In the current issue of ‘Village’ magazine, editor Michael Smith has explored at length and in some depth the array of formidable challenges that humanity (and all other species on Earth) face in the years and decades ahead. It’s a glimpse beyond the institutionalised cornucopianism of mainstream economics and the pervasive techno-optimism that insists that, whatever the problem, we can collectively ‘fix’ it, by some ingenious combination of innovation and growth.
But what happens when ‘growth’ is not the solution, but an integral part of the problem? What if our dreams of a future empowered by glittering and as yet undiscovered new technologies turns out to be a fossil-fueled chimera? Us humans are natural optimists. Two centuries of exponential growth of industrial civilisation has utterly inured us to the fact that growth is, at most, a transient phase in the life of any organism – or society. And so we shuffle towards the era of permanent crises and sharply diminished opportunities, ill prepared for the very different future that awaits…
Michael Smith’s article is reproduced below:
John Gibbons’ article in the April Village called for recognition that we have moved from an environmental problem for which there might have been a solution to an environmental predicament where we have to accept that there is no solution, and prepare; in a fight, not for sustainability, but for survival. Many informed environmentalists, such as the encyclopaedic Gibbons, to whom I am grateful for a long reading list, have become doomsters. Some are almost competitively pessimistic. On this most important issue for humanity should even sceptics accept we are doomed?
Humanity faces significant challenges and crises in the coming years and decades. The effects of Peak Oil, Resource and Biodiversity Depletion and Climate change are beginning to tell. Whereas these problems are often viewed as problems for the future to be solved by another generation (the refrain is always, “we have ten more years”), it is now clear that these problems are already having an impact. We are already in the age of consequences for our own profligacy.
Of course society at large (from the political classes right down to the man in the street – not you, dear reader) is in denial about these problems – desperately hoping for the best and craving a return to economic growth. This denial is unlikely to be shifted until a major crisis, worse than mere crippling austerity, hits. While no one knows the time or order of crises or where they will fall – banking and the Euro are plausible precipitants – preparation for resilience is imperative.
Doomsters tend to centre on the viewpoint adumbrated by Clive Hamilton, author of the fairly doom-laden, Requiem for a Species: “The truth is green consumerism has made virtually no difference and shifts responsibility from the shoulders of the big polluters and governments that need to introduce the policies onto individuals. Individuals as citizens – that is political actors – can be very effective because it is only through far-reaching mandated policy change that we will get anything like the response we need”.
But what is their case?
THE CASE FOR CRISIS
1) PEAK OIL
Peak oil is a concept devised in 1956 by M King Hubbert who correctly predicted that oil output in the lower 48 US states would peak around 1970. “The existing fields are declining so sharply that in order to stay where we are in terms of production levels in the next 25 years, we have to find and develop four new Saudi Arabias”, according to IEA. Of course, there never will be another oil field found as enormous as Saudi Arabia, let alone four.
Highlighting peak oil poses political dangers since arguing that we are running out of oil just gives oilmen a licence to advance all the unsustainable new techniques they’ve been hatching.
The president of Royal Dutch Shell’s US operations, John Hofmeister, points to the large reserves at the US outer continental shelf, which holds an estimated 100 billion barrels of oil and natural gas. As things stand, however, only 15% of those reserves are currently exploitable. The fast-changing Arctic may yield significant volumes of oil. The Canadian oil sands – a natural combination of sand, water, and oil found largely in Alberta and Saskatchewan – are believed to contain one trillion barrels of oil. Another trillion
barrels of “oil shale” are also said to be trapped in rocks in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The US federal Energy Administration reckons shale could increase the world’s technically-recoverable gas resources by 50%. The Financial Times considers shale in itself calls into question the assumption of peak oil.
Nevertheless, obviously these reserves present major environmental, social, and economic obstacles to recovery. Their production also require significant amounts of energy. Diminishing energy return on energy invested (EROI) will certainly diminish economic growth, in a world that since the second world war has been dangerously oil-dependent. An overall perspective comes from the Economist magazine which cites a study that “based on an expected 0.9% annual increase in production over the next decade, real oil prices will nearly double”, causing damage that is “modest, perhaps 0.2% of global GDP a year. On the most extreme assumptions, it could be 2% a year”.
