Arquivo mensal: setembro 2013

Vida de princesa nos relatórios de sustentabilidade (Envolverde)

02/9/2013 – 11h01

por Carla Stoicov e Wilson Bispo, da Tistu

sustentabilidadeempresas Vida de princesa nos relatórios de sustentabilidade

Empresas ainda não entendem o motivo de seus relatórios de sustentabilidade não serem objeto de leitura dos seus stakeholders. Produzido no tradicional modelo top-down de comunicação, ainda não se deram conta que esse produto deve ter seus temas escolhidos não por eles, mas pelos seus públicos, num processo de diálogo que deve se dar ao longo do ano. Mas isso pode estar prestes a mudar e você deveria ser parte disso.

No mês passado participamos de um dia onde foram apresentadas e dialogadas as novidades do G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. Na formação (apesar de achar que o tema está muito cru para chamarmos de curso) estavam empresas, consultores e representantes de entidades/federações.

Os dois aspectos mais marcantes da nova versão – que passam a valer a partir de Janeiro de 2016 (1) – são a obrigatoriedade de ter uma matriz de materialidade e de demonstrar que a empresa tem conhecimento dos impactos dentro e fora dela, colocando na pauta o tema cadeia de fornecimento. Na pesquisa Materialidade Brasil, elaborada pela consultoria Report Sustentabilidade, foi constatado que 85% das empresas publicaram quais são os temas materiais, mas apenas 61% publicou sua matriz de materialidade. Um número menor ainda (45%) publicou metas atreladas aos temas materiais (ou seja, apesar de material, 55% das empresas entendeu que ainda não era o momento de atribuir metas).

Algumas lacunas ainda são imperdoáveis no G4. Nenhum avanço na proposição de metodologia para se fazer um processo de materialidade e em como equilibrar os aspectos trazidos pelos stakeholders internos x externos. A Takao Consultoria elaborou um Manual para Implementação de Engajamento com Stakeholders. O documento propõe matrizes de priorização e perfil de partes interessadas e também exemplifica uma matriz de priorização de temas em relação aos critérios internos e externos. Pode ser um ótimo modelo a ser seguido, mas quando lemos um relatório de sustentabilidade muitas vezes não está explícito como foi feita a seleção e priorização dos públicos a serem consultados, se todos participaram juntos ou não, se os temas foram dados ou abriu-se a opções para temas que emergiram no processo e como se chegou a priorização dos temas.

Outro ponto é que a materialidade deve envolver stakeholders, mas não obriga a participação de determinadas partes interessadas. Dá para ficar apenas com os funcionários ou até mesmo não incluí-los.

Aviary Photo 130224803379524387 Vida de princesa nos relatórios de sustentabilidade

Pesquisa Materialidade Brasil. Foto: Report Sustentabilidade

A nova versão, apesar de falar muito em cadeia de fornecimento, ainda está longe de propor um olhar mais sistêmico, amplo, envolvendo toda a cadeia de valor da organização (que contemple também a distribuição, clientes e consumidores). Ou seja, a empresa tem que ficar atenta de quem ela compra, onde estão estes fornecedores e onde estão localizados os impactos na cadeia de fornecimento. Contudo, ainda está livre para vender para quem quiser! Levaram o conceito de esfera de influência da Norma ISO 26000 apenas para parte da cadeia.

“Esfera de influência: amplitude/extensão de relações políticas, contratuais, econômicas ou outras relações por meio das quais uma organização tem a capacidade de afetar as decisões ou atividades de indivíduos ou organizações. – Norma ISO 26000″

Com isso, ficam de fora as preocupações da empresa com a comercialização de seus produtos ou serviços para, por exemplo, países que têm graves violações dos direitos humanos ou que estejam em guerra civil; organizações envolvidas em corrupção ou lavagem de dinheiro; empresas que desmatam, têm trabalho infantil ou análogo ao escravo em sua operação ou na sua cadeia, etc.

As organizações presentes na formação da qual participamos também questionaram se a GRI tem alguma sinalização sobre como tornar os relatórios mais atrativos, mais lidos. Bem, não entendemos que isso seja uma missão da GRI, mas sim, em primeira instância, das próprias empresas. O relatório será interessante pela qualidade e relevância das informações ali colocadas. Isso nos remete aos motivos de alguém “curtir” no Facebook a página oficial de uma empresa quando há interesse genuíno, e não quando é feito para participar de uma oferta comercial. Nós seguimos várias organizações e o que elas nos oferecem é informação de qualidade, independentemente do seu produto ou serviço.

O blog Testando os Limites da Sustentabilidade (um tipo de watchdog) lê e analisa relatórios de sustentabilidade das empresas e depois disso encaminha perguntas sobre informações incompletas ou imprecisas, apontando lacunas de temas que deveriam ser abordados conforme o negócio da empresa. Muitas respondem ao blog e deveriam ver os questionamentos feitos com bons olhos: afinal alguém está lendo seu relatório!

Contudo, há uma grande lacuna deixada por stakeholders imprescindíveis para a melhoria da qualidade das informações e da transparência do setor privado no Brasil, como organizações da sociedade civil, imprensa, academia, consultorias, organizações think tank, coletivos e formadores de opinião em geral. Céticos quanto ao conteúdo publicado nos relatos — em alguma medida, com razão –, esses públicos deixam de prestar um enorme serviço à sociedade ao não fazer leituras e análises críticas às informações dos relatórios de sustentabilidade, um dos poucos, se não os únicos, instrumentos de consulta de como as corporações contam estar conduzindo os negócios das empresas por aqui.

Acreditamos que existe um grande espaço para exercitar diferentes formas de se fazer a leitura desse tipo de documento. Esses stakeholders têm condições técnicas e informações complementares para “mastigar” o conteúdo dos relatórios e fazer cruzamentos com a real atuação da empresa, com o que a GRI determina, com práticas de outras empresas do mesmo setor, com políticas públicas, com Pactos e Compromissos voluntários, comparar com informações e práticas da matriz na busca por um duplo padrão (2), dentre outras dezenas de olhares possíveis.

Analisar as informações públicas do setor privado — ou evidenciar a falta delas — ajuda na geração de conhecimento crítico que pode ser um impulsionador de novas práticas por parte das empresas. É o caso do estudo Sustentabilidade do Setor Automotivo, produzido pela Tistu para o UniEthos, que vem sendo utilizado por uma montadora na sua estratégia de sustentabilidade.

Por isso, o que realmente importa nos relatórios são os dados relevantes para quem lê, não para quem escreve. Entretanto, as informações ainda vêm embaladas num pacote desnecessário de frases de efeito que dizem pouco, ou quase nada, e não agregam no momento da análise, repetindo histórias ano após ano sem demonstrar ou deixar clara qual foi a real evolução frente ao ano anterior. Daí a importância da análise crítica de formadores de opinião. Enquanto as empresas não avançam neste aspecto, iniciativas que capturem os dados e “limpem” as informações dos excessos, serão úteis para aumentar o conhecimento sobre os aspectos de sustentabilidade que as empresas estão colocando na sua cesta de prioridades.

Em tempo de manifestações onde cartazes levantam bandeiras como saúde (a ser melhorada), corrupção (a ser combatida), transporte (como forma de inclusão) e acesso à cidade (como forma de promoção da igualdade), quem não gostaria de saber quais empresas estão antenadas com essas necessidades e trabalham em convergência com as políticas públicas? Não passa pela nossa cabeça abrir o relatório da Siemens no ano que vem e não ver a questão da corrupção e cartel. Ou ler o relatório da Samsung e não encontrar nada sobre as condições degradantes dos trabalhadores. Mas não estamos falando daqueles textos sobre o quanto valorizam os processos, como os sistemas funcionam etc. Queremos saber justamente o contrário. Quais foram as lições aprendidas, onde estava o furo, quais desafios que entendem que estão longe de superar? As empresas são feitas de pessoas e portanto são cheias de falhas, inconsistências, dilemas. E é isso que falta aparecer nos seus relatos de vida de princesa.

Talvez esta deva ser a tendência dos relatos das empresas. Criar visões por assuntos de interesse pela ótica de quem busca a informação, com construções e atualizações dinâmicas (entenda aqui que elas não serão feitas de forma unilateral, apenas pelas empresas), com muito menos filtros e fotos de banco de imagens.

