Wednesday, November 24, 2021

It's The End Of The World As We Know It


First there was the plague. In February 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic seized the planet, disrupting normal life, and taking more than five million lives and counting as it spread despite humanity’s best efforts to limit its reach. Then, there was fire. In the summer of 2021, in the paradisal setting of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, Canada, the temperature rose to 49.6 degrees Celsius as a heat dome settled upon the Pacific Northwest. The day after the record high was set, the village of Lytton burst into flames, destroying more than 90% of the buildings in the village. Houses on the adjacent Lytton First Nation reserves, home to the Nlaka’pamux people who have resided on the territory for thousands of years, also burned to the ground. Hundreds of people in the province died from heat-related illness; more than a billion sea animals were cooked alive; and crops were destroyed – the cherries were roasting on the trees Then came the floods. In November 2021, an atmospheric river drenched the region that had just survived the summer wildfires. More than a month’s rain fell during 24 hours, causing massive flooding, forcing the evacuation of the entire population of nearby Merrit, British Columbia, approximately 8000 residents. Vancouver, Canada’s largest port, was cut off from the rest of the country; the principal roads and rail lines had been washed away.  

Suddenly, there were thousands of climate change refugees looking for shelter. In a weird twist of fate, a nearby Seventh Day Adventist Summer Camp and Conference Center, aptly named Camp Hope, offered to take in some of Merrit’s refugees. In case you are wondering, The Seventh Day Adventists are a Protestant denomination that strongly believes in the sanctity of the sabbath and the imminent second coming of Jesus, in other words, a doctrine that incorporates a strong belief in the end of days as spelled out in the bible. A few weeks earlier, Camp Hope had taken in refugees from the Lytton First Nation reserves. As a result, Camp Hope became the meeting place for displaced people from both Indigenous communities and the descendants of the European settlers who made their way onto what had been exclusively Indigenous land.

You have to think at some point in time, there would be an exchange, some type of communication between these two forsaken groups. I would love to have been there. A clash of civilizations. Competing narratives trying to make sense of what had just happened. I imagine someone from the Nlaka’pamux band lashing out at one of the beleaguered, white residents from Merrit, saying something to the effect, “Look at us. We tried to warn you. But you wouldn’t listen.” And a Seventh Day Adventist handing them both a pamphlet explaining how the these types of natural catastrophes are a warning of the second coming.

Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to cite scripture to understand what’s happening, although the idea of the apocalypse certainly appears to be in play. Instead, we can look to science to give us an explanatory narrative, which unfortunately might be even more frightening than end of days scenarios we have previously known.

In short, we have left the Holocene geological epoch, the period of time after the last ice age in which the planet’s climate warmed and remained stable for approximately 10,000 years, giving rise to human civilization. Some time ago, we entered into the Anthropocene epoch, the period of time in which human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet's climate and ecosystems. That of course came about with the invention of the steam engine, giving birth to the Industrial Age and the corelating burning of fossil fuels to propel the economic expansion.

With the increase of CO2 released into the atmosphere due to the burning of coal, oil, and gas, scientists correctly predicted that this would have an effect on the environment: higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase its greenhouse effect, eventually leading to global warming. The particulars, how much and how fast, have been subject of intense debate, but the underlying principles to why the planet could expect global climate change if we continued to indiscriminately dump trillions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere were sound.

Some scientists label the 1950s as the point in time in which the Great Acceleration occurs, a period of time in which the consumption of material goods begins to skyrocket world-wide as the planet’s inhabitants yearn and aspire to North American levels of consumption. In 1958, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was approximately 310 parts per million (ppm). Today (Nov. 17, 2021), the concentration was measured at 414 ppm, an increase of a mind-boggling 33% in only sixty short years, a blink of an eye in geological time.

As could be expected, the planet has warmed up since the dawn of the industrial age, approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius, and that has already brought on cataclysmic climate change: glaciers in retreat, polar ice caps melting, extended periods of severe drought, unprecedented wildfires in North America, Europe, and Australia, increased atmospheric disturbances, grasslands turning into desserts, and ocean acidification leading to the death of coral reefs, to mention a few.

It’s not as if the leaders of the countries in the Global North had not been forewarned. As early as 1957, scientists in the United States sensed the potential scale of the problem that global warming presented – human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future – and decided to build a site to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide near the summit of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, 11,500 feet above sea level. For ten years they collected data, and Presidents were informed of the potential risks of global warming. Finally, in 1979, at the request of President Jimmy Carter and the National Academy of the Sciences, the Climate Research Board was convened to assess the future climatic changes resulting from man-made releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Board reached a stark conclusion in its report: Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment. The Assessment predicts that based on current rates of CO2 emissions (emission rates have increased significantly since the publication of the report) the global surface of the earth will warm 2 to 3.5 degrees Celsius, more so at higher latitudes, sometime during the twenty-first century.

