Quick Action Is Needed To Save The Long-Term Future
By John Scales Avery
11 February, 2015
11 February, 2015
Several long-term threats face human civilization and the biosphere. But the window of opportunity for averting catastrophe is not long. If we do not act promptly, it will be too late.
It is a characteristic of human nature to be more concerned about dangers that affect us today or in the very near future than about what will happen hundreds or thousands of years from now. In particular, economists and politicians tend to be extremely short-sighted.
Most economists deliberately limit their time-horizon to a few decades. Their reason for doing so is their cult-like quasi-religious devotion to the mantra of growth. This is closely connected with the fact that our fractional-reserve banking system is stable only as long as the economy is growing. But never-ending, resource-using, pollution-producing industrial growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility. To be truly sustainable in the long term, a process must be cyclic. It cannot have sources, because in the long run they will be exhausted; nor can it have sinks, because in the long run, they will be overfilled.
To avoid the logical contradictions inherent in the concept of never-ending growth, economists say, We are practical people. We are only concerned with the next few decades. Prediction of the long-term future is too speculative. Politicians do not dare to challenge the economists or the associated corporate and banking oligarchy. Furthermore, their main concern may be the next election, so their time-horizon is often even shorter than that of the economists.
But what are the long-term dangers that require rapid action? The first of these is the danger of catastrophic climate change. Scientists are unanimous in warning us that unless we very rapidly reduce CO2 emissions, we risk passing a tipping point beyond which we will be powerless to prevent uncontrollable global warming. We risk a human-produced extinction event comparable to the Permian-Triasic thermal maximum,
during which 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates became extinct.
The excellent videos of Thom Hartmann and his co-workers tell us very clearly a fact of which the scientific community is very conscious, but which the mass media refuse to discuss. The fact is this:
Arctic seas are warming very rapidly, and they will soon be free of ice in the summers. The warming of Arctic seas and tundra threatens to release vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere by melting methane hydrates. This in turn threatens to warm the remainder of the world so much that methane hydrates in all offshore deposits will be destabilized. If this happens, the result will be a major extinction event, which will threaten not only human civilization, but also much of the biosphere.
The worrying thing about the threat of an out-of-control methane hydrate feedback loop is that the quantity of methane hydrates is so vast. There are roughly 10,000 gigatons. of these ice-like crystals on ocean floors, an amount of carbon greater than all of the world's deposits of fossil fuels. To put this huge quantity into perspective, we can remember that the total amount of carbon that humans have released into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution is only 337 gigatons. Methane hydrates or clathrates are stable at ordinary temperatures, but if oceans warm, they will melt, releasing the potent greenhouse gas methane.
In 2012, the World Bank issued a report warning that without quick action to curb CO2 emissions, global warming is likely to reach 4 degrees C during the 21st century. This is dangerously close to the temperature which initiated the Permian-Triassic extinction event: 6 degrees C above normal.
Although climate change is already starting to do appreciable damage in the form of hurricanes, floods and droughts, its worst effects will come in hundreds or thousands of years, if action is not taken within a few decades. The complete melting of the Greenland icecap would raise ocean levels by 7 meters, and the melting of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet would add a further 7 meters, drowning coastal cities and important agricultural land throughout the world; but these events would take several centuries to happen.
The Permian Mass Extinction, which is thought to have been caused by the worldwide destabilization of methane hydrate crystals on ocean floors, occurred roughly 80,000 years after the massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia that initiated it. So these are long-term threats. But actions to prevent climatic disaster must be taken quickly.
Before irreversible climatic feed-back loops take over, making human action useless, we must replace fossil fuels completely by renewable energy. This is by no means a hopeless task. The technology needed is already in place, and many forms of renewable energy are able to compete in price with energy from fossil fuels. Renewables now supply 19 percent of our total global energy consumption, and wind energy, for example, is growing at the rate of 30 percent per year. Because of the remarkable properties of exponential growth, it is entirely possible for us to replace fossil fuels by renewables quickly enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. The main obstacle to be overcome is the greed of the fossil fuel industries. They will use any method, fair or foul, to cash in on the vast deposits of fossil fuels which they own.
Although the contrast between potentially catastrophic dangers and the quick actions needed to prevent them is most striking when we are discussing climate change, we can obtain valuable insights into other dangers by thinking of the long-term future: Linked to climate change, exhaustion of non-renewable resources, environmental degradation and population growth, is the long-term threat of a very widespread global famine.
As climate change becomes more pronounced, heat and aridity will reduce the productivity of many regions of the world that presently supply much of our grain, while in other regions, floods will damage food production. As glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes melt, China, India, Viet Nam and parts of South America will be deprived of their summer water supplies. As sea levels rise, valuable rice-producing lands will be drowned. As the prices of oil and gas become prohibitively high, modern petroleum-dependent agriculture will be dealt a severe blow. As populations continue to increase, the risk of severe famine will grow.
Rapid actions are needed to prevent a catastrophic future famine: The steps towards preventing drastic climate change, discussed above, must be taken with a sense of urgency. Furthermore, urgent efforts must be made to prevent loss of topsoil, salanation and desertification of agricultural land. Finally, global population must be stabilized, and later reduced.
The danger of nuclear war also becomes clearer when we look at far ahead. Suppose that each year there is a certain finite chance of a nuclear catastrophe, let us say 2 percent. Then in a century the chance of survival will be 13.5 percent, and in two centuries, 1.8 percent, in three centuries, 0.25 percent, in 4 centuries, there would only be a 0.034 percent chance of survival and so on. Over many centuries, the chance of survival would shrink almost to zero.
Thus by looking at the long-term future, we can clearly see that if nuclear weapons are not entirely eliminated, civilization will not survive. Rapid actions are also needed to prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Threats of wars that could potentially escalate into nuclear conflicts are present today, both in the Middle East and in the war that has been created by the US-sponsored coup in Ukraine. The leaders of the European Union are starting to realize the danger and come to their senses, but civil society throughout the world must make its will felt.
All of us have a duty to act quickly, with dedication and urgency. We must save the long-term future of our beautiful planet, not only for ourselves, and our children and grandchildren, but also for all future generations of humans, and for the dazzlingly diversity of plants and animals with which we share the gift of life.
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at email@example.com
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