Monday, June 26, 2017

Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Outstripping the Planet’s Absorption: A Major Turning-Point

The human species has reached such a size—and with the population of Africa expected in 2017 to double by 2050 from an incredulous and oblivious fertility rate (i.e., as if there were no tomorrow) in spite of life-threatening impacts on that continent already from global warming—that profound changes to the planet can from now on hardly be avoided unless or until nature’s swift hand acts through pestilence, famine, or over-crowding conflict. Making matters worse, we are flying without having bothered to detail a navigation flight-plan, for even homo sapiens’ cognitive wiring has been outstripped by not only our inherent selfishness and preference for instant gratification, but also our sheer presumptuousness. In hindsight, we can say we have acted rashly in having polluted so in the twentieth century—the benefit of hindsight being shown in our shortcomings even in being able to keep tabs on the extent of the damage.

By 2017, human activity was estimated to be adding almost 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the air annually; the atmospheric concentration of the heat-retaining gas had risen by about 43 percent since the Industrial Revolution.[1] In a particularly ominous sign, the “excess carbon dioxide scorching the planet rose at the highest rate on record in 2015 and 2016,” with a “slightly slower but still unusual rate of increase” continuing into 2017.[2] These “telltale indicators” point to the way human activity was already “altering the planet on a major scale.”[3] Lest it be concluded that tightening emission targets is the answer, the amount of the gas being emitted by human activity had largely stopped rising even as the amount that stays in the air was going up faster than ever. Perhaps the oceans were becoming saturated, hence no longer nearly as able to absorb the gas from the air. From decades of research, scientists had established that less than half of the gas emitted by humans was remaining in the atmosphere, and thus warming the planet, because the rest “was being absorbed by the ocean and the land surface, in roughly equal amounts.”[4] Of particular concern, even as humanity had felt entitled to pollute as if there were no tomorrow in the twentieth century, the species could not even ascertain whether or not the amount of gas in the air had finally outstripped the “natural sponges,” such as ocean water and trees. Furthermore, not even scientists had any idea how much methane, which traps heat even more efficiently than carbon dioxide does, was escaping from the melting permafrost in the extreme northern climes such as in Siberia. In short, humanity in its short-sightedness and presumption tends to dismiss the limits in the human ability to know things.

It is as if we were starting out on a long distance road-trip without bothering to check the balance in our bank account, so we are anxious because we cannot calculate exactly how much money for gas will be necessary to reach the destination and return home. To fear being stranded and yet not know how much money is available is obviously irrational, yet it may be part of the human condition. I actually had that dream last night. I had outstripped my own cognition in racking my brain over how much gas I would need, and yet I was presumptuously going to set out on the long-distance trip anyway. No doubt my dream was prompted in part by the highs of 114F on three days last week (followed by days at 108F)—heat neither I nor any of my ancestors from Europe had ever experienced for days on end. Just living in a desert is itself presumptuous from the standpoint of the many centuries of natural selection behind my pale-skinned genetics, whose inherent limitations I should honor. 

I can now understand by experience how global warming could indeed eventually render some parts of the United States uninhabitable for humans. While I do believe that technological advances yet to come may stave off catastrophe (i.e., by extracting huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air), the limitations of human knowledge on even how the planet has been reacting to our over-reaches gives me some pause. In the end, our presumption—what we feel entitled to in the convenient assumptions we make—may be the seed of our species’ destruction. We may have blood on our own hands, yet presumptuously assume that someone else did it.  

1. Justin Gillis, “Carbon in Atmosphere Is Rising, Even as Emissions Stabilize,” The New York Times, June 26, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.