By Jay - Ottawa
Earth scientists have documented five mass extinctions. In simple terms extinction works like this: A new world blooms, life flourishes for a while, a fatal problem develops and most of that epoch’s creatures are wiped out. Forever. Sometimes the die off is swift, sometimes slow but relentless.
Despite a handful of extinctions, Earth hasn’t turned into a Moon or a Mars. The vital spark has survived –– so far –– through a few small, base creatures who survive one epoch to reanimate another world full of life –– but always a new world that never quite replicates the flora and fauna of the previous epoch. Humans should take note: after a mass extinction, millions of years go by in recovery before the Earth is inherited by different plant specimens and a different zoo of creatures. For most vertebrates –– and that would include the complex, high maintenance human race –– there is no second chance of a comeback post extinction, anymore than there was for the dinosaurs. If the number of a species is reduced to zero by a mass extinction, too bad. One chance per species per epoch seems to be the rule.
In geological circles the most profound mass extinction was the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, also known as “The Great Dying.” It began a little over 250 million years ago and unwound very slowly over the course of 80,000 years. By the time it bottomed out, 95% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrate species were gone.1
The trigger for the Great Dying was not the impact of a big comet but rising global temperatures. It took about ten million years after Permian for the Earth to recover its healthy equilibrium for the evolution of new life in abundance.
Ancestors of the human race emerged around 1.8 million years ago in the Pleistocene Era of the Quaternary Period. Around 200,000 years ago, evolution gave rise to homo sapiens and, today, we humans number 7 billion. Since the Industrial Revolution, the human race has rapidly developed the means to speed up its own encounter with extinction –– either through the exchange of nuclear blasts in a war to end all wars or through the insatiable pursuit of abundance during times of peace. Nuclear winter or global warming, take your pick. Either calamity would set up another Great Dying, our own.
Earth scientists have begun sounding alarms in their journals. Our immediate descendants, they say, are at risk of a lifetime of hardship followed by the extinction of our species. Once the buildup to extinction approaches a tipping point, there will be too little time to take radical corrective action on a global scale. Furthermore, the environment is so complex it is impossible to know at exactly what level of environmental stress runaway cascades will take over and bring us to the point of “game over.”
What do we care about the past five extinction events? Well, it seems “[w]e are currently in the midst of what most scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily, a pace 1,000 times greater than the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ extinction rate.”2 This time our human race and the other creatures of our garden world are on the line. Nevertheless, denial statements abound. A sampling:
“Climate change is a hoax.”
“The market place will make necessary adjustments in time.”
“It’s absurd to think the human race will be included along with the extinction off lesser creatures.”
“Fossil fuels are indispensable: they create jobs and support
our standard of living.”
“Maybe we should do something, but nothing too radical and abrupt."
If you suppose people who dismiss climate change are misinformed and short sighted, you’re right. It may come as no surprise to learn that political leaders are often beholden to special interests, not the long-term interests of the larger society. Governments around the globe are presently doing tepid little things, or nothing, in response to alarms about environmental disaster. In fact, most advanced countries are doing worse than nothing by implementing policies that are totally in agreement with climate change deniers. It is time we hold our political class accountable to insure that government does not become the enemy of society.
As NASA’s James Hansen reminds us, nations are aggressively facilitating activity that will intensify catastrophic climate change and hasten the next generation’s encounter with extinction scenarios:
“Humans are now the main cause of changes of Earth’s atmospheric composition and thus the drive for future climate change…. More than 170 nations have agreed on the need to limit fossil fuel emissions to avoid dangerous human-made climate change, as formalized in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, the stark reality is that global emissions have accelerated and new efforts are underway to massively expand fossil fuel extraction by drilling to increasing ocean depths and into the Arctic, squeezing oil from tar sands and tar shale, hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas, developing exploitation of methane hydrates, and mining of coal via mountaintop removal…. The growth rate of fossil fuel emissions increased from 1.5%/year during 1980–2000 to 3%/year in 2000–2012, mainly because of increased coal use.”3
Extreme global weather events are becoming more common and contributing to major problems. Climate change is severely stressing plant and animal life today. Fresh water is more scarce today. The health of the oceans is declining as they become more acid, anoxic and polluted and, because of rapid ice melt at the poles and higher elevations, the oceans are rising to levels endangering hundreds of millions of people living in coastal zones. At this pace of environmental destruction, crop failures, displacement, famine and social chaos on a global scale could be upon us within decades.
