Five Facts and a Corollary
by Giddian Beer*
Consider these facts:
(1) Since the final years of the twentieth century, the destructions that we are inflicting on the Earth's environment such as: ecological collapses, loss of useable water, wildlife extinctions, bleaching coral, overfishing and pollution have become undeniable. However, most of the public attention is directed at the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2, a greenhouse gas, that is causing the planet to heat up. This increase is caused by burning fossil fuels and by forest destruction.
(2) Even if CO2 gas emissions and forest destruction could be stopped completely, emission of methane (a more potent greenhouse gas) would continue for a while because of out-gassing from melting permafrost. Also, as polar and glacier ice recede, less solar radiation is reflected, more absorbed. So the temperature increase would persist for decades. The consequence would be degradation or ruin of many habitats and environments worldwide. Adaptation would be difficult.
(3) However, something different will happen. Very few, if any, of the plans for combating global warming contemplate stopping CO2 emissions. All the others, the main ones, call for reduction by some percentage to be attained some years in the future. Therefore, the concentration will continue to rise inexorably. There will be no equilibrium. Heating will increase and accelerate without limit. The result will be devastation to all habitats. Adaptation will be impossible.
(4) An example? The planet Venus is enveloped by a heavy, 96% carbon dioxide, atmosphere that has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. Venus’s surface temperature is about 482° C (900° F), hotter than Mercury’s, hot enough to melt lead.
(5) More than forty-five years ago, with the 1970 inauguration of Earth Days — annual events to celebrate, cherish and protect Earth’s environment — the prospects for prolonging humanity’s existence were significantly improved. However, with the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan those prospects were demolished. Though Reagan had favored environment protection as governor of California, as president of the US he swallowed the rhetorical garbage of fossil fuel producers and their Conservative henchmen. He cut EPA funding, cut renewable energy programs and denigrated environment protection. Popular concern for the environment plummeted.
Now, three-and-a-half decades later: In 2009, Dr. James Hansen (head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and preeminent authority on climate change) published his book “Storms of My Grandchildren . . . the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.” It details the causes and consequences of global warming and expresses consternation at the fancifully inadequate schemes to stop it. Unfortunately, this warning, and a similar warning by Dr. Jared Diamond in his 2005 book “Collapse,” had no more effect than zephyrs in cyclones. The power of greed and stupidity to overwhelm reason, foresight and evidence assures that even the current measly goals for reducing CO2 emissions will not be realized.
Meanwhile, these worldwide trends have been observed for nearly three decades: rising global temperature, dwindling polar and glacier ice, increasing desertification and ocean acidity, vanishing potable water, burning of desiccated forests, grasslands and chaparrals, more — and more destructive — floods, storms and droughts. The most recent years being the most ruinous. The switch to non-fuel energy, mainly solar and wind, though finally progressing nicely, is still too, too small to be significant. It was opposed, hindered and delayed by US Conservatives.
By now, there is so much evidence of critical environment destruction that lingering disbelief is enabled only by willful ignorance and/or psychotic denial.
Yet, today’s damages, happening now, are like nothing compared to what is coming because the damage rate is increasing. Around mid-century, when world population, currently over seven billion, is expected to approach nine billion, deserts will cover more of what is now forest, farm or pasture. Polar ice, including Greenland, will be significantly reduced. Many islands and coastal areas will suffer inundations such as Katrina and Sandy, many others will submerge. Storms and floods will increase in number and severity. Most glaciers in temperate and tropical regions will be much depleted or gone. In East and South Asia, Western North and South America and much of Europe, billions of people depend on glacier melt for steady water supply. Some nations and states in such areas will not have enough year round to sustain their agriculture and industry. Precipitation might continue or increase in some of these places; if so, rather than full rivers, it will be more like regional toilet flushes, floods and landslides followed by severely reduced flows.
Hunger will be widespread, with more frequent and deadlier droughts and famines. Swarms of hopeless people will surge from where they cannot live towards where they are not wanted. Conflicts of desperation for diminishing water, pasture, fisheries and arable land are possible.
Beyond mid-century the process continues to accelerate.
THE COROLLARY: By the twenty-second century, planetary heating and other damages, will have drastically changed Earth. It will be inhospitable to many complex life forms. Habitat destruction and species extinctions will be rife. H sapiens, dancing on the lip of the void, could well be among the terminated.
Reality Check 1: The fate of humanity will be determined, not by its incessantly self-lauded intelligence, but by its pervasive concomitant greed and stupidity.
Reality Check 2: A good measure of any species’ success is the duration of its existence. By that criterion cockroaches are one of the most successful, H sapiens will be one of the least.
*Paleolibrarian.info contributor and deeply committed scientist and humanist, Giddian Beer, is a retired (after forty-plus years) oceanographer specializing in submarine geology and engineering. He is also a frequent contributor to the publication “Pique” sponsored by the Secular Humanist Society of New York and an avid freethinker residing in New York City.