Friday, June 26, 2015

World Enough and Time

My title line, as any English major knows, is from the poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. The first two lines are: 
            “Had we but world enough and time,
            This coyness, Lady, would be no crime.”

I am not referring to ‘country’ matters here, though. I’m referring, somewhat tongue in cheek, to what is far more serious: the emergency, the cosmic crime of global warming. Had we a whole other world that could substitute for this one; or had we several decades or centuries to counteract the damaging effects of pouring greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, then we could indulge the idiotic coyness of those who keep insisting that the sky is not really falling, and be secure in the knowledge that they’ll finally wake up in time to save us. But we have neither. Neither world enough nor time. What we have is alarm bells ringing all around us, and the predictions from the scientists who study climate and its chemistry that we are about to reach (or have long since reached) the tipping point. Once that tipping point is reached, and the amount of CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere push the average global temperature above 2 or 3 or 5 degrees Celsius, we are cooked. There will be no turning back, because the effects of atmospheric pollution are delayed by at least forty years (which means that what’s already released is just starting to affect us). More than that, the runaway effects of greenhouse gases means that a warmer climate will feed back into the already accelerating effects to push climate change faster and farther than we can even imagine. The release of methane by warming air from the tundra where it has been safely deposited for eons, and the release of methane from the warming ocean bottoms where it has also been safely deposited for eons, will be one feedback mechanism that has long been predicted, and whose real damage no one can calculate.
            So we have no time. None. And yet, the world’s leaders—aside from Pope Francis with his recent encyclical—continue to dither, continue to bow to the importuning of corporations and the political leaders hiding in the back pockets of those corporations, and refuse to take definite steps to commit themselves and their nations to reducing carbon. Too high a price, they say. Our economies (that is, their obscene profits) depend on energy from fossil fuels.
            I have written about this ad infinitum. So have countless others. But two articles that came out this past week have stimulated me to try once again. For one, a study cited by John Abraham in the UK’s Guardian newspaper on 23 June, posited that the effects of global warming can now be reasonably proved to affect smaller weather events. Using information from Hurricane Sandy, the recent typhoon in the Philippines, and heat waves and droughts in various countries, the study’s author, Kevin Trenberth, writing in Nature Climate Change has said that global warming affects the weather in roughly two ways. First, it raises the odds that any extreme weather event like Sandy will happen. And second, and more important, “it makes the events more severe.” This means, with respect to Hurricane Sandy, that global warming made the hurricane more likely; and global warming also increased its severity—for example with regard to the already-risen sea level that made the drastic flooding more damaging. The summary of this research by the aforementioned Kevin Trenberth is clear:

The climate is changing: we have a new normal. The environment in which all weather events occur is not what it used to be. All storms, without exception, are different. Even if most of them look just like the ones we used to have, they are not the same.

            Another piece, this time in the Washington Post on June 25, looks ahead to one of the likely effects that global warming will have—mass migration of people who will be displaced by rising oceans—and what should be done about it. Its author is Michael B. Gerrard, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and its Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Professor Gerrard’s conclusion is contained in his title: “America is the worst polluter in the history of the world. We should allow climate change refugees to resettle here.” His reasoning is simple. If climate pollution is not reversed—and again, this assumes that there’s even time to do this, which many scientists, including Guy McPherson, says is a pipe dream, and which even the International Energy Agency says (based on current national promises to the U.N. climate summit due in Paris later this year) will still lead to a 4.7 degree F. rise in temperature by 2100—rising seas will put nations like Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Vietnam, among others, partly under water. Too, many nations in Africa will turn into deserts, while other nations depending on (now melting) glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes will be without drinking water. Hundreds of millions of people from these nations will be desperate (as many migrants trying even now to get into Europe are desperate) to find a safer place to live. Many will use any expedient to save themselves and their families, up to and including the use of violence. Where are all these people going to go? Is there a way, Gerrard asks, to distribute them more equitably than by relying on chance and putative good will?
            Gerrard—not without some tongue in cheek himself—opines that there is. He writes that those who have contributed most to global warming should be the ones to take in the most migrants displaced by it. Using World Resources Institute figures, he finds that between 1850 and 2011, the nations emitting the most carbon dioxide were: the United States, 27%; the European Union, 25%; China, 11%; Russia, 8%; and Japan, 4%. THEREFORE, if we estimate (to make figuring easy) that 100 million people will need new places to live by 2050, this means that old numero uno, the US of A, should take in 27 million refugees! And the combined nations of Europe should take in 25%, China 11%, and so on.
            Of course, Gerrard admits that none of this would be easy. There are no international legal conventions that recognize refugees displaced by climate change. Most of the habitable land in most countries is already occupied. Finding places for refugees to go would be even more difficult than finding places for the few thousands that are now flooding Europe. One can guess that there would be not only armed vigilantes in many nations, but real fear and chaos everywhere. The prospect of millions upon millions of tired, hungry and thirsty refugees roaming the land and sea with no place to go is something out of the worst distopias we can imagine. And Gerrard ends his piece with a cautionary scenario from one of the places most likely to disgorge refugees: the low-lying island nation of Maldives. Its president, before he was deposed by a military coup, was Mohamed Nasheed, and he staged an underwater cabinet meeting in 2012 to dramatize his country’s plight. More recently, he conveyed to Gerrard his message to developed nations:

“You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.”

