After each new piece of bad news on climate change I find myself struggling to find hope. Most recently, after reading James Lovelock’s book The Vanishing Face of Gaia, I woke up in the middle of the night crying. I don’t cry much, but I believed Lovelock’s prediction that in the coming hot climate, the Earth will only support about 20% of the current population. I lost hope that civilization will turn back in time to prevent a climate catastrophe. This post is about finding my way back to mental equilibrium.
I have hit despair about the future before. When this happens, two parts of me argue as I struggle to reassemble a bearable worldview without denying the bad news. There is the optimistic part of me whom, I’ll call “Opto” and his pessimistic counterpart, “Pesso.” The good news is that after their conversation I usually am back to a reasonably productive mood. This is a summary of the dialogue that brought me back this time.
Pesso speaking: Opto, please pay attention. You know that we are probably already past the tipping point on climate change. If not, we soon will be. There is no reason to believe that humanity will stop pouring CO2 into the atmosphere until it is too late. Look at what happened in Copenhagen.
Global warming is not just ecological catastrophe. Much of the most productive inland farmland will turn to desert. Rising oceans will flood Bangladesh, the Dutch polders, the Nile valley and the low lying river valleys and deltas that provide much of the world’s food. Billions will starve. Coastal cities will be destroyed. This is the largest social justice issue ever. Humanity will be deciding which billion will live and which five billion will die. Only the rich, the powerful, the well armed and the very lucky will survive. Though I know they have a better chance than average, I am worried for our grandchildren.
And then there is the fact that the ecosystems and social systems we are working on will soon be destroyed. What is the point of anything? I swear, if I could get my spirits up enough, I would just party through the last good days and forget about saving the world. It is too late.
Opto: (Deep breath) OK. As you say, the situation appears to be horrific. But let’s not just assume that Lovelock is right. Collapse is not inevitable. Lovelock underestimates the adaptivity of the human species. We can still hope for a precipitating event that drives humanity to a sudden change of heart in time to avert the worst.
Once we wake up there is a lot that we can do. Geoengineering technologies may temporarily hold back the temperature increase until we can reduce our emissions enough that it is no longer needed. We have had a good cry; let’s not sink into depression. In the words of Alex Steffen:
“The opposite of pessimism isn't “doing something,” it’s whole-hearted engagement with systemic reinvention.”
So let’s embrace the opportunity to do important work. Let’s go on the journey of a systemic reinvention of society.
Pesso: So be it my glib and fatuous twin. Let’s look at the system we need to address.
Lovelock became famous when he noticed that since life emerged on Earth 3½ billion years ago, the sun has heated up 25%. The Earth should have gotten much hotter, but it didn’t. Instead, with some minor ups and downs like ice ages and the current interglacial period, the temperature has had no long-term upward trend. Lovelock concluded that the planet has a self-regulating system controlling temperature, similar to the way a thermostat and a furnace control the temperature in your house or the way your body controls its temperature. But what causes this homeostasis?
Lovelock then made a startling discovery: Life plays a major role in the regulation system that kept the global temperature and ocean salinity in a zone that is habitable for life. When a purely mineral Earth would have been too cold, life put CO2 into the atmosphere which warmed it. When the sun warmed and a purely mineral world would have grown too hot, photosynthetic organisms in the ocean bloomed and pulled more CO2 out of the atmosphere, cooling the planet. Lovelock concluded that life acts as superorganism, doing what organisms do, adjusting its environment to suit its own survival (see great Rolling Stone article).
The idea that life as a whole acts to create conditions habitable for life is called the Gaia Hypothesis. It does not sit easily with the neo-Darwinist "selfish gene" paradigm and therefore is troubling to most scientists. However seeing life on Earth as part of a homeostatic control system fits the data better than any other theory to explain the historical stability of the climate and ocean salinity. For this reason it is now widely, but not universally accepted.
Opto: This is not like you. This sounds like good news. Life is taking care of us. She may have more tools than you or Lovelock can see.
Pesso: Currently life acts to cool the planet. The sun is very slowly getting hotter, which means that life has to work ever harder to cool the planet. Sooner or later the task of cooling the planet will be too great and life will fail. The temperature will shoot up and life as we know it will be over.