During the 1980s, the Americans and the rest of the world dithered when it came to reducing CO2 emissions. Instead, attention was focused on the problem of atmospheric pollution caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) normally emitted by refrigeration, solvents, and aerosol sprays that were reducing the level of ozone in the atmosphere (remember the hole in the ozone layer), thereby allowing a dangerous level of ultra violet light to reach the earth, potentially causing unprecedented levels to skin cancer to appear. Here was a problem that was much easier to fix. To their credit, representatives from around the world were able to negotiate an agreement, the Montreal Protocol, to reduce the use of CFCs, and the threat to human health was successfully mitigated. Yet, such an agreement, although showing that international cooperation to solve a global environmental problem was possible, did nothing to abate the increasing extraction and burning of fossil fuels globally.

There was a ray of hope in 1988 when NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansen, appeared before a Senate Committee and reported that there was undeniable evidence establishing the link between an increase in global surface temperatures and the greenhouse effect. The signal had emerged from the noise and the world took notice. That same year the United Nations established the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was tasked to periodically provide reports concerning climate change, drawing upon the peer-reviewed scientific research papers from around the world. A few years later (1995) the United Nations sponsored the first annual global conference about climate change held in Berlin. Some twenty years later, it appeared that some progress had been made at the level of discussions: during the 2015 conference in Paris, an agreement was struck to provide a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing efforts to limit the warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In some people’s minds, the Paris Agreement represented a potential pathway to avoid catastrophic climate change. A glimmer of hope – perhaps, but in reality, despite all the talk, more CO2 was being dumped into the atmosphere than ever before.

Looking at that data compiled and presented by Barry Saxifrage in the following charts concerning the consumption of oil, gas, and coal, it is clear that the global burning of fossil fuels has actually increased dramatically since 1990.

 As measured by the metric, tonne of oil equivalent (toe), a metric used to compare different sources of energy (a Mtoe is a million toe and a Gtoe is a billion toe), the level of consumption of all fossil fuels combined rose from 7.1 Gtoe in 1990 to 11.7 Gtoe in 2018, a staggering increase of 65%. As could be expected, the acceleration of the global fossil fuel burn would show up in the CO2 atmospheric measurements at the Mauna Loa observatory: from 1990 to 1999 the annual mean of atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased 1.50 parts per million (ppm) per year; from 2000 to 2009 the annual mean increased 1.97 ppm per year; and from 2010 to 2018 the annual mean increased 2.40 ppm per year. This acceleration should be more than a cause for concern because the trend raises the specter of a catastrophic climate change.

 

 

Looking at the global fossil fuel burn from a longer historical perspective, we discover that more than 80% of the CO2 emissions dumped into the atmosphere occurred after the Great Acceleration in the 1950s, and more than 50% since 1990 when the threat of global warming had become well known in the political corridors around the world.

No wonder the youth of today look at the UN sponsored conferences on global change with cynicism. In their eyes, the world’s politicians have been co-opted by the multinational fossil fuel corporations, and both are engaged in a concerted effort to greenwash the future, which will certainly be bleak for future generations if the present trends continue.

For example, the latest global conference held in Glasgow in 2021, COP26, confirmed that such meetings were, in the words of the world-renown, young activist, Greta Thunberg, little more than “blah, blah, blah.”

And she’s right.

The take-a-ways from COP26 included more hollow pledges committing governments to future actions that have no compliance measures to ensure that the reductions in the burning of fossil fuels will be met; a laughable recognition that the burning of fossil fuels are linked to climate change; and the failure to put into words the commitment to “phase out”, not “phase down” the burning of coal.

What is more telling are the actions undertaken by the governments of the world leaders who try to pass themselves off as climate change warriors. In the case of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, his government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline so to continue with its construction that would triple the amount of tar sand oil, one of the most destructive carbon-intensive and toxic fuels on the planet, to be exported from Alberta. The pipeline runs across British Columbia, a province that has just been hit with two climate change catastrophes in less than six months. In a similar vein, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, has lent his support to the building of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, slated to be the longest in the world, bringing even more oil to global markets, in order to increase France’s economic presence in the region. Finally, the American President, Joe Biden, proud of the green energy proposals in his Build Back Better plan recently signed into law, failed to halt the approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on U.S. public lands – more than 2000 permits were approved during his first six months in office – and his administration opened up more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to auction for oil and gas drilling only four days after the close of COP 26 in Glasgow, a lease sale that has the potential to emit more than 500 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter how much new clean energy resources we develop to fuel our vehicles, heat our homes, and light our buildings as long as we continue to dump CO2 into the atmosphere. Adding new CO2 at the present rate increases the greenhouse effect and, as a result, increases global warming, regardless of how much of our energy needs are met by renewable resources.

