|Surviving Human Nature|
Living on the Edge
Persisting dangers posed by the human tendency to injure and kill other humans can be overwhelmed by nature’s tendency to destroy and kill. Humans die from planetary events over which they have little or no control. Earthquakes are a constant expression of tectonic plates in motion. There are regular events such as volcanic eruptions, fires and storms and irregular events such as tornados and hurricanes. Humans insist on living in areas that have frequent earthquakes or extreme weather events and more less accept the risk. You could argue that a prudent person would not live in a high risk zone or would build a home that could withstand any adversity that might arrive one day. Preparations can be made to warn against or to mitigate the consequences of some events, but overall, risk taking is a fatalistic resignation to the greater forces of nature.
Humans are used to living on the edge and have a tendency to deny their own involvement in causing calamities. Despite much information to the contrary, too many humans pretend that unusual weather events are "Acts of God" and that things will return to normal next year. But will they? And what is normal?
The planet's thermostat had been set at a pleasant average temperature of 59 degrees (F) for the last 10 thousand years or so and is now undergoing a rapid change. Global warming means that the earth retains more of the sun's heat over time. The warming effect of greenhouse gases is reduced by particle pollution and clouds that block incoming infrared radiation. Without particle pollution, ice crystals and water vapor in the atmosphere, global warming would be more rapid.
Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values over the past 650,000 years. Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is likely due to the observed increase in human greenhouse gas concentrations. Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized soon, although the likely amount of temperature and sea level rise varies greatly depending on the fossil intensity of human activity during the next century .The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5%.
World temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 °C (2.0 and 11.5 °F) during the 21st century:
Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.08 to 23.22 in)
There is a confidence level >90% that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall.
There is a confidence level >66% that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.
The adverse effect of climate change depends on where you live. Low lying coastal areas, already vulnerable to ocean storms, tsunamis and floods will become uninhabitable with increasing sea levels. The vulnerable zone includes large coastal cities. In the US, New Orleans was the first to go. New York, Miami, Boston and San Francisco are vulnerable cities. More expansive high risk zones exist around flood prone rivers that overflow when rain storms dump excess water on land that has been stripped of protective vegetation. Increased rates of rainfall that overwhelm river capacities are observed in warming climate zones.
Much attention has been paid to estimating and predicting the average temperature increase of the atmosphere as a whole. Long-term predictions are best guesses and may be misleading. Local heating effects are observable as wind and rain -- more heat produces more extreme weather events. Heat drives weather and increased heat means increased turbulence in the atmosphere. The consequences vary with the distribution of this extra heat and its effect on ocean and air circulation patterns. We can accept paradoxical weather results as the extra heat makes weather systems more turbulent and changes air and water circulation patterns. The main concern should be the effect of heat retention on local climates right now.
It is possible to imagine increasingly anomalous weather and increasing loss of life and property from greenhouse gas accumulation with little or no change in the average temperature of the planet, although, we do expect slow progressive increase in average temperatures. You can increase the temperature in some areas and decrease in others and you can alternate - the differential effect will drive storms and precipitation in unusual ways. By the end of 1998, we knew that weather extremes were becoming commonplace and loss of life and property from adverse weather increased.
These more destructive weather events promise to continue. Insurance companies are increasing rates, limiting coverage or going out of business. Hurricane Andrew was the first of the worst weather disasters in US history that caused 16.5 billion dollars in insured loses, bankrupting smaller insurance companies. The UN panel on climate change estimated that windstorm damage increased from $500 million in the 60's to over $11 billion in the 90's and the annual bill in the 21st century may be hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Before 1987, storms had never caused insured loses exceeding $1 billion; there have been a succession of $100 billion-plus disasters since. Hurricane Katrina that destroyed New Orleans in 2005 killed 1300 people, left one million homeless with direct costs estimated at $125 billion. The costly destruction continues worldwide.
The release of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a milestone that confirms a scientific consensus that we have a problem of catastrophic proportions and mandates the necessity of achieving a political consensus that that will lead to real and effective action in all the countries on planet earth. The climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009 involved 200 nations who failed to achieve enforceable agreements to reduce carbon emissions. If you were an optimist you might value the Accord that was achieved, a five-page document that represented another tentative step toward global action to reduce atmospheric pollution and climate change. A realist would restate our understanding of human nature – that local interests always trump global concerns and local interests are divergent and divisive. US President Obama stated: “I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. The science says that we’ve got to significantly reduce emissions over the next 40 years. There’s nothing in the Copenhagen agreement that ensures that will happen.”
There is no need to wait until 2050 to find out what is going to happen. Political action should swift and definitive, but of course, it is not. The task of leading fellow humans from a self-destructive path requires intelligent and compassionate superheroes. In Dec. 2007, Al Gore shared a Nobel Prize with the IPCC, a United Nations agency. In his acceptance speech, Gore, made another passionate plea of recognition of the climate crisis and the need for cooperative action across the planet. Gore warned that “we, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency — a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly.”
One correction is that humans and other animals are in peril, not the planet. Planet Earth is a work in progress that changes continuously. No environment has been stable over the stretch of millions of years and climates change without human help. The problem today is that human activities have changed the environment quickly and that current arrangements to supply clean air, good food and clean water are not sustainable.
Disruptions in ecosystems, economic systems, political systems are inevitable. Changes in human behavior must come from all people who sense danger, seek to understand their options and change spontaneously. The same issues come up in personal and public health concerns - constructive change is required.
Ignorance and denial obstruct constructive change; wishful thinking and fantasy solutions become more popular. Self-interest and greed dominate the political process.