Humans are now making Gaia’s job harder by adding to the warming. At some point the system shifts from the negative feedback that keeps the system under control to positive feedback, that will lead to a runaway temperature increase. Lovelock suggests that the move from negative feedback to positive will result in rapid runaway temperature rise, much of which may occur in less than a decade from when it starts accelerating.
I always thought climate change was about the fate of my grandchildren and their descendants. Now I see that it will probably affect me as well. Worse, I fear for my descendents even more than I did when I thought there was still time to fix the situation.
Opto: The good news, if you can call it that, is that there is a likely stopping point to this rapid temperature rise. Lovelock points out that there are three stable temperature regimes which have repeated themselves over time:
- The ice ages;
- The interglacial periods (one of which we are in now); and
- The “greenhouse” periods that average about 6°C (11 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than now.
The Earth’s climate ran away into a greenhouse period 55 million years ago. Eventually Gaia recovered and the temperature came back down. Even if we go to a greenhouse period, we can come back again.
Pesso: Sure but the recovery took 100,000 years. I take less cheer in this than you do. In Climate Change on a Living Earth Lovelock presents a graph showing that “when the CO2 in the air exceeds 500 ppm the global temperature suddenly rises 6°C and becomes stable again despite further increases or decreases of atmospheric CO2.”
I find the stability of the hot periods depressing for three reasons:
- The stability means it is hard to get back to a cooler climate. Just reducing emissions 80% may not be enough. We will probably be stuck in the greenhouse for a very long time.
- The stability means that most of what we are doing is meaningless. Slowing down emissions a bit may alter the timing of the sudden temperature increase by a year or two, but we still end up in the same hot state at the same temperature with the same disastrous results.
- At 6°C hotter than now Lovelock predicts the planet will only able to feed about 20% of today’s population. Billions will starve.
Opto: I know the predictions and I struggle with the images Lovelock evokes. But I see no reason to be paralyzed by them. It is not inevitable that we flip into the hot zone. The history of climate change suggests less predictability than Lovelock suggests and I still believe humanity will wake up to the danger and respond vigorously.
We do not understand the dynamics of global climate well enough to make firm predictions. For example, suppose the ocean conveyer (including the Gulf stream) stops and we shift rapidly into a new ice age. As large sections of the Earth turn white, more of the sun's energy would be reflected back into space, lowering the average temperature of Earth. Furthermore, the ice age would be quite a wake up call. People would begin caring about and doing something about human impact on climate and we would have some time to reduce emissions before flipping into another hot era.
Suppose we go beyond 500 ppm of CO2. We still might delay the temperature increase long enough to get our emissions under control. For example, we might cool the planet by putting sulfur into the atmosphere, As we have learned from volcanic explosions, sulfur in the atmosphere blocks some of the sun’s heating energy. Pinatubo’s explosion cooled the world for several years. We might cool the planet by increasing photosynthesis in the ocean thereby sucking CO2 out of the air. We …
Pesso: “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.” Sometimes the solution is worse that the problem it solves. How do you know that that is not the case here?
Opto: I don’t. But that is why we should get to work testing and modeling and discussing geoengineering ideas. We don’t want to suddenly find out we have to use them on a large scale without having done smaller tests first.
Pesso: If geoengineering becomes popular, people will think we don’t have to curb emissions, that we can pollute all we want and geoengineering will fix it. As a result doing the research may make the situation worse by delaying action to cut emissions.
Opto: The reason human efforts to stop climate change have been so pitiful is that we haven’t seen the sudden catastrophic event needed to alert the population to the danger. New Orleans almost did it, but the press did not report it as a climate change story. This will change when we have a sufficient sudden demonstration of climate change. Once the powers that be decide that stopping climate change is in their interests, the media will change its tune and shortly thereafter the population will be ready for something serious to be done about climate change.
Pesso: By then it will be too late. Like Alex Steffen, I do not think technological fixes will allow us to green our consumptive lifestyle. Stopping climate change would require a complete change of lifestyle as well as of technology. That will not happen nearly in time.
Opto: Perhaps not, but even if we flip to a hotter period, the human species will survive and rebuild as we have done after the ice ages. There are many things we can do to adapt and thereby reduce suffering, death and ecosystem destruction. And we can begin building the systems that will eventually get us back to an interglacial period. Lovelock has underestimated the ability of our ingenious species to figure out ways to feed itself and amuse itself under difficult conditions.
