CC - climate change
CO2 - carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas (GHG) responsible for global warming (GW)
GHG - greenhouse gases. Gases like carbon dioxide and methane which trap outgoing infrared radiation (heat) thus contributing to global warming. GHG act like an insulating layer: the more there are, the better the insulation and the hotter the earth gets.
GW - global warming
Each of our action produces unintended consequences. Some of these consequences are beneficial; others, not so much.. (Edgar Morin: La Méthode, "écologie de l'action)
In thinking about the trajectory the world is following - ecocidal, suicidal -, I am led to reflect on the role that neoconservative values, ideology and hubris play in the unfolding tragedy. Neocons adulate the Brash and the Bold, the iconoclasts, the mavericks and scofflaws: Donald Trump, the Philippines' homicidal macho president Rodrigo Duterte, France's Islamophobic populist Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage of Brexit (in)fame. You get the picture: the folks who love to strut their political incorrectness (and gain popularity and votes doing so).
I believe this political attitude can be legitimately seen as an extension, intensification (or degeneration) of the hubris of Western European Christian culture. Five centuries ago, Christian Europe arrogantly assumed the role of converting the "lost souls" outside Europe to the One True Faith. Over time, the power of the Church dwindled, the mask fell away, revealing economic exploitation - and the political leverage it brought - as the true goals.
Today, the folly of this approach to running a planet is becoming evident. Global warming (GW), due to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of human industry, transport and industrialized agriculture, threatens the world's major food production centers. Terrorism and war wait in the wings. The traditional horsemen of the apocalypse: famine, plague and war.. or - more cynically - "Mother Nature's birth regulation program"..
It is now becoming clear, that in order to survive and thrive, human societies should act to minimize the production of "unknown unknowns". (We except those hardy individuals who select themselves as "expendable", who deliberately adopt risky occupations, for example, astronauts, soldiers, doctors fighting ebola epidemics, firefighters. There are legitimate risks that need to be taken and someone has to take them!) Unknown unknowns are the most troublesome unknowns, the ones we are ignorant of. Such unknowns generally emerge and become impactful when a system (ecosystem, social system, organism, enterprise..) is pushed beyond the normal range of values it was designed to function in. Known unknowns, on the other hand, are the one's we have learned to live with like the natural seasonal variations in temperature and storm risk. In principle we can adapt our behaviors to the expected range of variation of known unknowns. We put aside light jackets and sweaters as well as raincoats and umbrellas to deal with the (known, expected) variations in spring and fall weather. For winter, we put aside snow shovels, heavy boots, salt and sand.
When it comes to the health of essential ecosystem services, to maintaining climate stability, or the potential for ethnoracial conflict, we should act, collectively, so that the primary unknowns society has to deal with are known unknowns. In particular, we should avoid pushing vital systems - upon which our lives depend - outside the normal range of operating values they were designed (or evolved) to handle. Such wise policies would, for example, stabilize GHG emissions to minimize nasty (unexpected) surprises in the functioning of vital climatic systems and large regional ecosystems.
A prophecy: it is now too late to avoid Imminent Mass Human Die Off (IMHDO). Put bluntly - the world is screwed (note 1). I predict (going out on a limb here) that it is now too late to stabilize global warming within 1, 1.5, 2 degree Celsius (or whatever the limit of the month is..) A Permian style meltdown of polar region carbon stores has begun, reinforced by powerful positive feed backs (note 2). If the brakes on greenhouse gas emission were slammed on hard, there is a decent chance the planet would move back from a transition to a decidedly warmer global climate. However, this would just be good luck. It is just as likely, if not more so, that "rising living standards" will continue to pump up greenhouse gas levels and that Gaia, the planetary ecosystem, will soon tip into a warmer climatic submode (note 3). Perhaps future generations will live on an earth warmer by 4 or 5 C compared to the world we live in today. Portions of the world could actually become too hot to sustain human life before the century is over.
A wounded earth would then - eventually - slide into the next Ice Age. The warmest portion of the present Interglacial warm period, the hypsitherm, occurred several thousand years ago. We should be cooling off now, slowly sliding into the next glacial era. It is interesting to note that the earth was, in fact, beginning to cool off until the industrial revolution came along and began pumping all those GHG into the atmosphere. The collapse of industrial civilization and global population will, one presumes, allow natural Ice Age dynamics to re-instate themselves. A diminished humanity living on an ecologically diminished earth will encounter the challenges of the next Ice Age with diminished technological capacity to adapt. A Karmic payback, one images, for our arrogance, inflation and hubris.
