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6. GLOBAL WARMING: THE TRUTH. AND WHAT THE TRUTH MEANS. - New January 2005. Updated And Expanded August 2009.
"Yet the experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehensions: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism."
The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
"Optimism is cowardice." Oswald Spengler
I know it's a cliche, but yes I got conservative as I got older. Or, in my case,
even more conservative. I guess you can see it in my talk show. Which,
I'm proud to say, is about to enjoy its fourteenth anniversary next week.
And wouldn't you know it, but who would be trying to rain on my parade when I'm feeling this good, but some of the usual suspects, including a bunch of well-meaning environmental wackos, with their ultimate wackoism, Global Warming, the Y2K of the left. Let me tell you about Global Warming, folks. With a capital "G' and a capital "W". Because this is big stuff, really big stuff, friends. Stuff that's going to do us in.
"It's time to give you the other side. The truth."
"The sky is always falling, right? And now the sea is rising, right. To drown
the sky, or what? Oh come on. The sea wouldn't do that to us. Actually, I have
to say this, looking out from here, from my home here, I have to say the sea
looks the same as it did when I moved in thirty-two years ago. You can say that's
anecdotal. Like everything is anecdotal. I don't mean it has the
same...fabulous, you know, very dangerous, very, very sexy beauty, like a
dangerous woman. I mean, despite what I've read about millimeter-this and
centimeter-that and who the hell in America still knows what the hell metrics
mean and can't those elitist/internationalist snobs give it up and leave us
alone with our inches? That's the main point-- it looks no higher than when I
arrived. The only changes that weigh on me here, to be honest, are the human
changes-- the wife I divorced, click, the second wife who split on her own, so
god damn her, women who've come and gone, the changes that sadden and disappoint
me in my own body, comings and goings, the new thing in the garage, very,
very shiny, my fuck you SUV, the coarsening in the kids who hang out in town, those are things
that weigh on me, because they are real.
"Some summers are hot and some summers are cold, as ever and always, and blah blah. End of story."
I. Heading To The Warm World
"Science Has Spoken: Global Warming Is a Myth". Don't let the fact
that this headline appeared in The Wall Street Journal (12/4/97)
prejudice you. Sometimes the right isn't just the right; it's also right. I
remember just yesterday, in my own place, New York City, when it was a
criminal's paradise and a citizen's hell. (See: "World Murder Statistics:
The Cities And Metropolitan Areas" in the Information Of General Interest
[Data Groups] section of this website.) The left basically cried that there was
no hope unless the root causes of crime were addressed. Policing couldn't solve
the problem. Social and economic justice had to come for all. The right said
that would be nice, but, immediately: Damn the roots! Just police!
The right turned out right on that one.
Or another Apocalypse Now. When the American welfare system was reformed in the 1990's, a conservative idea taken up by a flexible, triangulating Democratic President, the left said the result would be people dying in the street.
But nobody died in the street. The reform went smoothly, many welfare people got on their feet with their first real job, and the decade was a very prosperous one.
So it's incumbent upon us to listen to all sides, since it seems everybody can be right sometimes.
And next coming-- some supposed sort of climatic disaster? Apocalypse Now # 25-- or what?
Anyway, Arthur B. and Zachary W. Robinson make short work of it in The Journal.
It's not just that the case is weak: "...there is not a shred of persuasive evidence that humans have been responsible for increasing global temperatures. What's more, carbon dioxide emissions have actually been a boon for the environment....The global-warming hypothesis...is no longer tenable. Scientists have been able to test it carefully, and it does not hold up...major atmospheric greenhouse warming of the atmosphere is not occurring and is unlikely ever to occur."
This is a bold, smashing statement, made with that fierce and contemptuous confidence we have come to expect from conservatives. In fact, they're so sure of their case I wonder why they say "unlikely ever" to occur instead of a flat-out "never".
At first, I resist it, as I expect most will, because it seems so contrarian as to be ridiculous.
But they pile on the points:
1.) Atmospheric temperatures fluctuate all the time and there have been plenty of periods in the last 3,000 years when it was warmer than now. So this is just another period of natural warming.
2.) They present a chart showing the world's atmospheric temperature trendline tending down between 1979 and 1997.
3.) Another chart shows a close correlation, in the period 1750 to about 1990 (the chart's unclear), between the Sun's magnetic cycle and world temperature. Their conclusion: "...the gradual warming since the Little Ice Age [an almost 6-century period of cold generally considered to have ended in the late 1800's] and the large fluctuations during that warming have been caused by changes in solar activity."
4.) They point out the rise in temperature that occurred from 1900 to 1940, and how temperature then went down.
5.) And how atmospheric temperatures went down "the past 20 years" (presumably that means 1978 to 1997): "...during the 20 years with the highest carbon dioxide levels, temperatures have decreased."
I wait for more. But that's it for "hard data". They get in their good kick against that favorite conservative bete noire the Kyoto Protocol (a UN treaty that has 38 industrial nations who are responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions-- in other words not including the U.S. and definitely not including "underdeveloped" nations like China [#1 in CO2 emissions as of 2007 or 2008] and India [#4 in 2009 but coming up fast ((Russia is #3 and Japan #5))], agreeing to cut back their greenhouse gas emissions an average insignificant 5.2% by 2012 compared to 1990), point out the obvious that the whole situation is very complex and computer models flawed, and end with a great Technoconservative/Capitalist anthem to the glories wrought by burning fossil fuel, not just past and present but for a thousand years to come:
"What mankind is doing is moving hydrocarbons from below ground and turning them into living things. We are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals as a result of carbon dioxide increase [which they don't deny]. Our children will enjoy an Earth with twice as much plant and animal life as that with which we are now blessed. This is a wonderful and unexpected gift from the industrial revolution.
"Hydrocarbons are needed to feed and lift from poverty vast numbers of people across the globe. This can eventually allow all human beings to live long, prosperous, healthy, productive lives. No other single technological factor is more important to the increase in the quality, length and quantity of human life than the continued, expanded and unrationed use of the Earth's hydrocarbons, of which we have proven reserves to last more than 1,000 years. Global warming is a myth."
Too bad they wrote in 1997 and couldn't see what was coming.
Each of the 5 months that were to follow the publication of their December 1997 article turned out to be the hottest 5 such months on record, world-wide. (According to records that go back to the mid-1800's.) "The temperatures we see in 1998 are unprecedented in our observational data," said Thomas Karl of the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration. This was following 1997, the warmest year on record till then. 1998, when finished, would rank even hotter. Indeed, 20 of the 21 hottest years on record have come in 1983-2007. It gets worse. A group of paleoclimatologists-- experts on ancient climate-- publishing in Nature, concluded, through their study of samples of ice cores from the past, tree rings, marine fossils, pollen fossils and other material, that the 20th Century was the warmest century in 600 years. The World Meteorological Organization went even further, saying the 1900's were the warmest century in the last 1,000 years. And it keeps going. The first 3 months of 2002 were the hottest 3 such months since 1860 (definitely) and in the last 1,000 years (probably). 2003, concluded climatologists at the University of Bern, Switzerland, was the hottest summer in Europe in at least 500 years. The 2003 heat wave led to over 20,000 deaths in Europe, at a minimum, almost 15,000 in France. Other sources have Europe between 35,000 and 50,000 deaths, or even more. Overall, the 2003 summer in Europe was 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than the 20th Century's summer average. (1C = 1.8F, 5C=9F, etc.) Some areas of Europe hit as much as 6C hotter. Indeed, in the most severely affected parts of southern and central France, temperatures averaged an astounding 10C/18F above normal. 2008 continues the trend-- one of the 10 warmest years on record. Overall, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) estimates a world temperature rise of 0.74C 1906-2005. And in some areas it's been more: By 2004 temperature in Europe had gone up 0.95C since the beginning of the 20th Century. A report issued by the European Environmental Agency in 2004 predicted cold winters in Europe would completely disappear by 2080. And in 2003 a group of British and American climate experts said this: The Earth is warmer than it's been in 2,000 years. (see: "Not just warmer: it's the hottest for 2,000 years", 9/1/03, guardian.co.uk/climate change)
(As in other portions of this website, in order to make a clean, swift read I'll only sometimes source myself. But every point is backed. Feel free to e-mail or write me for any of my sources.)
The Wall Street Journal article says "...during the 20 years [1978-1997] with the highest carbon dioxide levels, temperatures have decreased.", but that's simply absurd. In its August 16, 2004 issue, BusinessWeek, hardly a mouthpiece of the environmental movement, published a chart (page 63) showing global temperature soaring since the mid-1970's. (In the same issue, in a separate editorial, BusinessWeek summarizes in one sentence the right's true view on global warming: "Conservatives see global warming as a hoax designed to limit growth and expand government.") Looking at my rather large collection of historical climate charts I try to find one that shows temperature decreasing since the 1970's, but there isn't one, whether it's in the troposphere (the atmosphere up to about 8 miles) or on the surface or air near the surface, whether it's winter temperatures or just the summer temperatures in New York City, Alaska coast air temperatures, New York City weather as a whole, Northern Hemisphere only, Southern Hemisphere only, or the temperatures of the Earth's oceans, or land and ocean surface combined, U.S. mean, global mean, or any way you want to slice it. Some scientists do make cogent arguments about the accuracy of the older climate data going back generations or centuries, and that's interesting, and perhaps indeed if we knew everything there is to know a year like 1998 would move a few places down. But there isn't one legitimate scientist on this planet who denies temperature rise since the mid-1970's, and in fact the rise in this period has averaged around 0.2C per decade, a speeding up, though it is true you can use some measurements to come up with a temperature plateau over the last decade or even, by certain measurements, a tiny drop. Contrarians take heart. But not by 2 of the most important measurements: ocean temperature and sea level. Both have continued rising. As James Lovelock writes in his recent The Vanishing Face of Gaia: "Sea-level rise is the best available measure of the heat absorbed by the Earth...sea level is a thermometer that indicates the true global warming....that cuts through arguments...The sea level rises for two reasons only: from ice on land that melts and from the expansion of the ocean as it warms."
The only possible debate left is this: Is the warming man-caused, natural or a combination?
I can hear the conservatives screaming: "You still haven't answered our most powerful specific points!" Okay. Let's have it out. Their point: Temperatures are still within the range of fluctuations of the last 3,000 years, so current heat may just be the result of one more natural fluctuation. I say: Why limit the argument to just the last 3,000 years? Let's look over the 10,000 years since the most recent Glacial Period ended and see just how high temperature went beyond the present, and we'll take that as the natural limit of post-Glacial warming. Post-Glacial heat peaked during what we call the Climatic Optimum (or Hypsithermal). Different experts give different dates for the Climatic Optimum, and of course the various regions of the world didn't peak in exact sync, but basically we can take the period from about 5800 BC to 3000 BC as the hottest in the last 10,000 years. E.C. Pielou in After The Ice Age (page 281) has temperature about 1.5C higher than 1991 around 3500 BC. John Gribbin in Future Weather (page 34) has European and North American temperature peaking about 2-3C higher than 1982 between around 5000 and 3000 BC. Herman Flohn in Climate and Weather (page 214) has 2C over 1969 as the peak throughout previous Interglacial Periods. Michael S. Kearney in Sea Level Rise: History And Consequences (page 31) says around 2C higher than 1984 between 6000 and 3000 BC. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in Times Of Feast, Times Of Famine: A History Of Climate Since The Year 1000 (page 255) also homes in at around a +2C Hypsithermal figure. Interesting Web articles from the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History and from the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change both have the Climatic Optimum maxing out about 2C over the 1990's. Even going back some 3 million years, pre-Ice Age, most scientists believe temperature was never more than about 3C above today's. Yet the present extraordinary warming could take us beyond a 3C rise by the 22nd Century, or even in this one.
Conservatives also love in their arguments to use the Medieval Warm Period from the 800's to about 1300 AD as a foretaste of the happy world supposedly coming. They say: See, the Earth was hotter and crops flourished, vineyards grew in England, cathedrals rose, the Vikings traveled to Iceland and Greenland across less icy seas, etc. So why are you agitating yourselves? Some scientist say world summer temperature in the period rose about 0.7C to 1C above 20th Century temperature. But other climatologists now say the warming was regional and inconsistent (colder in the Andes, Southern California and New Zealand, for instance), and even the peak temperatures were lower than today's. As for the vineyards in England, one of the favorite chestnuts of the climatological right, there were 50 to 60 in the 10th and 11th Centuries, as opposed to over 350 today. (David Hill, in his Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England [page 113], shows 50 at most, and not as far north as today's.) The Medieval Warm Period simply won't work any longer as either weapon or comforter.
So it would seem that if the world's average temperature now rises more than 2C over the late 20th Century's temperature level it would show the warming isn't natural. But in truth, the temperature doesn't even have to rise that much to prove it's man-made. Since the end of the Climatic Optimum the Earth's temperature has tended, despite fluctuations, ever cooler, so that 0.74 rise since 1906 is strongly against a natural trend. Also showing the power of our global warming is that the temperature rose against a 0.1% decrease in solar radiation between the late 1970's and the late 1980's. And the warming appears to be speeding up. A study released in summer of 2004 by the European Environment Agency, "Impacts of Europe's Changing Climate", has average world temperature now rising by 0.36C per decade. No doubt the last of the Conservative/Capitalist right will resist until temperatures bust so high the climate's unnaturalness can no longer be denied. The current scientific consensus has global temperature rising somewhere between 1.4C and 5.8C (2.5-10.4F) by 2100, so, yes, it could be a century or more before the last global warming contrarian concedes defeat. But an objective analysis has already convinced the vast majority of scientists that global warming is real, accelerating and primarily man-made, if not wholly so.
The right shouts back: Man and his fossil fuels aren't responsible-- it's the Sun's fault! But that just doesn't wash. Solar radiation does fluctuate, and apparently the Sun's changes are responsible for some global warming, but less than half the warming since 1900 can be attributed to that factor. (See The Long Summer, Brian Fagan, page 250.) And a dramatic study issued August 25, 2004 by the U.S. government, Our Changing Planet, and signed-- amazing it must have been to President Bush, assuming he skimmed the report or bothered with it-- by his own Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Energy, and Science Advisor, concluded that while Man probably can't be blamed for any global warming during the first half of the 20th Century (I'd contest that conclusion, and more importantly some scientists would, but that's neither here nor there), solar activity simply cannot account for what's happened since. A second study issued in 2004 by a group of Swiss and German scientists came to the same conclusion. And one of Sun-warming's former strongest advocates, Danish scientist Knud Lassen, finally changed his position, agreeing that current data shows solar activity cannot explain recent warming. The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report: Summary For Policymakers (Feb. 2007, pages 13 and 16) shows human activity some 14 times more powerful in radiative forcing since 1750 than the Sun. Even archcontrarian Richard S. Lindzen of M.I.T. has given in on this point. In March 2009 he said, referring to the Sun's very slight recent variability, and regarding those who still cling to some "solar alternative" to greenhouse gases: "Acting as though this is the alternative is asking for trouble." (The difference between solar energy maximum and minimum is just 0.1 %.)
And the point conservatives keep making about See! Temperature went down between around 1940 and the mid-1970's while greenhouse gases were rising! is, to me, the most meaningless of all their points. First of all, it's primarily a description of what was happening only in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In the lower latitudes temperature was much more even, and for those stretches when temperature went down they went down much less than further north. The same holds for the Southern Hemisphere, and, in fact, when the high latitude Northern temperatures were sinking in the 1960's the Southern temperatures strongly rose. (See the excellent climate charts covering all this in Gribbin's Future Weather, page 238, and in "Global Warming Trends", Scientific American, 8/90, 89.) ("In the southern hemisphere, particularly the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic ocean zone, there was a rapid warming going on from about 1950 onwards." H. H. Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World, 2nd Edition, 260.) For myself, what's taken place since the mid-70's makes any need for an explanation of temperature drops over the 3-1/2 decades before the mid-70's irrelevant to our condition, but for those who need it a multi-part explanation does seem at hand: The eruption of Mount Agung in Bali in 1963 threw enough particulates up into the atmosphere to lower temperature 0.2C worldwide, and in the nontropical Northern Hemisphere by 0.6C, and there were other strong volcanic explosions in the period which helped induce some cooling too. There was much less major volcanic activity in the 1920 to 1940 period, which was warmer, and also a period when the warming was more rapid than greenhouse models would have predicted. At the same time we should remember that the cooler period was also a time of vigorous above-ground nuclear testing by 5 nations. Some Russian scientists believe the cooling effect of the dust thrown into the atmosphere by these tests was about equal to the volcanic effect. Climatologists also observed cooling changes in atmospheric circulation in the 1940-1975 period-- perhaps nothing more than the random fluctuations that are always taking place, and will continue to do so even in a warming world. Increasing industrialization in this period with its increase in sun-blocking pollution (an effect still operating, but being over-ridden by the ever-greater warming), combined with the increasing dust-producing burning of land for agricultural purposes, is thought to have added to the cooling effect. Fluctuations in solar radiation may have been another factor. Possibly, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a temperature cycle in the northwest Pacific that affects other parts of the world, being in a cool phase at the time, was an additional factor. All these mid-century cooling factors also serve as an answer to the contrarians when they argue that the Earth's warming should have been greater for the entire 20th Century if man-made global warming is happening. And if I've given even this much attention to one of the contrarians' weaker arguments, it's because they themselves continually bring it up, but, really, this is a "talking point" they'd be better off retiring.