“Arctic sea ice end-of-summer minimum area, although variable from year to year, has plummeted by more than a third in the past few decades, at a faster rate than in most models, with the sea ice thickness declining a factor of four faster than simulated in … climate models. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets began to shed ice at a rate, now several hundred cubic kilometers per year, which is continuing to accelerate. Mountain glaciers are receding rapidly all around the world with effects on seasonal freshwater availability of major rivers.
The hot dry subtropical climate belts have expanded as the troposphere has warmed and the stratosphere cooled, contributing to increases in the area and intensity of drought and wildfires. The abundance of reef-building corals is decreasing at a rate of 0.5–2%/year, at least in part due to ocean warming and possibly ocean acidification caused by rising dissolved CO2. More than half of all wild species have shown significant changes in where they live and in the timing of major life events. Mega-heatwaves, such as those in Europe in 2003, the Moscow area in 2010, Texas and Oklahoma in 2011, Greenland in 2012, and Australia in 2013 have become more widespread with the increase demonstrably linked to global warming…. These growing climate impacts, many more rapid than anticipated and occurring while global warming is less than 1°C, imply that society should reassess what constitutes a ‘dangerous level’ of global warming.”4.
Those of us who are old may not be stung too badly by climate change. But a growing number of scientific papers indicate that young people –– the younger generation walking around now, our children and their children –– will be severely affected throughout their lives unless the massive contribution to global warming by the human race is reversed –– not slowed, not stopped, but reversed –– very soon. Reversed before key indicators reach “tipping points,” which by definition are irreversible on the human timescale.
To date, big corporations have not begun to reduce their contributions to plumes of CO2 and methane, which are being released into the already saturated atmosphere. “[C]arbon stays in the climate system for hundreds of thousands of years. Thus fossil fuel carbon is the crucial human input that must be limited.”5
Dare we interrupt corporate CEOs busy in further saturating the environment with toxins and waste for the short-term benefit of their stockholders? Dare we insist that political leaders work in the interests of society, and not so much in the interests of their backdoor paymasters in the corporate and financial world? How much longer can we afford to stand on the sidelines waiting for someone else to take life-saving initiatives to protect the coming generation, not to mention the animal, plant and insect life on which we all depend?
Now is the time to begin your “planet saving” lifestyle. Plant fruit trees, recycle all you can, compost, install low wattage bulbs, use water twice: the water that washed your salad greens can then water your indoor plants; install rain barrels to catch rain water to water your garden; purchase local produce and avoid produce that requires shipping from other countries.
It has been well documented that if all families around the world were to consume like a “frugal” American family, we would need the resources of three earths. If all the families of the world were to consume like a “typical” American family, we would need the resources six earths.6 Can there be any question that current levels of consumption in advanced economies are excessive and unsustainable?
Don‘t stand by waiting for Washington, Peking or Paris to do the right thing. It’s up to you to act with your neighbors. Organizations near you are working responsibly to reverse suicidal corporate and government policies that are herding civilization down the path to extinction. Get involved with an environmental effort, like the anti-fracking movement, and take responsible action to save what’s left of the Good Earth. The human race is facing nothing less than an existential threat. Intergenerational justice calls you to get involved now to save our young people, the children of their children and Nature itself.
2 Dahr Jamail, “The Climate Change Score Card.” Italics added.
3 Hansen J. et al., “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of carbon emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature”
“Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’”
“Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’”
number of worlds needed to sustain consumption varies from source to source, depending on methodologies and timeframes. A good place to begin comparing national footprints is here:http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/