The big crunch

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Climate change is not the only problem our civilisation has to sort out in the next few decades. If we’re going to provide fulfilling lives and a decent standard of living for all the nine billion people expected to be alive by the middle of the century, we’re going to have to learn to live within a set of planetary boundaries. Last week, an international group of scientists and academics calling themselves the Millennium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere (MAHB) launched an appeal to world leaders for urgent coordinated action in five key areas — climate disruption, extinctions, loss of ecosystem diversity, pollution, and human population growth and resource consumption.

Their message is stark:

…the evidence that humans are damaging their ecological life-support systems is overwhelming […] based on the best scientific information available, human quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by 2050 if we continue on our current path.

…And:

By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence, will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.

MAHB’s message, contained in a document titled Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century: Information for Policy Makers (pdf), makes for depressing reading. We’re well on the way to stuffing up the planet’s climate, we’re causing species extinctions at a rate not seen since an asteroid hit the planet 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, we’ve transformed 40% of the ice-free land on the planet through farming, logging and building towns and cities, we’re polluting the atmosphere and oceans, and population and resource consumption are growing fast.
MAHBinteractions
All of these impacts feed on each other, and make it more likely that the planet will pass through tipping points that lead to irreversible changes. It’s not enough to work on just one issue — we have to work on all of them at the same time, and quickly. The longer we leave it, the more expensive and difficult it will be to prevent crisis turning into disaster. “Delaying even a decade may be too late,” the statement warns.

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This is a huge challenge for the political process around the world. Progress on climate change — a problem first identified in the 1980s — has been pitifully slow. Economic and political inertia, exploited by industries that stand to lose if carbon emissions are cut, have made meaningful international action all but impossible to achieve. Thirty years of fine talk and empty promises mean that we’re now staring down the barrel of irreversible and highly damaging climate change.

It’s difficult to be optimistic that the world is suddenly going to sit up and pay attention. There’s too much money to be made, and influence to be bought, by carrying on with business as usual. Ultimately the planet will find a way to deal with humanity’s impacts if we don’t, and the outcome is unlikely to be pretty.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry to just copy and past. but this short essay sums it all up nicely.
    There will be no billion people by mid century.

    http://wildancestors.blogspot.co.nz/2013/05/near-term-extinction.html?spref=fb

    Sunday, May 5, 2013
    Near Term Extinction
    By Richard Adrian Reese

    The majority of modern society is clustered together in the hope and optimism pavilion, taking deep tokes on the bong of pleasure-filled fantasies (cough!). At the other end of the spectrum are the Near Term Extinction (NTE) folks. They profess absolute certainty that climate change will be the final chapter in the human story. Our current mode of living will disintegrate by 2030, and a few scientists, like Malcolm Light, predict that all life on Earth will be extinct by 2050. Ecology professor Guy McPherson is a primary spokesperson for NTE.

    The NTE thinkers point to many genuine problems that are intensifying every day. They describe a number of “positive feedbacks,” where one problem stimulates the worsening of other problems, accelerating the overall pace of destruction more and more. A small disturbance can trigger a large avalanche. They chastise the big name climate activism celebrities for failing to realize the actual risks these feedbacks, and, consequently, for preaching sermons tainted with false hope.

    Rapid heating will destroy agriculture, release fabulous amounts of methane, and blindside every ecosystem on the planet. The bright white polar ice caps are quite reflective, and bounce away a lot of incoming solar heat, but they are melting and shrinking. Oceans may become so acidic that only jellyfish remain.

    The burning of fossil fuels will fade with the demise of industry, so less incoming solar energy will be blocked by layers of pollution, speeding the warming process even more. When the power grid dies, the pumps will quit at 440+ nuclear power plants. So, the cooling ponds for spent fuel rods will evaporate, the rods will burn, and ionized radiation will poison the planet. And so on.

    Acknowledging these sobering ideas is necessary for those who wish to be present in reality. It is well within the realm of possibility that their predictions will turn out to be correct — but not 100 percent certain, with a double your money back guarantee. We’ve never destroyed a planet before, so our understanding of this sad process remains primitive.

    Many members of the NTE community are highly intelligent, very well informed, and ruthlessly skeptical of every mainstream idea. This combination of attributes does not result in a merry band of giggly bliss ninnies. They comprehend the existence of enormous problems. At the same time, they also comprehend that humankind is largely ignoring these problems. It’s a heartbreaking disconnect. The great majority of people simply fail to perceive the presence of great danger, because their lives still seem normal, today.

