Global warming may cause more sudden disaster than most recognize:
If – or rather, according to scientists, when – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, sea levels will rise at least 5 meters or more (over 15 feet). The West Antarctic Icesheet is approximately 2000 meters thick, holds an estimated 30 million cubic kilometers of water, and covers an area the size of Mexico. New evidence indicates that this may be a sudden transition, and not a gradual one. In other words, global warming may hit us far more dramatically and abruptly than most anticipate.
The Larsen Ice Sheet collapsed in 2002, and did so suddenly. New evidence from ice core samples taken by a New Zealand team of scientists shows that sudden transitions – from ice sheet to open ocean – have been the case in the past.
Consider how many highly populated regions and cities are less than 5 meters above sea level. A sudden rise of sea level of 5 meters or more would have global catastrophic effects. Try to envision an equivalent effect to hundreds of hurricance Katrinas hitting us simulataneuosly around the globe. This may be pretty hard to comprehend, but the research findings indicate an ecological impact from such an event to be on an order of magnitude that may cause global systems failure for human civilization. Reading more about our history, we see that this has happened to a number of civilizations in the past. The Maya, the people of Easter Island, Sumeria, Rome: for a variety of reasons, each of these saw the collapse of a civilization. Ronald Wright chronicles such trainwrecks of our collective human cultural history in A Brief History of Progress, with meticulous research, and a clear warning: it could happen to us. We would have to be pretty ignorant of our history, as well as deeply in denial as to the seriousness of our present ecological crisis, to think that such a thing couldn’t happen to us. In fact, if the West Antarctic Icesheet fell suddenly – as evidence indicates it will – we may have to rebuild from the ground up.
The good news? The Maya adapted. Rome fell, but humanity carried on. Sumeria is dust, but the ongoing experiement in what it is to be human, is still alive. We need to learn from our collective mistakes. We need to learn from history.
Unfortunately, one thing we learn from history is that civilizations frequently do fall. When this happens, it is no small event, and it is certainly a great understatement to say that it is a major adjustment. We might be wise to do all we can to address our ecological crisis, and also, to address in advance the potential fallout from the crisis. If we blithely carry on and do not address the ecological crisis with the level of response it demands, we should have some idea as to what to expect. And if we do not prepare for the fallout of our self-created ecological crisis, we will quite possibly be blind-sided: like hitting an iceberg at night.
It makes no sense to be passive about the ecological crisis we’ve created for ourselves. Clearly, the intelligent thing to do is to address it: to make a rapid and intensive effort to switch to ecologically sustainable ways of living and having an economy. But while we do what is most sensible and make a dedicated and intensive effort toward a transition to a ecologically sustainable societies, communities and ways of living; we should also prepare for some unknown amount of disaster – for we have already set that in motion.
At this point it must also be mentioned that the “we” I am speaking of primarily relates to my neighbours and fellow citizens in the “leading” industrialized nations. The wealthiest 20% of the world’s populace consumes roughly 80% the world’s wealth and produces over 60% of the world’s pollution. It is the consumer society, especially in its particular form of oil-dependency and petro-chemical disposable everything, which is rapidly destroying our childrens’ future.
– The average Briton produces 126 times more carbon dioxide than someone living in Nepal
– CO2 emissions from using an electric kettle for one year in the UK are equivalent to average person’s total annual CO2 emissions in Nepal
“Lives in Bangladesh will be devastated though no fault of the people concerned. We are not causing the climate change that is killing our people. The average Bangladeshi produces .3 tons of carbon dioxide per annum; the average citizen in the world’s biggest polluting nation, the United States, produces 20 tons of CO2 each year. So as well as calling on all the world’s rich nations to reduce emissions and tackle that challenge now, we also know that a certain amount of irreversible change is upon us.”
– Sabihuddin Ahmed, High Commissioner for Bangladesh
But all ethical questions aside, if we were to ask the question of appropriate response simply in terms of intelligent self-interest (if there is such a thing), what would that mean? What would be an intelligent response to such evidence regarding the ecological crisis we have created? Quite simply, face it head on. Denial and inaction will only heighten the impact later, when it becomes truly unavoidable.
Take this recent statement by Richard Jones, the vice president for engineering of the Hartford Insurance Company. “Climate change is real,” said Jones. “To me, proving that earth’s climate is changing from human actions—namely global warming—is like statistically ‘proving’ the pavement exists after you have jumped out a 30-story building. After each floor, your analysis would say, ‘so far, so good,’ and then, at the pavement, all uncertainty is removed.”
As Einstein’s protege, physicist David Bohm has said, “In the long run it is far more dangerous to adhere to illusion than to face what the actual fact is.”
Presently however, as David Suzuki put it, “We are speeding toward a brick wall at 100 mph, and everyone is arguing about where they’re going to sit.”