Dr Christoph Rühl, chief economist of BP, also doubts the peak-oil hypothesis: Climate Change “is likely to be more of a natural limit than all these peak oil theories combined. Peak oil has been predicted for 150 years. It has never happened, and it will stay this way”. According to Rühl the oil difficulty is about price and not the basic availability.
Optimists assume major investments in alternatives will occur before a terminal energy crisis, without requiring major changes in the lifestyle of heavily oil-consuming nations. These models show the price of oil at first escalating and then retreating as other types of fuel and energy sources are used.
On the other hand, a 2010 report from Feasta, the Irish-based Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability argues that energy flows will falter and that: “there is a high probability that our integrated and globalised civilisation is on the cusp of a rapid and near-term collapse”. What this means for countries like Ireland is that “starvation and social breakdown could evolve rapidly”, according to report author, David Korowicz. A 2010 German army report, drawing upon research by The Risk/Resilience Network and also from Feasta, argues, in the event of energy shortage:
“Investment will decline and debt service will be challenged, leading to a crash in financial markets, accompanied by a loss of trust in currencies and a break-up of value and supply chains-because trade is no longer possible. This would in turn lead to the collapse of economies, mass unemployment, government defaults and infrastructure break- downs, ultimately followed by famines and total system collapse. David Korowicz argues on a more fundamental level that “there may indeed be plenty of fossil fuels left in the ground, but following a major systemic collapse, most may remain there” since the capacity to extract them will be destroyed early on.
While Korowicz’ vision is credible it does not seem probable. Surely humankind has the wit to come back from systemic collapse – even if at devastating cost? There is no evidence that our awareness of what it takes to survive is petty.
Scale of problem: 2 (climate change will pre-empt it and technology will delay it).
2) SPECIES LOSS
Of all the ecological problems humans are so casually generating, species loss is the most clearcut and the most under-recognised. No doubt this reflects Man’s Narcissism. The world is losing species at a rate that is 100 to 1000 times faster than the natural extinction rate and the pace is speeding up. The International Union for Conservation of Nature believes that 25% of mammals now face extinction globally. The WWF’s Living Planet Index (which measures trends in biological diver- sity) found that between 1970 and 2007 global biodiversity had declined by an astonishing 30 per cent. The UN Environment Programme con- curs, adding: “The world is currently undergoing a very rapid loss of biodiversity comparable with the great mass extinction events that have previously occurred only five times in the Earth’s history”.
The mass die-off of the Sixth Extinction that has already spelled the end for vast swathes of the natural world has not – yet – impacted directly on the authors of the die-off, humankind. But since we are perched precariously at the apex of a global food chain it is no longer a matter of if, but when, and just how severe it will be. Mass extinctions of species have occurred five times previously in the history of the world – the Fifth Extinction was 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs and many other species disappeared. Previous periods of mass extinction and ecosystem change were driven by global changes in climate and in atmospheric chemistry, impacts by asteroids, and volcanism.
Extinction is mainly being caused by habitat degradation, whose effect on biodiversity is worsened by ongoing human-induced climate change. A hundred researchers and policy experts from EU countries met in January to discuss how to organise the future UN Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity – an equivalent to the UN panel on climate change (IPCC). They concluded: “The biodiversity crisis – i.e. the rapid loss of species and the rapid degradation of ecosystems – is probably a greater threat than global climate change to the stability and prosperous future of humankind on Earth. There is a need for scientists, politicians and government authorities to closely collaborate if we are to solve this crisis”.
Local manifestations of this are ubiquitous. For example a January New York Times article reports on an eight-country investigation of the fishing industry in the southern Pacific shows how jack mackerel stocks “have dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons to less than a tenth of that in two decades, perhaps foretelling the progressive collapse of fish stocks in all oceans”.
Scale of problem: 8 (the figures speak clearly for themselves)
3) OCEAN ACIDIFICATION
The World’s oceans are acidifying faster than at any time in the last 300 million years, harbinging mass marine extinction .
