New theory for largest known extinction in the history of the Earth: climate change

April 6, 2009

perm-trias-mass-instinction_wbsr3_kotte10194

The culprit?  Climate change.

About 250 million years ago, nearly 90 percent of the animal and plant species on land became extinct. Previously it was thought that volcanic eruptions, the impacts of asteroids, etc. was the cause.  

Russian researchers have found evidence that airborne pollutants from dried giant salt lakes may have been the real cause, releasing “halogenated gases [which] changed the atmospheric composition so dramatically that vegetation was irretrievably damaged.”

What does this mean?  As temperatures changed, massive salt-water lakes began to dry up, causing the air to mix with salt and form dangerous compounds previously thought created only in industrial processes.  These toxic gases damaged plants, wiping out the forests and plains, with animal life following soon there-after.

From the press release:

In their current publication the authors explain the similarities between the complex processes of the CO2-cycle in the Permian Age as well as between global warming from that time and at present… Forecasts predict an increase in the surface areas of deserts and salt lakes due to climate change. That is why the researchers expect that the effects of these halogenated gases will equally increase.

According to the forecast from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increasing temperatures and aridity due to climate change will also speed up desertification, increasing with it the number and surface area of salt seas, salt lagoons and salt marshlands. Moreover, this will then lead to an increase in naturally formed halogenated gases. The phytotoxic effects of these substances become intensified in conjunction with other atmospheric pollutants and at the same time increasing dryness and exponentiate the eco-toxicological consequences of climate change.


Arguments for and against climate tipping points

April 5, 2009

tippingpointsvsmall

The New York Times has an interesting summary on the debate over climate “tipping points” amongst some scientists.

Climate tipping points, such as the collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation system, are a fascinating and attention grabbing aspect of climate change science.  They bring to mind images of walls of water off the coast of New York, rushing in to destroy civilization as we know it overnight.

Despite their drama, scientists generally argue that relatively little is known about them and that which is known suggests that they are unlikely to occur overnight.  They could occur within our lifetimes, however, if warming trends continue.  And they could have just as devastating effect on our civilization as a wall of water 100 meters high.

State of the science

The most well known work on tipping points comes from Prof Tim Lenton of the School of Environmental Sciences and colleagues at the Postdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK), Carnegie Mellon University, Newcastle University and Oxford University.

They have a “short list”  of nine tipping elements, all of them could be tipped within the next 100 years.  The nine tipping elements and the time it would take to tip are:

 

  • Melting of Arctic sea-ice (approx 10 years)
  • Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (more than 300 years)
  • Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (more than 300 years)
  • Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (approx 100 years)
  • Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (approx 100 years)
  • Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (approx 1 year)
  • Greening of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (approx 10 years)
  • Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (approx 50 years)
  • Dieback of the Boreal Forest (approx 50 years)

 

These are generally the kinds of things which are meant when scientists talk about “dangerous climate change”.  If some of the worse ones were to occur, our entire food, water and weather systems would be thrown so far out of balance that we’d be likely to suffer the kinds of massive die-offs suggested by James Lovelock in recent days.

In a press release, Prof Lenton suggests;

Society must not be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change,” said Prof Lenton. “Our findings suggest that a variety of tipping elements could reach their critical point within this century under human-induced climate change. The greatest threats are tipping of the Arctic sea-ice and the Greenland ice sheet, and at least five other elements could surprise us by exhibiting a nearby tipping point.

ScienceDaily has an excellent summary, sorting these events by probability and magnitude.

Full research excerpt here. 


Kim Stanley Robinson on valuing the future to avoid catastrophic collapse

March 31, 2009

future

“Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.”

Author Kim Stanley Robinson argues here that capitalism is a “multi-generational Ponzi scheme” that is ruining the planet and has to change if human civilization is to survive.  

Taking a futures perspective, Robinson writes, “the main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future.”  On the longer scale, resources (including carbon) are underpriced, causing us to charge less for them than what they cost (an argument presented well by Buckminster Fuller, who calculated the true cost of oil based on the time of production at over a billion dollars per barrel).  “When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor,” he writes, “it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.”

…the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. 

