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The Battle Against Climate Change: Does the World Need Saving?

The Battle Against Climate Change: Does the World Need Saving?

Hardly a day goes by without someone writing or saying that we need to save the Earth. My geologist friends scoff at such language for semantic reasons. The coolish, rocky planet that we call Earth will be fine when humans are long gone, they say.

Yes, climate change and human depredations of the biosphere have already brought many species to extinction and will likely extinguish many more. And, the radioactive wastes we leave behind might very well get spread about the Earth in ways that are destructive to life. But give the Earth a few hundred million years, and all of this will be essentially forgotten, gone without a trace.

As for life, it is doubtful that the consequences of human actions, however extensive, could wipe out every trace of life on the globe. Some form of life is likely to survive anything we as a species ultimately throw at it and then begin the cycle of evolution all over again.

So, if the planet doesn't need saving, what does? Well, two things depending on your goals. Many people believe that humans are moving quickly toward premature extinction, and, as I mentioned above, that we are taking many species with us. So, if your goal is to maintain the continuity of the human species, you presumably have your work cut out for you--or maybe not depending on the result you'd like to see.

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We humans are almost certainly in overshoot, a term from population biology that means we've exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth for humans given our current technology and consumption habits. So, here's the solution. Bring the per-capita consumption of humans down drastically or drastically reduce the number of humans consuming at our current rate. The first seems nearly impossible given our system of governance and technology and the fact that there are so many poor people who aspire to higher levels of consumption. The second seems impossible even though we have highly effective and cheap contraceptive technology that would over the course of the next century enable us to reduce our numbers down to one billion. (This assumes that average fertility is no more than one child per couple.)

There is a third solution. And, that is simply to let nature take its course and thin human numbers through plagues, food and resource shortages, climate-related catastrophes and the collapse of our complex global economic network that might ensue. Even with all of this, humans are extremely resilient, and enough of us would likely survive to create a new system of living based on the available resources under the new climate conditions on Earth.

It seems that human continuity is relatively assured no matter what. So, what we are really talking about saving is not the species, but the way of life we currently enjoy and the number of humans who currently enjoy it (using the term in its broadest sense since the world's vast sea of poor people must enjoy it without the material benefits of citizens in wealthy countries).

There is certainly an interest in protecting one's children and grandchildren who may face an increasingly perilous climate and shrinking resources including food. And, there is a broader concern that the world's poor will bear the brunt of these problems resulting in skyrocketing death rates.

But, some people have an even more wide-ranging concern for all the other creatures and plants which inhabit the Earth. In general, they form a web of life that provides us with services not accounted for by our money-driven economy, so-called ecoservices which according to the Encyclopedia of Earth do the following:

•    Moderate weather extremes and their impacts
•    Disperse seeds
•    Mitigate drought and floods
•    Protect people from harmful ultraviolet rays in sunlight
•    Cycle and move nutrients
•    Protect stream and river channels and coastal shores from erosion
•    Detoxify and decompose wastes
•    Control agricultural pests
•    Maintain biodiversity
•    Generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility
•    Contribute to climate stability
•    Purify the air and water
•    Regulate disease carrying organisms
•    Pollinate crops and natural vegetation

We could not survive without these ecoservices and would be bankrupted if we had to provide them completely artificially. Their scope and complexity are something on which our entire global society depends and gets essentially free of charge.

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So, a concern for the well-being of all the other creatures and plants which inhabit the Earth is partly an act of self-interest in survival. Beyond this, there are aesthetic, cultural and moral reasons for preserving these other living things. For instance, it is sad to imagine a world without the beauty of the tiger. But we may someday inhabit such a world.

We inherited a rich diversity of edible plants, but have been narrowing the ones we continue to raise based on our ability to grow vast quantities with modern farm machinery and methods--and our ability to store, ship and market crops across long distances. A part of our cultural as well as our genetic heritage is being lost.

Then, there is the moral argument. Deep ecologists suggest that all life has intrinsic worth and that therefore to exploit and destroy other life except to satisfy basic needs is a moral failing. For deep ecologists, then, preserving life on Earth means much more than simply preserving human life.

So, next time someone tells you he or she wants to save the Earth, you might inquire, "Which part? And for what or whom?" It's a vital clarification. If you only wish to save the human species consuming at its current level, then humans will surely continue to impoverish the plant and animal kingdoms. And, we humans might ultimately see our numbers diminished considerably by forces beyond our control if we insist that consumption go up or stay the same, rather than go down.

However, if your goals are broader, those goals may require far-reaching changes in human society as it is currently configured. So, yes, go out and save the Earth. But, you would do well to understand which part you want to save and for what or whom you want to save it.

