Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Petit poulet

So my husband calls me from his commute today - something that has never happened in the history of his having a cellphone, except for once when he was almost at work and realized he'd left his computer at home. He listens to NPR in the car, and wanted to give me the four-one-one about Climate Change In Our Time. Apparently the bets are being hedged:

Q: Could global warming really slow down the Gulf Stream and cool Europe, or maybe even start a new ice age?

Unfortunately I'm not finding the actual Marketplace piece he was listening to, but the story linked above is the same one: global warming, even 1-2 degrees, could (a similar BBC article said "would") melt the Greenland icecap, diluting the salinity of the waters of the northern Atlantic and slowing or changing the course of the major source of Europe's relatively warm climate (as compared to other places at the same latitude). The results could devastate, among other things, the vineyards of France, and presumably change the range of the rain in Spain.

Well, darn it.

All right. I was trained as a geologist, many a year ago. It didn't take long to learn the fundamental lesson that the Earth is not a hunk of rock that can be held in stasis. Climate change is the norm; the fact that someone is around and able to watch it happen is the most significant difference between this time and, say, the Wisconsinan glaciation of some 20,000 years ago (when, surely, there were people around, but their interest was personal and far from academic). All the agitation of all the "concerned" groups in the United States and elsewhere will not halt the process.

Finally, "concerned" groups appear to have realized that "ordinary" people are on to this fact, and they've changed the nomenclature: no longer is the big bugaboo "The Coming Ice Age" (because many people reasonably believe that we're in an interglacial period anyway, and there will be another ice age no matter what we do) or "Global Warming" (because, first, the evidence is less than compelling in spots, and second, eternally, climate change is the norm) but "Abrupt Climate Change." Abrupt climate change, human-caused, to which the marvelous feedback loop of Mother Gaia will be unable to respond, and disaster will follow.

No, sorry. Disaster will not follow. The Earth, Mother Gaia if you will, has survived and thrived through absolutely no free oxygen but lots and lots of volcanogenic carbon dioxide, through abundant free oxygen (one of the more corrosive gases around, witness rust and tarnished silver), through meteor strikes, through the drift and smash of continental plates into and away from one another such that, at one point, the average summer temperatures in the center of the massive supercontinent known as Pangaea were perhaps twenty degrees hotter than the American interior desert today, through ice ages that buried Great Britain under a mile of glacier (it's still rebounding - measurably), through two-day catastrophic floods draining 3000-square-mile, 2000-foot-deep lakes that carved drainage systems amazing to shutterbugs today, and above all through that terrible scourge life in every available niche. She is as vital now as she was when the biggest land critter was a centipede.

Don't get me wrong: when the polar ice caps melt - again - Manhattan, if it still exists, will be Atlantis, and Orange County will bloom like the rose. I'm not saying that human life will not be affected. But let's frame this debate appropriately: it's not the Earth that's in danger. It's Western civilization's current condition, and only that. Stop Climate Change - as well try to stop an earthquake. The Sahara Desert used to be a garden; can we delude ourselves that its hardscrabble residents today would not welcome more rainfall? Niagara and Angel Falls are ephemeral; the Great Salt Lake is ephemeral; the Nile is ephemeral; the Himalayas are ephemeral. We may not be as ephemeral as all that, we may be able to cheat the fate of most other species through careful application of our intelligence to the problem of our survival under constantly changing conditions, but so far our entire timerange as a genus, not even a species, is only a fifth of that of the apatosaurus. (Ask your kids.)

It's hard for me to get too worked up about "Abrupt Climate Change!"; as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, floods continue to wipe our little creations off the map no matter what disaster preparedness and resource management we bring to bear, I wonder just how much effect we humans actually have on the robust and stunningly adaptive system we call the Earth. A major component of my belief in God comes from the presence of our massive oceans - the majority of our home planet, filled with a substance almost unmatched as a heat sink, and with unicellular life that kindly photosynthesizes for our benefit no matter how much forestland we convert to agriculture. It's as if God provided us with "baby gates" to keep us from killing ourselves until such time as we learn to do dangerous things safely.

As such, I hesitate to support, much less encourage, any precipitate action on our part to monkey with the system. Efforts at forest management in this country led to a tangle of underbrush that burned faster, hotter, and more destructively than any natural fire, when it finally and inevitably burned. Efforts to contain the Mississippi in straight concrete banks did nothing noteworthy to stop her cycle of flooding. Efforts to move wild animals too often lead to human tragedy, the animals' failure to thrive in their new environment, or the proliferation of other species just as undesirable - think of rabbits in Australia, or, in the plant kingdom, the nightmare of kudzu in the American South.

I don't claim that we can do no wrong. We have the ability to create persistent toxins; we have been and presumably are being an agent of extinction (but remember that extinction is first and foremost a natural process - many creatures and environmental conditions have brought about extinctions); there is some evidence that it's possible for us to trigger earthquakes under some specific circumstances. What I do advocate is caution, especially of our tendency to hubris. We are only human. We are not the protectors of Mother Earth but just one set of her tenants - arguably the most creative, but not even close to knowledgeable or prescient enough to "save" her from herself.


