Running Genesis Backwards
Here is a disturbing pair of questions to place next to each other: (1) what is greatest current existential threat to the human race? (2) which programs were the biggest losers in the recent U.S. federal budget deal between centrist corporate Democrats and hard right corporate Republicans – the one that just slashed $40 billion from the 2011 federal outlay? By any reasonable account, the answer to question # 1 is environmental degradation on many fronts but most particularly catastrophic climate change resulting from the wealthy Few’s petroleum-addicted profits system. It’s no small or distant matter. An abundance of recent data and observation demonstrates that even many of the most pessimistic climate scientists got it wrong when they started seriously sounding alarms about anthropogenic (human-generated) global warming in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For quite a while, the experts seemed to think that that the “tipping point” beyond which human life was gravely threatened was 550 carbon dioxide parts per atmospheric million (double the historical norm of 275 parts per million.) The more accurate measure, recently discovered, is closer is closer to 350, a benchmark we have already passed. We are currently at 390 parts per million and projected to hit 650 before final collapse barring any fundamental change in our energy use patterns. And already, at 390 we have triggered a number of ominous and viciously circular warming-induced feedback effects that exacerbate the warming problem. The melting of Arctic ice “replace[s] a shiny white mirror” that reflects the suns rays back to space “with a dull blue ocean that absorbs most of those rays.” Inland glaciers and snow-packs in the Himalayas, Andes, Sierras, and Rockies are retreating, threatening local and global water and food supplies. They are “melting very fast,” the prolific ecological writer and activist Bill McKibben notes in his recent chilling book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, “and within decades the supply of water to the billions of people living downstream may dwindle” 3
“No Longer a Future Threat”
The thawing out of artic tundra and icy ocean clathrates releases massive quantities of methane, a major heat-trapping and climate warning gas. Melting northern peat moss releases carbon in large amounts. Scientists have recently reported that northern marshes and ponds are staying unfrozen over the winter because methane is gurgling up from below. Beyond the massive amount of carbon we have extracted from the old earth and pumped into the new one (Eaarth) through our tailpipes and chimneys, we are now setting off the planet’s own internal “carbon bombs.” We’ve caused it but “we’re not directly releasing that methane” and “we can’t shut it off.” To make matters worse, the heat-induced softening of permafrost and the drying up of peat moss opens new northern lands up to oil drilling. As the last reservoirs of readily accessible petroleum run dry in a new era of “peak oil,” we will increasingly “rely on even more use of our most abundant fossil fuel, good old coal. And the certain result of using more coal will be…more global warming, since it’s the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, producing twice the carbon dioxide of oil.”4
Meanwhile the growing market for relatively inefficient bio-fuel production combines with warming to drive global deforestation, which exacerbates climate heating and triggers erosion, mudslides, and epic flooding. Climate heating allows certain beetles known to destroy certain trees to “overwinter” and thrive, to the detriment of forests, which become more vulnerable to fires, which themselves spew carbon into the air. The retreat of the Amazonian rainforest – the great “lungs of the planet” (currently “drying on its margins and threatened at its core”) is depriving Latin America and the U.S. corn belt of critically needed regular rainfall and removes one of the world’s great oxygenating carbon sinks (forests suck in carbon and breathe out oxygen). The “great boreal North America is dying in a matter of years.” The decomposition of forest is itself a great source of carbon release.
The list and interplay of disastrous “negative feedback loops” like this goes on and on. And it is going on now: “global warming,” McKibbben observes, “is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality” in ways that are “already wrecking thousands of lives daily” in the poorest parts of the world where, where climate-related food crises and environmental collapse are most pressing and people have fewer defenses. The American State Department’s chief scientist projects famines related to climate change and serious enough to affect a billion people at in coming decades. Global warming has created a resurgence of the deadly dengue fever in Southwest Asia ad Latin America – a consequence of the fact the mosquito which carries the dengue virus feed more heavily and hatch the virus more rapidly at higher temperatures.
The worst consequences are being felt with special pain in the “developing” world, where masses of people are most vulnerable to escalating disease, food shortages, flooding, extreme weather, and other environmental disasters. Food riots broke out in thirty seven poor nations in 2008 in response to an escalation of food prices that followed the explosion in the market for biofuels (driven by the spike in oil prices) that year. But the costs of climate-related eco-trastrophe an