Climate change is the sickness of our civilization, and the prognosis is bleak
For a while, Dr. Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, was relatively optimistic. There was a time when he believed that, if modern industrial society were to suddenly cease to operate, the planet could be saved. Not any more, he says. Planet Earth is now in hospice, nearing the end.
Waiting to hear him speak, the atmosphere in the East Auditorium at the University of Rhode Island is festive, almost jubilant. Everyone is smiling and gregariously introducing themselves to me. Though most of us aren't scientists, there is an unconscious letting down of our guard: we are among our own. No matter the origin of our disparate backgrounds, we all believe that climate change is real, and that human beings are the primary cause. There is electricity in the air and everyone is excited.
I make the rounds and meet Patricia Hval, the humble curator of the Babcock-Smith House Museum in Westerly, R.I. Though not a URI faculty member, she is responsible for McPherson's presence here tonight. She had originally invited him to speak in Westerly but couldn't find a venue, so she organized a URI event along with Dr. Peter Nightingale, whom I finally meet in the flesh after some email correspondence.
Peter is a slight, elderly Dutchman with quick vibrant movements and an infectious smile - like so many others tonight (including our speaker) he exudes charisma. He is a physicist, and though he doesn't agree with McPherson's specific prognosis, his views on climate change are uncompromising. In our telephone conversations, he voices frustration at the meager efforts of world governments to curb carbon emissions. He makes an apt analogy with Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine": If there is even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack, then the United States must do everything in its power to stop it. Why then, Nightingale asks, is the same logic not applied to climate change, which has a statistically predictable trajectory and the potential to kill many more people than any other threat?
Nightingale opens up the lecture with a song on his ukulele. The anthem is called "Fight For Fossil Free!" and we all have lyric sheets. Soon I am singing along with everyone else in the packed auditorium. The energy of the crowd is palpable. McPherson steps up to the podium and makes his case. He'd an odd duck, splendidly dressed, and it's hard to take your eyes off him. He is dressed in well worn leather dress shoes, '90s Carhart pants and a slick blazer, and has perhaps the goofiest haircut I've ever seen in my life. There is something strangely dashing about him, a streak of Indiana Jones. He is positively arresting.
Guy McPherson believes that life on Earth will more or less be extinct by the year 2060, and the evidence he presents is compelling and well sourced. Of the creatures that may live, mankind is not among them. We'll run out of food and water. We'll be swept away by typhoons, and freeze in winter storms of unusual intensity. We'll dry in the sun, and our mummified remains will break apart in sandstorms, our disintegrated body matter swirling around like dervishes of dust. Now, Guy didn't actually use any of these morbid descriptions, but that is where my mind went after hearing the overwhelming amount of factual information that he presented. If he's a flake, as some have accused him of being, then he is the most learned and exhaustively conclusive flake I've ever met.
We've known for a very long time that climate change is real, and that it has been specifically caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The first scientific paper linking the two was released in 1847. That's right, I said 1847. Media blackouts, apparently, are nothing new.
McPherson believes that the effects of climate change are exponentially progressive and irreversible based on two factors: the lag of the effect of carbon emissions, which is about 40 years, and consequently the creation of self-reinforcing feedback loops. So what does that all mean? Well, it means that we are reaping the fruits of 1970s carbon emissions.
But surely emissions have decreased, right? No. Not even close. Worse, there is no sign that emissions are even slowing down, much less reversing.
2009, the onset of the the Second Great Depression Great Recession, set a new record for carbon released by humans into the atmosphere. This record has been consecutively broken every year since. This is where the self-reinforcing feedback loops come into play. There are many of them, but I'll start with one that I understand as a layman: the release of methane over cold regions.
Permafrost contains copious amounts of methane, which is now being released into the atmosphere as the permafrost melts. Though methane dissipates in the atmosphere at a faster pace than carbon, its heating effects are far greater. So as more methane is released, more permafrost melts, releasing more methane. .. get it? But the methane will just break up in the atmosphere and the crisis will be over, right? No. The warming will affect the whole planet, destroying natural heat sinks such as rainforests, leading to the release of even more methane.
McPherson shows us an authentic photo of Siberian children roasting marshmallows over a methane fissure in Siberia. It's a small crack in the Earth, and some industrious youngster has lit it on fire. But they no longer light the fissures on fire, because the cracks are now a kilometer wide. No major news agency reported it.
If the prognosis on Earth's condition is so grim, then why bother reporting it? McPherson uses the analogy of medical malpractice. If your doctor examines you and concludes that you have six months to live, McPherson asks, wouldn't you like to know the truth? Those in the scientific community and elsewhere who minimize the impending calamity and totality of climate change are committing malpractice by withholding this crucial and pertinent information from us. The Earth is in hospice, and the prognosis is grim.
I pray to God that he's wrong.
This article was first published in People's World by Jonathan W. Pressman.