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Global Warming and Impacts of Denial
Friends Interest Group representative, Quinton Zondervan speaks out
on Global Warming and the impacts of denial.
added to website April 2, 2012
What is the Plan?
Human civilization needs a plan for survival. The truth is, we've been winging it since the beginning of time, and so far we've been lucky. Unfortunately that will no longer cut it. We are now confronted with such dire threats that our civilization is now seriously endangered on a global scale. And we don't seem to have a plan for how to overcome these challenges.
The threat of course consists of our dangerous alterations to the environment, including a slow but steady increase in the average temperature of the lower atmosphere, caused, or if you prefer, accelerated, by human activity, specifically the large scale release of green house gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, primarily as a result of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and natural gas, for transportation, manufacturing and electricity generation. This activity, which began in earnest in the mid nineteenth century at the beginning of the industrial revolution, has continued to accelerate, and with it, the average temperature of the Earth has been steadily increasing as the excess GHG, primarily Carbon dioxide (CO2), enhance the greenhouse effect.
Climate change threatens our civilization in many profound ways, including increasing air and sea temperatures, rising sea levels, more severe weather events, altered agricultural zones, species migrations including disease vectors, marine life destruction putting pressure on our food supplies, etc. These threats are especially dangerous when combined with the ongoing natural resource depletion caused primarily by overpopulation and expansion, including deforestation, soil erosion, fresh water depletion and depletion of nitrogen sources important for manufacturing fertilizer for agricultural use.
What's more, humans have so significantly depleted the available natural resources, including the fossil fuels that are both the source of our prosperity and the cause of our current problems, that future generations will be unable to continue our technological economy and its associated comforts and benefits using fossil fuels. For example, current reports of coal [National Geographic 2010] and oil reserves predict a likely peak in production in both cases this century, with the remaining supplies ever more difficult to find and exploit. Without future access to these natural resources, we may be dooming our descendants to at best a medieval existence, and at worst to eventual extinction due to disease or natural disasters on a planetary scale.
In short, we find ourselves in a dangerous emergency, and the meager, fragmented response to this enormous threat so far has been inadequate to say the least.
Unfortunately, most people appear to be oblivious to this reality, or if they are aware of it, they tend to claim (legitimately) that there is very little they can do about it. No amount of individual sacrifice or reduced consumption will stave off global warming's disastrous impact, and any one dropout from our resource depleting consumer economy is quickly replaced by another eager to improve his or her material station in life. These are inexorable facts and no amount of wishing otherwise is going to change them. The only remaining hope is for our current and future leaders to take these threats very seriously and to devise a workable plan for how to survive and emerge from this climate catastrophe as a stronger, more resilient civilization that can survive for centuries to come.
Some grassroots movements have begun to plan for this transition, especially the Transition Network. Unfortunately, this movement is a "do it yourself" movement of die hard believers, not a mainstream, government based effort. A more official attempt at coping with climate change is the ICLEI initiative. ICLEI is primarily focussed on city and town governments however, and does not have much of a national government strategy. Some regional initiatives have sprung up in the US and Europe, including the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Climate Change Action Plan (2001). This is a straight emissions reductions plan which is of course a great step forward but only a part of what is needed to fully cope with climate change and its impacts. What is needed is a global, comprehensive plan, lead by the major countries of the world, to take us beyond fossil fuel dependence and climate change impacts into a more resilient future.
Unfortunately, the major international efforts at a comprehensive reduction in emissions have essentially failed to accomplish that goal, including the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and its attempted successor negotiations starting with the so called Copenhagen Summit or COP 15 in 2009. Although some countries have reduced their annual emissions, worldwide emissions are still growing, and more importantly, the climate effect of emissions are cumulative, so that continued emissions of any amount will inexorably lead to additional warming.
Worse, even a successful strategy of transitioning from fossil fuel dependence to renewable energy by itself would not be a sufficient response to the crisis. Climate change is too far along and accelerating too rapidly for us to avoid many of its destructive consequences. One consequence in particular that is extremely worrisome and disruptive to civilization is sea level rise. This is neither a hypothetical nor just a future threat. Sea levels have already risen close to one foot in the past hundred years in New England, and that rise is accelerating. What makes this threat especially fierce is the fact that billions of people and some of our most vulnerable infrastructure are directly exposed to the water, and as demonstrated by the recent devastating tsunami in Japan, we are not well protected at all.
Thus the second and most vexingly difficult component of the plan must be an orderly coping with the inexorable effects of climate change, including sea level rise of several feet, at an accelerating pace. This will not be easy. Much of the east and south of the United States for example will be increasingly threatened by flooding this century if warming continues at its current accelerating pace [New England Aquarium Report]. Entire cities including New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and large parts of Florida may become uninhabitable by the end of this century [New York Times, 2010]. The cost of protecting this enormous infrastructure from the rising waters is effectively insurmountable. The cost of rebuilding and relocating that infrastructure is incomprehensible. And yet we need to plan for this reality or we will be forced to deal with it on nature's harsh and deadly terms. A sustained warming will eventually melt all the remaining land based glaciers including Greenland and Antarctica, leading to sea level rises of over one hundred feet. It is hard to predict how long this would take, with estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands of years [New York Times, 2010]. What is clear, however, is that the faster the warming, the faster the melting and hence the more imminent the threat.
To be successful, any plan will have to include all the major civilized nation states and most of the rest of the world as well. Major economic and human losses are now inevitable and that too must be included in the plans, difficult and painful though it will be. Entire cities will need to be built from scratch or majorly retrofitted to function on new principles, including electrified transportation and more efficient land use. And somehow, despite the many obstacles and seemingly insurmountable technical and geo-political challenges, humans will have to take control of the atmosphere and construct a global thermostat. The alternative is continued heating and potentially an eventual runaway greenhouse effect that could destroy all human life. This threat has always existed, as has its opposite, an indefinite ice age leaving the Earth frozen and equally uninhabitable for humans. Since humans are entirely dependent on this planet for our survival, we have no choice but to take responsibility for avoiding both of those extremes and learning how to regulate the temperature to maintain a livable range.
Although the threats are dire and the outcome very much uncertain, the present situation is also a tremendous opportunity. Our industrial civilization, like our species itself, was not designed with any purpose in mind, including its own long term survival. It simply emerged through the collective actions of humans over many generations. As long as we have an opportunity to prevent its demise, however, we owe it to ourselves and our descendants to make a concerted effort at perpetuating and hardening our civilization so that it can continue to exist and evolve into new and unprecedented forms. We cannot know where that journey will lead but just as our ancestors gave us the gifts of modernity, so too it is our responsibility to pass on to our descendants an opportunity to continue exploring and understanding the universe while living a comfortable and healthy life. Without a comprehensive plan, we have little hope of accomplishing that.
It is urgent, and for those who are civic minded and environmentally conscious of what is happening around us, it is imperative that we take these matters into consideration as we decide on who should be in charge of our countries for the coming years and decades. And whoever we choose, we must remind them constantly of the need to devise and execute a plan for how to survive the climate emergency and create a better world.