How Bad Will It Be?

Joseph Romm, at climateprogress.org, has put together an article that summarizes his research into how bad climate change could be for the world.

There's a lot of things I want to add to the margins of this, by ways of context, though.

First, I think that this introduction to the idea of how global warming will screw us over, as a species, is important because for a long time we've been painting ourselves as two separate worlds. On the one hand, we have nature, and in the other, humanity - who has paved over nature and created its own environments.

But that's false. We all eat food grown or sustained on the Earth and the sun. All of our power comes from the sun - nature's engine - and the energy that its fed into the Earth in various ways. Even geothermal and nuclear power - based on elements and heat from the interior of the Earth - comes from stars; the sun's parents and grandparents, whose violent explosions provided the energy that created the radioactive elements that keep the Earth warm. (Most other power sources are a little more straightforward.)

Word-twisting aside, we depend on the land - and for a long time now, we've tended to think of that philosophy as something that belongs to people with long hair and a penchant for marijuana. And that's the core of unsustainable philosophies that have led to use taking too much, using too much, and leaving too much behind.

But not only that. It's also led environmentalists to frame environmental behavior as something that benefits nature. It's all about saving the rainforests, the polar bears, or the salmon. These are all important things, but we have to be honest. The real reason we should be saving all of these things is not because of the cure for cancer in the rainforest flower we might wipe out tomorrow. That'd be nice to save, but the real issue is stability.

Individual species die out - it's a fact of life. But when they start dying out quicker than before, then there might be a problem - because the stability of our living systems is being challenged. And when we start shifting the entire world, that's a huge dent to stability, because while nature is very good at adapting, it's good at adapting at longer timescales. When it's been forced to adapt quicker - like, when a 10km asteroid hits it - then the world changes, the dinosaurs die out, and mammals get their chance.

Environmentalism isn't about saving nature. It's about saving the planet - and everything, every place, and everyone on it.

Which is why Romm's post (oh yeah, that!) is so important. Because while Romm is interested in how pine forests may be wiped out by swarms of beetles, it's not as important as how climate change is going to change the world - and affect us. And, if we continue as we are, it will. That's why it's important to read - this is a global issue, in the widest possible sense, encompassing all of nature and all of humanity.

Second, I want to call attention to another aspect of Romm's analysis. In general, Romm tends to go much farther than the mainstream - although almost always supported by scientific reports in the process. In part, he's quicker to pick up on studies and quicker to pick up on their significance. Another part, though, is his mindset - he tends to think about the worst case scenario, while newspapers and policy-makers tend to think of the best case.

So when Romm says that business-as-usual will get us to 800-1100 parts per million, it's very possible and very supported by science - and it's not something that people are falling over themselves to admit. In terms of human growth, we've been growing at something 2 ppm a year. While that might increase, that's not the big issue. As noted before, the big problem is positive feedback cycles that may start - mainly, more methane as ice and permafrost melts and more carbon dioxide as the forests and oceans give up the ghost and say no more, no more (or, rather, when the finite oceans and forests don't scale up their carbon intake the way we'd like them to, or when we cut down all the forests). It's these feedback cycles that Romm thinks spells doom and gloom for everyone.

And here's the kicker - for me, at least. It's possible (though much less likely) that some of the feedback cycles can kick in, even at a level at or under 450. So even if we make it, we still might not be in the clear.

It's become increasingly clear to me that humanity needs to pursue sustainable practices to achieve stability. And now, based on all the research countless scientists have done, and the further work people like Romm have done collecting and interpreting it, I can say that we won't be able to breathe easy, even after we achieve 450 by 2050 (and it's vital that we do).

Instead, we'll be like the people who summit Mount Everest. We'll make it to the top, take a moment to celebrate with the breath we have left, then start climbing down.

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