Tracking the Warming of Our Planet


Six Degrees — Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas, National Geographic Society, 2008, 336 pgs., $26.00
By David L. Brown

The 2007 report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) addressed the possibility that within the next century the global temperature might rise anywhere from one to six degrees Celsius. Taking that as a starting point, writer Mark Lynas delved into the files at Oxford University to review thousands of scientific papers on climate change. In doing the research for this book he divided his findings into six folders according to the possible warming suggested or implied by each report. The six main chapters of this book thus follow the pattern “One Degree” … through “Six Degrees.”

Nearly all of what he writes is familiar to followers of Star Phoenix Base, but the organization of the material by temperature range yields a clear perspective on the dangers of climate change as it might unfold. In effect, the book reads like a series of reports on disasters yet to come, building step by step into the possible future. Here is a very brief chapter-by-chapter summary:

One degree. This is a familiar world, basically the one in which we live today. Lynas kicks off with a description of the stabilized sand dunes of the western plains, notably the Nebraska Sand Hills, and the very likely possibility that drought and rising heat will soon destroy the plant cover that now supports grazing cattle and start the sand moving again in a far more serious “dust bowl” event that will continue into the forseeable future. In my book The Star Phoenix I described what will become the Nebraska Desert, so this is no surprise to me. I have visited that region on numerous occasions and once took a wrong turn down what turned out to be a closed road that wound among water-filled pot holes and drift sand for a number of miles before emerging at last on a paved road. I can testify that those sand dunes are real and are merely slumbering before coming to life once again to march across the landscape.

Lynas also addresses potential changes in the Atlantic currents that presently warm Europe; disappearing mountain glaciers; threats to the monsoon weather patterns on which southern Asia depends, causing extremes of drought and catastrophic floods; the on-going meltdown of the Arctic ice cap and hints that the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets may be entering a period of rapid melting. Coral bleaching, the loss of species such as the already extinct golden toad, and the chances of more severe hurricanes as the planet grows warmer round out the scenario as average temperatures rise by one degree. All-in-all, the one-degree world is familiar, pretty much the one we are living in today as the effects he describes are already beginning to appear. Even at this early stage, the danger of reaching a tipping point in the Arctic is introduced. Tipping points will become ever more likely as the heat rises, each bringing an unknown danger of sending the climate spiraling into new directions.

Two degrees. The plot thickens as Lynas walks us into to a future world that is beginning to look more ominous. Massive water shortages will strike in places such as China, India and Pakistan as mountain glaciers disappear and monsoon rains become less reliable. “China,” he writes, “will not just struggle to develop a more affluent lifestyle, it will struggle to feed itself too.”

At this stage the oceans will grow more acidic, threatening the very foundation of the Earth’s food chain. Organisms with calcium carbonate shells will potentially be destroyed, all the way from microscopic plankton to sea urchins, clams, mussels and oysters. To some extent these effects are already being observed.

Europe will become a much hotter place, making the heat wave of 2003 that killed as many as 35,000 people seem mild by comparison. In effect, the conditions of the Sahara Desert will jump across the Mediterranean Sea to transform a swath from Greece to Portugal. One study indicated that with two degrees of global warming, in 50 percent of future summers Europe will experience heat waves even worse than the one in 2003. As in the American High Plains, sand dunes may begin to appear in Spain and crops will wither and burn. Again, a tipping point may be reached as stunted foliage and parched soil gives up more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to feed spiraling warming.

After two degrees of warming the melting of ice will be taking off, causing sea levels to rise steadily higher. The Arctic Ice Cap will disappear completely, leading to a frenzied rush to extract oil and natural gas from the Arctic Ocean Basin, previously unreachable because of the floating ice. More fossil fuel to be burned and more CO2 to be released into the air as the spiral continues. By this time, polar bears, ringed seals, walrus, and even caribou will be threatened or already extinct as tundra melts and ice disappears. Again, this is an effect that is already under way and will only be made more serious at the two degree stage.

