Monday, May 20, 2013

There's Good News and Bad News on the Climate Change Front

New research suggests mankind may avoid the very worst predicted impacts of climate change.   That same research concludes what is actually in store is devastating anyway.

"...the world is still likely to be in for a temperature rise of double that regarded as safe.

"The researchers said that warming was most likely to reach about 4C above pre-industrial levels if the past decade's readings were taken into account.

"That would still lead to catastrophe across large swaths of the Earth, causing droughts, storms, floods and heatwaves and with drastic effects on agricultural productivity leading to secondary effects such as mass migration."

What's unhelpful about this report is that it looks at climate change in isolation as though it is the measure of the threats facing our civilization.   Yet, to get a more helpful perspective you must add climate change impacts to these related and compounding factors:
resource depletion and exhaustion, especially the freshwater crisis; species extinction and migration. especially the collapse of global fisheries; deforestation; desertification; air, soil and water contamination of all forms; pest and disease migration; overpopulation and population migration; and the gamut of local and global security challenges including food insecurity; inequality; revolt; terrorism; climate wars and the growth of failed states; regional arms races, especially in south and east Asia; and nuclear proliferation.   There, that fleshes it out, don't you think?

Climate change is just one of the major challenges we will have to meet in the span of the next generation or two if we're to hold civilization together.  Each of the factors listed here, and it's not an exhaustive list, makes solving the others considerably more difficult and unlikely.   Each of these factors compounds the impacts some of the others.  It's this matrix that makes taking climate change in isolation of somewhat limited purpose and effect.

It's important to remember that, despite their invaluable research, climate change experts operate in a necessarily narrow focus that has no means of addressing the overall challenge.    They're not exaggerating their predictions of catastrophic impacts from the floods, the droughts, the severe storm events, heat waves and sea level rise or the resultant agricultural collapse and population migration, it's just that unfortunately this is only part of a much greater basket of problems, all of them more or less man-made,  that will confront us and, especially, our children and grandchildren.

I have tried to watch these events as they have unfolded over the last fifteen years (which is about when I became a believer) and I have been struck at how the greatest peril of all is us, ourselves.  The very worst failure has been our addiction to growth.   We depend on growth today and consider it cataclysmic if our economy shrinks ever just barely.

We see growth in its narrowest form - on an annual basis.  We look forward one year and look back one.  And our noses are so hard up against that tree that we have no hope of seeing the forest.

We have come to consider 3% annual growth in GDP the indicator of a healthy economy for the developed world. That 3% compounded over 50-years, a single useful adult life, comes out to something in the order of 438% effective growth. The economy has to become 4.4 times larger at the end of that single adult life than it was at the beginning. That means we need many times more fossil fuels, and other non-renewable and renewable resources alike. Here’s the eye opener. Pursue that 3% growth for a century and you need to grow your economy 19.22 times larger. Make that 150-years and you will have grown your economy 84.25 times larger. Round it out to two full centuries and your economy will be 369 times bigger than it was at the outset yet each year saw growth just 3% greater than the previous year.

But that’s impossible, isn’t it? Of course. Yet we are bound and will remain in hot pursuit of impossible, inevitably self-destructive objectives that will either blind us to alternatives or close off our opportunities to change even if we want to on some levels.

Logic dictates that, in a finite world, a single fixed biosphere, growth cannot be infinite nor can it be maintained with any stability past a certain point. As we near these limits we start to get buffeted by human shortcomings including inefficiency, waste, greed, distrust and manipulation (among others).  And that is precisely what we're experiencing now.

Forget the climate, we are the real catastrophe.   Our human nature and its powerful inertia are far more lethal than any storm nature can conjure up.


Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post!

Where's Waldo

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