Thursday, April 05, 2007

Global Warming, Global Warring

Earlier this week, Ezra Klein wrote a comment that echoes my recent thinking:
Readers know I'm a global warming pessimist, almost completely convinced that we'll never muster the political will nor global unity to meaningfully curb carbon emissions in time to head off the ravages of climate change, if for no other reason than global warming will harm the developing world first and most, and it's hard to get individuals to sacrifice when they can't feel and don't really expect consequences.

I'm even more of a pessimist than Klein: I think it's too late even if we could whip up some miracle through "political will" or "global unity." And a new report underscores why that's so:

Climate models generally assumed a gradually increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere until 2050, at which point they assume that nations will have found ways to replace fossil fuels as the main source of energy. Because climate responds steadily but slowly to the buildup, however, the full effect on precipitation changes would not be felt until 2100.

The changes are already taking place and will not be stopped for decades even by dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers said.

Kurt Vonnegut has remarked on several occasions, half-jokingly, that humankind behaves like a virus ("I think that the Earth's immune system is trying to get rid of us"); the kernel of truth in his quip is what makes the laughter that often greets his remark sound so nervous. Like any virus or weed, we destroy the host. If we are too successful, we effect our own demise.

I recently read Jared Diamond's Collapse and I'm currently reading John Reader's Africa, and if there's a common theme to these two disparate books it's that humankind has repeatedly and predictably exceeded the limits of its invitation on this planet. One of the thought exercises Diamond poses to his students and readers is to imagine what the guy was thinking who chopped down the last tree from the once-lush forests on Easter Island. It's a loaded question: by the time that "last tree" was destroyed, it was too late. Miserable desperation, cutthroat competition, and survivalist violence had been the norm long before the natives had reached that point.

It's disarming, too, to read Octavia Butler's Parable books, which imagine an American Southwest where violent gangs battle over water. Sure, it's fiction, but in many ways, we're far closer to the world she imagines than we are to the world as it existed when she wrote those stories. If societies are so easily lead to horrific wars over non-essentials like gold, diamonds, and (above all) oil, imagine what's going to happen when we don't have enough water for everybody.

Klein hints and hopes that maybe technology will save us, but that's where our musings part. Humankind's own ingenuity has an uneven track record of rescuing us in the past, and it's hard to see how we will desalinate and purify enough water for 10 billion people, hold back the tidewaters of the rising oceans, prevent topsoil from washing away from deforested hills, raise enough foodstuffs on our diminishing pastures, eliminate the widening spectrum of new diseases, and curb all the other assorted ills that are headed our way. Accomplishing any one of these tasks will be miraculous; fulfilling all of them will be close to godlike. (Consider that three decades ago, techophiles were predicting we'd have populated other planets by now. We can't even reach the moon anymore.) What we need to do now is not just think about slowing down future environmental degradation but also make plans to share our resources and soften the blow of the inevitable miseries, which are certain to be of such a scale that it's almost silly to think of New Orleans as a practice run.