Mais Narrativas Independentes, Jornalismo e Ação (NINJA) para os relatórios de sustentabilidade têm o potencial de torná-los muito mais interessantes e vivos. Se as empresas não fizerem, alguém vai fazer.

(1) Ou seja, o último ano de relato na versão G3 ou G3.1 será 2014 sendo que 2015 já será relatado na nova versão.

(2) Esta é uma metodologia que a Tistu vem adotando em alguns estudos. Isolar alguns assuntos e procurar por práticas e posicionamento na matriz e na operação do Brasil. Quando há divergência (i.e. a matriz tem políticas, programas ou é estratégico e aqui nem é citado) ocorre o que denominamos de Duplo Padrão.

Carla Stoicov é mestranda em Gestão e Políticas Públicas pela FGV-SP. Sócia da Tistu, atua como consultora em projetos para o Desenvolvimento Sustentável e de Responsabilidade Social Empresarial. Foi coordenadora do Programa Tear do Instituto Ethos e é especialista do UniEthos.

Wilson Bispo é jornalista e desde de 2005 trabalha na cobertura de temas socioambientais e de RSE. Sócio da Tistu, foi produtor do Repórter Eco da TV Cultura de SP, editor do portal e agência Envolverde e consultor na Report Sustentabilidade.

** Publicado originalmente no site Tistu.

Language and Tool-Making Skills Evolved at the Same Time (Science Daily)

Sep. 3, 2013 — Research by the University of Liverpool has found that the same brain activity is used for language production and making complex tools, supporting the theory that they evolved at the same time.

Three hand axes produced by participants in the experiment. Front, back and side views are shown. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Liverpool)

Researchers from the University tested the brain activity of 10 expert stone tool makers (flint knappers) as they undertook a stone tool-making task and a standard language test.

Brain blood flow activity measured

They measured the brain blood flow activity of the participants as they performed both tasks using functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound (fTCD), commonly used in clinical settings to test patients’ language functions after brain damage or before surgery.

The researchers found that brain patterns for both tasks correlated, suggesting that they both use the same area of the brain. Language and stone tool-making are considered to be unique features of humankind that evolved over millions of years.

Darwin was the first to suggest that tool-use and language may have co-evolved, because they both depend on complex planning and the coordination of actions but until now there has been little evidence to support this.

Dr Georg Meyer, from the University Department of Experimental Psychology, said: “This is the first study of the brain to compare complex stone tool-making directly with language.

Tool use and language co-evolved

“Our study found correlated blood-flow patterns in the first 10 seconds of undertaking both tasks. This suggests that both tasks depend on common brain areas and is consistent with theories that tool-use and language co-evolved and share common processing networks in the brain.”

Dr Natalie Uomini from the University’s Department of Archaeology, Classics & Egyptology, said: “Nobody has been able to measure brain activity in real time while making a stone tool. This is a first for both archaeology and psychology.”

The research was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy. It is published in PLOS ONE.

Journal Reference:

  1. Natalie Thaïs Uomini, Georg Friedrich Meyer. Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound StudyPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (8): e72693 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072693

Primate Calls, Like Human Speech, Can Help Infants Form Categories (Science Daily)

Sep. 2, 2013 — Human infants’ responses to the vocalizations of non-human primates shed light on the developmental origin of a crucial link between human language and core cognitive capacities, a new study reports.

Mantled howler (Alouatta seniculus) howling. (Credit: © michaklootwijk / Fotolia)

Previous studies have shown that even in infants too young to speak, listening to human speech supports core cognitive processes, including the formation of object categories.

Alissa Ferry, lead author and currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Language, Cognition and Development Lab at the Scuola Internationale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, Italy, together with Northwestern University colleagues, documented that this link is initially broad enough to include the vocalizations of non-human primates.

“We found that for 3- and 4-month-old infants, non-human primate vocalizations promoted object categorization, mirroring exactly the effects of human speech, but that by six months, non-human primate vocalizations no longer had this effect — the link to cognition had been tuned specifically to human language,” Ferry said.

In humans, language is the primary conduit for conveying our thoughts. The new findings document that for young infants, listening to the vocalizations of humans and non-human primates supports the fundamental cognitive process of categorization. From this broad beginning, the infant mind identifies which signals are part of their language and begins to systematically link these signals to meaning.

Furthermore, the researchers found that infants’ response to non-human primate vocalizations at three and four months was not just due to the sounds’ acoustic complexity, as infants who heard backward human speech segments failed to form object categories at any age.

Susan Hespos, co-author and associate professor of psychology at Northwestern said, “For me, the most stunning aspect of these findings is that an unfamiliar sound like a lemur call confers precisely the same effect as human language for 3- and 4-month-old infants. More broadly, this finding implies that the origins of the link between language and categorization cannot be derived from learning alone.”

“These results reveal that the link between language and object categories, evident as early as three months, derives from a broader template that initially encompasses vocalizations of human and non-human primates and is rapidly tuned specifically to human vocalizations,” said Sandra Waxman, co-author and Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern.

Waxman said these new results open the door to new research questions.

“Is this link sufficiently broad to include vocalizations beyond those of our closest genealogical cousins,” asks Waxman, “or is it restricted to primates, whose vocalizations may be perceptually just close enough to our own to serve as early candidates for the platform on which human language is launched?”

Journal Reference:

  1. Alissa Ferry et al. Non-human primate vocalizations support categorizations in very young human infants.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 3, 2013

The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’ (Monthly Review)

Between October 2010 and April 2012, over 250,000 people, including 133,000 children under five, died of hunger caused by drought in Somalia. Millions more survived only because they received food aid. Scientists at the UK Met Centre have shown that human-induced climate change made this catastrophe much worse than it would otherwise have been.1

This is only the beginning: the United Nations’ 2013 Human Development Report says that without coordinated global action to avert environmental disasters, especially global warming, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050.2 Untold numbers of children will die, killed by climate change.

If a runaway train is bearing down on children, simple human solidarity dictates that anyone who sees it should shout a warning, that anyone who can should try to stop it. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with that elementary moral imperative.

And yet some do. Increasingly, activists who warn that the world faces unprecedented environmental danger are accused of catastrophism—of raising alarms that do more harm than good. That accusation, a standard feature of right-wing attacks on the environmental movement, has recently been advanced by some left-wing critics as well. While they are undoubtedly sincere, their critique of so-called environmental catastrophism does not stand up to scrutiny.

From the Right…

The word “catastrophism” originated in nineteenth-century geology, in the debate between those who believed all geological change had been gradual and those who believed there had been episodes of rapid change. Today, the word is most often used by right-wing climate change deniers for whom it is a synonym for “alarmism.”

  • The Heartland Institute: “Climate Catastrophism Picking Up Again in the U.S. and Across the World.”3
  • A right-wing German blog: “The Climate Catastrophism Cult.”4
  • The Australian journal Quadrant: “The Chilling Costs of Climate Catastrophism.”5

Examples could be multiplied. As environmental historian Franz Mauelshagen writes, “In climate denialist circles, the word ‘climate catastrophe’ has become synonymous with ‘climate lie,’ taking the anthropogenic green house effect for a scam.”6

Those who hold such views like to call themselves “climate change skeptics,” but a more accurate term is “climate science deniers.” While there are uncertainties about the speed of change and its exact effects, there is no question that global warming is driven by greenhouse-gas emissions caused by human activity, and that if business as usual continues, temperatures will reach levels higher than any seen since before human beings evolved. Those who disagree are not skeptical, they are denying the best scientific evidence and analysis available.

The right labels the scientific consensus “catastrophism” to belittle environmentalism, and to stifle consideration of measures to delay or prevent the crisis. The real problem, they imply, is not the onrushing train, but the people who are yelling “get off the track!” Leaving the track would disrupt business as usual, and that is to be avoided at all costs.

…And From the Left

Until very recently, “catastrophism” as a political expression was pretty much the exclusive property of conservatives. When it did occur in left-wing writing, it referred to economic debates, not ecology. But in 2007 two quite different left-wing voices almost simultaneously adopted “catastrophism” as a pejorative term for radical ideas about climate change they disagreed with.

