Unless G.E. Swoops in and saves us with their new eco-magination initiatives, that is.
Show of hands, though, Kos-mo-nauts--how many of you have read the "Climate of Man" articles by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker? (Find your poll below the fold.) If not, why not?
Because there, in cold, hard, black and white, is all the evidence you need to know that the party's over, the jig is up, and our time on earth is seriously limited. I'm not talking about the Rapture, here, either. The horrible truth is that climate change is the most dangerous, pressing threat to our lives, political systems, economies--everything.
Al Qaeda can take a number and sit down.
If you have had a chance to read these articles, available online at NewYorker.com
, you're already ahead of most of the MSM. The articles are, of course, mentioned in various blogs. There's a puny mention of them here
, and a hideous example here
, for example.
Hardly a drop in the runaway bride, Michael Jackson, American Idol bucket. The articles are long, true, but engaging, trenchant, and undeniably well-researched. Let me treat you to what you haven't been able to hear, courtesy a nice summary of the first two articles by TomPaine:
Kolbert provides a real service to the community by explaining the wonky but dangerous concept of positive feedback loops and how they're accelerating the rate of climate change. It's really quite an accessible read, even if it's a wee bit longer than your standard op-ed.
Here's the thesis, tucked in towards the end:
Almost wherever you looked, temperatures in the Arctic were rising, and at a rate that surprised even those who had expected to find clear signs of climate change. Robert Corell, an American oceanographer and a former assistant director at the National Science Foundation, coördinated the study. In his opening remarks, he ran through its findings--shrinking sea ice, receding glaciers, thawing permafrost--and summed them up as follows: "The Arctic climate is warming rapidly now, with an emphasis on now." Particularly alarming, Corell said, were the most recent data from Greenland, which showed the ice sheet melting much faster "than we thought possible even a decade ago."
Kolbert [...] explains how global warming has triggered what looks to be an unstoppable snowballing of changes that increase the pace of changes--positive feedback. Sea ice (the best reflective surface on the planet) is melting and turning into seawater (the most heat absorbant surface), which accellerates the melting. Glaciers are receding and dumping their fresh water rapidly into the Arctic ocean, threatening to disrupt the Gulf Stream that heats Europe; again, melting begets more melting.
By spending a good deal of time walking the reader through the issue of permafrost warning, Kolbert hit her mark:
When you walk around in the Arctic, you are stepping not on permafrost but on something called the "active layer." The active layer, which can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet deep, freezes in the winter but thaws over the summer, and it is what supports the growth of plants--large spruce trees in places where conditions are favorable enough and, where they aren't, shrubs and, finally, just lichen. Life in the active layer proceeds much as it does in more temperate regions, with one critical difference. Temperatures are so low that when trees and grasses die they do not fully decompose. New plants grow out of the half-rotted old ones, and when these plants die the same thing happens all over again. Eventually, through a process known as cryoturbation, organic matter is pushed down beneath the active layer into the permafrost, where it can sit for thousands of years in a botanical version of suspended animation. (In Fairbanks, grass that is still green has been found in permafrost dating back to the middle of the last ice age.) In this way, much like a peat bog or, for that matter, a coal deposit, permafrost acts as a storage unit for accumulated carbon.
One of the risks of rising temperatures is that this storage process can start to run in reverse. Under the right conditions, organic material that has been frozen for millennia will break down, giving off carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas. In parts of the Arctic, this is already happening. Researchers in Sweden, for example, have been measuring the methane output of a bog known as the Stordalen mire, near the town of Abisko, for almost 35 years. As the permafrost in the area has warmed, methane releases have increased, in some spots by up to 60 percent. Thawing permafrost could make the active layer more hospitable to plants, which are a sink for carbon. Even this, though, probably wouldn't offset the release of greenhouse gases. No one knows exactly how much carbon is stored in the world's permafrost, but estimates run as high as 450 billion metric tons.
The message is clear. Climate change is already feeding on itself and accelerating. The people and ecosystems of the polar regions are getting hit hard now. But since the climate science deniers are still in control of the White House, by the time a catastrophic event wakes up the United States or the developed world, these positive feedback loops will be in full swing, and, as Kolbert makes clear, unstoppable.
The scary thing about positive feedback loops is that they accelerate processes non-linearly, like those geometric curves we all studied in high school. In a complex system, changes are normal and can be balanced, but this time, it looks like we're in for a threshold event. For this, Kolbert also provides a good new metaphor--the rowboat--to those of us trying to mainstream the threat of climate change:
Later, back in his office, Perovich and I talked about the long-term prospects for the Arctic. Perovich noted that the earth's climate system is so vast that it is not easily altered. "On the one hand, you think, It's the earth's climate system, it's big; it's robust. And, indeed, it has to be somewhat robust or else it would be changing all the time." On the other hand, the climate record shows that it would be a mistake to assume that change, when it comes, will come slowly. Perovich offered a comparison that he had heard from a glaciologist friend. The friend likened the climate system to a rowboat: "You can tip and then you'll just go back. You can tip it and just go back. And then you tip it and you get to the other stable state, which is upside down."
And it gets much scarier than melting permafrost, folks. Melting ice sheets, shifting migration patterns, rising sea levels--all of this is happening now. After a point, Kolbert writes, there will no stopping the rapidly changing climate--like driving a car without brakes.
Kolbert's ends the series with a question: Why would a technologically advanced society choose to destroy itself? For that is exactly what we are doing, in allowing the administration to snub Kyoto and fool the public into believing that the scientific word is still out on how real the threat of global warming is. Naturally, we can look to Frank Luntz for much of this manipulation of misinformation.
Kolbert offers no easy solutions for this burgeoning problem--part of the reason the articles and her findings are so devastating.
One small thing we can all do is go to http://www.terrapass.com , and pay for the CO2 we all spew into the air with our cars. Buy wind energy. Support clean energy. Become an environmental lawyer. Just don't ignore the problem--especially since the hour is rapidly growing late.