Business as Usual
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Jim Hanson is known as the NASA Scientist who first testified about Climate Change before Congress in the late 80s. Lately, he was the one who blew the whistle on the Bush Admistration's muzzling of climate consensus.
Here is the piece that he published in the New York Review of Books.
Hanson, like other scientists in the field, is deeply disturbed with the inability of our institutions to get a handle on the climate change issue. You should read it all, but here is my edit.
In the Earth's history, during periods when average global temperatures increased by as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit, there have been several "mass extinctions," when between 50 and 90 percent of the species on Earth disappeared forever. In each case, life survived and new species developed over hundreds of thousands of years.
The most recent of these mass extinctions defines the boundary, 55 million years ago, between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. The evolutionary turmoil associated with that climate change gave rise to a host of modern mammals, from rodents to primates, which appear in fossil records for the first time in the early Eocene.
If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering them before they warm the atmosphere, the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions.
Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet.
For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.
The greatest threat of climate change for human beings, I believe, lies in the potential destabilization of the massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes.
Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years.
In order to arrive at an effective policy we can project two different scenarios concerning climate change. In the business-as-usual scenario, annual emissions of CO2 continue to increase at the current rate for at least fifty years, as do non-CO2 warming agents including methane, ozone, and black soot.
In the alternative scenario, CO2 emissions level off this decade, slowly decline for a few decades, and by mid-century decrease rapidly, aided by new technologies.
The business-as-usual scenario yields an increase of about five degrees Fahrenheit of global warming during this century, while the alternative scenario yields an increase of less than two degrees Fahrenheit during the same period.
How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.
In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level.
Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.
The business-as-usual scenario, with five degrees Fahrenheit global warming and ten degrees Fahrenheit at the ice sheets, certainly would cause the disintegration of ice sheets. The only question is when the collapse of these sheets would begin.
The business-as-usual scenario, which could lead to an eventual sea level rise of eighty feet, with twenty feet or more per century, could produce global chaos, leaving fewer resources with which to mitigate the change in climate.
The alternative scenario, with global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.
Both the Department of Energy and some fossil fuel companies insist that continued growth of fossil fuel use and of CO2 emissions are facts that cannot be altered to any great extent. Their prophecies become self-fulfilling, with the help of government subsidies and intensive efforts by special interest groups to prevent the public from becoming well-informed.
The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership.
The public is understandably confused or uninterested.
I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers.
As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.
The executive and legislative branches of the US government seek excuses to justify their inaction.
The President, despite conclusive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, welcomes contrary advice from Michael Crichton, a science fiction writer.
Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, describes global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and has used aggressive tactics, including a lawsuit to suppress a federally funded report on climate change, to threaten and intimidate scientists.
Who will pay for the tragic effects of a warming climate?
Not the political leaders and business executives I have mentioned. If we pass the crucial point and tragedies caused by climate change begin to unfold, history will judge harshly the scientists, reporters, special interests, and politicians who failed to protect the planet.
But our children will pay the consequences.
The US cannot validly claim to be ignorant of the consequences.
When nations must abandon large parts of their land because of rising seas, what will our liability be? And will our children, as adults in the world, carry a burden of guilt, as Germans carried after World War II, however unfair inherited blame may be?
It is not too late.
The US hesitated to enter other conflicts in which the future was at stake. But enter we did, earning gratitude in the end, not condemnation. Such an outcome is still feasible in the case of global warming, but just barely.
We have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.
Do we have politicians with the courage to explain to the public what is needed?
Or may it be that such people are not electable, in view of the obstacles presented by television, campaign financing, and the opposition of energy companies and other special interests?"
If such is the case,
then our institutions will indeed fail us.
And instead of "business as usual",
These Multinational Corporations and Institutions
will find themselves replaced,
With new inventions of social contract, with
for the Earthfamily.
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*illustration by Farr 1927