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The end of the world as we know it (do you feel fine?)
G'day. I met Susie Russell in Elands, NSW in the 80s in the context of forest campaigning with the North East Forest Alliance, and have mostly known of her since, through various friends, as one of the rare level-headed stayers of the environment movement. I've been trying to commission an article on the state of Australia's forests for a while now (and still am), but I think Susie felt that if she was to make her debut, she needed to start with the most important issue on the planet, climate change, of which forest management is but a chapter. Thank you Susie for a most sobering article, and I... um... look forward to more, I think. Hamish.
by Susie Russell
On Thursday a new book will hit the shelves, authored by British scientist James Lovelock. The Revenge of Gaia outlines why the author now predicts that human beings have in fact crossed a climate change threshold and the changes we have triggered are irreversible.
Lovelock is an atmospheric scientist. In the 1970s he was employed by NASA the National Aeronautical Space Agency (USA), to design instruments to detect life on Mars. His thinking and research lead him to conclude that it is not possible for life to only exist on part of a planet. Life is a planetary phenomenon and thus planets - or at least the surface of them - are alive.
By ‘alive’ he meant interactive and self-regulating, that is it is homeostatic. He named his hypothesis ‘Gaia’. The idea that the planet is self-regulating and alive received much criticism from other scientists, so Lovelock has worked actively to counter the criticisms with his own independent research. To answer his critics he built a computer model known as ‘daisy world’.
On daisy world the heat emitted from the sun increases over time - as ours does. This favours black daisies, which absorb the heat, while at the same time contributing to creating a cooler environment which then allows white daisies to develop. Over time, the white daisies are favoured by the atmosphere and flourish, until even their atmospheric cooling function can no longer regulate the sun’s heat, and life on the planet dies out. The model can be made increasingly complex by adding rabbits to eat the daisies and foxes to eat the rabbits etc and a more stable system emerges: Life creates the conditions for its own existence and stabilises a planet’s temperature until the increasing heat of a sun (which can of course be several million or billion years) wins out.
Lovelock’s hypothesis has substantial scientific support. We see that on our amazing and wonderful planet Earth there have been numerous homeostatic mechanisms, which have maintained the temperature within what are very narrow confines that favour life. These include the tiny sea organisms that release cloud forming particles, which lead to clouds forming over the oceans that build into storms, which make the sea choppy thus mixing the colder and warmer water layers and allowing the organisms access to nutrients that normally circulate in the lower colder water. Or the cliffs of chalk that are formed also by tiny sea creatures binding vastly greater quantities of carbon-dioxide (CO2) than circulate in the atmosphere, or the tropical rainforests which not only lock up CO2 but protect large parts of the land mass from the dessicating effects of the sun.
Lovelock is an atmospheric scientist who for more than 20 years now has been warning anyone who would listen about the potentially dire effects to our species- human beings – of the increased amount of greenhouse or earth warming gases we are allowing into the atmosphere. Not only from our power stations and our cars, but also from our livestock (methane is 20 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2) and from our aerosols, etc (Lovelock was the first to detect chloroflourocarbons, CFCs, in the atmosphere and warn of their global warming effect.)
So when someone like James Lovelock says we’ve gone too far and there’s no stopping the roller-coaster now, I, for one, feel impelled to take notice.
As Michael McCarthy Environment Editor for Independent Online says in his explanation of Lovelock’s latest views:
Already we are seeing a range of phenomenon on the planet unlike ever before: Such as the melting of the permafrost across sub-Arctic western Siberia. This area of a million square kilometres has been frozen for over 11,000 years and is now starting to thaw. An area which has been a carbon storage area will now have the capacity to release billions of tonnes of methane and CO2 into the atmosphere which will increase global warming. It will also change a huge area of the earth’s surface from white to dark, which will absorb more heat rather than reflect it, and also increase the warming effect (not to mention the devastating effects on the indigenous population who live there).
The melting of the icecaps and glaciers is leading to an increase in the freshwater component of seawater. This is very significant when you know that it is salinity that drives the deep ocean currents that move warmer water and air into the northern hemisphere.
I’m sure other readers can contribute examples.
And into this changing world human beings continue to take actions to exacerbate the process. New satellite technology shows the clearing of the Amazon rainforests is much greater than anyone previously knew - if applied globally it would probably show the same everywhere including Australia where laws to end land-clearing are regularly announced but seldom given any implementation grunt. Warmer seas will diminish plankton which will lead to a dramatic fall in marine life and less fish. Deforestation leads to many things but one is the drying up of small creeks during dry weather, where previously the forests had pumped water through the soil and kept them running... life and death effects for down-stream dependents.
What Lovelock and other climate scientists are saying is that we can’t expect a gradual process of warming. Instead the warming will start off gradually (like it has) and as various thresholds or trigger points are crossed, things will start to go ballistic and it could all happen in a few decades. And that is Lovelock’s dire prediction. That civilisation as we know it won’t last 100 years and much of the planet will become uninhabitable for humans in a relatively short time (like the time it takes you to pay off your mortgage.)
Life won’t die on earth. But as has happened in the past when something has triggered a major climate shift, such as the asteroid which shrouded the planet in dust and plunged it into a cold period for long enough to see the dinosaurs die out 65 million years ago, it takes a long time for complex life to evolve. Maybe those cockroaches will get their turn yet.
It wouldn’t be fair not to mention that Lovelock has been an advocate of nuclear power for the last 20 years, suggesting that the risks inherent in a major shift to nuclear energy might be worth it if it slows global warming sufficiently to buy us time. It seems his latest views are perhaps now a strong argument against any further expansion of nuclear energy. Spreading radiation around the planet will lead to mutations and sickness, and weaken those species and individuals who may otherwise stand a chance of surviving. If we are really looking at the collapse of society as we know it in the next century then the chance of providing security for radioactive waste for several tens of thousands of years becomes even more preposterous.
We human beings have created the pre-conditions which will see the next massive wave of extinctions of many complex life forms on this planet. That process is well underway as we fell the forests, dry out the land, poison and drain the wetlands, rivers and oceans and generally shit in our own nest.
We should begin preparing for the worst. Like the low levees of New Orleans, we know the flood is coming... we can either start work on the Ark or keep our head in the sand and pray the levee holds.