Archive for the ‘Carpe diem’ Category
When I was an adolescent, I used to enjoy watching horror movies – The Exorcist, Hallowe’en, Texas Chainsaw Massacre – you name it; I probably watched it. However, like many other adults (I suspect), I could not watch them now… Irrespective of whether it is a sign of emotional maturity or mental fragility, I generally have no desire to watch unpleasant things happen to people anymore; life is unpleasant enough. However, despite this, I decided to watch Contagion on DVD recently. (N.B. Do not read more than the first paragraph of the Plot section of the Wikipedia page if you have not seen the movie).
I suspect that most people who have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow will have been amazed by the special effects; but completely unconvinced regarding the plausibility of the scenario. There were grains of truth in it (such as networks of buoys monitoring our oceans to detect any evidence of changes to thermohaline circulation patterns). However, most people seem to agree that the movie was ruined by the implausibly sudden climate change. Indeed, the implausibility was relentless; with the storyline getting more and more improbable as the movie went on – I really do not know what the Director was thinking…
Contagion – on the other hand – is completely plausible; it dramatises a contagious disease pandemic disaster scenario that has, in fact, already happened: Forget Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or SARS; the Spanish Flu pandemic (in 1918-20) killed 50 million people – a full 3% of the global population at the time – without the aid of globalised air travel to help spread the infection. The main reason that most people have not heard about it (or don’t talk about it); is that it happened at the same time as the First World War. However, more than twice as many people expired after catching Spanish Flu than were killed during the 1914-18 war. In fact, Spanish Flu killed almost as many people as died as a result of WW2.
Contagion is particularly scary because it includes all these historic facts; but it is also scary because of the way it has been crafted. There is nothing implausible about it; it could happen tomorrow and – despite the fact our governments know this – they cannot prepare for it any more than they have already done. So, are we ready for it? No, we are not; and we will never be ready. It is a global threat with consequences at least an order of magnitude greater than a major volcanic eruption on Iceland and, worse still, we have no early warning system for a flu pandemic.
Spanish Flu killed 3% of the global population – equivalent to over 200 million people today. However, today, it is considered that improvements in worldwide health care and access to medical facilities could offset the massively increased risk of rapid transmission of infection due to air travel. Based on all of this, in 2008, the World Bank estimated that a global flu pandemic could kill as many as 70 million people (i.e. 1% of the World’s population). The World Health Organization is more optimistic: Citing a figure of only 7 million, they say it is almost impossible to say how many would die because there are so many critical variables (including incubation period, ease of transmission, rates of infection and/or recovery, etc).
Experts reckon that we would be much quicker at isolating and replicating a vaccine for any new global pandemic; but that success in bringing it under control would largely be down to the general public being sensible.
Sadly, our inability as a species to work together to mitigate anthropogenic climate disruption reminds me of jokes about being unable to extricate oneself from a paper bag and/or organise a decent party in a brewery… So, when told that the consequences of a flu pandemic will largely be determined by the extent to which the general public exercises common sense, I am inclined to respond by uttering four simple words: “Beam me up, Scottie!”
However, I cannot end on such a note of desolation… I think we must all try to find a positive way to look at things… and indeed earlier this week I found myself feeling very glad to be here at all… It is 50 years ago this week that four Russian Nuclear Submarines left their base in the Arctic carrying torpedoes with nuclear warheads. When eventually located by US Forces, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the Subs (B-59) came perilously close to firing its “special weapon” and, had it done so, the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which kept the peace throughout the Cold War would almost certainly have become a reality. The fact that the Russian Subs had nuclear torpedoes was not known until 2002, when it emerged that the Commander of the Russian Fleet, Vasili Arkhipov, on board submarine B-59, over-ruled the vessel’s Captain and Second Officer – who had wanted to use them.
As it happens, having unknowingly avoided nuclear annihilation, my parents went on to conceive me a few years later… So, if humans can have the sense to step back from the brink of WW3, we can but hope they will step back from the brink of ecological catastrophe: We can do nothing to prevent an Icelandic volcano eruption; and we cannot eliminate the possibility of a global flu pandemic. However, we most certainly can, if we so choose, stop the unabated burning of fossil fuels from devastating the Earth’s current capacity to support life. Therefore, I will end with the words of a famous prayer accredited to the German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Brought forward 24 hours in order to mark Earth Day, this is the third (and possibly the last) part of my mini-series of posts looking at what we can and should learn about the fragility and contingency of our existence (i.e. the fact that we might so easily not be here to ponder the meaning of it), based on Episode 2 of the excellent Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide. Parts 1 and 2 (both on Episode 1) having been published here last Thursday and Friday respectively.
