Years from now our age will not be seen as a high point in technological achievement. Instead it will be seen a major failure. While we had the information and the technology to keep our planet from being harmed, instead humans buried their heads in the sand.
A hundred years from now, this hi-tech age we live in will be seen as a watershed moment when we failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The obsession with consumer goods and instant gratification put civilization at risk. In our expanding consumer societies, people were more interested in comfort than the resulting damage to the environment. The warnings about climate change and global warming that began about 40 years ago were ignored. And today it is obvious that we are going to pay the price -- and a very steep price at that.
Read Carl Sagan's 1980 original essay, about the dangers of climate change, that he wrote over 30 years ago.
Now with the recently reported (May 12, 2014) irreversible collapse of Antarctic glaciers, a domino effect has been set in motion that will cause sea levels to rise and lead to a number of other related effects.
Read the following current report:
Irreversible collapse of Antarctic glaciers has begun, studies say
But first things first.
The collapse of the glaciers means that sea levels will rise about 4 feet or 1.2 meters in the future due to this one factor. This is now a virtual certainty. But other forces are also at play. To put it simply, the hotter things get, the hotter they will get. Removing the reflective ability of the ice means that the oceans will absorb the sun's heat and heat up more. The additional heat around the globe will cause other glaciers to melt such as in Greenland. The addition of large amounts of fresh water into the salt water of the oceans may affect ocean currents -- see the graphic below. This in turn will cause extensive climate change across the globe. So a 4 ft./1.2m rise in sea levels is just the beginning as other parts of the domino effect will add to that.
"Ocean Circulation Conveyor Belt. The ocean plays a major role in the distribution of the planet's heat through deep sea circulation. This simplified illustration shows this "conveyor belt" circulation which is driven by the difference in heat and salinity. Records of past climate suggest that there is some chance that this circulation could be altered by the changes projected in many climate models." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ocean_circulation_conveyor_belt.jpg
While the naysayers continue to doubt, the scientific community is in almost total agreement. "Just over 97% of climate researchers say humans are causing global warming." wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_controversy
The irony is that we have the technology and the knowledge to design energy systems such as solar or wind that are sustainable and workable. And what do we have to lose by switching from a fossil based energy source to a sustainable, non-polluting energy source? Not very much in the long run.
But all is not lost -- perhaps. If we can slow the inevitable warming by cutting back greenhouse gases now, the rise in sea levels can take much longer which will give us time to build and adjust.
Time (the subject of this blog) is the critical factor. We need to make changes now for benefits that none of us will live to see, benefits that are a hundred years or more in the future. These benefits will be felt by our great-great-grandchildren -- perhaps. We cannot know for sure.
This is hard for humans, who live a relatively short time, to plan for -- but if the survival of the human race is important, we have no choice.
NOTE:25 years ago I wrote a series of essay warning about the dangers of global warming. More than 10 years ago I wrote the following essay which has been ranked in the top ten search results in Google for most of those years.
Dr. Michio Kaku has written that we live in an especially dangerous time. By time he does not mean the last couple of years or even the next fifty, but rather the hundreds of years it may take for us to progress from a planet of special interests to a planetary culture.
Right now we are in the infancy of technological development with crude energy sources and chemical processes that have the potential to destroy the environment either as by-products of our civilization or with their deliberate destructive use in another world war.
Energy systems could be created that would cause virtually no pollution. Furthermore world wide economic development can proceed without harming the environment. Decentralized systems such as solar panels can bring electricity and non-polluting development to many corners of the world.
Yet the destructive technology that we continue to use will have consequences for many years to come. In fact, we will feel the effects long after we have stopped using this technology and switched to a more environmentally friendly one.
Global warming will affect just about everyone, even though it is primarily a small number of nations that are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. The same holds true for radiation pollution, as we saw in the Chernobyl disaster. Radiation crossed national borders and ended up all across the world.
Even over-population will affect us all, because a severe strain on the ecosystem in one part of the globe will create stress on other parts.
This crisis is very real. If the global temperature increases and the sea level rises, there will be massive changes in the weather which will cause migrations across the world as well as wide spread flooding. In this kind of environment, new and rapidly spreading diseases could wipe out large numbers of people and the food supply could be threatened. These kinds of disruptions could also lead to wars.
The problem is that any solution is a long term solution. As Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons inspector before the second American-Iraq war, has pointed out, these environmental questions are much more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction. Yet since politicians do not often think beyond their four or eight year terms, they feel no urgency to risk their political future to forge a fifty or hundred year policy that may be required.