Robinson argues that instead of trying to produce a “pyramid of wealth”, we should aim for a more broad-based economy of productivity that reduces inequality and accurately prices the cost of materials based on their unavailability to future generations.

Believe in science.”

Robinson’s first recommendation for change include actually believing, and valuing, what our scientists are telling us.  

“We need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness…  Science is telling us that if we keep living the way we do, we will trigger an unstoppable and irreversible climate change that may de-ice the planet and acidify the oceans, causing mass extinction.

His main point is that the we are talking about the end of the world here.  There can be nothing more serious.

“It took tens of millions of years for Earth to recover from previous mass extinctions,” he argues, and despite our technological power and ever increasing intelligence, we are rapidly approaching the point where human society could be destroyed by climate change.  We need to start acting like it.

Seeing in a new way

Robinson’s point is well presented.  He concludes with a firmly futures-oriented question.  “Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future.”  This is the core message of scenario planning and futures work.  You can’t see the future because you don’t want to see it; your beliefs and morals prohibit you from seeing what you don’t want to see, leaving your surprised and disturbed when things don’t go the way you expect.

Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial…  We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

Well said KSR.  The future is in our hands, but only if we look beyond what we want to see, acknowledge that we are creating our own grave, and that in order to survive we must change the system; belief systems, social systems, economic systems, and organisational systems.  Otherwise we are well and truly doomed.

Full article here.


Thomas Homer Dixon reviews, “Global Catastrophes and Trends, the next 50 years”

March 28, 2009

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One of HFP’s favourite thinkers, Thomas Homer-Dixon, publishes a review of two books on catastrophe in this week’s Nature.

In his review of two catastrophe-oriented books, Dixon argues that, “opinion-makers must demonstrate a better grasp of how societies rise and fall if they are to steer nations successfully through many of this century’s major crises.”

In Global Catastrophes and Trends, Smil, a Canadian scientist of prodigious productivity and extraordinary disciplinary breadth, basically says “get used to it”. Many of the vital natural and social systems around us are so complex that deep uncertainty characterizes their behaviour, and predicting this behaviour is near impossible. Thankfully, many of the threats to our wellbeing highlighted by the media are exaggerated — often wildly so. Although there are reasons for concern about where humankind is going, we need to remember that insecurity is part of the human condition. Catastrophe is too, but it is less likely than we imagine. Overall, given the admirable human capacity to adapt and change, the human prospect is far brighter than many assume.

Alex Steffan argues a similar point in his post, “Collapse Forward“.  He writes,

We certainly could blow it badly enough to trigger irrecoverable collapse (for instance, by triggering climate tipping points), but I’m dubious that most of the collapses we fear will in fact occur, or, even if they occur, that they will last as long or be quite as catastrophic as we think.

That doesn’t mean that big shake-ups aren’t coming. They are. The question is, how do communities and regions prepare themselves to sail as gracefully through that turbulence as possible?

Steffan suggests that investing in green infrastructure both lessens the stress on the system now, and decreases chances of systemic failure in the future.  This kind of “no regrets” planning is wise; both in the short term and as a long term development strategy.  

Are there any parallels between “no regrets” approaches to human vulnerability and the on-going aid vs. development debates?


NASA, space storms and social collapse

March 27, 2009

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The New Scientist reports on a recent NASA study evaluating the risk of solar plasma flares.

Not your average humanitarian issue but interesting none the less:

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event – a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn’t create so profound a disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that.

 

Full report, “Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts” (for purchase).  

Full article, “Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe


Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.

 


Is collapse anxiety becoming collapse excitement? And will it become collapse fatigue?

March 10, 2009

“The Great Restructing”, “The Great Disruption”, “The Great Compression”, “The Long Emergency”, “Metacrisis”, are all terms floating around the global conversation these days in an effort to describe the magnitude and severity of the crisis we may be facing.

After years of “preaching to the choir” about the general riskiness and collapse-prone nature of our global geo-political infrastructure, it is amazing to see how rapidly terms previously confined to fringe nutcases and global collapse scholars have become part of the mainstream dialogue.

