Sunday, March 7, 2010


I've always felt that someday there would be an event, probably a catastrophe of some sort, which would make it clear that I -- and everyone else -- would have to change the way we live if we wanted to continue to live.  Aside from some minor feel-good changes, I could continue to live a comfortable and conventional life like everyone else until this event happens.  When this event occurs, everyone would understand the gravity of the situation and *seriously* change the way we live.  Making changes at that point would be easier, because everyone else would be making them as well.

It's clear to me now that this event has already occurred, but we all missed it.  It wasn't really a single event, but rather a series of events.  That makes it harder to spot.  With few notable exceptions, nobody that I know has responded.

Most Americans weren't really looking for the big event, because they don't like the implications.  Those who knew about it probably just chose to look away.  We've never had such an event that the wonders of technology couldn't deal with, so another group is comfortably convinced that we'll be able to deal with this one as well.  Hey, we sent people to the moon, didn't we?  Give us enough fossil fuel, and there's nothing we can't do! (oh wait -- that's how we got into this mess!)

Exhibit A, (and B, C, D, and E...)
If you're one of the rare few who bothered to read about the recent events in Copenhagen at the climate conference, you may have come accross mention of the fact that the IPCC scientists have recommended that we keep our temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (that's 3.6 degrees Farenheit).  Seems like an arbitrary number.  I might want to take my sweater off if the temperature in my living room suddenly rose by 2 degrees, but it doesn't seem like a whole lot. 

Two degrees is important because that's the point at which most climatologists believe that a number of feedback loops will be triggered, making much greater temperature changes impossible to avoid.  At the Copenhagen summit, no significant agreements were reached.  We essentially agreed that we're going to keep marching right past 2 degrees.  The last time temperatures increased as much as they are now projected to increase within this century, nearly every large animal went extinct.  Though this train is headed for a cliff, nobody wants to ruffle the passengers by applying the brakes.  Seems logical, doesn't it?

The IPCC has proven itself to be far too conservative, as we've already exceeded most of their 2001 projections for the current year.  When the IPCC is confronted by a lack of data or some controversy, they exclude that subject from their projections in order to keep everyone in agreement.  Such is the case with arctic methane releases as a result of melting permafrost.  There simply isn't enough data yet, so this super important feedback mechanism has been excluded from their models.

The evidence coming in now is that we've already triggered the feedback loop of methane releases.  Check out this video of people on a frozen bog in Siberia.  Much of the methane currently being released is beneath the Arctic ocean on a shelf near Siberia in the form of "clathrates", also known as methane ice.  Submarines in the arctic have recently noted massive columns of bubbles rising to the surface.  It appears likely now that we'll see the north polar icecap disappear within this decade, for the first time since humans have walked the earth. 

Aside from the methane releases, it's become apparent in recent years that the ocean is now becoming saturated with CO2, which lowers the ocean's pH near the poles (where most of the plankton exists).  We've already found areas in the north Pacific which can dissolve calcium carbonate shells.  Strangely enough, I've also read about recent drops (about 30% if I remember correctly) in plankton levels at both poles. 

We've known about bleached coral reefs for quite some time now, with major bleaching events occuring in back into the 1990s.  In a previous life, Rachel and I had plans to cruise our boat around the Pacific for a few years.  I followed a number of blogs written by people who were doing this sort of thing.  One couple who left Florida and headed west accross the Pacific and Indian oceans noted that the first healthy coral they saw was in the Red Sea.  In fact, they were surprised to learn that coral wasn't normally a bleached white color like they'd seen everywhere else. 

Another friend of ours was on a scuba dive in this same Red Sea along with a group of Israelis who had been diving in the area before.  When they exited the water, the Israeli group started crying because the reefs had died in the time elapsed from their previous visit.  Keep in mind that coral and plankton remove much of the CO2 from seawater and turn it into limestone.  We're destroying the coral that is part of our life support system.  The ocean provides about 50% of the oxygen you're now breathing.  Do you really want to find out what happens when we kill it?

Though it seems strange in the middle of winter here in the northern hemisphere, we recently experienced the single warmest day ever recorded.  It concerns me that we experienced this in spite of the fact that the current sunspot cycle is at its minimum .  What do you think will happen when it starts to climb again?

Ocean currents are one of the biggest factors influencing our climate.  There's been some concern that the increasing melt rates of Greenland's glaciers would flood the north Atlantic with fresh water, which floats on the surface of the heavier saltwater.  This could potentially shut down the thermohaline circulation system that drives the gulf stream.  If you watched the news this last winter, you probably heard that the UK was being hammered with one of the worst winters ever recorded.  Chances are that you didn't hear anything about the suspected cause (particularly if you like to watch Faux News).  It just so happens that we saw the gulf stream divert itself towards the west coast of Greenland.  While the UK looked like the north pole, the west coast of Greenland was quite balmy -- in the 50's -- in the middle of winter. 

If the sum of this evidence doesn't constitute the big event I refer to above, I'm not sure what will.  It's time to make some changes. 

Ideally we'd all wake up tomorrow and find ourselves living in bark huts and chipping flint arrowheads.  Well...  that's an ideal from a climate stability perspective anyway.  Aside from thoughts of seeing my wife in a buckskin bikini, I don't find that lifestyle particularly appealing either.  Besides, there are too many of us to live that way now.  It's also hard to pay your property taxes with squirrel hides these days.  Suffice to say that the current system imposes some constraints on the changes we can make. 

But at the same time, I don't think changing your lightbulbs to CFL's and buying an electric car is going to cut it.  We need to reach a 90% reduction in carbon emissions to have any hope of a future, and these feel-good measures don't measure up.

We need to "regress" to the low carbon lifestyles of our ancestors as fast as we can, step by step.  You don't have to go back too many generations to reach a 90% reduction in your carbon footprint.  I don't think that the lives of our ancestors were as awful as many of us have come to believe.

Transportation, home heating/electricity, and material consumption are probably the biggest toes on our carbon footprint.  We've got the heating part covered, having gone to 100% wood heat at a small cost in material consumption -- a woodstove.   None of these changes are ever black & white. 

Material consumption is a tough one, probably the hardest to tackle.  Just buy less, and reduce your need to buy as much.  Living in a smaller house means you buy less paint, fewer roofing shingles, have less need for heating fuel or electricity for lighting, and have less space for that big screen TV.  I think houses like this are the wave of the future, whether for financial or environmental reasons.

Moving to our current rural location enabled us to eliminate fossil fuel based heat, but it set us back on the transportation front, where we were previously using bicycles for 90% of our needs.  Bikes don't work as well with younger family members that are too big to fit into a bike trailer though.  The extremes of Michigan weather make bikes a bit less appealing as well. 

But there are alternatives to the car and bicycle.  They're dangerous, inconvenient, expensive, and not very capable.  But when faced with the certain outcome of continued car use, I'm beginning to think they may be worth some consideration.  Stay tuned for further thoughts...

1 comment:

Marshall said...

Well put, you crazy old man.
But what do you have to say about the storms in New York. Huh?
I agree with you completely, and it is nice to read about it all in succinct way. I think the assumption all around is to innovate our way out of this. We always have in the past. But I'm not totally sure a giant machine to reroute the ocean currents just isn't going to work.
At least I can say I am living in the mountains of mexico where I walk everywhere and our small house doesn't have a heater or an air conditioner. We've got it covered for a month until we jump on our motorcycles and start burning gas on our way south. D'oh.