home archives last week feedback
Rolla Peace News
December 26, 2022
IntroductionBehold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.
Up until Spring of 2003, I felt that although we had dug ourselves into a big hole with our modern industrial “civilization”, we would somehow manage to dig ourselves back out. After all, we are a clever species. We can do it, I thought. What changed my mind was the invasion of Iraq and how so few stood with Iraq. As the United States and friends completed the total destruction of the country, everyone seemed to be lining up for a piece of the spoils (Iraqi oil). Turning the tide on Global Warming was forgotten.
I came to the conclusion that although it might be theoretically possible to turn the tide and keep the planet cool, it wasn't going to happen. The lure of wealth and empire was just too strong.
Meanwhile the climate scientists kept saying the situation is indeed dire, but if ... if we make a few small changes, if we transition from fossil fuels to renewables, we can continue living pretty much as we have been, save our global “civilization”, fight our wars, amass huge fortunes, and keep our planet cool to boot.
Perhaps, back then we were both right; but I think not. Now there is no question. Year after year with no significant progress toward curbing carbon emissions, we passed a tipping point where global warming, along with militarism and other negative behaviors like fossil-fuel use, deforestation and raising animals for food spiraled out of control, Meanwhile, as climate scientists kept telling us there is still hope, nothing significant changed on the ground.
Now, finally, we have a well-respected scientist, Bill McGuire, telling us in “Hothouse Earth,” what I think most climate scientists already know, but won't say: It's too late. The heavily loaded freight train is barreling down the track toward us and the engineer hasn't even hit the brake; and even if he does, there is neither space nor time for the train to stop before it plows over us. This alone sets McGuire apart from the rest of the climate science community.
And perhaps, even more importantly, McGuire may give others the courage to speak out, particularly, his colleagues who continue to engage in “Climate Appeasement,” the unwillingness to say how bad things really are. McGuire writes:
“Hothouse Earth” is under 200 pages long,. It's easy reading, but filled with important facts and insights. If you read nothing else, read “Hothouse Earth.” The Rolla Public Library has a copy. Check it out.“I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing in public but a very different thing in private. In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public. I call this climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.”
“Hothouse Earth” begins with some recent history. McGuire replaces the vague baseline of atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide during pre-industrial times with the specific 280 parts per million in 1771, the year Richard Arkwright built his first water frame on the River Derwent in England, automating the manufacture of yarn. I suppose other dates might do just as well, but it's nice to know what we are talking about and 280 ppm might not be exact, but it's close; and it's nice to have a specific baseline concentration to measure from. After all, we are trying to be scientific.
Next, McGuire takes us on a magic carpet ride across 4.6 billion years of Earth's history in which the climate changes back and forth between hothouse Earth and frigid Earth. He notes the cooling trend of the last 50 million years from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum to the recent ice ages. and then, under the influence of human acivity, the warming trend, particularly over the last 100 or so years, as human “civilization” industrializes and pours huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. This brings us to 2021 with carbon dioxide levels around 50% above Richard Arkwright's time, and average global temperatures somewhat more than 1°C. higher.
2021 was a terrible year for extreme weather. A late June heat dome over western North America killed over 1,000. The heat dome, perhaps the most intense ever recorded, was accompanied by devastating wildfires. In July, Belgium and western Germany experienced heavy rain and flooding such as they had not seen for 1,000 years. And for the first time in recorded history it rained at the summit of the Greenland ice sheet.
Had McGuire written Hothouse Earth one year later he would likely have mentioned that after a brutal Spring heatwave in 2022, fully 1/3 of Pakistan lay under water, flooded by torrential monsoon rains and glacial melt. He may have also mentioned Hurricane Ian which cut a path of destruction across central Florida, killing over 150 and doing over $50 billion of damage.
In sum, extreme weather can now strike anywhere on Earth at any time. No place is exempt. Climate induced extreme weather is no longer the future. It is the here and now. And it will only get worse as the planet continues to heat up.
McGuire is quick to point out that we are in uncharted territory. There is no analog in the past for the rate at which we are pouring carbon into the atmosphere; so extrapolating accurately from past events is not possible. And there are so many unknowns that models cannot be trusted either.
Yes, this is uncharted territory. Anything goes. But one thing is certain. A temperature rise of at least 1.5°C. and probably up to 2.0°C. over Arkwright's time is already baked in. With rising temperatures comes an unstable climate. Devastating weather events will only increase in frequency and intensity. How much further temperatures rise is up to us. Every ounce counts. Every ounce of carbon we add to our atmosphere turns up the heat on our environment. Every ounce we sequester turns the heat down.
What's in Store in the Future
As the Earth heats up, glaciers and ice sheets melt. Sea level rises. Many of our largest cities flood. Farmland lies under water. Sea water encroaches upon diminishing supplies of fresh water. This is already happening, and melting has barely begun.
The Earth's glacier fed rivers such as the Indus and the Yangtze will tend toward increased flooding as graciers melt and then, as melting progresses, dry up, diminishing available drinking water and crop yields.
As the Arctic warms, methane trapped beneath the permafrost is released. Over a 20 year period, methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This leads to more warming.
Snow and ice which reflected sunlight are replaced by sunlight absorbing open water, rock and vegetation. More warming yet.