The most prominent was the late Alexander Cockburn, who in 2007 was writing regularly forThe Nation and coediting the newsletter CounterPunch. To the shock of many of his admirers, he declared that “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend,” and that “the human carbon footprint is of zero consequence.”7 Concern about climate change was, he wrote, the result of a conspiracy “between the Greenhouser fearmongers and the nuclear industry, now largely owned by oil companies.”8

Like critics on the right, Cockburn charged that the left was using climate change to sneak through reforms it could not otherwise win: “The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice.”9

While Cockburn’s assault on “environmental catastrophism” was shocking, his arguments did not add anything new to the climate debate. They were the same criticisms we had long heard from right-wing deniers, albeit with leftish vocabulary.

That was not the case with Leo Panitch and Colin Leys. These distinguished Marxist scholars are by no means deniers. They began their preface to the 2007 Socialist Register by noting that “environmental problems might be so severe as to potentially threaten the continuation of anything that might be considered tolerable human life,” and insisting that “the speed of development of globalized capitalism, epitomized by the dramatic acceleration of climate change, makes it imperative for socialists to deal seriously with these issues now.”

But then they wrote: “Nonetheless, it is important to try to avoid an anxiety-driven ecological catastrophism, parallel to the kind of crisis-driven economic catastrophism that announces the inevitable demise of capitalism.”10 They went on to argue that capitalism’s “dynamism and innovativeness” might enable it to use “green commerce” to escape environmental traps.

The problem with the Panitch–Leys formulation is that the threat of ecological catastrophe isnot “parallel” to the view that capitalism will destroy itself. The desire to avoid the kind of mechanical determinism that has often characterized Marxist politics, where every crisis was proclaimed to be the final battle, led these thoughtful writers to confuse two very different kinds of catastrophe.

The idea that capitalism will inevitably face an insurmountable economic crisis and collapse is based on a misunderstanding of Marxist economic theory. While economic crises are endemic to capitalism, the system can always continue—only class struggle, only a social revolution, can overthrow capitalism and end the crisis cycle.

Large-scale environmental damage is caused by our destructive economic system, but its effectis the potentially irreversible disruption of essential natural systems. The most dramatic example is global warming: recent research shows that the earth is now warmer than at any time in the past 6,000 years, and temperatures are rising much faster than at any time since the last Ice Age. Arctic ice and the Greenland ice sheet are disappearing faster than predicted, raising the specter of flooding in coastal areas where more than a billion people live. Extreme weather events, such as giant storms, heat waves, and droughts are becoming ever more frequent. So many species are going extinct that many scientists call it a mass extinction event, comparable to the time 66 million years ago when 75 percent of all species, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out.

As the editors of Monthly Review wrote in reply to Socialist Register, if these trends continue, “we will be faced with a different world—one in which life on the planet will be massively degraded on a scale not seen for tens of millions of years.”11 To call this “anxiety-driven ecological catastrophism, parallel to…economic catastrophism” is to equate an abstract error in economic theory with some of the strongest conclusions of modern science.

A New ‘Catastrophism’ Critique

Now a new essay, provocatively titled “The Politics of Failure Have Failed,” offers a different and more sweeping left-wing critique of “environmental catastrophism.” Author Eddie Yuen is associated with the Pacifica radio program Against the Grain, and is on the editorial board of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism.

His paper is part of a broader effort to define and critique a body of political thought calledCatastrophism, in a book by that title.12 In the book’s introduction, Sasha Lilley offers this definition:

Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous. On the left, catastrophism veers between the expectation that the worse things become, the better they will be for radical fortunes, and the prediction that capitalism will collapse under its own weight. For parts of the right, worsening conditions are welcomed, with the hope they will trigger divine intervention or allow the settling of scores for any modicum of social advance over the last century.

A political category that includes both the right and the left—and that encompasses people whose concerns might be economic, ecological, social, or spiritual—is, to say the least, unreasonably broad. It is difficult to see any analytical value in a definition that lumps together anarchists, fascists, Christian fundamentalists, right-wing conspiracy nuts, pre–1914 socialists, peak-oil theorists, obscure Trotskyist groups, and even Mao Zedong.

The definition of catastrophism becomes even more problematic in Yuen’s essay.

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others…

Years ago, the children’s television program Sesame Street would display four items—three circles and a square, three horses and a chair, and so on—while someone sang, “One of these things is not like the others, One of these things doesn’t belong.

I thought of that when I read Yuen’s essay.

While the book’s scope is broad, most of it focuses, as Yuen writes, on “instrumental, spurious, and sometimes maniacal versions of catastrophism—including rightwing racial paranoia, religious millenarianism, liberal panics over fascism, leftist fetishization of capitalist collapse, capitalist invocation of the ‘shock doctrine’ and pop culture cliché.”

But as Yuen admits in his first paragraph, environmentalism is a very different matter, because we are in “what is unquestionably a genuine catastrophic moment in human and planetary history…. Of all of the forms of catastrophic discourse on offer, the collapse of ecological systems is unique in that it is definitively verified by a consensus within the scientific community…. It is absolutely urgent to address this by effectively and rapidly changing the direction of human society.”

If the science is clear, if widespread ecological collapse unquestionably faces us unless action is taken, why is this topic included in a book devoted to criticizing false ideas? Does it make sense to use the same term for people who believe in an imaginary train crash and for people who are trying to stop a real crash from happening?

The answer, although he does not say so, is that Yuen is using a different definition than the one Lilley gave in her introduction. Her version used the word for the belief that some form of catastrophe will have positive results—that capitalism will collapse from internal contradictions, that God will punish all sinners, that peak oil or industrial collapse will save the planet. Yuen uses the same word for the idea that environmentalists should alert people to the threat of catastrophic environmental change and try to mobilize them to prevent or minimize it.

Thus, when he refers to “a shrill note of catastrophism” in the work of James Hansen, perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist, he is not challenging the accuracy of Hansen’s analysis, but only the “narrative strategy” of clearly stating the probable results of continuing business as usual.

Yuen insists that “the veracity of apocalyptic claims about ecological collapse are separate from their effects on social, political, and economic life.” Although “the best evidence points to cascading environmental disaster,” in his view it is self-defeating to tell people that. He makes two arguments, which we can label “practical” and “principled.”

His practical argument is that by talking about “apocalyptic scenarios” environmentalists have made people more apathetic, less likely to fight for progressive change. His principledargument is that exposing and campaigning to stop tendencies towards environmental collapse has “damaging and rightward-leaning effects”—it undermines the left, promotes reactionary policies and strengthens the ruling class.

In my opinion, he is wrong on both counts.

The Truth Shall Make You Apathetic?

In Yuen’s view, the most important question facing people who are concerned about environmental destruction is: “what narrative strategies are most likely to generate effective and radical social movements?”

He is vague about what “narrative strategies” might work, but he is very firm about what does not. He argues that environmentalists have focused on explaining the environmental crisis and warning of its consequences in the belief that this will lead people to rise up and demand change, but this is a fallacy. In reality, “once convinced of apocalyptic scenarios, many Americans become more apathetic.”

Given such a sweeping assertion, it is surprising to find that the only evidence Yuen offers is a news release describing one academic paper, based on a U.S. telephone survey conducted in 2008, that purported to show that “more informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming.”13

Note first that being “more informed” is not the same as being “convinced of apocalyptic scenarios” or being bombarded with “increasingly urgent appeals about fixed ecological tipping points.” On the face of it, this study does not appear to contribute to our understanding of the effects of “catastrophism.”

What’s more, reading the original paper reveals that the people described as “more informed” were self-reporting. If they said they were informed, that was accepted, and no one asked if they were listening to climate scientists or to conservative talk radio. That makes the paper’s conclusion meaningless.

Later in his essay, Yuen correctly criticizes some environmentalists and scientists who “speak of ‘everyone’ as a unified subject.” But here he accepts as credible a study that purports to show how all Americans respond to information about climate change, regardless of class, gender, race, or political leanings.

The problem with such undifferentiated claims is shown in a 2011 study that examined the impact of Americans’ political opinions on their feelings about climate change. It found that liberals and Democrats who report being well-informed are more worried about climate change, while conservatives and Republicans who report being well-informed are less worried.14 Obviously the two groups mean very different things by “well-informed.”

