S. David Stoney, Jr. Ph.D.
July 25, 2008
UNDERSTANDING OUR PREDICAMENT<1>
"Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed... The new paradigm of an abruptly changing climatic system has been well established by research over the last decade, but this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policy makers. At present there is no plan for improving our understanding of the issue, no research priorities have been identified, and no policy-making body is addressing the many concerns raised by the potential for abrupt climate change...Considering the known limitations of climate models, it is not currently possible to ascribe probabilities to future abrupt climate changes." (Committee on Abrupt Climate Change of the National Research Council, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, pgs. 1, 82, 2001. Italics added. For WWW version click here.)
"If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment." (Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2008)
“So here we are. We need, in the next twenty-five years or so, to do something never before done. We need to consciously redesign the entire material basis of our civilization. The model we replace it with must be dramatically more ecologically sustainable, offer large increases in prosperity for everyone on the planet, and not only function in areas of chaos and corruption, but also help transform them.” (Alex Steffen, In: World Changing: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, 2006)
"As global and local carrying capacities are reduced, tensions could mount around the world...defense priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology, or national honor... Once again warfare would define human life... With at least eight abrupt climate change events documented in the geological record, its seems that the questions to ask are : When will this happen? What will the impacts be? And, how can we best prepare for it? Rather than: Will this really happen?" (Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security, a report prepared for the Department of Defense, circa 2003. See <15> for link.)
"We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.” (John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New York Times, Jan. 30, 2007)
* * * * * * *
Sadly, after eight years of failed leadership on the climate change issue here in the United States, it is beginning to look more and more like it may be too late to formulate a reasoned, publicly debated response to the climate crisis, especially to the threat of rapidly increasing global warming<2>. At exactly the moment when we need to be considering how we as a nation can initiate rapid mitigation and adaptation policies, while maintaining our most precious values and conserving our resources for the unprecedented work that lies ahead, our "leaders" mine the underlying fear for the purpose of enriching themselves and their friends, continuing an unnecessary overseas war, and maintaining their positions of power and privilege. Such an irresponsible and uninformed approach will likely spell the end of democracy in the US<3>, as well as make our great nation vulnerable to the possibility of a catastrophic population downsizing. Where, one wonders, are leaders with genuine integrity and knowledge of the real world to be found? Thankfully, here in 2008 our two leading candidates for President appear to take climate change seriously. Let's hope that our next President will indeed come to grips with the threat of global warming and take bold, decisive action to place our country on a path toward sustainability. Let's hope it is not too late!
The Earth's Climate Cycle During the last three million years, the time during which the hominid (human) line of descent separated from its primate forebears<4>, the earth has been locked in its latest ice age. As the earth slowly cooled, regular periods of glaciation began to occur,first at 41,000 year intervals and then, about one million years ago at 100,000 year intervals. Fig. 1 shows the onset of the climate cycle about three million years ago.
|Fig. 1. A proxy record of global temperature, actually ice volume, since the Miocene until now. Three million years ago the earth's temperature began to cool and the climate cycle, alternating periods of cold and warm, appeared. The climate cycle has become slower and more pronounced during the last one million years. Upward pointed arrow indicates warmer temperatures. From N. J. Shackleton, New data on the evolution of Pliocene climatic variability, In: E. S. Vrba, G.H.Denton, T.C.Partridge, and L.H. Burckle (eds.), Paleoclimate and Evolution, With Emphasis on Human Origins, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pgs. 242-248, 1995.|
For the last million years, the earth's climate has oscillated between long, cold, dry, glacial phases with durations of about 100,000 years and short, warm, wet interglacial phases with durations of 12,000 - 15,000 years. For a brief summary of earth's climate over geological time, with figures showing temperature changes during the last 1,500, 15,000, 150,000, 1 million, and 150 million years, see<5>. Fig. 2 shows a very simplified diagram of the last few repetitions of the climate cycle. Each glacial phase lasted approximately 100,000 years and each interglacial phase about 12,000 to 15,000 years. We are currently about 12,000 years into the current interglacial phase. Evidence<6,8> indicates that transitions between warm and cold periods can be extraordinarily rapid, sometimes occurring within a period of time as short as a decade or less, and that climate often rapidly "flickers" between warm and cold states. Nevertheless, the current interglacial period has been remarkably stable - at least so far - compared to previous interglacial phases. Evidence<7> also indicates that at or near the end of the last two interglacial periods there were rapid, marked changes in sea level. The changes, which appear to have occurred within a 100 year period, involved sea level rises on the order of 6 to 20 feet and falls of as much as 20 to 30 feet. Such rapid sea level changes may have been caused by a warming induced collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
