Edwin Salter Revised 2/2015
There is now certainty of a global warming climate change within this generation.
Saving ourselves from likely catastrophe would create immensely valuable redevelopment.
What pride in the accomplishment, what energy and hope for a wiser humanity!
Much needs doing quickly to prevent an uncontrollable deterioration of our overexploited environment.
The 16 hottest years recorded worldwide are all since 1995 and polar sea ice dwindles.
Our huge population of 7,200 million is due to our fertility and our too slow adjustment to the increased survival of children. This youthful base ensures that in about a decade 1,000 million more will join and worsen our plight.
What is the point of us all and our deeply unequal and polarised societies? Privilege is largely determined at birth by class and nation, gender and race. Globalisation based on one cultural and economic model reduces the variety of human life, undermines local traditions of community, trade and self-sufficient employment, and cripples poor nations put into debt. As a plague of consumers we bring conflict and unending demand for resources – fresh water then food, fuel, minerals, fertile and habitable land: we exhaust and ruin nature, biological and physical. Far fewer happy, healthy, helpful people could better flourish with our diverse virtues and achievements, splendid arts and sciences. Even now you are very fortunate if your own life comes near to fulfilling its individual potential.
The population explosion underlies the environmental problem. In a far emptier world (pop. 120?M-illion), Plato commended small city states and Epicurus described a contented civilised life. But this Anthropocene age of our dominance on Earth may become just a disastrous moment in its dramatic story (about 4,500M years). Many seek the unsustainable lifestyle of ‘developed’ nations, now with more stable long-lived populations. There is enough food but strife, poverty, odd weather and high birth rates (populations in some African states doubled in 20 years) create starvation. Self-righteous ambitions, perhaps of nationalism or faith, usually increase reproduction (most religions promote authority, the subordination of women, and fertility). Rates slowly fall toward replacement level (2 children per woman). China (1,350M) now exercises strict control, but large others (by growth rate: Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India (1,200M), Indonesia, USA) need restraint. To limit population and rebalance age distribution well with social and economic function takes generations. (Global growth p.a.: in 1950 was 1.9%; now 1.2%; by 2050, with irresistible lifespan parity near, an optimistic guess is 10,000M; then 0.5% rising to 11,000+M.)
The children of the poor – often unwanted, unsupportable, untaught – are available to be exploited by all. In Britain, the irreligious first took up the warning of Malthus about the wretched consequences of excess population, and led reform to improve society by enabling contraception (now easy and cheap) to break the link with poverty and ignorance. Smaller families may also be encouraged (e.g. Brazil) by general health and security, support for women, open discussion, incentives, media dramas and persuasive models. The kindly bringing up and creative education of our fewer children, so they can reason with sensible hope and consider evidence without prejudices, is vital. New blights of junk food and inactivity, screen watching and poor social interaction, affect all ages, notably children and the disadvantaged (recent media and IT electronics have complex human and environmental effects).
Prosperous developed states contribute very disproportionately to environmental impact and climate change, particularly by the burning of non-renewable carbon fossil fuels (world energy sources are roughly: oil 1/3; gas 2/9; coal 2/9, largest reserves & worst emissions; biomass e.g. wood 1/9; non-carbon e.g. hydroelectric & nuclear 1/ 9). China (over 4x the US population; fast rising industry & consumption) now exceeds the US in carbon dioxide emission. (A natural ‘carbon cycle’ links this greenhouse and physiological gas CO2 with bio/organic compounds via plant photosynthesis and with inorganic/mineral carbonates.) Planet Earth is already insufficient, soon several times over if all match the present excessive, increasing ‘carbon footprint’ of developed consumption and pollution.
A tiny international class has dominating, part hidden, wealth: thus fewer than 100 ultra-rich together own more than the poor half of the whole world. This impoverishes others and presents a sham aspiration as a socially pathological rich-poor gap widens rapidly almost everywhere. Corrupting greeds for money, power and status are warned against by common decency, the biblical Jesus and most faiths. Yet rank and luxury may be boasted as if evidence of merit and fostered by arrogant rule that disregards ordinary and simple lives: the powerful easily reap further gains and the poorest deteriorate as jobless, sick, ‘stupid and bad’. A general apathy towards change and the extensive private control of opinion via the media and ownership of essential resources (from capital, land & energy to manufacture, mines & transport) may impede response to dangers the rich suppose they can evade.