Whereas Episode 1 concluded with the establishment of a wide variety of marine life in the Cambrian Period (the first major geochronological division of the Palaeozoic Era), Episode 2 covers the development of complex life through most of the Palaeozoic Era; culminating in the extinction of 90% of life on Earth at the end of the Permian Period (251 Ma BP); something that those who ridicule climate change “alarmists” as being misanthropic will be pleased to see that I can – and will – admit had absolutely nothing to do with human activity!
As such, Episode 2 covers the following:
Ordovician (488 to 444 Ma BP) – including the emergence of fish like organisms with (at least partial) exoskeletons (i.e ‘placoderm’ fossils found in the Simpson Desert).
Silurian (444 to 416 Ma BP) – including the emergence of the first animals to venture onto land and leave the trails and/or tracks in the sand (as preserved in the rocks of Kalbarri National Park in WA); and the emergence of the first complex, self-supporting, plants on land (as preserved in rocks at Yea in Victoria).
Devonian (416 to 359 Ma BP) – the period in which the variety of fish living in the oceans seems to have increased greatly (if fossil preservation is an accurate indicator).
Carboniferous (359 to 299 Ma BP) – the period in which a similar explosion of plant life appears to have happened on the land.
Permian (299 to 251 Ma BP) – In Australia, this period is synonymous with glaciation on land and business as usual in the oceans.
Anyone who is bemused by all these names and ages, may find Lionel’s Time Spiral useful. Alternatively, those who prefer things to be organised in Table format, may prefer this from the Geological Society of America (N.B. international stratigraphic nomenclature may be a can of worms you don’t really want to open!).
In all of this, possibly the most important event was the emergence of the first pioneer plants, which would probably have covered large amounts of otherwise bare rock. I am trying very hard to avoid attributing conscious decision-making processes to non-sentient life forms but, even if they did not “decide to try and get away from all those nasty sea creatures”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these plants took advantage of the fact that there was nothing else on the land or in the sky that could eat them. It is certainly logical to conclude that, in the absence of predation, plants would have for the first time turned the planet green. It is therefore believed that plant life thus rapidly increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere and gave rise to the presence of ozone; thus blocking out all that nasty ultra-violet light from the Sun.
In order to discuss the development of life within the Devonian Period, Professor Richard Smith visited the Bungle Bungle and Napier Ranges of Western Australia (Purnilulu and Windjana Gorge National Parks respectively), in order to demonstrate how:
1. Pre-existing rocks were by then being recycled (weathered, eroded, and deposited) in huge rivers that meandered backwards and forwards across wide open plains thereby, over time, depositing thick sequences of alternating layers of grit, gravel and pebbles; subsequently cemented together and then eroded again.
2. Coral reefs at least as big as the Great Barrier Reef fringed the Devonian landmass now known as the Kimberley; but eventually emerged from the sea as a result of gentle uplift and/or sea level change (i.e. undeformed and/or intact apart from subsequent weathering and erosion).
Somewhat more mundanely, Professor Smith also noted that placoderm fish fossils can be found in limestones across much of the northern part of WA. However, just when you thought the story was getting rather dull, sex seems to have been invented: The first heterosexual reproduction seems to have been underwater; maybe this explains why so many women like birthing pools… As if that is not weird enough, Smith then introduces us to Devonian-style lungfish (i.e fish with lungs) still living in freshwater creeks in eastern Australia – which he suggests evolved to cope with drought (a problem in this part of the world for almost 400 million years!)…
In the Carboniferous, everything seems to have got very big – plants and animals alike – as a result of the atmosphere being 50% oxygen. It is almost a chicken and egg conundrum – which came first – but I am sure there is an explanation. There was also, possibly, a day of reckoning… In the interim, amphibians became quite common and reptiles invented eggs (i.e. more deliberate, light-hearted, anthropomorphic nonsense). Whereas the Carboniferous Period’s bequest to providential posterity in the UK was coal, its main legacy in Australia is the presence of some very large lizards. But Australia has of course not been left impoverished, far from it, its coal however is of Permian age.