            One more thing. A book I’ve been perusing recently gives some idea, by virtue of its gorgeous photographs and astonishing accounts of animal evolution, just how much is at risk from global warming and the attendant extinctions we are facing. It’s called, simply, Animal Earth: The Amazing Diversity of Living Creatures (Thames & Hudson: 2013). If your library doesn’t have it, it should. Written by Ross Piper, it contains 540 of the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen. There are animals from every species, every family, most of which we humans never see, for we, in our self-centeredness, and limited by our senses, are aware of mainly the large animals, the mammals like ourselves, the land animals, and some of the sea creatures that we use as food. But the astonishing number and variety of other animals, most of them small and hidden in the deep seabed or in the soil or in the interior of other animals whom they parasitize, is simply staggering. As Piper writes at an early point:
Most animals are small and rarely encountered (at least knowingly) by humans. Aquatic sediments, particularly those on the seabed, are alive with a glorious variety of minute creatures, collectively known as meiofauna. In this microcosm we can find representatives of at least 19 of the animal lineages—the most of any habitat (10). 

            What Piper gives us is a chapter on each of the 35 major animal lineages (all member animals share a defining body plan and evolutionary history), from Ctenophora (comb jellies) to Tunicata (sea squirts), to Nematoda (nematodes) to Arthropoda (arthropods), to Mollusca (molluscs), to Platyhelminthes (flatworms, etc.), to the ones we know and love, Craniata (vertebrates, etc.). He tells us that some 1.5 million species have been formally identified so far, “yet it is estimated that the total number of species could be anywhere between 10 and 200 million.” That’s species! While we like to think of our revered species and our earth-bound relatives as the summit of all nature, Piper devotes only a small amount of his book to the “Craniata,” i.e. those species with a brain, like ours. Rather, he points out that of the 1.5 million species now known, it is the Arthropods (millipedes, centipedes, insects, crustaceans, arachnids) who are the real champions of evolution: they number no less than 1.2 million species—fully 80% of the total of all animal life. They are the most diverse animals on the planet and probably the most successful, ranging in size from
            “minute wasps small enough to parasitize the eggs of other insects, and microscopic   crustaceans and mites, scarcely visible to the naked eye, to giant spiders whose legs         would span a dinner plate and deep-sea crabs with a body as big as a football and legs    spanning more than 10 feet…In myriad seemingly insignificant ways they keep life on earth        ticking over, living out their lives in often strange and sometimes even mind-boggling ways    (149).

And while we like to think of the special attributes we have, like our great sensory systems and color-perceiving eyes, Piper points out that the compound eyes of insects like the mantis shrimp have at least 16 different types of light-sensitive cells (we have 4), and can see over 100,000 colors, plus “infrared, polarized light and four types of ultraviolet light.”

Such insects evolved their astonishing flying ability 350 million years ago, 100 million years before any other animal. Finally, the lineage Tardigrada (its species include ‘water bears’ that look like tiny armored tanks) have developed an ability to enter a state of suspended animation called ‘cryptobiosis.’ They do this when their habitat dries up (perhaps we need to figure out how to do this ourselves), and, thus suspended, can “tolerate temperatures ranging from close to absolute zero (much colder than liquid nitrogen) up to 1200  C (2500 F), huge doses of radiation, and pressures ranging from hard vacuum to 6,000 atmospheres, which is about ten times the pressure in the oceanic abyss.” And they can enter this state in about an hour!
            Anyone interested in contemplating the astonishing variety of animal life on this planet should get a copy of this book right away: the photos alone are worth the price. But its real value lies in reinforcing for us, once again, the almost incomprehensible and truly awe-inspiring scale of the life process of which we are a part, which we are. And the corresponding scale of the catastrophe we are bringing about through our ignorance of it, our failure to appreciate it. I am referring, of course, to the casual way in which we are polluting and poisoning the habitat that is home not only to us, not only to the myriad species of which we are aware, but to the millions of species we have almost no knowledge of. Many writers and scientists have alluded, recently, to the five great extinctions that have nearly denuded our planet previously, and the sixth great extinction we humans are now bringing about. We are doing it with our industrial civilization, with our chemical poisoning of everything that we consider “useless” or “harmful” to that which we consider ‘beneficial,’ with our heating up of the atmosphere with the CO2 that is the by-product of our comfort. But the word ‘extinction’ hardly seems to penetrate our consciousness. It is too abstract. When we actually see—if only in a photograph (many of these creatures are so minute we need the scanning electron microscope to even see them)—the life, the swarming, swirling, amazingly complex variety of the solutions life has found to the knottiest problems, all in elegant forms that no human, no computer could ever mimic, then surely we must stop. We must grieve for what we are doing. We must vow to do whatever we can, whatever it takes to try to ameliorate, to whatever degree we can, the catastrophe we are blindly bringing about. Because the alternative is to passively collude in a massive crime: the mass murder of life (and again, the word is too poor to convey the absolute, irreplaceable glory of it) on this planet.

Lawrence DiStasi

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