After the great plague came the Renaissance. I believe that after whatever horrors there are in reducing human population to fit what may be a significantly reduced carrying capacity of Earth, humanity will become much more responsible for our impact on the planet. We will have another, much deeper, renaissance, a coming of age as a species.
If Lovelock’s predictions of rapid climate change come to pass, Gaia and her power will become an ever present reality in human consciousness. Our religions, our myths, our history and our science will make us afraid of angering her again. Religions will reemphasize the role of humanity as stewards of the Earth. In partnership with the dynamics of Gaia, we will restore ecosystems and bring the temperature of the planet back to a more habitable range.
For now there is good work to be done getting humanity ready for the hotter times ahead. As we despair of stopping climate change, we can move some of our attention from fighting climate change to finding ways to reduce the human suffering in the likely event that Earth does get much hotter and dryer. For example we can work on the post-warming food supply, rising water, drought and refugees. These can supply many generations of meaningful work.
Business opportunities in solving these challenges that I will cover in future blog posts include:
- Low water use food production
- Rising ocean solutions
- A rising ocean hedge fund
- Refugee hosting systems
- Offshore aquaculture
- Sea colonization
- Vegetarian diets
- Fostering resilience
- More nearly self sufficient communities
- Peace and security in a time of declining resources
- Resilient energy systems
- Higher HappoDammo Ratio ways to be happy
Pesso: That all sounds great, but how do you live with being a member of a species that is destroying the planet and shows little sign of learning to be responsible. Some days I am deeply ashamed of being a human.
Opto: Self hatred will not make anything better. I believe that humanity is not a mistake, that in the end we will prove to be good for Earth. If we get depressed because Gaia theory suggests faster and deeper climate change than the IPCC, let us also look at positive implications of Gaia theory. Whether it is God or Gaia, there appears to be an intelligence at work taking care of our planet.
In an almost religious way, I choose to believe that Gaia (or God) has allowed humans to evolve for a reason. If we think of each species as an organs in the planetary super-organism, what is our function? Here are a few possibilities:
- In order to protect herself against asteroid strikes, Gaia had to allow the development of a dangerously technologically competent species. Of existing species, only humans are equipped to predict the trajectory of asteroids or conduct operations in space. Since a major asteroid strike could sterilize the planet down to the level of a few extremophile bacteria, building such an asteroid defense system is a high priority for Gaia’s health (and should be for humanity).
- Humans will probably turn out to be the reproductive organ of Gaia. Of the species around today, only humans are close to being able to package up a variety of other species and carry them across space to find other hospitable worlds. Noah’s Ark may be the metaphorical instructions for this enterprise.
- The sun will continue to grow hotter. Gaia has held the temperature in the hospitable zone for 3 ½ billion years, but the hotter the sun gets the more Gaia must do to keep the temperature down. At some point removing CO2 from the atmosphere will not be enough. At this point humans can build sun shades in space. There are even plausible plans for moving the Earth’s orbit further from the sun to compensate for the sun’s growing heat. [BBC, New Scientist]
Thinking about things humans can do for the survival of Life on Earth makes me feel good about being a human. It let’s me believe that Gaia or God has created us for a reason. Are we in the toddler or the adolescent stage as a species? Either way, the fact that we are irresponsible and breaking things does not mean we will not grow up to be a highly valuable member of the earth-life community. Although we are not nearly as unique as we think, there are some things that only humans can do. My bet is that we will be kept around to do them. I’d like to work on that premise. Now is a good time to begin practicing for our role as stewards of the Earth.
Pesso: Arrghhh! Do you have any idea what people will say if you talk like that? Calm down!
Opto: OK, let’s not publish this post. But I feel better anyway. Off to work.
(Credits: Photo of Opto and Pesso by Cayusa using cc-by-nc, Photo of Cracked Earth by Qousqous using cc-by-nc-sa, Photo of Ocean Conveyor Belt by Thomas Splettstoesser of US Global Change Research Program and is public domain (a work by the US Federal Government), Photo of Berber Tents by Robbie's Photo Art using cc-by-nc-nd, Photo of Asteroid Impact by Don Davis of Nasa Images and is public domain (a work by the US Federal Government). )