Shifting baselines

Sometimes, the fight for sensible environmental protection starts to seem abstract. Until you read a story like this one in the Guardian:

The Arctic ice cap has collapsed at an unprecedented rate this summer and levels of sea ice in the region now stand at a record low, scientists said last night. Experts said they were “stunned” by the loss of ice, with an area almost twice as big as Britain disappearing in the last week alone. So much ice has melted this summer that the north-west passage across the top of Canada is fully navigable, and observers say the north-east passage along Russia’s Arctic coast could open later this month. If the increased rate of melting continues, the summertime Arctic could be totally free of ice by 2030.

The onset of major melting in the Arctic is one of many points in the planetwide process of climate change where the graph doesn’t go in a straight line, where changes created by warmer climate start to reinforce one another. In this case, dark water retains more heat from the sun than reflecting white snow and ice do, meaning the place gets warmer faster, more ice melts, and so on till we’re all on the Hudson Bay beaches sipping drinks out of coconuts.

We don’t have forever. It’s not like putting on 20 pounds, which you can — in principle, anyway — reverse by eating less and exercising more in whatever proportion you failed to before, whenever you decide to hit the treadmill. If we let the carbon problem go, undoing it will be difficult out of proportion to the benefits we gain by waiting.

Photo credit: “Pentland Firth 1963,” Flickr/ PhillipC

I listened to a podcast recently of a talk by Scripps Institute marine biologist Jeremy Jackson, in which he talks about the problem of shifting baselines in human thinking. That is, we tend to go back one generation in our memories, particularly when it comes to the natural world — journalists like me, assigned to the environment file, go out and find the oldest fisherman we can and get him to tell us what the catch was like back when he started.

“The fish used to be this big,” he tells us, hold his hands three feet apart. Wow, we say. And now they’re only six inches long because we caught all the big ones and yanked them out of the gene pool and wrecked their food so they’d never grow that big anyway, and isn’t it awful.

But we forget that there were old fishermen when that guy started who remembered when the fish were four feet long, or five, or eight, and you’d catch the occasional ten-foot monster. We don’t have anyone left who remembers that, so except for some dusty historical records, there’s nothing pressing us to try to get back to the conditions that made such fish possible.

We should fear the shifting baselines in the climate-change debate.


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