|Fig. 2. Cyclic climate pattern of alternating cold, dry glacial periods and warm, wet interglacial periods. This pattern has prevailed during the current ice age, which has lasted for three million years 3. Transitions between glacial and interglacial phases may occur within as short a period of time as a decade. Marked variations in sea level occurred near the end of the last two interglacial periods. Upward slope of interglacial phase temperatures reflect the progressive decrease in earth's albedo as the polar ice caps shrink. Insert shows rapid fluctuations in temperature that occurred during the last glacial phase (Adapted from Dansgaard et al <8>).|
Population Variations During Interglacial Phases - Earth's current human population is about six billion and growing rapidly. Fig. 3 shows a representation of the rise in the population that has occurred in this interglacial phase. It is shown terminating with a sudden, massive population down-sizing at the onset of the next glacial period. This "worse case" pattern of interglacial phase population growth and decline presupposes that Nature ends the current interglacial period with an abrupt 1 - 2 punch: rapid global warming and sea level rise followed by rapid global cooling. Evidence indicates that just such a scenario appears to have happened at the end of the last two interglacial periods. The worse case scenario also presumes that the planet's inhabitants are ignorant about or chose to ignore the earth's cyclic climate pattern and anthropogenic global warming and that little or no prospective action had been taken to safeguard the treasures of civilization. Such a pattern is not, at least from Nature's perspective, without merits. In view of climate changes as severe and rapid as the evidence now indicates, it makes evolutionary sense for Nature to provide for rapidly increasing populations during interglacial periods. By maximizing population, some of the population would likely survive an abrupt transition to glacial temperature regimes and the long, cold glacial phase that follows. This no-nonsense, no-knowledge, no-foresight necessary approach for insuring survival of species will be referred to as "Nature's Call." For human beings, it may come with a very high cost.
|Fig. 3. Dynamics of human population during the current interglacial phase. The exponential rise in population has, until very recently, been associated with an absence of conscious knowledge of cyclic climate pattern and the rapidity with which climate can change. The sudden, very large down-sizing of human population at the interglacial-glacial transition is based on the following scenario: Nature delivers a 1-2 punch of rapid global warming and sea level rise followed by rapid global cooling, all in the context of little or no prior knowledge and advance planning for abrupt global climate change.|
The possibility - or more accurately, in the absence of adaptive planning, the rather high likelihood - of a catastrophic downsizing of population at the end of the current interglacial phase is based on the fact that a sudden return to glacial phase aridity and temperatures will cause a rapid reduction in habitable and arable land. An idea of the potential seriousness of this problem can be gotten by comparing the Figures below. Fig. 3A shows the current distribution of vegetation; Fig. 4B the distribution of vegetation at the last glacial maximum, about 18,000 years ago<9>. It is hard to imagine that the conditions of Fig. 4B would allow a "carrying capacity" for the earth that would allow anywhere near 6 - 10 billion people to be sustained. The temperature decrease, in conjunction with climate change induced crop failures (e.g., due to increased aridity), would create grave difficulties for even the most modern culture, especially if it followed a period of rapidly increasing sea level it and the culture was unprepared. At the present time, there is no known way to avoid the reduction in carrying capacity that will occur with the interglacial-glacial transition. As detailed in the recent report for the Pentagon by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall<15>, even a modest global decrease in temperature would produce unprecedented national security concerns for the United States. If Nature delivers a 1 - 2 punch of rapid global warming and sea level rise, followed by rapid global cooling, such as appears to have happened at the end of the last two interglacial periods, then the population downsizing associated with the interglacial glacial transition will likely be extremely catastrophic.
|Fig. 4A. Current distribution of vegetation and habitable land.|
|Fig. 4B. Distribution of vegetation and habitable land during the last glacial maximum. This, presumably, is the worst set of conditions that ancestors of our children's children may have to deal with. Key for vegetation same as in 3A.|
Human beings of the 21st century who choose to address the issue of the earth's climate cycle and abrupt global climate change must make a choice about the pattern of interglacial phase population dynamics that best suits them. The example set by we Euroamericans, who have led the world in the development of science and technology, as well as in the consumption of resources and generation of greenhouse gases during the last century, will be especially important. Figure 5 below identifies six features of interglacial phase population dynamics that should be of concern to us.
