Published online 6 October 2008.
Several diarists have already suggested during last week’s debate about the bailout bill that the “real” crisis facing America is that of abrupt climate change. This is an attempt to take them seriously.
The discussion of what to do about abrupt climate change is, in this author’s opinion, at an extremely preliminary level — this diary is intended to forward the conversation in conformance to what can be realistically expected from climate change.
Crossposted at Docudharma
The ideas we typically see in the mass media as regards abrupt climate change are cruel jokes. It can only be assumed that this is so out of sheer ignorance of the scope of the phenomenon – I can only figure that the politicians and their assistants who write abrupt climate change policy must not have read the primary source research on it.
The problem: the problem has nothing to do with “alternative energy.” This is true for two reasons: 1) “alternative energy” is only likely to provide a supplement for fossil-fuel energy. In a capitalist economy, in which business competition determines the quantity and quality of the materials used by a civilization, fossil fuels will continue to be used until all of the “good stuff,” the sweet light crude and not-so-far-down natural gas and easy-to-reach coal and so on, is used up. America’s conservation, in other words, is India’s benefit — the less we use, the more is available for them. The other reason, 2), is about the extent to which abrupt climate change has already created a potential climate change of disastrous proportions.
The bellwether article on abrupt climate change, “Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica” (Nature magazine 3 June 1999) revealed our dilemma nine years ago: CO2 levels for the past 420,000 years varied from an ice-age low of 180 ppm to a hot-age high of 310 ppm. We are now, says NOAA, at 385 ppm of CO2, increasing by 2 ppm/year. That rate may in fact increase in the near future, as emissions are in fact accelerating with continued capitalist development. Moreover, the methane hydrates at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean are starting to be released. Do keep in mind, as you read these statistics, that methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and that there is a rather tight linkage between CO2 levels and average global temperatures. We are in for some incredible weather.
All of this points to a roaring abrupt climate change effect which is only waiting for the feedback effect of gases which have already been released. We can expect the most extreme predictions of Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees to be “in the cards.” At this point the main effort should be in bringing planning up to date to conform to reality, as Lynas suggests that we have only eight years for world society to devise a workable plan. So, below, I have proposed a series of preliminary suggestions to help.
- Desalination for dry states
Much of the West gets its water from the Sierras and Rockies, and with abrupt climate change the snowcaps atop these mountain ranges will disappear. This will create a permanent drought and destroy much of California’s forested land. A recent article in Alternet, “When Will Los Angeles Run Out Of Water?”, dramatizes this reality optimistically. Cities in the West need to avoid dependence upon rivers and lakes as water sources, since all will be drying up, and go directly to the ocean. We will need massive efforts at desalinating ocean water in great solar-powered installations. Since building adequate capacity for cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego will take a long time, we need to start now in building massive solar-powered desalination plants all along the California coast.
- No lawns without rain support
Far too much of the precious water supplies of the West is wasted on lawns, most of which are not worth much except as status items. In the future, possession of a lawn will be evidence of criminality – most lawns (with a possible exception for football fields, elementary school playgrounds, or city parks) will be illegal.
- Raincatchers over all large paved areas in drought-prone areas
When it does rain (or for that matter when it mists or dews) much of this water capacity is wasted in the modern big city. It’s counted as “runoff,” and it drifts over paved roads into sewers. We will not survive the future unless we save every drop of what we can get from the sky. Huge raincatchers could be suspended over paved urban areas, capturing rainwater and integrating it into household water systems.
- Depopulate the desert Southwest
To be honest, cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, already coping with higher evaporation rates than typically seen in California, will not be able to support current populations with the water they’ll be receiving. As we can expect the Rockies and Sierra Nevada range to lose its snow cover, we can also expect rivers such as the Colorado to dry up. The government will at some point be obliged to put forth relocation efforts, sending many residents of these cities to places in the US where it rains more often. Perhaps Tucson could cope with desalinated water imported from the Gulf of California, pumped inward through pipelines through Mexico to Arizona.