Even if we ignore that, the study Yuen cites is a one-time snapshot—it does not tells us what radicals really need to know, which is how things are changing. For that, a more useful survey is one that scientists at Yale University and George Mason University have conducted seven times since 2008 to show shifts in U.S. public opinion.15 Based on answers to questions about their opinions, respondents are categorized according to their attitude towards global warming. The surveys show:

  • The number of people identified as “Disengaged” or “Cautious”—those we might call apathetic or uncertain—has varied very little, accounting for between 31 percent and 35 percent of the respondents every time.
  • The categories “Dismissive” or “Doubtful”—those who lean towards denial—increased between 2008 and 2010. Since then, those groups have shrunk back almost to the 2008 level.
  • In parallel, the combined “Concerned” and “Alarmed” groups shrank between 2008 and 2010, but have since largely recovered. In September 2012—before Hurricane Sandy!—there were more than twice as many Americans in these two categories as in Dismissive/Doubtful.

Another study, published in the journal Climatic Change, used seventy-four independent surveys conducted between 2002 and 2011 to create a Climate Change Threat Index (CCTI)—a measure of public concern about climate change—and showed how it changed in response to public events. It found that public concern about climate change reached an all-time high in 2006–2007, when the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth was seen in theaters by millions of people and won an Academy Award.

The authors conclude: “Our results…show that advocacy efforts produce substantial changes in public perceptions related to climate change. Specifically, the film An Inconvenient Truth and the publicity surrounding its release produced a significant positive jump in the CCTI.”16

This directly contradicts Yuen’s view that more information about climate change causes Americans to become more apathetic. There is no evidence of a long-term increase in apathy or decrease in concern—and when scientific information about climate change reached millions of people, the result was not apathy but a substantial increase in support for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

‘The Two Greatest Myths’

Yuen says environmentalists have deluged Americans with catastrophic warnings, and this strategy has produced apathy, not action. Writing of establishment politicians who make exactly the same claim, noted climate change analyst Joseph Romm says, “The two greatest myths about global warming communications are 1) constant repetition of doomsday messages has been a major, ongoing strategy and 2) that strategy doesn’t work and indeed is actually counterproductive!” Contrary to liberal mythology, the North American public has not been exposed to anything even resembling the first claim. Romm writes,

The broad American public is exposed to virtually no doomsday messages, let alone constant ones, on climate change in popular culture (TV and the movies and even online)…. The major energy companies bombard the airwaves with millions and millions of dollars of repetitious pro-fossil-fuel ads. The environmentalists spend far, far less money…. Environmentalists when they do appear in popular culture, especially TV, are routinely mocked…. It is total BS that somehow the American public has been scared and overwhelmed by repeated doomsday messaging into some sort of climate fatigue.17

The website Daily Climate, which tracks U.S. news stories about climate change, says coverage peaked in 2009, during the Copenhagen talks—but then it “fell off the map,” dropping 30 percent in 2010 and another 20 percent in 2011. In 2012, despite widespread droughts and Hurricane Sandy, news coverage fell another 2 percent. The decline in editorial interest was even more dramatic—in 2012 newspapers published fewer than half as many editorials about climate change as they did in 2009.18

It should be noted that these shifts occurred in the framework of very limited news coverage of climate issues. As a leading media analyst notes, “relative to other issues like health, medicine, business, crime and government, media attention to climate change remains a mere blip.”19 Similarly, a British study describes coverage of climate change in newspapers there as “lamentably thin”—a problem exacerbated by the fact that much of the coverage consists of “worryingly persistent climate denial stories.” The author concludes drily: “The limited coverage is unlikely to have convinced readers that climate change is a serious problem warranting immediate, decisive and potentially costly action.”20

Given Yuen’s concern that Americans do not recognize the seriousness of environmental crises, it is surprising how little he says about the massive fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaigns that have confused and distorted media reporting. I can find just four sentences on the subject in his 9,000-word text, and not one that suggests denialist campaigns might have helped undermine efforts to build a climate change movement.

On the contrary, he downplays the influence of “the well-funded climate denial lobby,” by claiming that “far more corporate and elite energy has gone toward generating anxiety about global warming,” and that “mainstream climate science is much better funded.” He provides no evidence for either statement.

Of course, the fossil-fuel lobby is not the only force working to undermine public concern about climate change. It is also important to recognize the impact of Obama’s predictable unwillingness to confront the dominant forces in U.S. capitalism, and of the craven failure of mainstream environmentalist groups and NGOs to expose and challenge the Democrats’ anti-environmental policies.

With fossil-fuel denialists on one side, and Obama’s pale-green cheerleaders on the other, activists who want to get out the truth have barely been heard. In that context, it makes little sense to blame environmentalists for sabotaging environmentalism.

The Truth Will Help the Right?

Halfway through his essay, Yuen abruptly changes direction, leaving the practical argument behind and raising his principled concern. He now argues that what he calls catastrophism leads people to support reactionary policies and promotes “the most authoritarian solutions at the state level.” Focusing attention on what he agrees is a “cascading environmental disaster” is dangerous because it “disables the left but benefits the right and capital.” He says, “Increased awareness of environmental crisis will not likely translate into a more ecological lifestyle, let alone an activist orientation against the root causes of environmental degradation. In fact, right-wing and nationalist environmental politics have much more to gain from an embrace of catastrophism.”

Yuen says that many environmentalists, including scientists, “reflexively overlook class divisions,” and so do not realize that “some business and political elites feel that they can avoid the worst consequences of the environmental crisis, and may even be able to benefit from it.” Yuen apparently thinks those elites are right—while the insurance industry is understandably worried about big claims, he says, “the opportunities for other sectors of capitalism are colossal in scope.”

He devotes much of the rest of his essay to describing the efforts of pro-capitalist forces, conservative and liberal, to use concern about potential environmental disasters to promote their own interests, ranging from emissions trading schemes to military expansion to Malthusian attacks on the world’s poorest people. “The solution offered by global elites to the catastrophe is a further program of austerity, belt-tightening, and sacrifice, the brunt of which will be borne by the world’s poor.”

Some of this is overstated. His claim that “Malthusianism is at the core of most environmental discourse,” reflects either a very limited view of environmentalism or an excessively broad definition of Malthusianism. And he seems to endorse David Noble’s bizarre theory that public concern about global warming has been engineered by a corporate conspiracy to promote carbon trading schemes.21 Nevertheless he is correct that the ruling class will do its best to profit from concern about climate change, while simultaneously offloading the costs onto the world’s poorest people.

The question is, who is he arguing with? This book says it aims to “spur debate among radicals,” but none of this is new or controversial for radicals. The insight that the interests of the ruling class are usually opposed to the interests of the rest of us has been central to left-wing thought since before Marx was born. Capitalists always try to turn crises to their advantage no matter who gets hurt, and they always try to offload the costs of their crises onto the poor and oppressed.

What needs to be proved is not that pro-capitalist forces are trying to steer the environmental movement into profitable channels, and not that many sincere environmentalists have backward ideas about the social and economic causes of ecological crises. Radicals who are active in green movements know those things perfectly well. What needs to be proved is Yuen’s view that warning about environmental disasters and campaigning to prevent them has “damaging and rightward-leaning effects” that are so severe that radicals cannot overcome them.

But no proof is offered.

What is particularly disturbing about his argument is that he devotes pages to describing the efforts of reactionaries to misdirect concern about climate change—and none to the efforts of radical environmentalists to counter those forces. Earlier in his essay, he mentioned that “environmental and climate justice perspectives are steadily gaining traction in internal environmental debates,” but those thirteen words are all he has to say on the subject.

He says nothing about the historic 2010 Cochabamba Conference, where 30,000 environmental activists from 140 countries warned that if greenhouse gas emissions are not stopped, “the damages caused to our Mother Earth will be completely irreversible”—a statement Yuen would doubtless label “catastrophist.” Far from succumbing to apathy or reactionary policies, the participants explicitly rejected market solutions, identified capitalism as the cause of the crisis, and outlined a radical program to transform the global economy.

He is equally silent about the campaign against the fraudulent “green economy” plan adopted at last year’s Rio+20 conference. One of the principal organizers of that opposition is La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organization of peasants and farmers, which warns that the world’s governments are “propagating the same capitalist model that caused climate chaos and other deep social and environmental crises.”