By the Permian Period, the party was well and truly over – for plants at least: Whilst there is evidence for glaciation found in South Australia, the sea life seemed to continue to be very abundant – but with much reduced biodiversity. This is analogous to the current situation in the waters in polar regions today – very large numbers of a modest number of species (i.e. as a result of higher levels of oxygen solubility in colder water – the reason bubbles form in water when you heat it up).
And so we reach the end of the Permian – the period that has given Australia 50% of the fossilised carbon it is currently pumping into the atmosphere approximately 1000 times faster than the carbon was originally removed from the biosphere by the process of sedimentation. Furthermore, as George Santayana would probably be keen for all to note, the mass extinction of 90% of all life on Earth that then occurred was caused by the sudden release of gases including carbon dioxide. Other culprits, it has to be said, were hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. However, whilst the latter two would quite easily have poisoned the atmosphere and cooled the planet, it is the CO2 that was primarily responsible for the ocean acidification that ensured the elimination of most sea life as well.
Today, at the end of the Carbon Age, human beings have caused CO2 to build up in the atmosphere ten times faster than it has done at any other time in the Earth’s history; and we are now witnessing ocean acidification at a similarly unprecedented rate: Thus, ecologists like Peter Sale (and many others) warn us that we are perilously close to the point at which impacts upon marine biodiversity will be sudden and permanent. Shellfish will be unable to extract calcium carbonate from the water and, if the acidification does not kill them, then, in the case of corals, the increasing temperature of the water will.
We have been protected from – and possibly blinded to – the damage we are doing to the planet as a consequence of the cooling effect of all our other forms of pollution. However, as would now seem to be becoming ever more obvious, increasing CO2 is by far the most important factor driving anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) and, unless we decide that behaviour modification is necessary, we may well cause the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Indeed, there is accumulating evidence that it is already underway: In geological terms, the current rate of biodiversity loss is already probably unprecedented. Just because we can barely measure it, does not mean it is insignificant.
I therefore believe that it is imperative that humanity acknowledges that business as usual is not a survivable option.
Recommended reading: Richard Fortey’s Life – An Unauthorised Biography (2009).
Yesterday, I began a review of the recently-broadcast Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide. However, this is such an information-rich programme, I went well over my 1000-word limit without even getting to the end of Episode 1. Also, it was clearly too much of a challenge to the unwarranted optimism of people like my (sadly-mistaken) fellow-hydrogeologist Oakwood who has, for the second time now, said “goodbye” (his first “goodbye” can be seen here).
The story so far is that with over 25% of Earth history already in the past, oxygen has only just been “invented” but, when not being combined with iron or silica to form Banded Iron Formation (BIF), it is restricted to the oceans; and is only present at a fraction of the concentration our sea creatures currently enjoy (i.e. when they’re not being dissolved-alive by ocean acidification).
I have never been to the Grand Canyon, although, yes, I intend to get there one day (and I will not be rowing across the Atlantic and walking across America to get there). If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it, but at least I am not denying the reality of the problem; or insisting that air travel should be cheap. However, I have been to Karijini National Park in the Hamersley Range of the Pilbara (WA). You would not want to visit the latter after visiting the former (it would be a major anti-climax): The gorges of the Hamersley Range may be small compared to others elsewhere in the world, and they may not be unique for being weathered to a rusty-red colour… However, they are unique for being formed of BIF that, when regularly washed clean by water, is composed of alternations of grey hematite and white silica. The juxtaposition of fresh and weathered rock alongside Spinifex grass and ghost gum trees is, it must be said, a very pretty one; and I feel very privileged to have seen it for myself (albeit 25 years ago now):
Although early photosynthesising bacteria like Stromatolites still exist today, and may dominate the foreshore of Shark Bay (WA), they could hardly be said to dominate the Earth. However, for almost half the time the Earth has existed, this would have been a legitimate description of their importance: For nearly two billion years they were the dominant life form on the planet and, as such, they slowly but surely pumped oxygen into the oceans. For the first few hundred years, the oxygen was fairly promptly removed again by being precipitated out in the form of iron or silicon oxide but, once these elements had been depleted, the Earth then had to find another use for it. Fortunately for us, it did just that.
