The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Monday, November 8, 2010

Global Warming - It's Not the End of the World

Anthropogenic Climate Change is real. Accept it. Humankind is pouring billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, that would not be there otherwise. Carbon dioxide traps heat. If you want to prove this for yourself, just conduct the following simple experiment. Take two clear plastic bottles and place a thermometer in each of them. In one, just close the cap, thereby filling the bottle with a sample of our regular old atmosphere. In the other, spray a short blast from one of those dust blower bottles which use compressed CO2 into the bottle and close the cap. Place both bottles out in the sun. The one with the additional CO2 will INVARIABLY heat up faster and the reading will INVARIABLY be higher than the one using just our normal atmosphere.

What this small experiment clearly shows is that CO2 traps heat. It is a greenhouse gas. Our atmosphere is MASSIVE, it is HUGE, but our planet is essentially a CLOSED system, just like the bottle. This is not a question of politics or debate. It is a simple matter of physics and chemistry. We are adding billions upon billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every single year, year after year and just as the bottle sitting out in the sun increases its temperature, the Global Mean Temperature of Earth IS going to increase because more of the Sun's energy will be trapped in our atmosphere. Period. Global Warming is real and we had best accept that fact. Because the potential impact on OUR survival is incredibly real.

Where I differ from Environmentalist True Believers is that I do not believe for a second that Global Warming is going to destroy the planet. I don't believe Global warming is even a threat to The Planet. In fact, I think the entire debate about 'Saving the Planet' is foolish in the extreme. The PLANET will be just fine. WE, however, might not, and it is in OUR OWN interest, the interest of the human species to resolve this problem so that WE can continue to thrive.

Our planet is incredibly resilient. LIFE is incredibly resilient. This planet has seen more damage inflicted on it than we could possibly inflict even if we launched every nuclear weapon in our collective arsenals at one another. Earth has endured far more catastrophic threats to its survival than the addition of CO2 to its atmosphere and an increase of global mean temperatures of half a dozen degrees. Indeed, life has thrived on this planet in MUCH warmer and MUCH colder eras than even the most catastrophic postulations of the effects of Global Warming.

Make NO mistake. Global Warming is a VERY real threat. Left unchecked, it is likely to result in the extinction of millions of species and could even push humanity to the brink of extinction. The Planet, however, will life on. Life will evolve, adapt, and move on. The Biosphere that we know and love may well die if the rise in global temperatures rises unchecked, but a new biosphere will inevitably replace it, and in the event that our Biosphere crashes down around our ears, make no mistake that some humble, enterprising creatures will inevitable rejoice in our demise just as our ancient ancestors rejoiced in the fall of the dinosaurs. Our demise would certainly allow countless other species to thrive, adapt and evolve in a new world.

We ourselves, and most of the life that dominates our planet today are the descendants of the tiny, insignificant shrew-like creatures that endured the last great catastrophe that struck our planet some 60,000,000 years ago – a meteor the size of Mt. Everest that blasted a hole hundreds of miles across in the Yucatan basin, incinerated every living thing within thousands of miles, rained fire down on every square inch of the planet and cloaked the atmosphere in darkness for years, literally choking off the lifeblood of this planet.

Yet life endures. Life adapts. Life thrives. If life can survive that, it can survive us. Which is why I find the incessant talk about Saving the Planet to be nothing but hubristic nonsense. It isn't the planet that needs to be saved, it's US. This planet has faced FAR harsher climes than anything we are creating. Don't forget that a mere 10,000 years ago, Manhattan was covered in ice over a mile of ice. The fact that the PLANET will be fine in no way means that we will be, however. The entirety of human civilization, has existed during a relatively brief interregnum between episodes of glacial expansion and has existed during a period of relative stability in global mean temperatures. Indeed, much of our Biosphere has developed its regional contours only during this same period.

We need to recognize, however, that our planet is constantly in flux. Our planet does not have any preference for any specific Biosphere. Indeed, COUNTLESS Biospheres have been utterly wiped out by nothing more than the natural cycles of existence on this planet. Indeed, entire Biospheres have been utterly wiped our or altered beyond recognition by other creatures who either migrated or evolved to take advantage of some unused evolutionary niche. Indeed, several billion years ago, a handful of extraordinarily prolific organisms began to dominate the oceans. These cyanobacteria began pumping out a gas that was poisonous to virtually every single organism that persisted at the time. Over the years, their poisonous gases so altered the atmosphere that any organism that couldn't breathe it was extinguished. What poison did these vile organisms pollute the atmosphere with? Oxygen.

