By Albert K. Bates
Multiple choice: read this statement and then attribute the source:
"Experts are beginning to agree that climatic warming is likely to have some major economic impacts. Rising sea levels, for example, could flood agricultural land and changing weather patterns could result in more violent storms and thus, more expensive storm damage claims for insurance companies."
(a) Science News, December 14, 1988
(b) Wall Street Journal, January 20, 1997
(c) OPEC Ministers Bulletin, June 30, 2015
(d) All of the above.
Walking into the Eleventh Annual Conference on Sustainable Development and Global Climate Change in Washington D.C. a year ago, I had a strong sense that it was, as Yogi Berra said, "deja vu all over again."
Many of the people milling about over coffee and danish were familiar faces from the past decade: Bert Bolin, the white-haired elder scientist who chairs the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Robert Watson, the combative British climatologist who now watches thermometers from inside Al Gore's wing of the White House; Mohan Munasinghe, meteorological bean-counter for the World Bank; Nick Sundt, Global Change's cyber-ubiquitous Town Cryer; a busload from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and a couple dumpster loads of industry representatives, government staffers, scientists, lobbying lawyers and diplomats.
The tale was a familiar one. The globally-averaged surface temperature was 0.40°C above the 1961-1990 average, according to observations made at land stations, sea surface temperatures measured from ships and buoys, and satellite infrared imaging. The previous warmest year in the record, 1990, had an anomaly of 0.36°C for the year as a whole.
Although differences of a few hundredths of a degree between global average temperatures in individual years are not significant, we have been on a warming trend since the mid-70s. Most scientists, with a few oddball exceptions, would concur with the IPCC statement that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate." The credibility problem is that any rise in global temperature as emissions increase will not be steady and uniform; there will still be colder years and colder decades and even whole cooling regions due to natural climate variability and geographic anomalies. If you want exceptions to prove the rule, they're out there.
For people and other living things, the warmest year on record did not bode well. In Chicago, they buried hundreds of unidentified heat victims in mass graves, and brought in refrigerated semi-trailers to serve as temporary morgues for the legions of the known. Iowa got its second 100-year flood in 3 years. In New Orleans, homes were overrun with cockroaches and termites after a 5th winter with no killing frost. London had its driest summer since 1727, its hottest since 1659.
Then in the fall, a chorus line of hurricanes danced across the Atlantic from the East African coast to the shores of West Florida.
The speed at which scientific predictions are being fulfilled is unsettling. In November, 1994, the Argentine Antarctic Institute predicted that the Larsen Ice Shelf would crack within 10 years if warming continued. In March, 1995, a 48 by 22 mile chunk broke off, exposing rocks that hadn't seen daylight in 20,000 years.
Seven years ago, EPA warned that global warming and destruction of rainforest habitat would lead to the spread of new infectious diseases in the 21st Century. By 1991, just 2 years later, algae blooms in Asia and South America infected more than 400,000 people with cholera. In 1994, the mosquito responsible for dengue and yellow fever doubled its range in Central and South America.
These are signposts to the edge of an abyss. There are 10,000 new people arriving on Earth each hour. They are putting too much carbon into the air. We need more trees. We need less coal and oil being burned. Deep down in this well of common sense many of those attending the Eleventh Annual Conference commiserated.
"Suppose we were to burn all our recoverable fossil fuel stockpiles (except oil shales) right now, in just a year or two?" rhetorically asked Pieter Tans, and then proceeded to answer himself. The rate of increase in warming would be 3 to 4 times faster than at present and the temperature would hit a peak in perhaps 100 years and only come down slightly over the next 2000 years, holding at a plateau substantially above where it is today for at least 7000 years. And just how hot is that, Pieter?
Well, we are now warmer than we have been in 100,000 years. Burning everything at once would bump us to 2000 ppm of carbon by volume, and after 2000 to 7000 years we might get back down close to present levels of 350 ppm if all went well. The problem is that natural carbon absorption depends on plants, particularly in the mid-latitudes, and at least a third of all vegetation changes with a doubling of atmospheric carbon. The dynamic equilibrium which is Earth's healing process may not be as dynamic when airborne carbon jumps to unprecedented levels. There are no observable analogs for change on this scale.
Okay, so we don't burn it all at once. Well, suppose we achieve the ambitious targets of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and reduce our outputs to 1990 levels by the year 2005? That would probably put us at 450 ppm by 2100 and 600 ppm by 2200. Ooops.
If 450 ppm can only be achieved with a significant cutback, we asked, what would the cutback have to be which would keep us at, say, 350 ppm? The answer was bothersome. Cutting back to 350 is probably not doable, because it means burning zero fossil fuels forever. And at 350 ppm, where will temperature be? Probably about 5°C warmer on average. That dye is cast, although global inertial factors like the surface temperature of the oceans mean it could take a century more to unfold.