Since there were as yet no shell-fish to make use of this oxygen stuff by combining it with carbon and calcium, it began to build-up in the atmosphere because, like CO2 today, the Earth was unable to reprocess it fast enough to stop it accumulating. By the end of the Proterozoic Era, by which time two-thirds of Australia was already a well-established landmass, all of 1% of the atmosphere consisted of oxygen (compared to 20% today). Sub-oceanic volcanic vents (like the ‘black smokers’ found on mid-ocean ridges today) were also busy pumping lots of other elements into the oceans; stuff we now find very useful – like lead and zinc.
Meanwhile, it is generally assumed that the oxygenation of the atmosphere (i.e. going from 0 to 1%) was a major contributory factor to the so-called Snowball Earth (850 to 635 Ma BP) – a bit like the opposite of the enhanced Greenhouse Effect (also known as anthropogenic climate disruption [ACD])… In the Flinders Range of South Australia (SA), finely laminated sediments laid down in equatorial oceans provide evidence that the entire surface of the oceans was covered in sea-ice. Fortunately, the venting of volcanic gases continued and, eventually, the build-up of gases in the atmosphere was sufficient to bring about an end to Snowball Earth conditions… Now, at long last, oxygen levels in the oceans and temperatures were capable of supporting complex lifeforms. The oldest of these are remarkably well-preserved in the Ediacara Fauna, which can now also be found in the Flinders Range (but only if you have been given directions to it).
Between 635 and 542 Ma BP, the convection of the Earth’s interior and continual creation and destruction of sea floor – thereby pushing early continental land masses around as well – resulted in the gradual development of the super-continent of Gondwanaland. The continental collisions involved resulted in mountain ranges as big as the Himalayas and a meandering coastline stretching from Cairns in Queensland to Kangaroo Island (SA). It is on Kangaroo Island that you will find evidence of flourishing sea life in the Cambrian Period (542 to 488 Ma BP) – a time that is associated with one species in particular – the Trilobites. However, these Cambrian rocks – and those of the same age all over the planet – also contain fossilised evidence of many other kinds of life that we would still recognise today; including arthropods, molluscs and insects. It was also in this shallow Cambrian sea that sand (the recycled product of the weathering and erosion of older rocks) was laid down. This sandstone would later become quite famous for giving rise to one of the Earth’s most readily-identifiable features – Uluru (the landmark formerly know as Ayers Rock).
So there you have it, almost 90% of Earth’s history (4540 to 488 Ma BP) is now behind us; and all we have to show for it is an abundance of marine life and whole load of sand that will one day be big, red, and famous!
In Episode 2 of Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide, Richard Smith covers the remainder of the Palaeozoic Era (488 to 251 Ma BP); encompassing the development of fish, plants and animals – 90% of which were then wiped out by what has been called “the mother of all extinction events” at the end of the Permian Period. But that, as they say, is another story that will be covered in A brief history of Earth – part 3 next week. For now, we must just hope that humanity is not now re-writing geological history because, if we are, it would seem very clear it not going to end well (for the vast majority of the Earth’s inhabitants).
A couple of weeks ago, I got into a spot of bother for suggesting that only geologists have the required sense of perspective to appreciate how contingent Life on Earth actually is (i.e. that things could quite easily have not turned out so good)…
This is, therefore, the first part of a much-delayed review of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide, as shown in the UK a few weeks ago on the Eden Channel; and still viewable in its entirety on a very flash part of the ABC’s website (which takes a while to load over all but the fastest fibre-optic connections). The latter is reachable from this synopsis (i.e. if you follow the link to the [ABC's] ‘Official Website’). If this programme was not part-financed by the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (i.e. to promote tourism) it should have been…
Presented by Professor Richard Smith, apparently Australia’s equivalent to the University of Plymouth’s Iain Stewart here in the UK, the programme is simultaneously a marvelous testimony to the very extensive geological record Australia contains – and a wonderful evocation of its amazing landscape. It certainly succeeded in making me wonder, having worked in the north-west of Western Australia (WA) for 3 years in the 1980′s, why I ever left. There is so much that could be written about this brilliant series of programmes that I cannot promise to ever finish it: Instead, I propose to just see how far I get and, however far that is, it should be borne in mind that the over-arching purpose is to illustrate just how lucky we are to be here to marvel at our own existence.
