Saturday, September 18, 2010

sustainability's end

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

More than 14 percent of the US population, I read in the NYT today (9.18.10, B Herbert, ”Two Different Worlds”), now lives in poverty. Yesterday I read in the Economist (9.9.10, Report on Latin America) that Chile's proportion of poor people has fallen to less than 14 percent.

But this post is not about the Bush legacy. There's a bigger picture, of the forcing of world climate and the declining stability of the Earth system. The cover of Scientific American’s current issue, vol. 303, no. 3, is held in red, with two words dominating the page: the end.

One of the features of this month’s issue, under the rubric “risk analysis,” is “Laying the Odds on the Apocalypse,” by J Matson, 82-83. It’s all in good cheer (or not), as the author puts the odds for runaway global warming at “one in 2 in the next 200 years”. The risk he’s worried about (p. 82), citing H Pollack, professor at Michigan, emeritus in geophysics, and author of A World Without Ice (2009), is that it’ll be “touch and go as to whether we can actually achieve the avoidance of Greenland and West Antarctic ice loss,” which would raise global sea levels by 12 m (39 ft). “The consequences of displacing so many people—the world has never dealt with something like that.”

Maybe the chances of the lesser of the South Polar ice sheets slipping, and of Greenland’s interior ice melting and draining, are fifty-fifty in the next two centuries, who knows. Two years ago Sci Am published a paper by R Bell on how this might go (key phrase: greasing the skids). And surely, since half of the world's population lives within 100 km of the sea, this would mean upheaval. Here at the campus of the University of South Florida I’m 6 m (19 ft) above sea levels. All of south Florida, up to Gainesville, would have to be evacuated—that’s twelve million people.

But this nonlinear specter of climate forcing is just one of many climate worries. Plus, it's still a long shot. It isn’t the really dangerous stuff. The real danger is that more heat means less water. The danger is dwindling agricultural productivity. Just look at Darfur. Sudan’s humanitarian catastrophe was brought on by violence; violence was partly worsened, partly brought on by scarcity; scarcity was brought on by environmental decline, and that was brought on by the monsoon not coming as regularly anymore as it once did. Darfur is now too dry for both farmers and herders coexisting on the same land. So they’re killing each other.

Shrinking harvests, I think, is the ugly reality of climate change. Slipping ice sheets makes for a good story. Crappy crop yields in poor countries doesn't. Right now the Arctic sea ice reflects eighty percent of the solar radiation. When the ice floes dissolve in sea water, only twenty percent of insolation will be bounced back. The rest will feed straight into the Earth system. Think of a wooden shack in the desert heat with a block of ice inside. As long as the sea ice is there, it cools things down. Once the ice is gone, the shack will get hot. We’ve hit the summer sea ice minimum now. It’s less than 2009, and the third lowest overall. Charting a graph yields a picture that Tamino calls a death spiral.

And nothing is done. J Sachs, professor at Columbia, director of the Earth Institute, and columnist at Scientific American, wrote a farewell column called “The Deepening Crisis” (read full text here). It’s a scathing conclusion and a damning verdict. Excerpts:

During the four years of this column, the world's inability to face up to the reality of the growing environmental crisis has become even more palpable. Every major goal that international bodies have established for global environmental policy as of 2010 have been postponed, ignored, or defeated. Sadly, this year will quite possibly become the warmest on record, yet another testimony of human-induced environmental catastrophes running out of control.

This was to be the year of biodiversity. In 2002 nations pledged ... to slow significantly the planetary loss of biodiversity by 2010. This goal was not even remotely achieved. Indeed, it was barely even noticed by Americans: the U.S. signed the convention in 1992 but never ratified it. Ratification fell victim to the uniquely American delusion that virtually all of nature should be subdivided into parcels of private property, within which owners should have their way.

This year was also to be the start of a new post-Kyoto treaty, but that effort was stillborn by the continuing paralysis of U.S. policy making. President Barack Obama came empty-handed to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, and the U.S., China and other powers settled for a nonbinding declaration of sentiments and goals rather than an operational strategy and process of implementation.

According to Obama's 2008 election campaign, this was to be the first year of a new climate and energy policy for the U.S., too, and the second year of a "green recovery". We've had neither. The recovery has sputtered: Obama bet on "stimulating" exhausted consumers rather than on a long-term program of public investments in sustainable infrastructure. The Senate, true to form, sustained its 18th year of inaction on global warming since ratifying the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. ... We are losing not just time but the margin of planetary safety, as the world approaches or trespasses on various thresholds of environmental risks. With the human population continuing to rise by 75 million or more per year and with torrid economic growth in much of the developing world, the burdens of deforestation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, ocean acidification, and other massive threats intensify ... [We must] bring objective science to the public sphere and to empower a democratic citizenry who must become responsible stewards of the planet before it is too late.

Seventy-five months left.

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