Orienting the Conversation

Today we find ourselves, to paraphrase an old saying, living in interesting times.

There is little in our current age that is more potentially “interesting” than the changes underway to our planet’s climate, and the intricate feedback loops that sustain the status quo—the status quo, lest it need to be said, that has made the flourishing of human society possible.

To begin, and simply orient the conversation, I’d like to throw out a few observations that no one (or I should say no one who is aware of the available data) really disputes; I’m going to try to use as few numbers, and as few adjectives, as possible:

  • The global human population has surpassed seven billion and is climbing. Slightly more than fifty percent of these newly arriving humans will be male.
  • Regardless of their current circumstances and practices, most of these people aspire to what has come to be known as a “Western” standard of living. Access to consumer goods, steady electricity, a meat-based diet, and the use of a car figure prominently in this lifestyle.
  • Greenhouse gas concentrations, stemming from human industry, agriculture, and transportation, are at unprecedented levels and rising, and in parallel fashion the mean surface temperature of the planet is rising as well. At current concentrations, even if all humans stopped all greenhouse gas production tomorrow, the mean surface temperature would continue to rise for at least the next several hundred years, if not far longer. This means a certain amount of climate instability, and all the knock-on effects that follow from that, is already locked in, and that the meaningful conversations, to the extent they happen, will be about mitigation not prevention.
  • The great ice sheets—especially those in Greenland and Antarctica—are in various stages of melting and falling into the oceans. How much ice will melt, and how fast, is the subject of investigation and debate. It is concerning, though, that our best scientists have consistently underestimated the speed at which this melting can occur.
  • Sea level rise caused by this melting of the ice sheets—even that predicted by best-case scenarios—will lead to humanitarian emergencies, social disruption, and economic loss in coastal and low-lying communities stretching from the eastern metropolises of North America to the villages of Bangladesh.
  • Weather patterns will be altered from established norms. This means increased precipitation/ floods in some areas; droughts in others; as well as cold snaps, heat waves, etc. “500-year_____,” “1000-year______” will be increasingly common terms as the media grope for words to communicate the severity of weather events.
  • Industrialized agriculture, which has allowed us to feed so many, but which requires relatively steady conditions to function, will be strained, even as farmers are called upon to increase their yields to meet the demands of the ever growing population.
  • Supplies of fresh water, many of which are non-replenishable, are diminishing. Of particular note, they are diminishing both in the states of the American agricultural breadbasket, and the Middle East.
  • Disease patterns are changing. Common mosquito-borne and tick-borne illnesses are spreading to both higher latitudes and colder elevations. Meanwhile, rare-but-deadly viruses, once confined to sparsely populated jungles or rural areas, now have the potential to cause outbreaks in major cities. Air travel, as well as modern, widely-held interpretations of civil liberties, pose novel challenges to containment.
  • Existing plant and animal species are dying off in massive numbers. This loss of biodiversity has become known as the Holocene or Sixth Extinction. For my money, the implications of this in terms of the potential impact on humans are not at all well understood. Suffice to say, loss of lynch-pin species and the subsequent collapse of whole ecosystems (ecosystems we directly or indirectly rely on) are not at all out of the question.
  • The world’s oceans have been grievously over-fished. Marine biologists today speak of portions of the sea that were once rich in biodiversity now resembling underwater deserts. As time goes on, the sea will provide for a smaller and smaller proportion of the world’s food needs. Of perhaps greater importance, ocean acidification and the potential alteration or loss of phytoplankton populations could actually impact the planet-wide production of oxygen.
  • While most of the change to date has been gradual, also called “linear,” the potential exists for future change to be abrupt, or “non-linear.” Like a high school chemistry experiment, the climate could shift, from one steady state to another, not gradually, but rapidly, in short order. While life, meaning life in general and even human life, would almost certainly go on, there is no guarantee that this new state would be at all conducive to the continued functioning of the myriad interconnected systems on which our globalized society depends for survival. Abrupt or non-linear change is more or less what people studying this problem fear most, because it strongly implies a minimal ability to cop, at the societal level, and correspondingly, a maximal amount of human suffering.

A couple of ancillary points, not related to climate per se, but which will overlap with the climate issues above in significant ways:

  • People who are already living at the margins, i.e. the elderly living alone, those in poverty, the homeless, will be particularly vulnerable. Social bonds, and codes of conduct will fray, while even the very notion of human rights will be sorely tested.
  • Industrialization, robots on assembly lines, and increasingly capable AI will continue to supplant human jobs. Even previously immune white collar jobs will go, and not everyone will be able to switch to information-based entrepreneurial positions, or, “The Start-Up of You” as Tom Friedman puts it.
  • Firearms manufacture is and will remain a robust business. As of today, in the US alone, there are more guns than there are citizens, i.e. more than enough to arm every man, woman, and child. Other countries are slightly less well-armed, but potentially more volatile. In light of this, the old saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail,” takes on a disturbing new meaning.
  • As these changes engender widespread fear and anxiety for the future, religious fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, whatever—with its reductionism and black-and-white instructions on just exactly how to oppress women and whom to kill will continue to attract followers. Chiefly, these will be from the burgeoning supply of young men, very likely displaced, under- or unemployed, with easy access to guns and the tools of asymmetric warfare, and desperately seeking a way to make their mark.

In the posts to come, I’d like you to consider a single question:

“If this—if the above—is true, what does that imply?

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