For example, see Thomas Friedman’s long, considered post in the New York Times:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Not the kind of thing one is used to hearing discussed on the evening news, is it?  

Others are using similar terms.  Umar Haque has called it the “Great Compression”, arguing that most of today’s economy doesn’t create true value and therefore won’t stand the test of the trying times we’re now entering.  He referred to our situation as a “metacrisis” in the “zombieconomy”.  Jeff Jarvis calls it the “The Great Restructuring”, then making a series of fairly extreme statements suggesting, “entire swaths and even sectors of the economy will disappear or will change so much they might as well disappear…”

These are bracing sentiments, even for humanitarian and development organisations used to dealing with so called “normal disasters”.  Why the sudden change in tone?  Alex Steffan reflected on this question over at WorldChanging.org and suggests that,

…the crisis we face is more than a merely ecological or economic crisis. It’s also a geo-political crisis, one which is demanding that older concepts of national sovereignty and international law stretch in new directions to accommodate the need for global responses our truly global problems; it is a social crisis, which itself demands new understandings of our interconnectedness, and of the stake each of us has in the lives of one another’s children; it is, as well, a cultural crisis, where we are being forced to confront the emptiness that is so often found at the core of our new prosperity.

Kevin Kelly suggest that the popularization of concepts of collapse has deeper, psychological resonance with Alex Steffan’s “core emptiness”.  Calling us all “Collapsitarians” (a term popularised by James Howard Kunstler in a New Yorker article here), he writes,

The idea of progress has been slowly dying. I think progress lost its allure at the ignition of the first atom bomb at the end of WWII. It has been losing luster since. Even more recently the future has become boring and unfashionable. No one wants to live in the future. 

The jet packs don’t work, and the Daily Me is full of spam.  Nobody finds the Future attractive any longer. 

The only thing left to believe in is collapse. That’s not boring! 

The end of civilization would be terribly exciting, and unlike any future we could imagine, probably more likely. Dystopias are a favorite science fiction destination now. We all are collapsitarians these days.

All of this is sparking blogs and blogs worth of urgent excitement from all over the Internet.  Quotes such as “WE URGENTLY NEED TO RE-ADJUST OUR FEEDBACK LOOPS!”  seem commonplace these days, as even the Great and the Good at Davos begin to admit that we’re in the midst of radical systemic change and no one quite knows where it will end up.

So the question is, is collapse anxiety transforming into collapse excitement?  And will it soon become collapse fatigue as the media cycles onward?


Orlov on social collapse at the Long Now

February 17, 2009

Grumpy, humorous, tongue-in-cheek, survivalist predictions for the eminent arrival of the Former United States of America.

Orlov just gave a typically grumpy, humorous, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek presentation at the Long Now Foundation.  Boing Boing, Global Guerillas and others have highlighted his speech, which is probably gave him the most web coverage he’s had in a while.

In a 2006 presentation, “Closing the ‘Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US,” Orlov first laid out his USSR / USA empire collapse comparison that would later become his book, Reinventing Collapse: the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the USA.

Orlov argues that the USA is vulnerable to the kind of economic collapse experienced by the former USSR.  He cites huge deficits, foreign military entanglements, and the unsustainablilty of its suburban lifestyles.  Mix this with possible climate shocks, financial market volatility, and anything weird like suicide bombers, avian flu pandemic and you’ve got an interesting situation.

The kinds of things Orlov expects after financial collapse will be very familiar to humanitarian workers.  Shortages of fuel, food, medicine and consumer items; electric, gas and water outages; hyperinflation; economic disruption, joblessness, vagrancy; increased criminal and black market activities; transport disruption.  He suggests that America should not expect “any grand rescue plans, innovative technology programs, or miracles of social cohesion.”

HFP isn’t in a position to comment on the veracity of his argument.  Instead we find the emergence of social collapse discussions in mainstream media tremendously fascinating.  Several commentators argue against spreading these memes because they could become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Others argue that they are important and overdue wake up calls.

What would happen to the humanitarian community, including those it is intended to serve, should there be such a large scale fiscal and political meltdown?

UPDATE – There is a very good summary of Orlov’s book over at the OilDrum, which can be found here.


