December 2012

Losing – and Finding — Our Balance

My daughter is a gymnast, and like many of her compatriots, her least favorite event, hands down, is the balance beam.  Gymnasts may have a wonderful meet, reach the beam, and then a tiny mistake for a split second and boom – a fall and loss of a medal position is a reality.

One of the earliest tricks a gymnast learns to stay on the beam is to tighten up, in order to stay on that cursed 4-inch width of wood.  If you feel wobbly, the way to stay on is simply to tighten every muscle and straighten up, looking straight ahead and ignoring everything else.  This extreme concentration to the exclusion of anything else is part of what sets a champion gymnast apart from the crowd.

I was struck by this analogy when the news of a record sea ice minimum reached the media last summer.  Such an unprecedented development, reached not towards the end of September at the equinox but a full month earlier, is as clear a signal of unbalance in our global environment as one could imagine.  At the same time, most of the stories tried to “balance” what is so clearly a sign of radical unbalance with some “other side.” A special favorite seemed to be reporting (in the same article) a study showing Antarctic sea ice is actually “growing” as the Arctic shrinks.

Balance: tighten those muscles, keep your position and try to stay on.  But sadly, there is no real comparison between the two seas.   One encircles a massive continent; the other comprises vast open waters almost entirely surrounded by land.   Very different dynamics control the sea ice at the north and south poles.   More to the point, Antarctic sea ice has “grown” by a mere one percent during a 30-year period, while Arctic sea ice lost nearly 50 percent of its extent – and even more of its mass – in that same period.

Tighten your position.  Stay on that line and ignore everything else.

I once accompanied one of most respected, brilliant diplomats I have ever known, a senior arms control expert, on a visit to Svalbard, the Norwegian territory far above the Arctic circle.  Hard-nosed in dealing with the pluses and minuses of nuclear weapons, this diplomat dealt in the hard and difficult facts of throw-weights and weapons of mass destruction on a daily basis, not blinking in the face of the difficult reality facing a world able to destroy itself many times over.  Yet when it came to climate change, and the extreme changes we were seeing in the current reality of receding glaciers and ice all around us, those same qualities abandoned him.  “The Earth is a resilient place,” he told at one point, looking out at the receding xx glacier near Ny Ålesund.  “I just cannot believe we humans can do anything to really harm it.  Nature will find a way to adjust.”

This skilled senior negotiator would never have accepted anything but the facts when it came to arms control. Yet when it came to climate change, he suddenly resorted to a leap of faith.

He is not the only one:  especially in the U.S., issues such as climate change are seen as “soft” issues, not the place of focus for our most senior and seasoned diplomats.

Perhaps this story occurred to me also because the threat of nuclear annihilation was what we both had grown up with as a terrible threat to out own existence in the 1960’s.  I have often thought that climate change represents that kind of threat for our own children.  The difference is that climate change is happening, and will continue to happen unless we act – soon.  Yet we try to stay on the balance beam of our past reality.  Tighten up, just focus ahead, ignore the fact that you are falling.

But life in a changing world is not a balance beam, and ignoring our imbalance and tightening our positions is not going to help us stay on a world that is tipping to extremes.  The global climate system is moving and shifting as we continue to impact it with ever-greater amounts of carbon dioxide, with no end of the “beam” in sight.

On this beam, there is no balance to be had, no matter how hard we adhere to the past.  We need to accept a word of radical imbalance before we can possibly begin to address it with the urgency required: the same urgency given threats to our existence of the past.

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