Home > Columnists > How Scared Should We Be about Threats to the Climate? | Stanley Heller

How Scared Should We Be about Threats to the Climate? | Stanley Heller

About The Author

Stanley Heller Administrator of and writer for Promoting Enduring Peace and hosts “The Struggle” TV News, at www.TheStruggle.org. He can be reached at stanley.heller@pepeace.org.

On July 9 David Wallace Wells published a piece in New York magazine called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He sounds an alarm. He writes, “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.” That’s in just over 80 years. Yes, he is giving the worst-case predictions, but he thinks we should take these predictions seriously. He argues the scientific consensus on global warming and its effects are pretty grim, but to get most climate scientists into the consensus the predictions had to be conservative. He says we have to consider the outcomes that are less likely, but much more extreme.

In one week the piece has become the most read article in New York magazine’s 49 year history.

On the bases of dozens of talks with “climatologists and researchers in related fields,” Wells warns about world temperature rising 8 degrees centigrade by 2100, New York with temperatures like present day Bahrain, Mecca so hot that the hajj “will become physically impossible,” a new century with 50% less grain, diseases freed from melted Arctic ice, air pollution shortening life by a decade, major increases in armed conflicts and more.

His warnings have met with criticism. The site ClimateFeedback has collected a whole bunch of them. Michael Mann says Wells is “overstating some of the science”. Alexis Berg at Princeton claims the article has “a number of claims that are factually wrong.” Many point out that while these awful outcomes are possible, Wells never explains how probable any of them are.

Wells answered by publishing a version of the piece with an introduction putting things in more context and adding extensive links to his sources. Yet as a non-expert it seems to me there are some exaggerations He writes the hajj may be impossible within “several decades”, but the study he links to says that outcome will happen around 2100. And why exaggerate? James Hansen has been saying even 2-degree centigrade warming with be catastrophic for humanity.

Still his basic effort is righteous. We can’t just consider the most likely outcome and blithely overlook worst dangers. Consider the Indian Point nuclear power plant 50 miles from a New York City. It’s very unlikely there will be a meltdown, but after Chernobyl and Fukushima it’s obvious there is some significant possibility and the consequences would be appalling. So it’s being shut down.

Not a Prediction, but Now

This is very scary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the influence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increased in 2016 by the most in 30 years, yes, the most in 30 years. According to world government reports, the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air has stabilized in the last couple years so why are greenhouse gases in the air having more affect? Part of this is explained by the natural weather pattern El Niño, but it may not be the most part. In 2017 we’re no longer in El Niño but the greenhouse gas increase so far is growing at only a “slightly lower” rate that last year. That’s according to an article in the New York Times by Justin Gillis. Gillis says scientists think that that the ability of oceans and land plants to absorb carbon dioxide can’t keep up with the immense amount of CO2 being created by burning. There’s also another possibility. It’s not in that Times article but climate scientist Robert Howarth has been warning for years that methane leaks from fracked gas mining and transport are undoing all the efforts at limiting carbon dioxide.

Massive Loss of Animal Population

On July 12 the Washington Post had an article headlined, “Earth is on its way to the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, scientists warn.” It talks about a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that said that said there was a huge loss of population in thousands of vertebrate species. Researchers examined 27,600 species of birds, amphibians, mammals and reptiles and found massive losses in over 8,000 species. The animal species are not extinct, but the loss of numbers is severe. “The findings, the study says, mean that billions of animal populations that once roamed the Earth are now gone.”

There’s been talk of a possible Sixth Great Extinction of animal species caused by climate change and loss of habitat. The authors of the study say “the sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short.”

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity which is not involved in the study said, “if we continue the trend we’re on, we’re going to be looking at 50 to 75 percent of our species lost over the next hundred years.”

The challenge is to bring this home to by showing what’s happening to individual animals. National Geographic did this a few months ago with photos of animals living on the cusp. An article in Smithsonian Magazine shows that the number of giraffes in Africa is down by 1/3 in 20 years, mostly because their habit is being taken for human use.

James Hansen Admits He Was Wrong

There was another article by Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine a week later. It was an interview with James Hansen who used to be the chief climate scientist at NASA. It’s about a lawsuit Hansen’s family has filed against the Federal government saying that by being reckless and harming the climate the government is depriving young people “of life, liberty and property.” So far, the federal judge in Oregon is refusing to dismiss the case.

When Trump was elected Hansen appealed to President Obama to settle the case. Imagine, Obama could have “reluctantly” agreed to all kinds of conservation and climate measures to settle the case. He wouldn’t do it. He was too smart. He wanted to stick to his rule changes and a Clinton presidency.

Hansen disputes the rosy green capitalism climate picture that former VP Gore is pushing. “Al Gore says we’ve turned a corner. It’s actually getting worse.”

So where does Hansen admit he was wrong? It’s not on any immediate analysis, but on something he said in his book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” There he claimed that if we burned all the fossil fuel on earth we’d have runaway warming and the atmosphere would become like Venus. He says now that’s wrong, because he was neglecting the cooling effect of the oceans. Small consolation, we’re only facing the wreck of civilization.

Summing up, how scared should we be about what’s going on with the climate and the natural world? Best to use a slogan publicizing the movie “The Fly” (1986 version): “Be afraid, be very afraid.”

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