2014-04-17 / Editorial

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It’s already too late
By John Enright

It’s human nature. No one wants to hear bad news. Doomsayers are especially suspect. How many times has the prophesized end of the world failed to arrive? And then there is the seductive power of denial. There is good reason Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary about global climate change was called “An Inconvenient Truth.” And, oh yes, politics – if progressives claim something is true, it must, on ideological principle, be false. Finally, there is the nature of time itself: It will happen when? In the as yet uncertain future? The future cannot help but be uncertain. What’s new?

Only, this doomsday prediction is not the calculation of some spiritual fanatic based on his readings of ancient texts. This one arrives with the Q.E.D. and imprimatur of modern scientific fact. The evidence is irrefutable and internationally acknowledged. Humancaused climate change is real. Its effects are already evident. Its by now unstoppable acceleration will be cataclysmic.

Last Saturday evening at URI, Guy McPherson, emeritus professor at the University of Arizona, laid out the evidence. His prediction? By 2030 the extinction of the human species will commence.

The extinction will be set off by ecosystem damage caused by climate change and by loss of habitat in the human food chain. Already, half of the phytoplankton in the world’s oceans – he base nutrient of marine life – has disappeared due to chemical and temperature changes brought about by human use of fossil fuels. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have doubled. They are higher now than they have been in the past 20 million years.

The climate scientists have posited that an average worldwide temperature increase of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius above baseline (what it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) will be the tipping point into environmental chaos. Their current conservative prediction – an increase of 5 degrees Celsius by 2050. Humans have not lived on the Earth at a temperature greater than 3.5 C above baseline.

All these facts and many more, supported by 40 years of ever more refined scientific observations and analysis, are readily available. To some extent or another we have heard it all before. The fact is that human civilization is a heat engine, and our species has been so successful in spreading and reproducing and inventing and consuming and polluting that we have chemically altered our planet. And the planet is going to react. Only the total collapse of the species and its habits could prevent runaway climate change.

But maybe that won’t even do it. It is entirely possible that it is already too late to halt the transformation. As climate change and overall global warming accelerate, new and more drastic, irreversible, self-reinforcing and interacting feedback loops emerge, completely beyond our control, even if we stopped using all carbon fuels tomorrow. Warmer Arctic winters mean melting permafrost and peat bogs and the release of massive amounts of atmosphere-warming methane. Changing ocean temperatures brings dramatic climate changes, which accelerate other changes, which speeds sea-level rise. Etc.,—an explosion of changes feeding on themselves and speeding up exponentially, not linearly. Professor McPherson presented a long list of such selfreinforcing loops (GuyMcpher son.org).

This was the really scary stuff, as it meant that the previously vague answer to When? Was now Soon, very soon. By 2030 to be more precise. Depending upon how drastically nature undertakes its corrective actions, this could bring on the planet’s next great extinction, in which most of Earth’s living inhabitants, including Homo sapiens, vanish. It has happened before, without man’s assistance.

Of course, no one wants to hear this, which is why we seldom do. Who wants to admit complicity in matricide?

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