Episode 1 of the series covers the first 90% of Earth History (up to the first flourishing of complex life in the Cambrian Period) and Richard Smith starts his journey driving across what he reminds viewers is the “oldest, flattest, driest continent on Earth” (i.e. Australia is extreme in all 3 senses – Antarctica is larger and in places drier but not uniformly so and, ignoring the ice, neither is it flat). People are familiar with the size of Australia (i.e. Perth to Sydney being comparable with Los Angeles to New York) but many struggle with the vastness of geological time. To illustrate this point, Smith sets his Time Travelling Sat Nav to the beginning of Earth History and sets off at an imaginary speed of 60 million years per hour. At this speed, progress would be as follows:
– After 4 hours, you would have almost travelled back to the Permian/Triassic extinction (251 Million years [Ma] before present [BP]);
– After 8 hours, you would have almost travelled back as far as the Cambrian Period (542-488 Ma BP);
– After 2 and a half days, you would have travelled back to the emergence of simple forms of life; and
– Only after 3 days, would you finally arrive at the beginning of Earth history (some 4540 Ma BP).
Amidst all the current talk of global warming, it was striking that Richard Smith should point out that it is generally accepted that, having coalesced from the leftovers of an earlier supernova – and survived an early collision between two proto-planets (resulting in the formation of our Moon) – the Earth has spent the rest of its history trying to cool down. However, the fact that the Earth’s core is still warmer than the surface of the Sun is no cause for complacency regarding the reality that humanity is currently warming the planet up again. Life on Earth is adapted to the way things are on the surface of the Earth; not the surface of the Sun.
Convection within the Earth’s interior is of course the reason for plate tectonics and – thanks to the Earth being bigger – it has not cooled down as much as Mars, where plate tectonics has ceased. However, fortunately, it has not been as active as Venus, where the build-up of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere has pushed surface temperatures and pressures there to levels approximately 90 times those here on Earth: Thus our Goldilocks planet has retained conditions capable of preserving water in liquid form at its surface. However, the lesson we should take from observing both Mars and Venus is that this could quite easily not be the case.
Having set the scene, Richard Smith’s first stopping point on his time traveller’s guide to (Australian) geology is the Jack Hills in WA, where crystals of zircon – a rare rock-forming mineral (with a very high melting point) – have been geochronologically dated (using the fact that radioactive decay of elements within the crystals began when they first formed and has not been interrupted since) to approximately 4400 Ma BP. The rocks of the Jack Hills may be a little younger (although still amongst the oldest on the planet) but these zircon crystals are the oldest known minerals on Earth.
Next, Smith visited Mileura Station in the Pilbara (NW of WA) looking for evidence of the earliest life forms on a planet that for a very long time had no oxygen in its atmosphere. In many ways, it is astonishing that any can be found because, as is evidenced by the surface of our Moon, for much of the Earth’s early history it was being bombarded by meteorites. Therefore, the first pre-requisite for the emergence of life was almost certainly the end of this bombardment, which is believed to have slowed significantly about 3800 Ma BP. To illustrate this point, Smith also visited the comparitively recent (300,000 year-old) Wolfe Creek Crater (which at nearly 900 metres in diameter was formed by a meteorite just 10 or 20 metres across). Sure enough, evidence of early bacteriological life has been found in rocks dated to 3500 Ma BP (at the hottest place in WA – Marble Bar); and the bacteria, Stromatolites, can of course still be found living in Shark Bay – where evaporation maintains the seawater at twice its normal level of salinity.
