While this might not be a popular position to take, I believe we’re already well into the first phase of an ecological apocalypse that has been inevitable since human beings learned to talk and use fire. With the unprecedented ability to pass on knowledge more efficiently than any other species, and coordinate our activities, humans became the most deadly predators on the planet. Fire provide greater security than people had ever known before. It was also an incredibly powerful tool. It helped us prepare food that was less likely to sicken us, frighten off predators, and scare prey off cliffs. Fire allowed us to extend the hours in which we were active and allowed us to migrate into colder climates. Along with learning to work rocks into tools, using fire was the beginning of technology.
The power of fire was that it gave us access to energy stored away in fuels like wood, coal, oil, peat, and others. Other animals were restricted to using the energy they could harness through eating. Fire was a huge advantage and became the basis for a technological infrastructure that is now almost entirely dependent on such fuel sources – primarily oil, coal, and natural gas.
Coal, oil, and natural gas are all fossil fuels. They contain energy that was produced by fusion reactions in the sun and traveled to Earth as sunlight. Plants converted the sunlight into carbon compounds that were used to make more plants. Animals got energy by eating plants and other animals that ate plants. A small proportion of the plants and animals that died were buried in sediments, where pressure, heat and LOTS of time converted their organic material into the energy dense fuels we use. It took hundreds of millions of years for nature to store up all that energy. By current estimates, we’ve use up around fifty percent of those stores. It took us a little over a hundred years.
During the last hundred or so years, we’ve burned so much fossil fuel that we’ve raised the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere from 200 ppm (pre-industrial) to over 400 ppm. We’ve doubled it. Thing is, CO2 is a green-house gas (Look up Green House effect if you don’t understand what a green-house gas is.), it helps trap the energy from the Sun. That’s a good thing, mostly, because it helps keep the Earth warm enough for water to be liquid and for life to flourish. 200 ppm was perfectly adequate for the job. Now we have, in essence, pulled up another blanket over us and we’re wondering why it’s getting toasty.
When you add extra energy to a system, things happen. Put a pot full of water on the stove and turn up the heat. You’ll notice that not much happens at first. Then you’ll notice some ripples on the surface as currents form in the water. Those currents are nature’s way of redistributing the heat. As you watch, the water will move faster and faster. Eventually it boils.
Think of the pot as a very primitive model of the Earth’s atmosphere. When extra heat is added, the air becomes more turbulent. It causes both a shift in the timing of our traditional seasons, and aberrations from what we’ve come to expect. The hot days are hotter and the cold days colder. But overall, almost every year is hotter than the year before.
Why is Climate Change such a big deal?
Well, before we started mucking things up, there was a very delicate balance between how much energy we got from the Sun and how much escaped back into space in one form or another. EVERY LIVING THING has been adapted by evolution to that balance. Now that things are messed up, whole species are vanishing faster than at any point in history we know about. Humanity has caused an extinction event worse ever before. Amphibians are dying out, the bees that fertilize our crops are in peril, fisheries all over the world are in crisis. If this were a human patient, doctors would be calling a code and suggesting the family gather.
So, what do we do?
First, there is NO MAGIC BULLET. There is no wonderful technological solution that will save the day. In order to pull the gigatons of CO2 we’ve put into the atmosphere back out again, we’d have to use even more energy than we got from burning them in the first place. Remember, plants, which are astonishingly efficient at converting CO2 into more plant, took hundreds of millions of years to put all that CO2 in the ground. The only safe energy to use for such a job is energy we take out of the environment: solar, wind, wave, tidal, etc.
We must stop using fossil fuels. Period.
But how do we stop using fossil fuels in a world where everyone wants to live the way they imagine Americans live? If everyone in the world were to live a typical American middle-class lifestyle, we’d need four times the energy we use now. In countries like China, where they want to turn into a first-world country overnight, the temptation to use shortcuts, like Coal and Oil, is irresistible. The same can probably be said about India and a dozen other countries.
The Real Problem
For a long time, I despaired that there was no way to really deal with this problem. That’s partially true, no matter what we do now, we’re still going to pay a price for ignoring this problem so long. There will be changes that are going to kill lots of people in lots of terrible ways. I don’t have children of my own and at one point I was of the opinion that the best thing we could do was to stop having children altogether, because the future looked so black.
But perhaps it’s not quite that bleak, because having fewer children, rather than no children, might be the answer. Because the real problem is too many people. Human beings have overrun the planet. Our ancestors initially evolved to live in a moderately-sized ecological niche in Africa. But because we lost our hair, started using tools, and discovered fire, we now live on every continent on the planet. We’ve crowded out the local flora and fauna with our roads, cities, and agriculture. We are running short of food in many places. Aquifers are running dry. Human trash washes up on every beach in the world.
You can analyze any of our serious problems and I believe you’ll come back to the same root cause – too many people. We need to reduce our numbers to some value where everyone has a decent quality of life and there’s room for all the other wonders of nature.