(Nonetheless, this cooling period shows the power of climate to alter history, though historians don't really like to consider weather so important. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 he didn't realize he would end up attacking into the teeth of the worst Russian winter in almost a century-and-a-half [I rely on my memory for this one, unable to track down the source], and this winter, for which the Germans were unprepared by anything they'd ever experienced, contributed strongly to their ultimate defeat. Heinz Guderian, the German Panzer Commander, made a temperature reading of -63F in early December. He wrote how "many men died while performing their natural functions, as a result of congelation [freezing] of the anus." As we consider the possibility of a radically-changed world climate, remember we are talking, finally, about life and death, for individuals and even possibly for civilizations.)
So, somewhat disappointed by The Wall Street Journal's article-- not really a challenge-- I searched the Internet for contrarian opinion, working my way through the websites of such organizations as the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cooler Heads Coalition (guess what their position is), Capitalism Magazine, and others, plus I examined accounts of contrarian opinion in more general publications, and I read some of their books. But they make the same points over and over, as if working from the same "talking points" handout-- it's been warmer in the past, it got colder after 1940, the Medieval Warm Period was wonderful, the whole subject's complex, the temperature's been going down anyway, many who believe in man-made global warming are basically neo-primitive anti-growth pagans, etc., etc. (I leave out of my discussion clouds and global warming, because there's no scientific consensus on the subject, but the many contrarians' fervent belief that clouds will in fact cool us is increasingly undermined by incoming data, and they ought to note that the cloudiest planet in the solar system, Venus, is a burning hell.) Some of these articles are surreal. S. Fred Singer in Capitalism Magazine in 1998: "Undiluted hype about global warming and climate disasters is polluting the journals and airwaves; multimillion-dollar propaganda campaigns are underway by environmental activists....in the last two decades...climate has not warmed....sea level will drop-- not rise....warming is definitely better than cooling....Should we ruin our economies and cause tremendous hardship for people to counter a phantom threat?" The only good points contrarians make are really marginal ones, such as: uncertainty in the older data (as said), the heating hasn't been as rapid as predicted, extreme weather events like great hurricanes haven't happened as much as predicted, or that the computer models involved have flaws. But is that it?
Most of these contrarians are and will remain unreachable by an scientific arguments I or anyone can bring to bear. I'm embarrassed to say my profession, talk radio, is one of their strongholds. As a producer I have worked with some of them-- and they can be very nice people otherwise-- but I've writhed in my producer chair, or writhed at home, as their sort talked. (Rush Limbaugh on 2/16/09: "It's cooling...We're actually cooling...greenhouse gases lead to cooling...It's all about surrendering freedom." Michael Savage on 3/2/09: "There's been no change whatsoever. It's all myth." Glenn Beck on 5/20/09: "How do you prove climate change? You can't do it!") An unreachable right. Here, for instance, Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman in March 2009, puffed with incoherent stupidity: "We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I am using my finger marks here, is part of the cooling process."
Yet I've also been impressed when at least some of the formerly strong enemies of the global warming idea have -- and through gritted teeth?-- finally ended up conceding that maybe, yes, something exceptionally warm is happening out there after all:
Duncan Maxwell Anderson, Crisis Magazine, 2/11/04: "The surface of the planet has warmed one Fahrenheit degree over the past century."
Jonathan H. Adler, Competitive Enterprise Institute (1996): "It is certainly possible that human activity will contribute to a warming of the planet. Yet this fact, in and of itself, is no cause for alarm."
Even Patrick J. Michaels, former Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and now a Senior Fellow at the ever contrarian-friendly Cato Institute, and co-author with Robert C. Balling Jr. (which climatologist, in a burst of contrarian panglossianism, has declared "there will be engineering schemes that will allow our children's children to have whatever climate they want") of The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming, said in testimony before Congress in July 2003: "Scientific data really tells us how much it is going to warm over the next 100 years, and it's going to be at the low end of projections, and people will adapt as long as their economies are free." More recently, Dr. Michaels has predicted a warming of 3F by 2100, not super-gigantic, but significant. And speaking for Dr. Michaels, in a letter to the N.Y. Times Book Review of all places (4/15/07, page 6), Jamie Dettmer, the Cato Institute's Director of Communications, conceded "Patrick Michaels acknowledges that the earth is warming and that human activity is partly responsible."
(Incidentally, is it worth mentioning that during a 4-year period in the early 1990's Professor Michaels took over $115,000 from coal and other energy interests, and that his quarterly, World Climate Review, was funded by the Western Fuels Association, a consortium of coal suppliers and coal-fueled utilities? He has also served as a "consultant" to various fossil fuel corporations, and he now refuses to comment on his fuel industry gettings. [He says: "What is this, a hatchet job?"] Nor is he the only contrarian to be the recipient of energy corporations' largess, or other conservative largess. For instance, hypercontrarian S. Fred Singer, whose surreal article in Capitalism Magazine we've quoted from, has an organization called the Science and Environmental Policy Project, which has received free office space from the Reverend Sung Myung Moon's Unification Church, and has had other involvements with Moon. And in 1998 alone he took up to $75,000 from Exxon Mobil.)
Dr. John Michael Wallace, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and once an advocate of the position that all global warming was natural, is another who's had to give in. As of 2000 he came to admit that the 1990's warming "pulled me in a mainstream direction", and he became about 80% sure global warming is human-caused.
Another long-time skeptic, Dr. Tim P. Barnett, a Marine Physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, came around in 2001: "I was maybe 60-40 before, but I'm at least 90-10 now."
Even Dr. Richard S. Lindzen of MIT, perhaps the King of the Konservative Kontrarians, predicts a warming of 0.5C to a little under 2C in the 21st Century if atmospheric carbon dioxide doubles, which it may. (And, though I'm sure it's never affected his judgment, let's mention how Dr. Lindzen's been fortunate enough to receive $2,500 a day from oil and coal interests for "consulting services", once had a speech "underwritten" by OPEC, and had his 1991 trip to Washington DC to testify before the Senate paid for by Western Fuels.)
Yet one more deep skeptic, once a self-professed human warming "agnostic", Robert G. Quayle, Chief of the Global Climate Laboratory of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, came around as early as 1996: "We're not particularly agnostic anymore. There is such a convergence of data it gets to be a little spooky."
Two other noted skeptics, science writer/historian Michael Shermer and writer/editor (The New Republic) Gregg Easterbrook, both announced in 2006 that they had finally seen the light (felt the heat?). Shermer: "...data trumps politics, and...has led me to make a cognitive switch." Easterbrook: "...based on the data I'm now switching sides....Case closed."
Even Christopher C. Horner, an extraordinarily vehement opponent of the idea of human-induced global warming, undercuts his own argument on page 145 of his Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism by displaying charts that show the steep temperature rises of the last few decades. (He's not aware that's what he's doing?) And faced with a chart on his page 112 showing what even he admits is the world's post-1989 temperature "spike" he basically says it's an illusion created by the closure of key Russian weather stations. Illusion-- the contrarians' specialty.
Another point made by contrarians that seems to need only a little addressing is: that a minority of world glaciers, and some of the ice of West Antarctica, are stable or still growing. But this seems a result of nothing more than some local increases in precipitation (snow), which itself is probably a result of global warming. (Melting sea ice is sucked into the air as moisture, and the warmer the air, the more water vapor it holds. [Water vapor is itself an immensely powerful greenhouse gas.] )
Meanwhile, nowhere have I seen conservatives answering the fact that man-made global warming advocates have issued some very specific predictions since the 1980's. They've gone out on limb after limb and could have fallen on their faces but these predictions are coming true. This is called science. The importance of these predictions is that they couldn't have come true under natural warming, only man-made.
One main one is this: Natural warming would be globally even, man-made warming (except in deep ocean) most powerful in the Arctic and Antarctic, significant but less powerful in the temperate regions, mildest in the tropics.
So what's happened?
As we've seen, global temperature as a whole rose 0.74C 1906-2005. Meanwhile, the Antarctic Peninsula (average midwinter temperature) rose 6C 1950-2008, global warming's highest figure. The Peninsula's mean all-year-round temperature rise in that period was 3.4C.
Ecologist Bill Fraser, who's been coming to the Peninsula for some 3 decades, said in 2004: "A century ago this was basically a polar environment. Now we have this subarctic system impinging. I've watched the confrontation over the past 30 years, and the polar system has really disintegrated at Palmer [his base]. I'm in awe that it has taken such a short time to happen....It has gone to hell." ("No Room to Run", Fen Montaigne, National Geographic Magazine, 9/04, 39, 48)
The West Antarctic region's mean annual temperature rose around 2.5C in the 6 decades after the mid-1940's, a very rapid increase.
Antarctica as a whole has warmed about .55C 1957-2008, and average winter temperature has risen perhaps twice that. (Confirming yet another prediction by human warming advocates, that warming, especially in the high latitudes, will be greater in winter than summer. Such is happening up north, with winter temperatures in Alaska and western Canada rising 2.8-3.9C more than summer temperatures.)
The rapid warming in the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica was balanced up against the deep freeze in the much vaster East Antarctica, which for a long time was thought to be impervious to warming, indeed, appeared to cool since the late 1970's. Yet new satellite data, though not absolutely conclusive, now appears to have picked up a slight warming even in East Antarctica. Continental Antarctica may at present be warming 0.1C a decade. Even the throne of ice is starting to glow red.
Temperature increased as much as 4.4C in the 30 years after the mid-1970's, and winter warmth rose twice as fast as summer warmth.
The rivers of Alaska and northern Canada warmed by 2.8C in the 20 years after the mid-1980's. (If they warm much more, they will become too hot for the salmon in summer.)
Much of Siberia has risen by the same number of degrees as Alaska in the same period.
The Arctic as a whole?
After 1984 Arctic warming speeded up to become 8 times faster than it was in the entire 20th Century, and the Arctic now is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world. And the warming appears to be picking up speed. A 4-year study by the 8 Arctic nations, The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, released in November 2004, predicted that by the 2090's surface air temperature in much of the Arctic may rise by an unbelievable 10-11.5C (That's 18-21F!) Eastern Siberia was at times 7C over normal in the summer of 2007.
The central Arctic is warming 10 times faster than the planet as a whole.
Like his Antarctic Peninsula colleague Bill Fraser, Nick Cox, a British research station head on Spitzbergen, Norway's Arctic island, who's been visiting it since 1978, is amazed by the rapidity of what's happening: "It stuns me how far the glaciers have retreated and how the climate has changed. It used to be still and clear and cold. Now it is a lot warmer, and damper, too, because the warmer air can hold more moisture." Another who is amazed is University of Alaska ecologist Katey Walter: "I am shocked, truly shocked. I was in Siberia a few weeks ago, and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them...Lakes in Siberia are five times bigger than when I measured them in 2006. It's unprecedented."
Meanwhile, as predicted, temperate region warming has been significant but not as extreme as in the Arctic or Antarctic.
For instance, the increase in winter and spring water temperature in Narragansett Bay, Massachusetts, in the 3 decades after the mid-1970's was 2-3C.
Wintertime temperature in Chesapeake Bay rose 2C in the 40 years after the mid-1960's.
In Switzerland, the temperature increase in the rock and mud of the Alps in the 20th Century was 1-2C.
S. Fred Singer, who elsewhere has denied that warming is taking place at all, doesn't even understand his own incoherence when, in his latest screed, Unstoppable Global Warming (2008) (page 178), he submits the conclusions of Harald Pauli of the University of Vienna: "...on thirty mountains in the European Alps...mountaintop temperatures have risen by 2C since 1920, with an increase of 1.2C in just the last thirty years."
Average annual shoreline temperature at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey Bay, California from 1933 to 1994 increased about 0.7C.
Water temperature off San Diego rose 1.1-1.65C between 1951 and 1995.
In New South Wales, Australia, temperature rose almost 1C in the 50 years after the mid-1950's.
And in the tropics? According to H. H. Lamb in Climate, History and the Modern World, 2nd Edition (page 259), only a rise of "some tenths of a degree" between around 1900 and the early 1990's.
Overall, temperatures in the 20th Century generally rose faster the more distant a region was from the Equator.
Another prediction that's come true-- another marker of man-made as opposed to natural warming-- is that the lower atmosphere, the troposphere, has warmed while the atmosphere above it, the stratosphere, thinned and cooled. This simply couldn't happen if the Sun was the cause. If increased solar radiation was warming us it would be warming the upper atmosphere too, since that's where it hits first. Instead, it's the lower atmosphere that's heating because the heating source is radiation bouncing off Earth and unable to make it through to the upper atmosphere as our greenhouse gases trap it below.
And one more prediction, that nighttime temperatures would rise faster than daytime temperatures, also is coming true, according to measurements made at 5,400 weather stations around the world between 1950 and 1993, and by further measurements since. This reflects how the heat radiating from the ground when the Sun goes down is held close by greenhouse gases. A nighttime temperature increase like this can't be explained by solar variability.
Another item which attracted world-wide attention, and should strike the contrarians who say nothing's happening now that is really unique, was the disintegration in early 2002 of an ice shelf the size of Rhode Island in Antarctica, part of the larger Larsen B Ice Shelf. It disintegrated in 35 days. (Al Gore, in An Inconvenient Truth, says most of it broke up in just 2 days. Scientists had thought it would last another century, even under global warming.) This ice shelf seems to have existed for at least 12,000 years, surviving all other high temperature episodes since the end of the Glacial Period. "The speed of it is staggering," said Dr. David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey. (Since this event, glaciers in the area have started flowing 8 times faster into the sea.) And the next year Canada's Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, the largest in the Arctic, completed breaking up. It was on the north coast of Ellesmere Island, and had existed for at least 3,000 years. But then, of all of the ice that had edged the north coast of Ellesmere Island at the beginning of the 20th Century, about 90% is gone.
Another disappearing phenomenon: The ice atop Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is some 11-12,000 years old, having survived many previous warmings. Something different, and ultimately warmer, is happening. And the Arctic coastal ice is now fading away: In 2008 both the Northeast and Northwest passages opened up-- possibly for the first time in at least 125,000 years. There are glaciers now melting in South-Central Alaska that have perhaps existed continuously for 100's of 1,000's of years. If they are that old it means they even survived the heat of the previous Interglacial, the Eemian, which ended around 115,000 years ago, worldwide heat greater than in our own interglacial. Something's different, changed. And if the predictions that all or almost all the ice in the Alps will disappear by century's end come true, it will be the first time in millions of years that the Alps would have been so bare.
We could go on and on and on, piling up the evidence, but at some point you're not just beating a dead horse, you're grinding its bones into dust. But really, re contrarians, didn't we go through something like this once with tobacco, when decades' worth of scientists made the case with white coats and charts and lab work and logic that tobacco was harmless, or even healthy for you? They're all gone now, those "experts", forever discredited. Some were fools. Some were whores And, oh yes, O.J. Simpson was innocent. Experts with DNA science showed up to prove that too.
(How very fascinating that so many of the prime contrarian minds are contrarian on the tobacco/illness link too. Frederick Seitz [greenhouse gas emissions "a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution"] a member from 1978-88 of a medical research committee of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. S. Fred Singer funded by the tobacco industry to attack the second-hand-smoking link as junk science. Richard Lindzen a smoker who's questioned the smoking/lung cancer link. Michael Crichton [State Of Fear, page 482] who's with him. [For more on the extraordinary case of Michael Crichton, see, elsewhere on this site, "STATE OF FEAR: MICHAEL CRICHTON'S JACKASS NOVEL OF GLOBAL WARMING".] )
And we haven't even reached one of the truest clincher arguments, one which contrarians barely address, or feebly do.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) (the 2 most significant greenhouse gases) and the temperature of Earth have, as far as we can tell, moved in absolute lockstep for 440 million years. (In The Two-Mile Time Machine Richard Alley writes that "warmth and elevated carbon dioxide have gone together for billions of years." [page 176] ) If we focus on the last 800,000 years-- whose actual air has been examined by scientists in ice cores taken from ice sheets-- it's, first of all, stunning to see how the 3 indeed move together. The shapes of the 3 graphs are essentially identical. Periods when the 2 gases have been at their height are the warmest periods, and their low periods are the coldest. (For instance, as the world warmed out of the Glacial Period methane entered the atmosphere at a 50 % higher rate than before.)
Second, for 800,000 years the gases remained in a narrow range, CO2 between about 180 and 280-300 ppm
(parts per million-- of all parts of the atmosphere) and methane between about 350 and 700-800 ppb (parts per billion). But suddenly we have broken through ceilings established 100's of 1,000's of years ago and are soaring higher. There is no natural explanation for this. CO2 was at 386 ppm as of March 2009. It's possible it hasn't been that high in 10 million years. And climatologists have been shocked by the seeming speeding up of the CO2 rise recently: for instance, 2.08 ppm from 2001 to 2002, and 2.54 ppm from 2002 to 2003, the first back-to-back rises of 2.0 plus. (The average yearly rise between 1958 and 2003 was 1.3 ppm. It is felt yearly rises of 3 ppm will soon be likely. )
Methane is now pushing 1,900 ppb-- well past twice what it was in even the warmest period of the last 800,000 years. Other greenhouse gases, like nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons, have also risen.
We are going to a place where we have never been. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that CO2 could rise as high as 900 ppm by 2100. That would take us to a level not seen since the extremely warm Eocene Era of 36-55 million years ago.
