Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Behind the Apocalyptic Fog

There is something that might be called the apocalyptic fog.  It may be generated by a societal unconscious (an aggregation of different responses but equally obscuring), our high-distraction speed freak culture, both, and more.  In any case, even science is susceptible.  It obscures what may be ahead.

There's a story that the National Resource Defense Council is pushing, with their study of the likely increase in heat-related deaths in selected American cities due to the climate crisis.  It's a user friendly format with a U.S. map.  You click on the city you want to know about, and up pops a figure, over a button that you hit to "take action" against the climate crisis. 

If you go to the actual report to get the complete figures, it estimate deaths due to summer heat by mid century and by the end of the century.  For example, Pittsburgh now has 5 days of "excessive heat" each summer.  By around 2050, the estimate is for 52 days.  By the end of the century, 59.  While there are an average of 19 heat related deaths each summer now, by mid-century it will be 38.  By the end of the century, about 1200 additional heat related deaths in total are predicted.  Taken together, these 40 U.S. cities add about an additional 150,000 deaths. The report emphasizes that it is a conservative estimate, and based on present trends continuing.

As alarming as these figures might be--and the idea of 52 days of excessive heat in Pittsburgh every summer is pretty alarming to me--they are so "conservative" when compared to more global estimates of 2050 that they seem almost surreal.

This past week the International Energy Agency released figures on global C02 emissions for 2011.  They showed an increase of 1 gigaton over the previous year, bringing the yearly output to 31.6 gigatons.  Despite all the talk, carbon emissions outpaced the growth in GDP.  Much of the growth (45% coal) came from China, which partly explains why China has resisted carbon treaty controls, although is some ways it is doing more to recognize the reality of the climate crisis than the U.S. 

So there's a different set of numbers, and here's what they may mean.  The generally accepted figure for the maximum increase in global temperature from pre-industrial times that civilization can cope with is 2 degrees centigrade.  In order for the planet to stay within the 2C limit, carbon output has to level off at 32.6 gigatons no later than 2017, according to this report.  But right now the industrial world is about one year's increase away from that, with no plan to decrease it.

From a news report on these figures: "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet," Fatih Birol, IEA's chief economist told Reuters."  Correction: Reuter's corrected this quote to the effect that the 6 degree Celsius would be reached by the end of the century, not 2050.  That affects the numbers in my comment, but not the outcome.  And it does not affect the numbers in Blakemore's quote or the slightly higher estimate by Dr. Carter.  Note that the effects threatening human civilization may begin at 3C and 4C.  

Six degrees C is three times the estimated safe level.  It is 11 degrees F.  This is by 2050 [2100] or so--less than 40 years away.  And it doesn't happen suddenly--it may come in fits and starts, but it will be felt and consequential along the way.  And if present trends continue, it doesn't end there.  The effects, once begun, will continue for thousands of years.  But if the temperature continues this rise, it's not clear that human civilization as we know, life on Earth as we know it, makes it to 2100. 

We've heard all this in outline, but always with vague timelines.  This is a more defined perspective.

Here's what Bill Blakemore at ABC wrote this week:

“Estimates heard in private conversations with scientists and economists reach even into the billions of people who could perish well within this century if the warming is not somehow controlled.

This reporter has heard figures in measured conversations, for example, such as this: If humanity does not now manage somehow to drastically cut carbon emissions so that the global temperature levels off at around 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial times, but reaches instead 4 degrees centigrade, it could mean some 4 billion people dying within this century because the world couldn’t grow enough food in such heat and the drought it will bring—rice harvests, for one, would be decimated.”
Four degrees C, four billion people.  Quite a difference from the thousands of deaths from excessive heat.  And we're heading rapidly for 6 degrees C at mid-century[by the end of the century.]  (Of  course, some of this could be accounted for by the geographically specific U.S. study, for it is likely the first mass deaths would be in already poor countries.  On the other hand, everybody has to eat. So heat-related deaths may not be the major problem.)
Climate Progress posted on this IEA report, and the comments make it one of those threads that is like a snapshot of what people are thinking and feeling right now.  The comments begin with a cry of despair from a 17 year old, and a number of people trying to be helpful to him or her, with the gamut of suggestions.  Especially interesting to me are the references to apocalyptic movies, like Doctor Strangelove and On the Beach.  I do think these stories are how we feel our way into this unthinkable future prospect.

