Saturday, August 8, 2020

Apocalypse 2030?

 “We now hold dominion over the earth, but the planet always wins in the end.” - Richard Smith, PhD

The word “apocalypse”, is a Greek for “revelation”. Today, we associate the word with the total destruction of the world or the end times described in the Old Testament’s Book of Revelations.

In 2018, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stated that we would have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about half by 2030 to prevent temperature increase above the 2.7 Degree F (1.5 C) limit in the Paris Climate Accord.

This finding was interpreted by climate activists such as the Youth Climate Strike, Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion to mean that we only had until 2030 to avoid a climate change disaster.  Two years ago, I heard a teenager say that she was going to die in 12 years because of climate change (which I assured her was not true).

So, are we going to kill the planet by the end of this decade? Is humanity’s impact on Earth going to destroy the planet in an apocalypse of sudden environmental and civilization-ending collapse?

No. Neither of these things will happen. Are we going to keep making our planet less hospitable to ourselves (and everything else)? Short answer – yes.

One example - Arctic Siberia experienced a heatwave this year which a multinational scientific consortium estimated was 600 times more likely than it would have been if the Earth was not rapidly warming.

Let me make it clear - we cannot “kill” the planet. The planet and life on it have survived much worse catastrophes than anything most people could dream of.

Over the last half billion years, there have been five major extinction events which wiped out the majority of life on Earth. The causes vary from continent-sized volcanic eruptions to the well-known asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs.

Life always “bounced” back, if you define a bounce as hundreds of thousands to millions of years, with most animal and plant species being completely different than those which lived before the mass extinction.

Dinosaurs were a minor class of animals which grew to dominate the Earth only after a mass extinction some 200 million years ago. Same for mammalian class, which took over only after the dinosaurs were wiped out, with the exception of the feathered avian versions you see flitting about your backyard.

Modern humans have been around for the last 300,000 years. Compared to tyrannosaurs (2 million years) or wooly mammoths (5 million years), we are youngsters.

The time span of human civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to today, is only 6,000 years, not even a rounding error compared to the age of the Earth.

During this interval, the Earth’s climate has been very stable, with an average worldwide temperature of about 55 degrees F give or take. Since the mid-20th century, this temperature has so far increased about 2 degrees F, the heat equivalent to 4 million times the annual energy consumption of the US.

If nothing changes, by 2070 one third of the people on this planet could experience an annual average temperature of 84 degrees, conditions which today only exist in a small section of the Sahara, but will spread to most of the subtropical belt around the world.

This is not the plot of a post-apocalyptic dystopian science fiction novel, it’s the conclusion of research published last May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) after months of peer review. The study was a collaborative effort of scientists hailing from China, the US, South America and Europe. It’s also not the first scientific study I’ve read which makes this sort of prediction.

Is this prediction apocalyptic or alarmist? Certainly, it doesn’t leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy. Keep in mind that PNAS isn’t in the habit of publishing science fiction novel plots in its journal.

It’s also not a sure thing because it assumes that we do nothing to alter the trajectory, which we still can do, to some extent.

“We now hold dominion over the earth” but it is hubris to think we are not subject to the same forces of nature which apply to all other forms of life. We forget that we are part of nature.

The only difference is that we allegedly have the ability to think ahead and a modicum of wisdom, both of which seem in short supply at the moment.

“The planet always wins in the end.” Almost every species of life that has existed on Earth has one thing in common, it is extinct.

Will humans become extinct someday? Inevitably, yes. We do not help ourselves by rapidly making the planet’s environment much harsher for us, which all the evidence shows we are doing.

Remember, we need the planet. The planet does not need us. Just ask a woolly mammoth.

Published in the Village News, August 1, 2020

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