Climate change is a question of scale

1200 km from the northern border of Kazakhstan with Russia – three days torturous drive across arid sands that stretch from curving horizon to curving horizon, past glaring white salt beds that once were water – you will find a dot of a town in the middle of the Kysylkum desert. The metal arch over the road will inform you that you have reached Aral. The first thing to catch your eye will be the gleaming modern fuelling station on your left – unfortunately today it is without diesel – a quick hands and feet chat to the manager will inform you that the diesel truck should be here in a few hours.
The next fuelling station is 150 km to the south so you might decide to wait and wander over the town square, no more than a dusty piece of desert, to the market. Here things hang off strings strung from corrugated iron shack to corrugated iron shack; as a normal sized westerner you will have to duck and dodge under bags and brooms as you make your way from stall to stall. You will find carpets and cloth in acid bright colours, freshly baked crusty bread, stubby knobbly desert cucumbers and sweet deep red tomatoes. You will find cheese, which comes in a barrel out of which they scoop great spoonfuls of white curdels, you will find balls of salty butter, potatoes and freshly slaughtered chickens. You will even find a bottle of Pepsi. But what you will not find is fish.

There is no fish in Aral. Why on earth should this bother you? Simply because the reason that the town of Aral exists is fish. Aral is – or more correctly – was a port or maybe it is still a port as the port is still there, it is the sea that is missing. Odd that. The Aral Sea started vanishing into itself in 1970’s and now the only indication that there is still a body of water somewhere out there – beyond the white chemical encrusted sand and shimmering lake mirage on the horizon – is the occasional seagull that incongruously floats above the heads of the pale camels that wander freely in the dusty streets.

The lack of fish and subsequent economic devastation of Aral is the direct result of long years of human abuse of the ecosystem around the Aral Sea. This abuse culminated in the Soviet ‘’Virgin Lands’ project in the 1950’s; this was the Soviet’s grandiose plan to green the desert by planting fields of wheat and cotton in the desert which they would irrigate by diverting the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers . Rivers whose waters , according to the Soviets , were just going to waste into the Aral Sea. The Soviet collective farmers put the sand to the plough, they planted and sowed and irrigated and irrigated and irrigated and at some point they took just a touch too much water and unknowingly tipped the balance of the ecosystem of the region and started the irreversible shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The ecosystem of planet Earth is like that of Kazakhstan; a delicately balanced see-saw and every time we walk into a shop and buy something we really don’t need, every time we forget to turn off the lights, when we turn up the heat instead of putting on a jersey, when we drive to the corner shop instead of taking a walk, every time we do one of a hundred unthinking things we add to the unbalancing of the see-saw.

The problem is; by the time we noticed that the ecological see-saw of the greater Aral region had tipped, the Aral Sea was already dying and even after we noticed there was nothing we could do. The sea continues to shrink and the sand storms that now plague the region blow polluted sand far around the planet degrading agricultural land and water where-ever it lands. The Aral Sea disaster is proof that human activity can change the climate yet; as global climatic change is still too large and vague for us to measure, we continue to believe we are too small to each make a difference.

We accept however that a tiny bacterium that is transmitted by fleas caused the Bubonic plague; which between 1348 and 1353 caused the death of 25 million people in Europe. We accept that even in our times of highly advanced medical science we are unable to stop the AIDS virus which has killed 25 Million people since 1981 and 2 million in 2007 alone. Today we look with great concern at the spread of Mexican flu as we accept that this flu could turn into a global pandemic. With viruses and bacteria we are quite happy to accept that small could be potentially deadly. Human activity can be seen the same way.

From a vantage point where the whole of earth would be visible ,  say we were sipping sundowners on a deck chair on the moon,  we would see a ball of green and blue suspended in a sea of black. From this distant vantage point we could see the smoke clouds of the burning rainforests we could see the giant pollution slicks in the air and sea but we would have to employ a pretty big telescope to see us; the 6 billion busy little microbes all destroying our tiny part of the greater organism and only then could we imagine how all our little acts of destruction eventually come together.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change); which was established in 1988, has been attempting to provide us with just that telescope. Since it’s inception it has gathered information from the leading thinkers in all fields that are suspected to affect -or to be affected by- climate change. By carefully reviewing and correlating all scientific papers and reports on the global climate issue the IPCC has allowed us to get an overview of the problem. Initially the IPCC reports came to very conservative conclusions that were easy to push aside to make way for more seemingly more pressing immediate problems. Recent years have seen the IPCC reports coming to a clearer and undisputable conclusion; in the last 50 years the speed of climate change has increased alarmingly and this is undoubtedly due to ecologically destructive human activity. Destructive activity that is on the increase daily.

As more humans move into the dead zones of cities they become disconnected from nature and no longer have any concept that they need the diversity of the planet to sustain them. In a city it is easy to believe that as long as there is a supermarket around the corner and a petrol station within driving distance all will be well. The connection between the weather and the produce that we buy in the supermarket is lost. Generations of children are growing up who will never pluck a dewy peach from a tree, who will never lie on their backs to stare at the stars or to find animals in the clouds.

Yet they are the ones easy to convince to change their destructive behaviour. More difficult to convince are the generations of people who are already completely entrenched in a lifestyle that is the cause of climatic change. These people are unable to see life outside of their own private sphere let alone make the imaginary leap required to see how much we have to change our thinking to stop a problem we are collectively creating and have no way of controlling or predicting. When the global ecological see-saw looses its balance, the changes it will bring will spill over all our lives.

There are no borders and boundaries to contain global climatic chaos. We all breathe the same air, we are touched by the same grain of sand and we all drink the same water; again and again. We are of Earth and the Earth we are unwittingly destroying is our only refuge. Despite the fact that we believe we are the masters of the universe, we cannot stop the flood rains from falling or divert a hurricane; we cannot bring back the river dolphins of the Yangtze. The rainforests that we cut down in an instant will not grow back in our lifetime – perhaps ever- the climatic chaos we are unwittingly creating is a sum of all these parts. When the global ecological see-saw looses its balance, the changes it will bring will make us look at the shrinking of the Aral Sea and wonder why we did not react to the future dangers it warned us of.

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