Monday, April 03, 2006

The Fan and the Excrement

Well. Coral reefs are dying off in the Caribbean at astounding rates, probably destroying both the tourist infrastructure of the Caribbean and the ecosystem of the Caribbean Sea. The number of tornadoes occurring before April 2 this year is more than four times the average of previous years. Time Magazine published a cover story on global warming, the existence of which its parent company must have been vociferously denying for years. The poles, obviously, are melting.

And as a high school classmate of mine said--in ninth grade biology class no less--"We get Waterworld, baby."

I have nothing to say. I am feeling some combination of overwhelmed and numb. My education and insight on this particular subject extends (thus far) only to the obvious, and I'm going to trust that all of you have already thought of it. Though I do ask anyone who feels they have some insight to comment--I'd love for this subject to be discussed here. There is a certain degree to which climates do just change. We are also an idiotically short-sighted species that accelerates our own destruction and that of others.

And when it is destroyed, honestly destroyed, who will be around to care? At best, the Oankali, or archaeologists of a new species excavating the Motel of Mysteries. We won't know the difference. Environmentalism, like everything else, is ultimately based in self-interest.

I'm as self-interested as anybody else.

It is a sad species that must toss shit at a fan before determining whether or not it is shit.


At 9:57 PM, Blogger meridity said...

I, for one, look forward to future mutations which will make my children's children into fish-folk.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Connor said...

Over the last month I was doing indexing at work for a reference text on the oceans, and I read a lot about this subject.

There are weird variables that come into play, but since there's no precedent, there's no way to know how much they will come into play. For example, global warming would lead (as some argue it already has) to an increase in storms and cloud cover, which are one of the more effective reflectors of sunlight... that could potentially dampen (no pun intended) the greenhouse effect.

But there are other concerns that hadn't even crossed my mind before. If you look at a globe, Europe is unusually temperate for its latitude... it corresponds to parts of Canada and Asia that are cold almost year-round. The gulf stream, one of the most powerful ocean currents, moves across the Atlantic toward Europe from the tropics, and is a large part of an explanation for Europe's mildness. If, however, a lot of arctic ice melts, it would cool the northern waters as well as diverting a lot of the Gulf Stream. So while the tropics get hotter and hot, Europe could enter its own mini ice age.

Another deep concern has to do with global hunger. Many fisheries are strained to the limit now, and many edible saltwater fish species are only maintaining population through careful monitoring. However, (beyond the obvious and justified concern for coral reefs and kelp forests) most of these salt water species rely, directly or indirectly, on upwellings... regions where nutrient and sediment rich deepwater rises to the surfaces the surface, feeding plankton that are the bottom of the oceanic food chain. But regional warming of seawater retards the upwellings. That's why the Peruvian economy is decimated whenever there's an El Nino event; because they rely on the anchovy fishery, and about 90% of the anchovies die off.

And of course, the increase in storms is also a massively huge worry on its own. I'm fairly confident that wealthy port cities like New York and Tokyo can cope with a gradual rise in sea level. On the other hand, tiny Bangladesh (half the size of Illinois with half the population of the U.S.) is inundated (literally a third of the country is underwater) every time there's a particularly bad monsoon. If global patterns change for the worse, a lot of already stricken places are going to be in even worse truoble.

On the plus side, I've discovered the Velvet Underground.

I don't know the timescale of when all this will come to a head, but it's hard to be optimistic in the face of what seems overwhelming evidence that things are getting out of control... and to think that if we stop our destructive activities, now, today, thing will continue to get worse for centuries at the least.

If people are around in two thousand years, they will doubtless look at us as the most decadent and reckless of civilizations.

I'm increasingly more concerned with the environment than any other issue confronting us today.

At 12:36 AM, Anonymous Milligan said...

Word to what Connor said. Puts a different spin on "All Tomorrow's Parties," don't it?

So anyway, global warming is, as Connor alluded, a massive oversimplification, because we're all living inside of a massive quasichaotic metastable thermodynamic equilibrium. We know that if you make certain changes to the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, holding all else constant, it will tend to retain more heat. This gives you a forcing towards higher temperatures, but since the whole thing's quasichaotic it takes massive computations to make so much as an educated guess as to which direction the system will swerve in response.

That said, we're not automatically doomed.

There's the thermohaline cycle, or Great Conveyer as some call it, that keeps northwest Eurasia warm and keeps the southern oceans relatively fresh and keeps the tropical seas enriched with upwelled minerals. All of these things would change in ways that we'd naturally consider bad if the Conveyer were to shut down in response to glacial meltwater flooding the north Atlantic. But none, not even Europe going Siberian, spells the end of civilization.

Glaciers melt and ice shelves break. Greenland falls into the ocean and maybe even Antarctica is denuded, eventually. In the space of a century or so the sea level rises, by a meter perhaps. But this isn't like the 0.3°C that nobody notices some places but turns others into blasted deserts. Gravity demands that the seas rise everywhere, by about the same amount. Goodbye Venice, Bangladesh, Tuvalu. Maybe New Orleans and Amsterdam and the Chesapeake Bay, too. Or maybe stronger storms will dump the excess water in the Antarctic interior, locking it up as ice for millenia.

There are two points I'm trying to make. The first is that global warming is not the end of the world. Science is reasonably certain that our climate will change in ways without recent precedent over the coming century, and even if we change our behaviors now the environment will never be the same as it was in 1700. But it wouldn't have been anyway, because things change, and at least for the first time in human history we can actually see the punches we'll have to roll with. That's terrifying, but every previous generation since before Ur had to get by while flying blind.

The second is that, optimism or no, crops will fail, deserts will expand, communities will flood, and people will starve or drown or succumb to disease. In short, the coming century will suck very much for a great many people. A disproportionate number of these will be poor and brown skinned and live south of the Tropic of Cancer, and it will be largely the fault of the rich Caucasians of the global North. The world is a small place now, so this will be common knowledge, too. It is the polarization this will exacerbate between North and South that I fear, far more than rising water.

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post on the Caribbean reefs. There is a debate happening in the Bahamas about whether it matters if large megadevelopments can be built adjacent to reefs, because the reefs will be killed by global warming anyway - it is a twisted argument. Here is a cool link about the whole debate:


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