Friday, December 5, 2014

Beyond the Reach of Any Greenhouse-Gas Agreement: Nature’s Contribution

With China and the U.S. coming to an agreement in 2014 on limiting their respective greenhouse-gas emissions, the Peru talks suddenly gained new momentum toward a deal on a global scale. To be sure, even the U.S.-China agreement would not kick in for years, if not decades, and a global agreement would not even take effect until 2020 at the earliest. This drawback may pale in comparison to one of nature’s own contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions, and nature itself cannot agree to voluntarily restrict its own output. Accordingly, we should not assume that a global agreement will save the day, rendering the planet still inhabitable for humans in the next century.

All across the Arctic, scientists have detected abnormally high concentrations of methane seeping out of the thawing permafrost. Along Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula in 2014, concentrations of the greenhouse gas 50,000 times higher than the atmospheric average were found to be rising from a 200 feet deep hole created when a large sheet of permafrost thawed and collapsed. In Canada’s western Arctic, three of many seeps found in the area have been found to be emitting as much greenhouse gases in a year as are emitted by 9,000 average-sized cars.[1]

Methane has ten times the greenhouse-effect as carbon. Nature’s contribution to global warming may thus turn out to dwarf the impact of any conceivable global agreement. The continuing thawing of the permafrost in the Northern hemisphere past 2014 is a certainty given the carbon and methane already in the atmosphere then and the fact that carbon emission targets in the U.S.-China agreement are merely to get back to earlier levels, such as that of 2005 in the case of the U.S.  In other words, we may have set in motion a chain-reaction beyond our reach that could result in atmospheric warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius—the tipping point, scientists tell us, beyond which life would become very unpleasant and even impossible for our species on Earth.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a European philosopher and classicist who wrote in the late nineteenth-century, uses the analogy of light coming from a star light-years away, showing an event that has already happened yet the knowledge of which has not yet reached Earth. In the analogy, we have caused the event ourselves and yet we do not know it yet.  Similarly, we may already have put in motion a chain reaction that will result in our own extinction as a species and yet the light carrying this news has not yet reached us. So we go on as if our governments’ paltry negotiations are somehow newsworthy, even potentially a game-changer. More generally, we put so much stock in the power of our own wills that we don’t stop to ask whether the true game-changer might just be dealt by Nature independent of our efforts at international relations. As a species, we may already have blood on our hands, and yet we, the culprits, do not see it.

[1] Edward Struzik, “The End and Beginning of the Arctic,” The Huffington Post, December 5, 2014.