By then, vast numbers of people will find their native regions are becoming untenable. What will those millions of unfortunates do when to stay in place is to starve to death. Lynas kindly suggests they will become climate refugees, but will places such as Britain and the U.S. permit them to peacefully immigrate, whether legally or otherwise?

World food supplies by that time will be seriously reduced, and it seems unlikely that new lands in the north can be opened in time to maintain a world population that is zooming toward eight billion. My personal expectation is that those numbers will soon have to zoom in the other direction in a catastrophic reversal of population trends.

Lynas describes the two-degree world as “survivable” by humans, but points out that the same cannot be said for much of the natural world. The problem is the speed with which the temperature is changing — far too fast for plants and animals to adapt. When a species has decades or even centuries to move in response to climate change, as has usually been the case in past events, there is a chance for orderly change. Ancient climate change events generally took place over periods of 10,000 years or so, except for disastrous ones such as the meteoroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. What humans are doing to the planet’s environment today is on the order of that great event 65 million years ago, and indeed we already are well into what is being called the Sixth Great Extinction, ushering in a new geologic era dubbed the Anthropocene Mass Extinction. At two degrees of temperature rise, the loss of species will enter a runaway phase with more than a third of all species “committed to extinction,” over a million animals and plants in all.

Humankind will be helpless to mitigate this disaster. “Ecology is such a complicated web,” the author points out, “that we cannot even understand many of the living interactions that go on within ecosystems, let alone imagine that we can somehow redesign and replace them.” He concludes the chapter: “Functioning ecosystems cannot be created artificially. Life keeps us alive, and we lay waste to it at our peril.”

Three degrees. As the world warms to three degrees Celsius above present levels, the world will become less familiar. Deserts will be marching across formerly habitable areas and the El Nino events that wreak havoc to the Pacific Basin may become a permanent condition. The Amazon Rain Forest will fall before drought and fire, turning this rich ecosystem into a new Brazilian desert. Australia will become a blazing land of heat, fire, and spreading sand.

Oceans could rise by as much as a full meter in the three-degree world, placing in peril New York and hundreds of other coastal cities. Add the increasing danger of ever stronger Category Six hurricanes and many areas may become uninhabitable. We have already seen the potential of this in what happened to New Orleans in the face of Katrina. That city may be rebuilt, for now, but what insurors or government agencies would rebuild an entire city for a second time?

Agriculture will be devastated by alternating drought and floods and rising heat. Most crops are grown in climates near their maximum sustainable peak temperatures. Rice, wheat and corn, for example, perform optimally at summer temperatures at or below 30 degrees C. (86 degrees F.) Above that level, for each increase or one degree Centigrade crop yields will decline by 10 percent. At 40 degrees C. [104 degrees F.], yields reach zero. In many areas where crops are now grown, crop-killing temperatures such as those will become commonplace in continental interiors as the average global temperature passes through the three-degree mark.

A three degree world will see ever more dramatic change at the poles, with the loss of Arctic sea ice causing drought across much of North America. The last of the glaciers will be rapidly melting and even the massive Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets will be in accelerating retreat. The monsoons likely will be severely disrupted at this stage, “a matter of life and death for billions of people.”

Major rivers in Asia, notably the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahaputra, will dwindle as the high mountain glaciers that feed them disappear. The Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers also have their sources among the mountain peaks along the Top of the World and will be strongly affected by the loss of glacial and snow meltwater. The problem is not so much the amount of water that comes down from the mountains, but when. Melting glaciers and winter snow feed these rivers year around, but in a warmer world more of the moisture will come as rain and quickly run down to the sea as devastating floods, followed by drought. These Asian rivers alone sustain fully half of the Earth’s present population. Similar patterns will appear elsewhere, affecting the Colorado River in America, the fabled Nile, and the mighty Amazon. Truly, the world of three degrees will be a time of vast danger for human civilization … and yet there is far worse to come.