Over a considerable period of time these early photosynthesising bacteria oxygenated the seawater (although it still contained large amounts of other gases we consider toxic like hydrogen sulphide). These stromatolites therefore shared the planet with other extremophiles (i.e. organisms that can live in extreme conditions that most life cannot; now found only at the bottom of the ocean where there is no light and/or in volcanic vents where acidity can be as high as a pH of 1). However, by 2500 Ma BP, the oxygen released by the Stromatolites allowed the most abundant element on Earth to combine with oxygen for the first time to form iron oxide. This gave rise to one of the Pilbara’s most widespread rock types – Banded Iron Formation (BIF) – alternating layers of grey iron oxide (deposited in oxygenated sea water) and white silicon oxide (deposited in oxygen-deficient seawater). Although generally thought of as being red-brown in colour, along with much of the remainder of Australia, this (e.g. see my photos here) is a consequence of a much more recent process of subaerial oxidation of all iron-rich rocks exposed to an oxygen-rich atmosphere.
I am not even half way through the story of Episode 1 but – I think this is enough for one day…
Having been lucky enough to have lived and worked in Australia between 1986 and 1989, I got to know and like some Australian bands many of my British friends and family have still never heard of. One of my favourites was – and still is – Paul Kelly and the Messengers. In 1989, they produced a CD album entitled So Much Water So Close To Home from which this self-explanatory song is taken (if you can’t catch all the words and/or want to ponder them awhile – they are reproduced below the embedded video).
All I will say, by way of introduction is this: The accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole objective of many people in modern society; and perpetual growth is posited as a means whereby even the poorest might achieve it. The former World Bank economist Herman Daly called this “growthmania”. Paul Kelly’s words cut through this madness…
You might have a happy family, nice house, fine car
You might be successful in real estate
You could even be a football star
You might have a prime time T.V. show seen in every home and bar
But you can’t take it with you
You might own a great big factory, oil wells on sacred land
You might be in line for promotion, with a foolproof retirement plan
You might have your money in copper, textiles or imports from Japan
But you can’t take it with you
You can’t take it with you though you might pile it up high
It’s so much easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye
You might have a body of fine proportion and a hungry mind
A handsome face and a flashing wit, lips that kiss and eyes that shine
There might be a queue all around the block
Long before your starting time
But you can’t take it with you
You might have a great reputation so carefully made
And a set of high ideals, polished up and so well displayed
You might have a burning love inside, so refined, such a special grade
But you can’t take it with you
Yesterday, I attempted to summarise Jared Diamond’s 500-page book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). However, having done that, I decided that his own summary of his conclusions warranted specific attention. This is because, despite being very widely acclaimed at the time of its publication, very few of our politicians seem to have taken on board the warning to humanity that I think the book represents: The people with the real power to affect change are still living in denial of the reality and urgency of the problems we face. This situation will not change unless we all demand that it does.
Therefore, in the hope that it will encourage all to take control of their own destiny – to take advantage of living in a democratic country where individuals have the right to lobby their representatives and/or actively participate in that democratic process – I reproduce here a transcript of the final page of the Introduction to Diamond’s book (any added emphasis being mine only):
This book’s concluding section (Part Four) extracts practical lessons for us today. Chapter 14 asks the perplexing question arising from every past society that ended up destroying itself, and that will perplex future earthlings if we too end up destroying ourselves: How could a society fail to have seen the dangers that seem so clear to us in retrospect? Can we say that their end was the inhabitants’ own fault, or that they were instead tragic victims of insoluble problems? How much past environmental damage was unintentional and imperceptible, and how much was perversely wrought by people acting in full awareness of the consequences? For instance, what were the Easter Islanders saying as they cut down the last tree on their island? It turns out that group decision-making can be undone by a whole series of factors, beginning with the failure to anticipate or perceive a problem, and proceeding through conflicts of interest that lead some members of the group to pursue goals good for themselves but bad for the rest of the group.
Chapter 15 considers the role of modern businesses; some of which are among the most environmentally-destructive forces today, while others provide some of the most effective environmental protection. We shall examine why some (but only some) businesses find it in their interests to be protective, and what changes would be necessary before other businesses would find it in their interests to emulate them.
Finally, Chapter 16 summarizes the types of environmental dangers facing the modern world, the commonest objections raised against claims of their seriousness, and the differences between environmental dangers today and those faced by past societies. A major difference has to do with globalization, which lies at the heart of the strongest reasons for both pessimism and or optimism about our ability to solve our current environmental problems. Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote – think of Somalia and Afghanistan as examples – can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents, and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we are also the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today and from what unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.
Yet again, quoting George Santayana seems appropriate:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Truly, we have been warned…
In memoriam – Whitney Houston (1963 – 2012) R.I.P.
