May 12, 2008

350

Bill McKibben writes in the LA Times that we here on Earth are very much in danger of losing our civilizations if world governments don't get their act together very quickly (by the year 2012). The adjustments that need to be made will be very painful, politically and economically, but the choice will be either to make the adjustments now or see humanity slide into an environmental disaster. Some excerpts:

All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk on planet Earth.

There's a number -- a new number -- that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A few weeks ago, NASA's chief climatologist, James Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several coauthors. The abstract attached to it argued -- and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper -- that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

So it's a tough diagnosis. It's like the doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high and, if you don't bring it down right away, you're going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese, and, if you're lucky, you get back into the safety zone before the coronary. It's like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk up front.

In this case, though, it's worse than that because we're not taking the pill and we are stomping on the gas -- hard. Instead of slowing down, we're pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year -- two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.

And suddenly the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. It appears that we've managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost, and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.

And don't forget: China is building more power plants; India is pioneering the $2,500 car; and Americans are buying TVs the size of windshields, which suck juice ever faster.

...

We're the ones who kicked the warming off; now the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun's heat.

...

If we did everything right, Hansen says, we could see carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly and the oceans begin to pull some of that CO2 out of the atmosphere. Before the century was out, we might even be on track back to 350. We might stop just short of some of those tipping points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff.

More likely, though, we're the coyote -- because "doing everything right" means that political systems around the world would have to take enormous and painful steps right away. It means no more new coal-fired power plants anywhere, and plans to quickly close the ones already in operation. (Coal-fired power plants operating the way they're supposed to are, in global warming terms, as dangerous as nuclear plants melting down.) It means making car factories turn out efficient hybrids next year, just the way U.S. automakers made them turn out tanks in six months at the start of World War II. It means making trains an absolute priority and planes a taboo.

It means making every decision wisely because we have so little time and so little money, at least relative to the task at hand. And hardest of all, it means the rich countries of the world sharing resources and technology freely with the poorest ones so that they can develop dignified lives without burning their cheap coal.

It's possible. The United States launched a Marshall Plan once, and could do it again, this time in relation to carbon. But at a time when the president has, once more, urged drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it seems unlikely. At a time when the alluring phrase "gas tax holiday" -- which would actually encourage more driving and more energy consumption -- has danced into our vocabulary, it's hard to see. And if it's hard to imagine sacrifice here, imagine China, where people produce a quarter as much carbon apiece as Americans do.

Still, as long as it's not impossible, we've got a duty to try to push those post-Kyoto negotiations in the direction of reality. In fact, it's about the most obvious duty humans have ever faced.

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author, most recently, of "The Bill McKibben Reader," is the co-founder of Project 350 (www.350.org), devoted to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.

HT: Economist's View

5 comments:

George Carty said...

Why do so many of the Muslim blogs I read seems so hot on global-warming doom-mongering? I notice both Indigo Jo and Rolled-Up Trousers link to famous environmentalist George Monbiot (doesn't the right-wing insult "moonbat" etymologically derive from his surname by the way).

I wonder why it is? Do they hate Western civilization (maybe that's why they reverted in the first place??)

Maybe I distrust environmentalists because I suspect they view humanity as too numerous, and in need of culling in order to save the planet. It's the same reason I fear virulent Islamophobes - when I read their rhetoric I think "better dhimmi than génocidaire".

You may be interested in reading Charlie Stross's Why I am not an environmentalist.

Another thing - why does the official version of the global warming story suggest that warming will lead to catastrophic desertification? If this was right then the Middle East - arid at the best of times - should have been uninhabitable 1000 years ago during the Medieval Warm Period, but no, that era was the golden age of Islamic civilization...

JDsg said...

Why do so many of the Muslim blogs I read seems so hot on global-warming doom-mongering?

I'm not so sure we're hot on "doom-mongering." :) But, as I'm sure you're aware, there is an emphasis in Islam on Muslim playing the role of a khalifa, an ecological steward of the planet, and I suspect that some of us bloggers are drawn to this role. I find this topic to be increasingly important, and I probably should write more about it than I actually do.


...why does the official version of the global warming story suggest that warming will lead to catastrophic desertification?

Actually, I'm not convinced of this at all. I think what you'd see is an increasing tropical band around the equator, where it doesn't necessarily get warmer, but you'd see increasing levels of cloud cover further north and south of the equator, and a widening temperate zone where, for example, much of Siberia and northern Canada become more habitable. Increasing desertification may occur at some places (I could see the Sonora desert of the American southwest expanding northward), but I doubt if desertification would overtake most of the continental landmasses.

George Carty said...

Sorry to be back so late, but I had another think about this. Your talk about being "stewards of the Earth" doesn't sound like environmentalism to me, but just basic common sense.