Moving the weight of billions of tons of ice from the glaciers and ice sheets to the ocean basins causes the solid Earth beneath to bend, break and slip. As a result: earthquakes, tsunamis and vulcanic eruptions.
A warming atmosphere holds more water which eventually precipitates bringing floods like the recent monster flood which put 1/3 of Pakistan under water.
As the atmosphere warms and holds more water, we reach a point where the human body cannot get rid of excess heat and literally bakes. Large areas will become unlivable.
A warming ocean yields more powerful hurricanes, like hurricane Ian which devastated Florida a few months ago.
Precipitation does not fall evenly everywhere. Some locations like the southwest United States experience multi-year droughts. As the land dries, wildfire risk increases. Trees burn and release their carbon content leading to more heating. Crop yields plummet due to the heat and lack of water.
The Earth does not warm up evenly, leading to shifting unpredictable weather patterns such as the 2021 western North American heat dome.
The poles warm quicker than the temperate zones. The lack of contrast causes weather patterns to stall, like when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Texas and Louisiana dumping prodigious amounts of rain in one place for an extended period.
Many will be uprooted by climate change. With the degradation of much of the planet and diminishing supplies of food and water, where will they go in a world filled with 8 billion people? Expect society to breakdown with deadly conflict and wars over what little is left.
A warmer world favors disease causing germs like cholera and disease carrying vectors like mosquitoes which carry malaria and yellow fever. Along with the chaos and societal breakdown expect disease to run rampant
Is this enough? Or would you know yet more? Read the book!
What Can Be Done Now?
“Hothouse Earth” is not a book of doom and gloom. McGuire gives us a roadmap for adapting to a hotter more dangerous world. Most importantly, we must recognize what we have done. Only then, can we begin to adapt to the treacherous world we have created.
We must take every possible action immediately to keep the gathering cataclysm from becoming worse. Net-zero by 2050 doesn't cut it. Nor does 2030 or even 2025. We must cut carbon emissions to the bone, now. Every ounce counts.
Protect and grow forests. Trees are nature's best carbon sequestors.
Avoid relying on technological fixes, like seeding the atmosphere with sulfer dioxide. Such schemes will have unknown consequences and may do more harm than good.
As farmland degrades, and extreme weather takes its toll on crop yields, we must switch to more resilent crops.
Reorganize our society for survival on a hostile world. Most importantly, ditch capitalism. It should be obvious that a society that elevates greed to the highest good, will be unable to organize its citizens for survival on a hostile planet.
This is the most important book I have read on the looming climate catastrophe. Read it. Then act upon it.
Some thoughts of my own
Here I'll list a few points I might have liked to see in “Hothouse Earth.”
War: While McGuire mentions that global heating can lead to war and violent conflict, the converse is also true. War is a major cause, and possibly the most important cause, of global warming. Suppose the well over $2 trillion that the world spends on its militaries instead went to keeping global warming as low as possible and adjusting to the warming that is already baked in?
Also consider all the fossil fuel burnt in war-making and the destruction of existing infrastructure. Oil prices have skyrocketed due to the Russo-Ukranian War,. Meanwhile, Europe is developing infrastructure to replace Russian gas and oil with fossil fuels from other sources. Then, consider that one incident in the Russo-Ukranian War, the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, is thought to have released more methane than any other single incident in history. Over a 20 year period, methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Equality: While McGuire talks about “shoveling money in the direction of majority [third] world countries,” in my opinion, a lot more than money is required. Global warming effects all of us. We must all come together as equals to meet this challenge. The small percentage of the world's population who have led us into this impass and profited from it will not be the ones to lead us out of it. Let those who have contributed least and suffered most, particularly indigenous peoples, be the ones to lead us in meeting this challenge.
Trees: While McGuire notes that “Large scale tree planting done right unequivocally provides the best and cheapest way of pulling excess carbon out of the atmosphere,” I would have liked to see a mention that not all trees are equal when it comes to sequestering carbon and that selective harvesting gives a forest the opportunity to continue to sequester new carbon. Also of note is that once harvested, carbon needs to be prevented from returning to the atmosphere. Turning the carbon into biochar and using it to enrich soils gives a double benefit,.
While McGuire remarks that our yards and empty spaces can be used to grow food, they can also be used to grow trees. I have a number of trees in my yard at home.
Population: The current human population on Earth is around 8 billion. How many people will the Earth be able to support after the climate catastrophe? This is a large unknown; but my guess would be that we are talking millions rather than billions. What will human “civilization” look like after climate catastrophe? Another large unknown, but certainly nothing like it does today. We can only hope it changes for the better.
Finally, I would like to note the similarity between the prophecy of Isaiah with which I introduced this essay and McGuire's description of the looming cataclysm. And I'll end with yet another Old Testament prophecy:
“Yet will I leave a remnant, that ye may have some that shall escape the sword among the nations, ... and they shall lothe themselves for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations.” —Ezekiel 6:8-9 (KJV)
Rolla Peace News is distributed occasionally by email and is posted on the web at http://tomsager.org (click on Rollaites for Peace: near the top of rightmost column).Wage peace,
yushasager (at) yahoo.com