Even though Little Moreton Hall is really very small, it is perhaps one of the most famous National Trust (NT) properties in the NW of England; and I am very lucky to live quite close to it (especially since I am a NT member and can visit it as may times as I like)… As the NT website makes clear, Little Moreton Hall is an “iconic Tudor manor house” (of which there are many in Cheshire) surrounded by a moat.
Here are 3 of my favourite photos taken while visiting it:
OK, so it may be 5 billion years from now but, even the Sun has a finite source of fuel: Nothing lasts forever and in turning hydrogen into helium, the Sun is like a pig defecating in its (very large) pig pen; eventually all the hydrogen will be turned into helium and it will balloon in size to become a red giant like Betelgeuse (in the Constellation of Orion)is now.
So we are in no immediate danger but, nonetheless, humanity desperately needs to acknowledge that all things come to an end and, since this includes fossil fuels, the time to invest in our future survival is now.
In my recent response to hearing about Canada’s incredibly short-sighted policy of seeking to become the world’s greatest energy super power (i.e. sell as much fossil fuel to anybody that will buy it), I found myself saying, “…when you get so desperate for fossil fuels that you start digging up something that needs five times more energy input (compared to conventional crude oil) to get the energy out of it, it surely must be time to invest in cheaper alternative forms of energy.” This really does beg the question, why are energy companies chasing ever-harder fossil fuels rather than investing in easier ways earning a living?
Last December, the brilliant satirist Charlie Brooker, who previously gave us such delights as ‘How to Report the News’ in his Newswipe series, produced a mini-series called Black Mirror (i.e. a television when not in use), which included an episode entitled 15 Million Merits, which featured a dystopic future society where no-one goes outside (because the environment has been completely trashed?) and everyone is kept fit by peddling gymnasium bicycles (that generate all the electricity needed to keep everyone alive) whilst being entertained by all manner of TV programmes (including ruthlessly exploitative and amoral talent contests). It was immensely funny but also slightly scary; because it could so easily be where we are headed…
We need to stop treating nature as an enormous warehouse whose goods can be used up without paying for them; and start living in a way that reflects the fact that our survival as a species is dependent upon nature not being degraded to the point that it ceases to function properly. If we do not, the Sun is not going to go out but, in not so many decades from now, it might get hot enough that we cannot go outside (much) to enjoy it.
UPDATE: As an addendum to this post, I would urge all climate change “agnostics” to read my response to John Kosowski’s questions posed in response to the above.
Also, yes, I did capture both of these images myself, and – yes – for the second time in a decade I flew in an aeroplane (six Hail Mary’s for that I guess).
This photograph was taken on 9 December 2011, on a walk down the Dane Valley (in the Cheshire part of the UK’s Peak District National Park). For those who know the area, I took a wrong turn out of Lud’s Church and got a view I had not seen before. Thus proving that sometimes it is good to get lost – especially when the light is so intense; with the Sun behind you and low in the sky). More information about this photo/location etc., is abvailable on the Geograph website here.
Given that the La Nina effect is now waning; the Sun is about to enter a more active phase in its solar cycle, and the air pollution problems faced by less developing countries and emerging economies are likely to improve, whatever humanity does (and there is very little evidence that anything significant will be done), the next few years are likely to see a rapid acceleration in the rate of climate change.
But don’t take my word for it, this is what James Hansen et al at the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) are now saying will happen, as per this recent item on Skeptical Science website: NASA scientists expect more rapid global warming in the very near future.
I was going to say, “Live long and prosper” but, in the circumstances, it might be more appropriate to just wish you, “Good luck”!
However, being slightly more constructive, I shall instead implore you to… “Carpe diem!”, which is Latin for “Wake up and smell the coffee”!
(or “Climate science in a nutshell – Part 4”)
This will be the last of my posts on the scientific basis for concern over anthropogenic climate change based on James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren. Although, I am barely half way through it, it is stuffed full of information everyone should know and I would not want to stop you reading the book yourself because you think you know what it says. Therefore, after today, I will just post one more item based on its content (regarding Richard Lindzen’s prominent role in perpetuating prevarication) and that will be it.
