Through the Climate Portal: Humanity's Tragic Flaw
In the autumn of 1992, I was alone in my studio apartment in Philadelphia, puking my guts out. Something bad had happened inside; it felt like a bomb had gone off in my belly. Just how bad was it? Was I bleeding internally? Was I dying?
I suspected what needed to be done: I had to call for an ambulance. But still, I hesitated. I just couldn't believe it -- I was not the sort of person who needed an ambulance. I was only 29-years-old. I'd been a three-sport athlete in high school. This sort of thing only happened to "other people" -- people I read about in newspapers.
Fortunately, my survival instincts won out and I made the call. If you had asked at the time, even as the paramedics loaded me onto the stretcher, to name my strongest sensation, it would not have been the pain (though that was considerable); it would not have been the fear (ditto). It would have been this: I felt utterly stunned.
Stunned, because the doctor's warnings had finally come to pass. I'd been diagnosed with an inflammatory disease of the large intestine called ulcerative colitis in 1984. The disease essentially directs excess heat/inflammation toward the walls of the colon. Over time, this can result in scarring, narrowing and, eventually, obstruction of the passageway.
Though doctors had repeatedly warned me of this scenario. I had refused to follow their treatment prescriptions. Why had I refused? For my own (in retrospect, quite unwise) personal reasons, I did not trust the doctors and so ignored their advice. Now there I was on the stretcher, my life unnecessarily put at risk.
Stunned, because even though the symptoms of the disease had been progressively worsening, I had not, until that very point, crossed "that line" where things become suddenly different, where the system suddenly flips into a different state of functioning. What had been manageable, though increasingly challenging, was, in an eye-blink, no longer manageable at all.
Looking back, I realize that a part of me simply had not been able to imagine this to be possible. It was as if I had stepped trough a portal. Up to that moment, I had been "David," living my familiar "David" life, with its ups and its downs. On the other side of the portal, a single train of thought crowded out all other motivations and desires: "Please, make this stop, please make it better. Please make it go back to the way it was before."
We find ourselves in a similar situation in 2014. The scientists are telling us that every second our planet is accruing excess heat equivalent to the heat generated by four Hiroshima atomic bombs. The physics is elementary and beyond dispute: The heat-trapping greenhouse blanket in our atmosphere is thickening primarily due to fossil fuels. The solution is, though hugely challenging, equally elementary: Stop thickening the blanket!
At the rate we are going, one thing is certain: A day will come when we will be stunned. Perhaps temperatures will cross a threshold beyond which our staple crops cannot grow. Perhaps the glaciers that provide water for hundreds of millions will shrink beneath a critical level. Perhaps storms of warming and rising oceans will make life in our many coastal megalopolises untenable. There are many candidates: We are moving ourselves out of our climate "Goldilocks Zone."
We will have crossed through the portal (in actuality, in the vast and complex climate system, there will be multiple lines to cross with multiple portals) and a single train of thought will crowd out all other motivations and desires: "Please make this stop, please make it better. Please make it go back to the way it was before."
But it's even worse than that. I was one person with one specific problem, a problem that had been addressed by doctors thousands of times before. I was rushed to the hospital where, for three weeks, they pumped me full of cooling (and chock full of harmful side effects) prednisone and antibiotics. They stabilized me but, a couple years later, had to surgically remove my entire colon. The damage was just too much.
It won't be like that for us as a species. The hotter we get, the less likely it will be that we can prevent further warming. The Arctic is recognized as the canary in the coalmine and the canary is doing even worse than we had thought. The Arctic has already warmed 2 degrees centigrade (3.6F) since 1970, three times faster than the planet overall. Over 40 percent of its summer sea ice cover has melted away. As the heat reflecting "mirror" ice is replaced by dark heat-absorbing sea water, the region warms which, in turn, melts more ice which leads to more dark water and more heat... and so on.
Scientists already knew about this classic feedback effect. But until now, they hadn't realized how bad it truly was. A recent study finds that the ice-melt is absorbing two to three times more heat than estimated. It is, in fact, absorbing extra heat equivalent to fully one-quarter of the amount of heat being held in by atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is where we are headed: more heat creating more heat, to a point where further warming will simply take the situation out of our hands.
Theoretically, we can still pull back via a World War II level green energy mobilization together with rapid and permanent fossil fuel reduction. But we are not stopping. In fact, we are accelerating the process. We can't imagine it. It is our tragic flaw. We're still on the good side of the line. Yes, the symptoms are becoming more challenging, but things are still fundamentally manageable. They won't stay that way for too much longer.
There is no prednisone for the planet short of enormously risky geo-engineering interventions. And, of course, if the damage is too much, we can't just "cut out" human civilization. Well, more accurately, human civilization and many millions or billions can be "cut out," but that would suck.
Go to any climate blog and you will see scientists and "lay" people who profess alarm being ridiculed as "Chicken Littles." But sometimes the sky is actually falling. It happens. It is happening now and in rapidly shrinking time frames. We show every sign that we will simply have to cross over multiple lines, through multiple portals. Then, assuming our survival instincts kick in, we will act -- at least more of us will. Will it be enough? Will it be too late? Time will tell.
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