Climate Change: The Global Jenga Game

It’s been 34 years, an entire generation, since the US government’s chief climate scientist warned Congress that the planet was warming with potentially catastrophic consequences. It’s already happening now. It’s time to stop the bullshit,” Dr. James Hansen said in his 1988 testimony. Scholars have since struggled to communicate this to the public and government officials.

Scientists and their translators explained that pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels collects above the Earth, acting like glass in a greenhouse and carrying the sun’s heat close to the planet’s surface – the “greenhouse effect”. Or they described the gases as an invisible mantle covering the Earth and getting thicker with every ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by civilization.

But before metaphors and analogies explain climate change, the public should be open to hearing about it. Unfortunately, the letter is not good news. Many people with the power to do something about global warming haven’t listened to it because it’s easier to deny a harsh truth than to fix it.

Those of us who try to break through the communication barrier on climate change focus on that crisis and fail to point out an even harsher truth: climate change is just one manifestation of humankind’s harmful effects on nature. What’s really at risk is the biosphere – the atmosphere, the hydrosphere (oceans), and the lithosphere (the Earth’s hard surface). These are the places where all life on this planet exists, working together like organs in our bodies.

The best metaphor for this is the popular Jenga game. Players build a tower of blocks, then take turns removing them one by one. The loser is the person who removes the block that brought down the tower.

With industrialization and population growth, civilization has been pulling blocks from the Jenga Tower for centuries, including many elements vital to the integrity of the structure. The inconvenient truth that not many people want to accept or even hear is that the hospitable land we knew 10,000 to 12,000 years ago is on the verge of collapse.

A few years ago, the Stockholm Center for Adaptation at Stockholm University met with 28 renowned scientists to identify “safe operating spaces” on the planet that humanity cannot cross without causing large-scale, sudden and irreversible changes in the biosphere. The team came up with nine critical spaces. Only one is climate change. Other factors include ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, changes in land use, and loss of fresh water.

Geologists believe that man’s influence on the biosphere is so extensive that it created a new era in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history. They have suggested calling it the Anthropocene, a term indicating that the human race is now the most influential and destructive force on Earth. The evidence, which ranges from plastic pollution to the fallout from nuclear weapons tests, reads like an indictment of modern civilization because that’s what it is. Humanity is on trial, with little time left to fix things before judgment is passed and the planet imposes the harshest punishment.

We must answer some questions if we are generous enough to care about the future. What happens if we remove the biodiversity block, the freshwater block, or the fertile soil block? What if we removed the blocks representing the carbon and water cycles on Earth or the chemistry of the oceans? In this regard, how many blocks do we dare to add to the top of the tower to represent the growth of the population?

If the US Congress, other world leaders, and the general public had heeded Hansen’s warning about climate change 34 years ago, we could have made the necessary corrections with minimal cost and disruption. Instead, the use of fossil fuels over the past three decades has thickened the cap, while urbanization, agriculture, deforestation and pollution have brought us closer to the limits of the planet.

The Jenga tower sways as we carelessly remove its mass. Its destabilization is so gradual that we are not shocked. But all life will suffer when it collapses. Here the Jenga analogy breaks down because, unlike the game, we won’t be able to rebuild the structure and start over.

This is not a message that political leaders, policymakers, or friends and neighbors want to hear. It is the inappropriate absolute truth. However, pulling civilization from collapse would be the most precious gift to the current generation to our descendants, the biosphere and the incredibly beautiful web of life.

William S. baker He is the former central regional director of the US Department of Energy who managed energy efficiency programs and renewable energy technologies, and also served as a special assistant to the Department’s Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Baker is also the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

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