End of the World? Nah. End of the World as We Know It. Yah.
Another reason climate change should top the new administration’s agenda.
In the nick of time the Mayan long-count calendar apocalypse was given the lie. A midsummer Discovery article, among others, reported that scholars of Mesoamerican history have unearthed new talking stones that round out the infamous calendar’s story. The hieroglyph from which doomers have drawn their prediction was not a prophesy after all but a response to unfounded oral reports of the defeat in battle of a 7th century Guatemalan ruler. It was the written-in-stone equivalent of a journalistic correction: “I’m still here, I’m still strong and, count on it, I’ll be around running things ‘til the next 13 K’atul cycle ends on 12.21.2012” – which in 696 must have seemed like forever.
Mayan historians Matthew Restall and Amara Solari tried to put the kibosh on Mayan end times mania two years ago. Their book 2012 and the End of the World revealed that apocalypses are a singularly Euro-American and Christian fascination not shared by the Mayan peoples for whom time was cyclical, like the seasons, rather than linear like an arrow’s flight toward some inevitable eschatological target. So the actual end of the world probably shouldn’t worry us overmuch just yet. But the end of the world as we know it probably should. There are precedents for that: five major disruptions in the flow of Life into still more life, and a bunch of lesser regional ones. The most famous, the one that did in the dinosaurs and eradicated 75% of all species, was a sudden-onset event, the result probably of an asteroid or comet that plummeted deep into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, setting the atmosphere on fire and blowing a hole out the other side of the world. But it’s the probable cause of the earlier four that should give us pause.
Though they unfolded slowly over hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of years, those earlier extinctions (going back to around 450 million years ago) seem to have shared a common etiology: a slow but finally fatal buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere; consequent acidification and de-oxygenation of the world’s oceans; and withal, the demise of species like phytoplankton, foraminifera, miniscule shrimp called krill, diatoms, pteropods and many thousands of other marine microbial and miniature species that supply more than half the world’s oxygen and form the base of the marine food chains and of marine systems that perform vital Life-support and climate management services, like sequestering CO2.
What happens is that when atmospheric CO2 exceeds the capacity of those CO2-eaters to absorb to make their shells, it dissolves in the water as carbonic acid. Marine scientist Jennifer Kennedy, recent Director of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, explains the vicious cycle that’s set up when pH level of the world’s oceans goes down, that is, when they become more acidic.
“On the pH scale, 7 is neutral, with 0 the most acidic and 14 the most basic. The historical pH of sea water is about 8.16, leaning on the basic side of the scale. While it doesn't seem like this is a problem, the pH of our oceans has fallen to 8.05 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a change greater in magnitude than any time in the 650,000 years before the Industrial Revolution. The pH scale is also logarithmic, so that slight change in pH results in a 30 percent increase in acidity.” This is decidedly not promising for the future of marine microbes. So what?
Marine microbes account for up to 98 percent of all ocean biomass and collectively weigh the equivalent of 240 billion African elephants. Subtracting even a portion of that feed stock from the bottom of the world’s food chains would be like subtracting corn, wheat, soy and meat from us who are at the top. Subtracting it from the Earth’s two-billion year-old carbon sequestration team could raise the planet’s temperature high enough to do exactly that.
E voila: Trickle-up extinction.
Precedent suggests that the faster the CO2 builds up in the atmosphere, the faster and more fiercely the extinction process sets in. [See, for example, marine scientist John Veron’s article on the connection between CO2 and extinctions.] You can guess where this is going.
In November the World Meteorological Organization reported that atmospheric greenhouse gases reached yet another record high in 2011, amounting to a 30 percent increase in radiative forcing – warming effect – since just 1990. That’s fast. CO2 has breached 390 parts per million, which is higher than at any time in the last 15 million years, and is heading, according to an MIT projection, to 866 ppm by century’s end. Atmospheric methane reached a new high of over 1800 parts per billion, up from 700 ppb in the pre-industrial period. And nitrous oxide, the third in a disastrous trio of greenhouse gases, exceeded 324 ppb, 120 percent of the pre-industrial level. Throw in soot, which accounts for as much as 20 percent of global warming. Though this doesn’t signal the end of the world yet, it may well signal the beginning of the end of the world we know. A slew of unpleasant alterations to weather, ecosystems, and species’ viability will fall out of this noxious cloud.
And, Jennifer Kennedy adds: “Another problem is that once the oceans get their "fill" of carbon dioxide, scientists think the oceans could become a carbon dioxide source, rather than a sink. This means the ocean will contribute to the global warming problem by adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”
Unhappily, since these atmospheric additives have long half lives, and since we are adding to them at a great rate — a rate much, much faster than any of those earlier increases — and since growing the global economy that produces them is an almost universal aim, we haven’t yet experienced anything like the full range or severity of consequences waiting in the winds. The Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change reveals, for example, that “About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. [But] the remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.” The long and short of it is that we are already committed to changes in the weather and challenges to our quality of life and our survival that may feel like the end of the world for a long time. For the species that go under it will be the end of the world.
The obvious and important difference between this potential Sixth Great Extinction and all the others is that they had natural, unavoidable causes. There are fewer and fewer deniers now that our fossil-fueled grow-consume-lay waste-deplete global economy is the cause of this one. But among the nation’s and the world’s leaders there are very few takers of the position that the kind of economy — fossil-fueled, industrial, consumption-based, perpetual-growth, capitalist — and size of economy — global — of economy that brought us to this dire moment in Life’s long history can get us through or past it. You can’t get elected on a “less is more” platform.
Of the recent climate meetings in Doha, Qatar, The Environmental Defense Fund climate program director, Jennifer Haverkamp, said “The disconnect between the level of ambition the parties are showing and what needs to happen to avoid dangerous climate change is profound.” With every such delay in serious efforts to shrink our CO2 exhalations, we invite not the end of the world but the actual “end of history.” The smart money might be on shorting the survival of Homo sapiens sapiens and going long on its successor, Homo prepperus.
Ellen LaConte’s newest book, Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse, was published to considerable acclaim in October.
Ellen LaConte [www.ellenlaconte.com]