In finance, duration, expertise and involvement, the challenge before us is perhaps comparable with the sum of all space programmes plus a next half-century of annual Olympics. Both the immense crisis and the hope of recovery need to become so plain that positive shared action is widely embraced and progress (e.g. Norway) can be made by incremental steps to build trust and support for a humanitarian outcome. At least a fifth of water, food and energy supply could be saved by simple waste reduction. Practical solutions exist (just 50×50 sq.km. of desert solar power equals UK electricity), so education, informative and ethical, is needed for wide understanding and commitment. Attempting to cope merely by patching up, or migrating away from, increasing disasters symptomatic of warming would be ruinously costly and ineffective, and end in collapse. Useful efforts are against causes, for mitigation, and to adapt to inevitable consequences. Many projects with costs not linked to specific capitalist profits require public money (general taxation or penalties for harmful activity, esp. in highly privatised economies whose diminished governments – resources & functions also sold off? – lack direct production control and income).
If we have needed encouraging to occupy, coerce and largely destroy the natural world, Genesis declared our ‘dominion’, inviting exploitation rather than stewardship. Most faiths, Islam included, regard life in this world as flawed and transitional, but they nevertheless conflict damagingly for mastery over it. Intolerant fundamentalism can embrace a yearning for the time of origin, success and certainty: ancient dogma and prophecy are preferred to observable evidence, tribal customs and laws to thoughtful innovation needed by a different future. But disasters strike without regard to victims’ beliefs and prayers: uselessness or strife have ended many once great religions.
As for science, our very rapid population growth (from about 1,200M in 1850) owes much to uncompensated medical intervention that hugely reduced infant death and now lengthens all lives (from birth about 77m./81f. years in developed nations, double since 1850; genetic prognosis & treatment will increase longevity). Productivity, innovation, and computers able to bring leisure and quality to all have led to lifestyle excesses, technologies and megacities ill suited to both environment and people (problems: air, land & water pollution; toxicity e.g. lead, DDT, dioxins, microparticulates; rubbish, sewage & slums; infection & pest spread; unemployment & poverty; unworthy toil & useless age; addiction & obesity). The water and food industries must reduce waste and damage (discard & storage losses, soil deterioration & overfishing) and produce enough despite disruption and urban sprawl (aids: local supply; sensible diets & cookery; biological model ‘permaculture’; hydroponics; ‘vertical farming’; contentious genetic engineering, tissue culture, synthetics). Slow assessment of warming (by atmosphere 1824; by CO2 expt. 1859, calc.1896; C fuel warning 1917; temp. data 1938 ‘but prevents ice age’) delayed alarm even at clear damage (1980s on – no likely natural cause by cataclysm, solar periodicities, or the very slow changes to Earth’s orbit & tilt).
Without natural greenhouse gases, Earth’s surface, now average 14-15oC, would be much colder (30?C less). Current rise (since 1910, certainty of data) is sudden and reverses pattern (up +1°C: likely this century +2-5°C, sea level +1-?m). Alternating warm and ice ages (warm peak 130,000 years ago; then ice; civilisation has developed in 10,000 warm years) have endangered our species (perhaps reducing our genetic ancestors to single m. then f. individuals). Agriculture and infrastructure, lifestyle and beliefs, are so matched to familiar local climates that even modest change causes upheaval and has destroyed societies (e.g. probably Saharans, Maya). Alterations to the complex systems and rhythms of atmosphere and oceans (jet streams, monsoons, Pacific Nina/Nino, Europe’s Gulf Stream …) already begin. Change – obvious in extreme weather events, rapid loss of Arctic ocean ice (after 1M? years all gone in 2020s?), storms, floods, droughts and fires – is not gradual but accelerates by feedback (one factor is altered, it triggers others, and a vicious circle quickly develops). Neither speed nor extent can be reliably predicted, but some past global transitions (e.g. melt H/ D-O events) have been sudden and immense. (The utter catastrophe would be a +10?C energy peak with methane (CH4) release, total ice melt, and sea level rise +120?m inundating e.g. most of N. Europe. Unstoppable once initiated, this would so transform all environments that a majority would likely perish.) Our delay multiplies the severity of problems and costs, and it risks chaotic change.
But politicians prefer familiar irrelevancies to confronting a harsh reality indifferent to rhetoric, bribe or threat, and institutions seek primarily to maintain themselves as if all well. Human beings are not best evolved for forward planning on a grand scale and, like our flight/ fight response, much of our behaviour is triggered by the plain and immediate. Hence is the difference between beliefs about ourselves and irrational responses to circumstances: we easily comply with authority, however foolish or vile, and suppose that problems will vanish or can be left to others, sometime, somehow. To escape unwelcome facts some search for contrary anecdotes, average out the extremes, become politically angry, allege conspiracy or mock that it is impossible to predict future local weather. Complex climate change is not uniform (‘all just a nice bit warmer’) but exaggeratedly erratic over time and place.