(And we should note, as further proof that the warming underway is not just "warm business as usual", that even in the catastrophic heat rise of 55 million years ago called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which led to what was perhaps Earth's warmest period in the last 580 million years, the 5C to 8C rise over a temperature already some 5C over ours still took a few thousand years. Some scientists think maybe as much as 10,000 years. Our potentially comparable rise will happen in just a few centuries. Because, according to some scientists, human carbon emissions are now happening 30x faster than the natural carbon emissions of the PETM. Indeed, there's no clearcut scientific evidence that CO2 ppm ever has risen this fast in the history of the Earth. Even the great warming that led to the Permian super-extinctions of 251 million years ago was slow by comparison to what's happening now: "...the end-Permian greenhouse probably took at least 10,000 years to play out. We could achieve the same level of warming in a century, a hundred times quicker even than during the worst catastrophe the world has ever known." [Six Degrees, Mark Lynas, page 260] )
And beyond the Eocene Era and its high CO2 level was the CO2 level of the dinosaur age, with a peak around 2,300 ppm. Trust this: You do not want to be a human being trying to survive in a hellish recreation of the dinosaurs' climate.
(Quick science lesson, if by chance the only news items you've been paying attention to the last several years involve sports, Brangelina or Bernie Madoff: All fossil fuels are made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms, in differing combinations. When you burn fuel the hydrogen atoms are detached and the carbon atoms join with the oxygen in the atmosphere to form CO2, carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which keeps much of the radiation from the Sun from returning to space after it bounces off the Earth. The burning of trees and other plants also releases their carbon to join with oxygen. Burning methane, splitting apart its carbon and hydrogen atoms, does the same. But even if methane isn't split apart it still acts as a greenhouse gas, in fact a much more powerful one than carbon dioxide [100x over 10 years, 23x or more over 100 years].)
Smiley-face conservatism, endless optimism, the eternal sunnyboy grin and twinkle in the eye of a Ronald Reagan, as much as Christianity, is the religion of America, and has been its energy source, and there is something wonderful about it, a counterweight to the long tragic doleful dirge of history. But it must never become disconnected from reality, or it becomes nothing more than the "up" phase of a manic-depressive. We will soon examine the possible consequences of a deeply warmed world, and peeling away the smiley-face confront its death-head.
I wish the global warming advocates are wrong and the conservatives are right, because if the conservatives are wrong humanity goes to a new place, and it goes there unprepared and naked to face monsters. If global warming carries to its worst conclusion our civilization will not stand, to be replaced by a different kind of civilization, or something less than that.
But before we look at this new place, let's examine if there is some hope. That even at this late date the human race can come to its senses and make the needed u-turn. It's too late to avoid some measure of global warming-- that's now built into the Earth's climate system. But can we make enough changes to ameliorate it, hold it within bearable limits?
Above all, can we cut back on use of fossil fuel, and its fiendish, ever-starved and mewling get-- the automobile?
World oil production is now peaking. The world's maximum production capacity (not including the exotic "heavy oils") is around 30 to 35 billion barrels a year. But that level of production can only be sustained for a decade or so. Then world production of conventional oil begins its inexorable slide downward, never to be reversed. (Oil production in the United States peaked in 1970, and has been plummeting ever since-- why we're so dependent on foreign oil in general and Saudi oil in particular. However, America's politicians can't speak the truth to their citizens, as if they fear their own people, instead offering fantastical scenarios of energy-independence-without-sacrifice, buying votes with lies. John Kerry, to aimlessly pluck one example of many, made a fool of himself in his 2004 acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention by saying the time had come to break America of its dependence on Saudi oil. We will indeed break our dependence on Saudi oil-- when it runs out. Or when Saudi Arabia decides to keep the last portion of its reserves for its own use, as every oil producer will do at some point in the coming generations. Barack Obama, latest in line, and no different, offered, in his own 2008 acceptance speech, an empty but obligatory promise to end U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil in 10 years. Why not 8? or 13-1/2? 10 is nice, round. [During the campaign Obama said "Energy independence...we are Americans. We do the improbable." In 1974 Richard Nixon set the goal for American energy independence: 1980. Jimmy Carter in 1979: Energy independence-- by 1990. Ritual. It's like Kabuki. Actually, the last time the U.S. was energy independent was shortly after WW II, followed by 6 decades of rhetoric.] )
The consensus among oil experts is that by the 2030's, maybe even the 2020's, world oil production will be in such freefall that it will no longer be able to serve as the alpha fuel of our civilization. If this prediction errs, it's on the optimistic side. This doesn't mean there will be no conventional oil after 2039. There'll be some, ever-diminishing and so expensive that only the rich and the powerful (and their militaries) will be able to afford it. And the final gallon won't be sucked from the planet till sometime early in the 22nd Century.
(In the spirit of fairness, I should report that George Bush's Department of Energy, hunkered deep in its right-wing fantasy world, predicted oil production would soar towards 50 billion barrels a year in the 2020's and continue upward.)
So will we see the windmills arise everywhere, and every house refitted with solar power, and...?
Listen to me. Here is the truth. About energy and human psychology. It is harsh, brutal and realistic:
Whatever environmentalists and alternative-energy advocates hope for, the human race will not go gently, or intelligently, into its dark fuelless night. It will do whatever it has to do to keep the party going, squeezing out as many extra generations or even a few centuries of fossil fuel as it can, at whatever expense of the well-being of 1,000's of years of humanity to come.
(Other nice energy possibilities that won't happen, apparently, are: Fusion power: either a technical impossibility, or it will arrive too late to make a difference in global warming. Probably an impossibility. But we're told we need at least another few decades of experimentation to have any real idea. Plutonium: too dangerous, makes nuclear weapons, and deadly poisonous waste lasts 240,000 years. Solar power from stations in outer space: too expensive, even it it wasn't technically beyond our means. And what about a hydrogen economy? No, not the answer. Hydrogen is extracted from fossil fuels, or you have to apply energy produced in power plants to split water to get it.)
(And while we're at it, let's knock down the greatest savior-solution-- "clean coal", i.e., CO2 sequestration, i.e., sending the CO2 we now produce down into the ground [under the sea would be too dangerous a risk], instead of letting it fly into the atmosphere, the present situation. [Barack Obama in his acceptance speech: "invest in clean coal technology". And in his address to Congress on February 24, 2009, he soared with the dream: "clean coal".] Sequestration is wonderful. It doesn't exist. There are some 1,700 commercial coal plants in the world. Not one sequesters. Not one is about to. Forget commercial. Not even one tiny experimental demonstration plant. The technology is therefore not just unproven, it would unquestionably be massively expensive, and require huge amounts of energy itself. But the exercise is pointless, even carried out. Only about 1/3 of CO2 emissions come from what James Lovelock calls "large producers". The rest would have to be captured from cars, trucks, planes, boats...there seems no way. CO2 itself has only been responsible for about half of greenhouse warming. Methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, carbon tetrachloride and the rest of them aren't even involved in sequestration. 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the burning of forests, grasslands, crops and other plant matter. 1/10 of Man's annual output of CO2 may be caused by the continuing destruction of the Amazon forest alone. And the greatest advocates still concede CO2 sequestered inevitably leaks out, so that in 1,000 years at the latest all of it will be back in the atmosphere. Talk about hope with audacities!)
You laugh because the tears are falling. And because you see, now, against all reason, a movement developing, even among scientists, even in that ultimate pessimist Lovelock-- "....the Earth could cease to be the habitat of 7 billion humans....It might be as little as 100 million....might... cause the death of Gaia [the Earth, quasi-alive]...."-- to desperately reach towards wild and crazy schemes because it's obvious human energy hunger is not a controllable force, seeking schemes even more far-fetched than sequestration, and it looks like they'll be tried out at some point so we can keep pumping and retching. We'll try to shade the Earth with trillions of 2' disks launched at the rate of a million a minute by electromagnetic superguns and it will cost $5 trillion or $15 trillion or who knows (but the bankers will still get more) or we'll spread iron across the ocean or pump the atmosphere full of sulfur dioxide or or or we'll we'll we'll...and meanwhile humanity will be like a smoker who's been warned of the dangers-- so increasingly mixes his beloved Camels with other brands. But still 3 packs a day. In this case, initially, the added brands are natural gas and coal. (John McCain, ranting like a nut in the 2008 campaign-- at a biker's rally!-- no one could invent this-- in South Dakota!-- you had to be alive in 2008 to believe any of this-- "We're gonna drill offshore! We're gonna drill here, and we're gonna drill now! We have to drill here and drill now....Drill here and drill now.") "Drill, baby, drill!" Coal plus ever-diminishing supplies of natural gas plus some dribs of oil can help get the world through, though in an ever-poorer fashion, to the 22nd Century, and coal will get it deeper into the 22nd Century, for a few decades in combination with the last tiny remnants of oil and gas, but more importantly with "heavy oils" like oil shale and tar sands. Coal and the heavy oils are dirty and deeply polluting fuels, and they pour much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than regular oil. If humanity-- or, rather, the favored portion of it (5 to 15%)-- goes this route to preserve some semblance of fossil fuel civilization for itself-- the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will continue to soar up the graph.
Think it won't happen? Even as I write, Canada's heavy oil sands production is about 700 million barrels a year, and that represents a doubling in 5 years. This is a heavy oil output that's greater than the conventional oil output of an OPEC member like Algeria. The sands account for some 9 % of U.S. oil imports. (In 2005 Canada's Environment Minister, Stephane Dion, said that "there is no minister of the environment on Earth who can stop this from going forward....") And Canada's not the only nation with heavy oil. Venezuela, for instance, produced about 950 million barrels of Orinoco tar-oil in 2006. There are vast reserves of the poisonous heavies throughout the world. Production in the U.S. has barely begun. ("What's happening in Canada today may be just the start of a new chapter in the world's long love affair with oil." [U.S. News & World Report, 4/24/06, 44] ) When big fossil fuel companies talk about their commitment to "alternative energy" mostly what they mean is heavy oil or the equally Earth-damning coal gasification.
Think the coal route won't be taken? "The official treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions hasn't gone into effect yet and already three countries [the U.S., China and India] are planning to build nearly 850 new coal-fired plants, which would pump up to five times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce....the world is facing a tidal wave of new power plants fired by coal...." ("New coal plants bury 'Kyoto' ", Christian Science Monitor, 12/23/04)
And in the end what?
It's 2150 and now the oil, natural gas and coal are gone. Or, if there's anything left of coal, the billionaires, warlords, Presidents, gated communities, megacorps, superstars, hedge fund bombers, tyrants, kamikaze bankers, druglords and khans of the day will keep it for themselves. And, like the noble families of ancient Rome after its conclusive defeat by the barbarians in the late 400's AD, they still won't want to let go of a life that has been so pleasurable for so long. There will be heavy oil left-- and there's another potential fuel as well, which as I write is virtually untouched, but which experts say surpasses all the oil, natural gas and coal in the world.
This hydrocarbon and rabid greenhouse gas is trapped in the permafrost of the Arctic and above all under ocean floors. It is trapped as gas hydrate, a single methane molecule surrounded by molecules of frozen water, generally 6 molecules. The substance is icelike, but not exactly ice. Methane could be drilled for in the ocean and permafrost, the methane molecules being removable from the frozen water molecules by several proposed means. But, also, a contract with the Devil. There is so much trapped methane on the planet that its release would simply stun Earth's climate, overloading what is already an overwarmed planet.
Nations and companies are looking at methane today. China and India, especially, two of the worst, are looking to mine methane within a decade. India, particularly, has enormous methane reserves off its shores. Both nations, apparently unreachable on this subject, are already expressing their typical resentment at Western warnings of ghastly environmental consequences. But they'll be beaten to the punch by Japan and South Korea, who plan hydrate production by 2015-16. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy-- under President Obama and Secretary Chu (who previously said "There's enough carbon in the ground to really cook us.") now has a hydrate program! Even the great British science magazine New Scientist and its Fred Pearce-- publication and writer previously two of the most sensitive and knowledgeable-- and frightening-- on the global warming subject-- recently gave space and talent to an amazingly near-boosterish piece on hydrate energy--"Ice on fire", newscientist.com, 6/24/09-- even lending credence to the extension of the sequestration fantasy to include hydrates. I could not believe my eyes. Et tu...?
We'll say that if every conceivable source is exploited, including methane, whatever the long-term damage to Man and his world, fossil fuel civilization will be extendable by up to 250 or 300 years.
After that it won't matter if there isn't a molecule of fossil fuel left. Cruel, inexorable, overwhelming feedback mechanisms will be locked into Earth's climate, and Man, for all his seeming power, will be unable to do anything other than watch them play out over 4, 8, 10,000 years or more, likely not to be reversed till the coming of the next Glacial Period, which will last for 100,000 icy years.
You think alternative energy will take charge? In 1980 President Carter offered legislation to enable "us to reach our goal of deriving 20% of all the energy we use by the end of this century directly from the sun." (He also said in 1979: "Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977-- never.")
As of 2008 solar energy provided 6/100th's of 1 % of all U.S. energy. In 2001 U.S. consumption of renewable energy was going backward-- it fell 12 %. Solar energy dropped for the 3rd year in a row. At the rate solar capacity is added in the U.S., it will take 30 years to add up to a single conventional plant. In all my years of walking around my city of over 8 million people-- the "greatest city in the world"-- I have never seen a solar panel. (Actually, there's a tiny handful of them-- I just haven't looked up at the right moment-- but way too few to make a difference.)
(And between 1985 and 1997 U.S. oil imports doubled. The U.S. accounted for 1/3 of world oil consumption growth in the 1990's. In 1973 the U.S. imported less than 1/3 of its oil. Today it's around 2/3.)
According to newsweek.com, 3/23/09 ("We Can't Get There From Here"), renewable energy provides about 1/70th of world power production. Most of that is hydroelectric. Geothermal, solar and wind combined provide about 1/250th of the world's energy. (Fossil fuel provides 80% of human energy, and 86 % of America's.)
We've gone backward in auto energy efficiency. American passenger vehicles averaged 27.5 miles per gallon in 1987, 24 in 2000. (New cars in Japan in 2008 averaged 50 mpg-- absolutely no technological breakthrough in this area is required.) "In the 2003 model year, the average fuel economy of GM's cars and trucks fell to their lowest level in two decades. And the company has lobbied vigorously to block more stringent fuel regulations and has taken major roles in lawsuits against California's antipollution rules." ("George Jetson, Meet the Sequel", N.Y. Times, 1/9/05, Section 3, 1) (Then it whimpered on its knees for taxpayer bailouts.) The original Model T got more miles to the gallon than today's average Ford. (Yes, U.S. standards are now set to rise-- but only modestly. For instance, Obama is raising the mpg of "light trucks" from the current 24 to about 26 by 2016.) How did this happen? By exempting the ever more popular SUV's, minivans and pickups from car laws. "Proposals to hold SUVs to the same standards as cars are usually killed by a coalition of union-backed Democrats and industry-backed Republicans..." (Time Magazine, 2/24/03, 41) (The Republican Party received over 10 million dollars from the auto industry in 2002.) To ensure that America never achieved energy efficiency "Every year since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they have added riders to the Transportation Department's budget barring any spending to investigate fuel-economy issues." (N.Y. Times, 10/5/99, A22) Squeezing even further, a provision in President Bush's 2003 tax cut changed the tax write-off law, so that instead of being able to write off your Hummer or other SUV's, minivans or pickups-- the vehicles had to be used for "business purposes", of course-- only up to $38,200 a year, you could write off up to $100,000. And to ensure the maximum possible damage to the environment, Congress limited the credit only to vehicles over 6,000 pounds. (Also, 6,000 lb.+ vehicles exempted from gas-guzzler taxes.) Bike riders, walkers, rail users-- did you receive any $100,000 Federal tax gift? (FLASH! October 2004: Most first-year write-offs reduced to $25,000. Bike riders, walkers, rail users-- did you get your $25,000?) As said, these vehicles being subsidized poured far more pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than other cars. Oh, by the way, in the face of fuel price rises and a monstrous recession, U.S. gasoline consumption-- rose 1% in the first quarter of 2009. (The First Word, Bloomberg Radio, 4/29/09) President Obama carries on in the same spirit as President Bush, with a new "Cash For Clunkers" program, whereby Americans who've owned gas-guzzling SUV's and the like will get $3,500-4,500 to trade them in for more "energy efficient" vehicles (which in some cases will be defined as vehicles getting as little as 1 more mpg). Meanwhile, someone like myself, who's never owned an SUV-- for "business purposes" or otherwise-- and traveled almost entirely on foot or by public transit-- gets 0. Just as someone who's rented an apartment in pedestrian-oriented New York City gets 0, but gets enormous tax deductions once he moves into a typical energy-beast suburban home.
Think the rest of the world is any different? Human beings are ravenous for cars, the bigger, the shinier, the filthier and less efficient the better. The Chinese are in love with the Hummer. A Chinese company purchased Hummer from sinking GM in June 2009. Cynthia Park, President of an Asian-oriented ad agency, raves about the the Chinese/foreign Hummer hunger: "There's no equivalent in China to driving in a Hummer....nothing draws awe like the Hummer....It's got...testosterone." (N.Y. Post, 6/3/09, 29) Car sales in China before the economic crash were increasing by over 50 % a year. And in February of 2009-- they rose 25%. (China's economy is still growing.) For all its American troubles, GM's sales in China in March 2009 rose 25% over the previous year's. February 2009 sales were up in India too. And in February China became the world leader in car sales, surpassing the U.S. In Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines collectively: sales up 47% a year in mid-decade. Between 1993 and 2004 Chinese car ownership increased 11-fold (from 733,000 to over 8,000,000). Car sales have grown 20 to 30 % a year since 2005. Between July 2003 and July 2004 car sales in India rose more than 18 %, and included growing popularity of SUV's. To make China more modern, bicycles, once a major part of China's transportation system, started being banned from the major avenues of cities. Over 70 % of travelers went by bike in Shanghai in 1990. As of 2005 it was down to15-17 %. As bike-riding plummets, the Chinese cities fill up with cars. Between 1998 and 2004 vehicles in Beijing doubled from 1 to 2 million, and by August 2008 it was almost 3.3 million, while bike-riding fell 60 % between 1996 and 2006. The cars burn the dirtiest, cheapest oil-- so-called "sour crude"-- China can find. The leading cause of death in China is respiratory disease. In 1996 Italy had more cars per person than the United States. "All over Eastern Europe, but especially here in wealthier Poland, people are buying cars in an explosion of ownership that has come with better economic conditions and the growing acceptance of credit." (N.Y. Times, 11/2/97, Sec. 4, 4) There are so many examples of this. The downturn in car sales due to the economic crash, where that's happening, is just a blip. A tidal wave of demand is building up behind it, Earth to be damned.
