I’ve been trying to write about the report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since it was released on October 8th, but I’ve been so flummoxed by the generally collective “meh” I didn’t know where to start. In case you missed it, and I would not blame you if you did, the report warns that we have until the year 2030 to make significant changes (essentially eliminate) in the introduction of more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere or we face irreversible environmental and social upheaval.
While still processing that article the last few days, this morning I see an article from the Smithsonian Magazine: Earth Lost 2.5 Billion Years’ Worth of Evolutionary History in Just 130,000 Years. According to the article, “even if humans curbed destructive actions within next 50 years, it would take between five and seven million years for mammal biodiversity to fully recover.”
What is the value of a few hundred species of mammals you might ask, since after all, really, how many do we need to survive? After all, it is not as if we use products from, or eat more than a few selected mammal species—and those are the product of generations of artificial selection anyway so probably safe from extinction. While life as a “concept” may be hard to eradicate and is quite durable, after all Jeff Goldblum taught is in the movie Jurassic Park that “life will find a way,” the stability of ecosystems in their current homeostatic state is quite fragile and ephemeral. While ecosystems, and the planet as a whole, can withstand significant changes in conditions, the current balance of organisms living within that balance is quite delicate. Removing a few hundred mammal species from the biosphere, or more locally a few from a biome or ecosystem, could have catastrophic effects (for us) on that ecosystem, biome, or even the entire biosphere.
Coupling this report about biodiversity reduction with last week’s dire warning about climate change means it has not been a good week for the planet. Actually, the planet will be fine. It is just all of use fragile life forms that will have to adjust to a very different planet. Life will find a way. It just may not be an ecosystem that supports tall, lumbering, tailless, mostly hairless (except for the recent proliferation of facial hair in actors and musicians) large-brained primates with remarkable opposable thumbs.
Considering that despite our large brains and opposable thumbs we cannot even agree on the color of a picture of a dress on facebook, let alone take political action and/or engineer a solution, I do not see a whole lot of hope that we can take any significant collective action before 2030. I am having a hard time envisioning even enough actions happening to slightly mitigate some of the effect, let alone avoid catastrophic impacts to our climate. These changes mean we will experience significant sea level rise, increasing ocean temperatures that will radically alter weather patterns, and the desertification of much of the North American, Europe, and Eurasian interiors, greatly reducing food production.
I am not shocked by either of these reports. I have been aware of these dangers for more than 20 years and scientists have been making such predictions for decades. I am not even shocked by the fact that, despite such reports, we are losing ground right now in our efforts to enact policy to even attempt to mitigate climate change. We still have leaders (and supporters) that are ignorant of these reports, believe they are overblown discounting the impact our one species can have, or insist it is an elaborate hoax, as if you could get thousands of scientists to secretly all come to the same conclusions (see dress reference above).
All of those responses frustrate me, but the response that infuriates me is the response that we cannot afford to take action. Apparently, within their cost benefit analysis, it is not worth the risk of spending the money and potentially shifting the job market from one energy source to another, to warrant taking action and either fail or take unnecessary steps in the unlikely event the prediction was not as dire as predicted. If you were playing Texas Hold ‘em and there was a 99% chance your opponent had a winning hand, would you go all in? Those taking this position are admitting defeat to the climate (and societal structures) as we know it and going all in purely for their short-term financial and power-status stability at the expense of future generations.
They used to have the luxury of thinking this was generations off and we had time for one of those brilliant, bearded, scientists will come up with a solution to save us. That is not panning out. We do not even have our flying cars yet. Warp drive is certainly not around the corner. Our current leaders using this pessimistic algorithm are clearly communicating that they are going to just ride this one out, profit while they can, and since they will die before it gets too bad, then well, “Meh, whatta ya gonna do?” The selfishness of this inaction unconscionable.
Here is what flummoxes me, though. Why are these not the only news stories we are talking about? While we are distracted with all things Trump and GOP acquiescence scientists are predicting the end of the modern human way of life as we know it. This is not a prediction made in the National Inquirer. This is peer-reviewed, credible science speaking with one voice. And we are more interested in the president calling Stormy Daniels horseface or if Jim Mattis will be defense secretary for another week.
Maybe it is just too much to fathom, so we retreat to the short-term and want to believe that if we recycle our plastic bottles, we are doing what we can. The moral in movies such as “Independence Day” or “Arrival” (I cannot believe I’m putting those movies in the same sentence) is that the world can and will come together under an alien threat to our existence. The threat is here now and it is real—but it is not extraterrestrial in origin. We must shift our global dialogue to this issue, choose leaders who take this warning seriously and have the political strength to support policies prompting radical environmental action, and be willing to examine critically our own personal habits of consumption. Or ride it out with a smile.