Climate Change: Its Short-Term and Long Term Local and Global Contexts

“Call it Mother, if you will…but Earth is not a doting parent.” (Isaac Asimov). Rather, a “tough love” mother?
“Everything is connected to everything else.” (Ecologist/economist Barry Commoner, ca. 1970). Also Commoner:
“Environmental impact = population x consumption per capita x impact per unit of consumption (ie. technology).”
“The tragedy of the (global) commons”. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay: abuse of atmosphere, oceans, rivers, lands, forests.

It is said that our history is an ongoing debate between the past and the present, concerning the future (“journalism is but the first draft of history”). Or, to quote Milan Kundera:
“Man proceeds in a fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their far-away future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog.” (Or: “Isn’t hindsight marvellous?” Or: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”)

Opinions on climate change and other concerns, often strongly held, often based on incomplete and unbalanced information and perceptions, vary widely. “Futurology” is a risky endeavour; in our lifetimes, we’ve witnessed antibiotics, television, jet engines, the atomic bomb, IVF, pharmaceutical proliferation, lasers, gene technology, disposable nappies, aerosol sprays, organ transplants, Botox injections, space travel – and more! Recall 1950’s predictions of domed cities, nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners / vehicles / free electric energy, and the total failure to predict computers, the Internet, current geopolitics and the climatic impacts of industrialisation? Nobody predicted pulsars, quasars, gamma-ray bursts, the standard model of particle physics, cosmic dark matter and dark energy, and much more. So we foresee more unforeseeable discoveries (“unknown unknowns”). Here follows one person’s “first draft” (incomplete, fog-bound) to make some sense of humankind’s prognosis, from the perspective that our common values and democratic freedoms, derived from historical freedoms of thought and accompanying freedoms of expression from the Athenian polis to the European Enlightenment, are worth conserving for ourselves and following generations, and are applicable to the current polarized debate: climatic futurology.

We face historically unprecedented local and global environmental “5/50” concerns: since 1900 AD, Earth has had to sustain a 5-fold human population increase (1.5 to 7.2 billions), with a 50-fold increase in global GDP demands on planetary resources. