Monday, 7 October 2013

Until it won't

The following appeared in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper this week.

Earth-shaking events that we read about in history books weren’t necessarily big news at the time. Perhaps they happened in secret, or just weren't widely known - or, as in the case of the Roman Empire falling, were too slow for most people to perceive.

Anyone living in that time period, even if they kept up with empire-wide news, would have known about short-term crises or conflicts, and found it difficult to sift out the grains of information relevant to their descendants’ future. We might look back and imagine the “height” of the Roman Empire to have been, say, 75 AD, and the “fall” about 400 years later, but in between there were 20 generations of people whose lives were completely ordinary ... until they weren’t.

Climate chaos could turn out to be a similar process; the process is too slow for most of us to notice, and does not consist of any smooth climb upward; rather, it means weather that is colder, hotter, wetter, drier or stormier than unusual, years whose weather statistics begin wobbling back and forth wildly. It is no less dangerous than the action-movie apocalypse some doomers imagine; rather, it is a different threat, moving too slowly for our culture to generate the will to deal with it.

Last week, the IPCC – the United Nations panel on climate change – announced that we were on track to rise by as much as 4.8 degrees globally, enough to worry climatologists that we might set off runaway effects. The seas are expected to rise by as much as 82 centimetres, so Dublin might have to build a tidal wall like London has, and abandon dockland neighbourhoods. The Arctic is disappearing at a rapid rate, and we will see far more – and more extreme – hurricanes, storms, and droughts.

A few degrees might not seem like much – the weather wobbles more than that every day – but keep in mind these is the baseline average of a system. Your body temperature wobbles constantly, but if its baseline average climbs a few degrees, you need to see a doctor.

More worrying is the methane released from a melting Arctic. The carbon dioxide that humans create with our cars and industry is a mild greenhouse gas – we’ve just filled the air with enough of it that we’re now changing weather patterns. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, however, and there’s a lot of it trapped in the Arctic ice – and if the Arctic melted in only a few decades, massive quantities of methane would be released in a short time.

The frustrating thing about all this climate change news is that it’s not remotely new. We’ve known since the time of [Irish reformer] Charles Parnell that carbon dioxide traps heat. That greenhouse gases change the climate has been known since the days of horse-drawn carriages.

Such information even entered into pop culture long ago. The 1955 popular science book The World We Live In casually stated that pollution from our cars and factories had boosted CO2 levels by 10 per cent – those were the days! – and that the world would get much hotter in the years ahead. At the time, saying that humans would someday walk on the moon would have been more controversial.

Climate change remained an accepted issue; US President Lyndon Johnson referred to climate change in a 1965 presidential speech. A quarter-century later, George Bush – the first one – spoke of climate change as accepted fact, Time Magazine devoted cover stories to climate change, and the Vatican spoke out on the issue. 

Ironically, we now have perhaps a hundred times the evidence we did then, and yet the denial has increased to match it. Even when our politicians and pundits claim to accept climate change as real, they don't treat it as a reality. They talk as though farming and fishing will go on as it always has here, rather than asking what wild weather would do to our crops, or higher waves to villages perched on sea rocks.
Of course, climate change probably won't be the end of the world that some people imagine. It will take generations, and in that time, for most of us, life will go on as normal .... until it won't.

Photo: The Girl by the seaside. The camera wasn't tilted -- the road is.


Anubis Bard said...

Humans as a species are nothing if not adaptable. Yet the civilization we've concocted seems so rigid and brittle. Maybe it's only the veneer that is brittle and we'll have 20 generations of unwinding like the Romans did. Or maybe it is the entire edifice that is fragile and we'll go the way of the Anasazi. Or maybe something else . . . .

jpbenney said...

The real issue is twofold and needs to be untwined. Firstly, the "Deep South" of Australia and Southern Africa is emitting quantities of carbon that threaten to destroy the climate of the entire planet, and there is not the smallest economic nor political incentive for improvement. Australia and Southern Africa have too much land for efficient public transit, terrain too flat for economically efficient protected areas, and are politically exceedingly conservative with no willingness or ever power to address these problems seriously in government, as shown by the failure of the mining tax a few years ago (and a mining tax might have been used to demolish roads and give Australia the world-class public transit its ecology dictates).

Secondly, the "North" of Eurasia the Americas and New Zealand is hitting a demographic time bomb of extremely low fertility and welfare states that cannot pay projected pension costs for high old-age dependency ratios.

Restoring healthy fertility in the "North" is almost impossible because families cannot form in cramped, noisy environments in dense cities (where the very lowest fertility is found) and this leaves time very much short to make Australia and Southern Africa pay for the exceedingly costly ecological damage they are doing to the globe (not to mention locally). What is likely to happen, I think, is that the "North", devoid of major mineral resources and with a comparative disadvantage in agriculture from its mountainous terrain, will simply fade away and not try to hit Australia hard enough. If the "North" stopped bickering amongst itself and realised it had to unite to demand a zero emissions target for Australia, much might already have been achieved in reducing global greenhouse emissions. A rigid zero emissions target for Australia and Southern Africa would create large obstacles to maintaining present emissions in the northern and western hemispheres, because those lands would not be able to maintain polluting industries.