Y2K, Meet Climate Change

By Cam  Mather

I started selling computers in 1982, just as microcomputers came on the market, hence my ability to secure employment there. I had sold radio advertising, learned the difference between an 8088 and 8086 processor and bluffed my way into a job.

When the Apple Macintosh came out in 1984 I was smitten and my charming wife, who had a good job as a teacher, bought one for us under the “Own a Mac” program. Apple always had the best promotions, like “Test Drive a Mac” where you could just take one home for a night or weekend to check it out. The folks at Apple knew that once you’d had a Mac in your house it would be hard to give it back!

In 1984 I was aware of Y2K. Apple used this as a selling feature. No one thought much about it, but it was at the back of my mind. Come on, it was 16 years away, who worries about that in the business world? In the early 1990s I read warnings about it periodically in computer and trade magazines but again, it was largely being ignored. It wasn’t until 2000 was a few years away that it became a crisis of epic proportions.

As I recall, all the computer code that had been written assumed that the date would be 19XX. Assuming that the 19 would be a constant, computer programmers really just used those last two digits for all their code (or something along these lines). The powers that be in the business and government world had decided that it was inconsequential to bother to add the time and cost to acknowledge that the year 2000 might actually arrive. And as it got closer our society became more and more dependent on technology from power stations to oil refineries to washing machines.

If companies had started changing their code early on, say whenever they introduced a major upgrade to their software or hardware, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. But humans don’t work that way. That would have cost money. And really, don’t worry; be happy, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If they had started early it would have cost millions of dollars, but short-term oriented organizations preferred to put that money in to their bottom lines and hence their pockets.

So instead we left it until the last minute and it cost us billions of dollars. It became a really big deal. Since the lights stayed on in Times Square as 1999 became 2000, everyone assumed that everything had gone just fine. It didn’t. There were numerous problems, we just didn’t hear about them. I know an electrician from the Canadian military who helped me work on our generator once. He had been involved with keeping the power on in an area of Ottawa that was designed to be the head of military and government operations should we have some of the problems that were predicted. All their equipment was Y2K compliant and ready to go, and at the stroke of midnight the block went dark. I certainly never heard about it on the news, but I also know the person who told me was not prone to exaggeration.

And today we have this climate change thing. Back in 1989 I stood in front of Burlington City Council recommending some tough measures in their Official Plan and they were unmoved. I used information from climate scientists who had modeled weather patterns that resembled some of the big storms we’ve been experiencing, like Super Storm Sandy. “Mr. Mather you sound like Chicken Little, go back to the Sustainable Development Committee and leave us alone.”

If we had started to take aggressive action on carbon emissions 20 years ago we would be in a much better situation than we are in today. If we had taxed carbon, we’d all be living in more efficient homes and driving less, in more efficient cars. We’d be flying less. We wouldn’t be burning coal. And many of us would be heating with geothermal.

But now we’ve got this royal mess.

I’m reading a book right now called “Hell and High Water” by Joseph Romm. He was one of Clinton’s advisors on climate. In it he talks about how scientists are usually pretty low key. They write articles in peer reviewed publications, but they haven’t historically sought the limelight. In fact, it’s frowned upon in the scientific community. Remember Carl “billions and billions” Sagan? Apparently they wouldn’t even let him into the National Academy of Scientists. That’ll teach him for being on Johnny Carson.

So what’s happening today? Well a lot of scientists are getting very vocal. They’ve decided this issue is too important to stay quiet. They were wrong. They underestimated the intensity and rate of climate change and now they know we have to do something quickly. Something radical.

I remember reading about James Hansen from NASA who for years fought being muzzled by the Bush administration. He kept putting the data out there. He vowed he’d never write a book, but then he wrote “Storms of my Grandchildren” because he is so worried. I haven’t read it yet because you can’t buy Prozac over the counter yet. I’m finding there is no amount of chocolate and Dr. Pepper that can help you get through these books.

Climate Scientist Bill McKibben helped create “350.org.” We’re at 390 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere on our way to climate purgatory and he and others advocate that we need to throttle that number back to 350 ppm. Twenty years ago he was advocating we take the simple easy steps. Now he’s suggesting we really have to pump up the volume on this.

Here’s the overview of his “Do the Math” campaign. http://vimeo.com/53979295

Michelle and I know from the comments on this blog that our readers understand this and are taking personal action. I just wish we could get some of “The Powers That Be” to smarten up and take this seriously, really seriously. I just can’t understand how a government would stand by and watch a devastating drought, unprecedented heat waves, catastrophic wild fires and cataclysmic superstorms causing billions of dollars in damage (not to mention the loss of life) and not take action. Our elected politicians are like deer caught in headlights and we all know how that ends.

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Note from Michelle – Welcome to our new subscribers, who recently found us through Mother Earth News. We hope you aren’t turned off by the doom and gloom of this post – you’ll find that our blog is a wonderful blend of serious posts and humorous ones. We’re here to encourage our readers to live more sustainable lives and our topics are wide ranging.