Complacency ignores, and tough-minded individualism may deny, the evidence (what disaster will convince?) and experience (if only of others) of a process to us unprecedented and hard to grasp. For quick profit, business extends its exploitation of the environment, including tropical forest and cold wilderness, causing many biological and physical harms. To succeed, fair and rational negotiation is required, not a market of squabbling politicians (at Kyoto, Copenhagen). Initial greenhouse emission targets might be percentage decreases, or smaller allowances, related to how far national levels are above, or below, the global average. (Energy use per person, about 4x that in 1850, is now at 5 tonnes CO2 p.a.: Kuwait 30, US 18, Russia 12, China 7, India 2, Uganda 0.1 – range 300x).
Headlines and votes most influence scientifically ignorant leaders, so emphatic public concern is much needed. Finance can be taken from the immense military expenditure (3% of the 80?MM US$ global GDP), saving the many damages of war and arms trade, fear and ‘security’. Costs will be less than the huge losses due to business malpractice (as 2008 crash: reckless speculation, incompetence, fraud), deregulation, excessive credit and weak, evaded taxation, all unmatched to real value. These faults and vast national debts (US, parts of Europe …) require reform and control. Employment and well-based prosperity would come from undertaking necessary large scale climate and energy works, the expenditure anyway trivial compared to the dire consequences of folly or fatalism.
The interventions for a systematic recovery involve adaptation and the acceptance of some regrettable losses and limited risks, but also offer substantial advantages to our health, well-being and environment. Technology can already provide elegant, effective solutions. A very quick ‘technical fix’ (probably albedo geoengineering plus solar & air/water flow energy) is now essential, but so too is a basic life shift from the use of power towards the organic. Such an enduring change of emotion and outlook (as ‘less car, more care’) is no more impossible than were schools and votes for all or the huge abrupt responses, national and personal, demanded by the World Wars.
Very urgent is temporary restraint of temperature rise regardless of cause. More reflection from Earth (albedo 30?%: aim +2?%) would reduce heating by the sun. (Radiation: 1.4kW/sqm when sun vertical; overall, half initially absorbed at surface. Tiny help by ‘quieter’ sun?). A ‘sunshade’ in space (at null gravity L1? grating/lens/dust? via tether/gun/asteroid?) is very difficult. Fast acting use of stratospheric particles (dust/sulphur aerosols? effects on biology?) would overlap murky air pollution (harms: health, ozone O3 layer by CFCs, forests by acid rain): such ‘global dimming’ has partly hidden warming processes. Increasing the reflectiveness of ocean clouds using novel boats to spray mists that seed tinier droplets, is a safer form of white paint easy to try. The low albedo of the dark ocean (70% of Earth’s surface) could be raised, as by floating reflectors (additional habitat or energy functions?). And how to rapidly protect and substitute for vital, shiny white but diminishing ice (sheets, glaciers, sea ice, snow)? Also needed is preparation for weather extremes and action to restore vegetation, including rainforest, and reverse desertification (reinstate moving herds??). Many developed, populous coasts are vulnerable to sea rise, but entry to boundaried low land can be blocked (e.g. a UK Wash barrage?). Unpolluting useful treatment of industrial and domestic waste (depackaging, sorting, ‘mining’, biodegrading, composting) is integral to an ethos of moderation.
Clean power generation is quickly possible, but crossover is resisted by the immense (US$ based) oil and gas industry. Ample and inexhaustible forms of energy are relatively well distributed with methods for quick, low harm access rapidly developing. Some sources are in use (hydroelectric; wind; solar photovoltaic & mirror heat, easy; tidal, reliable, & wave; geothermal & heat pumped; waste heat, surely), others are in research (mid-air winds, easy; nuclear fusion, far off; photo/bio-chemical; differences of sea temperature or of water salinity; space/moon solar pv via microwave, implausible). Electricity, by energy conversion, is convenient and shareable over great distances (via HVDC?; grids level supply/demand over time/place; cut peaks/ DSM) but not storable (indirect: small chemical batteries; pressure – pumped reservoirs, compressed/ liquid air, solid CO2?). Hydrogen (gas H2, explosive: energy required to produce – methane ‘reforming’; water electrolysis; biological?) may be a marginal clean secondary fuel (can pipe to burn or use in fuel cells). Running costs and ‘environmental payback times’ of alternative sources reduce (near ‘grid parity’) by efficiency and scale of use. The interim requires traditional combustion, some nuclear fission (costly/unsolved safety problems esp. disposal), and biofuels (e.g. ethanol by fermentation: sustainability?) not at the loss of nature or agriculture. Superseding patchily located fossil fuels will end the costly, cruel harms of oil wars (Iraq etc.) and conserve reserves for valuable chemical use (e.g. plastics). Carbon burning may near its maximum (‘peak oil’), as new sources (deep ocean wells, tar sands, shale+fracking) are expensive and damaging.
