Posted by: ericgrimsrud | December 15, 2013

Why the gloom and doom?

Up to now, I have always laughed at predictions of impending doom because they have usually been based on some sort of religious “insight” claimed by fanatics   rather than on science.  Nevertheless, it does now appear to me that civilization as we know it will very likely not survive the threat presently posed by climate change.  I am sure that many will also scoff at that statement – surely that just can’t be true, right?  While I also hope I am wrong, of course, I will carefully explain the set of reasons why I have come to believe this.

The First Reason, of course, is related to the underlying Science.  Historically, Science has proved the best way we have for predicting what Mother Nature is likely to do and Science is increasingly indicating that we are presently near an “edge” of the Earth’s range of climate stability beyond which irreversible perturbations are expected to drive our climate to very different states.  Because of the unprecedented rapidity of these changes, many existing forms of life, including a major portion of our human population, are not expected to survive possibly even through the next century. As evidence of this scientific view, have a look at the comprehensive paper just released by Hansen et al entitled “Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change : Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations, and Nature”.  While this paper is scientifically comprehensive most of  it is written in a manner that is readily understandable by the lay-public. Its 18 authors are all recognized authorities in the area of climate change. The full paper can be seen at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0081648 and a shorter and more user-friendly summary of it can be seen at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=dangerous-climate-change-imminent&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_ENGYSUS_20131205

The difficulty made clear by this paper is that in order to keep Earth’s climate within that range of stability, the world must begin to reduce its CO2 emissions by about 6% annually starting RIGHT NOW!  Given that the rate of fossil fuel emissions increased exponentially at an annual rate of 1.5% during period between 1980 and 2000  and then at an annual rate of 3% between 2000 and 2012, it does not seem likely that any reductions in fossil fuel emissions will be occurring soon.  In addition, recent advances in the production of  nonconventional fossil fuels, such as oil from tar sands and gas and oil from the fracking of shale deposits, make it additionally difficult to envision a turnaround in our use of fossil fuels in the coming decade or more.

Thus, the first and most important factor for why we are probably doomed is that there is a total disconnect between the best science available on the subject of climate change and the worldwide forces behind “business-as-usual”.

My Second Reason for a prediction of doom is related to the Earth’s thermal inertia.  It takes too long for the effects of increased warming by the greenhouse gases to be witnessed by the humans that are causing them.  Thus, the increased warming that is now operative due to our 400 ppm level of atmospheric CO2 will not have its full effect for several decades.  Thus, we cannot even see today what we have already done.  This provides the Deniers of man-caused warming with the basis for their main argument –  it’s nothing more than “a theory” – and far too many are comforted by that erroneous thought.

My Third Reason is related  to the extraordinarily long life-time of the extra CO2 we put into our atmosphere. Today we have 40% more atmospheric CO2 than we had at the beginning of the Industrial Age and 30% more than we have ever had in the last 3 million years.  And even if we stopped all fossil fuel emissions today, that extra CO2 would remain in the atmosphere for several centuries.  In addition, the warming it causes will remain for several millennia. The only thing that man has any control over is the accumulated amount of CO2 that we have put into the atmosphere at the point in time when we finally do stop burning fossil fuels.  And every year we are adding about 0.6% (2-3 ppm) to that total.

The Forth Reason for a prediction of environmental doom is related to what I call the unwarranted hubris of mankind.  Human beings today tend to think their civilizations have survived for a very long time and that  they will be able to handle just about any future problem that confronts them.  Thus, we often hear  boasts such as “we have faced some tough issues before and will solve this one too” or  “I have heard these doomsday scenarios before and am not going to be taken in by this one either”.  The great fallacy in this line of thinking is that civilized forms of mankind have, in fact, only been around for about 6,000 years – which is essentially nothing on the geological time scale.  Furthermore, scientifically astute forms of humanity have existed for only a couple centuries and we are just beginning to understand some of the major long-term impacts of mankind on his  planet.

A Fifth Reason is that the subgroup of human beings that will be most impacted by the coming ravages of climate change are not yet in a position to influence and control public policy on this issue.  I am referring here to the younger humans and by that I mean to include children, adolescents, and even young adults.  Children, of course, wouldn’t be expected to understand the issue yet and while adolescents and young adults might understand, they tend to be fully consumed with the more immediate pressures of their lives, i.e. personal and professional development along with child-rearing.  I remember being in that state myself several decades ago when I did not spend so much time as I now do pondering and trying to influence the larger issues of our times. Furthermore, when younger, I probably trusted the more senior and experienced members of society who I assumed were looking after the big issues (much of that naivety was removed over the several subsequent decades beginning with the Vietnam War). Thus, it appears to me that only the older among us are likely to have the maturity, experience, and the time required to deal with the climate change issue in the timely manner required – while cutting our youngsters some slack for developing their personal and professional lives.

In summarizing all of this, predictions of doom are appropriate today because (1) the best science tells us that we are approaching the edge of our planet’s range of stability, (2) we cannot see in a timely manner the harm we are doing, (3) the culprit – extra atmospheric CO2 – will be with us forever on a human time scale, (4)  mankind is so scientifically immature that he does not  have the sense to heed the advice of its most accomplished scientific experts, and (5) the younger portions of our population who will be most affected by climate change do not yet have the  maturity, time and inclination to lobby forcefully for strong action on climate change.

For all of these reasons, it seems to me that there is little reason to be optimistic about mankind’s so called “fight” against the upcoming ravages of global warming. If I have overlooked something of significance here and am mistaken in this outlook, please do share with me and the readership of this blog what that might be. As we proceed with “business-as-usual” into and through the present decade, it would be nice to be able to envision any reason there might be for expecting a reasonably bright future for young people and our descendants.  I now fear that any predictions of long-term stability and prosperity is likely to come only from the more religiously and philosophically imaginative among us. Unfortunately, Mother Nature does not seem to share my own high regard for the Humanities.


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