|Fig. 5. Features of interglacial phase population dynamics identified on a "Nature's Call" type of population dynamic. Other varieties of population dynamic curves are described below.|
A "Nature's Call" type of population dynamic, with a catastrophic population downsizing in the event of a 1 - 2 climate change punch by Nature, is the likely pattern if societies are unable or unwilling to address the issue. The exact shape of the population dynamic curves and the extent of population downsizing will depend on the maximum carrying capacity of the planet and the length of the interglacial period as shown in Fig. 6 below.
|Fig. 6. Interglacial phase population growth that might occur on a planet whose inhabitants were not aware of the cyclic pattern of abrupt global climate change. Current world population of six billion is indicated for each curve by the blue dot. The maximum population that can be sustained during an indefinitely long wet, warm interglacial phase is not known and may not, as suggested in D, be in excess of 6 billion and may be much lower.|
Choosing a Future - Now that the possibility of rapid and severe global climate change is well-established<2,6,7,8>, different varieties of interglacial phase population dynamics can be envisioned. Fig. 7 below illustrates three possible patterns of interglacial phase population growth, all of which presuppose that the culture or society has knowledge of the cyclic nature of abrupt global climate change.
|Fig. 7. Three varieties of interglacial phase population growth that might occur in societies that were aware of the cyclic pattern of abrupt global climate change and the dangers of greenhouse gas induced global warming..|
To achieve any one of the three varieties of interglacial phase population dynamics illustrated in Fig. 6 will require different degrees of knowledge, acceptance, and action on the part of a culture or society. Type A, which most closely resembles the population pattern that results when there is no conscious knowledge of the cyclic climate pattern ("Nature's Call"), is the most passive and fatalistic. It is the pattern that would result from a willful lack of acceptance, i.e., denial. It also could result if a society's leaders were to say something like, "Yes, there is global warming and the earth does have a climate cycle, but we cannot take any action that would disturb the status quo or disrupt the economy until we are certain of the exact timing of the next cycle," and were then caught by surprise. The Type A pattern, in a society that was aware of the cyclic pattern of abrupt global climate change, could reflect a "business-as-usual/polictics-as-usual" or "me first" attitude. Such failure to act in the face of the truth about global warming and the earth's climate cycle could lead to incalculable human misery and lock us into a cyclic pattern of consciousness from which there would be little chance to escape9.
The other two interglacial population patterns (B & C) reflect greater degrees of acceptance, involvement, and participation. The features of the three varieties of interglacial phase population dynamics shown in Fig. 7 are summarized in Table 1 below. Type C, which entails a voluntary reduction in population prior to the interglacial-glacial transition, is ranked highest in desirability because of its low catastrophicity, i.e., the relatively low loss of human life associated with the phases 4 & 5. It presupposes that the onset of the next glacial phase can be reliably predicted. Type B allows for higher pre- and postinterglacial population levels, reduced catastrophicity compared to Type A, rapid population growth during the interglacial period, and more rapid recovery following the transition to glacial temperatures. Since Type B entails a limiting of population to less than the maximum carrying capacity, without an exact prediction of when the next glacial phase begins, it would seem like the best population pattern to consider as a goal.
Conclusion - The earth, it turns out, is an even more difficult and dangerous place to live than we previously knew. Nevertheless, human beings have adapted to it quite successfully. Our discovery of anthropogenic global warming and the earth's cyclic climate pattern demands a fresh consideration of the manner in which we relate to the earth and to each other. It seems very unlikely that programs and paradigms that were successful during the first part of the current interglacial period, programs that developed in the context of implicit or explicit doctrines of uniformity and unlimited resources, will be suitable for last part.
