Climate Change
Climate Change Feature Feature 2 Repost

Wired for survival, not climate change

(First of the Climate Change Conundrum papers)

Humans possess genetic wiring attuned to survival. Before our distant ancestors’ ascendancy over the natural environment, daily survival was the key theme of life. Humans adapted themselves to the seasons because hunting, and later farming, depended on planning, lest they starve during the winters. Less energy was devoted to wondering what would happen in 100 years because surviving the day, and then the upcoming year, was a full-time challenge. Our human instincts focus on responding to the near-term, so how do we recognize an existential threat that is centuries away. 

Anthropogenic climate change poses such a threat, yet much of the world either turns away and denies the unfolding disaster, or passively accepts it, but doesn’t act. However, the real threat is not climate change, but apathy. Our inability to collectively work together and find solutions is a barrier to balancing today’s needs with the welfare of future generations. 

Our wiring is for daily survival, not necessarily for the survival of the species. Yes, we are biologically predisposed to reproduce, so the species survives. But if population growth and associated resource demands destroy the ecosystems where we live, we don’t necessarily have the genetic circuitry that says, “stop reproducing.” Even though we can see the threat, there is a reluctance to act because the fall-out from climate change will unfold on a time scale that exceeds our individual lives. Profiting today at the expense of the future environment is a reasonable proposition for many. 

More is better

Human wiring also focuses on security. Our ancestors found that more food stored over the winter staves off starvation. Stronger walls keep out unwanted strangers. Both of these things bring increased safety and are thus desirable. If horses are essential to your society, then owning a herd of horses provides you with extra security. 

Today’s struggle for greater wealth is an extension of this need for security. Wealth equates to security, and more is better. The harsh way to express this is that greed is integral to the human condition. But where does this lead us when populations explode, and everyone is on the path towards more wealth and security? Only when the link between wealth and security disappears can we focus our full attention on the future.

Cheap, accessible energy provided giant leaps in lifestyle and security for many, but not all, over the last 100 years, and the global standard of living advanced. However, cheap energy also flooded the skies with greenhouse gases, kick-starting climate change and global warming.  It would be unfair for me to point the finger at big industry alone and say, “Look at what they have done.” Consumers, like me, also don’t want to give up cheap energy. 

Energy access and prosperity

Improvements in average living standards over the past century, in countries like the USA, resulted mainly from cheap and plentiful energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas were the primary energy building blocks. Accessible energy drives commerce and manufacturing, thus creating jobs and wealth. This process is a standard model playing out today in many underdeveloped countries. 

However, cheap energy and innovation have done more than provide money; they have also made that money go farther. When consumers buy a cheap plastic mixing bowl from Wal-Mart, they pay their share of a production chain that starts with pumping oil from the ground as a raw product. Factories then transform the oil into plastic feedstock and send it to another plant that produces mixing bowls. Then trucks, burning fossil fuels, transport the finished bowls to a store where consumers buy them.

Virtually every item in our stores has a carbon footprint. Therefore, the more we buy, the larger the carbon footprint. The link between wealth, energy usage, and carbon emissions is clear. Larger homes, more cars, frequent air travel, and rampant consumption all cost money, and increase our carbon footprints. 

Wealth and climate change

Wealth intimately ties to resource use. As average living standards rise, the demand for more resources inevitably follows. At some point, increasing wealth runs up against resource availability, because the human desire for “more” has resource limitations. Mitigating climate change is about reducing carbon footprints, which will prove challenging because most people will need to live with less.  

A cleaner environment only comes at a cost. For example, a movement towards clean, carbon-free energy incurs costs, stressing people’s finances and security. Consumers may lose their enthusiasm for lowering emissions if it means a move towards less wealth. Remember that, against the background of flat income, rising prices result in decreased wealth. Such decreases represent a move towards less security. Food, shelter, healthcare, and education relate directly to the level of financial security an individual enjoys in most countries. 

This situation presents a climate change conundrum. We desire a clean, livable environment, but we also want security. The tension between these two aspirations creates a quandary because we must sacrifice security today, so future generations enjoy an environmentally healthy tomorrow. 