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (height about 100 km. but at uniform density merely 9km.) let sunlight through, but partly absorb the warming infrared radiation returned by most surfaces. Reducing crucial dilute gases may take centuries. Temperature rise links to carbon dioxide accumulation (our 35,000M tonnes p.a. add 5?% to natural sources: CO2 now 395ppmv. air = 3MM tonnes, a 4M year peak; in 1958 was 315ppmv, in 1850 about right near 280). Removal (weathering, oceans, plants) can be increased as wood (use, not burn; also bamboo, hemp…) and bio-production (algae etc. for fuel, foodstuff) or by separation (difficult: alkali ‘scrubbers’?; molecular sieves?) and pumping to a dump (mines, porous rocks, oil wells to empty). Tiny marine organisms that at death sink carbon to the sea bed might proliferate with extra nutrients (iron?): one proposal uses wave action to pump up nutrient deep water (salp then feed on plankton; the cooler water may also calm tropical storms). Some plant material can be charcoaled to inactive carbon (pyrolysis yielding biofuel, chemicals, soil improver). We also increase methane (1.7ppmv.), a potent warmer (over 100xCO2 by weight but destroyed in air, half-life 9? years). Methane is emitted biologically (by ruminant livestock, termites, wetlands; some bacterial uptake), and largely is ‘natural gas’ fuel (also from sewage & landfill, possibly much from seabed & permafrost). Technological capture (CCS) or destruction of gases in air is difficult and costly, but less so at production (as of biomass energy, thus slowly reducing CO2 in air).
After preliminary studies for effectiveness, three key safety criteria are that interventions should be gradual, outcomes measurable, and changes reversible. Full disclosure will enable both scientific consensus and broad international assent. Side-effects (action itself adds energy demand) and commercial profits are to be contained, and equity and security of essential resources provided for peoples and nations with different vulnerabilities and ways of life: the most unlucky will not accept their fate passively. Financial support (or coercion) may have a role, evasive ‘carbon trading’ very little; and guard is needed against misleading economic appraisals and ‘cheapest is best’. Compatible technologies (output-input matching), lower demand social systems (less commuting) and fresh resources (materials from waste, marine bio-production) must replace those declining. Interactive natural and human systems require a sequence of readjustments. Necessary adaptations include learning from traditions established elsewhere, both as specifically relevant to the locally new climates (crops, housing…) and as generally illuminating about practicable human values (compare Scandinavia and Kerala to Texas and Congo?). Issues of environment, sustainability, population and the spread of good quality of life should preoccupy this 21st century.
Perhaps you think the bad news is wildly exaggerated. Yet we avoid and insure against danger (= estimated risk x potential harm, here catastrophic). What uncertainty about a global crisis greatly affecting your lifestyle, prosperity and safety would lead you, if only as a precaution, to make personal adjustments and demand response by government? New evidence revises estimates of change and weather variability to forecast increasingly soon, large and unfamiliar events. Whether of a religious faith (perhaps promising believers their own eternal heaven) or not (such as humanists), what we know alike is only this one life, one world for ourselves and our children. This shared reality held in common can largely (not wholly) be conserved and the future gradually improved. Action, even if inessential, will at least be beneficial to people and environment; inaction may be irretrievably disastrous.
Sufficient but modest lifestyles (with family/home skills, allotments, bicycles etc.) with all contributing usefully to more cooperative and equal societies (hence less distressed and violent, criminal and oppressive) would surely do us good, physically and morally. Appropriate are a gentler (less abusive, sexualised and instrumental) valuing of our natural bodies and minds, and an appreciation of our origin in small groups. Psychology confirms we would be happier by diminishing the hectic seductions of glamour and celebrity, consumerist excess, unregulated profit, and apparent growth inflated by population, money printing and loans. Finance neglects values in life (the World Bank, WTO, IMF & transnational companies exploit poorer regions, and their dominance in markets forced open ruins weaker business and controls states). Social justice and stable economies for communal benefit are required.
