Tuesday, July 08, 2008

De-Construct Earth

Unlike other species, whose existence is defined by a continuous cycle of birth, life and death, we humans have added a fourth element: construction. We have taken our opposable thumbs and our tremendous little brains and shaped the world to our liking.

This unique ability has enabled us to successfully alter our environment, allowing us to live virtually anywhere. Buildings shelter us from the elements. Vehicles, and the roads that they travel upon, can take us safely and efficiently across town or around the globe. Intricate power systems keep us warm in the winter, cool in the summer, while providing light and energy to do almost anything.

We have also created tremendous art, great literature and breath-taking music and architecture. All in all, we are very clever monkeys.

Most of this pretty much worked in our favor until the last century or so, when it became apparent that we are becoming the victims of our own success. Our population has grown exponentially, pushing the planet’s ability to support us. The chemistry that enabled us to defeat countless diseases and pests has created a whole new generation of cancers and other ailments. The burning of fossil fuels that literally drives our creative engine is altering our planetary ecosystem to the point that it may no longer be able to sustain us.

This last point was driven home last week when Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, made a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Dr. Hansen’s presentation was made exactly 20 years after his testimony to Congress on June 23, 1988, when he first tried to alert the public to the reality of climate change. After two decades, Dr. Hansen’s conclusions haven’t changed much. The only real difference, according to Hansen, is that we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb.

“What is at stake?” asked Dr. Hansen. “Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled. Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing a darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.”

And that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Hansen warned that West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming.

“These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well underway it will become unstoppable,” he explained. While there is still some scientific debate as to how much sea levels will eventually go up, Dr. Hansen predicts that by the end of this century we will most likely see a minimum two metre rise.

In addition to creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees, this rise is sea level will destroy many of mankind’s great cities – London, New York, Rio de Janeiro (just to name a few) – and much of the art and architecture that they contain. Rebuilding these cities would be unlikely. As Hansen warns, “No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity could conceive.”

And maybe that’s the key. We’ve done precious little about the threat of climate change to this point because we really can’t conceive that the things that we’ve constructed to make our lives better – like the family car, air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter - are actually helping to destroy the planet. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

According to Hansen we need to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide emission below 350 parts per million (ppm) in order to, “Preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed.”

Hansen’s right, and he’s not alone. There are thousands of scientists who agree that the best time to do something about halting the impacts of climate change was 20 years ago.

The next best time is now. We need to muster all the creative, brilliant juices that got us into this mess in the first place and discover countless imaginative solutions that can get us out. Failure to do so condemns the future of humanity by knowingly jeopardizing the health of Planet Earth.


James Hansen’s June 23rd speech, “Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near”, and much of his other work, is available at www.columbia.edu/~jeh1.

The Daily Climate provides climate change news from around the world.


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