Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Oceans Arising on Edifices of Arrogance

A study published in late November 2012 in the journal Science estimates that the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland had raised global sea levels by 11.1 millimeters (0.43 inch) since 1992. That represents one-fifth of the total sea-level rise increase in that period. Other contributors include the expansion of the sea water from warming, and the melting of glaciers, as for instance on mountains. In the 1990s, melting of the polar ice sheets in the Antarctica and Greenland was responsible for about 10 percent of the global sea-level rise, but by 2012 the effect had risen to 30 percent.[1] The study does not, however, uncover the underlying cause, or association, lying in a complexity in human nature itself. Our species has vaunted to the top of the food chain and leveraged a brain capable of engineering technological advances that would have seemed magical even just in the nineteenth century, and yet we seem hard-wired to accelerate our course to a self-destructive extinction. This lack of balance is reflected in the increasing extremes in the global climate. In this essay, I begin with the study and steadily work toward uncovering the underlying, subterranean culprit.

In Greenland, melted ice, or water, headed to the Atlantic Ocean. NYT

The study can be interpreted as essentially “firming up” what had been left to guesswork hitherto. “It allows us to make some firm conclusions,” Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds said. “It wasn’t clear if Antarctica was gaining or losing ice. Now we can say with confidence it is losing ice.”[2] This is significant because there are hundreds of feet of sea-level rise in the combined ice of Greenland and the Antarctica, and even that sort of rise could occur in even just two centuries. Unlike ice in the sea melting, water from land-ice is added to the sea and thus is particularly salient in the rise in sea-level.

Although correlation is not necessary causation, global emissions of carbon dioxide were at a record high in 2011, having jumped 3% from the previous year. The international goal of limiting the ultimate warming of the planet to 3.6 degrees (F) was all but disregarded at the time as unrealistic, according to researchers at the Global Carbon Project. Slowly falling emissions in some of the developed economies, including the U.S., were more than matched by continued growth in developing countries like China and India. Coal was growing fastest, with related emissions jumping more than 5 percent in 2011 from the previous year.[3]

Moreover, the level of carbon dioxide, the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, had increased 41% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, the temperature of the planet increased about 1.5 degrees (F) since 1850. The New York Times reports that scientists expected at the time of the release of the 2011 figures that further “increases in carbon dioxide” would “likely . . . have a profound effect on climate, . . . leading to higher seas and greater coastal flooding, more intense weather disasters like droughts and heat waves, and an extreme acidification of the ocean.”[4] The volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2013 was 396 parts per million, 2.9 ppm higher than in 2012; this represents the largest year-to-year increase since 1984, when reliable global records began.[5] As a result, "(c)oncentrations of nearly all the major greenhouse gases reached historic highs in 2013, reflecting ever-rising emissions from automobiles and smokestacks but also, scientists believe, a diminishing ability of the world's oceans and plant life to soak up the excess carbon put into the atmosphere by humans."[6] Accordingly, climatologists were predicting more accelerated ice-melt.

To be sure, distinguishing a causal connection from the sort of cycle that was responsible for Greenland being green in Mediaeval times has been the fulcrum of much controversy and debate; it is not as though scientists can treat one earth by increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while leaving another earth as a control-group and measure the differing climatic consequences. As the philosopher David Hume argued in the late eighteenth century, we actually know much less about cause and effect than we think we do. The human brain naturally that’s a strong positive correlation accompanied by a logical rationale as good enough to pronounce a causal relationship.

Regardless of whether our use of fossil fuels is a contributing factor in the melting of the ice-sheets, that the sea-level was rising even in 2011 and so much of humanity lives within fifty miles of a sea-coast suggests that major dislocations will undoubtedly be necessary within one or two hundred years, and perhaps even sooner given the record-high level of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere in 2013. As much as a third of Florida could be underwater again—whether it eventuates as a result of a natural climatic cycle or carbon dioxide emissions, or both. That the acceleration in the ice-sheet melting reported in 2012 was five times that which scientists had supposed earlier suggests that the data in from the following year may result in even more dramatic headlines. That the C02 and methane (from leaks in wells and distribution as well as from permafrost melt) levels were not only increasing, but doing so at unprecedented rates, suggests that we humans have literally outdone ourselves. It seems a fantasy to expect prudent measures that would obviate beforehand even just some of the anticipated damage. Even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Government could have given Louisiana a financial incentive to rebuild the city further inland, above sea-level. That would have been an easy decision compared with what to do about Manhattan, and yet the unquestioned, knee-jerk response was to rebuild on site.