Meanwhile, the train, especially the electric train (man's most efficient and environmentally healthy powered vehicle), has suffered in the worldwide rush to carize and Americanize. In Eastern Europe as a whole the "rush for the automobile is already eroding the vast network of trains, trams and buses, one of Communism's positive legacies." (N.Y. Times, 11/3/94, A14) Budapest's tramway/bus ridership fell from 1.9 million passengers in 1989 to under 1.5 million in 1993. When West Germany took over the East, it raised tram ticket prices in East Berlin 14-fold. Berlin had 300,000 cars in 1989, over 500,000 just 5 years later. Suburban rail ridership on Berlin's superb S-Bahn system (combining East and West Berlin figures) fell from almost 400 million annual journeys in the mid-1980's to 291 million in 2000.
Some of the drops in yearly national rail passenger-kilometers traveled in the former Soviet block, 1991-2005, are startling. A few examples:
Russia 1991 - 255 billion passenger-kilometers
Russia 2005 - 164
Ukraine 1991 - 71
2005 - 53
Poland 1991 - 41
Entire light rail lines have been eliminated. St. Petersburg went from 58 light rail routes in the late 1980's to 48 today, Bucharest from 37 to 25, for instance. (Jane's Urban Transport Systems, 1987 and 2006-7 editions)
Many more people have cars. Russian ownership grew from 8.9 million cars in 1991 to over 25 million in 2008. Many more travel by air, an immense source of carbon emissions. Polish air travel, for instance, has increased more than 70% since 1991, with the number of airports having risen from 12 to 83. Aviation CO2 emissions in the European Union rose 73 % between 1990 and 2005. Worldwide, aviation CO2 emissions rose between 1975 and 2003 from 176 million tons to 359 million tons.
In the Netherlands, which has about as dense and superb a national rail/bus system as exists on Earth, urban transport's share of national passenger travel fell, between 1986 and 1995, from 4.3 % to 3.6 %. The automobile? Its share rose from 77.8 % to 78.7 %. Bicycling fell off by 5.6 %, this in one of the most bike-friendly countries in the world. (I know, I've been there, I've seen it.) "Dutch cities offer free subway tickets to motorists who use car parks on the cities' edges, but the parks are still stubbornly half empty." (Newsweek, 8/25/97, 35) Want more cause for optimism? "...S.U.V.'s are spreading steadily across the European landscape....It has proved hard to enact anti-S.U.V. legislation...partly because of the influence of the automobile industry in places like Britain, Germany and Sweden....S.U.V. owners like them for all the familiar reasons. They like their muscularity, their swagger." ("American Icon: Big, Bad S.U.V.'s Are Spreading to Europe", N.Y. Times, 11/14/04, Sec. 1, 3) Think East Asia, with its "collectivist" orientation, could really be an exception? In 1960 only 4.8 % of passenger transportation in Japan was by car. By 1997 it rose to 58.2 %. Rail's share fell from 76.6 % to 29.5 %. Passenger-kilometers by rail fell even more between 1991 and 2005 than in Russia. (Nonetheless, Europe and East Asia still retain a core of sanity on the subject of transportation, as can be seen in public transportation figures that have fallen but are still extremely high by U.S. standards, and as can be seen in the fact France and Germany, with their great national rail systems [light rail to 200 mph super-trains] both managed to cut oil consumption 20 % between 1973 and 2007, while in the U.S. it rose over 20 %, a sanity that eludes America. [France and Germany also cut their greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2003, a feat beyond the U.S. ((up 20.3 %)) ] The U.S. once had a great national light rail system-- about 600 miles in New York City alone, about 760 miles in the Los Angeles area's magnificent Pacific Electric Railway-- I would guess that not 1 % of my readers are even aware that such systems ever existed-- plus an intercity rail network of spiderweb density and superb efficiency-- almost all of it torn up and thrown away so we could be modern and happy and free.)
Gluttonous suburbs have continued their spread-- not just in the United States-- well-designed to fail any possible energy-efficiency test. In America proud of the fact that they ban sidewalks. (Once, visiting Florida, I walked a couple of miles from my motel to my grandparents' house, on grass or in the street, and I don't think I passed 2 pedestrians the whole way.) (Daily walking trips by American adults fell 40 % between 1977 and 1995, and in 2008 over 25 % of car trips were under a mile. American children walking or riding bikes to school fell from 50 % in 1969 to15 % in 2001. "Researchers say that Americans will not walk anywhere that is 1/4 mile or more from their home." [Your Health Is In Your Own Hands, Dr. Frederic Vagnini and Geoffrey Proud, page 82.] ) Proud of the fact they ban workplaces and stores from residential sections, so that instead of walking 3 blocks to one and 2 blocks to the other, you have to ride 5 miles to one and 1 mile to the other, in your shiny 6,400-pound (the German MaK MK20 A1 Wiesel AWC mini-tank weighs 6,160 pounds) and 8-10 miles per gallon (according to dealers; General Motors says 10-13 mpg but by American law so that no efficiency test may ever be passed this vehicle and others like it are exempted from having to have gas mileage figures posted on window stickers) HUMMER H2! starting at $49,190 in 2003 but approaching 6 figures with all the features "Hummer dealers are selling out their inventory with no discounts, rebates or special financing, auto industry trackers say" (cbsnews.com, 7/7/03) (SUV sales up 42 % 1998-2002) the HUMMER H2 marketed as a "real" SUV by GM-- which now cries out for taxpayer billions after making such mistakes-- as opposed to the 3,998-pound Jeep Grand Cherokee for sissy-men and slight men and men who are just "girlie-men" (Schwarzenegger owned 6 Hummers by 2002 and still 5 in 2007 and "an incredibly precise and forceful machine" he said) FORCEFUL woofed Coolio the rapper ("Gangsta's Paradise" was his big hit) Coolio said he said "We drive it when we want to 'floss' " in the N.Y. Times 12/4/97, D4 Detroit advertising executive Marcie Brogan stands smiling beside her "bright red 6,400-pound Hummer" "I'd like to drive a tank".
Yes, after gas prices rose and the economy tanked Hummer sales finally flopped, but big "truck" cars are still the American favorite.
Paris' central city population fell 27 % between 1961 and 1991 and Stockholm's fell 16 %, while their suburban populations rose 105 % and 164 % respectively. Municipal Paris' population was 3 million in 1919. It's now 2 million (+ 8 million in the suburbs). I've been to Paris. It's the most exquisitely beautiful city in the world, and its rail system is simply the best that human ingenuity and government commitment can provide. But somehow it hasn't been enough...
Human beings are ravenous for energy, for rational reasons and because it meets other hungers. For instance, in Thailand fuel oil consumption rose 22.5 % in the first 2 months-- that's as in 60 days-- of 2004. China's electricity consumption grew 10.4 % in 2002 followed by 15 % in 2003. Its oil demand was growing 30-40 % a year by 2004, and China's oil imports for all of 2004 were up almost 35 %. Think it's stopped? Oil imports in China rose another 25 % in May 2008 alone. Coal consumption in China was growing by more than 10 % a year in 2004. (Again, the Kyoto Protocol exempts China from any fossil fuel cutbacks.) In general, in those countries with the fastest growing economies annual growth for oil was 5-9 % and for gas it was 8-12 % in 2004. World fossil fuel demand was soaring beyond control before the oil price rise and then the economic crash, but the hunger never, cannot, crash.
Now, in fact, it's too late for the Chinese (and the like), they've started their move too late in fossil fuel's history to make it to full Western modernity, but they're going to give it a try anyway, like a 60-year-old virgin in a swinger's club, for the same reason they're tearing down their older architecture and neighborhoods to make way for the glassine and the pseudo-Americosuburban which will not pass the 21st Century's severe energy tests.
The young people-- will they save us, the next generation (though it's a succession of "next generations" which got us here)? The young people. That hidden reserve of idealism and intelligence that will undo the terrible missteps of their elders. Every year for over 40 years the American Council on Education has surveyed college freshmen on various matters. Asked whether it's important to work for an environmental cause, only 35 % said Yes in 1992. By 2003 it was 17 %. In 1970 79 % of college freshman said their primary goal was to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. By 2005 75 % said it was to be financially well off.
Most young people-- you know this if you know any-- are in fact happily and profoundly ignorant of the things outside their small neighborhood of life. ("Hey dude.") They're increasingly nonreaders-- because of them printed newspapers may disappear, without which an informed citizenry is impossible-- and if you're a girl, checking out the little 2-sentence Twitter messages from your girlfriends doesn't count, nor does examining the terms on your favorite porn sites for boys. Nor are they thinkers. ("Yo, bro'! Sweet!") A 2006 National Geographic poll found that almost 50 % of 18- to 24-year-olds don't think it's necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. ("Dumb and Dumber", N.Y. Times, 2/14/08, E1) ("China? Iraq?...America?") A 2007 N.Y. Times/CBS poll showed that young people in fact gave George W. Bush his highest approval rating (40 % among 18-29, only 29 % among 65+). They were also the most anti-choice (re abortions). And incredibly approving of Congress (48 % compared to 21 % for 65+). ("Those Young People, They're So Unpredictable", N.Y. Times, 4/22/07, Section 4, 14) So so unpredictable. Yet optimistic as hell. A 2002 poll showed that 59 % of American college students believed they would become millionaires.
Happy, upbeat and ignorant-- ironic, passionless and cynical-- and drugged out of their skulls-- here's the future material to deal with the greatest crisis the human race has ever faced. ("Aw, man, come off like...like being like such a downer!")
Yes, human beings for the most part are indeed proud of the fact that they "don't know much about history". But it's as if they operate through a collective memory of it, of their starving days and peasant days, all the raggedy incarnations they barely survived or didn't, and now are determined to make up for every bare-ribbed or lost life. You can see it anywhere and everywhere. You can see it in eating. In 1990 Americans were already bloated and sickened by their overeating of meat and other edibles, but in the next 10 years each American added an additional 140 pounds of food ("America Rubs Its Stomach, and Says Bring It On", N.Y. Times, 7/7/02, Sec. 4, 5), and also almost 10 pounds in weight. Over a 20 year period-- 1980 to 2000-- the average weight gain was almost 20 pounds. By 2007 some fast food restaurant portions had grown to 5 times their 1950s' size. But don't just blame the Americans. 50 % of Europeans are now overweight or obese. 45 years ago each Chinese averaged 8.8 pounds of meat a year. By 2004 it was 119 pounds. Overall world meat consumption tripled between 1961 and 2004. (In 2000 each American ate about 114 pounds of red meat, 70 pounds of poultry and 15 pounds of fish, plus 75 pounds of added fats like butter and lard, washed down by oceans of soda, in 2004 an average 574 cans' worth per person. [50,051,507 cans of Pepsi were consumed in America in 2006. Daily. That's not a mistake.] ) (If you're asking, yes I'm a vegetarian.) Want more cause for optimism? Trying to understand the American, and increasingly the world, psychology? The American fast food chain Hardee's (2,067 restaurants), already enjoying the great success of its Thickburgers (2004 same-store sales up 7.8 % as of mid-November), then introduced the Monster Thickburger, 1,420 calories, 107 grams of fat (almost 2 days' worth), 2/3 pound of beef plus bacon, cheese, mayo, buttered bun...And in no way apologetic for the sickness and death it would be causing, Hardee's press release bragged on it as "a monument to decadence"-- the Center for Science in the Public Interest well described the Monster Thickburger as "food porn". Hardee's cares? Their 2007 revenue was $1.8 billion.
All this too is connected to global warming, not just as a psychological example of a civilization entering its terminal phase, but objectively: Much of the deforestation that spews carbon dioxide into the atmosphere comes from the clearing of forests to create pasture for cattle. (And also, just through their belching in 1992, the world's cattle added 60 million tons of methane to the atmosphere. Overall, in 1992 1,280,000,000 cattle and other cud-chewers were responsible for 12 % of methane emissions.)
(It's also worth noting that the U.S. produces so much food, and its citizens are so gorged, that almost half of it is thrown away, according to a study by University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy W. Jones. ["Almost half of U.S. food is tossed", azcentral.com, 11/24/04] What's more, between 1980 and 2000 Americans became more wasteful, not less, as their discarding of food doubled, and is now over 350 pounds of food per person a year, enough to feed 80 million people over that time. This is what happens to a society rich enough and amoral enough to go beyond rational need, and find the transient satisfactions past its edge. A comparable experience is that ecological holocaust that dares to call itself "commercial fishing", whereby shrimpers kill and throw away up to 15 pounds of fish and other sea life for every pound of shrimp they keep or whereby colossal plastic longlines and nets sweep the seas clean of seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, seabirds, turtles, invertebrates and so-called "trash" fish to get at the few species wanted for sale. Humans care so little for life that they yearly catch and tear the fins off 100,000,000 sharks just to make fin soup, the mutilated animals hurled back into the ocean now unable to swim, to sink to the bottom and, because they can no longer move water into their gills, suffocate.)
The entire cause of man-made global warming is human psychology. This is why "rational solutions" to it haven't appeared. We are losing to our instinct. In the 1700's a still impoverished human race suddenly broke through to magic, and its unconscious desires were met, and can't be given up (voluntarily). Suddenly the human race could fly, could dive to the bottom of the sea, could move its ships without sails and its carriages without horses, could fill its famished bellies with food till they burst, could go up the mountains and then further to the Moon, could create magical windows to show us everything, even naughty stuff (in 2007: computer data centers consumed 1.5 % of U.S. electricity), keep us finally warm all the time or cool all the time, enable us to live 100's of feet in the air, speak across the world, set cities ablaze with light-- and we're intoxicated, addicted, drunk, giddy, out of control-- pick your words. "Researchers at Yale University...say that when laboratory animals are fed healthy food, they will eat their fill but refrain from stuffing themselves. Yet when they are switched to a high-calorie diet with lots of fatty fare, they will keep on eating until they swell up to as much as three times their original weight, possibly because of an instinctual preference for foods that deliver the most calories-- as a way to stave off starvation in bad times." ("America Rubs Its Stomach, and Says Bring It On") Indeed, it's like those lab rats pumpingpumpingpumping the levers for cocaine cocaine more cocaine even though rats existed all right for 10's of millions of years without it moremoremoremoremoremore till it kills them and they don't even care new rats take the place of the old rats and again pump! pumppump pumppumppumppumppump for more! more! more! more! more! more! but nothing comes out all of a sudden. And you expect the rats to act reasonable when that happens? Or us? Though our civilization is ultimately a civilization of death it doesn't seem so, it seems totally otherwise, as we've asked for and received: more, more cars, more light, more malls, more meat, more drugs, more soda, more ice cream, more erections, more orgasms, more hair, more steel, more speed, more power...The adjustment would be wrenching even if we were capable of it.
I don't mean some of the human race won't attempt the adjustment. We're at least one evolutionary cut above rats, and we don't consciously want to die. The tragedy is that answers were available, other designs available, to avoid global warming once, and even today it's not too late to ameliorate it, to hold it within bounds. But who holds the power in the West, those who could or those who can't? As we move deeper into our situation, and real panic begins to set in, the use of alternative energy sources (and nuclear too) will grow. It'll have to, to plug at least some of the holes left by fossil fuel diminishment. When I said our civilization could get to 2100, and then 2150...Of course I didn't mean entirely through coal, heavy oils and methane.
I don't see full collapse during the next few transitional centuries, just chaos, turmoil, violence and suffering, with small successes in pockets, as humanity wars not just against its situation but against itself, in a literal civil war. The technocapitalist elite will continue to rule for a time, while the ever more stupefied masses beneath will still mostly look to them for answers-- as they do in the current fiscal crisis-- everything worked so nicely for a while-- and others who were right all along will finally explode in frustration. There are many human beings on this planet who want a revolution in human affairs, and they won't be satisfied with half-measures, with let's tweak, let's change emphasis and proportions only, like an Obama, let's try some alternatives, to some extent, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and let's keep dancing with the girls what brung us, and not change horses, or Hummers, in midstream, or go off the deep end, there's no need to fall and "I assure you, my fellow citizens, we will not fall, and our best days are ahe..." when there is still energy everywhere-- in coal, in tar sands, in oil shale, in methane, in uranium, in plutonium, in the hydroelectricity of great dams, and the others will say No, you are pulling us into a fatal new reality and we mustn't go there, not while solar power and wind power and tidal power and biofuels and rail and hybrid cars and bicycles and conservation and recycling and new communitarian and anti-materialistic possibilities exist for us, and these 2 sides will go back and forth back and forth shouting at each other the way they do now in talk radio and in our politics, neither, to their growing rage, ever able to fully have their way, whoever tries to move will be sure to be partly blocked, and I literally believe the guns are going to come out at some point. We're dealing not just with fundamentally incompatible political views, as incompatible as those between slavers and abolitionists in America in the 1850's, but really between incompatible views of existence, different religions really-- one Manmaterialist, the other Pantheistcommunitarian, and the sooner we recognize that this is ultimately what the global warming debate is about the better-- and they are irreconcilable and will finally have it out in a burning world, which will contribute to keeping humanity from achieving the consensus that might have limited the fire.