For much the same reasons, biofuels mandates that appropriate corn grown in the Great Plains will have to be abandoned, as Stan Cox points out. Growing corn for biofuels with water garnered from the water table will be seen as a catastrophic waste of resources.
- Depopulate coastal Florida
For an opposite reason, coastal Florida will have to be depopulated. Melting polar icecaps can be expected to rise average water levels, and much of Florida will have to be defended in the way in which the Netherlands is defended today, through sea walls and dikes, because we can expect it to be under sea level in the future. Perhaps its worst-off populations can move to Georgia or some other nearby area of reasonably high altitude.
- Phase out the oil wells and abandon the coal mines
Our notion of “alternative energy” as the “solution” to abrupt climate change is a chimera. “Alternative energy” will do nothing more than supplement the current fossil-fuel-burning habit. Capitalist competition cements this habit in place – those who consume less are only making more available for others who want to consume more.
Thus we will need an international agreement to “keep the grease in the ground,” regardless of capitalist perceptions of need. It will be further necessary, toward this end, to phase out the capitalist system throughout the world for the sake of the survival of the human race. As Paul Prew points out:
The question to be asked, really, is whether we proceed with capitalism until we reach an ecological bifurcation point that leaves the habitability of the earth in question for the vast majority of the population, or we reach a social bifurcation point that leads us to a social system of production that is dissipative, nonetheless, but does not threaten the flowing balance of nature. We must develop a metabolic interaction with our natural environment that is based in a logic of production consistent with renewable sources of energy and does not significantly add to the volatility of variables leading to an ecological crisis.
I suppose that some sort of alternative energy structure will have to be put in place with the stores of fossil-fuel energy we are willing to use (at continual and increasing danger to our planet and ourselves). But we cannot continue to dawdle while the energy planners try to figure out how to duplicate the existing energy structure using alternative energy sources. Perhaps some sort of energy structure could be created if we were to connect “deep hot rock” geothermal systems to steam turbines, and electrify all of our transportation systems (through electric cars and such). I am still waiting for someone honest, though, somebody who isn’t just trying to sell me something, to tell me what the engineering problem is with such a scheme. Capitalism breeds liars, as the easiest profits are to be made through rip-off.
- Re-engineering vast heat sinks
The “home of the future” will be a forest, because one strategy for reducing the overall quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere will be through replanting forests and other such climes as heat sinks. The water for some of these forests may have to be found through desalination, in which case so be it. Other versions of proposed carbon sink, such as the seeding of the oceans with iron filings to increase plankton growth, will have to be given increased environmental evaluation and debate about effectiveness in the future, as well.
- General, worldwide local production of food
With the increasing shortage of fuel we can expect an increased need to produce food (and other necessities) locally. Thus the ban on lawns has an ulterior purpose; some water must be saved for local production of food in order to cut down on the world system’s overall energy expenditures while at the same time redirecting human energies toward the restoration of carbon sinks (through forest replanting etc.).
To contribute to this end, each home will have to have its own compost heap, even extending to compost heaps that must serve as adjuncts to apartment buildings. A sensible garden is an extension of its compost heap, as soil nutrients are essential to the growth of most of the annual crops we eat everyday.
(We may wish to convert to the system being promoted by the Land Institute, which mostly involves the planting of perennials, but this appears to be a more advanced version of what can be done immediately.)
- Form abrupt climate change community political organizations
As abrupt climate change is likely to increase the intensity of existing weather disasters, community organizations will have to be formed to direct democratic energies toward the assertion of popular rights (e.g. the right to eat), in order to avert the occurrence of massive ripoffs such as the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Practically every part of the world will need such organizations.
In conclusion: Folks, if any of this seems “extreme,” then I guess we’re toast. This sort of stuff needs to become “mainstream” right away if we expect to have a chance.