At the Eye of the Storm

If the earth is getting warmer, why has it been such a cold winter in parts of the world? Understanding and contending with climate change requires reliable information and an open mind. An Israeli anthropologist looks at how to keep the effort on track.

Hinei Zeh Ba: Keitzad Nisrod et Shinuyei Ha'aklim (Here It Comes: How to Survive Climate Change ), by Dan RabinowitzHakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing (Hebrew ), 238 pages, NIS 82

As these lines are being written, Europe is experiencing a cold wave unlike anything seen in decades. Back in December, when the climate conference was being held in Copenhagen, one of the environmental activists there told me by phone that he had never experienced such cold before.

The climate crisis is one of the gravest threats the human race has ever faced. Nonetheless, humanity is having a hard time acknowledging the problem because of the complex and gradual way it is happening and, mainly, because contending with it entails a demand for change in our behavior. The fact that it is sometimes still very cold in our world -- as it was in Copenhagen during the conference, for example -- is just an example of climatic phenomena complicating our ability to grapple with the crisis caused by global warming.

For science as a discipline, this is an issue of crucial importance because it is through its response to climate change that it will be tested in its ability to analyze and predict dangers the human race has created. Scientists have never before been in a situation in which they are claiming a man-made change is occurring in nature, one so powerful it is endangering man's ability to maintain the civilization he has created.

It's little surprise that many books have been published of late about global warming. In the past two years alone, at least four books on the subject have been translated into Hebrew, two of them written by journalists, the other two by scientists.

Anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, is also an environmental activist and an occasional commentator on the subject for Haaretz. "Here It Comes" is exceptional and important, in that it is one of the first attempts in the Hebrew language to examine climate change in an economic and political context, while also serving as a guide to those perplexed about the climate crisis. Rabinowitz provides a firm foundation for the claim that the crisis was created by political circumstances and human power relations. He argues that the factors that went into shaping the crisis should also serve as the basis for managing it, and that we should not content ourselves with technological solutions alone.

Climate change, as manifested in the trend of rising global temperatures, is a direct result of the industrial revolution. That is what created the sources of the gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide ) accumulating in the atmosphere and preventing the release of the heat created on the earth's surface by solar radiation.

The significance of this, as Rabinowitz explains, is that responsibility for the creation of this crisis lies with the industrialized nations. However, in the current political and economic reality, it will be the poor countries that suffer the most. They are the countries located in climatic and geographic regions more sensitive to climatic changes and they are the countries that will have greater difficulty adapting to phenomena like dwindling sources of water, rising sea levels, the spread of disease, and desertification at the expense of agricultural land.

The current power relations are perpetuating the historically created distribution of suffering, Rabinowitz argues. He says wealthy countries will be able to cope better with problems like the inundation of cities by rising sea levels. Moreover, thanks to the advanced technology at their disposal, they will be able to embark on a new evolutionary stage in which intervention in the human genome and use of biotechnological methods will make it possible for the world's wealthy to improve on their own bodies and increase their likelihood of thriving in the face of climate change. It will be a "warm new world," in which the poor who aren't killed by floods and tidal waves will die of various diseases, while the rich will continue to live in health and tranquility. Rabinowitz even dares to raise the possibility that perhaps a new human subspecies, resilient in the face of many of the dangers of an overheated world, will arise in the near future.

The corporate sector, mainly the oil companies, is liable to be hurt by a policy that encourages a reduction in fossil-fuel consumption. Automakers and oil companies, among others, have many ways to attempt to undermine the validity of the scientists' warnings. Their agents exploit every sign of uncertainty in the scientific predictions, sow every possible doubt, and hire teams of experts and scientists on their behalf in an effort to contradict the decisive conclusions reached by the majority of scientists studying climate change. Most such scientists have concluded that man-made warming is indeed occurring and it will become much more acute in the century ahead of us.

The difficulties inherent in dealing with an existential crisis and the skepticism the vested economic interests are trying to sow tends to make people veer between denying that there is a climate crisis and despairing over what can be done about it. Rabinowitz and many other experts say that the space between denial and despair is large enough to cope with climate change by creating societies that adopt conservation and cleaner technologies as a way of life. Citizens of such societies would become more efficient consumers, and would feel sufficient identification and involvement with society that it would be possible to reduce the existing inequalities between rich and poor. This would be a society that demands profound and continuous civil involvement, and which would also be able to renew and repair feelings of human solidarity.

The press is in the eye of the storm that vacillates between that denial and despair. Vested interests and deniers of global warming demand that the media report on views that contradict those held by the majority of climate scientists. In the face of this, many scientists and environmental activists (Rabinowitz among them ) argue that the media requirement for balanced reporting ends up creating a distorted picture, since there is already broad and well-founded agreement among a majority of scientists on climate change.

All the same, while journalists should feel obligated to report on the environment in a way that generally reflects the leanings of a majority of climate scientists, they are also obligated to raise some questions and doubts -- as long as they have a reliable and independent source making a pertinent and well-founded argument. There are indeed climate scientists who are not employed by oil companies and who are raising probing and important questions about how climate change is predicted and how to determine cause and effect. However, Rabinowitz argues that the way the media discuss climate change, as a matter whose very existence is subject to debate, is tantamount to fiction, and thus is liable to make it impossible to raise legitimate scientific questions. The latter must be asked even when it comes to such a grave crisis, because they can affect the way it is managed. Of course, posing such questions requires a responsible and intelligent press that knows what to discuss and how to downplay or ignore slanted or distorted information.

Zafrir Rinat reports on the environment for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books, March 2010,