Accordingly, even the study on ice-melt reported in late 2012 and the report in 2014 of the record increase in C02 in the atmosphere were unlikely to affect public policy significantly, at least in the United States. Enabling such negligence, Andrew Shepherd of Leeds said in 2012: “The signals suggest there is no immediate threat.”[7] Meanwhile, the carbon emissions were actually increasing from the previous year. This represents two degrees of separation from a reduction. The emissions targets in the UNFCCC agreement signed in 1992 had included stabilisations at 1990 levels for some countries and reductions for others by the year 2000.   In other words, we as a species seem pretty clueless, even as we promote ourselves being of the highest and most developed species.

We are, it can be said, a species of today. The stock markets demonstrate this innate propensity clearly enough. For a complex organism not known for quick evolutionary adaption to a changing environment, it is dangerous to be so “hard-wired” for today when our artifacts collectively can shift a planetary equilibrium beyond its natural cycle. It is not a given that we will be able to rely on our prowess at technological development to make up for our convenient habit of looking on and even making a situation worse. I have personally felt this in momentary lapses of my new-found better diet when I eat one after another chocolate cookie after having fallen with one. My mind succumbs to the fallacy that in having lapsed, might as well open the flood-gates. The next morning, I make myself go running, as if the presumed cause-effect relation might prevent any future lapses. Nietzsche may have been right in suggesting that thoughts are really instinctual urges and reasoning is their tussling for dominance.

As Mark Twain observed, speaking through an angel in The Mysterious Stranger, “Man’s mind clumsily and tediously and laboriously patches little trivialities together and gets a result—such as it is.”[8] Yet so conceited is that mind, and in other matters too. In spite of having a moral sense, and perhaps because of our knowing right from wrong, our “paltry race [is] always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn’t got.”[8] From an angel’s point of view, homo sapiens—arrogantly self-named here as the “wise man” species—can only be “dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited, and so diseased and rickety, and such a shabby, poor, worthless lot all around”[10] as to be met with utter indifference from the angelic perches so different—the pathos of distance being hollow rather than filled with empathy or even sympathy.[10] Twain’s angel does not mince words. Humans “have nothing in common with me—there is no point of contact; they have foolish little feelings and foolish little vanities and impertinences and ambitions; their foolish little life is but a laugh, a sign, and extinction.”[12] It is not merely the staying power of the moneyed commercial caste that moves us as a species to our own extinction; all of us are complicit.

We have built our mammoth edifices and modern conveniences on such a scale, and we use them as if we were junkies on a drug-fix that we have outstripped our own capacity as a species even to mop up after ourselves. This vulnerability becomes truly dangerous now that we are capable of having a significant impact on the planetary ecosystem, including its atmosphere. Even so, we continue to single our species out as “Made in the Image of God,” and as we preach our moral sense, ignorant of the probability that a more intentionally cruel and self-destructive race has never roamed on the land or swam in the sea. Our reckless conceit, it would seem to all outward appearances, is in such denial of its own existence that we naturally assume we cannot be wrong—that we affirm with such factuality, “I know what I know.” If only the ice on this towering edifice would melt from global warming; if only we could be so lucky.

1. Gautam Naik, “Polar Ice Melt Is Accelerating,” The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2012.
2. Ibid.
3. Justin Gillis and John Broder, “With Carbon Dioxide Emissions at Record High, Worries on How to Slow Warming,” The New York Times, December 3, 2012.
4. Ibid.
6. Joby Warrick, "CO2 Levels in Atmosphere Rising at Dramatically Faster Rate, U.N. Report Warns," The Washington Post, September 9, 2014.
7. Gillis and Broder, “Carbon Emissions at Record High.”
8. Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger in The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories (New American Library: New York, 1962), p. 212.
9. Ibid., p. 192.
10. Ibid., p. 172.
11. Ibid., p. 176.
12. Ibid., p. 211.