Much of the rhetoric surrounding Anthropogenic Climate Change has thus far rested on the notion that human pollution is destroying the world, and that consequently we need to take action in order to save the world…
Put simply this isn’t true. The planet that we live on is far too big, and far too flexible a system for us to ‘destroy.’ Even if we tried really hard, say releasing all the world’s nuclear weapons simultaneously, we wouldn’t destroy the Earth. We would wipe out most currently existing life forms from the face of the planet, almost certainly including humanity, but life would go on, and slowly, over a number of millennia, life would evolve increasing complexity again. Of course a similar kind of scenario occurred about 250 million years ago, in what is known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event, in which 95% of marine life and 70% of land based vertebrates became extinct. The cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction is not definitively known, though many experts believe that the extinctions were the result of an asteroid hitting Earth.
Despite the enormous extent of the ecological damage caused by the Permian-Triassic extinction, life went on. It recovered and evolved over millions of years until we reach today’s state of affairs. The notion that ACC; whose most extreme scientific predictions would see it reach near permian extinction levels, but the vast majority of evidence suggests much lower levels of warming, would destroy life in a way that an asteroid hitting the planet could not is quite comical.
Equally the notion that carbon dioxide is ‘pollution’ that it is a substance which is inherently harmful and bad for the planet is just plain wrong. Without the heat trapped by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases the Earth would be too cold for human life to have evolved. What is happening with anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation is that the stable balance of gases which have allowed our species to flourish are being altered in such a way that the continuation of climatic conditions which permit us to maintain social stability; the ability to feed and shelter everyone are likely to change so that life becomes harder for humans.
So when ecological activists want to take action against ACC, what exactly is it they stand for if it isn’t saving the world? There can be many answers, but for me it is mainly a case of humanitarian action. Unlike the planet, the human species is fairly fragile. Small changes to the ecosystems which we depend upon for food, water, shelter and material prosperity have dramatic effects to the societies which we inhabit. In particular the growth of the global human population over the last hundred years means that hundreds of millions of humans around the globe are highly dependent on the stable ecosystems they reside within. ACC risks destabilizing many of these ecosystems.
For example the fertility of rice flowers falls from 100% at 35 degrees C to 0% at 40 degrees C. This means that even a modest warming of 2 degrees will see rice fertility drop by over 30% in warm climates. Similar trends in crop fertility have been found in wheat, maize, soybeans and peanuts – many staple foods in developing nations. Consequently recent research has suggested that global rice production will fall by 5-11% by 2020 and between 11 and 46% by 2050. Consider for a moment that rising population allied with land change use and the rising cost of oil have created widespread food shortages and food riots in many parts of the world and you quickly see why if these estimates are correct they will lead to human suffering on an enormous scale.
As with most effects of ACC the impacts will not be homogeneous; some areas of the globe where the climate is currently just too cold for crop production will become more fertile, however this will be more than offset by the amount of productive capacity lost. Furthermore many of the harshest impacts will occur in the least developed areas, which are also the least able to cope with crisis, as their lack of wealth means that many areas (particularly in Africa) will not be able to afford to import food from other regions. This impact has nothing to do with the world being destroyed, indeed the specter of millions of poor people starving to death is somewhat more mundane than the meta-narrative of saving the world, but nonetheless this is the path we are currently heading down.
Food production is just one areas where the detrimental effects of ACC to humans are obvious. The increased temperature is a consequence of an increase in energy in the Eath’s atmosphere which will mean an increase of droughts, of floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme climactic events, all of which tend to be detrimental to human life. Equally, the anticipated rise in sea levels will mean the displacement of millions of humans from their homes. Already this has begun on the low lying islands of Tuvalu where evacuation plans have been prepared, and areas of Bangladesh, where villagers are losing their homes to rising waters. The refugee crisis threatened by one impact of ACC and exasperated by the food crisis which is expected to be another suggests that ACC will begin to dramatically increase human suffering and misery in many of the world’s poorest areas.
Whereas the notion that ecologists seek to save the world is laughable, people are trying to effect changes that will greatly reduce human suffering in years to come. I have no interest in ‘saving the world’… It simply isn’t necessary. I am however interested in trying to make the world a less adverse environment for people to live in. That this adversity will mainly be felt by many of the world’s poorest people, whose labour is most likely directly tied to their physical ecosystem through subsistence agriculture, and that it is primarily caused by the world’s richest people – those with jet set lifestyles, private yachts and air conditioned mansions – only heightens the sense of social injustice.