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February 27, 2020

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Opinion

February 27, 2020

Today, humanity faces a situation unique in the 200,000 year existence of our species Homo sapiens sapiens, and unique in the 2 million year existence of our genus, Homo: the unprecedented steady linear advance of global warming since 1970, which is making our planet irreversibly less habitable as time progresses, and which is driven entirely by the emission of greenhouse gases as waste products of human activity, particularly the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. If this human-caused global warming remains unchecked it could ultimately lead to our extinction.

Global warming is intimately coupled with population growth. The universal desire for a better life leads people everywhere to try to acquire and use more energy to reduce the drudgery of daily survival, and beyond that to increase their security, comfort and enjoyment.

Food is the source of our internal energy, that which powers our metabolism. The most popular source of our external energy today is fossil fuels: the burning of refined petroleum fuels, natural gas, and coal. From these we derive most of the heat and electricity we generate and use both industrially and personally, as well as for propelling our transportation. It is the increasing energy demand per person of a growing world population that drives the unprecedented rate of global warming we are experiencing.

Motivating people everywhere to see global warming as the fundamental cause of their local disasters of severe weather, drought, failed agriculture and fishing, habitat loss and resource scarcity wars, and then motivating them to cooperate internationally to immediately reduce the rate of global warming as much as geophysical conditions will allow, is the singular political problem of our time for our species.

The trends of population (in billions) and global warming (in degrees Celsius increase relative to the average global temperature during 1880-1920, the datum) are given in the table shown. The quantities listed up to the years 2019-2020 are based on data. The populations listed after 2019 are extrapolations based on an assumed linear population increase of +87.5 million per year (M/y), which was the average rate of increase from the years 2011 to 2019. The temperature increase above datum (delta-T) for years after 2020 are linear extrapolations based on the temperature ramp observed between years 1970 and 2020 (a +1.4 C increase over 50 years).

What is not yet known is if and when global warming will accelerate beyond the linear trend assumed after the year 2020. Such acceleration would be caused by the appearance of new physical conditions such as: the transition of tropical forests from being carbon absorbers and sinks to becoming carbon emitters because of their severe degradation brought about by logging, drought and wildfires; a massive methane release from the thawing Arctic; sudden and massive glacial calving and melt in Greenland and Antarctica baring more ground for the absorption of solar radiation and the release of formerly trapped methane and carbon dioxide; methane released from warmed oceans because of the breakdown by heat of methane clathrates (solid methane hydrate “ices” formed under cold high pressure at ocean depths).

Because of the unprecedented pace of our current global warming, we do not have the luxury of unlimited time – as was true in prior millennia – to physically evolve adaptively or escape by migration in response to climate change. (Migrate to where? A billionaire’s habitat bubble on Mars? We already have a worldwide climate change and environmental collapse refugee crisis, and it will only get worse without a civilization-transforming response to climate change.)

To slow global warming to the minimum rate now limited by geophysics (the carbon load of the atmosphere) will require a species-wide change of human behaviour as regards how energy is generated, conserved and used; how we steward the environment; and how the growth of human population is to be limited and people cared for everywhere.

It takes Nature 200,000 years to clear a massive excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (such as we have injected over the previous century), and this occurs through a sequence of increasingly longer term processes: CO2 uptake by the oceans (years to decades), dissolution of seafloor sediments (the dissolving of chalk acidifying the oceans over decades to centuries), the weathering of carbonate rocks (centuries to millennia), and silicate weathering (tens to hundreds of millennia). CO2 uptake by photosynthesis is blunted by the ‘torrential rain-flooding plant-growth punctuated drought-wildfire’ cycle.

We can only attenuate global warming by species-wide willpower, and the sooner we develop and apply that willpower the greater will be the degree of that attenuation, and the further the likelihood of our causing our own extinction.

Without an internationally coordinated climate change response effort within the next dozen years that is 70 percent larger than the combined war efforts of World War II (to account for the +5.5B population increase between 1939 and 2020), global warming will reach and then exceed 2 C above the 1880-1920 datum. Warming beyond that point will likely be impossible to counteract by any human actions, and the climatic and weather-disaster consequences will be dire and unrelenting.

We have lost the luxury of unlimited time to dawdle in our many egocentric obsessions and illusions – waiting for the ideologically “perfect” revolution; seeking the most ethnically pure nationalism; the ideal theocracy; the maximization of our wealth; the complete destruction and disappearance of those “other types” of people whose savings, lands, resources and lives we want to steal; mindless absorption in superficial consumerism and ‘electronic comic book video game TV internet social media entertainment’ – before collectively reforming ourselves into better futures.

Nature has made our old awareness-blunting time-wasting games obsolete by becoming feverish over its infection from our greenhouse gas toxicity. Our last chance for civilizational transformation that can alter the course of climate change is now, this next decade.

Clearly, the single best strategy to slow global warming is to replace fossil fuel energy with solar and “green” energy, whose production and use does not emit CO2, CH4 (methane), and other organic greenhouse gases and vapors.

Excerpted from: ‘Climate Change and Voting 2020’.

Courtesy: Counterpunch.org