Published on Friday, February 28, 2014 by Common Dreams
Through the Climate Portal: Humanity’s Tragic Flaw
The planet is sick and we’re ignoring all the signs at our own peril. (Image: Getty)In the autumn of 1992, I was alone in my studio apartment in Philadelphia, puking my guts out. Something bad had happened inside; it felt like a bomb had gone off in my belly. Just how bad was it? Was I bleeding internally? Was I dying?
I suspected what needed to be done: I had to call for an ambulance. But still, I hesitated. I just couldn’t believe it — I was not the sort of person who needed an ambulance. I was only 29-years-old. I’d been a three-sport athlete in high school. This sort of thing only happened to "other people" — people I read about in newspapers.
Fortunately, my survival instincts won out and I made the call. If you had asked at the time, even as the paramedics loaded me onto the stretcher, to name my strongest sensation, it would not have been the pain (though that was considerable); it would not have been the fear (ditto). It would have been this: I felt utterly stunned.
Stunned, because the doctor’s warnings had finally come to pass. I’d been diagnosed with an inflammatory disease of the large intestine called ulcerative colitis in 1984. The disease essentially directs excess heat/inflammation toward the walls of the colon. Over time, this can result in scarring, narrowing and, eventually, obstruction of the passageway.
Though doctors had repeatedly warned me of this scenario. I had refused to follow their treatment prescriptions. Why had I refused? For my own (in retrospect, quite unwise) personal reasons, I did not trust the doctors and so ignored their advice. Now there I was on the stretcher, my life unnecessarily put at risk.
Stunned, because even though the symptoms of the disease had been progressively worsening, I had not, until that very point, crossed "that line" where things become suddenly different, where the system suddenly flips into a different state of functioning. What had been manageable, though increasingly challenging, was, in an eye-blink, no longer manageable at all.
Looking back, I realize that a part of me simply had not been able to imagine this to be possible. It was as if I had stepped trough a portal. Up to that moment, I had been "David," living my familiar "David" life, with its ups and its downs. On the other side of the portal, a single train of thought crowded out all other motivations and desires: "Please, make this stop, please make it better. Please make it go back to the way it was before."
We find ourselves in a similar situation in 2014. The scientists are telling us that every second our planet is accruing excess heat equivalent to the heat generated by four Hiroshima atomic bombs. The physics is elementary and beyond dispute: The heat-trapping greenhouse blanket in our atmosphere is thickening primarily due to fossil fuels. The solution is, though hugely challenging, equally elementary: Stop thickening the blanket!
At the rate we are going, one thing is certain: A day will come when we will be stunned. Perhaps temperatures will cross a threshold beyond which our staple crops cannot grow. Perhaps the glaciers that provide water for hundreds of millions will shrink beneath a critical level. Perhaps storms of warming and rising oceans will make life in our many coastal megalopolises untenable. There are many candidates: We are moving ourselves out of our climate "Goldilocks Zone."
We will have crossed through the portal (in actuality, in the vast and complex climate system, there will be multiple lines to cross with multiple portals) and a single train of thought will crowd out all other motivations and desires: "Please make this stop, please make it better. Please make it go back to the way it was before."
But it’s even worse than that. I was one person with one specific problem, a problem that had been addressed by doctors thousands of times before. I was rushed to the hospital where, for three weeks, they pumped me full of cooling (and chock full of harmful side effects) prednisone and antibiotics. They stabilized me but, a couple years later, had to surgically remove my entire colon. The damage was just too much.
It won’t be like that for us as a species. The hotter we get, the less likely it will be that we can prevent further warming. The Arctic is recognized as the canary in the coalmine and the canary is doing even worse than we had thought. The Arctic has already warmed 2 degrees centigrade (3.6F) since 1970, three times faster than the planet overall. Over 40 percent of its summer sea ice cover has melted away. As the heat reflecting "mirror" ice is replaced by dark heat-absorbing sea water, the region warms which, in turn, melts more ice which leads to more dark water and more heat… and so on.
Scientists already knew about this classic feedback effect. But until now, they hadn’t realized how bad it truly was. A recent study finds that the ice-melt is absorbing two to three times more heat than estimated. It is, in fact, absorbing extra heat equivalent to fully one-quarter of the amount of heat being held in by atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is where we are headed: more heat creating more heat, to a point where further warming will simply take the situation out of our hands.
Theoretically, we can still pull back via a World War II level green energy mobilization together with rapid and permanent fossil fuel reduction. But we are not stopping. In fact, we are accelerating the process. We can’t imagine it. It is our tragic flaw. We’re still on the good side of the line. Yes, the symptoms are becoming more challenging, but things are still fundamentally manageable. They won’t stay that way for too much longer.
