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Planet eaters: Chain reactions, black holes and climate change

Planet eaters

Chain reactions, black holes and climate change

Andrew Glikson* and Emily Spence**

* Earth and paleo-climate research scientist, Canberra, ACT

** Environmental and social policy writer, Massachusetts, USA

"Dear Caesar
Keep burning, raping, killing
But please, please
Spare us your obscene poetry
And ugly music "

From Seneca's attributed last letter to Nero


According to Albert Speer, German physicists, apprising Hitler of the possible development of an atom bomb in the spring of 1942, noted a reservation by Werner Heisenberg about a potential conflagration of the atmosphere: "Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the Earth under his rule might be transformed into a glowing star." The same awesome possibility, fusion of atmospheric nitrogen and oceanic hydrogen, turning the planet into a chain-reacting bomb, was considered a few months later by Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, Hans Bethe and other physicists. New calculations indicated atmospheric conflagration was unlikely. The trinity nuclear test in the New Mexico desert went ahead.


A critical parameter in Drake's Equation, which seeks to estimate the number of planets that host civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy, is L - the longevity of technological societies measured from the time radio telescopes are invented in an attempt to communicate with other planets. Estimates of L range between a minimum of 70 years and 10,000 years, but even for the more optimistic longevity scenario, only 2.31 such planets would exist in the galaxy at the present time.

It is another question whether an intelligent species exists in this, or any other galaxy, which has brought about a mass extinction of species on the scale initiated by Homo sapiens since the mid-18th century.

The history of Earth includes five major mass extinctions which define the ends of several periods, including the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Each of these events has been triggered by extraterrestrial impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or methane release and related greenhouse events. Yet, with the exception of the role of methanogenic bacteria in relation to methane eruptions in the past, the sixth mass extinction is a novelty: For the first time in its history, the biosphere is in crisis through biological forcing by an advanced form of life, namely the activity of a technological carbon-emitting species.

The sharp glacial-interglacial oscillations of the Pleistocene (1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), with rapid mean global temperature changes by up to 5 degrees Celsius over short periods of centuries and, in some instances, a few years (cf. Steffensen et al., Science Express, 19 June, 2008), culminated in an extreme adaptability of Homo. Of all the life forms on Earth, only this genus mastered fire, proceeding to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum, split the atom and travel to other planets-cultural change overtaking biological change.

Possessed by a conscious fear of death, craving God-like immortality and omniscience, Homo developed the absurd faculty to simultaneously create and destroy, culminating with the demise of the atmospheric conditions that allowed its flourishing in the first place. The biological root factors which underlie the transformation of tribal warriors into button-pushing automatons capable of triggering global warming or a nuclear winter remain inexplicable.

Inherent in the enigma are little-understood top-to-base mechanisms, explored among others by George Ellis, who states: "although the laws of physics explain much of the world around us, we still do not have a realistic description of causality in truly complex hierarchical structures." ("Physics, complexity and causality", Nature, 435: 743, June 2005):

Sixty-five million years ago, huge asteroids hit the Earth, extinguishing the dinosaurs and vacating habitats for the flourishing of mammals. Fifty-five million years ago, in the wake of a rise of atmospheric CO2 to levels near-1000 parts per million, the monkeys made appearance. Thirty-four million years ago, weathering of the rising Himalayan and Alpine ranges sequestered CO2, Earth began to cool, ice sheets formed and conditions on land became suitable for large, warm blooded mammals.

Three million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene, when temperatures rose by 2- 3o C and sea levels by 25+/-12 metres, accentuation of climate oscillations were followed by the appearance of Homo erectus. The mastering of fire and, later, stabilization of the climate between about 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, saw the Neolithic and urban civilization take hold. Processes during this period, termed the Anthropocoene (cf. Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, Ambio, 36, 614-621, 2007), led to deforestation and the demise of an estimated twenty thousand to two million species during the 20th century, ever increasing carbon pollution, acidification of the hydrosphere and radioactive contamination.

Acting as the lungs of the biosphere, the Earth's atmosphere developed an oxygen-rich carbon-constrained composition over hundreds of millions of years, allowing emergence of breathing animals. Planetcide results from the anthropogenic release into the atmosphere to date of more than 300 gigatons of carbon (GtC), the product of ancient biospheres stored by plants and animals, threatening to return Earth to conditions which preceded the emergence of large mammals on land.

