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Monday, May 12, 2008

It's In Our Hands

Earth Burns

Bill McKibben, scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, has something to say (via TomDispatch.com, h/t Mike's Blog Round Up):
The World at 350
A Last Chance for Civilization

By Bill McKibben

...All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk on planet Earth.

There's a number -- a new number -- that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

...NASA's Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued -- and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper -- "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

...It's like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk up front.

In this case, though, it's worse than that because we're... stomping on the gas -- hard. Instead of slowing down, we're pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year -- two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.

And suddenly, the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. Apparently, we've managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth...

We're the ones who kicked the warming off; now, the planet is starting to take over the job.
Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun's heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind.

...A few of us have just launched a new campaign, 350.org...

...if this 350.org campaign is a Hail Mary pass, well, sometimes those passes get caught.

Hansen's words were well-chosen: "a planet similar to that on which civilization developed." People will doubtless survive on a non-350 planet, but those who do will be so preoccupied, coping with the endless unintended consequences of an overheated planet, that civilization may not.

Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security provided by a workable relationship with the natural world.
That margin won't exist, at least not for long, this side of 350. That's the limit we face.
(Excerpted, with my emphases - find the whole article at TomDispatch.com.)

I just have a couple of things to add to this. One, I think the well-intentioned efforts of McKibben's 350.org fall short of a "Hail Mary pass" - rather, I feel that they are imploring that humanity even muster one up... and, further, while very romantic, they are rarely caught.

Two - at 51 years old, I think my senior years are set to be mighty entertaining ones, and not in a good way. The microwave will probably be out of the game by then - will it be immoral of me to pop the corn the old-fashioned way? Alas, I think so...

Update: Tick tock...
Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere now stand at 387 parts per million (ppm), up almost 40% since the industrial revolution and the highest for at least the last 650,000 years...
Update II: It's Out Of Our Hands

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