Since a nuclear weapon went off over Hiroshima, we have been living with visions of global catastrophe, apocalyptic end times, and extinction that were once the sole property of religion. Since August 6, 1945, it has been possible for us to imagine how human beings, not God, could put an end to our lives on this planet. Conceptually speaking, that may be the single most striking development of our age and, to this day, it remains both terrifying and hard to take in. Nonetheless, the apocalyptic possibilities lurking in our scientific-military development stirred popular culture over the decades to a riot of world-ending possibilities.
In more recent decades, a second world-ending (or at least world-as-we-know-it ending) possibility has crept into human consciousness. Until relatively recently, our burning of fossil fuels and spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere represented such a slow-motion approach to end times that we didn't even notice what was happening. Only in the 1970s did the idea of global warming or climate change begin to penetrate the scientific community, as in the 1990s it edged its way into the rest of our world, and slowly into popular culture, too.
Still, despite ever more powerful weather disruptions -- what the news now likes to call "extreme weather" events, including monster typhoons, hurricanes, and winter storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts, and global temperature records -- disaster has still seemed far enough off. Despite a drumbeat of news about startling environmental changes -- massive ice melts in Arctic waters, glaciers shrinking worldwide, the Greenland ice shield beginning to melt, as well as the growing acidification of ocean waters -- none of this, not even Superstorm Sandy smashing into that iconic global capital, New York, and drowning part of its subway system, has broken through as a climate change 9/11. Not in the United States anyway.
We've gone, that is, from no motion to slow motion to a kind of denial of motion. And yet in the scientific community, where people continue to study the effects of global warming, the tone is changing. It is, you might say, growing more apocalyptic. Just in recent weeks, a report from the National Academy of Scientists suggested that "hard-to-predict sudden changes" in the environment due to the effects of climate change might drive the planet to a "tipping point." Beyond that, "major and rapid changes [could] occur" -- and these might be devastating, including that "wild card," the sudden melting of parts of the vast Antarctic ice shelf, driving sea levels far higher.
At the same time, the renowned climate scientist James Hansen and 17 colleagues published a hair-raising report in the journal PLoS. They suggest that the accepted target of keeping global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius is a fool's errand. If global temperatures come anywhere near that level -- the rise so far has been less than one degree since the industrial revolution began -- it will already be too late, they claim, to avoid disastrous consequences.
Consider this the background "temperature" for Dahr Jamail's latest piece for TomDispatch, an exploration of what climate scientists just beyond the mainstream are thinking about how climate change will affect life on this planet. What, in other words, is the worst that we could possibly face in the decades to come? The answer: a nightmare scenario. So buckle your seat belt. There's a tumultuous ride ahead. Tom
Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?
Scientists Consider Extinction
By Dahr Jamail
I grew up planning for my future, wondering which college I would attend, what to study, and later on, where to work, which articles to write, what my next book might be, how to pay a mortgage, and which mountaineering trip I might like to take next.
Now, I wonder about the future of our planet. During a recent visit with my eight-year-old niece and 10- and 12-year-old nephews, I stopped myself from asking them what they wanted to do when they grew up, or any of the future-oriented questions I used to ask myself. I did so because the reality of their generation may be that questions like where they will work could be replaced by: Where will they get their fresh water? What food will be available? And what parts of their country and the rest of the world will still be habitable?
The reason, of course, is climate change -- and just how bad it might be came home to me in the summer of 2010. I was climbing Mount Rainier in Washington State, taking the same route I had used in a 1994 ascent. Instead of experiencing the metal tips of the crampons attached to my boots crunching into the ice of a glacier, I was aware that, at high altitudes, they were still scraping against exposed volcanic rock. In the pre-dawn night, sparks shot from my steps.
The route had changed dramatically enough to stun me. I paused at one point to glance down the steep cliffs at a glacier bathed in soft moonlight 100 meters below. It took my breath away when I realized that I was looking at what was left of the enormous glacier I'd climbed in 1994, the one that -- right at this spot -- had left those crampons crunching on ice. I stopped in my tracks, breathing the rarefied air of such altitudes, my mind working hard to grasp the climate-change-induced drama that had unfolded since I was last at that spot.
I haven't returned to Mount Rainier to see just how much further that glacier has receded in the last few years, but recently I went on a search to find out just how bad it might turn out to be. I discovered a set of perfectly serious scientists -- not the majority of all climate scientists by any means, but thoughtful outliers -- who suggest that it isn't just really, really bad; it's catastrophic. Some of them even think that, if the record ongoing releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, are aided and abetted by massive releases of methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas, life as we humans have known it might be at an end on this planet. They fear that we may be at -- and over -- a climate change precipice hair-raisingly quickly.- Advertisement -
Mind you, the more conservative climate science types, represented by the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), paint scenarios that are only modestly less hair-raising, but let's spend a little time, as I've done, with what might be called scientists at the edge and hear just what they have to say.
"We've Never Been Here as a Species"
"We as a species have never experienced 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of evolutionary biology, natural resources, and ecology at the University of Arizona and a climate change expert of 25 years, told me. "We've never been on a planet with no Arctic ice, and we will hit the average of 400 ppm... within the next couple of years. At that time, we'll also see the loss of Arctic ice in the summers" This planet has not experienced an ice-free Arctic for at least the last three million years."