As the following chart demonstrates the growth in the available amount of clean energy is woefully insufficient to match our energy needs as compared to the global fossil fuel burn.







As Saxifrage’s chart shows, energy obtained from renewables and nuclear power did increase significantly from 1990 to 2018, from 1.0 Gtoe to 2.1 Gtoe, an increase of 1.1 Gtoe. However, the energy obtained from burning fossil fuels in absolute terms increased from 7.1 Gtoe to 11.7 Gtoe, an increase of 4.6 Gtoe. Thus, the increase in energy obtained from the burning of fossil fuels was four times greater than the increase in energy obtained from renewables and nuclear power. Moreover, the gap between the two categories of energy use has risen from 6.1 Gtoe in 1990 to 9.6 Gtoe in 2018. This is cause for concern since the global demand for energy is returning to pre-pandemic levels, thereby re-establishing the historic trend of the use of energy from burning fossil fuels far outstripping the use of energy from other sources. 




According to Saxifrage, “it is just another form of climate denial to expect clean energy to force fossil fuel burning to fall — let alone fall all the way down to zero as required to avoid a climate crisis.” I agree. It is also another form of climate denial to expect that carbon sequestration technology or geoengineering interventions to counteract potential catastrophic climate change without severely reducing the global fossil fuel burn.

So, either we eliminate the use of energy obtained from burning fossil fuels – an extremely disruptive change, requiring fundamental changes to the way we lead our lives and organize our societies – or we continue along our present collective path, leading us to the possible extinction of the human species as the planet’s atmosphere morphs into one that no longer supports human life.

Such a scenario makes me think about the pamphlets the Seventh Day Adventists were handing out to the climate change refugees in Camp Hope, British Columbia. If I could rewrite the story in the pamphlet, I would say that we were all born into something like the Garden of Eden, but we were not cast out. On the contrary, those of us lucky to find ourselves in paradise never learned when enough is enough, and we let our desire to have more and more get the better of us, and we chose to ignore the warning signs that we were destroying the garden. Moreover, we decided to build a wall around a portion of the garden and began to transfer the wealth from outside the walls inside, leaving the people who lived outside of the walls to live to on the impoverished soil. Those living inside the fortress blamed the poorer people for their plight, saying that they deserved their misfortune because the outcasts were liars, cheaters, and refused to help themselves.

I would also change the part that deals with the apocalypse. In the biblical version, as prophesized in the Book of Revelation, the apocalypse depicts the complete destruction of the world preceding the establishment of a new world and heaven. In my version, the destruction of human civilization is not a prelude to a better life. Rather, the massive die off of humans is simply a stage in the evolution of the planet: the dominant species on the planet became too numerous and greedily devoured as much of the planet’s natural resources as it could, destroying the habitat that made its life possible on earth, and putting into play planetary forces out of their control that over time brings about the extinction of the species. Humans may be warm-blooded and capable of performing advanced cognitive feats, like putting a man on the moon, harnessing the tremendous energy contained within a single atom, or writing a symphony that elicits tears of joy, but when it comes to our collective intelligence, we are like the dinosaurs that used to be the dominant species and met their demise as a result of climate change.

The other thing that calls into question our collective intelligence is that unlike the biblical version, where the coming of the end of days is revealed and the hidden information about God, the real nature of our lives and the spiritual world is made known, humanity knows very well what will bring about its demise, but chooses to do little or nothing to change the path it’s on.

The scientific evidence available to all doesn’t lie. The message is clear: stop extracting and burning fossil fuels!

Yet, we continue on this path as if there were no tomorrow. Consequently, I feel like I am a character in a science fiction film in which humanity learns that there is an asteroid hurtling toward the earth and will destroy the planet upon impact. However, in this movie there are no heroes that save the day. As well, the cascade of natural disasters unfold in what appears to be slow motion. This movie doesn’t last two hours; it runs for decades, perhaps for centuries, slowly grinding towards its inevitable conclusion: the end of the world as we know it.   

 

 

 


 


2 comments:

  1. Well, Brian, you seem to have summed it up pretty well. Thanks. Have you read Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"?

    ReplyDelete

All comments will be reviewed before posting. Civility is a must.