The United States is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we were last year.
The amount of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere is already too high – ideally, our net emissions should be negative. Which is entirely feasible. When we cultivate forests, trees pull carbon from the air. But each tree can do only so much. We also need to reduce the amount of energy we consume.
We don’t need to be less happy, though. As the economy improved, people began flying more … but many flights aren’t producing happiness. Most people look harried and sullen in airports. If we all switched to taking trains, the cultural expectations for the rhythm of our lives would shift – instead of short bursts of misery, our travels could be pleasant spells of intermediate time.
And the giant server farms needed to run websites like Facebook gobble energy. Facebook, just like any other advertising company, profits by making people less happy. Many people would be happier in a world where these servers used less energy.
We have a compelling reason to change our behaviors. If we don’t, the global climate will rise by two degrees Celsius or more. (Of course, any individual location could become much warmer or colder – a nearby warm ocean current keeps Europe’s climate mild, but if melting polar ice redirects this current, countries like England could become quite frigid.)
How different might life be if global temperatures changed by two degrees?
In the year 536, global temperatures were about two degrees lower than they are today. (Which does prove, obviously, that the global climate can change for reasons that are not humanity’s fault. But the current changes are caused by us.)
Historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick believes that this two degree change in temperature made our planet an utterly miserable place to live. A volcanic eruption had darkened the sky, preventing incoming sunlight from warming Earth. “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick. Snow fell in summertime; crops failed; people starved.
And now we, in all our wisdom, are about to tug the needle just as far (if not farther!) in the other direction.
The Dark Ages were literally dark. Ashen clouds lurked overhead. Beset by such nightmarish conditions, people feared that God had forsaken them. Europeans abandoned science and literacy partly as penance, hoping to appease the source of wrath that was killing them and their children.
Plants have evolved on Earth for many millions of years. Many plant species will find a way to endure even if we change our planet’s climate. But human food crops are quite young, in evolutionary terms, and exist in precarious swaths of monoculture. A two degree increase in global temperatures will cause these plants to die. Famine will ensue. Global violence and warfare will increase as hungry people fight to survive.
A two degree change in temperature is totally sufficient to usher in a new worst year to be alive.
If we change the global climate by two degrees, there’s also no assurance that our planet won’t keep warming. Weather is dictated by complex feedback loops that we don’t yet understand. Our oceans soak up heat, which is changing their chemistry; warmer water takes up more space, flooding the coasts, and will melt the polar ice caps from underneath, which further accelerates warming because ice reflects sunlight, but bare ground or water absorbs it.
Venus may have been habitable, once. But climate change spiraled out of control after the atmosphere filled with too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide. The oceans evaporated. Now, searing sulfuric acid falls as rain from the sky.
If we tip over the precipice, every living creature on earth will be doomed. No one understands enough about the feedback loops that dictate a planet’s climate to know how close to the precipice we are.
Although, really, a two degree change would be awful enough.
Which is worth reiterating … especially because the cohort of humans that has contributed most to climate change, and currently holds the wealth and political power needed to prevent catastrophe, is of an age that perhaps they want the world to be a little warmer. Wealthy Americans in their fifties to seventies have long migrated south in pursuit of warmer climate.
The current generation of 50- to 70-year-olds was given the most of the Earth’s plenitude. The world of their youth was very different from the world in which my children were born. While that generation was alive, insect populations plummeted by 90% or more. The fecundity of other wildlife diminished in turn. Forests were clearcut, and the environment – including the very air we breathe – was devastated to produce the world’s current wealth.
Perhaps some of the people in power now do want a warmer planet. But it is not theirs. As phrased by Wendell Berry,
“the world is not given by [our parents], but borrowed from [our] children.”
We should feel horrifically embarrassed to return this world in worse condition than when we were lent it.
Featured image: Night Landscape with Ruined Monastery by Lluís Rigalt (1814 – 1894).