Meanwhile, those outside the West, unconstrained by our divisions, our over-contentious democracies, will act as they see fit for themselves. China will act, burning up its last grain of coal if necessary to keep from collapse. (About 80 % of China's electricity is produced by coal, and 2/3 of its overall power.) India will act. (About 67 % of its electricity comes from coal, and 50 % or more of its overall power.) Russia won't worry about political or environmental niceties. The ever-more-powerful Islamic world will not involve an abstract future in its energy decisions. The CO2 and methane will continue to fly into the air. All this will be happening in a world that never made it to full modernity and prosperity, with all those giant countries like Pakistan and India and China and Indonesia and Congo and Bangladesh and Ethiopia and Nigeria, all eventually nuclear-armed, who came close enough to almost taste it but in the end never tasted it, even though they made one final fatal push in the 21st Century. They'll hate us and blame us and we'll hate and blame them too. This will be a damnable world to live in, and all we're describing is its beginning.
And what will come of democracy in the end? Democracy. The worst possible system, except all the others are worse, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. Democracy. The system that says the destruction of human civilization is all right if 51 % vote for it. And dictatorship's no better. However it starts, it soon devolves to greedy brutes and their murders. And no one's perspective is shorter than a tyrant's. He will do what he has to do to stay in power and keep warm, and keep enough others warm so that they don't murder him.
The human race is trapped. It's bumped up against its limits. It is in over its head. So we're going to where we're going to. And here, finally, is the world to come.
II. The Warm World
Many are the frightening effects of global warming. I mean extreme global
warming, the kind that blazes. But before looking at the grimmest possibilities,
I need to tell you that what you possibly thought would be the very worst-- sea
rise-- won't be.
The media, and environmentalists, have surely been scary on this subject, sometimes describing it as if we're faced with a sudden catastrophe:
"Enough polar ice could melt to cause oceans to surge over New York, Amsterdam and Bangladesh faster than people could build dikes or relocate to higher ground." (N.Y. Times Magazine, 12/15/02, 72)
A headline in Science Digest, 8/86, 28, screamed:
"AMERICA WASHING AWAY
"From Malibu to Montauk, a rising sea lifts all houses, joining human carelessness in wrecking the nation's finest beaches. Goodbye, Hamptons? So long, Sea Island? Whither Santa Cruz?"
A whole series of scary headlines pulled from websites:
"Melting ice 'will swamp capitals' " (news.independent.co.uk, 12/7/03)
"German government report warns of 'devastating' climate changes due to global warming, including flooding of the world's major cities such as London, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo..." (eces[Earth Crash Earth Spirit].org, 12/7/03)
"Global warming floods threaten 4m in UK" (education.guardian.co.uk, 4/22/04)
"Global warming could submerge three large Indian cities" (smh.com.au, 12/8/03)
Even a somewhat more reasonable Web article still terrifies:
"Thus a quick rise in sea level of 50 meters [164 feet] in 20 years with total up to 100-110 meters [328 to 361 feet] in 40 years seems probable..." (maxpages.com, 1999)
The climate, so to speak, in some media circles has become so extreme that even nonsense like the following gets published: "In a worst-case scenario, based on projections from some scientists, most of the earth will again be covered with water..." (trinidadexpress.com, 9/12/04)
Even the wonderful and intelligent Nicholas Kristof of the N.Y. Times, in his well-meaning fervor, gets it all wrong (4/20/08) when he writes of turning "land in Arizona into coastal property". In fact, the highest possible sea level rise will still leave Arizona untouched except for a very tiny bit of land in the far southwest of the state. Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson have nothing to worry about. He's even more wildly wrong-- laughably wrong-- doesn't the N.Y. Times have fact checkers?-- when (4/18/06) he writes of "our descendents sitting on the top of Mount Ararat beside their ark...." Mount Ararat is 5,165 meters/16,946 feet high for godsakes! (Maybe Kristof understood but was just making a joke.)
And the UK's Fred Pearce, who's been a superb writer on global warming, fear-mongers when he says "much of the world's population would have to move or drown." (The Last Generation, 80) He makes sea rise seem like a tsunami, not a gradual rise over a huge stretch of time. No one need drown.
So after all this hysteria, let me do something I haven't seen properly done in any article on global warming, and present the clear, concise account of how fast sea rise really works when a world warms, beginning with the complete picture of sea rise over the last 15,500 years. We start in 13,500 BC. The Glacial Period still raged in all its icy brutality, but what the mammoth hunters couldn't know was that their world was on the cusp of a profound change-- a great warming and release from the 100,000-year-old cold. It would take over 5,000 years to break from the freezing, but the beginning was at hand.
So much of the world's water was trapped in ice sheets at the depth of the last Glacial Period, around 18,000 BC, that the oceans stood about 120 meters (394 feet) lower than today. (Scientists differ as to the exact figure. 120 meters is a consensus number, but some have the oceans even lower.) Compensating for land lost under ice, a great deal of what is now ocean bed was dry land. It was possible to walk from Australia to New Guinea, or, leaving from Vietnam, across much of Indonesia.
In the 2005 version of this essay I published the following figures of sea rise, primarily based on information on the website of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History plus a sea level chart in the N.Y. Times, 8/29/00, F1. They're still worth looking at to get the basic picture, though some tweaking is in order (among other things, they have the original sea as much as 153 meters down, which only a minority of scientists accept).
13,000 BC -10,500 BC: 50 meters (164
feet) 6.6 feet per century
10,500 BC - 7500 BC: 50 meters (164 feet) 5.5 feet per century
7500 BC - 5000 BC: 20 meters ( 66 feet) 2.6 feet per century
5000 BC - 3000 BC: 15 meters ( 49 feet) 2.5 feet per century
3000 BC - 1000 BC: 15 meters ( 49 feet) 2.5 feet per century
1000 BC - 400 AD: 1 meter ( 3-1/4 feet) 2.8 inches per century
400 AD - 1897 AD: 1.9 meters ( 6-1/4 feet) 5.0 inches per century
1897 AD - 2000 AD: 7 to 8 inches
2000 AD - 2100 AD: ? 20 inches to 4-1/2 feet are the consensus estimates
The main tweaking is that most, though not all, authorities have almost the
entirety of the melting completed by around 3000 BC, with only a few meters to
go after that date, and with fluctuations of a few meters up and down in that
period reflecting times like the Medieval Warm Period (around 800 to 1300 AD)
and the Little Ice Age (around 1300 AD to the late 1800's). Also, 120 meters of
ice melt, not 150. So the figures per century are a bit less too. What everyone
does seem to agree on is that the period AD1 to the mid-1800's, when you average
everything out, showed very minor overall sea rise per century, and since then
the sea rise has speeded up. It's now about 1/8 " a year. Between the early
1880's and 1941 it was more like 1/20 " a year. Overall, the oceans are rising 5
times faster in 2009 than they did in 1870.
The century averaging makes the process seem more even than it actually was. There were centuries, or periods of a few centuries, when the sea rise rate was far greater. For instance, about 12,000 BC a gigantic Antarctic ice sheet melted and raised the sea levels by perhaps as much as 20 meters (66 feet) in just 200 years, accounting for maybe 40 % of the sea rise in the 13,000-10,500 BC period in that short time. Another surge happened after 9300 BC, and the seas rose 12 feet per century. (The N.Y. Times article, 8/14/90, C8, doesn't make clear how many centuries this rate lasted.) After about 6200 BC, when the Laurentide Ice Cap over eastern Canada collapsed, seas might have risen as much as 50 feet in a couple of centuries.
However, even taking the worst case-- 33 feet a century-- that only works out to 4 inches a year. Nobody walking along a beach will be caught by sea rise and suddenly swept away, or see their house-- or their city-- suddenly drowned. And the rise is likely to be much less per year than 4 inches. Unquestionably, in the exaggerations of their warnings (not just regarding sea level), we see an environmental movement trying to scare people into action through climatic hyperbole. They have a goal-- transforming the social order-- yet you sense they lack confidence in the realities of the situation sufficing to bring it about.
So as the greenhouse warms, how high, and how fast, really, will sea level rise?
First of all, there isn't another 120 or 150 meters worth of ice out there to melt. The world's glaciers are rapidly melting away. The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which have existed for as much as 12,000 years, will soon be Memories of the Snows of Kilimanjaro (scientists give it about 15 more years)-- Swiss glaciers have lost half their mass since 1850-- but the melting of all the glaciers, ice fields and ice caps outside Greenland and Antarctica will only raise the seas by about 1.5 feet. From Antarctica: The Antarctic Peninsula adds another 1.5 feet, the Ross Ice Shelf 2/5 of an inch, the Ronne-Filchner ice shelves about 4-1/3 inches. The non-inland ice of Greenland contributes about 2 inches. So far we've come up with a little over 3-1/2 feet of sea rise, a problem but hardly a civilization-killer, especially spread over a few centuries.
The permafrost-- the water held in frozen Arctic soil (a tiny amount's also in high non-Arctic mountains)-- is potentially a more serious source of sea rise-- holding some 10 meters (about 33 feet) worth. But scientists seem unsure how much of this would actually reach the ocean, and how much would stay in place, creating wet, mushy land conditions, or new inland ponds and lakes. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report of 2007 does have permafrost melt contributing a very tiny fraction of sea level rise, perhaps around 1/250th of an inch a year in the 20th Century, though that can speed up. It appears some permafrost melt is definitely making its way now into Arctic rivers and then into the Arctic Ocean. Enough permafrost areas are low-lying, so let's figure an additional 10 feet of sea rise from this source.
And so we have accounted for some 13-1/2 feet of sea rise, spread over, what, 5, 6, 7 centuries? If this was the only crisis it would be be very serious, but still not an ultimate catastrophe.
Scientists believe that in the Interglacial Period before our own, 110-130,000 years ago, sea level was about 5 meters (16.4 feet) higher than today. Some say 6 meters (19.7 feet). Some scientists think it was because much of Greenland's ice melted, others say it was West Antarctica's ice. Most likely there was some melting from each, combined with melting from those lesser sources above. Whatever, this proves that the great remaining ice caps are vulnerable. And we are going far beyond the 2C maximum warmings of previous interglacials.
If Greenland melts the sea will rise between 21 and 24 feet. The West Antarctic ice is a bit more extensive, and would raise the seas 26 to 27 feet. But the truly great ice cap is the one on East Antarctica, with the potential to raise sea level by up to 65 meters-- 213-1/4 feet.
Adding the melt of the great ice caps to the 13-1/2 feet already accounted for gives us a maximum sea rise of 278 feet. Stand on the edge of your favorite beach, where the water just laps your toes, look up and imagine a 28-story building, then turn it into ocean.
How long would it take?
As we saw, looking back over the last 15,000 years, world ice melt is a process that takes a huge amount of time. And Greenland and Antarctica are still in the grip of an immense and ancient cold that will strongly resist melting even in our significantly warmed world.
But perhaps at this point I should finally acknowledge that I am not a scientist, and I'll bet there are scientists reading this who are contemptuous of a layman's trespassing that area they have devoted their lives to, so why don't I let these experts answer the question:
"Thresholds for disintegration of the East Antarctic ice sheet by surface melting involve warmings above 20C...In that case, the ice sheet will decay over a period of at least 10,000 years." (The IPCC, 2001)
Except it's going to happen overnight, West and East combined:
"If, as one model predicts, the deep ocean water flowing around the Antarctic ice sheets warms by just 0.9 degree [F], it could melt the ice sheets from underneath at the catastrophic rate of about 10 feet a year." (Science Digest, 8/86, 35)
Except: "at the current rate of melting, that would take [West Antarctica alone] about 7,000 years, the researchers estimated." (N.Y. Times, 10/12/99, F4) except, au contraire, it really will happen overnight: "Experts are concerned that if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet broke apart in that manner, global sea levels could rise as much as 16 ft. in just a few decades." (Time Magazine, 2/3/03, 54)
"This could raise the global average sea-level by 7 metres over a period of 1,000 years or more." (Nature, nature.com, 4/8/04) except "In computer simulations, NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research] researchers found that if levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were to double, melting would would shrink the Greenland ice cap by 1.8 inches per year [15 feet a century]." (Earth, 4/96, 17) Leading climatologist Wallace Broecker estimates 300 years. (peopleandplanet.net, 12/9/04) Leading climate researcher Richard Alley is unsure: "...it might take centuries to go, but if things go wrong it could just be decades."
We'll synthesize all this confusion for you. But it's important to add this: Generally, experts believe that once the melting of Greenland or Antarctica or both begins the process is irreversible. We could cease all fossil fuel use at the instant and never burn down another tree-- it will make no difference. Ice and snow deflect heat, soil and vegetation (and the water that will rise over the land) absorb it, further warming the planet. With the ice and snow of Greenland, West Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the other glacial areas replaced by soil and vegetation and sea, with fossil fuel use and forest destruction continuing, with CO2 and methane continuing to pour into the atmosphere, Earth will get hotter and hotter, melting even more ice and snow, which will make Earth absorb even more heat, which will...Now we are dealing with one of those deadly feedback mechanisms I referred to.
Has it begun?
In Greenland it has, and the melt rate has been increasing 7 % a year. In addition, in the last few years Greenland's melt zone has expanded inland and upward, even to the middle of the continent, and reached elevations over a mile high. Definitely, studies show Greenland is losing more ice through melting than it's gaining through snow. Waleed Abdalati of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center says flat-out that there's a "net loss of ice, particularly in the south". As for West Antarctica, it has too, just a tiny bit on its far western margin. How much is the melting of Greenland and Antarctica contributing to sea level rise? About 1/33 " a year from Greenland, around 1/50 " a year from Antarctica. Many experts also remain conservative in their predictions, because they think there's going to be a phasing out of fossil fuels in the next few generations. In fact, the burning will continue, as stated, for 250 to 300 years, and that will doom the West Antarctic ice, as temperature reaches levels not seen in millions, even 10's of millions of years.
The beginning of any real melt of the great East Antarctic Ice Cap seems to be a few centuries off, at the very least, and would take millennia to complete. This ice cap has existed for millions of years, surviving every Interglacial. But, really, scientists mysticize it, treating it as if it was adamant, when in fact it is simply the result of certain conditions, and if those conditions change the ice cap can too. The Antarctic has been polar land for over 100 million years, and for most of that time it has been ice-free. The West Antarctic ice has to go first, but after enough of it does the East Antarctic Ice Cap is doomed. Now we deal with another of the deadly feedbacks. "The collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would leave the East Antarctic Ice Sheet...with no support, no buttressing. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet would thus be destabilized in quite a dramatic way. If the remaining one-third of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, there would be very wide gaps in the Transantarctic Mountains where the East Antarctic ice would come flooding into the sea." (eces[Earth Crash Earth Spirit].org, 7/23/95) As the warming and melting continue, increasing amounts of meltwater will lubricate the landbed of the East Antarctic Ice Cap in its slide into oblivion, long though it will take. The meltwater will also widen and deepen cracks in the ice, creating iceberg "dominoes" that can fall against each other and push each other into the sea.
The melting of West and East Antarctica has begun: "...the planet is changing faster than had been anticipated. Antarctica, for example, had not been expected to show a net loss of ice for another century, but recent studies indicate that the continent's massive ice sheets are already shrinking." ("The Catastrophist", Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 6/29/09, 42)
The melting of our planet's ice is very slow at first, in no way a disaster initially, but will gather speed and continue till Greenland and West Antarctica are cleared of ice and snow, and East Antarctica will follow. How long? From the moment I write this to the end of the process in West Antarctica will take 800 years. Greenland will be bare in 1,100 years. (West Antarctica goes faster because so much of its ice is grounded on land below sea level.) East Antarctica's melting, once it gets going, will take over 4,000 years. But eventually all will be done.
It is a profound epic of change we're contemplating, yet even total melting and maximum sea rise will leave our world recognizable to the end. Let's, briefly, take a journey through this future to come, looking at its scenes in greater detail. I don't completely imagine them-- I project from a wide variety of predictive maps, obtained from many sources.
Global Warming - The Next 100 Years
We'll assume just a 2 foot rise over the next century. (My sea rise predictions
will be conservative.)
Some low islands in the world, for instance many of those in the Maldive chain of the Indian Ocean, or the Tuvalus and Marshalls in the Pacific, will have to be abandoned, and hopefully the world will be generous in taking in the refugees. But even a low-lying area like New York's Long Island will only have its shores eaten away at the edges, the sea moving inland at high tide a mile or more in places, but also 300 yards here, 75 yards there, hardly at all here. At high tide the Everglades will be mostly under water, as will most of the Louisiana shore (though not New Orleans, under sea level but behind high levees), most of the North Carolina shore, etc. Overall, the United States will have lost about 10,000 square miles out of 3,536,292, and that will include over 50 % of the wetlands. The average erosion along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts will be about 200 feet. Most of our beloved beaches will be lost. Across the world, in China's once-booming Guangzhou City (Canton) Delta, several million people will have to be relocated. The same will hold around Shanghai and Tianjin and other coastal areas. I wonder if the conservative-libertarian spokesmen and websites of the day will still be telling us that global warming is a "hoax".
