The massive environmental challenge we face

Last year I sat down and tried to roughly calculate how much Americans would have
to reduce our output of CO2 in order to avoid destroying our planet’s delicate
climate. After an afternoon of rudimentary research, I concluded that we would
have to reduce our output of CO2 by 80%.

George Monbiot has done a much more rigorous study in his forthcoming book, Heat, and has come to even for rigorous requirements for avoiding a global climatic disaster. He points out that the world currently produces 7 billion tons of CO2 per year, but we will need to reduce that to 2.7 billion by 2030 if we are
going to stay below a CO2 equivalent of 450 parts per million, which is the
threshold point where climatologists believe the climate will begin rapidly
heating up in an irreversable chain reaction. The Amazonian basin will dry up and
the rainforest will die, turning one of the principal removers of carbon from
the atmosphere into a massive generator of excess carbon. The permifrost in
the northern tundra will melt, and the immense amounts of vegetative matter held
in statis will rot, releasing massive amounts of methane and carbon in the
atmosphere. Oceans will heat up, causing the massive amounts of liquified methane
stored in the bottom of the oceans to turn into gas and bubble up into the
atmosphere. Since methane causes 25 times more global warming than the equivalent
unit of CO2, this will generate a chain of warming, which will rapidly spin
beyond our control.

In the process, the glaciers of the Himalayas will disappear,
drying up the source for the Ganges, Indus, Yang-tze, and most of the major rivers
of Asia which water the agricultural fields which feed billions. Africa will turn
into a giant desert with continent-wide droughts and famine, far worse that those
experienced in the Sahel region in the 1980s. Studies show that grain plants
in high carbon climates produce less 20% yield, while weeds grow far faster. Not only will we have to use greater amounts of toxic herbicides, we can expect lower yields because
many of the advances in grain yield of the Green Revolution where based upon
developing plants which produce high yields with heavy irrigation. Since water
tables are already falling rapidly and many of the great rivers will dry up, most
of this high-yield irrigation agriculture won’t be possible. We can anticipate
massive famines, especially in Asia. At the same time, raising oceans will flood
most of Bangladesh and force some the population living next to the ocean to move
farther inland. 8 of the 10 largest cities on earth are next to the oceans.
Possibly the richer cities can build massive dykes, and face the periodic threat
of hurricans, which will become more prevalant and move into temperate regions of
the globe that have never had tropical storms before. Imagine if most of the major
cities on the planet turned into New Orleans, facing tropical storms that could
breach the dykes and flood the cities. Not only will rising temperatures bring
more tropical storms, then will also bring more tropical diseases like malaria and
dengue fever which will move into the highly populated temperate zones of the world.

At the same time, our oceans will become barren wastelands producing little
beyond algae. The change of only a few degrees celsius wiil kill off most of
the photoplankton which are highly sensitive to temperature. The entire chain
of sealife which depends upon plankton will dissappear. In the future we won’t
just be talking about the extinction of the blue whale, we will be talking
about the extinction of almost every major type of fish. At the same time,
the high carbon atmosphere will turn our oceans into vats of carbonic acid
which will erode the shells of most crustaceans which will also go extinct. We
are already facing an ecological disaster in the oceans with a measured 90%
reduction in the large preditor fish population, but in the future the
millions of people on the planet who depend upon the ocean for their sustenance
will either have to figure out how to live on algae and seaweed or find a new
source of food.

We are facing potential starvation on a massive scale, worse than any of the apocolyptic
visions of the best science-fiction writers. Of course most of these predictions
are only based upon computer models at this point. Nobody is 100% sure this climatic
chain reaction will start once the world heats up more than 2 degrees celsuis, but these
scenarios are very probable based upon the evidence that the scientific community
has gathered thus far. 2005 was the warmest year every and the 5 warmest years
since we started measuring temperatures have all occured in the last 10 years. This
fact alone, should tell us that maybe we should be listening to the predictions of
the climatologists who have been predicting these dire increases in global
temperatures.

We always imagined that the extinction of the human species would come with the triggering
of a rain of atomic bombs as Russia and the USA engaged in eschatological upmanship.
It turns out that our destruction is more likely to come about not by the pressing
of red buttons in underground bunkers in Washington or Moscow, but with the turning
of ignition switches of millions of cars all around the planet. Our pollution and
our wasteful lifestyles are more likely to kill us before any nuclear MAD scenario.
Five times in the Earth’s history, there have been massive die offs of the world’s
species, mostly caused by climatic changes. With every trip to gas-guzzling private
cars and every hot shower, we could be helping to trigger the next Precambian
disaster which removed 80%-90% of the world’s species 350 million years ago.

While it is possible that we could destroy the human species as the planet
enters a climatic chain reaction that could raise global temperatures as much as
9 degrees Celsius, it is more likely that only some of the planet’s population
will die off. Sadly, the people who have done the most to destroy our planet’s
delicate climatic balance will be the least likely to be harmed. The average American
produces 200 timeas as much CO2 as the average Ugandan, but the Ugandan is much
more likely to starve to death because of global warming. The worst effects of
global warming will happen in places like Africa and Asian where the per capita
production of greenhouse gasses is far lower than in North America and Europe.

Up to now Americans have been unwilling to face the fact that their lifestyles
are killing others. We seem to believe that we have the right to live our
prodigal American dream no matter how it effects others on our planet. The American
dream needs to be seriously interrogated and reevaluated by the millions of
Americans who are so assiduously chasing it. Without going into the spiritual
void that the American dream represents–suffice it to say that consumerism and
a 6000 square foot house and two cars in the garage has never been an adequate
proxy for spiritual fullfillment–we need to ask how we can live more simply, so
that others can simply live on our planet.

Today, the USA emits 6.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year, or roughly 20 tons per person.
Only the Australians
produce more C02 per capita than Americans. The average Swiss produces 6.5 times
less CO2 than the average American. According to George Monbiot, Americans will
need to reduce that production to 0.33 tons per capita by the year 2030 if we want
to avoid raising the world’s temperatures more that 2 degrees Celsius over
pre-industrial levels. This means an 94% reduction in our production of CO2.
The Kyoto protocol, which we aren’t even bothering to enforce, only envisions a
5.2% cut by 2012.

We can achieve part of this goal by simply switching to greener technology.
Wind, tidal, and solar power, green architecture, diode lights, and hydrogen fuel
cells effiencency can help us, but the stark truth is that we can only achieve
these sorts of reductions in CO2 production if we change our wasteful American
lifestyle and the ideological notions which buttress that lifestyle. This means
that we can no longer drive a personal car to work every day and keep a
television and computers in every room. We won’t be taking a shower every day and
the water will only be as hot as the solar powered tank permits. We will be living
in houses close together to permit easy foottraffic to the nearest bus stop and
there won’t be a vast expanse of wasteful green lawn in front of every house either.
We also won’t have huge wardrobes of resource-hungry cotton fabric or petroleum-based
synthetics.

For everything that we have to give up to acheive a sustainable and ecologically
balanced planet, we will be gaining something more precious. It is called life.
Right now we are living a culture of death, but it is not limited to the spiritual
death that John Paul II envisioned, it is literally a culture of death which is
physically killing others. According to the UN, global warming is currently killing
half a million people every year. If the climatological models are accurate, we
will be killing many more in the future. No lifestyle, no matter how much we have
been brainwashed to believe otherwise, is worth that price.

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