At the risk of sounding even more pompous than I actually am, I happen to know a bit about thermodynamics, complex systems and so forth and …
I couldn’t agree more with this article (below) as to the very real prospect of a truly terrible ‘tipping point’ within the next decade or two if we don’t address global warming right now..
I don’t typically enjoy being a harbinger of doom, and I do see lots of good things happening all over the globe, but … If the earth’s climate goes south, we’re looking at widespread crop failures and, as in Darfur, the resulting famine, war, disease, cats and dogs living together without the benefit of marriage and … other things too horrible to contemplate.
Earth at 350
by Bill McKibben
Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be
a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary,
a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start–even
for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.
It’s not just the economy. We’ve gone through swoons before. It’s that
gas at $4 a gallon means we’re running out, at least of the cheap stuff
that built our sprawling society. It’s that when we try to turn corn
into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and
starts food riots on three continents. It’s that everything is so
inextricably tied together. It’s that, all of a sudden, those grim Club
of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the
“limits to growth” suddenly seem… how best to put it, right.
All of a sudden it isn’t morning in America, it’s dusk on planet Earth.
There’s a number–a new number–that makes this point most
powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in
parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA’s Jim Hansen,
submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The
abstract attached to it argued–and I have never read stronger
language in a scientific paper–“if humanity wishes to preserve a
planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life
on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change
suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at
most 350 ppm.” Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points–massive
sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them–that
we’ll pass if we don’t get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them,
judging by last summer’s insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be
So it’s a tough diagnosis. It’s like the doctor telling you that your
cholesterol is way too high, and if you don’t bring it down right away,
you’re going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the
cheese, and, if you’re lucky, you get back into the safety zone before
the coronary. It’s like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone
and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear
that clunk up front.
In this case, though, it’s worse than that because we’re not taking the
pill and we are stomping on the gas–hard. Instead of slowing down,
we’re pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news
that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last
year–two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.
And suddenly, the news arrives that the amount of methane, another
potent greenhouse gas, accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly
begun to soar as well. Apparently, we’ve managed to warm the far north
enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost and massive
quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.
And don’t forget: China is building more power plants, India is
pioneering the $2,500 car, and Americans are converting to TVs the size
of windshields that suck juice ever faster.
Here’s the thing. Hansen didn’t just say that, if we didn’t act, there
was trouble coming; or, if we didn’t yet know what was best for us, we’d
certainly be better off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere. His phrase was: “…if we wish to preserve a planet similar
to that on which civilization developed.” A planet with billions of
people living near those oh-so-floodable coastlines. A planet with evermore vulnerable forests. (A beetle, encouraged by warmer temperatures, has already managed to kill
ten times more trees this year than in any previous infestation across the
northern reaches of Canada. This means far more carbon heading
for the atmosphere, and apparently dooms Canada’s efforts to comply with
the Kyoto Protocol, already in doubt because of its decision to start
producing oil for the US from Alberta’s tar sands.)
We’re the ones who kicked off the warming; now, the planet is starting
to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and
suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80 percent of incoming solar
radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80 percent of
the sun’s heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the
sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind.
And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them–to reverse
course. Here’s the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra
Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way,
got his job when the Bush Administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil,
forced out his predecessor): “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s
too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our
future. This is the defining moment.”
In the next two or three years, the nations of the world are supposed to
be negotiating a successor treaty to the Kyoto Accord. When December
2009 rolls around, heads of state are supposed to converge on Copenhagen
to sign a treaty–a treaty that would go into effect at the last
plausible moment to heed the most basic and crucial of limits on
If we did everything right, says Hansen, we could see carbon emissions
start to fall fairly rapidly and the oceans begin to pull some of that
CO2 out of the atmosphere. Before the century was out we might even be
on track back to 350. We might stop just short of some of those tipping
points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of
More likely, though, we’re the Coyote–because “doing everything
right” means that political systems around the world would have to take
enormous and painful steps right away. It means no more new coal-fired
power plants anywhere, and plans to quickly close the ones already in
operation. (Coal-fired power plants operating the way they’re supposed
to are, in global warming terms, as dangerous as nuclear plants melting
down.) It means making car factories turn out efficient hybrids next
year, just the way we made them turn out tanks in six months at the
start of World War II. It means making trains an absolute priority and
planes a taboo.
It means making every decision wisely because we have so little time and
so little money, at least relative to the task at hand. And hardest of
all, it means the rich countries of the world sharing resources and
technology freely with the poorest ones, so that they can develop
dignified lives without burning their cheap coal.
That’s possible–we launched a Marshall Plan once, and we could do it
again, this time in relation to carbon. But in a month when the
President has, once more, urged us to drill in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, that seems unlikely. In a month when the alluring
phrase “gas tax holiday” has danced into our vocabulary, it’s hard to
see (though it was encouraging to see that Clinton’s gambit didn’t sway
many voters). And if it’s hard to imagine sacrifice here, imagine China,
where people produce a quarter as much carbon apiece as we do.
Still, as long as it’s not impossible, we’ve got a duty to try. In fact,
it’s about the most obvious duty humans have ever faced.
A few of us have just launched a new campaign, 350.org. Its only goal is
to spread this number around the world in the next eighteen months, via art
and music and ruckuses of all kinds, in the hope that it will push those
post-Kyoto negotiations in the direction of reality.
After all, those talks are our last chance; you just can’t do this one
light bulb at a time. And if this 350.org campaign is a Hail Mary pass,
well, sometimes those passes get caught.
We do have one thing going for us: this new tool the web, which at
least allows you to imagine something like a grassroots global effort.
If the Internet was built for anything, it was built for sharing this
number, for making people understand that “350” stands for a kind of
safety, a kind of possibility, a kind of future.
Hansen’s words were well-chosen: “a planet similar to that on which
civilization developed.” People will doubtless survive on a non-350
planet, but those who do will be so preoccupied, coping with the endless
unintended consequences of an overheated planet, that civilization may
Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security
provided by a workable relationship with the natural world. That margin
won’t exist, at least not for long, this side of 350. That’s the limit
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