Tuesday, November 01, 2016

It Sounds Radical But It's Not, Not Really.

There's been no end of weirdness over the past couple of decades but, being the most adaptable species of complex life on Earth, the only creature able to inhabit every part of our land and ice mass, we've done what man has always done - we've tolerated change until we came to see it as our new normal. Maybe if we were less adaptable, more vulnerable... oh well.

The funny thing is that danger or risk is something we countenance especially in the face of significant cost or inconvenience for doing anything effective to deal with it. We want something done about it provided that something is free or really cheap. We want something done that won't put us out. We're all for change provided we don't have to change. We don't want to see the consequences and thus there's no need to put a price on future events.

One measure of selfishness is the frequency of responses from people of my age who say, "I'll be dead by then. Yes, it's a pity, but that's none of my concern and, besides, Oprah's on in a few minutes."

Climate change. Despite all the ongoing denialism and campaign of distraction, it's probably the best researched scientific theory of all time. The central theory has been tested against one scientific discipline, or specialty, after another. For example, a geologist might say, "If the central theory is right, there ought to be this sort or that form of geological evidence, corroboration. Let's have a look. Let's see." And so a mountain of research has been amassed - covering a gamut of scientific disciplines including geology, geography, hydrology, oceanography, atmospherics, glaciology, physics, biology, botany, marine biology, epidemiology, paleontology, and many more.

One discipline after another, the research poured in corroborating the central theory of anthropogenic global warming, AGW. There isn't a single scientific discipline that refutes the theory. Not one disproves AGW or calls it into question. Likewise in the developed world there's not one national academy of sciences that does not endorse the theory of AGW.

None of this puts off the denialists or their corporate backers. They're still free to attack climate change as an ideology, a belief. They don't engage the scientific fact of climate change. They don't refute the mountain of research and analysis. It's too conclusive, too sound to be challenged on any factual basis. And so they seize the narrative and transform it into a belief because nothing is easier to challenge and undermine than a belief. That's been the stock in trade of organized religion since it was invented. All you have to do is present an opposing belief especially if it's a belief that a lot of people find preferable to scientific fact.

(BTW - National Geographic has posted DiCaprio's climate change documentary, "Before the Flood," online.)

We've seen plenty of proof of the reality of climate change over the past twenty years. Severe storm events of increasing frequency, duration and intensity; floods and droughts on a scale we haven't known before; disease and pest migration (destructive beetle infestations, the spread of viruses - West Nile, Zika and Lyme disease, etc.); species migration, especially marine species moving poleward as their traditional waters turn too warm; the retreat of glaciers and melting of ice caps; accelerating sea level rise; a steady progression of record hot years.

The next ten years will see the onset of something completely unknown to human civilization. It's called "climate departure." It marks a transition from the climate we've known for the past 12,000 years to a new climate in which, past the point of "departure" even the coolest year will be hotter than the hottest year experienced in the pre-departure era.

When it comes to climate departure, the closer you are to the equator the sooner it will set in. It's predicted to manifest within 10-years in parts of the Caribbean and Asia Pacific, spreading poleward until it engulfs most of the populated regions by mid-century. The Middle East will be hit in about 20 years. The populace in these areas impacted will find it very challenging to remain. Heat kills and it also wreaks havoc on agriculture and freshwater resources. Most of the cities of the world will have reached departure by 2047.

That sounds sufficiently dire that rational people would be spurred to action, immediately. Perhaps the problem is an even more dire paucity of rational people. They're practically an endangered species.

You see, you can't deal with climate change without also tackling its companion crises - overpopulation and over-consumption. You won't have a hope of fixing any of them unless you fix them all. So, what exactly have we got in mind for Existential Crisis B and Existential Crisis C? Nothing good.

Science has now figured that we, mankind, reached our Earth's carrying capacity when our numbers reached the low 3-billions sometime in the early 70s. That's an important date, do keep it in mind.

For several years the World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London and in collaboration with other groups including the Global Footprint Network have been producing annual Living Planet reports. One subject of focus has been our rapidly dwindling wildlife. Not the number of species but the overall tally of plants and animals - the totality of the other life forms with which we share Earth.

What they have found is that we, mankind, are squeezing out other species, plant and animal. Since 1970 their numbers have declined by more than half. The Living Planet 2016 report estimates that the decline could hit 67% by 2020, just a few years from now. We are constantly pushing back their habitat to make room for our burgeoning global population and we're consuming ever more of the resources without which their numbers collapse. This is real "uncharted waters" stuff.

In just one lifetime, my own, mankind's population has tripled. It took us 11,000 years of civilization to grow to just one billion. We doubled that in a century. In under 70-years we tripled that again to over 7-billion. What grows like that? Not much - bacteria in a petri dish, cancer cells - oh yeah, and us. Now Africa and Asia have developed huge population bombs - with hundreds of millions about to enter reproductive age. Hang onto your hat. We're going to hit 9+ billion before you know it.

Then there's the business of over-consumption. The Earth, as you might have heard, is finite. It's about the same size it was when multi-cellular life first appeared way back when. Yet, starting in the early 70s, we began to exceed our biosphere's carrying capacity. By "we" I mean humankind. When it comes to natural resources, everything from fresh water to biomass, there's only so much the Earth can replenish in a given time, say a year. Right now we've exceeded that replenishment rate by a factor of 1.7. It's the equivalent of taking home a thousand dollars a month but spending 17 hundred. Not good.

