Have you noticed? We’re in a war for our survival.
We are faced with a truly alarming world-wide survival crisis, yet the global response so far has been (largely) myopic and self-destructive. I’m talking about climate change, of course. There is good reason to believe that the situation is much worse than most of us realize, thanks to the disinterested work of some respected independent researchers and accumulating evidence. (I’ll get to this.) If we don’t wake up from our delusional complacency and take drastic remedial steps, now, we are likely to see a global catastrophe within most of our lifetimes.
Here’s one factoid that might get your attention. California currently produces about one-quarter of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. each year. As desertification creeps northward during the next 20-30 years, California may experience a mega-drought. It’s happened before. Among other things, this would have a huge impact on global food prices, and it will affect you personally. And this says nothing about the potential shortage of rainfall in our Midwest grain belt. Oh, and don’t plan on moving to Texas.
The definition of a climate denier is somebody who still thinks the Titanic is unsinkable, despite the evidence to the contrary. Well, we are rapidly approaching that iceberg, and we need to make a radical course change before it’s too late.
Who says so, you might ask? In fact, a small but growing number of researchers who are free to look objectively at the data and draw realistic – not politically correct – conclusions. One of the most prominent is the respected scientist William Calvin at the University of Washington, who has written sixteen books, including three increasingly-urgent books about climate change. (http://williamcalvin.com) Then there is the new independent study by Nathan Myhrvold, the well-known former chief technology officer at Microsoft and his co-author, the respected climate scientist Ken Caldeira (Environmental Research Letters, 7, 2012). There is also a new report in the works from the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Here is the situation in a nutshell. Climate change is happening much more rapidly than was previously estimated; the consensus projections have been much too conservative. The upcoming report from the IPCC is said to contain a new estimate that average U.S. temperatures will increase by two degrees Fahrenheit by 2028. (The global average increase will be 2.6 degrees by 2048.) More important, these averages smooth out and obscure the increasingly violent local weather extremes that will become the norm – devastating droughts, massive floods, deadly heat waves, raging wind storms, rampant rain forest fires, rapidly melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels and, most serious, drastic shortfalls in food production, deadly civil conflicts and even, possibly, the collapse of some populations and civilizations. As Calvin puts it, “the most pessimistic scenarios in the past have not been pessimistic enough…Things will probably be much worse and probably much sooner” than we are expecting. In any case, he asks, “why gamble?”
The heart of the problem is that it is already too late for measures that would only slow the increase in carbon dioxide emissions – like conversion to solar, wind and nuclear power. To reduce the impact of global warming, we must also reduce the 40 percent excess of heat-trapping CO2 gases that are already in the atmosphere. In other words, we must clean up the mess we have already made. Calvin estimates that we should extract something like 30-60 gigatons of carbon per year from the atmosphere for the next 20 years -- or sooner if possible. An idea like doubling the global stock of forests (to increase photosynthesis) is not nearly enough to do the job and is not really feasible.
Calvin proposes instead a massive program to develop vast plankton farms off the continental shelves, with windmills to drive push-pull pumps to help create plankton blooms and recycle their wastes into the ocean depths. He calls for a program comparable to the Manhattan Project in World War Two, which led to the Atomic bomb. Of course, our all-out national effort in that war was possible only because the attack at Pearl Harbor shocked this nation out of its head-in-the-sand denial about the threat we faced.
This time, we will need to use our rational faculties and our imagination as a way of overcoming our innate tendency to avoid “an inconvenient truth” (to borrow the title of Al Gore’s climate change movie). Perhaps we should all read the Pulitzer-prize winning scientist Jared Diamond’s profoundly disturbing book about the fate of past civilizations called Collapse. And if you don’t like Bill Calvin’s proposed solution, maybe you can come up with a better one, because this is a problem that cannot be wished away. We will have to muster the collective courage (and resources) to move beyond the denial stage -- or else.