In a Columbia University review of hundreds of paleoceanographic studies reported earlier this year in Science journal, a team of international scientists found that a steep rise in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide has driven down pH levels
in the oceans by 0.1 over the last century, to about 8.1, a decline ten times faster than the closest historical comparison — a period of acidification 56 million years ago that triggered a massive ocean die-off. The oceans are vulnerable because they absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turning the water more acidic, which can inhibit organisms, such as oysters and coral reefs, from forming shells.
“We know that life during past ocean acidification events was not wiped out — new species evolved to replace those that died off,” says Barbel Honisch, lead author of the study. “But if industrial carbon emissions continue at the current pace, we may lose organisms we care about — coral reefs, oysters, salmon”.
While acute concern is justified this and other research makes no attempt to assess the probability of oceanic catastrophe. The Science Article is full of ‘may’ and ‘some’.
Scale of problem: 5
4) CLIMATE CHANGE The dramatic party-pooping truth is that the rich West needs actually to REDUCE emissions 90% by 2030 to avert a further rise of more than 1.2°C heat which could cause the Greenland icecap to melt and the Amazon forest to die, precipitating runaway global warming. This is feasible if developed countries peak their emissions in 2015 and decline them by eight or nine percent a year afterwards. Developing nations are morally due perhaps an extra decade before they need to undergo the same decline. We can’t mess around with this target.
According to Kevin Anderson, formerly head of the Tyndall Institute, Britain’s leading climate research centre, 4°C, for example “is absolutely catastrophic”. In fact, according to the latest science, he says, “a 4°C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable”. The International Energy (IEA)’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, believes that with current climate policies the world is “perfectly on track” to cascade through this en route for a six degree calamity, “unless there is a shift away from some of the fossil fuel energy now used for electricity generation and transportation”.
Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest insurance firms and hardly a hysteric, quoted in the Insurance Daily in November 2011 argues that the 2°C-over-pre-industrial-levels target that scientists consider the maximum for containing global warming within manageable limits is virtually no longer attainable. We are already up .8 of a degree. A 2010 Royal Society article by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows summarises: “The analysis suggests that despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2°C.
Moreover, the impacts associated with 2°C have been revised upwards so that 2°C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change”. According to the likes of David Roberts writing on the blog site, Grist, today the exact same social and political considerations that settled on 2°C as the threshold of safety by all rights ought to settle on 1°C. Emphasising that we have failed to account for likely emissions from India and China, Anderson and Bows go on: “Ultimately, the science of climate change allied with the emission scenarios for [developing and non-developing] nations suggests a radically different framing of the mitigation and adaptation challenge from that accompanying many other analyses, particularly those directly informing policy”.
While almost all political views on the climate crisis must be discounted for the usual time-serving cowardice, a conservative informed view – albeit weakened by the tempering effect of collegiality – is that of the IEA which overall thinks it is still worthwhile trying to counter climate change. Its director wrote in the OECD Yearbook earlier this year: “The door is closing to achieving climate change goals which limit temperature increases to 2°C, and on our current path by 2017 we will have ‘locked in’ long-lasting carbon-spewing infrastructure unless we change the nature of what is being built between now and then”.
Still, the news for optimists, like you and me, is not good. Global carbon emissions in 2010 exceeded worst-case scenario predictions from just four years before, according to the US Department of Energy (DOE). A rise of 6 percent (564 million additional tons) over 2009 levels was largely driven by three nations: the US, India, and China. Emissions from burning coal jumped 8 percent overall. Most climate modelling scenarios, e.g. the Stern Report – which posited emissions peaking in 2015-16 – underplay the current rate of emissions growth, leading to sunnier-than-justified results.
Optimists need to look at the evidence on the ground: a decade ago scientists predicted the Arctic wouldn’t be ice-free in summer until 2100. But summer ice in the North has rapidly shrunk and today covers 70 percent of the area it did in 1979. Now some scientists think the Arctic could be open water within 25 years. Last August, a team led by the University of York published a study showing that plants and animals are moving to higher elevations twice as fast as predicted in response to rising temperatures. They’re migrating north three times faster than expected, they found. As for extinctions, earlier this year two scientists at the University of Exeter paired predicted versus observed annihilation rates. The real-world rates are more than double what the best computer modelling showed: While the studies, on average, warned of a seven percent extinction rate, field observations suggested the rate was closer to fifteen percent.
What can we do?