If a half degree increase in average warming creates mass graves in Chicago, what will a 5 degree increase do? Well, that is roughly the distance the Earth has traveled over the past 18,000 years, since our last small ice age. This time we expect to travel the route in perhaps 100 years, and in so doing, make the planet warmer than it has been in at least 1 million years.
And this room full of scientists told us, in essence, that at this point, the writing is set in stone.
Once you get to that giddy state, the dancers get better. A public relations flack for the coal industry said there are no good guys and bad guys in this, because it is all tradeoffs. An economic consultant said that value judgments have no role because they can't be quantified. Another official bean-counter said it makes no difference whether you do the reductions now or in the future, in terms of total impact and atmospheric lag mechanisms, so why not wait, because with technology improvements, washout of near-term emissions, and discounting, later is always better. He concluded that while the costs of stabilizing at 350 were very high, stabilizing at 550 were almost zero. You do the math.
Near as I can tell, by that equation, it will always be better to wait rather than do anything.
Okay, so here we sit, drifting, as Einstein said, toward unparalleled catastrophe. We are rummaging through the glove box and we can't seem to find the manual for this spaceship that tells us what to do when that red light starts flashing. Did the dinosaurs have that problem once before? Will we find it flashing again next time, say a 100 million years from now, when another species gets another chance?
I'm not ready, as that room full of the best and brightest minds our country has benighted seemed to be, to toss in the towel. I believe, as Buckminster Fuller said, that the closing years of this century will be a race between education and annihilation. Tell folks the truth, they'll do the right thing. They have to.
Recent laws protecting brazil nut trees spared many of them from being bulldozed as the rainforests were cleared. For a time, the majestic trees stood out in clearings, silent witnesses to the loss of forest diversity. And then they began to die.
Brazil nut trees flower only in November. They are pollinated by a forest bee. For the bees to survive, they need to gather nectar from a whole series of different trees, each flowering in turn, and each providing food for the bees in its season. The bees need a wholesome variety to get through an entire year. If any significant gaps develop in this variety, the bees leave and the brazil nut trees, as well as many other species, no longer produce.
The male bees are also dependent on orchids in the deep forest, which they visit at mating time. Rubbing against the orchids, they pack the scents on their hind legs and then fly off to form a lek, a group that attracts females for the mating ritual. If the orchids do not find suitable conditions for growth, they vanish from the forest, and with them go the bees, and with the bees, go the trees.
When brazil nuts fall to the forest floor their outer shells are eaten by large rodents, called agoutis (Dasyprocta cristata). The agoutis bury the seeds but often forget some of the caches. The agoutis' poor memory has the effect of dispersing seeds to favorable locations for new growth. The survival of the brazil nut trees is as dependent on the agoutis at the forest floor as on the bees in the tree canopy. If conditions are not favorable for any member of the forest community, all parts are endangered.
There are many examples of interwoven ecosystems. There are plants that are protected by birds, birds that are protected by hornets, hornets that are protected by trees, trees that are protected by fungi, fungi that are protected by ants, ants that are protected by plants. The demise of one plant species may eventually lead to the loss of up to 30 animal species because of the complex interplay of consequences.
The global ecosystem is an intricate lace of symbiotic species, and all that inhabit this macro-network have evolved into a condition of interdependence, whether they recognize it or not.
Wandering, like Alice, through the looking glass into a climate meeting in Washington D.C., I'm left wondering: what part of the stable macro-political-ecosystem are we missing here? We have the scientists, and they are in pretty good agreement. We have the government officials and they are somewhat behind the curve--purposefully obtuse--but, at the highest policy levels, they are paying good people to see the magnitude of the problem. The captains of industry are largely in denial and obfuscation, and their money is doing a lot of damage to the clarity of mind in capitol cities, but this diversion is nothing new, and should not pose an insurmountable barrier to good policy winning out. So what is it, exactly, that is missing? Why are good climate policies, like the BTU tax, or investment in carbon reduction technology, dying like brazil nut trees?
What needs to be in this picture for us to avert catastrophe? Could it be catastrophe itself? Given the length of time it takes to change climatological patterning and the far greater period required to restore the world we knew, that conclusion seems too dire to adopt. A mere universal eco-spiritual awakening will have to do.
The correct answer to the quiz was (b).
Albert Bates is an attorney, educator and author who lives at The Farm community in Summertown, Tennessee, where he serves as regional secretary for the Global Ecovillage Network and publishes a quarterly journal of sustainability, The Design Exchange. Albert is author of a seminal book on global warming, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do.