Sunday, August 12, 2018

We Bite Our Tongues. Gwynne Dyer Dares to Say It.

Sometimes our inner-Cassandra gets the better part of us, I suppose. We may read the latest report, couple it with the veritable mountain of reports that proceeded it and upon which it usually builds, and then step well back from writing what it seems, to us, to mean.  Who wants to scream, "aaarh, you're all gonna die"? No one wants to say that. No one wants to think that.

Gwynne Dyer doesn't seem to have many reservations on that score. Writing about last week's paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says we have passed the point of no return. Here is Dyer's recent column, almost in its entirety:

The article has the usual low-key scientific title: Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. The authors never raise their voices, but they point out the likeliest of those trajectories – the one we will stay on even if all the promises in the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change are kept – runs right off a cliff. 
Hothouse Earth is not very hospitable to human life. Hundreds of millions or even a billion or two would probably survive, but the damage to agricultural systems would be so extreme that billions more would die. (The authors don’t say this, of course, but the people who have to think about these contingencies, like the military in the developed countries, know it very well.) What the authors are saying is that global warming driven directly by human emissions of greenhouse gases is only smaller part of the problem. The real threat is the unstoppable natural feedbacks, triggered by the warming that we have caused, that will take us up to the killing temperatures. 
They list 10 of them, the biggest being loss of Arctic sea-ice, melting of the permafrost zone, dieback in the boreal and the Amazon forests and changes driven by warming in the ocean circulation system. Just triggering one or two of these feedbacks could cause enough additional warming to set off others, like a row of toppling dominoes.

Yet the role of these feedbacks was not discussed in the scientific journals, not included in the predictions of future warming issued every four or five years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and definitely not part of the public debate. Why not?
When you make a statement in science, you have to be able to prove it, generally with hard numbers and testable predictions. The hard numbers weren’t available.
So the climate scientists didn’t make grand assertions – but they did manage to get the threshold of two degrees Celsius higher global temperature adopted as the never-exceed target for the IPCC’s efforts to get the warming under control. (Nobody said publicly how they arrived at that number, but it was because the scientists thought that it was about where the feedbacks would start kicking in.) The scale and trigger-points of the feedbacks have finally been calculated, more or less, and the news is as bad as the scientists feared. We have passed the point where a return to the stable climate of the past 14,000 years is possible, and we are on course for Hothouse Earth. 
The best we can do is try to stabilize the warming at or just below plus two degrees, and that will not be possible without major human interventions in the climate system. It would require “deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, (and) possibly solar radiation management. . . .” 
...As Jim Lovelock, the creator of earth system science, wrote 39 years ago, we may “wake up one day to find that (we have) the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer.” 
I haven’t bothered to ask Lovelock if we are there yet. Of course we are.
You may have read the latest controversy that also came out this week concerning the first parts of the world that will become uninhabitable - lethal to human life. The first region identified is China's densely populated agricultural belt. Temperatures there will first hit "wet bulb 35," a combination of heat and humidity so intense that the human body can't cool itself and bakes from the inside out. Even a young, healthy and fit person at rest in the shade would survive for six hours max.

Another area in line for wet bulb 35 is the Persian Gulf region - Iran, Iraq, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia - all the places where we've wasted treasure and lives for the best part of the last 20 years in a vain effort to achieve something or other.

Parts of the Caribbean and Central America are expected to become at least seasonally uninhabitable - if you can call the loss of your growing season a seasonal problem.

And, as for us, we're not going to escape unscathed. With any luck we'll be in the "least and last" impacted club but even that is going to be a tough ride. And I'm sure our government is going to get right on that, just as soon as they've got their armada of bitumen supertankers up and running. Right? Yeah, right.


Lorne said...

It is almost as if our species has a collective death wish, Mound. All of the information is there demonstrating the disaster that is unfolding, no longer even in slow motion, yet we continue apace with activities that ensure our doom.

Part of the blame, of course, can be placed on us as individuals, in that we refuse to make even the most modest adjustments to our bloated lifestyles. Another part of the blame can be placed at the feet of governments throughout the world that refuse to incur any political risk to try to avert total collapse. Most of the blame, however, can be affixed to 'the men behind the curtains,' those who set the neoliberal agenda and ensure its enactment by the governments they have captured.

Unfettered capitalism will be the death of us all, but the neoliberals will continue to make huge amounts of money right up to the very end.

The Mound of Sound said...

When Dyer writes of a dystopian future in which we're reduced to several hundred million, perhaps a billion or two, I imagine those most directly responsible for that fate see themselves and theirs as in that group.

It may not be that they seek that outcome, I expect they don't, but they may be content with it as preferable to the sort of wholesale changes that would be necessary to avert the worst. Ultimately they stand the most to lose, on every scale, should mankind rally to do everything possible to defend our biosphere from the worst. Could they even imagine living without mansions, megayachts and private jets? Anything less to them might seem sackcloth and ashes.

What I found jarring in Dyer's piece was the reference to "the people who have to think about these contingencies." He's referencing the planners at the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defence whose corridors he regularly haunts. It was colonels and generals who put him on to the climate change problem. He had little awareness of it until they presented it as a security threat that may require a range of military responses both at home and abroad.

Toby said...

Mound, when you first wrote about wet bulb 35 I didn't know what it meant and looked it up. The more I studied it the more confused I became. Frankly, I can't get my head around it. What is wet bulb temperature in terms I can understand? We can all convert Celsius to Fahrenheit or Kelvin; so translate wet bulb 35 into Celsius.

