November 1, 2007

The Climate Change Apocalypse: Wait, It Doesn’t Just Kill Polar Bears?

Print More

You don’t have to be Al Gore to realize that when it’s 70 degrees in late October in Ithaca, Southern California bursts into flames, the northernmost point of land keeps getting rediscovered because of massive ice melting and there seems to be at least one devastating natural disaster per year in America, the climate is indeed changing and not for the better. A profound conclusion I know. But this isn’t another article about how we should turn off the lights when we aren’t using them or the benefits of carpooling; it isn’t even an article about more hardcore, Ed Begley-level environmentalism where we all drive hybrids and walk around with solar-paneled backpacks that power our iPods. This is an article about why one of the most important scientists of the 20th century says going green is pointless and that by 2100 Earth’s population will shrink to just 500 million.

Last week’s Rolling Stone features a piece about James Lovelock—the 87 year old scientist who invented a device that helped detect the hole in the ozone layer in the 1970s, founded the Gaia hypothesis (the theory that the Earth can be viewed as a single organism) and was the first to discover that industrial CFCs pollute the atmosphere. He’s no mad scientist looking to make a name for himself, and he now says that climate change is irreversible and only 500 million humans will have survived by the end the of century.

We expect such morbid predications of a dystopian future from a disorderly protester at a campaign speech as he’s being tased or from a crazy-eyed dope fiend as he lurks around Ithaca Commons but not from such a highly esteemed scientist. We don’t expect such doom and gloom from a scientist who “future historians of science will see […] as a man who inspired a Copernican shift in how we see ourselves in the world,” according to Tim Lenton, a climate researcher at the University of East Anglia.

Lovelock argues that contemporary climate predictions are far too conservative, as they are based on computer models, whereas his predictions are based on what is actually going on. Far from the conservative predications detailing the tearful extinction of the polar bear and widespread flooding in a few hundred years time, Lovelock’s prediction shows the imminent destruction of civilization as we know it.

In Lovelock’s view, the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us will soon become obvious. By 2020, droughts and other extreme weather will be commonplace. By 2040, the Sahara will be moving into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad. Atlanta will end up a kudzu jungle. Phoenix will become uninhabitable, as will parts of Beijing (desert), Miami (rising seas) and London (floods). Food shortages will drive millions of people north, raising political tensions. “The Chinese have nowhere to go but up into Siberia,” Lovelock says. “How will the Russians feel about that? I fear that war between Russia and China is probably inevitable.” With hardship and mass migrations will come epidemics, which are likely to kill millions. By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth’s population will be culled from today’s 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors living in the far latitudes — Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic Basin. – Rolling Stone

His theory makes scary sense, and I’d refer you to the Rolling Stone article (here) for a further explanation of his predications. The article makes you realize that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, a credible source is predicting an end to civilization as we know it, and not even a synchronized, worldwide rock concert can save us.

The problem with Lovelock’s theory is its dismissability. Theoretically, resolving a problem by saying that it’s irresolvable isn’t much of a solution. If the end of civilization is inevitable, then why not subscribe to the more conservative predications and combat the problem as if we could do something about it? Would it make the end of civilization any more disastrous if people were engulfed by overflowing seas in their Priuses and not their Hummers? Anyone who has watched House knows that you ignore the “there is nothing we can do” diagnosis until the patient is dead. Why not use the same logic for climate change?

The reforms Lovelock speaks of demand a fundamental restructuring of civilization. These reforms would have to begin long before billions start dying.

Lovelock wants a smooth transition into this Civilization 2.0. He recommends preparations for the migration of hundreds of millions of people, abandonment of low-lying cities, building of desalination plants, growing food in vats of tissue and building hundreds of nuclear power plants. If civilization is going to crumble as quickly as he predicts, we’re going to have to start to put the infrastructure for these reforms in place now. Are we ready for that? Are the governments of the world ready to appropriate a large percentage of revenue to such radical reforms? How are you going to get people to abandon cities like New Orleans, Miami, London and Venice? Do nuclear power plants make the end of civilization more or less likely? These solutions are impractical. We don’t have the time and money, and we will to make such extreme changes to our way of life. As much as Lovelock wants to provide a treatment for his diagnosis, the sole treatment is effectively imaginary, and thus he is stuck with the “there is nothing we can do” diagnosis.

Lovelock’s theory could very well be right on. We could look back on him decades from now and marvel at his foresight. But subscribing to his apocalyptic predictions at this point won’t do us any good. We need to take action to fix a still solvable problem, not slip into apathy in the face of an inevitable truth.