Four degrees. The four degree world will hardly be recognizable. Oceans will continue to rise, perhaps by many meters, engulfing up to a third of Bangladesh and threatening areas around the globe that are home to billions. The rising sea levels will continue for as long as ice remains to melt; in past eons when the Earth was four degrees warmer than it is today, there was no ice anywhere. Today the East Antarctic Ice Sheet alone contains enough frozen water to cause sea levels to rise by more than 50 meters. Of course, that is not going to happen in the near term — but a four-degree world will place us firmly on track for the total disappearance of polar ice.

Everywhere the civilized world we know will be crashing, and nowhere more than in China. With four degrees of warming, China will face feeding its population now approaching 1.5 billion with only two-thirds of the present agricultural production. World markets for food will have disappeared, and in fact are already stretched in the face of the biofuels insanity presently diverting food to fuel. Mass starvation will be occurring as former bread baskets turn into newly minted deserts.

By the four degree stage serious tipping points may be reached, causing the spiral to zoom ever faster. Vast areas of Arctic tundra will have melted, releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gas into the air. This process is already taking place, and at four degrees of warming it will be in full roar. It is estimated that 500 billion tons of CO2 and methane (an even more potent greenhouse gas) are locked in the frozen tundra of Canada, Alaska, and Russia.

Five degrees. As the temperatures rise, feedback and tipping points will lead the process onward. For example, as Lynas says, “if we reach three degrees, that increase could lead inexorably to four degrees, which in turn could lead inexorably to five.” In other words, beyond a certain tipping point there is a very real chance of runaway global warming, pushing the world “into an extreme — and increasingly apocalyptic — greenhouse state.”

Six degrees. We have now reached a stage where the world becomes completely unrecognizable. “Humans are herded into shrinking ‘zones of habitability’ by the twin crises of drought and flood. Inland areas see temperatures ten or more degrees [18 degrees F.] higher than now.” To put that in perspective, in the Midwest Corn Belt of the U.S., summer high temperatures in the mid 90’s F. are usual. Add 18 degrees to that and you can see that the heat is well beyond what crops can withstand. The danger of even more extreme climate change will increase with each upward nudge of the planetary thermometer.

I will not spend more time detailing the changes that might take place … it might seem too much like telling the end of a movie or informing a reader of a murder mystery that “the butler did it.” In fact, Lynas warns near the beginning of the chapter that “were this scenario to be a television program, it would be prefaced by a note of caution — some viewers may find some of the following scenes upsetting.”

Even so, in my opinion Lynas, like so many writers on the subject, holds back from the true horror of the scenario he reports. Even in the six degree world, he speaks of migration of peoples away from devastated regions as if that were a real possibility. I believe this is unlikely for a number of reasons; most victims of climate change will have no alternative but to stay in place and die.

He ends his book in a final chapter with what seems to me to be an unrealistic litany of steps that could be taken to mitigate the unfolding disaster — things like building wind generators that would cover 74 million acres in the U.S. alone; installing solar panels on five million acres of land; doubling auto economy and halving miles driven; and so forth. A total of at least seven such initiatives would be required, not only in America but around the world, merely to bring rising CO2 levels to a halt by 2050 —and even that would be insufficient to stop the spiral. Because of political and economic considerations, none of this seems plausible to me, and yet I understand and appreciate the hesitation to face climate change straight on for the terrible threat that it is. Those who speak in apocalyptic terms are soon branded as loonies, fear mongers and worse.

And yet…

In order to create momentum toward solutions to the problem of climate change, perhaps what the human race truly needs is a healthy dose of fear, to be scared right out of its socks. FDR told Americans during World War II that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Today we face a far greater danger, and unless and until the wide general public is well and truly terrified there is little hope that anything significant can be done to stop the downward slide toward planetary doom.

This well written and thoroughly documented book is a good step, joining many more voices for sanity. It will be read by a small number of people much like you and me, those of us who are already aware of the danger, and perhaps will introduce the subject to a few others.

