The Climate Watchman

Climate Watchman  
December 2014

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I visited Guy McPherson's website. I do this every few months to read what's new in the field of climate-change. Guy's ongoing essay, Climate-Change Summary and Update, is the most complete and up-to-date compendium that I have been able to find. What surprised me (although it really shouldn't have) was how much new information Guy has posted since the last time I looked. Climate-change is progressing faster and faster, bearing down upon us like a runaway freight train, and more and more evidence is appearing in the scientific literature.

Guy believes in near-term human extinction — that is, within a century and probably a lot sooner, we'll all have gone to join the dodos and dinosaurs. I have some issues with this, as I do with anyone who purports to see what the future will bring. There are just too many variables, too many unknowns and too many ill-conditioned equations — and there is always the possibility of an unexpected miracle. (“Make prayer; do your best; and leave the rest to God.”) I've seen too many seemingly airtight theories bite the dust of reality, to not be skeptical. But Guy makes an excellent case for runaway climate-change and the abrupt collapse of our planetary life-support system.

I like Guy. Last year Guy inspired me to photocollage two cartoons on extinction: Nature Bats Last and The World's Greatest Dinosaur Museum. This time he inspired me to write a short poem: Extinction and to write this article which you are now reading.

After reading Guy's article Easy Living in which he says that each day he considers retiring from public life, I sent him seven verses from the King James Bible, Ezekiel 33:1-7, The Watchman. Guy is definitely the Watchman, blowing his trumpet and warning the people. It appears that people are beginning to take notice, but sadly not taking the actions that might forestall planetary collapse. I hope Guy keeps on writing and speaking. He's a great watchman. Read his climate-change summary and update. Let me know if you are convinced.

Guy lists 42 positive feedback loops (maybe more by time you read this) in which the warming of the Earth feeds upon itself. Here's an example: The warming of the arctic releases methane trapped within the arctic permafrost. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The methane warms the arctic which leads to more thawing and hence to larger releases of methane and more warming etc.

All but two of his feedback loops are from the “hard sciences:” physics, chemistry, geology, biology etc. I feel he missed what may be the most important feedback loop of all — war and competition for resources. War destroys resources. With fewer resources to go around, competition increases, leading to more war which destroys more resources, etc.

Often, ruling elites choose to steal resources from ordinary people (it's usually easier than stealing from other ruling elites. This theft is now called “income inequality.”) But there is a limit to how much you can steal from people who have little; and there is always the possibility that the masses may rise up and revolt as they did in France in 1789. But to quote Dave Jorgenson,“greed and stupidity make a lethal cocktail;” and arrogance knows no bounds; so eventually ruling elites will fight among themselves. War between more or less equal elites (think about the two world wars of the 20th century) tends to be far more destructive than asymmetric wars, such as the War Against Afghanistan in which some 50 countries under the leadership of the world's only superpower invaded and occupied one poor little country, and the War Against The Islamic State (again over 40 countries under the leadership of the world's only superpower against an organization that is not even a state).

Further, war requires a tremendous quantity of resources. If your priority is to maintain the mightiest military the world has ever known, it is unlikely that you will have much left to combat runaway climate-change. The US military is probably both the world's largest user of resources and the largest producer of greenhouse gases. It needs to fight wars just to maintain itself.

Guy puts the tipping point, the point at which it was no longer possible to stop runaway climate-change, at 2007, based on scientific evidence; I put the tipping point in the Spring of 2003. In February 2003, an unprecedented 10 to 15 million people took to the streets to say no the invasion of Iraq. The US invaded anyway with its “coalition of the willing.” Sadly most of those millions who took to the streets went back to business as usual and other elites connived to carve out a share of the spoils of the War Against Iraq. I still think this was our last reasonable chance to turn away from seeking military solutions and confront the dangers of runaway climate-change in a meaningful way. We're still squandering resources and producing greenhouse gases in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But maybe I'm wrong about the tipping point. Maybe it happened in 1975, when so many of us who had struggled to end the War Against Vietnam, patted ourselves on the back and joined the yuppies. Or maybe it happened around 1750 when humans first began burning coal in large quantities. Or maybe it happened thousands of years ago when humans first began domesticating animals and sowing crops. Or maybe when humans first began to make tools and weapons. Its hard to say. Its a slippery slope, and at the bottom — the collapse of our planetary life-support system.

Whatever the tipping point, I am convinced that what we refer to as “modern civilization” is doomed to near-term extinction — and why shouldn't it be? Our civilization is based on war and greed. Could this possibly continue for the rest of eternity? Obviously not.

But isn't it possible to tweak the system a little? Maybe people could become a little less greedy, a little less arrogant and a little less warlike. After all, enlightened self interest would seem to dictate that elites would curb their greed and learn to share, at least to the point that they wouldn't destroy their own planetary life-support system; and that ordinary people would stand up to their elites, at least to the point of preventing the total destruction of their planetary life-support system.

20 years ago, I would have answered unequivocally: Yes. But, now I have to say: In theory, only. As Guy McPherson reminds us: It's too late. We waited too long. Geo-climatic processes are ruthless. They cannot be stopped and turned on a dime. All we can do is hold on and ride the roller coaster, all the way down to the bottom and pray for a soft landing.

But civilization and humanity are two totally different things.

Civilization may be doomed; but couldn't humanity continue to muddle along as a few small bands of hunter-gatherers as it did for well over 90 percent of its brief existence on the planet Earth? I see nothing in Guy's writing or anywhere else that would lead me to believe that that is not possible (although it is certainly not a sure thing).

Much of Guy's website is given over to grieving the passing of civilization; but I find it difficult to grieve the end of modern civilization. Maybe the passing of modern civilization will be for the best. Perhaps what we call “civilization” is merely a short-term aberration lasting but a few thousand years, a blink of an eye in geological time. Perhaps we will soon return to our natural state as hunter-gatherers; and perhaps, over the next million years, Earth and its inhabitants will have time to heal from all the damage inflicted by a plague of humans.

Let it be so.