January 19, 2006

Past the Tipping Point?

James Lovelock, the scientist who first came up with the Gaia hypothesis to define how the earth's environment was built of a planetary-wide control system, reports that he believes the catastrophic consequences of global warming can no longer be avoided and we need to prepare mankind for a harsh future. The problem, as he sees it, is that components of the earth's systems work together in a giant feedback loop system and their actions have been keeping the world cooler than it normally would be. He now believes the system has been switched into a state where the feedback loop will create an environment where humans will be hardpressed to survive and we face a collapse of civilization.

Now his concerns have reached a peak - and have a new emphasis. Rather than calling for further ways of countering climate change, he is calling on governments in Britain and elsewhere to begin large-scale preparations for surviving what he now sees as inevitable - in his own phrase today, "a hell of a climate", likely to be in Europe up to 8C hotter than it is today.

And in today's Independent he writes: "We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of [CO2] emissions. The worst will happen ..."

He goes on: "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can." He believes that the world's governments should plan to secure energy and food supplies in the global hothouse, and defences against the expected rise in sea levels. The scientist's vision of what human society may ultimately be reduced to through climate change is " a broken rabble led by brutal warlords."

One unanticipated problem that makes the situation even worse is the fact that the pollution we've cast into the air with our industry has been slowing the warming but as civilization collapses, the pollution screen will also disappear.

Professor Lovelock draws attention to one aspect of the warming threat in particular, which is that the expected temperature rise is currently being held back artificially by a global aerosol - a layer of dust in the atmosphere right around the planet's northern hemisphere - which is the product of the world's industry.

This shields us from some of the sun's radiation in a phenomenon which is known as "global dimming" and is thought to be holding the global temperature down by several degrees. But with a severe industrial downturn, the aerosol could fall out of the atmosphere in a very short time, and the global temperature could take a sudden enormous leap upwards.

Have we squandered the time we had to deal with this crisis? James Lovelock says yes. Within the past few years, predictions of what we would see if global warming was happening have been showing up at an alarming rate. For instance, one prediction was that as the world warmed arctic ice would melt and the arctic oceans would begin to absorb more heat from the sun rather than reflecting it away. This additional heat would be added to what was already happening. Our oceans have been soaking up enormous amounts of heat and the warm oceans are creating the awesome storm systems like Katrina, as was predicted. We have some real challenges facing us all. And one of the first goals (especially for Americans) must be to get new leaders who are capable of dealing with our most critical problems intelligently and with the sense of urgency they deserve.

See also this excellent series from the San Francisco Chronicle this week about global warming and its consequences that are manifesting now.

Posted by Mary at January 19, 2006 12:19 AM | Environment | Technorati links |