The most important questions are "Where are we relative to the
end of the current interglacial period?" "How intense will the episode of anthropogenic global warming be and how long will it last?
and "How rapidly will the next glacial phase develop?" Doesn't Hope demand that we assume that there is time enough to make some adaptations? If so, the issue is how to avoid population pattern A and move toward the pattern in B in Fig. 8.
|Fig. 8. The problem for the post-critical mind: Learning to learn to live in an ecologically sustainable way during interglacial phases.|
This, I submit, is a challenge suitable for homo sapiens sapiens! If addressing this challenge is even possible, then it is surely the greatest problem that human beings have ever become consciously aware of! All of our courage, ingenuity, patience, forgiveness, and cooperation will be required to come to grips with it. Even though the hour may be late, now seems like as good a time as any to get started. Comments of Charles, Prince of Wales<13>, are particularly apt:
"The strategic threats posed by global environment and development problems are the most complex, interwoven and potentially devastating of all the challenges to our security. Scientists... do not fully understand the consequences of our many-faceted assault on the interwoven fabric of atmosphere, water, land and life in all its biological diversity. Things could turn out to be worse than the current scientific best guess. In military affairs, policy has long been based on the dictum that we should be prepared for the worse case. Why should it be so different when the security of the planet and our long-term future?
Martin Luther King's comments are also apt:
"“There is such a thing as being too late…. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with lost opportunity…. Over the bleached bones of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’” (Martin Luther King, Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?)
Afterthoughts - Some might argue, I suppose, that the type A pattern illustrated in Fig. 8, with its catastrophic population downsizing, is "God's will," the rightfully earned fate of sinful man (present company excluded?) at the end of time. There are a number of reasons to question whether abrupt global climate change should be considered the end of time. First, the climate changes are cyclic rather than being the one-of-a-kind event that scripture describes. Furthermore, we have been through this before. Tool-using human beings were present before and during the last interglacial period. In addition, the cyclic pattern of abrupt climate change, severe as it may appear to be, is just a hiccup compared to the generalized seizure that may happen when the solar system, in its orbit around the galaxy, encounters interstellar matter with sufficient density to perturb the delicate dynamics of the planetary orbits. That event, doom sayers, really could be the end of time. My understanding is that astrophysicists do not consider such an encounter likely to happen in the next few million years. Finally, if, perchance, God doesn't want human efforts to lessen the impact of abrupt global climate change, then the only risk one runs by making efforts for such life-saving adaptations is the risk of being wrong. That is, if it is not God's will that human beings adapt to the cyclic pattern of abrupt global climate change, then - God being all powerful - no efforts that human beings make will make any difference. None of our actions can possibly supersede God's will, regardless of our efforts. Right? On the other hand, for any one of us to presume to know God's will in regard to abrupt global climate change is hubris, indeed. I believe that we must seek to discover God's will in the course of our efforts to be responsible, accountable human beings with foresight in a difficult world. What a privilege to be a member of the generation that first became conscious of the human potential! Regrettably, the cost of failing to address the issue of abrupt global climate change could be very high. I would argue that, for those who are aware of abrupt global climate change, failure to work together in a positive way to adapt to impending climate change might, in effect, lead to a prospective creation of original sin. With permanently distorted consciousness, the human race might never recover from the collective shame of failing to act with charity and compassion towards our neighbors as we entered this most difficult of times.
Others might argue that evolution by means of natural selection insures that we are adapted to the earth's climate cycle. Yes, of course we are adapted to the earth's climate cycle: Nature has provided us with an instinct called consciousness that has led to a remarkable increase in human population during the favorable conditions of this interglacial period. By maximizing human population growth during the interglacial phase, Nature does its best to insure that the human race will not go extinct during the next glacial phase. This is Nature's way of providing for survival of the (reproductively) fittest. This is well and good, but two points are very important. First, Nature neither knows nor cares about civilization and the smart environment it provides for the postmodern mind. Whether or not civilization survives the coming glacial phase matters not one wit to Nature and, if we desire the best aspects of civilization to survive we will have to do it ourselves. Secondly, we must recognize that we human beings are blind to instincts<14>. This is a very important point, for instincts do not operate by means of cognitions, but rather by means of feelings. For example, birds that summer in the arctic and fly south for the winter do not think, "Winter is approaching, I better fly South." No, what happens is that they begin to feel worse and worse, like they are going to die, and this feeling lessens only when they start flying south. Now, in fact, this is what is happening to the human race right now. Our "long winter" approaches and we feel more and more like we are about to die. However, since we are blind to the real cause, we find convenient, more-or-less deserving scapegoats and "evil-doers" to act against, actions that temporarily assuage our growing fear. Little do we know that striking out in our blindness makes us all the more vulnerable to abrupt global climate change. What we need now is not the habitual responses of the left and the right, not business-as-usual and polictics-as-usual, but genuine creative, courageous thinking that takes into account the reality of rapid global climate change and the earth's climate cycle.