Global Warming - The Next 200 Years
We will now assume a total 5 foot rise over 2 centuries. The melting of Greenland and West Antarctica will be solidly underway, and the con-lib warming-deniers will have disappeared, gone the way of flat-Earthers, Dodos, dinosaurs and "tobacco scientists". In some places the sea will have moved scores of miles inland, even 100 or more, but mostly much less, a few miles here, in other places 100's of yards, and other places will have been hardly affected or not at all. A chunk of Bangladesh in the south will be permanently under water, and almost all the country will be susceptible to unprecedented Monsoon flooding, but there will still be a Bangladesh. China will be desperately trying to save Shanghai and Guangzhou City, but it's going to be a losing battle, and many more millions will have been relocated over the century. Nonetheless, people around the world will not want to leave places that are only occasionally covered up, like the Nile Delta. Even Atlantic City (8 feet above sea level) and Miami (11 feet) will still be there, or at least parts of them, with strong sea walls having been raised since our time. Do you really think a change so gradual can bring about a revolution in human behavior? The waste of fossil fuel will still be floating into the air.
Global Warming - The Next 300 Years
Sea level has risen10 feet.
Fossil fuel is gone, but man may still exercise his genius by hunting down and burning trees, though much of that prey is also gone. Most of the Amazon region, home once to Earth's greatest rain forest, has been reduced to dry savannah or even bare desert, the soil baked stone-hard, with horrendous consequences for all the world's climate, and for human agriculture. Its wildlife lives in books. The few botanists and agricultural experts left say no real restoration is possible in any time frame that can mean anything to man. Maybe in a few 100,000 years...Other once-great tropical forests have suffered comparable fates. Man has free will. Thus he chose, and finally Nature assented.
Greenland and West Antarctica are melting away more rapidly now, and the East Antarctic melting is picking up. But overall, the ice has held with a tenacity surprising scientists. Some had expected that both West Antarctica and Greenland, by this 24th Century, would be bare of ice. A tremendous climate inertia, born of icy ages past, has continued to keep most of the ice in place, especially in Greenland. But finally the heat of these new times overwhelmed.
Civilization is struggling to survive, and the resources and energy left over for luxuries like science are deeply diminished. And unquestionably, huge numbers of human beings have turned their backs on science, or the idea of progress, many looking to cults or new religions that attempt to make sense of the chaos in other ways.
Thus, the scientific expedition that sailed to Greenland in 2307 would be the last such expedition for over 100,000 years.
Drawing on centuries of data, and their own observations-- two of the scientists had even traveled on the last coal-fired ship to Greenland in 2280-- they were surprised by their own conclusion that only 11 inches of Greenland's ice cap had melted away in all these centuries. It appeared that the 10 feet of sea rise could be accounted for as follows:
West Antarctica: 2 feet-10 inches
Antarctic Peninsula: 1 foot- 2 inches
Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves: 4 inches
East Antarctica: 2 inches
Greenland ice cap: 11 inches
Greenland glaciers: 2 inches
Other world glaciers: 1 foot- 4 inches
Permafrost: 1 foot
Thermal expansion of oceans: 2 feet- 1 inch
Civilization has not dropped off a cliff. It is sliding down a slope. My city, New York City, still exists, is still great, though more crowded, since its size has shrunk some, while it still functions and therefore has become a place of refuge. It has raised high sea walls, storm-surge barriers and dikes where needed. The cost of preserving New York City is considerable, but the United States understands the necessity, despite the grumblings of some "high altitude Senators" from places like Colorado and Montana. Some of New York City has been lost to the sea, such as Coney Island, the Jamaica Bay islands, most of the Rockaways, and a good portion of Staten Island. Lower Manhattan is too valuable to be abandoned-- it requires strict, expensive attention. (Some of the people in the outer boroughs complain of "Manhattancentricization".) Other major cities and regions around the world have been abandoned, or soon will be. Miami, despite heroic attempts to save it, is now conceding defeat, and the people will be moved. The nature of its land-- porous limestone-- requires building dikes 150 feet down, in addition to all the building upward and around. With sea level rise speeding up, including from the greatest of all ice caps, it is impractical to go on. But it was a series of epic hurricanes over several decades, sweeping over confident barriers, each leaving thousands dead, that finally brought surrender.
However, nothing compared to the great storm that finally destroyed Bangladesh. On one last dry sunny morning, much of the country still lived. Even Dhaka, the capital, still lived, though the sea had moved closer. That ended with the Storm of the Millennium. Out of darkness it came, and it rolled and roared over virtually the entire nation and its people. The number who died is incalculable, millions, and those who survived left, pushing their way into countries that didn't want them.
And now, all over the world, people must move. Where? 100's of millions of people, mostly poor, need new homes.
Yet-- just a few years later-- with a suddenly icy hand Nature strikes the nations of the North Atlantic. Something has happened to the ocean currents.
Global Warming - The Next 500 Years
The seas have risen 21 feet. Fossil fuels are long gone, but it doesn't matter. There are more pressing considerations anyway: The heat, the impossible h...how to make a vital journey of 50 miles....New York City survives, Manhattan Island and much of the outer boroughs ringed with sea walls and high dikes. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Everglades, the Nile Delta-- covered, abandoned. The White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon-- the shore reached too close. They have been disassembled, and reassembled in America's new capital inland. Sacramento is a port on a new inland sea. And Southeast Asia has taken a tremendous hit-- many of its major cities too low-lying; they have been abandoned. Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Rangoon, Phnom Penh, Haiphong...Canoes and small sailing craft float through them, pulling up next to the empty skyscrapers, to loot what little is left. And to the north China finally had to give up Guangzhou City, Shanghai and others to the sea, which has moved at least 25 miles inland, in some places more (and when storms surge, much more). Bangladesh is a memory. Increasingly, the many abandoned cities serve as the world's new mines. Too late, the world is completely committed to recycling.
Global Warming - The Next 5,000 Years
The process, the immediate process, is over. We have gone where we are going.
This world-- which will exist, by the way-- is alternate to ours, in too many
ways to predict in true detail. An Egyptian sits at his table in 2995 BC, and
tries to imagine the world 5,000 years later. His brush is dipped in ink, a
clean sheet of papyrus before him, the relatively new invention of hieroglyphics
awaiting his command. His little daughter shouts for her daddy. Ah, silly idea.
Limiting ourselves to a plane trip over this Earth (not that there will necessarily be any planes then):
Sea level has risen to the maximum possible: almost 280 feet. The warm, flowering continents of Greenland and Antarctica-- how many wars have been fought over them? How many people live in balmy Siberia now-- at least those parts that don't belong to the fishes and whales?
We see the changes time and Man have brought: Florida disappeared 1,000's of years ago, little more than a myth now, of a distant golden age of wealth and power and delicious, godlike self-indulgence, when nature offered a few centuries of magic and the human race devoured it. America's East Coast has been eaten away, its cities abandoned, even New York City-- though one tower, as if divine, soars out of the Atlantic-- the ancient Empire State Building. Its lower 300 feet are encased in a titanic block of concrete and stone to protect it from the sea, and the rest rises to the sky and tells what man once was. The building is abandoned, dark and without electricity, which barely exists in this world, and the elements are striving to wreck it, but it was tended until the previous century, and alone of all the great towers that once defined Manhattan it remains in something like its original form. The other towers have either been battered away by wind, rain, storms and the sea, or remain in some skeletal and truncated form. But this building was deliberately intended to live forever-- which it won't-- by the defiant New Yorkers when they were forced to retreat from their beloved island and journey away.
And elsewhere: A couple of narrow inland seas thrust north from the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the central Amazon region is covered by a sea, and a second inland sea, centered over what was once northeast Argentina, also exists. The Persian Gulf reaches much further inland, the Baghdad beneath it as lost as Atlantis, the delta regions of Asia's great rivers have long disappeared under water, taking their cities with them, much of China's best rice lands are ocean now, and, as we said, Siberia is balmy, and some of it is sea.
Yet China, India, Europe, Africa, Brazil, the United States-- they all still exist. We can recognize their general shapes from the air. The overwhelming portion of Earth's land is too high to be covered. It is still inhabited. If those are not specifically Americans or Chinamen down there, the human race still exists, its journey through time-- still beginning. What have they learned?
Global Warming - The Next 10,000 Years
5,000 more years have passed. The seas remain some 280 feet higher than 10,000 years before. Oh, there's been some small fluctuations up and down over the millennia, but you can say this about the climate-- it hasn't been pleasant, but for 5,000 years it has been stable. Humanity has made its adjustment. What had to die is long dead, and this world, not new, now ancient itself, has been accommodated. All the more startling, then, is a sudden chill, a chill the likes of which....
The World - The Next 125,000 Years
Cycles. Upon cycles. Upon. And most of it frozen.
The preceding scenario...is actually pollyannish, optimistic. It treats what is
coming as a simple story of getting warmer and moving inland, gradually and
predictably. It treats as even what will not be even, but will be a process of
sudden, catastrophic lurches, nightmarishly quick changes, sick surprises. This
is the true crisis, and if Man is not, at least occasionally, quick on his feet,
inspired, brave and lucky...
The heat will be overwhelming. As we saw, 20-50,000 Europeans died in the summer heat wave of 2003, when the temperature rose 2C and more. At the height of the dinosaur era the world's surface temperature in the tropical Pacific near the Equator approached 11C higher than today, and even late in the dinosaur era those tropic surface temperatures were almost 5C higher than today (The Great Dinosaur Extinction Controversy, Officer & Page, 39). The temperature in the Eocene Era (36-55 million years ago) was comparable to late dinosaur times. As far as an 11C rise goes, modern civilization simply couldn't survive it, though more primitive forms of human order could presumably hang on. Even 5C could be a deal-breaker. Not all of dinosaur Earth was so unbearable. 110 million years ago Australia was a much more southerly continent, adjacent to Antarctica, and some of Australia lay within the Antarctic Circle. Temperature was still much warmer than today, but bearable-- probably comparable to present-day central Canada, or even Minnesota, though with more darkness in winter. But would even this be practical, civilization abandoning most of the Earth to hang on for 1,000's of years at the Poles, without a molecule of fossil fuel to warm it or drive it, with uranium depleted (people forget we have only a few centuries' worth of this resource too), and solar power limited (or nonexistent in the dark winter months)? In the real world, meanwhile, the heart of civilization lies between the Tropic of Cancer and 60 degrees north, and the Tropic of Capricorn and 40 degrees south, and this part of the world is going to be seared. Take a 7F rise for America's East Coast. "Average summer temperatures for the southeastern United States, an area roughly from Philadelphia to Miami, would rise from the current 80 degrees F to 87 degrees F. At the same time, the warmer air would hold more moisture, raising the humidity and the 'heat index'. The average temperature would feel more like 97 degrees. With the heat index it would feel like 105 degrees." ("Long-Range Global Heat Forecast: It's Very Warm", Mark Jaffee, Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/3/99) A 3-year study released in 2004 by a group of scientists at Columbia University concluded that heat-related deaths in the New York region could increase 258 % by the 2080's. By 2100 the number of New York City days 90F+ (32.2C+) a year could rise from our 15 to 70, and days 100F+ from 2 to 25.Another study in 2004 by California-based scientists said heat-related deaths in Los Angeles could rise 700 % by 2100. Parts of Europe could become so hot as to be barely habitable in summer. It's estimated that if world temperature rises by 4C even Switzerland could experience searing Julys and Augusts more characteristic of Arabia, up to 118.4F/48C. Some scientists predict that southern Europe will turn Saharan. All this in a world where the cost of running fans or air-conditioning, if you're fortunate enough to have them, will be soaring. However, let's not worry. This century will still be vaguely bearable. Then we'll invent fusion power.
The right wing likes to tell us how good the Warm World will be for agriculture. Plants love heat, right? They breathe in CO2, right? So end of story. Harvests will be better than ever. Remember those great grape harvests in medieval England? And how about those Vikings in Iceland and Greenland? However, the truth is hard: It's all nonsense. Different plant species react differently to rises in CO2. In general, weeds appear to do better in a CO2-enriched world than crops (see: "Plant Life in a CO2-Rich World", Scientific American, 1/92). They also become more resistant to herbicides. And we need to remember that world agriculture is exquisitely attuned to 20th Century climate. Any strong deviation in either direction-- much hotter or much colder-- can be deadly. Yes, a very modest rise in temperature-- say, an additional 0.6C over the next 100 years-- that then stopped-- would not be fatal, could even be helpful to certain areas, like Siberia. But we're going way beyond that. A 3C rise appears to be the tipping point, after which many agricultural regions cease to be productive. The major crop species simply don't react well when temperature rises too much. A study by the International Rice Research Institute found that for every 1C rise in mean daytime temperature rice yields decline by 15 %. And at 40C/104F fertilization of rice seeds ceases. Studies have found that wheat and corn yields also fall, even cease, as temperatures rise, especially if nighttime rise exceeds the daytime (which is what has been happening under global warming). Wheat and corn yields fall about 10 % for every 1C up.
There's no need to speak in the abstract. Europe's summer of 2003 provided an unwitting test of how crops do on a widespread scale in increased warmth and, of course, heightened CO2.
They were devastated.
Plant growth across the continent dropped 30 %. The stressed plants didn't gladly imbibe CO2, they vomited it out, adding an additional 500 million tons of carbon emission. The truth, as opposed to comfortable fantasy, is that plants tend to shut their pores when faced with enhanced CO2 and temperature. England's wheat crop was down 12 %, France's 20 %, the Ukraine's-- 80 %. The fact is photosynthesis was shutting down in Europe.
It's estimated that at some point in this century summers like 2003's will be the typical summer in Europe.
And it's a characteristic of our crop species that as temperature rises they will require more water, fertilizer, herbicides, and biocide protection from insect pests. This latter is a problem not always noted. Insects love heat. The closer we approach to dinosaur heat the louder they'll cheer. A British study said the fly population in the United Kingdom could soon double. For another example of what's coming look at the story of the spruce bark beetle-- a forest rather than an agricultural pest, granted, but one with plenty of cousins willing to do a number on crops-- which has recently killed almost every white spruce in some 4 million acres of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, and wiped out over 10 million acres in British Columbia. The beetle and the spruce have co-existed for about 8,000 years on Kenai. What happened? Recent extreme heating has apparently doubled the beetle's reproduction rate. Other forest beetles have also begun flourishing in ways never seen before. The current mountain pine beetle infestation out west, for instance, is being called the largest insect infestation in North American history. And water-- our crops will require more of it in the Warm World? Already the world's aquifers are being depleted and wells are going dry (or have to be dug ever more deeply). So in one more area the human race seems to be bumping up against a resource limit. Even without global warming the world was headed for a water crisis, and unlike oil water has no substitute.
Yet conservative talk hosts are undeterred. Dennis Prager, for instance: "There will be more life on Earth with more carbon." (3/30/09) Maybe-- but with six legs.
Science is trying to understand how rainfall patterns will change in the Warm World. It's a difficult and complex subject, with so many variables making prediction chancy. As a general rule of climate, warmer means more rain and colder less, but unquestionably there will be regional exceptions. The region of greatest concern is of course the American and Canadian Midwest, the world's breadbasket, which is counted on to play an ever greater role in the coming centuries in feeding the world, whose population is still growing, A map on page 245 of Gribbin's Future Weather shows a reconstruction of rainfall distribution for the world between 6000 BC and 2000 BC, when it was a warmer place. 4 areas are shown with less rainfall than today. 3 are of little or no consequence for agriculture-- north-central Canada, northernmost Greenland, and Scandinavia plus northwest Russia. The fourth area is mostly the American Midwest. And the future? The N.Y. Times (8/28/02, A10) reports that some climate experts expect agriculture "to falter in arid subtropical areas like the Eastern Mediterranean and southern Africa, while flourishing in northern climes-- like the North American wheat belt-- as more precipitation and longer growing seasons boost yields." But the computer models of other climate scientists trying to predict a world with doubled CO2 show a northward shift of ecological zones, turning our grain belt into a bone-dry copy of the American Southwest. And in October 2003 the Pentagon issued a report entitled "An Abrupt Climate-Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security", filled with apocalyptic possibilities, such as mega-droughts searing the world's major breadbaskets, including the American Midwest. For China it offered as a possibility: "China, with its high need for food supply, is hit hard by a decreased reliability of the monsoon rains. Longer, colder winters and hotter summers stress already tight energy and water supplies. Widespread famine causes chaos and internal struggles." Indeed, it is possible that the precipitation picture will be weird and paradoxical. Some regions could get more overall rain in a year yet still suffer extraordinary water shortages, as the rainfall becomes less even, concentrated in briefer tropical outbursts, the water quickly drying up in the unprecedented heat, the crops damaged not nurtured by the briefer torrential rain and ensuing floods. And the stronger winds brought by the heated atmosphere will blow the dried-out soil away. Climatologists agree there will be more evaporation in the Warm World. This could lead to the effect where the Great Lakes region receives more rain yet the lakes shrink, some of their water replaced by reeking expanses of mud. Already, greater winter evaporation in the Great Lakes is lowering water levels. And yet in this same strange world the landlocked Caspian Sea may grow hugely, as it did in the Medieval Warm Period. And then there is the problem of changed precipitation form, as snow increasingly fades away, replaced by rain. As this happens, the phenomenon of spring or summer mountain snowmelt, relied on by so many regions to provide irrigation, hydroelectric power, drinking water and water for other uses, will disappear. Or even if it snows as hard in winter it will melt away in the warmer wintertime, too early to be of use. In California, in wintertime reservoirs have to be kept low for flood control purposes, so if the snows melt then they must be allowed to run off into the sea, and farmers, hydroelectric plants and other water users will have nothing left for later when they need it. It is estimated that by 2050 snowpacks supplying the Northwest's Columbia River will be down 30 %, meaning the salmon spawning in the river will have to be sacrificed to preserve water for irrigation and power. The ways global warming threatens the world's water supplies are endless. Here's one last subtle, unexpected possibility: As Arctic sea ice melts heat escapes from the ocean to warm the atmosphere, disturbing atmospheric airflow, deflecting winter storms from the west coast, and reducing rainfall from British Columbia to southern California by 30 %. And again the farmers will look in vain for the irrigating water they once knew.
