26 March 2016

What humanity needs to defeat our own stupidity.

James Hansen is a prominent climate scientist who has been following the climate change dilemma for as long as anyone. In 1988, while America was showing the world how to use dino nectar to turn on Earth's "oven clean" mode, he was speaking to Congress about the dangers of what has been defined as the most acceptable form of air pollution on the planet. In the years since, while politicians claimed carbon dioxide is perfectly safe because we exhale it all day long, James has been doing research and handing us plastic bags to tie over heads to let us demonstrate just how safe this stuff really is.

Like most every other scientist, James has gotten some predictions wrong. Unfortunately, they are not "wrong" in the sense that the effects have not been as bad as the magic mirror told him. Quite the opposite. Things are moving more rapidly than predicted and their latest scientifically reviewed and accepted paper his colleagues penned with him suggests that the key ingredient we have missed is that emissions appear to increase exponentially. Rest assured, the rapid rise cannot continue forever, but the feedback loop where one small bullet can release two others which release four others has created a situation where we have no idea how bad this will get. What we do know does not look good for humanity.

Were that news not troubling enough, scientists have found no parallel in the history of our planet for what is happening right now. The thinking used to be that planet-wide mass extinction event 56 million years ago, called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), was a perfect comparison. We do not know exactly what caused it (they forgot to turn off the T-Rex Humvee, perhaps) but massive amounts of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere causing global warming and killing off countless species, primarily due to ocean acidification. New research has shown that the dead-dino SUV's were putting two billion tons of gassy carbon into the air per year. At that rate many species had an opportunity to adjust because Earth's climate was changing at the same rate as the pollution.

Our planet cannot keep up with our rate of pollution.
Today's evolved chimps have built SUV's, airplanes, coal plants and "clean" natural gas buses that combine to release 30 billion tons per year. That is ten times what Earth can process and means that the impact of what we do this year will not be fully realized for a decade. Worse yet, we have been doing this for a hundred years and even if we were able to stop all carbon emissions at this moment, our situation will continue to get worse through the end of the century. It will take over a hundred thousand years before our planet naturally returns to the state it was in just last year.

Most of the world believes that humanity can easily cope with what is on the horizon, and even if we cannot the scientists have been saying the awful stuff is not until next century. Not so much. This is the prediction that Hansen has said we continue to get very wrong. We have already surpassed the 2 degree centigrade mark fifteen years ahead of schedule. In the past two years we have been finding giant sync holes all over Siberia where trapped methane is being released - again, decades ahead of schedule. Mr. Hansen's paper contends that it is likely that within the next four decades the "overturning circulation" in the ocean will change or cease all-together causing drastic storms and weather changes throughout the world, including another dramatic loss in sea ice. The sea level of the ocean may well rise 3 meters or more during that time causing nearly any town or city near a body of water to be potential future Atlantis tourist attraction. Oh, then there is the massive tides that are strong enough to pitch boulders as easily as Steve Carlton once tossed baseballs.

My final piece of sobering news is that humanity is not going to do jack shit about it until those boulders are raining down on Broadway. Let's ignore the communicable ignorance of the American GOP or Australia's brain-dead Tony Abbott for the moment and assume we are a world of intelligent homo-sapiens that generally accept scientific consensus and common sense. Even in that idealized world, humanity has never been one to correct issues whose impact is still years down the road.

Using Uncle Sam's purple majesty as but one example - our country knew Japan was going to attack us, had a President that wanted to enter the war but still did not declare until after Pearl Harbor. We knew our infrastructure in New Orleans was at the breaking point and yet did nothing to fix it until after Hurricane Katrina. We know most of the bridges in Seattle are built with hallow columns that implode during a seismic event and yet even knowing "the big one" is coming we have done next to nothing to correct it. The taxes on gasoline have not been raised in twenty years and oil has seemingly never been cheaper, but do we add to the chunk the government collects? Nope. Sure, America has reduced our emissions but only because we sit on the world's largest stockpile of natural gas that creates electricity cheaper than coal.

"Clean" only if you ignore the carbon emissions and the massive natural gas leaks throughout the world.
Every day our world delays stopping all emissions is ten days of continued worsening of this disaster. We could switch to all carbon-free options of electricity (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear) within ten years if we wanted to, but instead we celebrate using natural gas that emits half the carbon while this clean energy causes some of the worst natural disasters our world has ever seen. Neat. I mean, why fix the problem when we have different fossil fuels that can just delay it by a few days?

If - I mean "when" the world comes to it's collective senses and decides to do something real, we hope there is a potential fix: We must remove the pollution. Assuming we have an opportunity after the world-altering impact begins, humanity will need to stop delaying and start implementing methods that have a net reduction of carbon from the atmosphere. There are countless ways this might be possible, from planting more trees, raising fields of carbon-sucking algae or zapping the air with specialized lasers. (Really.) The question is what solutions will work rapidly enough. Sadly, all of these ideas are significantly slower at carbon removal than the pace we are burning fossil fuels. So, maybe we should start taking larger steps toward zero emissions immediately? Or, we could take the typical approach and let disaster strike first. I mean, how big is a boulder, really?