Melvin Konner, in his recently revised masterpiece, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit (NY: Henry Holt and Company, pg. 488, 2002) has succinctly described our task:
"We must choose, and choose soon, either for or against the further evolution of the human spirit. It is for us, in the generation that turned the corner of the millennium, to apply whatever knowledge we have, in all humility but with all due speed, and to try to learn more as quickly as possible. It is for us, much more than for any previous generation, to become serious about the human future and to make choices that will be weighed not in a decade or a century but in the balances of geological time. It is for us, with all our stumbling, and in the midst of our dreadful confusion, to try to disengage the tangled wing."
Won't you please help?
Notes and References
1. Notes are intended to be read in context. This interpretation is one person's opinion and may not be correct. I pray that is the case. Unfortunately, my reading of the available evidence leads me to the disquieting conclusion that Nature, with human assistance, could be preparing a potentially devastating 1 - 2 punch of rapid global warming followed by global cooling. If such a sequence were to hit us in our current greedy, ignorant, fearful, and unprepared state, if politics-as-usual and business-as-usual prevail, then the human race could be locked into a boom-bust (Type A, see Figs. 2 & 7) pattern of interglacial population growth for the foreseeable future (see <10>).
2. James Hansen et al, Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?, submitted to Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 16 June 2008. See http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126 .
3. Judging from recent events, James Madison's seminal thought, "No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare," rings true. See also the report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies - http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/071105_ageofconsequences.pdf - and the report from the US Army War College - http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil:80/pubs/display.cfm?PubID=862.
4. For a consideration of hominid brain evolution during the last 3 million years see Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1996.
5. For a brief review of the climate variations since the Cretaceous period some 100 million years ago see Thomas J. Crowley's article in CONESQUENCES: The Nature & Implications of Environmental Change, Volume 2, Number 1, 1996, Remembrance of Things Past: Greenhouse Lessons from the Geologic Record.
6. For evidence regarding the reality of rapid, sometimes cyclic climate changes, see William H. Calvin's website (http://williamcalvin.com/bookshelf/climate.htm) and Kendrick Taylor's American Scientist article (http://www.sigmaxi.org/amsci/articles/99articles/taylor.html). See also the recent report on Abrupt Climate Change from the US Climate Change Science Program (http://www.climatescience.gov/Library/sap/sap3-4/public-review-draft/default.htm) and, of course, the 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, (http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309074347). Jonathan Adams (see <9>) also has an article on this topic at his website.
7. For evidence regarding sea level rise, see Andy Caffrey's article: http://www.imaja.com/as/environment/can/journal/madhousecentury.html. Also see The Pew Climate Change Project (http://www.pewclimate.org/).
8. Dansgaard, W. et al, Evidence for general instability of past climate from a 250-kyr ice-core record, Nature 364: 218-220, 1993.
9. Figures showing vegetation are from Jonathan Adam's website (http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/nerc.html).
10. See Stoney, S. David, Entrainment of embodied human consciousness to cyclic climate pattern, 20th Annual Meeting, Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, Tucson AZ, April 5-9, 2000. The postmodern mind is the product of our literate minds and the smart environment we have created for ourselves. If, due to inadequate preparation, we lose that smart environment, our mode of being in the world will very rapidly, I predict, revert to an ancestral, i.e., more blatantly tribal, minimally literate mode that might persist for the entire glacial phase as isolated human remnants struggle for survival.
11. Andrew C. Revkin, Global Waffling: When Will We Be Sure?, NY Times, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2000. See http://www. nytimes.com/2000/09/10/weekinreview/10REVK.html
12. Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World, NY: Henry Holt and Company, pgs. 1-3, 2002.
13. Prince Charles made this comment in a lecture at Cambridge University. I found the quotation in Martin Rees, Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Furure in This Century, NY: Basic Books, pgs. 112-13, 2003.
14. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby emphasize this point in their informative article, Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. They note that most people believe that human beings are ruled by "reason" and that animals are ruled by "instinct." Instead, they suggest - and I agree 100% - that "human behavior is more flexibly intelligent than that of other animals because we have more instincts than they do, not fewer. We tend to be blind to the existence of the instincts, however, precisely because they work so well... They structure our thought [and consciousness] so powerfully... that it can be difficult to imagine how things could be otherwise."
15. Schwartz and Randall conclude in their report that "It is quite plausible that within a decade the evidence of an imminent abrupt climate shift may become clear and reliable... Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life." For a copy of their report, click on An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.