Digesting the Distressing Reality of Futility in Our Response to Climate Change

When it comes to catastrophic climate change, we humans in general, and we Americans in particular, have a filter that makes us discount, ridicule, and reject data that makes us uncomfortable while at the same time we soak up, cling to, and embrace data that makes us feel better. We all do it to one extent or another, and it’s probably healthy in many contexts, because it allows us to cope with bad news and not lose hope. When an entire civilization does it together, however, and with an issue that threatens that civilization, it stops being healthy and becomes dangerous in the extreme. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our global response to climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol (which neither China nor the US has yet adopted) expires after 2012. The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen will assemble in the fall of 2009 and continue the laborious process of give and take, compromise and obfuscation designed to produce a successor climate change treaty. Every indication is that the treaty produced by this process will be as futile as the Kyoto Protocol has been and that we humans will continue to pump more greenhouse gases into the earth’s fragile atmosphere until we can’t find any more to pump.

So where will that leave us? Most analysis of climate change stops at the year 2100; we suspect we stop there not because what comes later is impossible to estimate but because what comes later is too painful to contemplate. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in the UK estimates in a February 2009 report – unfortunately no longer available online – that global treaties to control greenhouse gases will be fundamentally unsuccessful in reducing the worst effects of climate change. This is a report produced by engineers, so it sees the problem of climate change through engineering eyes. Moving past attempts to control greenhouse gases, the report expects the control of greenhouse gases to be futile and predicts what will happen if we humans do in the future what we have done in the past. In doing so, it seems not to account for the depletion of fossil fuels resulting from peak oil and peak coal, so we’re not sure to make of the predictions. Assuming for a moment, however, that the rosiest predictions of peak oil deniers come to fruition and we manage to produce endless quantities of cheap fuel from algae, tar sands, French fry grease, and sunflowers, the IME report has to be taken seriously. Unlike rosier predictions in the past, the IME report assumes that our present level of global response will continue. It predicts the following:

  • Emissions of greenhouse gases will begin to decline by the year 2100 or so.
  • But global average temperature and sea level will both continue to rise for several centuries thereafter.
  • By the time several centuries into the future when global average temperature actually begins to decline, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will have increased from the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) through the present 350 ppmv to 1700+/- ppmv.
  • The average temperature in the earth’s atmosphere will have increased a breathtaking 8 degrees Centigrade (that’s 16 degrees Fahrenheit – yeah).
  • Sea level rise, mostly from the melting of ice stores but also because of thermal expansion of ocean volumes, will average 7 meters, or about 23 feet. This will cause large portions of the densely populated coastal areas of the planet to become uninhabitable.

The IME report is all about the engineering solutions to this challenge. Noting that we are still using parts of the London tube system built 150 years ago, the IME recommends that engineering for projects today account for these drastic changes.

As we’ve already said above, we question whether the worst predictions of the IME report will occur. We accept the reality reflected in the report that we humans will dally rather than respond in a meaningful way; we just don’t think we humans are capable of increasing our emission of greenhouse gases for the rest of this century. Our guess is that peak oil and peak coal will have arrived well before the middle of the 21st century and that emission of greenhouses gases will have begun to decline by then. That’s certainly no cause for comfort, because it’s apparent we’re going to do irreparable damage to our own and many other species in the meantime.

And because our global fossil fuel stocks will be so depleted, we will have difficulty, much more difficulty than we would have today, marshaling the resources necessary to address the damage we are now doing. Deprived of any coherent international or even national response, we will be dependent on what our community or even our neighborhood can do. Yes, it’s going to matter again how we get along with our neighbors; we will need them, and they will need us.