Tuesday, July 07, 2009

But What If They're Right?

The past year has seen a dark and ominous change sweep through the science of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming.

For years the leading scientists in the field have been issuing predictions and forecasts and warnings only to see their conclusions overtaken by unanticipated change and proven far too conservative, too optimistic. By the time their research is assembled, reviewed and digested into IPCC reports, it's usually outdated and grossly understated.

As Gwynne Dyer noted, climate scientists he interviewed for his book Climate Wars, seemed shell-shocked at the unexpectedly rapid pace of global warming. For years they've muttered about "tipping points" conditions that might occur even without our noticing that could trigger runaway global warming of a scale catastrophic to mankind.

In the last six months, they've shed that last sliver of wishful thinking. One of them, Britain's James Lovelock, believes we're either in freefall or we'll be there soon. Another, America's James Hansen, believes we're Hanging Ten on the abyss and staring at our very last chance to act.

In an article in the June 29th edition of The New Yorker, Hansen says they got it horribly wrong. For some time they've estimated that the key to limiting planetary warming (to the target of two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels) was to keep CO2 in the atmosphere within 450 parts per million. We're at 380 now. Those numbers were wrong, says Hansen. He maintains that the latest studies and warming evidence from around the world shows that the magic number isn't 450, but 350. In other words, the needle's already bouncing around in the red. Our only hope now, says Hansen, is to shut down the world's coal-fired power plants and replace them with renewables within twenty years. His warning pulls no punches. Get it done by 2030 or our civilization is essentially finished.

Across the pond, old James Lovelock (he is 90), isn't such a gushing optimist. He figures we're already well past the point of no return. He sees mankind's numbers falling from the current nearly 7-billion to a mere several hundred millions by the end of the century living in the few pockets of the planet capable of sustaining civilization. From Alternet:

Lovelock is cautiously hopeful that as many as several hundred million humans will survive the century and carve pockets of civilization into the coming hot state. Our current global civilization is about to end, but there is every reason to “take hope from the fact that our species is unusually tough and is unlikely to go extinct in the coming climate catastrophe.”

...Those who survive will be responsible for maintaining a high-tech, low-impact, low-energy society advanced enough to keep the flame of progress alive but small and smart enough to carefully husband what arable land remains. Lovelock guesses the rump human race will cluster around a few temperate islands in the far northern hemisphere, including his native U.K. He believes that if emergency preparations are made in time—he compares the present moment to 1939—and if the worst-case scenarios of geopolitical conflict are avoided—namely resource scrambles leading to global thermonuclear war—then something resembling a modern and even urban lifestyle could await the survivors.

Now the good news is that we live in one of the few places where life could be sustainable. Maybe we'll bring palm trees back to the Arctic and remake Beach Blanket Bingo on the tropical shores of Ellesmere Island. Maybe - if we're lucky enough to survive "resource scrambles leading to global thermonuclear war." Maybe.


I'm not asking you to believe these guys. I can't ask you to do that because I can't say they're right. But I can quite reasonably ask you to accept that they may be right and, judging by their track record over the past four decades, there's a very good chance they may be right.

Using the "they could be right" test, don't you think we should be discussing these things now? Don't you think we should be examining what Canadians need to do to position themselves to fully benefit from the extraordinarily lucky geographical position we hold? If these guys are right, you can count on one hand the countries that will be able to sustain civilized life and, when it comes to that world, there's no country luckier.

As pointed out in the Alternet article, what we need most and need right now is some clear-headed, hard-nosed political leadership. While you're reading this next passage, I want you to keep in mind "Tar Sands Michael":

[Lovelock] has been ruthless in his attacks on politicians and businessmen who peddle hope in the form of meaningless but potentially profitable gestures like cap-and-trade. This has deeply antagonized his fellow greens still scrambling to generate public support for bold solutions to the climate crisis.

Lovelock’s impatience with feel-good “Yes, we can” liberal environmentalism borders on contempt. There are passages in Vanishing that, were it not for their eloquence, could have been uttered by Glenn Beck. The delusional rhetoric about “sustainable development” peddled by green politicians and businessmen, writes Lovelock, just shows that we have “weaved the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.” In one of the book’s many memorable passages on the green politics of hope, Lovelock compares sustainable development to deathbed snake oil peddled by an alt-medicine quack.

“Just as we as individuals try alternative medicine,” writes Lovelock, “our governments have many offers from alternative business and their lobbies of sustainable ways to ‘save the planet,’ and from some green hospice there may come the anodyne of hope.”

Those who are booking us rooms in the "green hospice" are those who peddle us nonsense about carbon capture, clean coal and cap and trade emissions controls.

Even if Lovelock and Hansen have overstated the threat facing mankind from AGW, unless they're dead wrong and unless all the climate change evidence we're seeing in front of our eyes is not happening, then climate change is the overwhelmingly paramount issue to Canada and the Canadian people.

Yet we're stuck with a self-proclaimed leader who thinks we'll be needing the Tar Sands to hold our country together throughout this century, to ensure our continued prosperity for decades to come? That's the thinking of a total failure, of a man unwilling or unable to see much less lead Canada through the existential challenges we surely will not be able to avoid, much less avert. Maybe Michael needs to ask "what if they're right?"


LMA said...

There is an interesting video entitled "David Suzuki wants to have a serious chat with Michael Ignatieff" at stevejanke.com/archives/286431.php which gives compelling reasons why development of the Tar Sands should be stopped until technology other than carbon sequestration becomes available. The Tar Sands aren't going anywhere, so why is Ignatieff pushing their development so hard? I just don't get it.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link LMA. Only Iggy can tell you the whys and wherefores of his dealings but I'm convinced it's nothing other than raw pandering to advance his personal political fortunes.

Anonymous said...

"judging by their track record over the past four decades, there's a very good chance they may be right."


The Mound of Sound said...

Anon, I could give you a brief answer to that but the full answer is much more valuable. Take some time and look into the legitimate backgrounds of Hansen and Lovelock.

You can find a precis of Hansen in the New Yorker article I referenced in this post. As for Lovelock, there's a vast amount of information on his dating back to his "gaia theory."

Anonymous said...

"I could give you a brief answer to that but the full answer is much more valuable."

The Mound of Sound said...

Like, look it up, read, learn. Their combined works run to several thousands of pages. You can find plenty of information about them and their research on the web, infinitely more than I could ever put up on this blog.

So, like, look, read and learn. Or else just sidle over to Glenn Beck for his take on climate change. Your choice.

By the way, try going through Grist.com or Realclimate.com. Both have an enormous amount of really good information geared to every level of climate science knowledge. The nice part is that you can quickly find what's best for you. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Did RC many time and I am another disaffected lib.