The local university where I live offers six-to-eight week mini-course for oldsters, and I am now attending “Global Climate Change,” after earlier forays into The Crusades, The Roots of the Civil War and French Culture.
The course began slowly and deliberately as the professor took pains to explain how science works and to stress that absolute certainty is available only to deniers, not to scientists who must be open to new information. But he eventually made the case that the evidence that climate change is real is voluminous, overwhelming and gets increasingly reliable as time goes on. And that the major cause is anthropogenic, that is, us.
The subject is filled with ironies worthy of black comedy. For example, global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is making polar ice melt which has created a race in the Arctic and Antarctic to prospect for more fossil fuels.
Perhaps it is time to rethink the name given by our species to our species – Homo sapiens. Homo hubris might be better. One can easily imagine a silicon-based lifeform watching us from afar and laughing uproariously. Here is a carbon-based lifeform burning carbon-based fuels until it manages to kill all carbon-based lifeforms. How droll.
The subject is too vast for a little Podunk blog like this, but here are a few tidbits from the course so far.
Parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen over 40 percent in the last 25 years and at the present rate are expected to double by 2040.
More than 90 percent of heat energy is accumulating in oceans so water is warming faster than the land.
As permafrost thaws to depths below six feet, the carbon trapped in organic matter now frozen will be released in the form of CO2 and methane. Methane is 100 percent more powerful as a climate change gas. The good news is that methane is less long-lasting than CO2. The bad news is that when methane degrades it becomes, in part CO2 which lasts for centuries. A double whammy.
Coral reefs are being killed by climate-caused effects including warming water, changes in salinity, carbon capture and bleaching. Who cares about coral, one might say? But they provide part of the livelihood for 500 million people.
Recent studies suggest a sea level rise of between two-and-a-half feet and six feet by 2100. If warming increases, that is if we keep altering the atmosphere, by even more. For example, if all the Greenland ice were to melt, sea level would rise 23 feet. If large parts of Antarctic ice, by four or five times that.
The annual coat anticipated for protecting the three cities most at risk in the United States from inundation – New Orleans, New York and Miami – is now estimate at $6 billion and sure to rise along with the waters.
Sea level rise will also flood wetlands, contaminate aquifers and agricultural soils with salt water. Species, foodstuffs, lives and livelihoods will be lost.
The tropics, including the continents of Africa and South America, will be especially hard hit by warming due to their endemic poverty and to species adapted to a narrow temperature range for whom a change may be fatal.
A place like North Carolina is expected to see an increase of 20-30 more days a year over 95 degrees. Florida will see 50 days more in that range and further south an even greater increase.
Many species will become extinct as a result of climate change, creating unpredictable cascade effects. If birds that eat caterpillars die out, more of the caterpillars will live to destroy more crops.
As temperatures rise the range in which various species thrive will change. The Corn Belt will migrate from the Midwest into Canada. But those species that carry disease will also be found in new latitudes. A two-degree increase in average temperature is estimated to mean that diseases like malaria and dengue fever could appear as far north as Winnipeg and Montreal as the species of mosquito involved become viable there.
The substance most consumed by humans, after water, is not wheat or rice or steel or even oil, it is concrete. And it is little appreciated how polluting the production of concrete is. The world produces a half ton of concrete per person per year, and each ton made releases two tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Our roads, bridges and buildings are helping to warm the planet.
The steps needed to address climate change will be extremely disruptive to how we live and work, eat and travel. And even if undertaken on a huge scale globally, long-lasting gases already in the atmosphere will continue to cause climate change effects for decades into the future.
A solution not discussed in my little class is not less use of fossil fuels or abstaining from the fruits of modernity but something more drastic. Less people. That might be an even harder sell than no more coal. However, it can happen without our willing it.
James Lovelock is an eminence gris in climate circles, the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis which suggests that the Earth is one immense self-regulating system. But humans have begun to disrupt that system through profligate burning of fossil fuels.
Global population is estimated to rise from over 7 billion today to over 11 billion by 2100. Lovelock begs to differ. He predicts that due to global warming’s immense disruptions of the planet’s homeostasis we can expect famines, diseases, forced migrations, wars for scarce resources, and species extinctions on an apocalyptic scale. By 2100, instead of 11 billion people on earth, we may be down to 1 billion. If we’re lucky.
Happy Halloween. And you thought creepy clowns in the woods were scary.