    Extinction would neatly solve every single one of our problems, and would be a great relief for the family of life. We were certain to go extinct at some point in the future anyway. Uff! But what if there are still some humans alive 100 years from now? Humans, insects, and bacteria are exceptionally adaptable, and a portion of them may have an extended future. Because of that possibility, I do this work. The NTE folks shrug and label me normal (still asleep). So be it.

    I’m very happy that I’m not going to live to see the end of the collapse (I hope). What the survivors, if any, choose to do is entirely beyond my control. I am not responsible for the decisions they make, but I am responsible for doing what I can to help them understand their history, predicament, and options. Nothing can change until ideas change. So, one of the most essential occupations for those living now is to become idea mongers. This is a path of great power, and there are Help Wanted signs all over the place.

    Before we call it a day, let’s jump in our Hummer and take a quick tour of the NTE neighborhood. Their mosque is called Nature Bats Last, Guy McPherson’s blog. When you have a month or two with little to do, go here and visit all the links. You’ll learn a lot about a wide variety of subjects. (The links below are just a tiny sample of the information available on the following issues.)

    Global Warming. Climate scientists have been doing a good job of underestimating the rate at which carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere, and raising the planet’s temperature. New and improved models generated by the UN in 2010 predicted a rise of 5° C by 2050. Some believe that warming of 4° to 6° C results in a dead planet, and that this could happen in a decade.
    Melting Permafrost. Melting permafrost will release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. There is also underwater permafrost, and it too is melting and off gassing methane.
    Tundra fires. Arctic summers are getting warmer and dryer, and the carbon-rich tundra soils readily burn when dry. Fire actually burns up the soil, exposing the permafrost below to warmer temperatures. On the surface of the burned land, dark ash absorbs more solar heat, melting the permafrost faster.
    Peat Fires. Warmer, dryer weather is drying out peat lands, which contain one third of the world’s soil carbon. Peat fires are often ignited by lightning or passing wildfires, and they are difficult or impossible to extinguish. Some burn for years, or even centuries. In 2010 there were huge peat fires in Russia.
    Ocean Acidification. One third of carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the oceans, which is increasing their levels of acidity. Plankton in the ocean provides 50 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere. This oceanic oxygen production is now six percent less than it was 30 years ago. Growing acidity is harmful to marine life and coral reefs.
    Ionized Radiation. There are about 440 nuclear power plants in the world, and they generate lots of radioactive waste that will be extremely toxic for a very long time. These wastes are stored in cooling ponds, a short-term solution. There is no long-term solution. Extended power outages will allow the cooling ponds to evaporate, at which point the fuel rods will burn, and spew radiation to the four winds.
    Oceanic Deoxygenation. Climate change is stratifying oceanic waters, and warming the upper layers. This will reduce the dissolved oxygen in the water, leading to the expansion of dead zones. Some regions have experienced significant deoxygenation over the last 50 years, and many expect this problem to worsen, possibly for the next thousand years.
    Atmospheric Deoxygenation. Levels of oxygen in the atmosphere are declining. Three hundred million years ago, the air was 30 percent oxygen. Ancient dragonflies had four-foot wingspans. Today it’s between 19 and 21 percent, and 12 to 17 percent in urban areas. When it gets to 6 or 7 percent, we cannot survive. Oxygen is consumed when carbon is burned.
    Methane Catastrophe. This report, written by Malcolm Light, is not intended for the general reader. The first paragraph includes this jarring sentence: “This process of methane release will accelerate exponentially, release huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere and lead to the demise of all life on earth before the middle of this century.”

  2. Meh, we’ve known this for a long time.

    Can you find a way to eliminate or severely limit conservative participation in politics?

    No?

    Well, then nothing’s going to happen. Repeating the same statistics to people who won’t listen is pointless.

    • “Can you find a way to eliminate or severely limit conservative participation in politics?”

      yes of course you can. It has been tried several times in the 20th Century.

      Stalin, Hitler, Mao, take your pick.

      • Truth is, any of those would be preferable to what will happen if something is not done about carbon emissions.

        Scary…

    • Isn’t it interesting that those who are labelled conservatives (or call themselves conservatives) are not the least bit interested in conservation or conversation, and are the most vociferous proponents of looting and polluting?

      I suppose it has to be that way in the Orwellian world we live in.

      • Strange that Big Green (supported by NGOs like WWF, FoE and Greenpeace) have been so successful in deforesting countries for biofuel production, not to mention contribution to species extinction and destruction of countryside via windfarms, yet we never hear them criticised in the media

        In fact the US government has given a Californian wind farm exemption from prosecution for killing endangered Condors.

        I guess that is part of the Orwellian world we live in, when so-called environmentalists are actually destroying the environment

        • Blimey, what a distorted reality you live in Andy. I checked out the condor story, in the New York Times, and guess what, no condors have ever been killed in that area, it’s not even part of their range. What’s more, the windfarm operators are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure none ever do.

