Op-eds

Welcome to the whirligig

  • Geoff
The ten seconds that the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force had to decide whether or not to shoot down the Ukrainian passenger plane over his military base last week typifies today’s superheated digital world.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jan 16, 2020

The plane was misidentified as a cruise missile. After it was shot, killing all 176 passengers, he was quoted as saying that once it became clear what had happened, he thought, “I wish I was dead.”

This instantaneous decision is characteristic of the 15 seconds Israelis in Sderot had in August 2018 to get to bomb shelters or reinforced rooms after the warning sounded and 150 rockets rained down on southern Israel from Gaza.

Today, digital media like Twitter spreads knowledge and opinions – falsehood and truth – across the planet instantly. Some of it is immensely beneficial, but the instantaneousness is also dangerous. United States President Donald Trump is a master at exploiting this. He can, with a malicious word via Twitter insulting his opponents, cause ructions in global politics raising the risk of war.

Everything is speeding up, challenging our ability to ruminate and contemplate before taking action. So many dramatic events cram each month, it’s hard to notice time passing. Among the latest is panic about containing the Australian bush fires caused partly by rising atmospheric temperatures due to climate change. Bush fires have happened before, but never on this scale. Nearly a billion animals have been affected. The nature of Australian life has to change.

In the Middle East, Israeli life has always been frenetic, to its credit. Israelis’ ability to deal with rapid change is a part of their strength. Now there is concern that weather patterns are becoming so unpredictable, it will affect how people live.

The 2020s opened with a blast regarding climate change’s effect on rainfall. In the week of 5 January, more than 20% of Tel Aviv’s average annual precipitation fell within three hours, breaking records. Low-lying roads, some in major arteries, became impassable.

A second storm days later flooded cities in northern Israel. More heavy rain followed. Cars were seen drowning up to their rooftops under fallen trees.

Israeli forecasters had predicted stormy weather, and warned people to avoid low lying areas. But they hadn’t expected anything so dramatic, so fast. Previously in 2013, the Ayalon – the highway cutting through Tel Aviv – became a torrent because of what they called a “once-in-100-year storm”. But now it’s no longer a 100-year storm. It happened again the following year, and again in 2018.

Scientists don’t know how the multiple impacts of global warming will play out internationally. There is consensus, however, that in decades to come, extreme weather events will become the new normal. The atmosphere’s predictability will lessen. A once-in-50-year storm might become once a decade, or once a year.

In South Africa, it seems that we’ve always lived in our own bubble, politically at odds with the trends in the outside world. This applies no less today regarding climate change, as our corrupt politicians squabble stupidly over power. It’s bizarre that while other countries are trying to reduce carbon emissions, South Africa is still building new coal-fired power stations – Medupi and Kusile – which will add to the amount of carbon it puts into the atmosphere.

Taking a distant view: what do an Iranian air defence operator and an Israeli meteorologist have in common? Time. The Iranian had to act within ten seconds. The climatological equivalent of this catastrophe might be the world’s climate deadline, but the stakes are much higher: the entire planet.

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