For the next month or so, we’ll be posting 3 times a week. Cam has been on a bit of a writing tear and so I have a backlog of posts to edit and publish. Be sure to stay tuned….

6 Responses to “Y2K, Meet Climate Change”

  • Cat:

    Since the earths creation, it has been in constant climate change. It has cycled through ice ages, plate techtonics and now human influence. It will continue to do so. Extinction has been part of this process since the beginning and humans have been here for only a short time. We probably won’t be around forever.

  • SusanJoy:

    On a closer-to-home perspective, I am in Michigan, USA where we experienced un-precedented “altered” seasonal changes — Our usual heaps and mounds of “Winter” and its frozen-snow-that-becomes-spring-filling water, never came last winter — instead we had “months” of October weather from October through January with only a few brief flurries –then late January became MARCH-weather and JUNE happened in late April with AUGUST HEAT moving in skipping spring-blooming seasons altogether –AS a small farmer we were stunned –crops–what few there were, were stunted, fried or non-existent — If we had been “forced” to live off our harvest we would have starved along with our animals! Our honey-bees died of starvation and heat — no spring flowers meant no early honey sources — early-season blasting HEAT killed off later crops with again no blooms for them to harvest from — Many hay-fields fried & dried up, and farm livestock suffered immeasureably from poor pasture then no hay. Truckers were coming up from Indiana with flat-bed semi-trailers buying what hay they could find at double the price — fortunately we have a good relationship with a local hay-farmer and he held back hay-sales to outside sources to be sure his local farmers/friends and neighbors would have hay from him through the winter months…and already AGAIN we are having MARCH weather in January ….”Hurray” for the sunshine, but oh what a price !! and the costs continue to be passed on to others …higher prices in foods and living — greater losses to our planet and environment for ourselves and our futures… there are so many alternatives that can be pursued in our normal day-to-day “consumerism” that could improve the picture–but if you were to look up the DEFINITION of “consumerism” we would find that THEREIN lies the problem! We ACCEPT the concept of “consumerism”, when in fact we should be seeking an alternative perception based on sustainability — But THAT alternative may only become fashionable when folks realize that their food doesn’t REALLY come from the grocery store shelves — it comes from the crops in the fields on the farms that are going under or are being CONSUMED by big-ag interests (WHOLE other rant !)– And really, is their ANY alternative to EATING? …

  • SteveR:

    Well, the Y2K situation and climate change are quite different. I was working on major telecommunications equipment at the time (running about 50% of the NA continent) and I can tell you that Y2K planning started well in advance of Y2K but took only a few weeks of effort to review, fix and test any issues that might have arisen. Most of the issues would have been in billing and some displays. The media made a big deal of Y2K, not the people on the ground who had to make the changes necessary. Doing this task any sooner wouldn’t have removed the need to do it again just before Y2K anyway, since it needed to be verified again.

    Now, climate change is much different, because of the lag effect. It could be argued that the damage has been done already and any action now may only reduce the impact later (though no one seems to be certain of the runaway effect of exposing more of the arctic and antarctic waters).

    On the other hand, as a species, we still have some growing up to do. When it came to agriculture, we learned that cultivating crops was more productive than hunting and gathering. Now, we have to learn the lesson that hunting and gathering of energy can be superseded by much more efficient and abundant cultivation of energy (solar, gravitational, geothermal, cosmic, whatever). This is even possible with the current (broken) economic model of the profit motive and eternal growth – but of course we will have to be shaken out of our infancy in that regard as well and develop a new economic model that produces the intended outcomes.

    In the meantime, the important thing is to continue the conversation. Things do change. Recycling today is almost commonplace. Learn to take care of yourself and then invite your neighbors over for a bbq and create the new normal!

  • Rick:

    Hey Cam,

    Another good post, and very true.

    I was just listening to the radio here in the Chicagoland area, where it’s in the 40s and headed to the 50s by the weekend. And it’s January. Anyway, this guy was interviewing a “weather” person, and together they just avoided talking about climate change, rather it was more the same BS. Meaning, basically they boiled down our weather, as “these sorts of things happen, from time to time” — meaning don’t worry.

    What will these fools say, or are told to say, when the whole US becomes a desert. Including other parts of the planet.

    I personally feel the planet is now past the point of no return. Sorry for the doom.

  • Gerrit Botha:

    We’re all on board with climate change in our family. We share the information with our kids as it comes in (and it is a flood these days). They find the same problem with their peers. Most of them are uninformed or don’t realize why they should care. Same with our governments. I think it is a hardwired cognitive problem in human nature and I have no expectation whatsoever of provincial or federal governments ever doing anything useful about climate change. We simply have to find and build local sustainable communities of like-minded people as it is being done in the Transition movement (google the town of Totnes, UK) or in the German village of Wildpoldsried.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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