"Environmentalism" to me more implies a desire to rein in human aspirations in the name of "saving the planet". A form of secular asceticism, betrayed by the fact that many climate campaigners demonize aviation (which is responsible for less than 5% of total man-made CO2 emissions, and where alternatives to hydrocarbons are practically non-existent), while neglecting much larger sources of CO2 which would be much easier to do something about.

Fossil fuel power stations can be replaced by zero-carbon nuclear power. The main obstacle seems to be excessive regulation of nuclear energy, which I suspect was passed by corrupt politicians paid by fossil fuel interested who were afraid of the competition. I also believe the hyping of wind and solar -- which are too unreliable to be practical substitutes (as opposed to supplements) for fossil fuels -- is also driven by fossil fuel interests in order to divert attention away from nuclear energy.

In addition, what about extinguishing coal seam fires, which emit vast quantities of CO2 without providing any benefit for humanity whatsoever?

I wonder if Muslims are currently more vulnerable to ascetic thinking because the Muslim world is currently in a dark age, and therefore makes a virtue out of poverty, just as Western European Christians did during their dark age over 1000 years ago.

I notice on the other hand that the Al Balagh website seems to be opposed to environmentalism (or more accurately to Malthusianism). Of course you might well just claim that "they do that because they want more oil money"...

JJTM said...

Your talk about being "stewards of the Earth" doesn't sound like environmentalism to me, but just basic common sense.

It is common sense, but even that seems to be in short supply today. :P I'm sure you've come across the stories about fundamentalist Christians who believe that we can trash the planet because the end of the world is near (so why bother?).

While I agree that much of environmentalism is your "secular asceticism" (an interesting term), I personally take a broader view toward environmentalism; i.e., the stewards of the earth being both environmentalism and common sense.

Your comment regarding nuclear energy has been on my mind with respect to the Japanese earthquake. At this point, I can't see where popular support for nuclear energy will do anything but plummet as the Japanese try to clean up their reactors in the upcoming months. The dispersal of nuclear waste (accidental or controlled) will always trump attitudes toward regulations.

I wonder if Muslims are currently more vulnerable to ascetic thinking because the Muslim world is currently in a dark age...

An amusing comment. I think my wife and all of her family would kick your @$$ if you were to say something like that to them in person. :) I don't think of Muslim society as a whole to be in any dark age.

BTW, your Al Balagh link doesn't work.

George Carty said...

It is common sense, but even that seems to be in short supply today. :P I'm sure you've come across the stories about fundamentalist Christians who believe that we can trash the planet because the end of the world is near (so why bother?).

What a bunch of nutters! What do you think of those who suggest that the current Iranian regime under Ahmadinejad has a similar end-of-world mentality (look up "Hojjatieh Society")? Is there anything to this, or is it just projection by the US right wing?

Your comment regarding nuclear energy has been on my mind with respect to the Japanese earthquake. At this point, I can't see where popular support for nuclear energy will do anything but plummet as the Japanese try to clean up their reactors in the upcoming months. The dispersal of nuclear waste (accidental or controlled) will always trump attitudes toward regulations.

I must admit to having something of a "ni shagu nazad" attitude towards energy production, and sometime wonder why anti-nuclear protests haven't been crushed by force. It's the very fact that they haven't been ruthlessly smashed that makes me have an element of doubt about climate change. Though I'm not a total denier -- if I was then I wouldn't be so passionate about nuclear power, as coal would also suffice in the absence of a global warming threat.

I suspect the media in Singapore may have a anti-nuclear slant, because of Singapore's position as a middle-man in the global economy. If China, Japan and South Korea expanded their nuclear reactor fleets, then there would be less LNG tankers stopping at Singapore, and if transport ships themselves moved over to nuclear propulsion, then there would less ships of all kinds stopping at Singapore as they wouldn't need refuelling anymore. One can draw parallels with what went wrong with the Muslim civilization as a whole -- the Rashidun and Umayyad caliphs (and later Salah ad-Din and Qutuz) fought for the Middle East as a prize, but Columbus and Vasco da Gama turned it into a trap.

An amusing comment. I think my wife and all of her family would kick your @$$ if you were to say something like that to them in person. :) I don't think of Muslim society as a whole to be in any dark age.

When I said the Muslim world was in a dark age, what I meant was not that its society or culture is inferior, but that it lacks economic and political might (other than that resulting from oil reserves). You yourself have praised the ability of desert people to live on a minimum of resources, which is what I was referring to by talk of Muslims "making a virtue out of poverty".

BTW, your Al Balagh link doesn't work.

Sorry, here is a corrected version.

Another link -- this one explicitly supporting nuclear energy -- can be found on the Path of Light site. Since this is a Shi'a site I suspect that defending the Iranian nuclear program is an obvious motive. However some of the other writings in the same section (he seems to be a global warming sceptic, and also an advocate of a Bering Strait tunnel) suggest he may have been influenced by the LaRouche movement.