And the heated crop plants will need more fertilizer? Almost 2 % of world energy consumption goes into the creation of chemical fertilizer. In the 1990's about 5 % of all natural gas went into fertilizer. Fertilizer has increasingly become the product of fossil fuel. In India 40 % of natural gas consumption goes into fertilizer, and China makes 60 % of its chemical fertilizer from coal. The more fossil fuel goes into agriculture the greater the greenhouse effect the hotter the world the more our crops will need and demand what fossil fuel provides in order to survive-- not just fertilizer-- synthetic pesticides, for instance, whose use in the U.S. grew 33-fold just between 1985 and 1990-- herbicides, fuel for tractors and farm machinery, for powering irrigation, transporting food, cooking it, packaging it in plastics made of oil-- the hotter the world grows, the more crops need-- but the less we will be able to provide, as fossil fuels fade out over the next few centuries and their prices soar beyond most of humanity's ability to pay, and the warming takes water and soil away and brings plagues of insects and pests to devour the crops and weeds to crowd them out, as the world population is set to grow from 6.7 billion in 2008 to 9.5 billion in 2050 and the seas seep across the cropland and seep their killing salt into the water supply.
The 3 great crops-- wheat, corn and rice-- provide more than half the world's food. All our lives are propped by 3 slim plants. The situation becomes even more alarming as world grain production has increasingly struggled to meet soaring consumption and use as meat feed for the last 2 decades. (Consumption has outpaced production 7 of the last 9 years.) It's as if the human race is bumping its head up against a ceiling of agricultural possibility, leaving it no room for the slightest faltering. But global warming points to a faltering, and more than slight. The United Nations Environment Program offers 10 possible scenarios for cereal crop production in the year 2060 compared to 1995, and in 9 of them production declines, in the worst case by almost 20 %. And yet this study, like virtually all studies of global warming, refuses to look beyond the 21st Century, which in retrospect will be seen as a relatively mild prelude to what follows. We are not headed for an agricultural happy time. The human race, in fact, will be lucky to hold its own. That future Manhattan behind the sea walls and dikes-- will have to grow much of its own food in Central Park and its backyards. As I write, I know that we won't even hold our own, or only some of us will, and for others on Earth the leanest of the Four Horsemen now mounts.
The ocean currents will change, not just in serious ways, but possibly in ghastly ways. This is an aspect of global warming that has received great attention in recent years, rightly so. The focus, above all, is on the warm and cold currents in the North Atlantic. They're called by many names, and choosing among them we'll go with the Atlantic Conveyor. This is the system that brings warm water to Western Europe's shores (and to a lesser extent warms the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada) and is the reason why northern European cities like Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg are far warmer and more livable places than Anchorage, Alaska or Okhotsk, Russia, which are equally around 60 degrees north. How warm? Over 10C's worth in some parts of Europe, the equivalent of at least 100's of 1,000's of power stations providing heat. The system is driven by the cold, dense, salty waters of the Labrador Sea and the sea east of Greenland plunging deep and moving south, which has the effect of whipping warmer water north. The enemy of the system is fresh water. If there's too much of it in those northern areas ocean water won't be salty or dense enough to sink as it has, ending the whipping effect. Europe then loses its warm currents and warming winds and some of it reaches Siberia-like conditions. And the rest of the world? The Atlantic Conveyor is part of a larger worldwide system of ocean circulation in which parcels of water circle the Earth over a period of 1,000 years, and the Conveyor's potential shutdown is now seen as affecting the whole world, including the tropics. For instance, it is felt a Conveyer shutdown could possibly end the Asian monsoons, and dry out the Amazon forest.
This system has perhaps existed for 10's of millions of years, maybe even longer. It took a hit 3 to 3-1/2 million years ago when Panama rose from the sea in a geological upheaval, dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific. The circulation continued, but in a form that made the world cooler, and may be the cause, or one of the causes, of the coming of the Ice Age.
The Atlantic Conveyor seems to operate in a huge 1,500-year cycle, one of those vast natural cycles like the cycles of the Sun or the cycles of Earth's rotation that superimpose on each other in a bewildering but far-reaching way and determine the course of Earth's climate. Every 1,500 years or so during the Glacial Period the Conveyor weakened, but perhaps never died, though other scientists think sometimes it did. Since then there has been definitely 1, probably 2, maybe 3 or 4 times when it did die for long stretches, once for as long as 1,200-1,300 years, and there have been other instances when it shut down or weakened for just a few years, in which case the effect on climate was much less.
What can stop it?
An excess of fresh water, as we said. (Though if the North Atlantic ever becomes too warm to form ice at all that could be an additional cause.)
Where could this excess of fresh water come from?
From increases in precipitation, increased flow by northern rivers into the sea-- or the melting of glaciers and ice caps.
Global warming increases evaporation, which means more water vapor in the air, which means more precipitation (overall-- there are regional exceptions as we've seen). Through the 20th Century precipitation did indeed increase in high northern latitudes. And between 1936 and 2002 the 6 largest Eurasian rivers increased their freshwater runoff into the Arctic Ocean by 7 %. More precipitation and the melting of ice and permafrost is responsible for that. Though the fresh water of the rivers isn't moving directly into the Labrador Sea, eventually it can make its way and affect the Atlantic Conveyor. The Conveyor effect in the Labrador Sea seems to have flickered on and off several times since the 1970's. Salinity maps for the North Atlantic show a great freshening of the water since the 1960's, both in strength and geographical extent. And between 1968 and 1982 a gigantic blob of fresh water-- scientists gave it the name of the Great Salinity Anomaly-- drifted around the North Atlantic, and probably was responsible, at least in part, for some very cold European winters before it vanished. And of course the greatest influx of fresh water is still to come-- when Greenland, West Antarctica and finally East Antarctica melt.
We know from climate history what happens when the Atlantic Conveyor shuts down. By around 10,800 BC the planet was approaching the end of the Glacial Period. But then a gigantic lake that had formed from the melting of the Canadian ice, covering a good deal of what is now the north-central United States and south-central Canada and larger than all the present-day Great Lakes combined, Lake Agassiz, burst through the ice dam to its east, and roared as a torrent down the St. Lawrence River into the Labrador Sea, at maybe 30,000 tons a second. Within a few generations at most deep Glacial Period cold returned and the ice sheets were advancing again. Indeed, in the eastern U.S. and Canada and in much of Europe average temperature may have dropped more than 10F in less than 50 years. It was so cold in Europe that the forests that had replaced the tundra all died and tundra returned, and then fire swept the European plain, burning the dead wood. The effect of the Younger Dryas, as this new cold period was called, was felt worldwide. There was severe drought in the Levant, which could have spurred those Middle Easterners on to agriculture. The area that's now Santa Barbara, California, may have become as cold as present-day Juneau, Alaska. The snowline descended in the tropical Andes. But, still, the Younger Dryas's strongest effect was in Europe.
A second great shutdown-- or if not a complete shutdown close to it-- came in 6200 BC, when the Laurentide Ice Cap over eastern Canada-- it had once stretched from the Atlantic to the Rockies, but had been melting for about 10,000 years-- imploded, and again a titanic freshwater torrent rushed down the St. Lawrence River to the Labrador Sea. What followed is a 400-year period called the Mini Ice Age (or, more prosaically by some paleoclimatologists, the 6200 BC Event). Average temperatures in Western Europe dropped about 6F. And once more the effect was felt worldwide. For instance, sea surface in one Indonesian region cooled by 3C.
A 2-century-long period of coolness and drying between 3200 and 3000 BC may have also been caused by an Atlantic Conveyor shutdown. The droughts of the time may have rendered the final coup de grace to the Sahara, which even into the 3000's BC had lakes, trees, grassland and marshland filled with game and fish, and pasturage for peoples' sheep, goats and cattle. These droughts probably contributed to the lowering of the vital Nile inundations and general drying out of Egypt around then. (Yet at the same time the influx of peoples from the drying Sahara into the Nile valley, bringing new ideas and techniques for living, no doubt helped spark the birth of what we call ancient Egyptian civilization.)
It is possible that a shutdown of the Atlantic Conveyor was also responsible for the Little Ice Age (though there are other explanations), that period of chaotic and generally colder-- at times brutally colder-- weather between around 1300 AD and the late 1800's. At the depths of the Little Ice Age, between around 1680 and 1730, sea ice often blocked the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland in summer, and through most of 1695 Iceland was completely locked in by ice. Immense wind storms struck northern Europe. A harsh phase of the Little Ice Age killed off the Viking settlement in Greenland in the 1400's. To the east, Iceland barely survived. A Britisher who visited Iceland, Joseph Banks, wrote of "so violent a cold in 1753 and 1754, that horses and sheep dropped down dead on account of it, as well as for want of food, horses were observed to feed upon dead cattle, and the sheep eat of each others' wool. In the year 1755, towards the end of...May, in one night the ice was one inch and five lines thick. In...1756, on the 26th of June, snow fell to the depth of a yard, and continued falling through...July and August." Between 1753 and 1759 1/4 of Iceland's population starved to death. Between 1783 and 1786 famine, plus misery brought by a volcanic eruption, killed 1/5 to 1/4 of the population. Famine struck throughout the world. Possibly as much as 1/3 of the population of Finland died of starvation and disease in 1696 and 1697. Even in a well-favored place like Burgundy, a report to its King declared in 1662, "famine this year has put an end to over ten thousand families in your province, and forced a third of the inhabitants, even in the good towns, to eat wild plants." Another account reported "Some people ate human flesh." The period 1805-1820 was also particularly terrible, made worse by the explosion in 1815 of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the greatest volcanic eruption of the last 10,000 years, which in turn led to1816, the notorious "year without a summer". In terms of material ejected into the atmosphere, the Tambora explosion was 100 times more powerful than Vesuvius in 79 AD or Mt. St. Helens in 1980. It seems to have blocked out more than 20 % of the Sun's radiation, and of course again led to famines.
But the weather of the Little Ice Age affected the whole world. A million Japanese died in the Temmei Famine of 1783-87, simultaneous with the Iceland famine. (Volcano Weather, Stommel & Stommel, page 119) In Korea, "The rebellion of Hong Kyongnae had no sooner been put down than a terrible drought struck the nation in the years 1812 to 1813, producing a famine which produced a record death toll-- it was alleged that 4.5 million died [over half the population]." (A History of Korea, Henthorn, page 221)
In its 2003 report, the Pentagon-- which like so many environmental warnings exaggerates only in the sense it rushes events into being a few generations or a century or two too fast-- visualizes shutdown of the Atlantic Conveyor, resulting in this picture:
"Each of the years from 2010 to 2020 sees temperature drops throughout northern Europe. Average annual rainfall in this region decreases by nearly 30 percent. Lakes dry up, river flow decreases, and the freshwater supply is squeezed...By the second half of this decade, the harsher conditions spread deeper into southern Europe, North America, and beyond....By the end of the decade, Europe's climate is more like Siberia's...By 2015 conflicts within the E.U. over food and water supplies lead to skirmishes....China, with its high need for food supply, is hit hard...Widespread famine causes chaos and internal struggles....Once again warfare defines human life."
All so a pittance of the human race can drive its SUVs.
This is the true craziness global warming will bring. If not in that exact form, in some form.
Despite what the Pentagon report pictures, a shutdown of the Atlantic Conveyor appears unlikely in this century, though a slowdown is said by the IPCC to be "very likely". A complete shutdown would come later. Such a shutdown will not take us all the way back to the Glacial Period. It's felt by most climatologists that to get the massive fresh water infusion needed to make the Conveyor collapse will require a temperature rise of 4-6C. (Though there are others who say 2-3C will do it.). That will take..150 years? 275 years? Since we'd be starting from a warmer climate base than in 10,800 BC, and the world's ice caps are smaller, we would return to Little Ice Age or more than Little Ice Age conditions, but less than full Glacial Period, and not even worldwide in this case. There would still be a warm Conveyor system, but based in the south, say around Bermuda. The heat that once reached north would stay in the tropics and lower temperate areas. Even as near-Glacial Period cold brutalized Europe, and very severe cold hit northeast North America, much of the rest of the world, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, could start heating up even faster. The seas would continue rising, even as some regions were locked in ice. (To be balanced, some scientists think once global warming goes far enough even an Atlantic Conveyor shutdown couldn't reverse it, even regionally. But that's dubious-- there are simply too many instances over the last 600,000 years where temperature plummeted 10C or more in just a decade or two. And we saw temperature plummet because of a shutdown even in warm 6200 BC. Overall, climate computer models, such as those on which scientists base their Atlantic Conveyor optimism, have been consistently too optimistic on climate change effects.)
It could be even crazier than that. The north might hallucinatingly fluctuate between Ice Age winters and unreal tropical summers. You could be living in the Second Little Ice Age while 1,000 miles away your cousin was headed toward dinosaur heat. Or maybe you'll experience both wherever you are within a period of a few months. Things are further complicated by the fact the the Younger Dryas and the Mini Ice Age seem to have had relatively straightforward causes-- enormous influxes of fresh water moving east into the Labrador Sea. In our situation Greenland will be melting to the west, but also to the north, east (the predominant melt at present) and south-- and in the Southern Hemisphere Antarctica will be melting too. Far away as it is, Antarctica's melting will affect the North Atlantic. And affect air currents as well. What is going to happen to us is too complex to predict exactly-- it can only be lived through. To say the weather will be hot, cold, getting hotter, getting colder-- it is beyond that. Our climate is about to be driven insane.
How long does a Conveyor shutdown take? It took the Earth about 45 years to move into the Younger Dryas. Some scientists think it took 40-50 years, as natural climatic fluctuations restored the Conveyor 1,200-1,300 years later, to get out of it. (But in Earth, 4/96, 11, we read that in a computer simulation of a possible future event "the conveyor began to grind to a halt, taking several hundred years to shut down completely." However, contrarily, see my next paragraph for a scarier view of climate change speed.) Robert Henson in The Rough Guide to Climate Change (page 56) says it could be quick: "a few years to play out". How long the Conveyor would stay shut down is really unpredictable. "Ocean modelers have shown that the oceanic conveyor would come back to life, but only after hundreds or thousands of years had passed." (Scientific American, 11/95, 63) Others say maybe in just decades. (Scientific American, 11/04, 67) Thank you, experts all, as usual. But perhaps we're going to go in and out in and out, harder and harder and faster and faster. Perhaps the old rules of climate simply no longer apply. "Welcome to the Anthropocene. It's a new geological era, so take a good look around. A single species is in charge of the planet, altering its surface features almost at will." (eces[Earth Crash Earth Spirit].org, 11/22/03) In an article in Atlantic Monthly, 1/98, "The Great Climate Flip-flop", William H. Calvin warned against hope in gradualism, or in hope itself: "I hope never to see a failure of the northernmost loop of the North Atlantic Current, because the result would be a population crash that would take much of civilization with it, all within a decade."
Scientists studying the past have come to the conclusion Nature can change climate in a virtual eye-blink. In truth, in climate Nature doesn't seem to do gradualism. It's here-- then suddenly's a new reality. Like the way we're alive-- then we are not. That's why I wrote earlier of "sudden catastrophic lurches, nightmarishly quick changes, sick surprises." A team of paleoclimatologists reported to the American Geophysical Union that in their opinion the Younger Dryas ended in just 3 years, or maybe even 1. That means that in Greenland the temperature would have soared 1F a month, to a 12F rise in a year. In fact, Richard Alley thinks Earth might have shaken itself out of the Younger Dryas in a single season. As for the end of the Glacial Period 10,000 years ago-- a suspiciously round number, but in fact it did end exactly or almost exactly then, and the time's been officially certified by the International Quarternary Union, the deciding body on such matters-- "Greenland's [and the world's] climate see-sawed from glacial to inter-glacial conditions in just three years as the last ice age hiccupped to a close." (Earth, 1/94, 28) In the same 3-year period Greenland's snow doubled as the warmth of modern conditions-- the new Holocene Epoch, ours-- increased water vapor in the air, and the extremely windy and dusty conditions of the Glacial Period also ended in those same 36 months. (Yet some scientists go even further, and say the doubling took place in just 12 months.) If the human race thinks it will simply be eased nicely and gradually into a new world over centuries, the shock of change will be even greater, and humanity's capacity to respond with any effectiveness and intelligence-- and courage-- surely less.
If I have now done my job, many readers must be shaken by a dark vision. Yet I know that even as you intellectually accept it, emotionally you push it away, into science fiction. I have trouble accepting it too, because it means the end of so much. Yet it strikes me that both our attitudes are like our attitudes toward our inevitable coming deaths, which intellectually we understand, how can we possibly deny, but which the atoms of our emotions scream against. (Freud put it well: "there is nothing instinctual in us which responds to a belief in death.") So now I must feel like a doctor who's given you the horrible news that you have AIDS, hepatitis C and tuberculosis and, as you stand up to go, shaken, has to shout "Sit down! I haven't told you the worst."
The most frightening possibility of all is what's called the "runaway greenhouse".
