November 14, 2006

McKibben's review on climate change

(Este post en español.)

Ok, time to overcome the white-page-syndrome and start posting; when the current deadlines are over I may write something more digested.

In this post I just want to direct the attention of my still non-existent readers to this review in the New York Review of Books, by Bill McKibben. I recomend the whole piece; I'll quote some bits here as a hors d'oeuvre.

McKibben reviews several books related to global warming, starting with the scariest and moving on to the more hopeful. The first and most frightening is James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity.

Lovelock is the well-known originator of the Gaia hypothesis, which states (in McKibben's concise words) that "the earth might usefully be considered as a single organism struggling to keep itself stable." I don't subscribe much to this point of view (specially the "usefully" part), but Lovelock is a clever guy if there ever was one, and despite some errors and controversial opinions throughout his career, he's someone worth listening to. In particular, when the topic is our planet as a whole.

And what is in store for out pale blue dot?
Lovelock predicts —more gloomily than any other competent observer I am aware of— that we have already pushed the planet over the brink, and that we will soon see remarkably rapid rises in temperature, well beyond those envisioned in most of the computer models now in use —themselves quite dire.
He goes on to describe the several feedback mechanisms that may come into action to make things worse than currently predicted.
Some or all of these processes will be enough, Lovelock estimates, to tip the earth into a catastrophically hotter state, perhaps eight degrees centigrade warmer in temperate regions like ours, over the course of a very few decades, and that heat will in turn make life as we know it nearly impossible in many places.
A small percentage of mankind would survive, if wise leaders can arrange its deployment next to the Poles. An extreme view? Sure. Lovelock is aware of it, and McKibben points out some reasons to be skeptical. But then,
That said, there are very few people on earth —maybe none— with the same kind of intuitive feel for how it behaves as a whole. [...] Moreover, for the past twenty years, the period during which greenhouse science emerged, most of the effects of heating on the physical world have in fact been more dire than originally predicted. The regular reader of Science and Nature is treated to an almost weekly load of apocalyptic data, virtually all of it showing results at the very upper end of the ranges predicted by climate models, or beyond them altogether. Compared with the original models of a few years ago, ice is melting faster; forest soils are giving up more carbon as they warm; storms are increasing much more quickly in number and size.
I'm one of those regular readers, and McKibben is right; worrying news about the state of the planet have been even more frequent than reports of the anti-science policies of the Republicans (another regular feature of recent years, which happily is more easily dealt with). No one is expecting The Day After Tomorrow anytime soon, but the acceleration beyond the original models is a strong warning, and possibly a sign that the tipping point is behind us. Next McKibben cites James Hansen of NASA, "the planet's top climatologist".
Hansen is not quite as gloomy as Lovelock. Although he recently stated that the Earth is very close to the hottest it has been in a million years, he said that we still have until 2015 to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere before we cross a threshold and create a "different planet." When Hansen gave this warning last December we had ten years to change course, but soon we'll have only nine years, and since nothing has happened in the intervening time to suggest that we're gearing up for an all-out effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the divergence between Hansen and Lovelock may be academic. (Somehow it's small comfort to be rooting for the guy who says you've got a decade.)

