Human beings use the world’s atmosphere as an open sewer for the daily dumping of more than 90 million tonnes of gaseous waste. Unless we can urgently change this pattern, the resulting rise in global temperatures will melt polar ice, resulting in permanent and catastrophic changes. According to reputable climatologist James Hansen, the man-made pollution already in the atmosphere traps as much extra heat energy every 24 hours as would be released by the explosion of 400,000 Hiroshima-class nuclear bombs. The resulting rapid warming of both the atmosphere and the ocean, which Kolbert notes has absorbed about one-third of the carbon dioxide we have produced, is wreaking havoc on earth’s delicately balanced ecosystems. It threatens both the web of living species with which we share the planet and the future viability of civilisation. “By disrupting these systems,” Kolbert writes, “we’re putting our own survival in danger.”
The most recent parallel to the current mass extinction occurred some 66 million years ago when a six-mile-wide asteroid collided with earth, wiping out the dinosaurs, and vast numbers of plant and animal species. Today, Kolbert documents a similar mass extinction event, which is happening in the geologic blink of an eye. The present extinction rate in the tropics is “on the order of 10,000 times greater than the naturally occurring background extinction rate”. This time, we cannot blame a giant asteroid. We have caused this catastrophe by altering environmental conditions on our planet so swiftly and dramatically that a large proportion of other species cannot adapt. Our own future is at risk as well, since we have fundamentally altered the fragile climate balance which fostered the flourishing of the human civilisation.
The earth’s water cycle is being dangerously disturbed, as warmer oceans evaporate more water vapour into the air. Global humidity has increased by an astonishing four per cent in just the last 30 years, causing larger and more frequent floods and mudslides. The extra heat is also absorbed in the top layer of the seas, which makes ocean-based storms more frequent and more destructive.
Our oceans, a crucial food source for billions, have become not only warmer but also more acidic than they have been in millions of years. We have overloaded their capacity to absorb excess heat and carbon pollution, causing destruction of entire ecosystems like coral reefs and rainforests. The same extra heat pulls moisture from soil in drought-prone regions, causing deeper and longer-lasting droughts.
Food crops are threatened by the disruption of long-predictable rainy-season-dry-season patterns, and also by the growing impact of heat stress itself on corn, wheat, rice and other staples. The melting Arctic ice cap is changing the heat absorption at the top of the world, which will lead to dramatic world-changing and irreversible climate change. In particular, the melting ice will accelerate the rise in sea level and drown low-lying coastal cities and regions. Everywhere the intricate interconnections crucial to sustaining life are increasingly being pulled apart. The individualist free-market system encourages all to pursue short-run growth without regard for long-term consequences. The Frankenstein’s monster that we have created in the form of corporations is running on its own steam, pursuing profit without any social responsibility. Without making radical changes, we cannot avoid the complete “Collapse” that Jared Diamond has so graphically warned about.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2015.