Climate Change Has Become An Existential Threat

Temperature vs. CO2, 1880-2013. Credit: U.S. National Climate Assessment, via Climate Central

The term “Existential Threat” literally means a threat to existence and, by definition, something whose scope is beyond our ability to control. The science on Climate Change has long been decided and, regardless of the “opinions” of some, it persists as a threat; you are entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts. Some examples of existential threats would be another asteroid strike similar in magnitude to the K-T Asteroid that contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs. Another example would be a close-by Gamma Ray Burster or a supernova within 100 light years of the solar system. Although there are no progenitor stars massive enough within that distance to pose a threat of supernovae of the core-collapse variety, the familiar Winter star Sirius, at a distance of under 9 light years, is actually a binary star system containing a 1 solar-mass white dwarf star in orbit around the 2 solar-mass primary at a distance of 20 AU (the distance to the planet Uranus from the sun). Under the right conditions, the possibility exists, although remote, that this stellar configuration could lead to a type 1a supernova. At a distance of 8.6 light years, such an event would obliterate the Sun, the earth and the entire solar system. Although theoretically possible, albeit unlikely in some cases, all these possibilities remain existential threats to our continued existence.

What separates these natural threats to our existence from the threat posed by climate change? Climate change is a man-made threat, the other threats are natural and, as of now, are beyond our scope of control; although we are beyond the point where we could halt and reverse the trend and the ensuing change in weather and climate patterns, we will always retain the ability as a species and a race to slow the change and mitigate the damage, albeit, the longer we wait to take meaningful action, the scope of that mitigation will be an ever receding event horizon.

Our sun is a mildly variable star, another aspect of our home star that has allowed life on our planet to emerge, evolve and thrive. More attention is given this aspect of our star now, as we approach the minimum in the sun’s eleven-year cycle and as the climate continues to warm, an observation that strongly suggests a man-made origin to the warming as the sun is the principal source of energy and warmth for the earth and all the planets of our solar system and its output is waning as predicted in accordance with its eleven-year cycle.

The polar ice caps continue to melt and shrink at an alarming rate; the Northwest passage is now all but clear of ice when, not too long ago, you needed an icebreaker to navigate its frozen waters. Sea levels continue to rise with the most dramatic and devastating effect being felt by some island nations such as the Maldives, poor nations whose per-capita GDP is less than some states of the US. The warming climate and the resulting rising sea levels will have its most devastating effect on the poorest people of the world. Indeed portions of South Beach, Miami regularly flood in certain low-lying sections of the city, so much so, that the city’s transportation sector has changed its schedule according to the occurrence of high tide and the phases of the moon, two factors that directly effect the rising and falling of the water level. With each successive year, the previous year becomes the new record holder for the warmest year on record since such record keeping began in 1880.

We here in the US Northeast this past week have just experienced some of the most bizarre and anomalous weather to date, weather more akin to mid-January than mid-March. With the Vernal Equinox occurring tomorrow, Monday, March 20th, spring will have begun and we have just emerged from frigid arctic weather, conditions brought on by the southerly drift of the polar jet stream, a consequence of a warming planet and changing climate. We have already passed 400 ppm concentration level of atmospheric CO2 and are approaching the 415 ppm mark. As that number continues to rise, the planet and its oceans will continue to warm.

The dynamic interplay of ocean and atmosphere is critical to a balanced climate. Heretofore, the Oceans were understood to be sponges for CO2, an effect that would serve to mitigate any warming trend. It is now emerging that the oceans are reaching their CO2 saturation point and, as that point is reached, they will become a source of heat, not a sink! It gets worse; as that happens, the methane that is locked up as Methane Hydrate on the sea bed will thaw and go into solution, resulting in a tremendous release of the gas into the sea and, in turn, into the atmosphere. Additionally, the methane that is likewise locked-up as Methane Hydrate in the Arctic permafrost will be released into the atmosphere as the climate continues to warm and the arctic ice self continues to melt. Methane is 20x more efficient as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, a reality that will see CO2 more as a precursor, a catalyst to far more devastating effects on the earth’s biosphere and ecosphere from the release of methane. We will be witness to a far more precipitous rise in global temperatures, and an irreversible, runaway greenhouse will ensue, an existential threat that will have become a reality, a reality brought about by greed and willful ignorance.

Its no doubt that this administration will abrogate the United States’ commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate accords as it proposes to slash 31% from the EPA’s budget, a cut that will result in the loss of 3,200 jobs from the agency, an agency ironically started by a previous, yet equally corrupt administration, the administration of Republican President Richard M. Nixon. In a twisted gesture that was as symbolic as it was perverse, Donald Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to lead the agency, an individual who had repeatedly sued the EPA, making it his professional mission to thwart them or at least slow them down as he advocated for powerful oil and fossil-fuel interests in his capacity as Oklahoma AG. Last week Pruitt went on record, stating that it is his belief that CO2 is not a primary contributor to climate change, a position that is at variance with 98% of the worlds scientists and academics. In addition to the cuts at EPA, the administration is scaling back the role NASA will be playing regarding climate with the idea being floated that all NASA Earth science programs be eliminated. Additionally, NOAA, the agency charged with monitoring the climate and the oceans in addition to predicting the weather, along with a host of other functions, is facing sharp cuts from the administration. According to them, NOAA programs “primarily benefit industry and State and local stakeholders making them a “ lower priority.” As a race and a species, we are all stakeholders in this enterprise, something by their very words, the administration fails to grasp, either willfully or, not surprisingly given the new administration’s leader’s penchant for setting policy by Tweet, remaining vacuously ignorant of the reality.  At a time when we should be aggressively doubling down on climate change mitigation, a new US administration enters the mix, deliberately seeking to thwart any meaningful contribution to it from the US Federal government.

The promise of emerging new green technologies and energy generation is the future of any sustained job growth, a point that is lost on this new administration and its lemmings who line up behind their leader in blind obedience. Just listen to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of Office of Management and Budget for this administration as he responds to a reporter’s question on climate change: “we consider that to be a waste of your money.” Mulvaney goes on to state: “I think the president is fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that.” Regardless of whether Donald Trump or his administration accepts the science or not, the golden age of an oil and fossil-fuel economy has ended and, to the extent that the nation embrace that reality, to that same extent can we move on and embrace the future. Whether by design or by accident, this is the reality, as there is only a finite quantity of non-renewable fossil-fuel to be extracted, an effort that is taking on increasingly more drastic measures to obtain.


All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have

An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.

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