Planetcide emerged from around pre-historic camp fires, from deep recesses of the mind, the imagination of individuals trying to survive adversity. Atavistic fear of death leads to a yearning for god-like immortality. Once the Holocene climate stabilized and excess food was produced, fear and its counterpart, aggression, grew out of control, generating pyramids dedicated to the idea of infinite immorality and sweeping murderous orgies, called "war", designed to conquer death and appease the Gods.

War is a synonym for ritual sacrifice of the young. From infanticide by rival warlord baboons to the butchering of young children on Aztec altars to the generational sacrifice of WWI, youths follow leaders blindly to the death, women condemn defeated gladiators, fundamental priests promote ignorance, misery and crusades, breeding grounds for believers. Hijacking the image of Christ, a messenger of justice and peace, they promote a self-fulfilling Armageddon: "Hallelujah the rapture is coming," while other see their future on space ships and barren planets.

With estimated profitable carbon reserves in excess of 5000 GtC, further emissions could take the atmosphere out of the ice ages back to Mesozoic-like greenhouse conditions, a state during which large parts of the continents were inundated by the sea. Most likely to survive would be the grasses, insects and birds, descendants of the fated dinosaurs. A new evolutionary cycle would commence. Homo sapiens will survive. Their endurance through the extreme climate upheavals of the glacial-interglacial periods has equipped humans to withstand the most challenging conditions.

The sixth mass extinction does not rise exclusively from global warming, and can be brought about, separately or in combination, by design or accident, through the probability of a global nuclear cataclysm. As time goes on, a possibility becomes a probability becomes a certainty, an increasingly likely prospect on a warming planet burdened by resource wars. Following trials on the inhabitants of two Japanese cities, with time, the Damocles sword of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) strategy can only fall. The hapless inhabitants of planet Earth are given no choice between progressive global warming and the coup-de-grace of a nuclear winter.

Further experiments with the fate of Earth are underway. Once the Hadron Collider has been deemed "safe," pending further science fiction-like experiments yet to be dreamt by ethics-free scientists, Earth may not become a black hole. Unfortunately little doubt exists regarding the consequences of the continuing use of the atmosphere, the lungs of the biosphere, as an open sewer for carbon gases.

As stated by the renowned oceanographer Wallace Broecker in 1986, "The inhabitants of planet Earth are quietly conducting a gigantic experiment. We play Russian roulette with climate and no one knows what lies in the active chamber of the gun." If the Nazis constructed gas chambers for millions of victims, ongoing climate change threatens to turn the entire planet into an open oven on the strength of a Faustian Bargain.

From the Romans to the Third Reich, the barbarism of empires surpasses that of small marauding tribes. In the name of "freedom," they never cease to bomb peasant populations in their small fields. Only among the wretched of the Earth is true charity common, where empathy is learnt through their own suffering.

Planetcide challenges every faith, ideal and social system humans ever held. Individuals are crushed, as in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, when cells rebelling against the insanity of a murderous global Martian society are destroyed by the parent organism.

Planetcide is a child of Orwellian "Newspeak", where modern societies, underpinned by subterranean drug rings, weapon smuggling networks and intelligence agencies, poison their young's minds with commercial and political lies, a propaganda machine Joseph Goebbels would envy.

Nature is full of examples of parasites, viruses destroying their host, sea anemones seducing their prey, but Homo sapiens has perfected untruths to a form of fine art. Defying the scientific method and the peer review system, so-called "sceptics", lured by ego and money, serve as mouthpieces of air-poisoning lobbies, which have already delayed humanity's desperate attempt at mitigating the fast deteriorating state of the atmosphere by more than twenty years.

Having lost the sense of reverence possessed toward the Earth by prehistoric humans, there is no evidence that civilization is about to adopt Carl Sagan's sentiment: "For we are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars: organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for the Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring." (Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980)

Humans live in a realm of perceptions, dreams, myths and legends, in denial of critical facts (Janus: A summing up, Arthur Koestler, 1978). They wake up for a brief moment from an infinite universal slumber to witness a world as cruel as it is beautiful, a biosphere dominated by the food chain. An inverse relation may exist between the level of consciousness achieved by a species and its longevity, once it creates machines and processes that it cannot control. If looking into the sun may result in blindness, so, according to as yet little-understood laws of entropy, the deep insights into nature that humans have achieved may bear a terrible price.

Existentialist philosophy allows a perspective into, and a way of coping with, all that defies rational contemplation. Ethical and cultural assumptions of free will rarely govern the behavior of societies or nations, let alone an entire species.