His essay contains not a word about Idle No More, or Occupy, or the Indigenous-led fight against Canada’s tar sands, or the anti-fracking and anti-coal movements. By omitting them, Yuen leaves the false impression that the climate movement is helpless to resist reactionary forces.

Contrary to Yuen’s title, the effort to build a movement to save the planet has not failed. Indeed, Catastrophism was published just four months before the largest U.S. climate change demonstration ever!

The question before radicals is not what “narrative strategy” to adopt, but rather, how will we relate to the growing environmental movement? How will we support its goals while strengthening the forces that see the need for more radical solutions?

What Must Be Done?

Yuen opposes attempts to build a movement around rallies, marches, and other mass protests to get out the truth and to demand action against environmental destruction. He says that strategy worked in the 1960s, when Americans were well-off and naïve, but cannot be replicated in today’s “culture of atomized cynicism.”

Like many who know that decade only from history books or as distant memories, Yuen foreshortens the experience: he knows about the mass protests and dissent late in the decade, but ignores the many years of educational work and slow movement building in a deeply reactionary and racist time. It is not predetermined that the campaign against climate change will take as long as those struggles, or take similar forms, but the real experience of the 1960s should at least be a warning against premature declarations of failure.

Yuen is much less explicit about what he thinks would be an effective strategy, but he cites as positive examples the efforts of some to promote “a bottom-up and egalitarian transition” by:

ever-increasing numbers of people who are voluntarily engaging in intentional communities, sustainability projects, permaculture and urban farming, communing and mil­itant resistance to consumerism…we must consider the alterna­tive posed by the highly imaginative Italian left of the twentieth century. The explosively popular Slow Food movement was origi­nally built on the premise that a good life can be had not through compulsive excess but through greater conviviality and a shared commonwealth.

Compare that to this list of essential tasks, prepared recently by Pablo Solón, a leading figure in the global climate justice movement:

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that avoids catastrophe, we need to:

* Leave more than two-thirds of the fossil fuel reserves under the soil;

* Stop the exploitation of tar sands, shale gas and coal;

* Support small, local, peasant and indigenous community farming while we dismantle big agribusiness that deforests and heats the planet;

* Promote local production and consumption of products, reducing the free trade of goods that send millions of tons of CO2 while they travel around the world;

* Stop extractive industries from further destroying nature and contaminating our atmosphere and our land;

* Increase significantly public transport to reduce the unsustainable “car way of life”;

* Reduce the emissions of warfare by promoting genuine peace and dismantling the military and war industry and infrastructure.22

The projects that Yuen describes are worthwhile, but unless the participants are alsocommitted to building mass environmental campaigns, they will not be helping to achieve the vital objectives that Solón identifies. Posing local communes and slow food as alternatives to building a movement against global climate change is effectively a proposal to abandon the fight against capitalist ecocide in favor of creating greenish enclaves, while the world burns.

Bright-siding versus Movement Building

Whatever its merits in other contexts, it is not helpful or appropriate to use the wordcatastrophism as a synonym for telling the truth about the environmental dangers we face. Using the same language as right-wing climate science deniers gives the impression that the dangers are non-existent or exaggerated. Putting accurate environmental warnings in the same category as apocalyptic Christian fundamentalism and century-old misreadings of Marxist economic theory leads to underestimation of the threats we face and directs efforts away from mobilizing an effective counterforce.

Yuen’s argument against publicizing the scientific consensus on climate change echoes the myth that liberal politicians and journalists use to justify their failure to challenge the crimes of the fossil-fuel industry. People are tired of all that doom and gloom, they say. It is time for positivemessages! Or, to use Yuen’s vocabulary, environmentalists need to end “apocalyptic rhetoric” and find better “narrative strategies.”

This is fundamentally an elitist position: the people cannot handle the truth, so a knowledgeable minority must sugarcoat it, to make the necessary changes palatable.

David Spratt of the Australian organization Climate Code Red calls that approach “bright-siding,” a reference to the bitterly satirical Monty Python song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

The problem is, Spratt writes: “If you avoid including an honest assessment of climate science and impacts in your narrative, it’s pretty difficult to give people a grasp about where the climate system is heading and what needs to be done to create the conditions for living in climate safety, rather than increasing and eventually catastrophic harm.”23 Joe Romm makes the same point: “You’d think it would be pretty obvious that the public is not going to be concerned about an issue unless one explains why they should be concerned.”24

Of course, this does not mean that we only need to explain the science. We need to propose concrete goals, as Pablo Solón has done. We need to show how the scientific consensus about climate change relates to local and national concerns such as pipelines, tar sands, fracking, and extreme weather. We need to work with everyone who is willing to confront any aspect of the crisis, from people who still have illusions about capitalism to convinced revolutionaries. Activists in the wealthy countries must be unstinting in their political and practical solidarity with the primary victims of climate change, indigenous peoples, and impoverished masses everywhere.

We need to do all of that and more.

But the first step is to tell the truth—about the danger we face, about its causes, and about the measures that must be taken to turn back the threat. In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Notes

  1.  Fraser C. Lott, Nikolaos Christidis, and Peter A. Stott, “Can the 2011 East African Drought Be Attributed to Human-Induced Climate Change?,” Geophysical Research Letters 40, no. 6 ( March 2013): 1177–81.
  2.  UNDP, “’Rise of South’ Transforming Global Power Balance, Says 2013 Human Development Report,” March 14, 2013, http://undp.org.
  3.  Tom Harris, “Climate Catastrophism Picking Up Again in the U.S. and Across the World,”Somewhat Reasonable, October 10, 2012 http://blog.heartland.org.
  4.  Pierre Gosselin, “The Climate Catastrophism Cult,” NoTricksZone, February 12, 2011, http://notrickszone.com.
  5.  Ray Evans, “The Chilling Costs of Climate Catastrophism,” Quadrant Online, June 2008. http://quadrant.org.au.
  6.  Franz Mauelshagen, “Climate Catastrophism: The History of the Future of Climate Change,” in Andrea Janku, Gerrit Schenk, and Franz Mauelshagen, Historical Disasters in Context: Science, Religion, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2012), 276.
  7.  Alexander Cockburn, “Is Global Warming a Sin?,” CounterPunch, April 28–30, 2007, http://counterpunch.org.
  8.  Alexander Cockburn, “Who are the Merchants of Fear?,” CounterPunch, May 12–14, 2007, http:// counterpunch.org.
  9.  Alexander Cockburn, “I Am An Intellectual Blasphemer,” Spiked Review of Books, January 9, 2008, http://spiked-online.com.
  10.  Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, “Preface,” Socialist Register 2007: Coming to Terms With Nature(London: Merlin Press/Monthly Review Press, 2006), ix–x.
  11. 11.“Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review 58, no. 10 (March 2007), http://monthlyreview.org.
  12.  Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (Oakland: PM Press, 2012).
  13.  Yuen’s footnote cites an article which is identical to a news release issued the previous day by Texas A&M University; see “Increased Knowledge About Global Warming Leads to Apathy, Study Shows,” Science Daily, March 28, 2008, http://eurekalert.org. The original paper, which Yuen does not cite, is: P.M. Kellstedt, S. Zahran, and A. Vedlitz, “Personal Efficacy, the Information Environment, and Attitudes Towards Global Warming and Climate Change in the United State,”Risk Analysis 28, no. 1 (2008): 113–26.
  14.  Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap, “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001–2010,” The Sociological Quarterly 52 (2011): 155–94.
  15.  A. Leiserowitz, et. al., Global Warming’s Six Americas, September 2012 (New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2013), http://environment.yale.edu.
  16.  Robert J. Brulle, Jason Carmichael, and J. Craig Jenkins, “Shifting Public Opinion on Climate Change: An Empirical Assessment of Factors Influencing Concern Over Climate Change in the U.S., 2002–2010,” Climatic Change 114, no. 2 (September 2012): 169–88.
  17.  Joe Romm, “Apocalypse Not: The Oscars, The Media and the Myth of ‘Constant Repetition of Doomsday Messages’ on Climate,” Climate Progress, February 24, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org.
  18.  Douglas Fischer. “2010 in Review: The Year Climate Coverage ‘Fell off the Map,’” Daily Climate, January 3, 2011. http://dailyclimate.org; “Climate Coverage Down Again in 2011,” Daily Climate, January 3, 2012, http://dailyclimate.org; “Climate Coverage, Dominated by Weird Weather, Falls Further in 2012,” Daily Climate, January 2, 2013, http://dailyclimate.org.
  19.  Maxwell T. Boykoff, Who Speaks for the Climate?: Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 24.
  20.  Neil T. Gavin, “Addressing Climate Change: A Media Perspective,” Environmental Politics 18, no. 5 (September 2009): 765–80.
  21.  Two responses to David Noble are: Derrick O’Keefe, “Denying Time and Place in the Global Warming Debate,” Climate & Capitalism, June 7, 2007, http://climateandcapitalism.com; Justin Podur, “Global Warming Suspicions and Confusions,” ZNet, May 11, 2007, http://zcommunications.org.
  22.  Pablo Solón, “A Contribution to the Climate Space 2013: How to Overcome the Climate Crisis?,”Climate Space, March 14, 2013, http://climatespace2013.wordpress.com.
  23.  David Spratt, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: Bright-siding Climate Advocacy and Its Consequences, April 2012, http://climatecodered.org.
  24.  Joe Romm, “Apocalypse Not.”