There are a lot of advantages to reducing our population. Fewer people require less energy, less food, produce less waste. As the population drops, so will the demand for energy and thus the need to use fossil fuels. If we had one quarter our current population, everyone on the planet could live a middle-class lifestyle — at least in theory. (That is assuming we manage to distribute the freed up resources equitably.) Fewer people would mean a lot less pressure on the ocean ecosystems so the fish we so love to consume could recover.
I’m not suggesting we kill anyone. People already come with an expiration date. We all die. The problem is on the input side. We are having too many babies. Currently, the population goes up by about 1.07% per year. What we need is to have a negative growth rate. Someone smarter than me will have to figure out what that should be, but let’s assume -2% as a goal. Within a few decades, we would see a substantial decline in population and, if we proceeded wisely, there would be a bigger share of the pie for everyone.
Of course, this is where things get politically sticky, because as soon as you mention family planning, the religious fundamentalists start calling you a baby killer. So let’s be clear. I’m not proposing mandated abortions. There are lots of ways to reduce the birthrate that are completely voluntary. I don’t think we’re at the point where we need draconian laws mandating one child per family. I’m also not convinced they’d work.
As it turns out, there is a really great way to reduce the birthrate and it’s also the right thing to do regardless: educating girls and women.
The birth-rate in developed nations just about matches the death-rate. In some countries, it is already slightly negative. That’s because women in those countries have choices. They can be doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, politicians, professional wrestlers — whatever they wish. But in too many countries, women and girls are denied education. They are taught that their only purpose is to have babies and serve their men. While some women may be content with that role, I believe many would welcome the opportunity to give more to their community by being educated and pursuing professions that are currently restricted to men.
Climate Change needs to be attacked on many fronts. I believe reducing the population is the most important, because it is the only strategy that addresses most of our most important problems.
I won’t pretend this will be easy. Most our economic planning seems to take for granted that the number of consumers will grow. Restricting population growth will affect most industries, but some will be hit much harder than others. But here, again, education is the answer. We need to ensure that our children are as well-prepared as possible for the future, and we need to provide a path to new opportunities for those displaced by our economic decisions.
No plan to deal with Climate Change will work unless we pull together. The U.S. is already 30 years late in addressing this issue seriously, because we’ve allowed wealthy energy magnates to amass political power and we’ve equated money with free-speech. The first presidential candidate who might have dealt realistically with Climate Change, Al Gore, was not allowed to assume office, despite winning the election.
We should be treating education like we do Defense and we should be screaming about attempts to disenfranchise any group of voters. We need everyone involved in making decisions and we need to sharpen our brains as they are our best defense against the unexpected.
What if we do nothing?
There seems to be a prevailing idea that it’s already too late and we can’t do anything about what’s coming. That’s silly, of course. Humanity can accomplish incredible things when we work together.
But what if we don’t? How bad will it be?
Well, if we do nothing, the amount of carbon we contribute to the atmosphere will continue to rise past the already 29 billion tons we are already contributing every year. (About 40% is absorbed by the ocean, plants, and other carbon sinks.) The additional CO2 will make the rain more acidic. That will make all the seas and lakes more acidic and life that is sensitive to the pH balance will die out, like the corals are all over the world. The acid rain will erode our bridges, buildings and roadways. It will erode limestone deposits that underlay many communities, causing sinkholes.
As discussed before, the additional CO2 will continue to speed the changes in the climate. Temperatures will continue to rise, feeding energy into storms, causing shifts in high level atmospheric currents, and bringing more extreme weather all over the planet. Climate Change will not be gentle, it will be the raging of Nature against a grievous and unforgivable insult.
Sea levels will rise as water warms and expands and as glaciers all over the world melt. Just the ice melting on Greenland and Antarctica will be enough to raise the seas 30 feet or more. The next century will see coastal cities in a constant battle against rising waters and storm surge.
It will be chaotic. Weather and Climate are chaotic processes. Sometimes a very small change in a variable can produce an enormous effect. We will have terrible years and we’ll have years where it appears everything seems to be going back to normal. But, as time goes on, we’ll have more of the bad and less of the good.
Scientists are, by nature, conservative when it comes to making claims. (Well, most of them. There are exceptions.) While fame and funding to to scientists who make new discoveries, there is ridicule and ignominy for those who speak too soon and are proven wrong. Climate science has become politicized, so I suspect at least some climate scientists are being very careful, and perhaps too conservative, in their predictions. For instance, when sea level was first discussed, scientists were only talking about the sea level rise we would see based on the expansion of seawater as it got warmer. They didn’t have a good model for predicting rise from glaciers melting, so they left it out.
What has been happening with the Syrian refugees shows us just how hard it is to deal with millions of people fleeing for their lives. Imagine what it will be like when the 90% of the Earth’s population that lives in areas threatened by rising seas has to locate. It will make the Middle East look like Disney World.
What Can You Do?
Talk about population and its relationship to Climate Change with your representatives. Talk to your friends. Help get this to be part of the conversation we have about the problem.