          • So how many wind farm companies have been prosecuted for killing Golden Eagles?

            How many thousands of hectares of forest are going to be clear felled in the USA to supply wood chip for the Drax power station in the UK, that is moving from coal to woodchip, saving no CO2 whatsoever and massively increasing the cost of power?

            Any answers? No, thought not

            • How many car drivers have been prosecuted for the birds they’ve killed? (Hint: cars, cats, buildings and pesticides & chemicals are responsible for several powers of 10 more bird deaths than wind farms, based on US figures – source:Nature).

              As for Drax, that may turn out to be as ill-advised as the USA’s corn to ethanol policy. There’s good policy and there’s bad.

              • This isn’t really the point though.

                So called green energy gets Carte Blanche to exterminate raptors, yet an Oil company would be fined a lot of money

                Furthermore, I’d like to see the evidence that cars run over Golden Eagles, Sea Eagles and Tasmanian Wedge Tailed Eagles, all killed in numbers by wind turbines

                Carrion gets knocked over by cars in NZ, I acknowledge, having seen many Hawk corpses on the road.

                Eagles stalk their prey and would rarely descend to road level. Eagles get taken out by turbines built on ridges. There is no disincentive to stop this if there is no penalty

                • So called green energy gets Carte Blanche to exterminate raptors, yet an Oil company would be fined a lot of money

                  Andy only in your world are the Oil cartels the victims.

                  • Not really victims as such. More the rank hypocrisy that we expect from the corrupt self serving rent seeking Big Green subsidy farming machine

  3. ‘Progress on climate change — a problem first identified in the 1980s — has been pitifully slow. ‘

    Actually the mechanism and general direction of climate change were identified in the 1890s (Arrhenius).

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘Progress on climate change but there has been no progress whatsoever in reducing global emissions of CO2. Recent years have seen the greatest level of emissions ever and a commensurate surge in atmospheric CO2.

    Like most articles on topics relating to the environment, this one grossly understates the time frame.

    The vast number of positive feedbacks already triggered mean we are headed for Near Term Extinction (almost certainly before the middle of this century). Hence, my local authority has plans to increase emissions, increase population (in the short term) and increase fossil fuel dependency, thereby doing its best to bring forward NTE.

    Life at the End of Empire on the Planet of the Maniacs.

  4. “The polar bear family and me” screened on TV1 last evening. (Aw, those cute babies, so watchable.) The team tranquillised mum and the kids, measured them, took blood samples, fitted electronic collars, etc, etc, all with the laudable aim of scientific study as the bears coped with fewer hunting opportunities due to diminishing sea ice.
    The whole thing was a bit of an ego trip and it made me despair that no connection was made to the use of resources – fuel, snowmobiles, helicopter, hi-tech cameras, quality arctic clothing…
    I’m currently composing an email to BBC2 begging them to stop making programmes like this. Here’s their email webpage:
    https://faq.external.bbc.co.uk/templates/bbcfaqs/emailstatic/emailPage_mftvst:answerRef=%24&_mftvst:entryID=%24comment&_mftvst:id=%24UPL67CCJN31AVE007IO293AVA6&_mftvst:moduleID=%24contact&_mftvst:searchString=%24

  5. How about a “war crimes” tribunal like the Nuremburg trials when the shite hits the fan with leaders of countries and corporations who refused to do anything when they had the power to, held accountable for their (non)actions leading to millions of deaths etc. At the moment people like New Zealand’s present Prime Minister think they are going to be able to enjoy a peaceful and comfortable retirement around 2050.

  6. I questioned McPherson about his views when he was in Lower Hutt last year. He’s conflicted to say the least. I asked him about reducing emissions by, for example, everyone walking away from routine air travel, and he said we should actually increase fossil fuel burning to ‘crash the system’. He lives on a private ranch and is all set up personally of course, so he doesnt have much interest in seeing if we can keep a semblance of society running. I would argue that he is at the reactionary fascist end of the political spectrum.

    As for more delicate conservatives who say there isnt much to be done, or are in denial, its richly ironic that greenies and environmentalists are the ones going all-in to fight for the continuance of the rule of law, property rights and all that stuff that underpins modern society, while facing stiff headwinds from the 1 percent.

    • Tom, that’s a very twisted version of Guy McPherson.

      Firstly, Guy was saying (until about six months ago) that the ONLY way to preserve a living planet would be to bring Industrial Civilisation to a rapid halt. He was absolutely correct, since Industrial Civilisation is responsible for destroying the natural systems that make life as we know it possible.