Ian Angus is editor of the online journal Climate & Capitalism. He is co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis(Haymarket, 2011), and editor of The Global Fight for Climate Justice(Fernwood, 2010).
He would like to thank Simon Butler, Martin Empson, John Bellamy Foster, John Riddell, Javier Sethness, and Chris Williams for comments and suggestions.

Rising Seas (Nat Geo)

Picture of Seaside Heights, New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy

As the planet warms, the sea rises. Coastlines flood. What will we protect? What will we abandon? How will we face the danger of rising seas?

By Tim Folger

Photographs by George Steinmetz

September 2013

By the time Hurricane Sandy veered toward the Northeast coast of the United States last October 29, it had mauled several countries in the Caribbean and left dozens dead. Faced with the largest storm ever spawned over the Atlantic, New York and other cities ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas. Not everyone complied. Those who chose to ride out Sandy got a preview of the future, in which a warmer world will lead to inexorably rising seas.

Brandon d’Leo, a 43-year-old sculptor and surfer, lives on the Rockaway Peninsula, a narrow, densely populated, 11-mile-long sandy strip that juts from the western end of Long Island. Like many of his neighbors, d’Leo had remained at home through Hurricane Irene the year before. “When they told us the tidal surge from this storm would be worse, I wasn’t afraid,” he says. That would soon change.

D’Leo rents a second-floor apartment in a three-story house across the street from the beach on the peninsula’s southern shore. At about 3:30 in the afternoon he went outside. Waves were crashing against the five-and-a-half-mile-long boardwalk. “Water had already begun to breach the boardwalk,” he says. “I thought, Wow, we still have four and a half hours until high tide. In ten minutes the water probably came ten feet closer to the street.”

Back in his apartment, d’Leo and a neighbor, Davina Grincevicius, watched the sea as wind-driven rain pelted the sliding glass door of his living room. His landlord, fearing the house might flood, had shut off the electricity. As darkness fell, Grincevicius saw something alarming. “I think the boardwalk just moved,” she said. Within minutes another surge of water lifted the boardwalk again. It began to snap apart.

Three large sections of the boardwalk smashed against two pine trees in front of d’Leo’s apartment. The street had become a four-foot-deep river, as wave after wave poured water onto the peninsula. Cars began to float in the churning water, their wailing alarms adding to the cacophony of wind, rushing water, and cracking wood. A bobbing red Mini Cooper, its headlights flashing, became wedged against one of the pine trees in the front yard. To the west the sky lit up with what looked like fireworks—electrical transformers were exploding in Breezy Point, a neighborhood near the tip of the peninsula. More than one hundred homes there burned to the ground that night.

The trees in the front yard saved d’Leo’s house, and maybe the lives of everyone inside—d’Leo, Grincevicius, and two elderly women who lived in an apartment downstairs. “There was no option to get out,” d’Leo says. “I have six surfboards in my apartment, and I was thinking, if anything comes through the wall, I’ll try to get everyone on those boards and try to get up the block. But if we’d had to get in that water, it wouldn’t have been good.”

After a fitful night’s sleep d’Leo went outside shortly before sunrise. The water had receded, but thigh-deep pools still filled parts of some streets. “Everything was covered with sand,” he says. “It looked like another planet.”

A profoundly altered planet is what our fossil-fuel-driven civilization is creating, a planet where Sandy-scale flooding will become more common and more destructive for the world’s coastal cities. By releasing carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, we have warmed the Earth by more than a full degree Fahrenheit over the past century and raised sea level by about eight inches. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the existing greenhouse gases would continue to warm the Earth for centuries. We have irreversibly committed future generations to a hotter world and rising seas.

In May the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, the highest since three million years ago. Sea levels then may have been as much as 65 feet above today’s; the Northern Hemisphere was largely ice free year-round. It would take centuries for the oceans to reach such catastrophic heights again, and much depends on whether we manage to limit future greenhouse gas emissions. In the short term scientists are still uncertain about how fast and how high seas will rise. Estimates have repeatedly been too conservative.

Global warming affects sea level in two ways. About a third of its current rise comes from thermal expansion—from the fact that water grows in volume as it warms. The rest comes from the melting of ice on land. So far it’s been mostly mountain glaciers, but the big concern for the future is the giant ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Six years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report predicting a maximum of 23 inches of sea-level rise by the end of this century. But that report intentionally omitted the possibility that the ice sheets might flow more rapidly into the sea, on the grounds that the physics of that process was poorly understood.

As the IPCC prepares to issue a new report this fall, in which the sea-level forecast is expected to be slightly higher, gaps in ice-sheet science remain. But climate scientists now estimate that Greenland and Antarctica combined have lost on average about 50 cubic miles of ice each year since 1992—roughly 200 billion metric tons of ice annually. Many think sea level will be at least three feet higher than today by 2100. Even that figure might be too low.

“In the last several years we’ve observed accelerated melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica,” says Radley Horton, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City. “The concern is that if the acceleration continues, by the time we get to the end of the 21st century, we could see sea-level rise of as much as six feet globally instead of two to three feet.” Last year an expert panel convened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration adopted 6.6 feet (two meters) as its highest of four scenarios for 2100. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends that planners consider a high scenario of five feet.

One of the biggest wild cards in all sea-level-rise scenarios is the massive Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Four years ago NASA sponsored a series of flights over the region that used ice-penetrating radar to map the seafloor topography. The flights revealed that a 2,000-foot-high undersea ridge holds the Thwaites Glacier in place, slowing its slide into the sea. A rising sea could allow more water to seep between ridge and glacier and eventually unmoor it. But no one knows when or if that will happen.“That’s one place I’m really nervous about,” says Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State University and an author of the last IPCC report. “It involves the physics of ice fracture that we really don’t understand.” If the Thwaites Glacier breaks free from its rocky berth, that would liberate enough ice to raise sea level by three meters—nearly ten feet. “The odds are in our favor that it won’t put three meters in the ocean in the next century,” says Alley. “But we can’t absolutely guarantee that. There’s at least some chance that something very nasty will happen.”

Even in the absence of something very nasty, coastal cities face a twofold threat: Inexorably rising oceans will gradually inundate low-lying areas, and higher seas will extend the ruinous reach of storm surges. The threat will never go away; it will only worsen. By the end of the century a hundred-year storm surge like Sandy’s might occur every decade or less. Using a conservative prediction of a half meter (20 inches) of sea-level rise, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that by 2070, 150 million people in the world’s large port cities will be at risk from coastal flooding, along with $35 trillion worth of property—an amount that will equal 9 percent of the global GDP. How will they cope?

“During the last ice age there was a mile or two of ice above us right here,” says Malcolm Bowman, as we pull into his driveway in Stony Brook, New York, on Long Island’s north shore. “When the ice retreated, it left a heap of sand, which is Long Island. All these rounded stones you see—look there,” he says, pointing to some large boulders scattered among the trees near his home. “They’re glacial boulders.”

