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The Uninhabitable Earth- what the science says about climate change and our future; “we should be alarmed” [must read]

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By David Wallace-Wells, July 14, 2017  see full article here

We published “The Uninhabitable Earth” on Sunday night, and the response since has been extraordinary …..we are publishing here a version of the article filled with research annotations. …

… I also believe very firmly in the set of propositions that animated the project from the start: that the public does not appreciate the scale of climate risk; that this is in part because we have not spent enough time contemplating the scarier half of the distribution curve of possibilities, especially its brutal long tail, or the risks beyond sea-level rise; that there is journalistic and public-interest value in spreading the news from the scientific community, no matter how unnerving it may be; and that, when it comes to the challenge of climate change, public complacency is a far, far bigger problem than widespread fatalism — that many, many more people are not scared enough than are already “too scared.” In fact, I don’t even understand what “too scared” would mean. The science says climate change threatens nearly every aspect of human life on this planet, and that inaction will hasten the problems. In that context, I don’t think it’s a slur to call an article, or its writer, alarmist. I’ll accept that characterization. We should be alarmed….

Original article annoted:

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

….we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over…

What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

II. Heat Death

The bahraining of New York.

III. The End of Food

Praying for cornfields in the tundra.

….The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains” and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization.

…Remember, we do not live in a world without hunger as it is. Far from it: Most estimates put the number of undernourished at 800 million globally. Technically, the World Hunger Organization puts the number at 795 million. In case you haven’t heard this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone….

IV. Climate Plagues

What happens when the bubonic ice melts?

What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming…Today, even with globalization and the enormous intermingling of human populations, our ecosystems are mostly stable, and this functions as another limit, but global warming will scramble those ecosystems and help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. You don’t worry much about dengue or malaria if you are living in Maine or France. But as the tropics creep northward and mosquitoes migrate with them, you will. You didn’t much worry about Zika a couple of years ago, either…..

But there are things we do know for sure about how climate affects some diseases: Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, too, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster…

V. Unbreathable Air

A rolling death smog that suffocates millions.

Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100..At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

VI. Perpetual War

The violence baked into heat.

For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict...A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century

VII. Permanent Economic Collapse

Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world.

….a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves. After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change…Hsiang and his colleagues estimate a one-in-eight chance of an ongoing and irreversible effect by the end of the century that is eight times worse

…The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world. It makes the grounding of flights out of heat-stricken Phoenix last month seem like pathetically small economic potatoes. And, among other things, it makes the idea of postponing government action on reducing emissions and relying solely on growth and technology to solve the problem an absurd business calculation.  Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice….

VIII. Poisoned Oceans

Sulfide burps off the skeleton coast.

Barring a radical reduction in emissions, we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century….even those above ten feet will flood much more easily, and much more regularly, if the water gets that high… At least 600 million people live within ten meters of sea level today.

..more than a third of the world’s carbon is sucked up by the oceans… ocean acidification…coral bleaching…

…Carbon absorption can initiate a feedback loop in which underoxygenated waters breed different kinds of microbes that turn the water still more “anoxic,” first in deep ocean “dead zones,” then gradually up toward the surface….There, the small fish die out, unable to breathe, which means oxygen-eating bacteria thrive, and the feedback loop doubles back. This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.”

Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97 percent of all life on Earth died once all the feedback loops had been triggered and the circulating jet streams of a warmed ocean ground to a halt-— it’s the planet’s preferred gas for a natural holocaust. Gradually, the ocean’s dead zones spread, killing off marine species that had dominated the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and the gas the inert waters gave off into the atmosphere poisoned everything on land. Plants, too. It was millions of years before the oceans recovered.

IX. The Great Filter

Our present eeriness cannot last.

So why can’t we see it?….Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate…

But more than half of the carbon humanity has [dumped] into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent...Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime

The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do

Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.

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The 10-Book ‘Uninhabitable Earth’ Reading List

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