Owen Gray said...

Dyer has been sounding the alarm for quite awhile, now. He knows that the military-industrial complex is clear eyed about what is happening. And that fact should be terrifying.

The Mound of Sound said...

Toby, wet bulb 35 is a state that requires a confluence of two forces. First is a temperature 35 degrees Celsius or higher. The second is a level of humidity that matches the dew point.

When the ambient humidity equals the dew point there can be no evaporation. That means that the body cannot cool itself in the ordinary fashion - by perspiring. That leaves you with the six hour (or less - i.e. age, health, fitness) slow baking as, one by one, your organs fail. Apparently it's not a pleasant way to go.

The Mound of Sound said...

Owen, it's funny how Dyer followed "Climate Wars" with another book in which he said he had been too gloomy about climate change and we would pull our fat out of the fire before conditions got too bad. Now he seems to have returned to his initial assessment, suggesting his latest outlook has been informed by what he has learned from the halls of military command.

As this essay shows he's not hedging either, something he plainly accuses the scientific community of doing. I have long written that these dire reports, one after another, were misleading because they took into account only man-made emissions, a point he seems to confirm in this piece.

Bear in mind that we're now seeing natural feedback loops that the IPCC once warned we might trigger by 2100 if we didn't sharply mend our ways. Glaciologists, hydrologists and a few others have been warning that these feedback loops, some of them, have already been triggered but they haven't synchronized with the man-made emissions types.

Even with warnings like Dyer's, who is talking about effective responses. Those would entail one overarching imperative - bringing mankind back within the finite limits of our ecology, our biosphere, Spaceship Earth. That goes to not just energy and emissions but also to consumption and population all of which require sharp change if we're to crawl back inside a sustainable ecology. We're on the outside at the moment and that's where you die.

Toby said...

Mound, your explanation is more useful than what I was reading.with all the confusing charts. Thanks. Unfortunately, it does sort of look like normal Miami weather.

I first heard of global warming more than 40 years ago, back when it was called the greenhouse effect. At the time the immediate concern was the expanding ozone holes and the need to get rid of CFCs. Still, the threat of CO2 was understood by the scientific community and some world leaders like Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher. Since that time our bright sparks in office have been backing away from it as some sort of hot potato. SEP (Somebody Else's Problem!)

We have long passed the time when ordinary people can have much effect no matter how hard we try to reduce consumption. The scale of industrial pollution dwarfs user waste. We need leadership that will put the responsibility where it originates, big industry. For example, when governments stop subsidizing coal, oil and gas production, when they force coal, oil and gas producers to clean up after themselves, when they put corporate executives of transnational polluters in prison, many will quickly go out of business and the rest will be forced to jack their prices much higher than any carbon tax would impose. If governments did their job, whole populations would change their ways because they have to.

Dana said...

Dyer is too optimistic. For some reason he supposes that the stupidity and greed that has brought us to this place will be transformed into intelligence and altruism once the worst takes place and the little food that can be grown will be shared, the little potable water will not be hoarded and defended and so on.

Homo sapiens is a failed evolutionary experiment. We will extinguish ourselves and sadly most of the rest of the biosphere will go along with us.

The Mound of Sound said...

It's unfortunate, Toby, but I think focusing on changes in fossil fuel consumption is too little, too late. That's just one component, one symptom of the greater affliction which is how our civilization grew itself beyond the confines of our ecology. Earth is a biosphere, our one and only. We survive only to the extent we can maintain a sustainable degree of activity within the limits of that biosphere.

Man is the cleverest lifeform ever. We have defeated one hurdle after another in our quest for perpetual exponential growth. A lot of it has been sleight of hand - conjuring tricks - such as the Green Revolution in which we made marginal lands highly productive through the application of agri-chems (fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) coupled with rapacious consumption of limited groundwater resources. It worked, we thrived, we multiplied only now we're left with degraded soils that are beginning to fall sterile and severely depleted groundwater.

It's estimated that, today, the Earth can support no more than two billion humans, even if we immediately decarbonize. That means we have to slash population, slash resource consumption and decarbonize. It's all or nothing.

Toby, I cannot state this forcefully enough. Human consumption is exceeding the planet's carrying capacity by a factor of 1.7. Bad as that is, still worse is the realization that we are utterly dependent on perpetuating, even expanding that factor. Our civilization is based on its continuation. We have no plan for retreat.

Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, is actually entitled, "Collapse, how societies choose to succeed or fail." He presents examples of how past civilizations knowingly ignored the signs of their ultimate end and he explains how quite rational thinking can lead to that result. We seem to be in the throes of that thinking ourselves only, this time, this is a global rather than a regional phenomenon. We're "all in" this time.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Dana. I think Dyer did indulge in a bit of wishful thinking optimism for a while but I don't think he stayed long on that page.

There is a theory that claims intelligent life is self-extinguishing which explains why we don't see "Yield to Alien Traffic" signs on our highways. Long before a lifeform becomes capable of intergalactic travel it has ended itself.

I wish that was wrong because I have this feeling we would need something like alien intervention to get us out of this mess. Of course we would probably then discover they see us as livestock, meat for their table. Shit, oh dear.

Anonymous said...

..."As Jim Lovelock, the creator of earth system science, wrote 39 years ago, we may “wake up one day to find that (we have) the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer.” My thinking is we are already there. Anyong