251 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period, life faced its greatest crisis, as over 90 % of Earth's species died. In the seas, perhaps no more than 4 % of animal species survived. Even the insects, who laughed at the dinosaurs as whatever did them in did them in, suffered their single catastrophic extinction in over 400 million years. 30 % of the insect orders were wiped out. Scientists have argued, and will probably argue forever, about the causes of the Permian catastrophe. But a consensus seems to be building that it involved methane.
For about a million years Earth had suffered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, series of volcanic eruptions in its history-- the so-called "Siberian Traps". Some 2.7 million square miles were covered by lava that was as much as 4 miles high. Initially, the volcanic activity had its usual effect of cooling the Earth. But what happened then may well have been this: Eruptions this long and this powerful eventually heated both lands and seas, releasing the methane of permafrost and ocean floor and possibly coal deposits (as well as pouring vast amounts of carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere directly, and also resulting in the production of life-poisons such as carbonic acid and hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid in titanic amounts). So much methane combined with the oxygen in the seas to form CO2 that much of marine life was asphyxiated. Other methane entered the atmosphere, reducing oxygen there too and suffocating the animals, and killing plants with acid rain. Other organisms died of carbon dioxide poisoning. Yet other species died of heat, or the burial of their lands under the rising seas. Heat evaporation turned habitats into desert.
Immense storms swept the world. The heat loosened the ocean floor, resulting in colossal undersea landslides on the continental slopes, freeing more methane. I simplify and contract possible events. Geologist Gregory Retallack of the University of Oregon says the methane rising from the seas produced a "postapocalyptic greenhouse". Gregory Ryskin, a chemical engineer at Northwestern University, goes even further: "So much methane accumulated in stagnant seas at the end of the Permian, he argues, that when it finally erupted, it ignited, setting most of the planet on fire." (Discover, 3/04, 39) How much methane was in the Permian ocean? Perhaps enough to liberate energy 10,000 times greater than in all of Man's nuclear arsenal.
Could such events sere our world, ending civilization of course, even wiping us from existence?
Some 8,000 to 8,200 years ago one of the greatest landslides in Earth's history took place off the coast of Norway, quite possibly triggered by the eruption of methane freed from its hydrates by the warming of the world. Blocks of mud maybe 20 miles long rushed 500 miles in perhaps only a couple of hours, wiping out all life over 35,000 square miles, and Scotland was struck with tidal waves as high as 50 feet, Norway hit with tidal waves as high as 65 feet. (Discover, ibid.)
In summer of 2008 there were reports of methane bubbling up in the Arctic Ocean. We've already seen a bubbling out of Siberian permafrost.
Euan Nisbet, geologist at the University of London, says that under global warming methane "would probably take some decades or centuries to come out...But once it started, it would be essentially unstoppable." (Ibid., page 40)
What would it look like? "...it would look as if the sea was boiling, perhaps with faint yellow flames dancing above the churning surface." (Six Degrees, Mark Lynas, 234) Also, water geysers shooting hundreds of feet in the air, and methane fireballs passing in the sky.
Of course, another way to liberate methane is for an energy-crazed world to drill for it.
If it is any comfort, the fact that our world is much cooler than it was at the end of the Permian Period (even before the catastrophe struck), plus some other factors, will apparently ameliorate the effect of the methane greenhouse somewhat, and it looks like the planet won't catch on fire. And even some scientists who agree that a methane crisis is inevitable would put it off till later centuries, even to 1,000 years or 1,000 years plus a few centuries from now (though at the latest). Others still say this century is possible. Whichever, as Dan Dorite, Geology Department, University of California at Davis, put it in his dramatically-titled but superbly detailed and scientific website, killerinourmidst.com-- if nothing else on it read "Part II: Now", killerinourmidst.com/now.html--: "A methane catastrophe, therefore, is an abrupt surge of greenhouse gas that could make mere carbon dioxide warming of the planet pale to insignificance. It can utterly overwhelm the natural heat regulating system of the Earth, which operates in a much more gradual way, and on a much more protracted time scale. Its quantity is so massive that there is no remedial action that people will be able to take to mitigate it except in the most superficial way. Once a methane catastrophe begins, its consequences for the planet and its inhabitants, human and other, will be appalling, and we will be able to do nothing except wait it out...a 'rapid' recovery could take many centuries, perhaps millennia." Other scientists contend the methane eruptions can continue for 10's of 1,000's of years, even millions of years-- indefinitely, for human purposes.
There are other tremendous changes to come. This list will no doubt include an immense extinction spasm among animals and plants, which was coming anyway, just through Man's environmental destruction and killing, and acidification and anoxification of the ocean. Perhaps the insects will multiply even more quickly as the birds and other animals that eat them fade out. Not just agricultural and forest pests but disease-bringers like mosquitoes will flourish in the warmth. Already we are seeing malaria and yellow fever moving into highlands once too cold for them. (And the disease-causing microbes in the mosquitoes are maturing more quickly.) Even just the arrival in our home towns of hordes of disgusting but otherwise harmless insects may dent human morale. And good for mold and vermin too.
And what if, adding to these climate changes, the horrible unexpecteds should happen too? A string of enormous volcanic explosions at the worst possible time? Several of the key surviving cities suddenly destroyed by earthquakes? Or entire regions struck, as happened in the terrible South Asia tsunami tragedy (which was not related to global warming)? Or by hurricanes made more ferocious, if not more frequent, by the heated atmosphere? The coming of new plagues, or the deepening of current ones like AIDS or the flu? Or the greatest horror-- the use of nuclear weapons, finally, as desperate nations fight amongst themselves over fossil fuel or diminishing water resources or just for food or simply because conditions are driving the world mad?
I have never seen a discussion of it in relation to global warming. It is not scientific? No, but it's key. Let me end the essay on this subject.
The story of the human race, for all the horrors of its history, has been a triumph. But is it just the triumph of a raging cancer or life-curdling virus which has so far had its way, or is it something more, the work of Nature's true masterpiece, not its greatest mistake?
Up till recently, Man has had no doubt about the answer. The swagger and brio and joyfulness of his art, before the 20th Century, tell us that. The ambitious reach of his religions, the height of his towers, the names he gives himself, all tell us that. Look at the example of the artist many consider the greatest of all, William Shakespeare. You would never know, reading his works, or seeing them on stage, that he lived in a world of darkness and death, so filled is he with the joy-- and pride-- of being alive, of being human-- the vitality that overcomes everything.
"What a piece of work is man!
...how like an angel!
...how like a god!"
He lived in the Little Ice Age, under conditions that would defeat us, without modern heating, modern plumbing, poorly clothed, poorly fed, with nothing we'd consider modern medicine. The decade of the 1590's-- Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Henry V ("We few, we happy few")-- was the 16th Century's coldest decade. The harvests between 1591 and 1597 were terrible, and famine swept the country. "Whole villages in England, especially in East Anglia, were depopulated and ceased to exist, not because of the Black Death, as historians used to think, but because of the crop failures and starvation caused by climatic changes." (Future Weather, Gribbin, page 46) Even into the early 18th Century in England, between 1/4 and 1/3 of peasant children died before 15. Death was ever near. You could smell it. People were perpetually assaulted and taken away by smallpox, typhus, dysentery, leprosy, syphilis (remember, no antibiotics), measles-- choose your plague. Queen Elizabeth, when young, was lucky to survive smallpox with only light scarring. Lady Mary Sidney, who cared for her, "recovered, but was so disfigured that she never appeared at court again without wearing a mask." (Princes And Peasants, Hopkins, page 3) A possible husband for Elizabeth, Alencon, brother of France's King Charles IX, was eliminated after smallpox savaged him. When Alencon "emerged from his chamber after a dangerous bout with smallpox, there was little left of the promising young prince. His appearance was totally changed: His face was deeply pitted, his eyes bloodshot, and rheumy, his voice thin and reedy, and his nose almost doubled in size....His spirit too had undergone a profound change....he found he no longer had a part to play in that world in which handsome faces and virile bodies were given first prize..." (Ibid., page 31) Medicine? Elizabeth's doctor wrapped her in a "scarlet cloth" (the so-called "red treatment"). Other medical treatments offered to victims: being cut and bled, emptying your bowels with purgatives, or, to follow up on the excremental theme, drinking a concoction made from sheep dung. (For measles the recommendation was: goat shit.) And bubonic plague struck-- not lightly-- as does West Nile Virus or even AIDS with us-- but with the force of nuclear war. Yet there is nothing about this in Shakespeare. 17,000 of the 150,000 people of London and its suburbs died of the plague in 1593, and of course others died throughout England. Treatments suggested included pressing the ass of a plucked chicken against your black swellings. 22 % of the city died in the Plague of 1603-- similar casualties in New York City today would mean almost 1,900,000 deaths. Including London the city plus its suburbs the death rate in 1603 was 14 %, about 3,120,000 in the New York Metropolitan Area. Why would that defeat us, yet it couldn't defeat him or them? His mood darkened: Othello (1604), King Lear (1606), Macbeth (1606), but the music remained immense, even his villains and victims speak so boldly and gloriously and act with such power that they too seem to celebrate our very existence. A dark play about human decay and confusion (King Lear) tells its tale with such huge music that in the end it too is celebration. Throughout his work men and women joust but in a glorious tournament, not our sullen war. Vices are embraced with gusto (Falstaff), virtue hunted for through the darkness with a Crusader's zeal (Hamlet), war and the warrior are deified and deify themselves (Henry V). And all around him a younger, more optimistic Western civilization joyed in being alive. His colleague Marlowe could write:
"Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every planet's wandering course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest"
And George Herbert could celebrate prayer and faith flush with meaning and reality:
"Softness and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood."
We think what made Shakespeare a titan was that he was a genius, that is, he did what we do, he just did it better, when in fact, genius that he was, it was the energy and optimism of his world, the fact he lived in a world that was being born and not one about to die, the fact indeed he lived on the other side of the mirror from us, that put him over the top. We have technology and prosperity he never dreamt of, but it's made us sullen and small because we now see where it's lead, he had none of it, was, in a way, ecstatic like Herbert, in the joy of early bliss. Bach and Handel lived and died in the Little Ice Age, without a scrap of hydrocarbon between them, unless they burned a little coal to keep warm, without a single electric bulb for their poor overworked eyes, so both went blind, and both endured useless eye operations (2 of them for Bach) without anesthesia at the hands of the same quack doctor (redundant, really, when describing 18th Century medicine) John Taylor whom Samuel Johnson called "an instance of how far impudence can carry ignorance" and the music of both, from youth to old age, soared to the heavens. On New Year's Day, 1772, Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton married, and on January 18th they left her father's estate for Monticello, in the face of one of those fierce snowstorms of the Little Ice Age, with no SUV to see them through: "Snow was falling heavily as they pushed on toward Monticello. The light phaeton was making little headway through chest-high drifts...The next day, ignoring the worst blizzard in Virginia in decades [today, 1 inch of snow shuts down Washington D.C.], they left their phaeton and plowed on toward Monticello on horseback, finding the barely visible road up Monticello's slope at midnight. There was no sound from the mountain wind howling over three feet of snow. The slaves and white workmen had long since gone to bed. Jefferson led Martha through the pitch-black gloom to the one-room cottage." (Thomas Jefferson, Randall, page 160) That night, unless they were too exhausted, in a place devoid of electricity, or even a flush toilet, without a scrap of hydrocarbon, unless they burned a little coal to keep warm, the two, let us imagine, made love under many covers, beginning their married life. The men and women of the past, down to the meanest serf, the black slave in deepest mourning for his lost continent on the worst plantation in America, still, fundamentally, had more spirit than we now will.
We are older, and we are shocked where all the vitality has led, and we are shocked by ourselves. After slavery and Auschwitz and World War I and Rwanda and the Khmer Rouge-- how much more can we take of ourselves? The people of the past, whatever their travails, were always going forward. But global warming will result in a turn in human history, a move backwards, back towards material impoverishment, and to an impoverishment of the spirit. And it is our own fault. How much more can we take of ourselves before we hate ourselves, and lose our interest in being alive? You can see the dimming of the human spirit in our art, in the increasingly vile failure of relations between men and women, in the increasing unwillingness of men and women to marry or breed, in the coarsening of manners, the craziness of our children, the increasing reliance on drugs to get by, in the way we beg sex to do more than it can. We're like a person who's worked out and now is built like a god, whose face (a little aided?) is beautiful, who's bathed and put on cologne and pulled on the finest clothing, expecting "a magic night", and, just before walking out the door to his waiting black shiny Hummer (10-13 mph according to GM, 8-10 according to the dealer) stops to admire himself in the mirror-- and there is a monster, shrunken and misshapen, covered with rags, his face and body dripping pus-- and as he runs through the mansion every mirror shows him the same, and even his reflection in the Hummer's window when he finally staggers outside shows him the same nightmarish being, and finally he realizes that is him.
And yet the worst is coming.
This time has the feel of an era ending. This is how it must have felt at the very end of the Classical world, with Rome over, and something new and dark coming, whatever it was. Yet can we even have confidence in 1,000 years from now, or 2,000 years from now? Why?
The left, the environmentalists, I know, sometimes console themselves with a classic vision, that as we falter materially we will at least return to a simpler, wiser, less materially-obsessed, more communitarian civilization. But as we've seen, the next 2 or 3 centuries will actually be filled with political struggle that will keep that from happening. And then it's too late. I can see artists, environmentalists, sophisticates, idealists, romantics and dreamers-- who, whatever their faults, have created much of what is wonderful and beautiful in human existence-- simply giving up in this world, going into some kind of internal exile in their heads, not caring if they live or die, or if anything does.
And the right, the powermen, the Capitalists, the Christians, the optimists, the libertarians, the conservatives, the technology worshippers and the market worshippers, they too, all but the blindest, will eventually confront the demoralizing failure of their existence. Their morale too will shiver and shrivel.
The time has the feel of an era ending. For democracy, that freakish and amazing experiment of a quarter-millennium, the system that says it's all right to, etc., if 51 %-- who knows if it will survive. For Capitalism, which cheered the way to, goaded us into, the Warm World-- what price will be paid? In fact, to the extent any system of human endeavor and organization only really has life when it is cherished in the majority of human hearts, Capitalism has already died, and especially since the economic crash. But, like the French aristocrats of the 18th Century, Capitalism's lords, and our overlords, still seem to have no real inkling. Just as the first nobility shielded themselves from reality with their silks and carriages and their gold and jewels and palaces and minuets and the obsequious, grudging and merely tactical allegiance of those under, so the powermen of Predator Capitalism, of Psychocapitalism, the leaders of our world, many of them, still have their $1,000 suits, the $100 haircuts, their young trophy wives and waiting limos and helicopters and private jets, their access to Presidents and Prime Ministers and dictators, their insane salaries topped by even more magnificent stock options, and still with bonuses, now topped by trillion dollar bailouts, their remaining joy and pride at having smashed unions and smashed forests and smashed pensions and smashed borders, their tall and shiny sterile and energy-inefficient towers in the cities where they don't even deign to live, their country mansions, even as the world they created starts to boil. What price to be paid? It isn't just the plankton; sharks die too when their time comes. The Warm World will melt. But I write with little optimism of what comes from chaos.
Wherefrom the energy now, I mean the human energy and not that other material crap, to keep going, continue caring and creating? The survivor, the victor, perhaps, will be Islamic, fundamentalistic, with its iron faith, its total commitment to family, its puritanism, its ferocity and otherworldliness that cannot be defeated by that which defeats a more advanced and material-dependent and individualistic West. Perhaps, as I suggested in my second Extended Political Essay, "How Al-Qaeda Can Win", they will find allies-of-the-moment in an environmental left angry enough to simply want to "take it all down". If so, then all our victories or half-victories in Afghanistan and Iraq are irrelevant, the political future like the climatological foreordained.
All that is modern, like all that was once Medieval and Classical, after a 500-year run, may be coming to an end. Perhaps art, at least of its individualistic kind, shall falter with the rest. Perhaps there will be a worldwide reaction against science and technology, a luddite spasm. The lives of women, rescued from quasi-slavery by modernism, may fall back. People abused and left behind, left for dead by a contemptuous West in its hour of triumph, may emerge from the chaos for their revenge-- the Amerindians (especially the heirs of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas), the Africans, the Aborigines. And what of Christianity? The chaos we are headed to opens the book of religious creation wide open again, and not Christianity but something reactive seems written there-- neo-pagan, Earth-worshipping, pantheistic, determined on new moralities, perhaps with as little desire for compromise as Islam, or Christianity in its youth.
What is especially disheartening is that we were essentially lent magic powers by Nature for several centuries and we still couldn't abolish poverty or slavery or conquer that devil within us that leads to violence and folly, or, really, find honest happiness as beings. If we couldn't do it in the best of times, what comes now?
Over 100 years ago, William Graham Sumner, when coal resources seemed infinite, wrote: "When the coal is used up will slavery once more begin? One thing only can be affirmed with confidence; that is, that as no philosophical dogmas caused slavery to be abolished, so no philosophical dogmas can prevent its reintroduction if economic changes should make it fit and suitable again."
To which we even add: It's a measure of our capacity, which we're relying on now to see us through, that slavery never ended, even with the gifts. Did we choose a wrong basis for our entire civilization? Do we need a new kind of civilization? Do we need new religions? Enough will answer yes, even as others thunder no, to ensure the tumultuous, chaotic violence of the coming centuries. It is not enough that Nature will wage war against us, we will be at such war with each other as a result, and against ourselves in our own heads, that maybe the first will overcome us. Or, perhaps, in a greater term, over timespans unimaginable, this is how we will be forced to work things out, and at the other end of a tunnel too long to measure we will emerge into a distant light, and stand amazed.
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