A Titanic climate change challenge

James Cameron recently compared climate change to the history of the Titanic – and the metaphor is an intriguing one.

Is our journey on the ship ‘Climate Change’ to end like that of the Titanic? This intriguing thought from James Cameron leads one to speculate on the role of the characters involved and the future of humanity. The National Geographic Explorer and filmmaker has raised this metaphor:

“Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before?

There was this big machine, this human system,  that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.

Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations.

You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn.

We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There are too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ‘em go.

Until they do we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water and so on. It’s going to be poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with Titanic.

I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people. Because it’s a perfect little encapsulation of the world, and all social spectra, but until our lives are really put at risk, the moment of truth, we don’t know what we would do. And that’s my final word.”

The analogies can be taken further.

When the Titanic began to sink, British chivalry held sway – women and children were ushered to the life boats first, although not those from the lower decks (‘the other classes’). Today the climate change Titanic has already struck the iceberg for the children in the developing world. These are the predominant deaths in the rapidly increasing toll reported by the World Health Organisation.

The dedicated Morse code operator on the Titanic put out the SOS message, ‘we are sinking’, interspersed with countless messages from the social glitterati on board. Did this dilute the urgency of the message? Ships in the North Atlantic found the message hard to believe; perhaps analogous to this decade’s urgent scientific messages and the indolent community battlers struggling with their second mortgages?

But who is today’s Wallace Hartley? I am particularly interested in him because it appears he was the ancestor of a mountain climbing mate of mine from Colne, Lancashire. The band of eight he conducted continued playing through the two hour sinking and was last heard as the Titanic sank below the waves. The final piece was either “Nearer My God to Thee” or “Autumn”.  Today, the former is suitable for the American denialist ‘Right’, and “Autumn” for the rest of us.

Perhaps NASA scientist James Hansen is the leader of the band – playing us into oblivion. The political leader of the band has to be a collective, there are dozens of them – read about them in the press any day.

The captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith, remained on the bridge and went down with the ship but J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star line, owners of the Titanic, broke protocol and jumped into a lifeboat of women and children and was saved.  If the ill-fated ship ‘Climate Change’ clashes with 4-6 degrees of temperature rise there will be no lifeboat for any of us, not even for the Bruce Ismays of the corporate empires.

David Shearman is E/Professor of Medicine and Hon Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia an independent public health organisation www.dea.org.au.