Anonymous said...

The notion that global warming will result in Europe becoming a glacier field has been kicked around for a while. I have a friend who works for an enviro-group, and he is sort of gloomily resigned to living with this sort of contradiction.

Here are CNN and the London Times on this.

Tom Maguire

Jamie said...

Thanks for the plug, Tom! I was amused because the "cooling" aspect of "warming" hadn't been featured in the popular media, so it's likely to take some people by surprise. And some will hark back to the '70s when mammoths appeared on the cover of Time, and there'll be discussion of the so-called Little Ice Age, and probably somebody'll bring up Krakatoa...

All of which just makes my point for me: how on Earth, so to speak, do we stop a volcano from erupting? If we can't stop one volcano, if we can't even predict when it's going to go with any accuracy, what makes us think we can do the slightest thing to change the heat budget of the planet?

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the input of some one who has enough background to discuss more factual based information about the planets' changes in temperature and enviornmnet.
What is sad to me is that we allow our gross hedionism and greed to rip, tear, gobble and exploit all around us for personal gratification.
Killing off animals is fine if we get the new home on the water front. Fish, birds, mamamls, you name it, wiped out so we aren't inconvienced about their welfare is fine. We're little better to people who are less wealthy. Who cares about the quality of land and water when the oil company drills in another country and Cheney flies in to get booed for pressing forgien governments to stop any laws that cramp pollution or hold companies accountable for it or for the rights of indiginous peoples.
So, we're a nasty self absorbed gluttonous animal bent of self gratification and exploitation of all things and resources, including each other.
It's like Bush said in Woodward when asked how he'd be seen in history?
"Who cares? We'll all be dead."
And so will everything else.
No guilt, no sin, no responsibilty.
We have met the enemy and they are us.
What's for dinner?
Hope you like mad cow beef, mercury ladden fish and avian flue birds.

Jamie said...

2nd anonymous:

I'm far behind on my blog, as is obvious! I just saw your comment.

We may be more similar than you might think. When a U.S. company comes into a third-world country with backward environmental and workers' safety laws, the U.S. company tends to exceed local standards by a good bit, in terms of safety, environmental awareness, and pay, for instance. The standards the U.S. company chooses to meet are probably not going to be as stringent as those in the U.S. - but they're an improvement over the local status quo. I won't claim that the U.S. company acts out of selflessness - I think wary regard for P.R. and the ubiquity of journalists may be a more likely immediate motive - but it also tends not to act with the arrogant total self-regard you claim, except relative to its behavior in the U.S.

Surely it's possible to acknowledge that environmental regulations that put a legal upper limit on a particular toxin equivalent to the laboratory lower detection limit of that toxin, regardless of a lack of hard science about its effects on humans or animals, may be overstating the case. Surely it's possible to acknowledge that the DDT ban that we in the U.S. can afford because we don't have a big insect-borne disease problem, and we have ready access to both vaccines and treatments, is not going to yield a positive human result in a third-world country where malaria is epidemic. Surely we can see that if everyone grew and ate only "organic" food, starvation would result for many millions - that pesticides and chemical fertilizers are the foundation-stones of a human population of over six billion.

We have to take care to exploit our environment only in ways that don't jeopardize our own long-term survival - and because we don't entirely understand any part of this giant system we call the Earth, that means we have to be extraordinarily careful not to destroy the oceans' oxygen-producing capacity, for instance (if we found that we had that ability). But species extinctions at the hands (or paws, or claws, or whatever) of other species have been happening on a limited scale throughout the earth's history (gigantic calamities such as meteor strikes appear to be responsible for mass extinctions, smaller disturbances for single- or few-species extinctions), so our wiping out the dodo is not unique. We are a part of the biosphere: one with some extraordinary abilities, but so far, one still subject to its vagaries, its evolutionary pressures, and its buffering effects.

Americans dealing with other humans: we never get the credit we deserve in this point. I have a hard time going beyond that statement. We as a nation, we as the corporations within this nation, don't always treat other humans with the precise courtesy we extend to other Americans, but I think its pretty much inarguable that we show more respect for other people and other nations, regardless of whether they deserve it according to their behavior toward us or others, than just about any other nation in history. Bush travels to Venezuela, bringing an ambitious plan to open tremendous trade opportunities to the region (which would also benefit the U.S., but that's not a sin - it's good planning), and Chavez jumps through the looking-glass and claims that free trade between his nation and the U.S. would impoverish his people. How that would happen, unless through unconscionable actions on the part of Venezuela, I don't understand. Free trade means that each nation may participate in it freely - or choose not to. Bush, when asked what he'd say to Chavez if they met face-to-face, said simply that he'd be polite, as befits a president, and acknowledged the difficulty of hosting a major gathering such as this one and the particular difficulty of hosting him personally, since (he implied) he's somehow simultaneously a ham-fisted idiot and an evil genius (as another commenter on this blog also noted). Venezuela has no room to criticize the U.S.'s treatment of it.