History affords us lessons if we are prepared to pay attention.
To paraphrase, those who ignores the Earth’s geologic history seem destined to relive it.
Among those who follow such things (scientists, climate bloggers and the journalists chronicling this act of civilisational suicide) the passing of the 400ppm milestone was met with a mixture of resignation, calls for action and a hint of fatalism.
The last time the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was at this level was 3 million years ago during the mid-Pliocene. It was a very different world, with average global temperatures 3-4 degrees higher. Even more concerning, sea levels were at least 5-40 meters higher than today.
But what does 400ppm mean, if having nothing more than the arbitrary significance we assign?
As atmospheric scientist Joanna Haigh notes in a recent BBC interview “In itself, the value 400ppm of CO2 has no particular significance for the physics of the climate system: concentration levels have been in the 300s for so long and now we’ve passed the 400 mark. However, this does give us the chance to mark the ongoing increase in CO2 concentration and talk about why it’s a problem for the climate.”
Like turning 40 or celebrating a Silver Wedding anniversary, passing 400ppm has symbolic value. We all acknowledge significant milestones as they allow us to understand not merely where we have come from, but where we may going.
So now that the 7 billion humans on the planet have shared the passing of this milestone, how have we acknowledged it?
My own sense is in the same way humanity has responded as it has to date: in denial; indifference; the blaming of others and the pointing of fingers; ineffective and halfhearted attempts at solutions; inaction.
George Monbiot of The Guardian argues the only way to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is to completely overhaul politics: “This new climate milestone reflects a profound failure of politics, in which democracy has quietly been supplanted by plutocracy. Without a widespread reform of campaign finance, lobbying and influence-peddling and the systematic corruption they promote, our chances of preventing climate breakdown are close to zero.”
Monbiot wishes to lay the full blame the fossil-fuel industry for funding disinformation and corrupting the political system.
There is some truth to this, however I judge the success of such a campaign less likely than halting (let alone reducing) the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
We face political gridlock on such comparably simpler issues like tax reform or funding services for the disabled.
The probability of a root-and-branch renewal of politics as we know it seems unlikely – at least in the time frames required to bring down emissions within the next half decade.
On not wanting to know
Despite sharing some of the sentiments expressed by Monbiot, I’ve long argued we need to take a much more nuanced view on the causes of inaction.
Kari Marie Norgaard in her groundbreaking work of anthropology Living in Denial suggests it is the social organisation of denial to which we can attribute humanities failure.
At all levels of society – from the individual to the level of national politics – we are all engaged in the activity of denial. We enforce silence on the climate issue within own minds, in our conversations with loved ones and neighbors and within the workplace and the political sphere. The problem – Norgaard suggests – is not that of a lack of information or the malign influence of the fossil fuel industry.
Simply put that vast majority of us do not want to know.
However both Monbiot and Norgaard are right: we cannot attribute this failure to a single cause.
And so between the Scylla and Charybdis of an indifferent populace and a political system inadequate to the task, what our humanities options?
“Daddy, why is the sky white?”
The once fringe science of geoengineering is now being entertained.
It is as the term implies: the deliberate act of engineering the climate. One approach is to examine how we can draw down carbon from the atmosphere.
Another suggestion is shooting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, thus giving it greater reflective properties. It would reduce incoming solar radiation and keep temperatures down.
Anthropogenic stratospheric aerosol injection would cool the planet, stop the melting of sea ice and land-based glaciers, slow sea level rise, and increase the terrestrial carbon sink, but produce regional drought, ozone depletion, less sunlight for solar power, and make skies less blue. Furthermore it would hamper Earth-based optical astronomy, do nothing to stop ocean acidification, and present many ethical and moral issues. Further work is needed to quantify many of these factors to allow informed decision-making.
It is the equivalent of blanketing the planet in reflective tinfoil.
One of the more likely consequences of such a strategy would be to change the colour of the sky from its characteristic blue to white: no more would children ask parents why the sky is blue.
We’ll have to explain to our children it is white because we made it so.
Steve Sherwood of the University of New South Wales has a piece on The Conversation that pays attention to these growing calls for geoengineering: “There are ideas around to actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These would be great if they worked, but to me they look like impractical pipe dreams… We should resist this temptation. You do not apply a tourniquet to a man’s leg if, with a bit of extra effort, you could get him to a hospital and save the leg. Bringing down carbon emissions is a matter of rolling up our sleeves and choosing to do it. For this generation to say, “we can’t” would be a sad admission of failure for a civilisation that has achieved so much.”
In Sherwood’s piece, and so many others there is that talk about civilisation “failing”.
To return to the example of the Pliocene: many scientists see this as analogous to what we can expect as the concentration of CO2 climbs. The past is our best teacher of what to expect.
Is that what failure looks like?
Or is it Götterdämmerung - the twilight of the gods?
For very good reason science journalists Mark Lynas call humanity The God Species in his book of the same title – such is our impact on the planet.
Only time and the judgement of future generations will make sense of the what we have done to ourselves and the world.
Sic transit gloria mundi
I will end not with a call to arms, casting judgement or claiming civilisation is a failed project.
Only to say what is – is.
What will be – will be.
What will come – is coming.
There is enough blame to share in equal portions.
Our task is to watch and note the changing planet; to begin the great works of adaptation.
And to explain to those who follow how this came to pass.
Mike @ WtD