WORST-CASE SCENARIO

5 04 2007

There’s a new book out, written by Mark Lynas, a British scientist. The book is called “Six Degrees,” and it’s not about separation from Kevin Bacon. It’s about the six degrees that can separate us from the world we’ve always known—the six degrees of global warming that will likely come to pass by the end of this century, if we keep up with business as usual, or even business-slightly-modified-because-of-global-warming. There is a great deal of lip service being paid to global warming these days. This book expounds in agonizing detail the dangers of lip service.

We want to stop global warming—but the US and China are pushing ahead with plans to build hundreds of coal-burning power plants, with only pie-in-the-sky promises of carbon sequestration.

We want to save the polar bears and the Arctic and Antarctic icecaps—but hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians, and Americans believe they are entitled to own private automobiles. You can build a fuel-efficient car, but you can’t build it in a carbon neutral factory, or drive it on carbon-neutral roads, and the physical layout of the private car economy is not carbon-neutral.

We are concerned for the hungry hundreds of millions—soon to be billions—in Africa, South America, and Asia, but we want to eat our globally sourced diets, our meats and our out-of-season fruits and vegetables, we want to run our cars on ethanol and biodiesel that take food out of the mouths of those people and destroy the jungles that are the lungs of the Earth.

One degree of global warming, Lynas tells us, is inevitable. We know from history and palaeoclimatology (the study of prehistoric climates) what this is going to do. It will turn the central United States, breadbasket of the world, into a desert similar to the dustbowl conditions of the thirties, only a little worse. So much for midwestern ethanol, eh? But the dustbowl of the thirties was a relatively local phenomenon. This time the great midwestern desert will be part of a world-wide weather pattern, which will create drought over most of the equatorial third of the world’s land areas—including the Amazon and the Congo. Icemelt in the Arctic, where an area the size of Alaska already no longer freezes in the winter, and the Antarctic will accelerate, raising sea level by a meter or so, which, coupled with the likelihood of more intense hurricanes, will imperil many Pacific and Caribbean islands, as well as low-lying coastal areas such as Bangladesh, northern Europe, the southeastern U.S., and the Sacramento delta area of California. This is pretty much inevitable.

We could hold the line there, if we can make serious changes in the way we live. Serious energy conservation. No more coal-fired power plants. In fact, NO coal-fired power plants. Major cutbacks in private automobiles and air travel, a new breed of sailing ships for international trade. The way we live our lives here in America has a lot to do with this, because, even though we are only 6% of the world’s population, we consume a disproportionate share of its resources. Our demand for private cars, hot coffee, and cold orange juice puts a knife to the throats of peasants all over the world, even as it stimulates imitators all over the world. The planet has strained to support three hundred million Americans living in relative luxury. Billions of Chinese and Indians demanding our level of luxury will break this planet beyond fixing.

If we do not hold the line at one degree of warming, the heat waves that recently baked Europe and the central US will become common, which will start a dangerous feedback loop into motion: instead of absorbing CO2, the overheated earth will start releasing it. This has already begun to happen on a limited scale; more heat=more CO2 release. It’s a simple equation, but a geometric progression. The Himalayan glaciers, the world’s third largest ice mass, will melt, leaving nuclear-armed Pakistan, China, and India dry, hungry, and sinking into chaos. A similar situation, thankfully without the nuclear factor, will wither Africa and South America. Outside the human, political arena, climate destabilization on this order could lead to the extinction of about a third of all currently living species.

Lynas estimates that, in order to avoid this scenario, we will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% in the next ten years. Al Gore, in his testimony before Congress, suggested taking forty years to cut emissions 90%, a much gentler curve than Lynas says we need. Mr. Gore’s proposals are regarded as noble, but politically unrealistic.

If that is the case, if humanity is unable to rise to the bar of restraining itself in order to survive, then things will get terrifyingly out of hand. The warming oceans will acidify to a degree that will destroy the phytoplankton that are the basis of the planetary food chain. Droughts, punctuated by unimaginably powerful storms, will intensify, killing hundreds of millions of people and sending the remainder on the march to anywhere that’s still green. The polar meltdown will also intensify, creating more and more coastal havoc as the oceans rise, possibly as fast as three feet every twenty years, a rate that has occurred before. But this time, the warming is happening faster than it ever has, so the meltdown/searise may occur at an even more catastrophic pace. Melting permafrost will become a major contributor to greenhouse gas levels, pushing the planet towards a now inevitable six degree temperature rise.

At six degrees, the methane hydrate deposits on the sea floor become destabilized and rise to the surface, occasioning explosions that will dwarf even the most ferocious nuclear weapons, while clouds of hydrogen sulfide follow in their wake, scouring life from much of the planet’s surface and destroying the ozone layer, subjecting anything that avoids suffocation to slow death from skin cancer.

So, those are the consequences of taking more time to study the problem. Those are the consequences of business as usual. Fill ‘er up? Want fries with that?

music: Persuasions, “Ship of Fools”

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