There is no prednisone for the planet short of enormously risky geo-engineering interventions. And, of course, if the damage is too much, we can’t just "cut out" human civilization. Well, more accurately, human civilization and many millions or billions can be "cut out," but that would suck.
Go to any climate blog and you will see scientists and "lay" people who profess alarm being ridiculed as "Chicken Littles." But sometimes the sky is actually falling. It happens. It is happening now and in rapidly shrinking time frames. We show every sign that we will simply have to cross over multiple lines, through multiple portals. Then, assuming our survival instincts kick in, we will act — at least more of us will. Will it be enough? Will it be too late? Time will tell.
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Archive for February, 2014
The Call of the Walking Dead
February 28, 2014
World’s Failure To Address Climate Change
February 27, 2014
Long piece by Subhankar Banerjee over at Common Dreams.
The Ocean Bomb
February 10, 2014
There Is No Warming "Pause," says Study: The Planet Is Burning Up
Though surface temperature increases have slowed in recent years, global warming is accelerating rapidly as the oceans heat up
– Jon Queally, staff writer
What climate change denialists gain by ignoring the complexities of climate science, not to mention, the climate system is most impossible thing to calculate. A recent apparent pause in surface temperature rises can be accounted for by deep-sea warming assisted by unusually high trade winds in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Getty Images)Global warming has not "paused." Climate change has not hit a "speed bump." The planet’s temperature is not remaining steady and it certainly isn’t cooling. Earth, especially its ocean, are heating up… and rapidly.
Those are the findings and the consensus of the global scientific community. And a new study shows that the detectable slowdown of global surface temperature increases over the last fifteen years—a trend that climate change denialists have seized on to foment doubt among the general public—is, in fact, the result of a terrifying phenomenon in which the planet’s deep oceans are increasingly absorbing the world’s excess carbon, offering a false sense of temperature stability when the reality is very much the opposite.
The new study, conducted by U.S. and Australian scientists and presented in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that unusually powerful trade winds in the Pacific Ocean have contributed to pushing the warmer ocean waters to greater depths, creating an illusion of a warming plateau on the surface.
As the Guardian reports:
The findings should provide fresh certainty about the reasons behind the warming hiatus, which has been claimed by critics of mainstream climate science as evidence that the models are flawed and predictions of rising temperatures have been exaggerated.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) addressed the warming pause issue in its 2013 climate report, pointing out that the Earth is going through a solar minimum and that more than 90% of the world’s extra heat is being soaked up by the oceans, rather than lingering on the surface.
According to the study, acceleration of Pacific trade winds has been twice as strong in the past 20 years compared with the prior 80 years and suggests the surface warming "hiatus" could "persist for much of the present decade if the trade wind trends continue." However, warn the scientists, when the winds return to their long-term average speeds, rapid surface temperature warming will resume and the consequences could be dire.
"Sooner or later the impact of greenhouse gases will overwhelm the effect," said Matthew England, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and head researcher on the project. "And if the winds relax, the heat will come out quickly. As we go through the 21st century, we are less and less likely to have a cooler decade. Greenhouse gases will certainly win out in the end."
Putting the idea of the "speed bump" or "pause" in perspective, climate expert Dana Nuccitelli explains how it has acted as a vague and helpful "myth" to those with a vested interest in not addressing the perils of climate change. He writes:
Many popular climate myths share the trait of vagueness. For example, consider the argument that climate has changed naturally in the past. Well of course it has, but what does that tell us? It’s akin to telling a fire investigator that fires have always happened naturally in the past. That would doubtless earn you a puzzled look from the investigator. Is the implication that because they have occurred naturally in the past, humans can’t cause fires or climate change?
The same problem applies to the ‘pause’ (or ‘hiatus’ or better yet, ‘speed bump‘) assertion. It’s true that the warming of average global surface temperatures has slowed over the past 15 years, but what does that mean? One key piece of information that’s usually omitted when discussing this subject is that the overall warming of the entire climate system has continued rapidly over the past 15 years, even faster than the 15 years before that.
The speed bump only applies to surface temperatures, which only represent about 2 percent of the overall warming of the global climate. Can you make out the tiny purple segment at the bottom of the above figure? That’s the only part of the climate for which the warming has ‘paused’. As the IPCC figure indicates, over 90 percent of global warming goes into heating the oceans, and it continues at a rapid pace, equivalent to 4 Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations per second.
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