Friday, January 25, 2013

The Perfect Human Trap?

Many folks I've met of the "boomer" generation don't seem to share the same sense of urgency about environmental and climate issues as the younger generations.  My father, for instance, often cites massive improvements made in the US over his lifetime, such as the fact that the Cuyahoga river no longer catches fire, or the fact that there is no longer a 20 mile long black cloud downwind of Gary, Indiana.  When an environmental problem became unbearably bad during his life, it was generally taken care of in one way or another, and I suspect that most members of his generation have been conditioned to think that we can take care of any problems after they occur.

The problem is that the issues we're now encountering are global in scope, and are fundamental risks to the very life support systems we require to survive.  We can't just move away from them until they're dealt with.  As they grow worse, our ability to deal with them decreases as we become more concerned with surviving the day instead of the decade or century.

While this is disconcerting enough on its own, there's an even bigger problem.  Our use of fossil fuels has doubled approximately every 20 years.  Roughly 75% of all the fossil fuel ever burned has been burned within the last 40 years.  It takes a minimum of 40 years for our carbon emissions to take effect, as a result of  the biosphere's thermal inertia (oceans in particular).  This means that we need to react 40 years before the changes take place if they are to be avoided!

Another complicating factor is the fact that the changes we make are not linear in nature.   Early on, most of our emissions were absorbed by the oceans or by plant life, but we've long since exceeded the absorptive capacity of the biosphere, as evidenced by the recent dramatic climbs in atmospheric carbon.  We've now triggered some massive feedback loops which will exacerbate our emissions even further.  Climate change has turned the Amazon rainforest -- a massive carbon sink -- into a carbon emitter, as drought and wildfire sweep through the formerly lush forest.  Changing climate zones mean that the forest outside your home will most likely be gone within 20 years (forests can handle slow change -- which isn't what we've triggered).   Carbon stored in the arctic refrigerator as soil organic matter in the permafrost, or as clathrates in the arctic ocean is now venting into the atmosphere at explosive rates.  Should we wait to see what happens?


Anonymous said...

Why don't we just hold hands and die peacefully together, wink wink. Let it be, don't fight the change man! ;P

Anonymous said...

To add to that, it's been the mildest winter I ever remember. Never had thaws in Jan or Feb before but now it barely freezes, though Nov was very cold. Still dark outside, winter sun you know, but just heard the first bird singing his spring song. Anywhere from a month to two months early.