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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, November 19, 2007

helping Earth to quit

The air has turned suddenly colder. Rain started to fall just now as I lugged our recycling out to the back lane in the morning dark.

I again lay awake for long stretches this morning after 3:00. Pushing its way to the top of my list of nighttime worries is global warming, fueled by my reading of Six Degrees by Mark Lynas. Based on his survey of all the scientific literature, he reckons that in order to have a 75% chance of keeping the average heating of Earth below 2° C, net carbon emissions have to peak by 2015, after which they must continuously and quickly decline. If we fail to hold the average heating below 2°, there is a strong likelihood that positive-feedback mechanisms will kick in, causing a cascade of further upward surges in temperature to 6° and beyond, rendering planet Earth unrecognizable--and mostly uninhabitable--to those now living on it. Much of it will be arid, baking waste: like the Sahara Desert or Death Valley, or the naked rock of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The shrunken circumpolar temperate zone will be buffeted by ferocious storms, as well as unpredictable droughts and heatwaves.

Those are just the openers; the real problems are much worse.

When I was a boy, I, like many others of my age, loved dinosaurs. I had a set of plastic dinosaurs to play with. I knew their names (triceratops, ankylosaurus, etc.), and soon I knew which geological period each came from, whether Jurassic or Cretaceous (with the odd Triassic specimen thrown in). I knew that these were different times in Earth's ancient prehistory, but I didn't know what they signified, why the periods were separated and given different names. I assumed that time was continuous, and that things just gradually changed so that one set of creatures turned slowly into another. The names were just arbitrary labels for sections of time, like the hours of the clock.

I was wrong. I didn't know that the different geological periods were separated from each other by distinct and obvious transitions. They're called geological because they show up as layers in underground rock. A thick, homogeneous layer represents a long period of time when things were more or less the same. A thin, very different layer shows a time of sudden transition. This gives way again to another thick, homogeneous (though different) layer.

Those transitions are not smooth and continuous; they are more like changing television channels: an quick disruption, followed by something completely different. The disruptions--those thin layers--are relatively sudden, catastrophic geological and climatic events that shake the Earth (figuratively and often literally) and everything living on it or in it. In the past they have been due to asteroid collisions with Earth, or massive outpourings of magma from the interior--or sometimes more than one event happening at nearly the same time. This is what is believed to have happened at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods, 251 million years ago. The catastrophes of that time destroyed 95% of the species living on Earth, from the depths of the sea to the highest mountaintop. The survivors were very few.

Imagine what it would take to have such a result, what kinds of cataclysm could produce such vast and total die-offs. Even if we detonated every existing nuclear warhead right now we could not produce such devastation, even after allowing for all the radioactive fallout. Indeed, if humanity were wiped out, plant and animal life might recover in the radioactive world. This is what has happened at Chernobyl in Ukraine, now a place of thriving forest and animal life, precisely because it is still a no-go zone for humans.

Greenhouse gases are a much more powerful and pervasive force
than nuclear weapons for stressing the globe. For my part, I need no further convincing that we are already well on the way to the next major die-off and geological-climatic change on planet Earth. The current droughts in Atlanta, California, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, and Australia are some of the early symptoms of a regime-change that will continue to get much stronger even if we stop carbonating the atmosphere today.

And of course we won't stop today. The question is whether we can start cutting down by 2015. Due to human agency, Earth has become a smoker. Hydrocarbons are her nicotine. The voices in the halls of power have been saying that smoking is not hazardous to our health. Now, with increasing evidence that it is hazardous, they're saying that we can't quit--maybe can't even cut down. The habit is too strong. We'll keep puffing and hope for the best.

I have about seven years in which I can choose to help my species and my planet. How should I spend them?

That's what kept me awake this morning.


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