The longer we delay the emissions peak the heavier and more precipitous must reductions be. Roberts continues: “How about 2020? Of the available scenarios for peaking in 2020, says Anderson, 13 of 18 show hitting 2°C to be technically impossible. (D’oh!) The others involve on the order of 10 percent reductions a year after 2020, leading to total decarbonization by 2035-45. Just to give you a sense of scale: The only thing that’s ever pushed emissions reductions above 1 per- cent a year is, in the words of the Stern Report, ‘recession or upheaval’. Stern considers emissions reductions of three to four percent a year are the maximum compatible with continued economic growth. The total collapse of the USSR knocked five percent off its emissions. So ten percent a year is like … well, it’s not like anything in the history of human civilization.
This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2°C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever— we will have no chance”. The problem with climate change is that it is self-accelerating and non-linear.
There are many climate feedback mechanisms in the climate system that can either amplify (‘positive feedback’) or diminish (‘negative feedback’) the effects of a change in climate forcing. For example, as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases warm Earth’s climate, snow and ice begin to melt. This melting reveals darker land and water surfaces that were beneath the snow and ice, and these darker surfaces absorb more of the Sun’s heat, causing more warming, which causes more melting, and so on, in a self reinforcing cycle.
As the atmosphere warms due to rising levels of greenhouse gases, its concentration of water vapour increases, further intensifying the green- house effect in a self-reinforcing cycle. This water vapour feedback may be strong enough to approximately double the increase in the greenhouse effect due to the added CO2 alone.
Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming.
Another feedback is the melting of permafrost in Northern forest regions such as Siberia and parts of North America, resulting in the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and CO2 from soil organic matter.
Increasing temperatures could cause the dieback of high-carbon ecosystems, such as the Amazon flipping these regions from carbon ‘sinks’ into carbon sources.
A recent article by Jerry McManus on tipping points is illustrative: any one of the positive feed- backs “could be dangerous, but taken all together and greatly magnified by feedback delays measured in decades if not centuries then it becomes clear that the crisis we face completely dwarfs the problem of CO2 concentrations alone. We are altering both the chemistry of the atmosphere and the composition of the biosphere at a rate orders of magnitude greater than that seen in the geologic past.
At this point even cutting CO2 emissions to zero would be woefully inadequate, we would still need to take desperate measures in an attempt to restore the previous balance by putting in place global negative feedbacks. Reforestation, carbon sequestration, cloud seeding, all this and more while at the same time we power down and depopulate to levels last seen many decades ago. Unfortunately, given both the enormous challenge of such an undertaking compounded by the very long feedback delays in the climate system we would probably need to have started such a program many years ago. We may have already passed the tipping point of no return”.
Climatic manifestations of Climate Change
Looking at the precise consequences of climate change it is projected by the IPCC, with what is described as medium confidence, that approximately 20 to 30% of plant and animal species assessed so far (in an unbiased sample) would likely be at increasingly high risk of extinction should global mean temperatures exceed a warming of 2 to 3°C above pre-industrial temperature levels. The uncertainties in this estimate, however, are large: for a rise of about 2°C the percentage may be as low as 10%, or for about 3°C, as high as 40%; and depending on biota (all living organisms of an area) the range is between 1% and 80%. As global average temperature exceeds 4°C above pre-industrial levels, model projections suggested that there could be significant extinctions (40-70% of species that were assessed) around the globe.
Looking at Ireland, where already six of the ten warmest years since 1890 have occurred since 1995, as an example: predicted changes in Ireland’s climate as a result of climate change include: By 2050 there will be an increase in January temperatures of 1.5°C and in July temperatures of 2.5°C. Changes in rainfall and precipitation patterns: a marked reduction of between 25% and 40% in summer rainfall is possible, according to predictions, as well as perhaps some winter rainfall increases. The frequency of severe storms coming to Ireland from the Atlantic Ocean may increase by about 15%. There will be an increase in extreme weather events: such as floods, droughts, heat waves etc. Also, rapid ice melt in the Arctic region disrupting ocean currents also increases the risk of severe cold snaps in Europe recurring in the medium term.