What's amazing is that even Al Gore's fine and frightening film An Inconvenient Truth now lags behind the scientific cutting edge on this issue —the science is moving fast. It's true that the world is beginning slowly to awaken to the idea that global warming may be a real problem, and legislatures (though not ours) are starting to nibble at it. But very few understand with any real depth that a wave large enough to break civilization is forming, and that the only real question is whether we can do anything at all to weaken its force.
To weaken the wave's force Lovelock has been promoting nuclear energy, to the chagrin of many of his former environmentalist followers. The argument put forward by Lovelock and many others is that nuclear plants may be necessary as a bridge until the technologies for renewable energies get better; on the other side, many think that with appropriate incentives green energies is already possible. And here McKibben turns to Travis Bradford's The Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of The Global Energy Industry,
...which argues at great length and in great detail that we will soon be turning to solar panels for our power, in part for environmental reasons but more because they will soon be producing power that's as cheap —and much easier to deploy— than any other source. This is a fairly astounding claim [...] but he makes the case in convincing fashion.
The most encouraging experience seems to be in Japan, where a government program of subsidized rooftop solar panels succeded in creating a rising demand (which continues to rise now that the subsidy has almost dissapeared) and in driving down the prices.
In any event, Bradford says the Japanese demand for solar power (and now an equally large program in Germany) will be enough to drive the cost of producing solar panels steadily down. Even without huge technological breakthroughs, which he says are tantalizingly near, the current hardware can be made steadily cheaper.
And technological breakthroughs can be expected; there are frequent reports on improvements (check this recent article, for instance), and nanotechnology may be expected to deliver, too. Yet,
...even the widespread adoption of solar power would not put an end to the threat of global warming. The economic transition that our predicament demands is larger and more wrenching even than that. Some scientists have estimated that it would take an immediate 70 percent reduction in fossil fuel burning simply to stabilize climate change at its current planet-melting level. And that reduction is made much harder by the fact that it is needed at just the moment that China and India have begun to burn serious quantities of fossil fuel as their economies grow.
...which leads to a brief review of Kelly Sims Gallagher's China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil, Pollution, and Development. I'll jump to the interesting last line of this part:
In retrospect, historians are likely to conclude that the biggest environmental failure of the Bush administration was not that it did nothing to reduce the use of fossil fuels in America, but that it did nothing to help or pressure China to transform its own economy at a time when such intervention might have been decisive.
Time to act, and McKibben reviews two books full of ideas: WorldChanging:A User's Guide for the 21st Century, edited by Alex Steffen, and Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, edited by Architecture for Humanity. Little to say about the second, except to note that most of the brilliant ideas presented there have not been applied, despite been practical and cheap. O, Inertia!

WorldChanging looks quite interesting, and was made by "the cheerful proprietors" of the WorldChanging Web site, which I didn't know until now but has made it straight into the top level of my bloglines feeds. Wikipedia quotes Bruce Sterling calling it "the most important website on the planet", and McKibben seems to agree:
This is one of the most professional and interesting Web sites that you could possibly bookmark on your browser; almost every day they describe a new technology or technique for environmentalists. Their book, a compilation of their work over the last few years, is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). [...] It's a compendium of everything a younger generation of environmental activists has to offer: creativity, digital dexterity, networking ability, an Internet-era optimism about the future, and a deep concern about not only green issues but related questions of human rights, poverty, and social justice.
I don't own an iPod, but I'm a member of its generation; I loved the reference to the Whole Earth Catalog, a marvelous effort by our hippie forefathers about which I only found out recently, thanks to a friend who in turn discovered it through this inspirational talk of Steve Jobs at Stanford (which I highly recommend if you haven't heard it), where he declares it (in Wikipedia wording) "a conceptual forerunner of a Web search engine". Both the WEC in its time and WoldChanging now are wonderful ideas (go and add that bookmark, now!); I can only wish that the second will become the forerunner of something, and something big. Action is badly needed, and at all levels. As McKibben notes towards the end, not only smart and bold individuals, but also cooperating communities and farsighted leaders will be necessary if we want to deal with the menacing wave. Here is the last paragraph of this good review/call to arms:
The technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain. We Americans haven't needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness—local solidarity—has disappeared. Our problem now is that there is no way forward, at least if we're serious about preventing the worst ecological nightmares, that doesn't involve working together politically to make changes deep enough and rapid enough to matter. A carbon tax would be a very good place to start.

1 comment:

Tesserian said...

A new specter is haunting the entire world, the specter of Gaia Nemesis. From whence this next uncanny visitor comes and what does it mean for the future of humankind?
Every power of the world turns, like a herd of animals caught unawares by a predator, to face this new menace; the powers fail. They have come to face the very power of nature herself.