      Secondly, Guy does not live ‘on a ranch’; he lives in a very modest straw bale dwelling on a few acres of rather arid land in New Mexico.

      Thirdly, Guy changed his position a few months ago when he recognised that numerous climate feedbacks have already been triggered which will result in ‘runaway greenhouse’, i.e. self-reinforcing and mutually reinforcing to the point of going way beyond exponential. Guy is now convinced that even if Industrial civilisation were to be terminated rapidly the human species has already done sufficient damage to make Near Term Extinction inevitable.

      Nevertheless, he continues his efforts to educate the ignorant masses, just in case he is wrong and there is still a tiny window of opportunity left to avert utter catastrophe in a matter of decades.

        • We’re all doomed don’t you know Gareth.

          Got about 15-20 years max according to Afewknowthetruth.

          Sorry bout that. Still you did your best.

          • There are people with that view, yes, Gosman. They’re about as helpful as the people who pretend it isn’t happening at all, or won’t do any harm. Ring any bells?

            • You can’t be meaning me here Gareth as I’ve never stated that opinion. In fact I have advised you around better approaches at getting bipartisan action on the issue. Of course you are happy to keep following the approach you have taken to date. How’s that working out?

      • Sorry, not convinced. Guy was very specific that the way to save civilization was to bring it crashing down asap. He positively urged people to fly to burn up fossil fuels and make this all happen faster. He was prepared to see very, very many eggs broken to make that particular omelette.

        Meanwhile he has made arrangements for self sufficiency at his remote modest ranch / strawbale house – however you want to put it.

        I am sorry, but my simple take is that anyone who cheerily, or even sadly contemplates megadeath as necessary or inevitable to reach a certain goal has put themselves into a mental space that I want to stay well away from.

        I prefer my prophets to pitch their lot in with humanity, not urge it to burn from a remote ranch.

        Your comment that he has recently changed his view makes me even more skeptical. How precisely is his current position different from his last? Six months ago all hope was gone, now there is some? Wow, glad I didnt act on his advice 6 months ago.

        • Once again you misunderstand and misquote what Guy said (deliberately???)

          Guy said the only way to preserve the human species was to crash the industrial system which is rapidly destroying the life support systems that make life as we know it possible.

          More recently he pointed out that so many positive feedbacks have been triggered it is almost certainly too late.

          All the way through Guy has adopted the same moral stance that I have adopted: that, as a society, we should adopt policies that minimise the suffering that is to come, as opposed to the policies currently in place which will maximise the suffering that is to come.

          • I think we have the same understanding of Guy’s approach. He is a kind of extreme utilitarian. He wants to crash the system, and accept that many will die in that process, in order to ultimately preserve some lives, rather than no lives. But in crashing the system to achieve the ultimate result of preserving humanity, you have to be 1) pretty sure that’s the only option left and therefore 2) ready to accept deaths now in order to save lives later. But who decides who dies soon and who does not? Has he worked out an ethical system where, say, Americans sacrifice their lives in the crash so the poorest of the poor in other countries can live?

            Apparently he hasnt got further than saying the current system has to be crashed as soon as possible, and you’ll find me watching from my straw bale house. I think that that morality is deeply unpleasant. Its also going to ensure that a fairly objectionable portion of the current 1% of the world’s wealthy and dictators end up running the show. Thanks but no thanks.

            Our ethics at the local and international level (think the UN) suggest that we all pitch in to attempt to achieve a managed radical fast descent that preserves as many lives as we can. Bottom line, we have to contemplate failure over doing deeply immoral acts to preserve the human species. There are going to be very, very hard decisions down the road, but lets not start with an approach that takes us directly to the worst of the dark places of the 20th century.

      • the ONLY way to preserve a living planet would be to bring Industrial Civilisation to a rapid halt

        So, you’re happy to forego your computer, smartphone, Internet, washing machine, fridge/freezer, hot water, electric lights — in fact, all electricity — car, bicycle, health system, running water…?

        Is that true?

        Because, if it is not, you’re being hypocritical to laud such views.

  7. Predicting the future is a risky business. As every science struggles to integrate the discoveries of chaotic systems theory, one thing is clear: the unfolding of the universe cannot be computed. Even if we had perfect information about the current state of everything in the universe (which we don’t and can’t), our predictions would still become less and less reliable the further into the future we looked.

    The political implications are that any useful responses to any of the issues discussed above cannot be planned and imposed from political centres (whether state, corporate, religious etc), they must be developed through free experimentation by *all of us*, supported by rich experience-sharing media which focus our attention on experimental successes which can be regulated. In short, what would happen if we applied the same methods to developing our society that we apply to developing science and other forms of academia?

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