Part of our quandary arises out of sheer numbers. The other part comes from how much each of us consumes. Here's the thing. Take per capita energy consumption, for example. In 1820 that stood at a steady 20 gigajoules of energy per person per year. By 1970 (there it is again) that had grown to 50 gigajoules per person per year. Half a century later, today, it's 80 gigajoules.

So we've gone from one billion people, each using 20 gigajoules of energy per year, to more than seven billion people, each using 80 gigajoules of energy per year in a little under two centuries, a blip in mankind's 12,000 year history. Do the math and you go from 20 billion gigajoules in 1820 to 560 billion gigajoules today.  Can you get a sense of the enormity of what we're doing?

If you can get a sense of the enormity of what we're doing, if you grasp how our population is burgeoning even as our consumption levels skyrocket, if you appreciate how we're gutting pretty much every other life form on the planet - if you get all this, then I'm proud to include you in the "rational" group I spoke of earlier on. You're in a decided minority.

Can you guess who is not in that minority with you? That would be those holding the reins of power, our political leadership. Not just Canada but globally. Here's the giveaway. They are absolutely obsessed with the pursuit of perpetual, exponential growth in GDP. They are devout adherents to a world of ever growing extraction, production and consumption. The International Energy Agency believes them. It predicts overall energy demand will grow by upwards of an additional 40% by 2050.

So, you see, despite the fact that the Earth is essentially finite, despite the fact that we're now utterly dependent on continuing to deplete its resources ever faster than they can be replenished, despite the fact that we have wantonly exceeded our biosphere's environmental carrying capacity, despite the fact that our specie's numbers are more than twice what our planet can support, despite all this and more:

Our political leadership, in conjunction with our economic leadership (you don't understand that?), are so utterly irrational that they ignore everything that's been happening since the early 70s, all the signs, all the science to continue their pursuit of perpetual, exponential growth, the very foundation of what's predicted to be the 6th major extinction event.

Stopping this, breaking this bleak and self-destructive pursuit, sounds radical but it's not, not really. When you've got a three pack a day habit, there's nothing radical about quitting.


Northern PoV said...

"Can you get a sense of the enormity of what we're doing?"

and, off topic again: http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/11/01/there-should-be-no-special-deal-for-tax-evading-cameco/

Toby said...

Before the Flood can also be found on Youtube.

Individual humans can think; groups of humans simply herd. There is no way for individuals in a large herd to influence which way the herd goes except by direct challenge (usually physical) to the leader for control.

Lorne said...

It is truly a shame, and likely our species' fatal flaw, Mound, that within our grossly overpopulated planet there is not even a sufficient number of people to provide sane and principled leadership on the issues you have articulated here. Your post, while showing the gravity of the situation, leaves the reader with little hope for an outcome that is anything short of catastrophic.

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV - thanks for the Cameco link. Apparently Brad Wall regularly lobbies for the company.

The Mound of Sound said...

Toby, there's no chance, zero, that I or anyone else could convince Canadians of the need to reduce their consumption patterns by 40% or more. They simply won't hear of it. We'll let the more vulnerable and impoverished people of less advantaged countries die in their tens of millions before we would ever consider voluntary sacrifice.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm discouraged, Lorne, at how we approach climate change with what are half-hearted and ineffective taxes and curbs while completely ignoring the companion threats. I guess it's a bit like lowering the flaps for landing but leaving the throttles wide open and not putting the gear down. You'll reach the runway only to go up in a fireball.

Hugh said...

This article from today shows the govt's thinking:

We need to go deeper into debt to boost the GDP, in an attempt to keep the all-important debt to GDP ratio the same. Only now we're going to invite more private and foreign investment:


Hugh said...

From the article linked, the Canadian govt is planning to add $130 billion to the Federal debt over the next 6 years.

It's ok, because:

"The projected debt-to-GDP ratio — the key measure of the affordability of a government's debt — by then returns to the 31 per cent mark, where it was in 2015-16 as the Liberal government took office."

So the GDP had better grow, grow, grow, every year, forever! Or else!

John's Aghast said...

One way to curb the population growth would be to cease procreating for a generation or two. Wonder what that would do to the GDP?

The Mound of Sound said...

@ John - there are some interesting books on Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death in which the plague wiped out a large fraction of the population. Property, such as houses vacant due to the death of former occupants, became much more affordable. Meanwhile labour, unlike property, fell into shortage resulting in higher wages. Those who survived, it seems, fared rather well.

Toby said...

Leonardo DiCaprio & Obama Talk Climate Change

Anonymous said...


Anonymous John's Aghast said...
One way to curb the population growth would be to cease procreating for a generation or two. Wonder what that would do to the GDP?

Spain has that population reduction issue ; well they call it a problem!
To the enlightened it is a bonus.
It will be an interesting test of the status quo.


Anonymous said...

Hugh said..
We need to go deeper into debt to boost the GDP, in an attempt to keep the all-important debt to GDP ratio the same. Only now we're going to invite more private and foreign investment:

Too often the GDP includes such as this..


It can also include this..

Shit ; I wonder why we have so many under paid jobs with so little prospects??


Anonymous said...

5:04..Anyong. I would like to add to your comment..."We think we are better and more entitled".