So, to summarise the story so far, Hansen was one of the first to use models to aid our understanding of the mechanics of the atmosphere, but sees palaeoclimatic study as the key to understanding what we are doing to our planet, and blames special interests [i.e. the fossil fuel lobby (FFL)] for interfering in politics and persuading politicians to second-guess (or ignore) science and scientists. (For those that are interested, this is the focus of Mark Bowen’s Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming, which you can hear both Hansen and Bowen discussing here.) For example, on first becoming President in 2001, Bush had said (in his first Rose Garden speech) that his administration would treat CO2 as a pollutant and “be flexible to adjust to new information”. Whereas, in point of fact, he broke that promise within two months of taking office and spent the rest of his eight years in power ruthlessly suppressing inconvenient information. Furthermore, on more than one occasion, Hansen asserts that our problem is that government Energy departments around the world seem to believe it is a “god-given fact that humanity will proceed to burn all fossil fuels”. Whereas, even though it seems easier to get someone to stop picking their nose, we must stop burning fossil fuels.
There are actually two kinds of palaeoclimatic evidence upon which Hansen relies to reach this conclusion. These are (1) ice core data (covering less than the last million years); and (2) sea floor sediment data (covering the last 65 million years). However, the really clever bit of Hansen’s analysis has been to interpret the CO2 and temperature (i.e. oxygen isotope) data derived from the latter by reference to what we know about plate tectonics and the positions of the continents at any given point in geological time. Thus, he shows that the rise in the Earth’s global average temperature between 60 and 50 million years ago was due to the subduction of large amounts of carbonate seafloor sediments as India approached Asia. Conversely, the fall in global average temperature between 50 and 35 million years ago was due to the collision causing the formation and subsequent erosion of the Himalayas. The precise mechanisms for introducing CO2 to – and removing it from – the atmosphere are complicated, but it should be borne in mind that there is no other explanation that fits the facts: The Sun’s overall energy output has risen by less than 0.5% over the last 65 million years, whereas the natural forcings known to have caused the glacial – interglacial oscillations of the last 1 million years have only become effective in the absence of other factors and operate over much shorter timescales.
So where does that leave us today? Well, up until about 4 years ago, Hansen was convinced that humanity should aim to keep atmospheric CO2 below 450ppm (the conditions which induced Antarctica to become glaciated 35 million years ago). However, Hansen has since revised the safe limit down to 350ppm (compared to the current level of 390ppm) to which we must somehow return the atmosphere. Why has he done this? Well, the detail is in Hansen et al (2008) but, the main reasons are based on the (now familiar?) observation of thawing permafrost; melting sea ice, mountain glaciers and ice sheets; bioclimatic zone migration, and dying coral reefs. Some of these are simply threats to biodiversity but some are evidence of the amplifying feedbacks that threaten to accelerate change way beyond human ability to control, mitigate, or adapt: If we allow CO2 to reach 450ppm we will be unlikely to stop it continuing to rise to 650ppm, which would invoke sea level rise 1-2 metres per century for several centuries; and an eventual rise in temperature of at least 6 Celsius (i.e. until the Earth’s energy balance is eventually restored). In other words, an end to civilisation as we have known it for 7,000 years.
Hansen believes we can still avert disaster but only if we can derail the misinformation campaign being waged by those in favour of “business as usual“; and refuse to accept the greenwash being promulgated by even the greenest of governments. Hansen is quite blunt. He seems to believe that all governments (with the possible exception of Iceland) are in denial about the consequences of burning all fossil fuels simply because we can; and in denial about our ability to stabilise “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (Article 2 of the UNFCCC) simply because we are already doing exactly that. Certainly, the UK government has already failed this reality test by allowing Cairn Energy to drill for oil in the Arctic, whereas President Obama faces his moment of decision in the next few days: Will he approve or refuse permission for the Keystone XL Pipeline?
Clive Hamilton says that anthropogenic climate change is a “failure of modern politics” but I think it is collective “failure of imagination” and/or a “classification error”. We just don’t seem to be able to grasp the potential consequences of our current actions (or don’t want to accept the reality of them). Quite what historians will make of it, and how many people will be left to read what they write, no-one seems to care. It is the ultimate human folly: Everyone seems too busy exercising their right to “Carpe Diem” to stop and ask “Quo Vadis?”…