Irreversible climate change, meet unstoppable political force

February 16, 2009

Geoengineering, complexity, and the uncertain political necessities of tomorrow 

Last month Susan Solomon – Nobel Prize winning chair of the IPCC – and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a paper entitled “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions.”  (Summary of the paper found here, BBC coverage found here.)

The study found that, “If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.”  In other words,

…changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. 

Even if we stopped all CO2 emission now, the Earth will still experience significant warming over the next 1,000 years.  This sounds like pretty damning evidence from some of the best scientists working on the issue.

Two recent articles have examined political and technological responses to this very, very bad news, both focusing on large scale geoengineering.  Ideas range from the fantastic, such as large floating mirrors in space that reflect sunlight, to the mundane, such as dumping tones of iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage the growth of carbon eating plankton.

Jamais Cascio, co-creator of many cool things such as the massively multiplayer online futures experiment Superstruct, has a powerful argument why geoengineering is both a very bad idea and yet also politically inevitable.  In an article for Grist, entitled “Plan B”,  he writes:

Geoengineering is risky, likely to provoke international tension, certain to have unanticipated consequences, and pretty much inevitable.

Cascio’s main points are that despite the widespread uncertainty about the technical aspects of geoengineering, projects are likely to go ahead anyway, with significant political consequences.  

The political issues geoengineering raises are directly relevant to the post-Welphian context within which the Humanitarian Futures Programme operates.

  • With geoengineering being global in impact, who determines whether or not it’s used, which technologies to deploy, and what the target temperatures will be? 
  • Who decides which unexpected side-effects are bad enough to warrant ending the process? 
  • Given that the expense required for sulfate injection (and likely cloud-brightening) would be low enough for a single country to undertake, what happens when a desperate “rogue nation” attempts geoengineering against the wishes of other states?  
  • And with the benefits and possible harm from geoengineering attempts being unevenly distributed around the planet, would it be possible to use this technology for strategic or military purposes? 

Alex Steffan argues that such projects have a huge “epic fail” potential.  He suggests that, “It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.”  

Climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert writes, “[Geoengineering] is not really insurance. It’s more like building a lifeboat, but a lifeboat based on a design that has never been used before which has to work more or less perfectly the first time the panicked passengers are loaded into it.”

These risks alone should make any sane civilisation shy away from such “all or nothing” bids for survival.  We at HFP find so interesting is the tone of urgency involved in this debate.  These issues are being discussed with a refreshing sense of clarity, scientific understanding, and political calculation.  It is as if our lives really are at stake, time might already have run out, and we might really only have one shot at getting it right if we are to survive.  What survival might look like is another issue, but it is clear that planetary survival is a desirable outcome; certainly in line with humanitarian aid’s underlying ethos.

The humanitarian community should be following this debate, if not directly engaging in it.  Its outcome has large and game-changing implications for the way aid is done, indeed, if it will even be done at all.  Cascio touches on this issue briefly in a related comment to Steffan’s article, 

The political clashes, accusation of crimes against humanity, and potential for catastrophe [which are ] possible in a geoengineering scenario are even more likely in a scenario where emissions reductions fail to work in time, and we’re left fighting over environmental scraps…

This is sobering realism.  It paints a realistic and scary picture of the panicked international response that could occur if things begin to change quicker than expected.  In the end, argues Cascio, it’s not the technical issues which will matter.  It’s the political pressure that will decide how we respond:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

Welcome to the 21st century; where irreversible climate change meets an unstoppable political force; with massive, vital, and unknown consequences.


Taleb on “exponential complexity”, “hidden risks” and their consequences

December 18, 2008

Taleb is talking about finance, but the same kinds of drivers are at work in the humanitarian system. The consequence?

In this clip from the Charlie Rose Show, “Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how our lack of awareness of exponential complexity hid the hidden risks within our financial system, leading to unexpected collapse.

We had an accumulation of hidden risks in the system, coupled with an increase in complexity. Never in the history of the world have we had a situation with so much complexity, coupled with so much ignorance… The world is much more complex and interconnected than we know, and the people who are supposed to know, don’t know.


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