And although the planet may not shed a tear for the demise of technological civilization, hope, on the individual scale, is still possible in the sense of existentialist philosophy. Going through their black night of the soul, members of the species may be rewarded by the emergence of a conscious dignity devoid of illusions, grateful for the glimpse at the universe for which humans are privileged by the fleeting moment:

"Having pushed a boulder up the mountain all day, turning toward the setting sun, we must consider Sisyphus happy." (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942)


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Climate chaos, do we still have any deniers?

China is running out of water.

China has raised its drought emergency to the highest level for the first time as a dry spell spreads, leaving millions with little or no water and threatening wheat supplies, state media says.

The decision to go to emergency level one was taken on Thursday at meeting of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, Xinhua news agency reported.

The increased alert level was made official at the same time as the central government sent specialists to all eight major drought-hit regions to help residents with relief supplies and technical aid, the China Daily said on Friday.

About 4.3 million people and 2.1 million head of livestock are short of water, the relief headquarters said in a statement, as parts of the nation experience their worst drought since the early 1950s.

Victoria has its worst day in history.

Victorians should cancel whatever plans they may have had for tomorrow and take whatever steps necessary to prepare for what Premier John Brumby is calling the "worst day in the history of the state".

Rising sea level is salinating India's Ganges river:

Rising sea levels are causing salt water to flow into India's biggest river, threatening its ecosystem and turning vast farmlands barren in the country's east, a climate change expert warned on Monday.

MORE than 60 per cent of Queensland is covered by floodwaters and more devastation is expected as two lows threaten to develop into cyclones.

With the climate causing havoc around the globe is still anyone out there that thinks we don't have a clear and present danger?

All this is exactly what the scientists have forecast. We must act now to reduce our carbon emissions.

Billions at risk time to go to a war footing for the planet

Rising levels of GHG are putting billions at risk.

Now an international panel of marine scientists says this acidity is accelerating so fast it threatens the survival of coral reefs, shellfish and the marine food web generally.

As well as the damage to the marine food web we also are witnessing this:

There is mounting evidence that climate change is triggering a shrinking and thinning of many glaciers world-wide which may eventually put at risk water supplies for hundreds of millions — if not billions — of people. Data gaps exist in some vulnerable parts of the globe undermining the ability to provide precise early warning for countries and populations at risk. If the trend continues and governments fail to agree on deep and decisive emission reductions at the crucial UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, it is possible that glaciers may completely disappear from many mountain ranges in the 21st century.

While this is happening our politicians are throwing money at us and begging us to go out and spend. What will the effect of all this stimulus have on our GHG emissions? How much capital will be left to fight the real threat of global warming? A few of our political leaders are saying we are on a war footing to save the economy. I suggest we go on a war footing to save the planet. We should be rationing all luxury items and fuel. We should be spending all our capital on shifting us to a sustainable economy.

Global warming threatens world's water supply.

Glaciers from the Andes to Alaska and across the Alps shrank as much as 3 meters (10 feet), the 18th year of retreat and twice as fast as a decade ago, as global warming threatens an important supply of the world’s water.

As the world's political leaders struggle to kick start world economic growth how many of them realise the damage that that growth will do to the planet?

How many will die as a result of our economic growth?

We need to work out ways to limit human growth as well as stopping economic growth for a while.

We need a new deal alright, one that focuses on economic sustainability.

Reality check

John Pratt: "Australia like the US is still far too dependant on dirty fossil fuels. As the Rudd government ponders ways to boost the economy with massive spending on infrastructure, we should be planning to move away from coal and oil. If we do not use the idle labor in the construction industry to build a more sustainable future we will be missing a great opportunity."

I thought Rudd had fixed all that when he rushed in and signed Kyoto, or was that just to keep Bob Brown and his nitwits happy? Now if you can get China and India to cut down on fossil fuels you might get somewhere. Until then, Kyoto is about as meaningful as Rudd saying "Sorry". It's funny, isn't it, we never hear Wong or Rudd talking about carbon emissions these days. When was the last time you heard from Penny Wong about saving the Murray Darling? Looks like it is in the too hard basket along with broadband internet.

However, in the last couple of weeks NSW Labor have approved three new coal mines. One has to assume that these are "clean coal" mines, otherwise the Greens would not have allowed it, would they?

Cost to slow global warming could be less than 1%

The cost of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade to slow the progress of global warming could be less than 1% of world domestic product by 2030, according to a new report.

"Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy," a detailed report by McKinsey & Co, lists more than 200 opportunities, spread across ten sectors and twenty-one geographical regions, that have the potential to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 35% below 1990 levels by 2030, a reduction of 70% from the business as usual scenario.........

McKinsey concludes that the total cost of implementing all of the measures contained in the report would be less than 1% of global gross domestic product. The cost is estimated at US$256 billion to $448 billion annually by 2030 when they calculate total world GDP to hit $77 trillion.

The report does not include the economic costs that would result from escalating climate change impacts if emissions are not reduced.

"This makes acting to use these technologies even more of a no-brainer," said Moss. "If we fail to act, climate change will alter water resources, agriculture, and ecosystems, resulting in impacts on the economy and human health that could run to the billions of dollars annually in the United States alone. By reducing emissions, we will avoid some of the worst damages and leave the world's natural heritage intact for future generations."

It certainly is a "no-brainer". Even if we looked on the cost as insurance we should act now. Failing to act will surely cost us a lot more than 1 percent of GDP.

A report by economist Sir Nicholas Stern suggests that global warming could shrink the global economy by 20%.

But taking action now would cost just 1% of global gross domestic product, the 700-page study says.

The other C02 problem

The researchers warn that ocean acidification, which they refer to as "the other CO2 problem", could make most regions of the ocean inhospitable to coral reefs by 2050, if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to increase.

The also say that it could lead to substantial changes in commercial fish stocks, threatening food security for millions of people.

Thank God the world's economy is slowing - it may just give us time to prevent the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and save millions from starvation.

We are moving closer to dangerous tipping points.

An extract from Al Gore's address to US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Most importantly, as long as we continue to depend on dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil to meet our energy needs, and dump 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, we move closer and closer to several dangerous tipping points which scientists have repeatedly warned – again just yesterday – will threaten to make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable destruction of the conditions that make human civilization possible on this planet. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.

Australia like the US is still far too dependant on dirty fossil fuels. As the Rudd government ponders ways to boost the economy with massive spending on infrastructure, we should be planning to move away from coal and oil. If we do not use the idle labor in the construction industry to build a more sustainable future we will be missing a great opportunity. 

Spectacular failure in Canberra

When transformative national and global leadership on climate is now necessary, the many thousands of Australians who work diligently in their local climate action groups see a spectacular failure of political imagination in Canberra.

And the conclusion to their four-day meeting in the national capital? It will be back to doorknocking the neighbourhood, talking in local churches and workplaces, engaging with local MPs and building an enormous grassroots movement that aims to make our politicians energetic advocates for transformative action on global warming, but a movement also capable of inflicting political pain on those who continue to taken them and the planet's health for granted.

David Spratt is co-author of Climate Code Red.

Extract from today's Age.

With the world distracted by the collapse of the global economy, and Webdiary focused on the never-ending debacle in Gaza, let's get back to the the real problem facing all of us. Millions are under threat and the economy will be many times worse than today unless we act now.  We should be making our political masters aware of our feelings and tell them either to act or move aside.

Time for realism and action is now

The moves signalled Mr Obama's desire to move forward quickly with his campaign promises to fight climate change and reduce US dependence on foreign oil.

Mr Obama laid out broad principles that he said his administration would follow.

It was time for the United States to lead on climate change, he said, and reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

"It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil," he said.

"We need more than the same old empty promises........

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has named a special envoy for climate change and declared the "time for realism and action is now."

Her appointment of Todd Stern, a veteran of the Kyoto Protocol talks, signalled how seriously President Barack Obama's administration sees the threat from climate change.

Obama is moving quickly to bring the US into line with the rest of the world.

Let's hope that Kevin from heaven has the wisdom and the courage to keep pace as the US picks up the climate change baton.

As the number of unemployed grows we need to employ those without a job in the massive task of moving the world towards a sustainable economy.

We need to be on a war footing and cannot have people sitting idle. We will need everyone to play their part.

Apocalyptic ecologism

The problem with this sort of apocalyptic environmental writing is that it positions all humans as "the problem" while simultaneously failing to even attempt a close critical analysis of which humans and which modes of governance and which modes of economic production might be more problematic than others.  This results in an historically undifferentiated approach in which Pharanoic ambition is not treated as any different from modernist scientific hubris. Misanthropy abounds and humans, in all our glory and weakness, are likened to parasites on the earth. 

Ho-hum, Gaia again I guess.

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