"As a man sows, so shall he reap" - Jesus
"As you sow the seed so shall you reap the fruit." - Buddha
God/dess knows how the combined impacts of species extinction, ecosystem service destruction, and planetary overheating will affect the dynamics of the next Ice Age. Would a damaged earth experience a harsher than normal Ice Age? Or would it be delayed and shortened in length because of all the GHG? At this stage of the game, it is anyone's guess - unknown unknowns!
Yes, indeedy, the world is a ball of confusion - and our current (failing) culture is only making things worse. Please take a few minutes to read these wise words.
Can anything be done to stave off the impending collapse (or, at least, mitigate its effects)?
I also strongly recommend the following two "experimental" novels by our friend Don Hayward. These explore how the collapse of industrial society might unfold in Ontario providence, Canada, and how a new civilization based on respect for Earth, cooperation and local production and governance could arise (if we are lucky).
1- Note that I wrote "the world is screwed", not "the earth is screwed". The earth, the planet, and the life thereof will survive. We may succeed in damaging the earth's ecosystems to the point that all vertebrates - including ourselves - go extinct (an extremely unlikely proposition!) Nevertheless, insects, plants and bacteria (including primitive bacteria living buried miles deep in rock under the sea floor) would survive.
By "world" I mean a civilizational or cultural perspective on the human condition. A "world" - the Late Classical world of the Mediterranean or the world of the Inuit (Eskimos) before the arrival of Europeans - arises from the interaction of human imagination and the biological and physical world in which that human spirit is immersed and from which it arises. Whether or not humanity goes extinct, our present "World" is dead meat because it is ecologically and demographically unviable, unsustainable.
2- The Permian mass extinction event, 250 million years ago, was the worst: more than 90% of plant and animal species on land and sea went extinct. This mass extinction bears creepy similarities to what is happening to our earth today. Then, as today, massive releases of GHG caused planet-wide GW. The only difference is that then the GHG were due to vast subcontinental volcanic eruptive zones (the Siberian Traps), today the GHG are due to human economic and agricultural activity.
One of the most disquieting similarities relates to the nature of the actual kill mechanisms. The initial Permian volcanic GHG emissions warmed polar regions. This caused permafrost to thaw and decompose, releasing massive quantities of GHG (CO2 and methane). These new emissions amplified the initial GHG warming (positive feedback loop). In addition, methane - an even more potent GHG than CO2 - was released in industrial quantities as buried methane containing ice thawed in shallow polar coastal waters. It is this second pulse of GHG that is generally accepted today as the knock out punch that did most of the killing. In addition, Late Permian ocean waters became stratified (reducing the vertical circulation that oxygenates deep water) and acidified (from atmospheric CO2 absorption and seabed methane release). Life disappeared from large regions of the oceans as toxic anoxic (no oxygen) zones spread. Now, all these kill mechanisms are becoming active today: permafrost is rapidly melting, methane ice in shallow coastal waters is thawing and releasing methane, anoxic zones are spreading..
massive Arctic methane blow hole, Siberia (aerial photo)
Close up of blow hole. Note tiny human figures on upper rim (left side)
3- Ice Ages are periods of about 100,000 years in which global temperatures drop by about 5 C or more. These are separated by shorter Interglacial warm periods lasting several tens of thousand of years. The current Ice Age / Interglacial periodicity is a relatively recent phenomenon in earth's climatic history. It is due to the current patterns of deep water ocean circulation arising from the joining of North and South America about two million years ago.
Not all Ice Ages and Interglacials are created equal! Some Ice Ages are colder than others, some Interglacials are warmer than others. If Ice Ages and Interglacials are two dominant modes that the earth's climate systems swing through then Ice Ages and Interglacials possess several sub-modes. It is conceivable that our current GHG emissions might "pop" our current climate system into a warmer sub-mode. An analog to the world we are probably headed toward would be the last Interglacial (Eemian) when hippopotamuses waddled in the Thames and Rhine rivers while forests grew on what is now arctic tundra.