Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What's causing the warming?

This is a companion to the "How Big Is It?" post.
It concerns global warming.  It's a thing.

The website has a nice, simple, graphic article showing the factors contributing to the gradual warming of our climate over the past 125 years, including human-produced effects and volcanoes.  It's titled, "What's Warming the World?"

Is it natural causes, like volcanoes, the earth's tilt wobbling, or solar energy?
Not really.
Crappy print-screen version of the animated graph,
with apologies to the authors.

Mostly, it's greenhouse gases.  Other environmental effects of human behavior (like deforestation and factory aerosols) are actually holding back the warming somewhat, and ground-level ozone is a slight contributor on the warming side.
print-screen version of the animated graph

(The article is simply and beautifully formatted for smartphones and devices, with active graphics.  Please look at the original; my "print screen" graphic doesn't do it justice.)

I showed this to my friend Barbara today.  She liked it - it's very clear.  But she also said she'd recently found a quote from the now-80-something author of the Gaia Theory, who figures we're already past the point of no return.  He considers it unlikely that plants will adapt fast enough to survive in the new climate, which means most of our food supply will not adapt (not to mention problems with pest-predator balance).  Which means human life as we know it today is a fleeting thing.  He says we might as well party; he's giving it 20 years max.

Depressing thought.  Both Barbara and I are not ready to accept the idea that it's all over, or that because one is late taking action, it's better to embrace counter-productive vices in some kind of nihilistic end-game.  This is not a game.  Nobody really knows what's going to happen (all the witnesses to previous sudden climate change events are long-dead, after all; and the sharks ain't talking).  So we might as well keep doing the things that we figure might make a difference - reducing impact, moving resilient plant species into higher and cooler niches, breeding and sharing heirloom seeds that have good genetics for drought-tolerance, extreme temperature tolerance, and so on.

Because there are always doom-sayers, and they're usually wrong.
Life as we know it has ended numerous times already - "we" would not recognize the social mores, language, or geography that was familiar to our great-grandparents.
My Depression-era grandmother kept calling our cell phones "wrist phones" like from Dick Tracy.  Her father wrote poetry about his friends among the loggers who cleared southern Wisconsin - today's dairy country was deep pine woods in their day.
Her grandmother rendered her own boot black from skunks.  I cannot imagine my housemates' reaction if I were to suggest popping a skunk in the oven for a few hours so we could take better care of our shoes.  (Though my wonderful husband probably does know enough about mustelid anatomy to butcher a road-killed skunk without puncturing the musk glands, making the idea more practical for us than for most of our contemporaries.)

Life as we know it changes continuously, sometimes suddenly, sometimes irrevocably.

As I've described before:
I told my grandmother about Peak Oil in 2007: "They say there's only so much oil in the ground; it's getting more expensive to get it out, and that means a lot of the way we do things is going to have to change."
She laughed, "They've been saying that for years."
"And did it change?"
"I guess...."
Depression, WWII, early graduation and traveling 1000 miles from home to take a 3-week welding course and spend 3 years building Victory Ships... marrying a haunted veteran half-again your age, and raising 4 children in 27 different houses while he helped build the hydropower dams that transformed the Western states (with impacts on electricity, irrigation, fisheries, and massive cultural displacement for both the work crews and their families, but more importantly, for the former inhabitants of the flooded valleys and the new communities growing alongside the altered landscapes).

How much of that change was due to oil prices?

At the individual level, the biggest impact on our personal lives can be attributed to a novice driver losing track of which pedal did what.  This changed our paths more than the insights and career changes of overseas travel, more than the 2008 recession, arguably even more than meeting each other (without that terrifying trial by fire, we probably would not be fused together in quite the same way).

Was that driver caused by oil prices?  Not any more than Ernie's reaction was caused by his military service.

The recession affected my ability to find work after Grandma passed away.  But Ernie's injury affected that even more - because it was difficult to work enough hours to make ends meet and still be home enough for caregiving and chores, unless I could work from home.

What we forget when assessing our collective responsibility in these big-picture scenarios is that we never had the option of a life "without change."  History is one long series of scene-changes, with empires rising and falling and writhing, dramatic weather changes (though perhaps none so big as the ones we can expect in the near future), and of course our own individual choices and circumstances that alter our lives even if we escape being a direct part of the big-picture statistics (being born above or below stairs; how to respond to that intolerable co-worker; whether to let that no-good charmer lure you off into a dark corner).

There was never the option to "freeze frame."  Our weather records only go back to the 1880s, the heyday of the steam era.  How long had we been burning coal and forests before that?  How many of the Ice Age animals were already gone for good?
The gardens of Babylon were already salt-encrusted wastes; Ozymandias already long forgotten and re-remembered.

If we wanted to go back to a real "before," before we started on this path that has resulted in the changes perceptible to the current generations, we'd have to go back a long way.  Before oil was discovered in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania?  Before coal mining?  Before the massive deforestations of the Age of Sail and the exploration (1400s, both in China and in Europe).

Have you ever read any original literature from the 1400s?  Most of us would be trying to talk to ancestors who spoke a different language - who had no word for "extinction," let alone "cell phone." Mine in England would have used the word "nice" to mean "precise and fussy," and "pet" to mean "ill-tempered tantrum;" in Ireland, would have a Gaelic oral tradition due to centuries of being forbidden schooling under Norman and English rule; others would have been hearing Cinderella in the original French, or reading the Gutenberg Bible in German.

They could not predict our future from 125 years ago, let alone the 500+ years you'd have to go back before the expansionist Western industrial era.

We can speculate about rising sea levels (the coast lines will not stabilize again within our lifetimes), but we don't really know what will happen.  Each region will have specific events that punctuate that change; we don't yet know the names of the unprecedented storms, ruined power plants, mountain eruptions, and landslides that will become the historic markers of that change, or the massive public works projects that may stave it off.  Will San Francisco become the gatekeeper of dikes protecting the Central Valley?  Or will the Sierra foothills become coastal farms?  Or will The Big One render previous measurements irrelevant, moving the coastline somewhere else entirely?

We can speculate that life will be harder in the future - but all we know for sure is that it will be different.  If it's harder to travel, it may also be easier to stay close to family.  If it's harder to keep the lights on, it may be easier to get a good night's sleep.
Human beings, and life on earth, are remarkably adaptable.  I've heard some remarkable interviews with people who say "it's probably for the best" after the most appalling misfortunes (the original drummer for the Beatles, who left the band before they became famous, comes to mind).

And while many people will die, in various ways (most of them unpleasant), when all's said and done, the history books will be written by the survivors.

We don't even know if they will be "human."

But there's no call to deliberately make things worse; all you can do is the best you can do, one day at a time.