Spring) because I guess I didn't want to go home. I just would have gone back to bed. I felt languid with pessimism. So instead I got a cup of coffee and sat down at a table to look over the beginning of a new short story and tried to persuade myself that it wasn't all futile, that maybe civilization would come to its senses and the beautiful things I love in this world wouldn't necessarily disappear during my lifetime.

We heard a sharp, piercing screech outside. I didn't look up until after the BANG shook the air a moment later.

About ten of us got up from our lattes and laptops and shuffled curiously out onto the patio. Near the intersection a little ways down the street sat a car with a smashed-in anterior; smoke rose from beneath the crumpled hood and seemed to be seeping into the interior. The windows were up. We couldn't see inside.

"Damn," we said. "Holy shit."

Some of us were taking pictures or videos. I noticed a kid tweeting about it.

"Should we call 911?" the man standing beside me at the railing asked nobody in particular. He studied the digital keypad on his phone screen as though the sight of it puzzled him.

"I guess so," I answered torpidly.

He didn't need to call. Police cruisers were already converging on the scene. An officer approached the battered car and opened the door. A tall, lanky old man sat in the driver's seat. We were too far away to see his face clearly, but he was conscious, and visibly, spastically shaking all over. He had to be unbuckled and helped out of the car, and then escorted to the sidewalk.

"That's it," one of us remarked. "He just too old."

A barista had stepped out onto the patio and was cheerfully drawing our attention to the second car—an unoccupied and rather attractive silver convertible with the sun roof down—standing partially in the intersection with a back bumper that looked like a kicked-in piece of paper mache.

I think it might have been the convertible's driver, a middle-aged woman, who sat beside the the quaking old man on the bench and held his hand in hers while the cops controlled traffic, peered at the wrecked cars, and chatted among themselves to kill time before the ambulance and fire trucks rolled up.

It was the middle of rush hour. The equable pedestrians and motorists marched along the crosswalk and drove around the stopped cars, looking the scene over and carrying on as before.

Some of us on the patio kept gawking for a few more minutes. Most of us went back inside to our coffee, spreadsheets, and coursework before too much longer.

I tried to do something. I walked to the gas station between the cafe and the intersection, bought a bottle of water, and offered it to the old man. The woman sitting next to him thanked me. The old man—he was still shaking uncontrollably, but otherwise seemed quite in his right mind—politely declined.

I'm sipping from the bottle now. I guess it was a nice gesture. Maybe my heart was in the right place. But it was too little, too late. Really kind of half-assed, actually.

If the event had really mattered to me, to any of us, we would have come running over from the patio immediately. We wouldn't have stood back and watched at a distance, waiting to see if the person in the driver's seat might get out on his own. For all we knew he could have been bleeding to death, or choking on the fumes filling the car. For all we knew there might have been passengers. Children. It didn't even cross our minds. All we were interested in doing was observing and offering each other our comments. At least two minutes had already passed after the BANG before the man next to me thought aloud about maybe calling 911 to let somebody else know about the possibly injured person or persons in need of help half a block away from where we were standing.

It doesn't bode well for any of us.

If the plain human suffering we see directly in front of us is something so abstract, so emotionally irrelevant to the modern mind that we can hardly be bothered to pull ourselves away from our business and our cozy routines to get involved, what hope is there, how likely is it that we'll do anything to confront the carbon problem before it becomes a global catastrophe?

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