The Washington Post published an article (May 25th, 2018) citing a University of Reading (UK) Study indicating that 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.
Multiple agencies (the US NOAA, the UK Met Office, and the World Meteorological Organization) reported that the last four years have been the warmest on record in the continental United States.
An excellent article published in YaleEnvironment360 in January, 2017 described the inexorable rise in the parts per million (“PPM”) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For example, in 1880, the PPM was around 280; in 1958, it was about 316. In April, 2018 it reached 411.24, which had been the highest measurement since instrumental records had been kept. We should all be concerned about the consequences of the continuing increase in this measure.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) published its May, 2018 assessment of the climate in the United States. At that time, May, 2018 was the warmest May on record in the lower 48 states. Twenty of the last twenty-two years have been the warmest on record including the last four years. They have been the warmest ever. Global temperatures have been rising right along with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The rise in carbon parts-per-million (PPM) is primarily based on the consequences of burning fossil fuels. The data is clear. Global temperatures are rising and the cause(s) for that rise are inextricably linked to human industrial and personal activities.
Per the economist magazine (May 26th, 2018), 65,500 billion tons of carbon were originally incorporated into Earth at its inception. Much of it is still in the ground. As life on Mother Earth is carbon based much of the original carbon is incorporated in various species of walking, flying, running, crawling, slithering, soaring, gliding, swimming, climbing, diving and stationary critters and plants.
Unfortunately, much of our society is dependent on carbon based fuels. So that members of our global society can go about their daily business, hydrocarbons must be removed from Mother Earth and converted into usable energy sources. As those hydrocarbon based fuels are used, they release carbon into the atmosphere. As more carbon is released into the atmosphere an insulating layer is created in the atmosphere that results in heat being trapped and temperatures rising. As more and more individuals become richer (or, perhaps, less poor) and join the middle class, they will likely use more hydrocarbon based fuels to enhance their standards of living. That will continue until and unless the fuels they use are provided by renewable sources, like wind, thermal or solar. The net result is that until then more carbon will be released into the atmosphere, more heat will be trapped and the temperature will rise. That is the greenhouse effect, which we are all currently experiencing in our daily lives.
The trends with respect to our changing climate’s impact on the environment and society are real and far too important to ignore. WARNING: George Carlin’s routine on YouTube can get very salty and is not for everyone. If you cannot handle it, you shouldn’t watch it. In his routine, George Carlin talked about the fact that Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old and has consistently experienced and survived natural disasters. (I’ve expanded on several points that Carlin and others have made and added several others.) In his talk he pointed out that in our human arrogance we believe that the Earth needs us to save it. He believes that we’ve got it wrong. It’s up to us to save our place on it. In my view, it’s clear that we are doing a damnable job.
Earth is no stranger to natural disasters. Man’s impact on the climate, though, is becoming an unnatural disaster to life on earth; not to Mother Earth. The changes in the environment resulting from climate change won’t destroy the planet; although, they may very well destroy our way of life on it. Carlin said it more far more eloquently and powerfully than I can.
He said that it’s time to stop worrying about saving the planet and start acting to save ourselves from the changes we are making.
There have been numerous terrific non-fiction books outlining the implications of climate change, great novels that describe some pretty grim scenarios, and essential (I believe) seminal environmental works. I’ve identified some of them on the Book List tab.
NASA has estimated that OUR universe (as opposed to any parallel universes or multi-verses floating around in space) is approximately 13.772 billion years old (plus or minus 59 million years). Earth is approximately 4.543 billion years old. Life originated on Earth approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Our species has existed about 300,000 years, per the Smithsonian. The general consensus had been roughly 200,000 years. However, a discovery in Morocco reported in 2017 pushed that date back to 300,000 years. Our species has existed for an infinitesimally (0.0044%) small period of time as measured against the age of the Earth. As an aside, in case you are interested, I queried WolframAlpha how many humans have ever existed on earth and the number is 108.5 billion, assuming we start calculating from 50,000 BC when modern man first appeared. The Smithsonian Institution has a detailed website dedicated to this issue.
For most of Earth’s history (including quite recently), it has been a pretty inhospitable place. Since time immemorial, Earth has experienced traumas brought on by purely natural causes. Let’s not worry about the dinosaurs as we’ve covered them in Extinctions. Here are some modern examples:
- The volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa (Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883), Tambora, and Mt. Thera, to name a few. The Mt. Thera eruption on the Greek island of Santorini (Unearthing Atlantis: An Archaeological Odyssey) may have given rise to the legend of Atlantis. It most likely facilitated the end of the Minoan civilization. Many of you probably remember the Mt St. Helens eruption in Washington State in 1980. None of us experienced the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Our great (or great-great) grandparents may have heard it, or had to deal with its aftermath. It was estimated to be roughly 13,000 times the size of the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. Not to be outdone, the eruption of Tambora in 1815 is believed to be the most violent in recorded history. It triggered the “Year Without a Summer.” And, here in the United States we have the ominous spectre of the super volcano bubbling under Yellowstone. That last erupted 640,000 years ago. It is estimated that the odds of it erupting in any one year is 1 in 700,000. It’s currently acting weird but not likely to blow any time soon. When that happens the land surface of a large portion of the western United States will become an ash cloud thousands of feet high. It likely will create millions of casualties around the world.