Bowman, a physical oceanographer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has been trying for years to persuade anyone who will listen that New York City needs a harbor-spanning storm-surge barrier. Compared with some other leading ports, New York is essentially defenseless in the face of hurricanes and floods. London, Rotterdam, St. Petersburg, New Orleans, and Shanghai have all built levees and storm barriers in the past few decades. New York paid a high price for its vulnerability last October. Sandy left 43 dead in the city, of whom 35 drowned; it cost the city some $19 billion. And it was all unnecessary, says Bowman.

“If a system of properly designed storm-surge barriers had been built—and strengthened with sand dunes at both ends along the low-lying coastal areas—there would have been no flooding damage from Sandy,” he says.

Bowman envisions two barriers: one at Throgs Neck, to keep surges from Long Island Sound out of the East River, and a second one spanning the harbor south of the city. Gates would accommodate ships and tides, closing only during storms, much like existing structures in the Netherlands and elsewhere. The southern barrier alone, stretching five miles between Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and the Rockaway Peninsula, might cost $10 billion to $15 billion, Bowman estimates. He pictures a six-lane toll highway on top that would provide a bypass route around the city and a light-rail line connecting the Newark and John F. Kennedy Airports.

“It could be an asset to the region,” says Bowman. “Eventually the city will have to face up to this, because the problem is going to get worse. It might take five years of study and another ten years to get the political will to do it. By then there might have been another disaster. We need to start planning immediately. Otherwise we’re mortgaging the future and leaving the next generation to cope as best it can.”

Another way to safeguard New York might be to revive a bit of its past. In the 16th-floor loft of her landscape architectural firm in lower Manhattan, Kate Orff pulls out a map of New York Harbor in the 19th century. The present-day harbor shimmers outside her window, calm and unthreatening on an unseasonably mild morning three months to the day after Sandy hit.

“Here’s an archipelago that protected Red Hook,” Orff says, pointing on the map to a small cluster of islands off the Brooklyn shore. “There was another chain of shoals that connected Sandy Hook to Coney Island.”

The islands and shallows vanished long ago, demolished by harbor-dredging and landfill projects that added new real estate to a burgeoning city. Orff would re-create some of them, particularly the Sandy Hook–Coney Island chain, and connect them with sluice gates that would close during a storm, forming an eco-engineered barrier that would cross the same waters as Bowman’s more conventional one. Behind it, throughout the harbor, would be dozens of artificial reefs built from stone, rope, and wood pilings and seeded with oysters and other shellfish. The reefs would continue to grow as sea levels rose, helping to buffer storm waves—and the shellfish, being filter feeders, would also help clean the harbor. “Twenty-five percent of New York Harbor used to be oyster beds,” Orff says.

Orff estimates her “oystertecture” vision could be brought to life at relatively low cost. “It would be chump change compared with a conventional barrier. And it wouldn’t be money wasted: Even if another Sandy never happens, you’d have a cleaner, restored harbor in a more ecologically vibrant context and a healthier New York.”

In June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined a $19.5 billion plan to defend New York City against rising seas. “Sandy was a temporary setback that can ultimately propel us forward,” he said. The mayor’s proposal calls for the construction of levees, local storm-surge barriers, sand dunes, oyster reefs, and more than 200 other measures. It goes far beyond anything planned by any other American city. But the mayor dismissed the idea of a harbor barrier. “A giant barrier across our harbor is neither practical nor affordable,” Bloomberg said. The plan notes that since a barrier would remain open most of the time, it would not protect the city from the inch-by-inch creep of sea-level rise.

Meanwhile, development in the city’s flood zones continues. Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, says the entire New York metropolitan region urgently needs a master plan to ensure that future construction will at least not exacerbate the hazards from rising seas.

“The problem is we’re still building the city of the past,” says Jacob. “The people of the 1880s couldn’t build a city for the year 2000—of course not. And we cannot build a year-2100 city now. But we should not build a city now that we know will not function in 2100. There are opportunities to renew our infrastructure. It’s not all bad news. We just have to grasp those opportunities.”

Will New York grasp them after Bloomberg leaves office at the end of this year? And can a single storm change not just a city’s but a nation’s policy? It has happened before. The Netherlands had its own stormy reckoning 60 years ago, and it transformed the country.

The storm roared in from the North Sea on the night of January 31, 1953. Ria Geluk was six years old at the time and living where she lives today, on the island of Schouwen Duiveland in the southern province of Zeeland. She remembers a neighbor knocking on the door of her parents’ farmhouse in the middle of the night to tell them that the dike had failed. Later that day the whole family, along with several neighbors who had spent the night, climbed to the roof, where they huddled in blankets and heavy coats in the wind and rain. Geluk’s grandparents lived just across the road, but water swept into the village with such force that they were trapped in their home. They died when it collapsed.

“Our house kept standing,” says Geluk. “The next afternoon the tide came again. My father could see around us what was happening; he could see houses disappearing. You knew when a house disappeared, the people were killed. In the afternoon a fishing boat came to rescue us.”

In 1997 Geluk helped found the Watersnoodmuseum—the “flood museum”—on Schouwen Duiveland. The museum is housed in four concrete caissons that engineers used to plug dikes in 1953. The disaster killed 1,836 in all, nearly half in Zeeland, including a baby born on the night of the storm.

Afterward the Dutch launched an ambitious program of dike and barrier construction called the Delta Works, which lasted more than four decades and cost more than six billion dollars. One crucial project was the five-mile-long Oosterscheldekering, or Eastern Scheldt barrier, completed 27 years ago to defend Zeeland from the sea. Geluk points to it as we stand on a bank of the Scheldt estuary near the museum, its enormous pylons just visible on the horizon. The final component of the Delta Works, a movable barrier protecting Rotterdam Harbor and some 1.5 million people, was finished in 1997.

Like other primary sea barriers in the Netherlands, it’s built to withstand a 1-in-10,000-year storm—the strictest standard in the world. (The United States uses a 1-in-100 standard.) The Dutch government is now considering whether to upgrade the protection levels to bring them in line with sea-level-rise projections.

Such measures are a matter of national security for a country where 26 percent of the land lies below sea level. With more than 10,000 miles of dikes, the Netherlands is fortified to such an extent that hardly anyone thinks about the threat from the sea, largely because much of the protection is so well integrated into the landscape that it’s nearly invisible.

On a bitingly cold February afternoon I spend a couple of hours walking around Rotterdam with Arnoud Molenaar, the manager of the city’s Climate Proof program, which aims to make Rotterdam resistant to the sea levels expected by 2025. About 20 minutes into our walk we climb a sloping street next to a museum designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas. The presence of a hill in this flat city should have alerted me, but I’m surprised when Molenaar tells me that we’re walking up the side of a dike. He gestures to some nearby pedestrians. “Most of the people around us don’t realize this is a dike either,” he says. The Westzeedijk shields the inner city from the Meuse River a few blocks to the south, but the broad, busy boulevard on top of it looks like any other Dutch thoroughfare, with flocks of cyclists wheeling along in dedicated lanes.

As we walk, Molenaar points out assorted subtle flood-control structures: an underground parking garage designed to hold 10,000 cubic meters—more than 2.5 million gallons—of rainwater; a street flanked by two levels of sidewalks, with the lower one designed to store water, leaving the upper walkway dry. Late in the afternoon we arrive at Rotterdam’s Floating Pavilion, a group of three connected, transparent domes on a platform in a harbor off the Meuse. The domes, about three stories tall, are made of a plastic that’s a hundred times as light as glass.

Inside we have sweeping views of Rotterdam’s skyline; hail clatters overhead as low clouds scud in from the North Sea. Though the domes are used for meetings and exhibitions, their main purpose is to demonstrate the wide potential of floating urban architecture. By 2040 the city anticipates that as many as 1,200 homes will float in the harbor. “We think these structures will be important not just for Rotterdam but for many cities around the world,” says Bart Roeffen, the architect who designed the pavilion. The homes of 2040 will not necessarily be domes; Roeffen chose that shape for its structural integrity and its futuristic appeal. “To build on water is not new, but to develop floating communities on a large scale and in a harbor with tides—that is new,” says Molenaar. “Instead of fighting against water, we want to live with it.”

While visiting the Netherlands, I heard one joke repeatedly: “God may have built the world, but the Dutch built Holland.” The country has been reclaiming land from the sea for nearly a thousand years—much of Zeeland was built that way. Sea-level rise does not yet panic the Dutch.