But one response, from a Dr. Peter Carter, also spells out the implications more specifically (he's using an estimate of 7C by 2100):

"We are ending almost all life and yet only a handful of people are calling for the acknowledgement of the dire planetary emergency we are all in. Make no mistake this 7C by 2100, due to current investment in more of the very worst polluting fossil fuels, is a real commitment being made today and its much worse than 7C. It is a full long term commitment of about 12C due to the ocean heat lag. At 3C all crops in all regions have declined below baseline yields (IPCC NRC UK Met Office). At 4C 75% of species are committed to extinction (IPCC). At 7C the planet is uninhabitable if there are any humans left."

Again, these are not dates on which things happen.  They will happen over years.  I will soon be 66 years old.  2050 is less than 40 years away, less than 2/3 the years of my life so far.   I was born just after World War II, the last major event of widespread disaster and death.  It killed some 66 million people, to lead history in "multicide," according to a book that is the actual subject of Blakemore's post, linked above.  Most of the global population is younger than me, and while many places in the world have experienced horrors in the past generation or two, the vast majority here in America especially has no experience dealing with anything like that.  World War II itself didn't affect the U.S. so directly as most of the rest of the world, but the homefront got a taste of emergency, preceded by the Great Depression.

Even Europe has had about a half century of relative peace and prosperity.  There is little in people's experience to prepare them for what may be ahead.  Drowned coastal cities, devastating economically and culturally perhaps, are the least of it.  Dire shortages of food and water, and overwhelming heat in places, in a world awash in lethal weapons.

There are other very worrisome aspects in coping with the difficulties of even the near future.  The fragile nature of what keeps this huge global economy going, dependent on electrical grids and satellites, cheap and fast transport.  The strange blind march towards the new Dark Ages is more than symbolized by libraries destroying books in favor of digitizing and encoding them, making access of knowledge dependent on frail technologies.

Another difference of this extended crisis is the other species that will likely precede us in extinction, starting with other primates but also including others that are deep in our genetic experience on this planet. Nobody knows what this will do to us, or indeed, what it is slowly doing to us already.

Meanwhile in North America we seem to be marching resolutely towards the abyss.  Our upcoming election pits a man who represents those economic and political interests intent on absolute denial about the real dangers ahead, against a man who isn't talking about them.  And the political pundits are now unanimous in predicting a close election, because significant elements of the electorate are lining up behind the candidate who speaks nothing but lies and denial.

So in the end this post is about cognitive dissonance, even among those who see the climate crisis as a mortal threat.  It suggests a crisis that is acknowledged by few, and yet may be driving our response to everything.  And it is about getting the possibilities straight in your mind, right down to the time frame.  The future is never certain until it is the present.  And these possible or probable futures are part of our present, but not all of it.  It may well be that doing a lot of relatively little things adds up to changing this future.  It may be that there are factors not known or not correctly figured.  We can only do what we can do.  But absorbing these possibilities into us now is part of the soulmaking of the future. The stories we tell ourselves is a part of that process, for each of us, and for us to share.

Soul is about depth, and it includes sadness and all those emotions we would rather not have.  Humanity had a challenge--to anticipate and prevent a mortal danger, one that it largely caused.  So far it is failing that test.  Losing civilization as we know it may well be the penalty.  But between here and there, now and 2050 or 2100, the challenge of life gets more profound.  It includes wrapping our heads around the worst of the real possibilities.  And hoping our hearts will guide us.

top photo: fog by bikephotomusic. Painting by Andree Tracey.

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