The reality is that living things are messy. They create waste. They create gas. There is nothing special or unique about this process – it is simply a part of the natural rhythms of our planet. In the event that we wipe ourselves out, trees and plants will experience a CO2 fueled renaissance, they will spread faster, grow larger than anything we have ever seen and will, over time, convert that CO2 into Oxygen. And the cycle will continue.

The problem with the endless talk about Saving the Planet is that it is far too abstract to provide any meaning to the people, politicians and businessmen whose assistance are needed to actually curb global carbon emissions. Saving the Planet is too nebulous, too abstract, too mushy to ever drive any meaningful change. Saving OURSELVES, however, that is something that any rational human being should instinctively understand. As I've said before, those are the true stakes in the fight against Global Warming.

Part of why I believe so many people are so resistant to the reality of Climate Change is that many of those who shout loudest about the need to take the utterly rational steps necessary to save ourselves, belong to a movement, that seethes with an almost religious level of self-loathing for humanity. It is and always has seemed odd to me, that both extremely religious individual AND extreme environmentalists both seem to harbor a deep seated hatred for humanity. Both essentially argue that humans are somehow separate and distinct from nature. The religious argue that humans were set apart from nature by God because we were created in His image, while many environmentalists seem to believe that we are separate from nature because of some nebulous idea of technology and society. Both, however, describe humans in stark, and bleak terms, religious folk referring to humans as fallen, sinful, wretched creatures, while extreme environmentalists seem to ascribe more viral descriptors to humanity, variously describing us as a plague, disease, cancer, etc..

While I instinctively agree with the Environmentalists in the sense that I believe our World is an amazing, awe-inspiring, beautiful and wonderful place, I do not and cannot share in the loathing many obviously feel towards humanity. To be sure, humans have caused degradation to the environment in many, many places. To be sure, humans have despoiled large tracts of land and sea with our waste, with our pollution, with our cities, with our hunting and agriculture and we have disrupted the pre-existing balance in many ecosystems. I do not mean to be glib, but “That's Life!”

That is what LIVING THINGS DO! Living things do this ALL the time. Nature is not filled with some fixed set of ecosystems that live on in perpetuity free of interference from every other ecosystem on Earth. Invasive species migrate and decimate local plants and animals. This happened long before the first human ever drew breath and will continue to happen long after humanity's last breath. Life is messy. Living things disrupt the 'Natural Balance' ALL THE TIME. Living things are most certainly NOT in balance. Our world, our biosphere may SEEM permanent, inviolate, eternal, but that is manifestly not the case. Even 10,000 years ago, our biosphere would have been totally unrecognizable. 50,000 or 100,000 years ago, even more so. Our illusion of permanence is born out of our ephemeral existence, our arrogance, our self-importance, our narcissism. This world, this Universe, is not all about us. In fact, almost nothing in this Universe is about us – almost nothing on this planet is about us. Our presence barely registers on kind of geological timescale.

That should make us humble, but it should also give us hope.

Human beings are a part of nature. We ARE nature. And like all things in nature, our activities have impacts on the environment around us. To be sure, human beings are MORE disruptive than other living things because of the scale on which we are capable of operating, but these differences are differences in degree, not differences in kind. UNLIKE any other creature, however, human beings are ACTIVELY working to MINIMIZE our disruptions on other ecosystems.

Name another creature that does so. Go on. Name ONE creature other than humanity that ponders the ethics of whether to follow its instincts and devour the resources it needs. When invasive species like Ivy smother a forest and kill all of the trees there so that they can obtain more sunlight, the Ivy doesn't for a second wonder whether it is harming the biodiversity of the forest it destroys. When new predators enter an ecosystem, they do not hesitate to devour every one of the prey animals they need to satisfy themselves. Indeed, they will hunt their preferred prey to extinction if they can. Humans, despite the scale of our activities and despite their often harmful side effects, are unique in that we actively work to preserve the biodiversity of life on this planet and minimize the impact of the activities necessary to power and feed our civilization. Can we do better in these efforts? Absolutely. Can we be more conscious about not only our activities in harvesting the resources we need, but in our consumption so that we need to harvest less resources? Of course.

And the reality is that we will do exactly that.

Global warming is a massive problem. It is a massive problem of our own making. But it is a problem that is well within our ability to resolve.

1 comment:

  1. Can we be more conscious about not only our activities in harvesting the resources we need, but in our consumption so that we need to harvest less resources? Of course.

    And the reality is that we will do exactly that.

    What evidence have you that we will collectively "do exactly that" in sufficient numbers to make a difference?