“We cannot retreat! Where could we go? Germany?” Jan Mulder has to shout over the wind—we’re walking along a beach called Kijkduin as volleys of sleet exfoliate our faces. Mulder is a coastal morphologist with Deltares, a private coastal management firm. This morning he and Douwe Sikkema, a project manager with the province of South Holland, have brought me to see the latest in adaptive beach protection. It’s called the zandmotor—the sand engine.

The seafloor offshore, they explain, is thick with hundreds of feet of sand deposited by rivers and retreating glaciers. North Sea waves and currents once distributed that sand along the coast. But as sea level has risen since the Ice Age, the waves no longer reach deep enough to stir up sand, and the currents have less sand to spread around. Instead the sea erodes the coast here.

The typical solution would be to dredge sand offshore and dump it directly on the eroding beaches—and then repeat the process year after year as the sand washes away. Mulder and his colleagues recommended that the provincial government try a different strategy: a single gargantuan dredging operation to create the sandy peninsula we’re walking on—a hook-shaped stretch of beach the size of 250 football fields. If the scheme works, over the next 20 years the wind, waves, and tides will spread its sand 15 miles up and down the coast. The combination of wind, waves, tides, and sand is the zandmotor.

The project started only two years ago, but it seems to be working. Mulder shows me small dunes that have started to grow on a beach where there was once open water. “It’s very flexible,” he says. “If we see that sea-level rise increases, we can increase the amount of sand.” Sikkema adds, “And it’s much easier to adjust the amount of sand than to rebuild an entire system of dikes.”

Later Mulder tells me about a memorial inscription affixed to the Eastern Scheldt barrier in Zeeland: “It says, ‘Hier gaan over het tij, de maan, de wind, en wij—Here the tide is ruled by the moon, the wind, and us.’ ” It reflects the confidence of a generation that took for granted, as we no longer can, a reasonably stable world. “We have to understand that we are not ruling the world,” says Mulder. “We need to adapt.”

With the threats of climate change and sea-level rise looming over us all, cities around the world, from New York to Ho Chi Minh City, have turned to the Netherlands for guidance. One Dutch firm, Arcadis, has prepared a conceptual design for a storm-surge barrier in the Verrazano Narrows to protect New York City. The same company helped design a $1.1 billion, two-mile-long barrier that protected New Orleans from a 13.6-foot storm surge last summer, when Hurricane Isaac hit. The Lower Ninth Ward, which suffered so greatly during Hurricane Katrina, was unscathed.

“Isaac was a tremendous victory for New Orleans,” Piet Dircke, an Arcadis executive, tells me one night over dinner in Rotterdam. “All the barriers were closed; all the levees held; all the pumps worked. You didn’t hear about it? No, because nothing happened.”

New Orleans may be safe for a few decades, but the long-term prospects for it and other low-lying cities look dire. Among the most vulnerable is Miami. “I cannot envision southeastern Florida having many people at the end of this century,” says Hal Wanless, chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. We’re sitting in his basement office, looking at maps of Florida on his computer. At each click of the mouse, the years pass, the ocean rises, and the peninsula shrinks. Freshwater wetlands and mangrove swamps collapse—a death spiral that has already started on the southern tip of the peninsula. With seas four feet higher than they are today—a distinct possibility by 2100—about two-thirds of southeastern Florida is inundated. The Florida Keys have almost vanished. Miami is an island.

When I ask Wanless if barriers might save Miami, at least in the short term, he leaves his office for a moment. When he returns, he’s holding a foot-long cylindrical limestone core. It looks like a tube of gray, petrified Swiss cheese. “Try to plug this up,” he says. Miami and most of Florida sit atop a foundation of highly porous limestone. The limestone consists of the remains of countless marine creatures deposited more than 65 million years ago, when a warm, shallow sea covered what is now Florida—a past that may resemble the future here.

A barrier would be pointless, Wanless says, because water would just flow through the limestone beneath it. “No doubt there will be some dramatic engineering feats attempted,” he says. “But the limestone is so porous that even massive pumping systems won’t be able to keep the water out.”

Sea-level rise has already begun to threaten Florida’s freshwater supply. About a quarter of the state’s 19 million residents depend on wells sunk into the enormous Biscayne aquifer. Salt water is now seeping into it from dozens of canals that were built to drain the Everglades. For decades the state has tried to control the saltwater influx by building dams and pumping stations on the drainage canals. These “salinity-control structures” maintain a wall of fresh water behind them to block the underground intrusion of salt water. To offset the greater density of salt water, the freshwater level in the control structures is generally kept about two feet higher than the encroaching sea.

But the control structures also serve a second function: During the state’s frequent rainstorms their gates must open to discharge the flood of fresh water to the sea.“We have about 30 salinity-control structures in South Florida,” says Jayantha Obeysekera, the chief hydrological modeler at the South Florida Water Management District. “At times now the water level in the sea is higher than the freshwater level in the canal.” That both accelerates saltwater intrusion and prevents the discharge of flood waters. “The concern is that this will get worse with time as the sea-level rise accelerates,” Obeysekera says.

Using fresh water to block the salt water will eventually become impractical, because the amount of fresh water needed would submerge ever larger areas behind the control structures, in effect flooding the state from the inside. “With 50 centimeters [about 20 inches] of sea-level rise, 80 percent of the salinity-control structures in Florida will no longer be functional,” says Wanless. “We’ll either have to drown communities to keep the freshwater head above sea level or have saltwater intrusion.” When sea level rises two feet, he says, Florida’s aquifers may be poisoned beyond recovery. Even now, during unusually high tides, seawater spouts from sewers in Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and other cities, flooding streets.

In a state exposed to hurricanes as well as rising seas, people like John Van Leer, an oceanographer at the University of Miami, worry that one day they will no longer be able to insure—or sell—their houses. “If buyers can’t insure it, they can’t get a mortgage on it. And if they can’t get a mortgage, you can only sell to cash buyers,” Van Leer says. “What I’m looking for is a climate-change denier with a lot of money.”

Unless we change course dramatically in the coming years, our carbon emissions will create a world utterly different in its very geography from the one in which our species evolved. “With business as usual, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach around a thousand parts per million by the end of the century,” says Gavin Foster, a geochemist at the University of Southampton in England. Such concentrations, he says, haven’t been seen on Earth since the early Eocene epoch, 50 million years ago, when the planet was completely ice free. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, sea level on an iceless Earth would be as much as 216 feet higher than it is today. It might take thousands of years and more than a thousand parts per million to create such a world—but if we burn all the fossil fuels, we will get there.

No matter how much we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, Foster says, we’re already locked in to at least several feet of sea-level rise, and perhaps several dozens of feet, as the planet slowly adjusts to the amount of carbon that’s in the atmosphere already. A recent Dutch study predicted that the Netherlands could engineer solutions at a manageable cost to a rise of as much as five meters, or 16 feet. Poorer countries will struggle to adapt to much less. At different times in different places, engineering solutions will no longer suffice. Then the retreat from the coast will begin. In some places there will be no higher ground to retreat to.

By the next century, if not sooner, large numbers of people will have to abandon coastal areas in Florida and other parts of the world. Some researchers fear a flood tide of climate-change refugees. “From the Bahamas to Bangladesh and a major amount of Florida, we’ll all have to move, and we may have to move at the same time,” says Wanless. “We’re going to see civil unrest, war. You just wonder how—or if—civilization will function. How thin are the threads that hold it all together? We can’t comprehend this. We think Miami has always been here and will always be here. How do you get people to realize that Miami—or London—will not always be there?”

What will New York look like in 200 years? Klaus Jacob, the Columbia geophysicist, sees downtown Manhattan as a kind of Venice, subject to periodic flooding, perhaps with canals and yellow water cabs. Much of the city’s population, he says, will gather on high ground in the other boroughs. “High ground will become expensive, waterfront will become cheap,” he says. But among New Yorkers, as among the rest of us, the idea that the sea is going to rise—a lot—hasn’t really sunk in yet. Of the thousands of people in New York State whose homes were badly damaged or destroyed by Sandy’s surge, only 10 to 15 percent are expected to accept the state’s offer to buy them out at their homes’ pre-storm value. The rest plan to rebuild.