Home Politics Sounding the Alarm: Climate Change & The Anthropocene

Sounding the Alarm: Climate Change & The Anthropocene

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In the sugar­cane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. Photo: Heartless Machine

As many of us are aware, Climate Change is real, and the basic science supporting the greenhouse effect and it’s exponential growth curve since the dawn of the industrial revolution are well documented and widely accepted by the scientific community. And yet, there are a mass of people out there who are still in denial of these basic facts and observations derived from Climate science.

The Truth is, we are now entering the Anthropocene: The Age of Human Impact on Earth. This is a geological term that is in part derived from Anthropology, but with consideration of human influence on the environment. The fact that there isn’t a beach in the world that doesn’t have plastics or other human generated waste, or the massive deforestation and environmental devastation caused by man and his conquest of nature, to the cascading impacts on the ecosystem which are most easily observed in the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, should be evidence enough to convince anyone that human impact is real.

You would have to be an idiot, or a real asshole to deny all of this, and so the debate rages on, and with our recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, we can see, either an idiot or an asshole doing their best to undermine their predecessor.

If the information below sounds Alarmist, then good! That’s the point! WAKE UP! Ready yourselves!

Here’s what you need to know about the impending climate change disaster: 

  • To read an annotated version of this article, complete with interviews with scientists and links to further reading, click here.
  • Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.

    I. ‘Doomsday’ 

    • It is, I promise, worse than you think
    • swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand.
    • This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.
    • Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen

      “Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

    • that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful.
    • satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought
    • Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”
    • no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough
    • the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past
    • the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solveThis article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change.
    • the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve
    • This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change.
    • it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.
    • The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough
    • Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade.
    • Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe
    • Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it.
    • The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research
    • the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century
    • The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt
    • The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere)
    • The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now
    • each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock
    • these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas.
    • The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead.
    • We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster.
    • This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years.
    • advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

      “Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention.”

    • the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.
    • In the sugar­cane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. Photo: Heartless Machine

      II. Heat Death 

    • Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs.
    • At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics
    • in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal.
    • At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat.The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe.
    • Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable

      “At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer.”

    • At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today.
    • By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century
    • As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.

      III. The End of Food 

    • Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent.
    • Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them.
    • It takes 16 calories of grain to produce just a single calorie of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life polluting the climate with methane farts.
    • Pollyannaish plant physiologists will point out that the cereal-crop math applies only to those regions already at peak growing temperature
    • theoretically, a warmer climate will make it easier to grow corn in Greenland.
    • you can’t easily move croplands north a few hundred miles, because yields in places like remote Canada and Russia are limited by the quality of soil there
    • Drought might be an even bigger problem than heat, with some of the world’s most arable land turning quickly to desert

      “Predictions for later this century are basically unanimous: unprecedented droughts nearly everywhere food is today producedBy 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American dust bowl ever was.”

    • The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains” and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization.
    • In case you haven’t heard, this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone.

      IV. Climate Plagues 

    • There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them.
    • Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.
    • n Alaska, already, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million and killed as many as 100 million — about 5 percent of the world’s population and almost six times as many as had died in the world war
    • BBC reported in May, scientists suspect smallpox and the bubonic plague are trapped in Siberian ice, too
    • last year, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier
    • Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, too, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster.

      V. Unbreathable Air 

    • Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100
    • At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.
    • by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected.
    • one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors).
    • By 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today;
    • A metric called the Air Quality Index categorizes the risks and tops out at the 301-to-500 range, warning of “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly”
    • The Chinese “airpocalypse” of 2013 peaked at what would have been an Air Quality Index of over 800.

      VI. Perpetual War 

    • For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict
    • A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today.
    • A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today.
    • Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.
    • This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles.

      “Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming.”

    • a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.
    • Heat increases municipal crime rates, and swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation

      VII. Permanent Economic Collapse 

    • a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living
    • Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves
    • After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy
    • Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”).

      “Their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor).”

    • There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100
    • a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline.
    • By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent
    • The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world.
    • Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.

      VIII. Poisoned Oceans 

    • Barring a radical reduction of emissions, we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century
    • A third of the world’s major cities are on the coast, not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas, marshlands, and rice-paddy empires, and even those above ten feet will flood much more easily, and much more regularly, if the water gets that high.
    • At least 600 million people live within ten meters of sea level today.
    • “ocean acidification,” which, on its own, may add a half a degree to warming this century
    • “coral bleaching” — that is, coral dying
    • reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food for half a billion people.
    • they do know that in acid waters, oysters and mussels will struggle to grow their shells, and that when the pH of human blood drops as much as the oceans’ pH has over the past generation, it induces seizures, comas, and sudden death.

      “This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the ‘Skeleton Coast.'”

    • This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.”
    • Hydrogen sulfide is so toxic that evolution has trained us to recognize the tiniest, safest traces of it, which is why our noses are so exquisitely skilled at registering flatulence.
    • Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97 percent of all life on Earth died, once all the feedback loops had been triggered and the circulating jet streams of a warmed ocean ground to a halt — it’s the planet’s preferred gas for a natural holocaust.

      IX. The Great Filter 

    • In his recent book-length essay The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction
    • In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”
    • a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations.
    • Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries
    • But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades

      “Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime.”

    • Wally Broecker is 84 years old and drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
    • Like most of those who first raised the alarm, he believes that no amount of emissions reduction alone can meaningfully help avoid disaster.
    • Instead, he puts his faith in carbon capture — untested technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which Broecker estimates will cost at least several trillion dollars — and various forms of “geoengineering,”
    • the catchall name for a variety of moon-shot technologies far-fetched enough that many climate scientists prefer to regard them as dreams, or nightmares, from science fiction.
    • In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.
    • Peter Ward, a charismatic paleontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the “Great Filter”
    • “Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,”
    • “If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.”
    • The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.
    • climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.
    • The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do.
    • when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.

Learn more @ New York Magazine

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