Lag time and climate change

The first page of the Declaration of the World Climate Conference, held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1979, sets out several modest goals under the header “An Appeal to Nations”. Among them is the following:

(c) to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.

The same year, the British band Gang of Four put out its seminal album Entertainment, which begins with the dissonant, martial strut of record opener “Ether”. “There may be oil / under Rockall” chants Andy Gill in the song’s clattery conclusion, an allusion to a North Sea islet subject to disputed territorial claims by the United Kingdom, partly because of its potential untapped petroleum reserves.

Entertainment was one of my favorite albums in high school, and a few weeks ago I finally got around to listening to the vinyl copy my brother gave me for my birthday this year. Against the grim backdrop of this summer’s endless string of climate catastrophes, being reminded of Rockall’s existence and symbolic role in fossil fuel geopolitics prompted a mundane observation: We’ve been doing this shit a long time! By which I mostly mean burning fossil fuels and fighting over where to get them. But also finding ways to cope with a world that gets a little bit worse every day, and grappling with the hopelessness of being an individual confronted by the relentless inertia of capital and power. (I am not sure if fact that Rockall is now also the name of a carbon storage startup is encouraging or not.)

Our impotent response to the climate crisis is due to many things. One of those things is undoubtedly the difficulty in wrapping our minds around a phenomenon whose effects are felt years after the actions responsible for them. The carbon we emit today turns to heats 10 years down the line. This year’s drought will kill trees half a decade hence. There are species today whose fate is already sealed, as of yet unrealized casualties of habitat loss and warming, debtors in the ledgers of extinction.

Our grief lags as well. Andy Gill died in early 2020. His bandmate Dave Allen’s adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon was the face of a burning planet last month. It has been years since I lived there, but it is already a different place. The flight I’ll take the next time I visit the city will push it further over the brink of the unfamiliar. What will Forest Park look like in 2050? We are getting used to mourning the future.