By. Kurt Cobb

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  • jbutzi on November 06 2013 said:
    Your statement -"We humans are almost certainly in overshoot" seems to be the heart of this article and the issue you are arguing that cries for a response.

    Yet I cannot see that you have built a case for this being true. You allude to a few popular boogie men don't even try to find the truth. What is it?
    Is it rising temps? They are flat for 17 years.
    Is it catastrophic weather? It has actually been rather normal. Droughts, floods, cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires are normal or below average.
    Global sea ice is normal. Antarctic sea ice is setting record highs. Arctic ice is only a little below average. Maybe it is food production, or tree cover - increasing, or pollution - decreasing.
    The fact is that we are able to better care for the earth (it is precious) as we advance as a society notwithstanding population growth.

    So I cannot agree to any of your three proposed solutions because they don't seem to be based in reality at all. Perhaps you can help me there.
  • phil on November 06 2013 said:
    I agree, much like an algae bloom on a summer pond we will flourish and then perish. Humans don't have nearly the discipline it takes to live a different existence.
  • Kurt Cobb on November 07 2013 said:
    Thanks for the comments. Let me respond. Phil uses the classic analogy of the algal bloom to describe the trajectory of human population in the last 200 years. In this analogy, the fossil fuels we dig from the ground are analogous to the detritus and nutrients in a pond which feed the algae in the spring and create its huge populations surge. But, by summer most of the nutrients in the pond are gone, and with them almost all of the algae.

    Humans, like algae, have discovered finite dense energy sources that have allowed us to increase our numbers exponentially and very rapidly. We are using these finite dense energy sources very quickly. When their production begins to decline, look for trouble.

    Actually, there been trouble as oil production growth (crude plus lease condensate which is the true definition of oil) has slowed to a crawl bringing record average daily prices for the third year in a row and making it difficult for the world economy to expand--which has led to continuing high unemployment.

    Jbutzi is a classic climate change denier who uses cherry-picked data and outright falsehoods to paint a deceptive picture. He sites temperatures (presumably land temperatures) which have supposedly been flat for 17 years. When cyclical factors such as El Nino are factored out, land temperatures continue to rise, but at a slower rate. Temperature records continue to be set with last year the hottest on record in the United States. He is telling us that now that the climate change train has slowed down from 100 mph to 80 mph, we should not worry since the fall off the cliff ahead somehow won't be as bad. Also, he choses only a small set of data, land temperatures and only for 17 years, data which he doesn't actually cite.

    Much of the heat has been gathering in the oceans where it is released gradually into the atmosphere. This is because water holds heat more readily than air.

    He claims that the effects of climate change are not really climate change. And yet, the U.S. continues to have the worst drought in 500 years in the West. Hurricane force has actually been growing, though it is not certain whether this is linked to climate change. Forest fires in the U.S. West and in Australia have been the worst ever (because of the heat and drought, of course).

    He claims global sea ice is "normal." It's not clear what he means. But Arctic sea ice has been shrinking for decades both in the area it covers and in the all-important thickness of the ice cap. Antarctic ice is both land-based and sea-based. In some places it is growing due to increased precipitation (something predicated by climate change models). In others it is shrinking so that whole ice shelfs are disappearing. He doesn't mention glaciers worldwide because the evidence of their shrinkage is profoundly and compellingly demonstrated by time-lapsed photography taken over many years.

    He doesn't know that per-capita grain production has been declining since the early 1980s. Grain production has risen, but not fast enough to overcome the growth in population which he insists is not a problem--until, of course, it is.

    He claims that tree cover is increasing, but gives no specifics. Vast portions of the equatorial forests including the Amazon are being felled at an alarming rate. Worldwide forest cover is down a bit actually in the last 20 years. What he fails to mention is that this cover is down one-third from its pre-industrial level.

    Certain kinds of pollution are decreasing, mercury and sulfur from coal-burning and only in certain places that regulate it, Europe and the United States. Air pollution in China is certainly not down.

    And, pollution from toxic chemicals in the environment continues to rise as we add new untested chemicals to our society and manufacture them at increasing rates. They then leak out into the water, air and soil and from there into living things including humans. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act was meant to put a stop to this, but it has never been enforced.

    It's easy to make unsubstantiated and false claims and then come to whatever conclusions you want to. It's harder to stick with the facts, all of the facts, not just some of them, and look at the difficult spot we humans have put ourselves.

    Perhaps we as a global society will be as unthinking as algae. If Jbutzi is any indication of how policymakers and the public thinks, then I would have the rate the algae as the more intelligent species.

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