Having an awareness of the threat of global warming is an uncomfortable and unsettling position in which to be. I would not even attempt a conversation on this subject with most of my acquaintances, and even those few who share some understanding of the problem feel powerless, frustrated, and yes, even depressed. After all, what can any one of us do? We are slaves to the economic model in which we live.

And yet, I do have a small bit of hope for the future of humanity, but based on views that many might consider cynical to the extreme.

First, as noted above, I believe that a dramatic reduction in human numbers is inevitable and that if our species is fortunate this may take place before extreme climate change is upon us. Yes, it is a horrible prospect to face, but the fact is that there already are far more of us than the Earth can support and as the planet warms this overburden of humanity will become even less sustainable. As Pogo the Possum pointed out years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The only true salvation of the Earth must and, I think, will begin with what James Lovelock calls “the great cull.” [For more on Lovelock’s ideas, read my book review “Revenge of Gaia, a Modern Horror Story,” posted July 23, 2006.] Lovelock has stated that global warming will kill six billion humans. Should that happen it would cause a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions and leave a much smaller population that would have a chance to survive.

Lovelock envisions the Earth as analogous to a living thing that he calls Gaia. He believes that Gaia (or Mother Nature if you will) works in mysterious ways to balance and stabilize the climate and ecosystems. It is his view, with which I agree, that She will act through the proven forces of the Four Horsemen — Famine, Pestilence, War and Death — to reduce the excess numbers of human beings that are causing Her such grief. If you have been paying attention, you will see signs that this program is already well under way. War is raging between Islam and the rest of the world and in a hundred different places. Famine is stalking the Third World with hundreds of millions of people now living under the shadow of starvation and their numbers rising fast. Pestilence is riding around the world with the possibility of an avian flu pandemic, newly emerging strains of drug-resistant tuberculosis, and waves of Ebola and other diseases rising almost everywhere you look. And, of course, Death always patiently awaits us all.

Taking a less grim look at the situation, and in the nearer term, I believe that it is possible that people will soon begin to act more responsibly toward the environment — not from a sense of concern but from sheer necessity. For example, in the U.S. we are now experiencing sustained gasoline prices in the range of $3 a gallon and with the possibility of even higher levels. The cost of natural gas and electricity has also risen. Humans respond to economic cues, and as energy costs remain high they will begin to change consumption patterns and make different lifestyle decisions. Already sales of large SUVs and pickup trucks are lagging and demand for more efficient vehicles will surely continue to climb. People are more likely to plan their lives to require less driving and less use of heating and air conditioning. Many may begin to grow small gardens for food; move closer to their jobs; or find a job close to home. Others will create home-based work opportunities for themselves.

In other parts of the world, less fortunate people will also make changes from necessity. For example, Chinese and Indian plans to make their nations into mirror images of 20th Century America and Europe will run into a wall as it becomes apparent that there are not enough resources to achieve that dream. They will of strict necessity find more rational alternatives. And, of course, in the very poorest places that same necessity will bring the Four Horsemen calling at the door.

When one person takes actions such as these, or has them imposed upon him or her, it matters little. But when millions do it will make a difference, and when billions do it could be the difference that would start strong momentum in a new and more sane direction (although not without serious disruption and suffering for many). [For more of my thoughts on this, read the essay “Who Is To Blame for Environmental Change?”, posted November 29, 2007.]

Truly there is the possibility of runaway warming and a climate spiraling out of control, and yet somehow I think there is a positive chance for humanity in the end. No, it will not be an easy transition from the growth-driven world in which we live today. If civilization is to endure in some form, humanity must go through a wormhole of sorts, passing through the testing fire of dramatic change and creating entirely new ways of living. And make no mistake that there is any question of choice about this matter — we are going into that wormhole whether we want to or not, as described by Mr. Lynas. And if there is anything we know about wormholes (if they even exist), it is that we don’t have the least idea what might happen inside them or where they might come out!

Stay tuned for interesting times ahead.

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