The cost of ignoring climate change

Geological history reminds us that the earth’s changing environments result from a combination of unique interactions between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere. Climate is, and always has been, a dynamic feature of these interactions. Put another way; the climate is continually changing. Why then should we worry about climate change?

Life has flourished on the earth in one form or another for over 3.5 billion years. But scientists estimate that 99.9 percent of all species throughout history are now extinct. Organisms, including Homo sapiens, don’t exist separate from the ecosystems they call home. Destroy or change the ecosystem, then the species living there must either adapt or perish.

Geoscientists recognize five mass extinction events throughout geological history. These extinction events occurred at the end of the Ordovician (445 million years), the end of the Devonian (359 million years), the end of the Permian (250 million years), the end of the Triassic (200 million years), and the end of the Cretaceous (65 million years). All mass extinctions had one thing in common: rapid climate change. Sometimes the earth was warming rapidly, and at other times it was cooling. But it was the rate of change, not change itself, that sent countless species into the void of extinction. Over 90 percent of the earth’s species disappeared in the late Permian “Great Dying” as temperatures soared, and the oceans became unlivable. 

Rate of change

The earth has been warming and cooling for 4.5 billion years. But what makes modern, Anthropocene, climate history different is the rate of change. At the end of the last ice age, average global temperatures experienced a geologically rapid increase of 5°C in 6000 years (a rate of 0.83°C per 1000 years). However, over the past 50 years, the rate of temperature increase has been equivalent to 13°C per 1000 years. This rate of increase is unprecedented in geological history, except during mass extinctions.

Life is tenacious but not invincible.  Historically, species have disappeared at a rate of about 0.01 percent every 100 years. But almost five hundred species went extinct in the past decade. This rate is 50 times greater than the background level. Biological evolution needs many generations to work its magic.

The rate of change is all-important. All mass extinctions share a common theme: Climate change occurs faster than evolutionary change can keep up. Climate change and species extinction today, in the Anthropocene, are both occurring more quickly than at any period of the earth’s long history. The cost of ignoring climate change is high.

Solutions

The search for a path forward brings to mind an oil quote from Wallace E. Pratt, “Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.” Oil lurks far below the ground and geologists search through data to tease out hints of where it may reside. Then someone puts the various jig-saw pieces together and envisions the oil field long before its discovery by the drill bit. This quote also extends to complex problem solving in general. Viable solutions will arise from the vision and creativity of individuals as they grapple with climate change. Whether society implements those solutions is a different question. We also need to be realistic in our expectations.

Saying we will stop climate change by moving to net-zero emissions is disingenuous. Net-zero provides a target where carbon emitted into the atmosphere is balanced out by carbon taken up in various types of carbon sinks. However, when humanity achieves its net-zero goal, the global temperature will continue rising due to climate lag and atmospheric aerosol reductions. Global temperatures will increase by up to 1°C during the 40 years after reaching global net-zero emissions. So, the current Paris Agreement target of holding warming to 2°C is actually closer to 3°C.

This observation is not to say that reductions in fossil fuel emissions aren’t necessary. These reductions are a vital part of any plan forward. The salient message is that a hotter planet is coming. The critical question is, what will humanity do to mitigate the geographical, environmental, and social dislocations that climate change brings? Humans are very skilled at adaptation, and those skills must be part of building a bridge to the future.    

(Next: Electricity, a pressure point for mitigating climate change)


ArcheanWeb:

Net-zero emissions – But no cooling down without Negative Emissions Technology (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/07/09/net-zero-emissions-but-no-cooling-down-without-negative-emissions-technology/ Also:

Electrical power, a climate change puzzle (Source: ArcheanWeb) –  https://archeanweb.com/2020/06/26/electrical-power-a-climate-change-puzzle/


Sources:

Feature Image: Violent electrical storm at sunset, attacks the California Mojave Desert: Desert Electric (Modified) – By Jessie Eastland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44273148

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.

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