- Asteroid collisions – many of you are familiar with the Chicxulub asteroid. It struck off the coast of Mexico and facilitated the end of the dinosaurs. The Washington Post published an article recently (May 24th, 2018) that indicated that the Chicxulub asteroid impact produced a global temperature increase of 9 degrees. Our frail bodies exposed to the elements wouldn’t survive that. This heating continued for 100,000 years. More recently, the Tungushka asteroid which exploded over Siberia in 1908, leveled a wide swath of Siberian forest. Just a few years ago, in 2013, the Chelyabinsk meteor caused widespread property destruction in Siberia. Much closer to home, perhaps the most recognizable meteor crater is in Winslow, Arizona. It’s only 50,000 years old. My friends, that is yesterday in geological terms. It served as a prop (and destination) for the Jeff Bridges film Starman, one of my all-time favorites. Great film.
- Earthquakes – the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed approximately 280,000 people – many of us watched it unfold on television; the Antioch earthquake in what is now Turkey in 526 A.D. killed between 250,000 – 500,000 people; the Shaanxi earthquake in China in 1556 killed an estimated 830,000 people; the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China killed between 240,000 – 650,000; and, once again, we were able to watch the devastation unfold in Haiti in 2010 as 160,000 people were killed.
- Hurricanes/Cyclones/Flooding – between 1 million and 4 million people died in 1931 and between 900,000 – 2 million died in floods in 1887 in China. In 1970, the Bhola cyclone in Bangladesh killed more than 500,000 people. Let’s not forget that the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan was caused by a tsunami, which was triggered by an offshore earthquake. By the time the damage from the 120-foot tsunami was evaluated and the wreckage cleared, 18,000 people were dead. Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone is an utterly compelling work by Richard Lloyd Parry. It describes the human impact of this tragedy.
- Plagues – the Black Death killed somewhere between 75 million and 200 million people from 1347 and 1351, nearly half of the population of Europe; three centuries later the Great Plague of London killed approximately 60,000. Not to be outdone, in 1918 following the carnage of the First World War, the Spanish Flu added more to the misery of the early twentieth century by killing between 20 – 50 million people worldwide; and, today, let’s not forget about the millions killed by the current AIDS epidemic. I remember when I was a child speaking to my grandmother’s youngest brother, a physician in Boston, nearly 65 years ago. I asked him whether there would ever be a cure for cancer. He said: “Yes, of course; but, there will be something else taking its place.” Very prescient, Uncle Arnold.
- And the natural disasters don’t stop with volcanic activity, earthquakes, asteroids, and plagues wiping out large swaths of the population. Ice ages have changed the very face of the planet.
- We can also add unnatural man-made disasters. World War One destroyed a generation and changed the course of European history. An extraordinary personal memoir about the loss of a generation is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (Penguin Classics). World War Two was the most homicidal war in history. It left an estimated 56 million dead; the twentieth century produced several of the the world’s most prolific mass murderers in history all of whom are roasting in the lowest level of Hell with the rest of history’s grimmest list; and the countless genocidal/ethnic local and civil wars. How about the partial meltdown of a reactor in the Three Mile Island generating station in Pennsylvania. That was the worst in US history. The worst ever was the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in the Ukraine. Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster documents this tragedy through interviews with survivors. It’s a must read for an understanding of what occured. The men and women who cleaned up those messes were heroic as were those who worked on the Fukushima facility. Makes you wonder whether the genetically modified small furry critters on the Chernobyl site aren’t looking around at the horror and saying to themselves “we’ll have THE whole place to ourselves pretty soon.”
- One last point, if I may. When I lived in Colorado our home was on a hill overlooking Denver and its suburbs. From our family room windows we could look straight in the direction of the Rocky Flats Plant. Nuclear weapons were produced and its waste was buried there. It was an environmental nightmare and a national disgrace. It was at that time, one of the most (if not the most) polluted sites in the United States. Some clear nights when I looked in that direction I swear I could see a greenish glow. It might have been my imagination.
Will Earth survive man-induced changes to the climate if we do nothing and stay the current course? Absolutely. Will we? Maybe. But, for the survivors, life will likely be different. Plenty of how-to manuals have already been written. Check out the apocalyptic novels at your local bookshop. There are a couple in the Book List. They are classified as science fiction rather than future history. Many among us know, but aren’t necessarily willing to admit, the human causes and implications of many of these tragedies. We need to start for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
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