The End of the World is (ge)Naai

I think we’re f%$@ed no matter what we do.  Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but I believe that unless we make radical interventions soon, it will be too late no matter what we do then.  I’m not referring to the tearing of the social fabric of society due to social media or violent pc games, or the destruction of rain forests, or the bleaching of coral reefs – I am only concerned here with climate change. 

People throughout history have been famously making dire predictions about the future, only to be proven spectacularly wrong.  Probably, the most famous of these was Malthus who could not see how we could produce enough food for an exploding population.  As in this case, every time people have made predictions, new technologies have come along to save us.  

But just because predictions have been wrong in the past is no argument against new predictions.  We have to consider – what if we are right this time?

The consequences of climate change are so dire that we cannot afford to get it wrong.  In Malthus’s case, if his prediction was right, the consequences of mass starvation would have been painful but would have been part of the correction which would have returned the world back to where it was before.  It would have been no more irksome than the Black Death when 25-40% of the world’s population was wiped out.

But with climate change, if we get it wrong, there is no going back.  Let me explain a little bit of the science behind this.  It concerns the concept of stability and instability.

Instability:  The top of a hill is an unstable point.  Carefully placing a ball there would see it remain there, but the slightest touch would send it down one of the slopes of the hill.  What happens is that when we push the ball to the left, say, there arises a force also to the left (due to gravity and the slope of the ground) that reinforces the initial disturbance and we get a runaway response.  It’s called positive feedback.  (The screech of a microphone/loudspeaker is a very good example of this phenomenon.)

Stability:  The bottom of a valley is a stable point.  No matter how hard we disturb the ball, there is a restoring force that acts in an opposite direction to the disturbance to return the ball back to the bottom.  This is called negative feedback as the direction of the restoring force is opposite to the disturbance.  It’s also called a potential well as the bottom of the valley has the lowest potential energy.

Of course, if there is little damping, the ball will go through the bottom and up the other side a bit before coming down again and overshooting yet again, and so on.  Not ideal, perhaps, but at least it always returns to the bottom.  Hence, we have seen ice ages come and go.

The Earth has been in our current potential well for as long as man has dwelled upon it. Indeed, it was the characteristics of this well that made our life possible.  During this time, the Earth has seen many fluctuations but, essentially, the world has remained in this particular potential well.  Throughout geological time, the Earth has existed in other potential wells that would not have supported life as we know it and, somehow, through meteor impact or the slow accretion and locking up of CO2 or whatever, we have arrived at our quite pleasant potential well.

When I spoke of stability, I said that no matter how hard we disturb the ball, it always wants to return to the bottom.  I lied.  The world is more complex than this.  What happens if there is a ridge and then another valley next door.  If we disturb the ball hard enough, we could push the ball over the ridge into the next valley where it will find a new equilibrium and continue oscillating around it in that valley.

An even more complex view of the possible potential wells where the Earth can exist.  The world comprises infinitely more variables than the 3 portrayed here and yet we are still prepared to take a chance on where we will end up.

This new valley would probably be radically different from the verdant and fecund one that we know.  A practical illustration would be travelling north from the beautiful and green George, over the Outeniqua pass, and down into the brown and arid Little Karoo.  Not only will the temperature be different in this brave new world, but almost everything else – atmospheric gas ratios, weather patterns, biological life etc.  Rising sea levels would probably be the least of our problems as the world would be completely different from the one that we presently know and probably only inhabitable for the few at a huge cost and effort, if at all.

Once we go over the ridge, there will be no stopping us.  I repeat – there will be no stopping us. 

No amount of effort on the part of mankind could prevent us then from descending into the next potential well as we would be fighting against the full might of Gaia’s resources. For example, the heating of the world would cause the melting of the permafrost which would release methane which would in turn cause more heating etc, etc.  This is just one of the many runaway positive feedback systems that would be activated.  The screeching of the microphone/speaker feedback loop would have nothing on this.  The scream of humanity would make Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, look like a pyjama party.

What existence would look like in that future potential well, no one can imagine.  But I will make one conciliatory prediction – it won’t be as dire as Mars.  We will still be in that Goldilocks zone relative to the Sun and while we have an iron core, we will retain our magnetic field and hence our atmosphere and our shield from radiation which will ensure that the planet will still sustain life of some form, probably just not ours – Cockroaches 1, Humans 0.

However, I can offer 2 things that we can do about it.  The one we know and can do right now.  We can stop denying climate change and initiate radical interventions worldwide to reverse it.  It will take the rest of this century to stop it and many centuries to reverse it.  If you don’t believe the rough timeline, consider this: The Ozone hole is an example of an intervention that worked.  It was a simple problem with a direct cause and effect and few other complex interactions.  Mankind’s use of CFCs had chewed up the ozone and ripped a hole in the layer which crucially absorbs UV radiation from the Sun.  A CFC ban was implemented nearly 30 years ago in 1989 and yet it is predicted that only by 2075 will Ozone levels increase to pre-1980 levels.  That was a simple problem compared to global warming which involves a complex interaction of temperature, weather systems and biological processes and yet only my great-great-grandchildren will have the benefit of growing up like me as a kid in the sun without a hat and SPF 50 sunscreen.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe that such a concord will be possible for climate change.  Then there was only one superpower and when it decided things had to change, it could drive it through.  Now the world’s two biggliest economies, who together are responsible for almost half of the problem eye each other suspiciously, neither one prepared to give an inch in case the other gets an advantage. 

The other potential solution involves technology riding to the rescue of mankind yet again.  With enough energy one can accomplish just about anything.  Once we have eliminated humans from the physical side of extraction, manufacturing and production through robotics, the cost of all endeavours reduces to the cost of energy.  If we can crack the problem of nuclear fusion, we can throw gobs of energy directly at the problem to claw the Earth back from crossing that ridge.  The only problem is that for more than 50 years, nuclear fusion has been just a decade away.  Maybe we can crack it before it’s too late – who knows.

This might have been a qualitative discussion, but what is not in doubt is the existence of that ridge and the unwelcoming potential well on the other side.  Exactly how high that ridge is or how far we have ascended is unknown.  But what is also true is that over that last 100 years mankind has been able to transform the Earth significantly and measurably.  

Until the Industrial Revolution, mankind made very little impact and was just an irritating pimple on Gaia’s arse.  None of the puny things we could do could propel Earth out of its happy little potential well that it had existed in for millions of years and would continue to do so for many millions more.  The Industrial Revolution changed all that and, with America leading the charge in the 1900’s, man’s consumption of the planet exploded.  But as amazing as it was to witness, it had nothing on what the Chinese have wrought in the 2000’s.  In the late 1990’s I was in Las Vegas (on business) and it was said then that Vegas had more light bulbs than China.  Fast forward to 2011-2013: in those 3 years China consumed 50% more cement than the USA did in the whole of the 20th century when it was the poster child for progress and consumption! 

Why did I pick the cement example?  Because it is the unsung villain of climate change.  There is a double whammy in its processing.  First is the energy to heat the lime and second is the CO2 that is given off when the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is converted.

The temperature numbers are there and there are enough signs of the associated biological and weather processes kicking in to make me wonder if we are not nearing the cusp, the point of no return.

To my children and grandchildren (and maybe my great-grandchildren): Enjoy the ride – it’s going be terrifying.


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