New efficiencies involve village technologies, irrigation, transport, energy, lighting, insulation, construction (but cement is high C), urban planning, electronics, information, and transition programmes designed for whole towns and nations (e.g. Cuba). By general prudence, cutting the impacts of road vehicles (also air) and tourism, eating less meat (may take 10x feed,10-100x water), and the order of priority to ‘redesign-reduce-repair-reuse-recycle’, we can all aim at a wiser future with minimal residues (use for energy?). People can adapt, be versatile, and find satisfaction in achieving much from little. This well-known and ecologically aware ‘green’ approach is vital. But it alone, even if ‘carbon neutral’, cannot now save us and the useful, beautiful, life-enhancing treasures of biology and of landscape and place that future generations should inherit. Nature is denuded by our teeming numbers (national parks, indoor facilities etc. can help to spare environments from damage); and fires (forest, peat) add both destruction and greenhouse gases. As conditions alter, habitats, whether wild or in reserves, can become isolated death traps. Biological diversity, from species to ecosystems, many of unknown value, needs conserving as possible (sequence: maintenance, relocation, gardens/ zoos/ eco-domes, cryo-/ seed/ gamete/ gene stores).
Geology records great changes to land, sea and atmosphere, from slowly over many million years to instant (tectonic plate movement – alters continents, forms mountains; erosion & deposition; glaciation & flood; eruption & earthquake; meteor strike). The resulting extinctions and natural selection (changed environments + mutations + competition lead to new species) irretrievably transform biology, of which we are part. Current sudden loss affects all life forms – plant and animal, sea and land, unicellular to primate (global extinctions, e.g. of amphibians, near 1000x natural rate). Some (Gaia influenced?) supposed a self-healing Earth would maintain the recent conditions we are adapted to by biological evolution and our achieved supremacy. Far more obstructive is the deliberate political and commercial effort (as in US despite warnings since 1978), for profit and blame avoidance, to ignore the ultimate costs (‘externalities’) of carbon pollution and to promote argument, deception and publicity that deny or minimise the crisis (or even commend CO2 and warming) and its near certain origins in human activity and excess.
Enduring and ‘weirding’ climate perils are both increased by complex interactions as air and ocean flows much modify latitude (e.g. jet stream shift because Arctic sea ice ann. min. volume now 20% of 1980). The greenhouse gases, in order of current effect, are: natural water vapour, easily largest (unavoidable; feedback +7% H2O every +1oC); next carbon dioxide, also causing toxic ocean acidity; then methane, a huge threat (large marine hydrate deposits are barely retained by cold: some escape already occurs); last, ozone (necessary) and modern chemicals (CFCs, N2O). Initial slight warming leads to a cascade of positive feedback, as when the melting of ice: 1) reduces reflectivity so increasing local solar heating; 2) exposes tundra so releasing methane; 3) leads to storms and to eventual water level rise so flooding low land (often fertile or densely populated e.g. Bangladesh, London); and 4) changes seawater characteristics so altering currents. Then it all goes around again, swiftly multiplying impact on weather. Science provides much evidence to support this outline. Improbable arguments against the greenhouse explanation or for non-human causes are, like mere blaming, wholly irrelevant to immediate practicality: the only actions available to restrain temperature rise for our survival and well-being remain the same. Careless ‘Climate change happened before, it’s just nature – let’s do business as usual’ overlooks that many past climates (we were not there then) would, like that threatening, be calamities for us now in an overpopulated and overexploited world.
Are current major environmental disasters warning enough to create public alarm that stimulates action? Will the foolishness of governments eyeing only their own advantage continue? How many sects neglect the creation of their gods but again eagerly foretell the end of sinful humankind (all events can be said divine as punishments or benefits} with their own unique salvation? As for commerce, will it, as history suggests, go for profit to the brink or beyond – fatally devoted to the ancient technology of fire, hunting the last whale? And for how long will wealthy consumers squander resources, pollute, and think themselves guiltless and protected by the fictions of money? Destructive wars (as by US+UK) leave reactionary and ruined victims and prevent cooperation. If we fail to act sensibly, perhaps through fear, nationalism or selfishness, the already evident human responses of despair, social conflict, resource capture and opposed migration will escalate with panic and disorder that accelerate collapse.
Such horror need not happen unless wilful ignorance triumphs. Almost all human tragedies fade within a few generations, empires good or bad within centuries, but this crisis may quickly reach a tipping point into a sudden and irreversible catastrophe. Most people, whatever their way of life and their beliefs, share the kindly goodness of humanity and, if informed and supported towards equality, will work together for a calmer and sustainable future.
We can seek, adopt, urge and fund a new creative vision for the next generation. Danger mightily
concentrates the mind and, if our response is sufficiently determined and swift, reason can triumph.
Solving the environmental crisis is also a chance to discard the burden of past follies,
to renew the progress of civilisation. It offers the greatest of historical opportunities.