Burning Planet

The presidential campaign was notable for many things, Big Bird, legitimate rape, states rights, Hurricane Sandy and the disastrous First Debate. Republicans pushed an anti-social agenda, notable more for its vacuity than any serious attempt to discuss the very serious problems  facing our nation.

Conservatives do not acknowledge the need to modernize our infrastructure, to put people back to work regardless of whether it is private enterprise or government that does it, to make sure that all the people living here have access to healthcare, that children are educated, that we do not lose our technological and scientific edge. Instead, conservatives waffle on about cutting government, cutting taxes, cutting education, cutting food stamps, cutting entitlements. It is as though they were possessed of a single tool, a rather large hammer, and everything they see looks like a nail.

Conservatives are unable to admit that there is no single solution to all of life’s problems, that you cannot solve everything by taking things away. They remind me of the venerable ostrich, which faces the rushing onslaught of a predatory animal by sticking their head in the sand and hoping that the danger will pass them by. Naturally, by sticking their head in the sand, they do not have to acknowledge that the danger exists at all. It you refuse to see it, it must not exist.

Conservatives seem to have received their philosophy of life from Plato, who talked about people being chained in a cave facing a wall, and all that they could see of the outside world were shadows on the wall. Since shadows are ethereal, they must not represent reality at all.

This then is the conservative world view; if you do not find reality convenient, if the facts are too hard to follow, or conflict with your absolutist world view, ignore the facts, attack the messenger as biased or part of a larger conspiracy. Conservatives revel in conspiracies about their world, everything is a plot against them or their beliefs.

I was reading an article in the Scientific American about climate change at lunch today, produced by real, living, breathing scientists. These are people who dedicate their lives to finding out how the world works, and keeping us informed about their findings. They don’t have time for conspiracies, or woolly ideas, they report what they find, along with the proper interpretation of the facts as they find them. They have no political agenda, they are not there to arouse fear, they are there to report the facts.

This article says that climate scientists are quite confident that if we keep temperatures from rising more than about two degrees celsius, the damage by climate change will not be as bad as it might have been. They now realize that the climate is changing a lot faster than they had first believed. Sea ice in the Arctic is vanishing at a great rate than they first predicted. The ice on land is also melting faster than first believed, which causes the remaining ice on land to flow into the ocean.

The problem is what the article termed feedback. A change in one predictor leads to changes in others, which reinforce each other and make the problem worse. For instance, the article says that sea ice reflects sunlight back into space, reducing the impact of solar radiation. When the sea ice disappears, the sun is able to heat the ocean more than normal, causing ocean temperatures to rise more swiftly. This, of course causes sea ice to melt more rapidly, and so the action continues, a feedback loop.

Continental ice, or permafrost shields the land, which often contains large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. When the ice on land melts, these chemicals are open to the elements, and escape into the atmosphere. Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and methane exacerbate climate change with the greenhouse effect, which retains heat within the atmosphere instead of radiating out into space.

Some scientists believe that a rapidly warming planet will cause sea levels to rise by anything up to five meters. If that were to happen, cities across the globe would be submerged. A sea level rise of that magnitude would cause billions, if not trillions of dollars of damage to cities everywhere.

With Hurricane Sandy we saw what a relatively mild storm can do to coastal areas. Imagine if storms like that happened regularly every year, or multiple times a year, in many parts of the globe. The damage to infrastructure would become immeasurable. At some point, people will stop trying to rebuild, abandon coastal areas causing a massive movement of people to other parts of the nation or the world. The social discord will become intolerable causing violence to break out. Unhygienic conditions in refugee camps will cause diseases like cholera to become endemic.

None of this entered into the Presidential campaign. Conservative were too worried about what women were doing with their bodies, or reducing funding for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or reducing deficits. The Democrats were too worried about saving social security and medicare. What neither party realizes is that our planet is dying, and we are fiddling while it happens. We seem to believe that it will solve itself, and it will not.

People, and especially politicians and the powerful need to take action, prompt action, for without it, our civilizations will whither, violence will increase, hunger, disease will become rampant. Yes, I know, I sound like just another doomsayer, a Cassandra, but the evidence that we have available to us indicates that this is happening, that it is accelerating. It does not matter what our political ideology tells us, we need to do something now to make sure that this planet will be a wonderful place to live for centuries to come.

My guess is that people will do nothing until it is too late, until we have some major disaster, whether it be a large storm like Sandy that causes major destruction, or a disease like tuberculosis or malaria, or worse that sweeps through our people taking lives. Like so much in our lives, there is still a slim hope that we can do something, but time is short.

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