Non-Climatic Manifestations of Climate Change
A) Melting Ice and rising sea levels. Some 4.3 trillion (yes, trillion) tons of ice were lost globally 2003-10. The total global ice mass lost from Greenland, Antarctica, and the rest of Earth’s glaciers and ice caps during the period 2003-2010 was about 4.3 trillion tons contributing about 12 mm to global sea levels. The loss is roughly enough to cover the United States in half a metre of water.
In 2007, the IPCC projected that, during this century, sea-level will rise another 18 to 59 cm. The figures do not allow for “uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor do they include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow”. Although the IPCC explicitly refrained from projecting an upper limit of total sea-level rise in the 21st century, one metre is well within the range of more recent projections. Research led by University of Arizona scientists on the impact of this in the lower US, for example, suggests that it would result in Miami, New Orleans, Tampa and Virginia Beach losing more than ten percent of their land area by 2100. After 2100 sea-levels could rise a metre every century.
Meanwhile, a study published in Nature in February provides the first comprehensive satellite analysis of Earth’s melting glaciers and ice caps (and chiming with ground-based measurements) has shocking implications for sea-level rise. Taking Greenland, if global average temperatures reach 1.6 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, its iconic ice sheet probably will tip toward irreversible loss. The rate of ice loss expected for warming of 1.6 degrees is slow, occurring over 50,000 years but, with an existing rise of 0.8 degrees C, global average temperatures already are halfway there. Higher climate-change temperatures would accelerate the process.
The ice sheet could lose 20 percent of its mass over the next 500 years from temperature increases associated with so-called business-as-usual greenhouse-gas emissions through century’s end, on its own raising global sea levels by 1.4m. Complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet, whose thickness mostly extends to 2-3km, or of the Antarctic ice sheet would produce 7.2 m or 61.1 m of sea level rise, respectively. The collapse of the grounded interior reservoir of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise sea level by 5–6 m.
“The good news”, according to website Grist, is that the last “Great Dying” during the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago – when 95% of marine life and 70% of land families were killed – seems to have happened “faster than scientists thought, but not remotely what you’d call fast. The greenhouse-gas build-up required to accomplish the near-total extinction of the only known oasis of life in the entire universe took something like 20,000 years. So in order to reproduce the Great Dying, we’d have to keep up our current pace of burning fossil fuels for millennia”.
Overall it seems fair to say that we are seeing technically dramatic but small-scale melting – a half an inch increase in global ocean levels in seven years, but that allowing over two degrees would be disastrous. With business as usual, a six-degree increase and a three-metre rise, much of life on earth would be wiped out.
Scale of problem: 8. Will change pattern of life and human settlement on earth – timescale to be decided.
B) As if melting wasn’t enough, Russian scientists sampling the waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf have discovered enormous plumes of methane, some more than a kilometre wide, bubbling up from the thawing seabed. In 2010 Semiletov, an oceanographer from the Russian Academy of
Sciences, In 2010, Semiletov estimated that the emissions of methane — a powerful heat-trapping gas — bubbling from the seabed in this region were about eight million tons a year, but he told the UK’s Independent newspaper that the recent expedition has shown that methane releases could be far higher.
Scale of problem: 2
C) A changing climate brings erupting volcanoes and catastrophic earthquakes too. A recent Guardian article claims that Volcanoes, catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis – caused by climate change “will shake the Earth”. For example in Alaska, where climate change has propelled temperatures upwards by more than 3°C in the last half century, the glaciers are melting at a staggering rate, some losing up to 1km in thickness in the last 100 years. The reduction in weight on the crust beneath is allowing faults contained therein to slide more easily, promoting increased earthquake activity in recent decades. While clearly melting ice – catastrophic for so many reasons – will tend to generate these disasters the science of correlating them to climate change seems primitive.
Scale of problem: 4 (seismological consequences not understood).
SOLUTION: ADDRESS THE TRUTH
These issues are crucial for life, and therefore have generated many competing interests; but it is madness that so many purport to find it impossible definitively to sift science from politics and propaganda. For many, personal disposition – optimism or pessimism – not a scrupulous quest for truth, seems to dictate the nature of engagement with the Science. In fact the preponderance of research work seems to corroborate the doomsters or at least the practical obsessives. The lesson for those who seek lessons is: pre-empt and prepare, but act now not tomorrow.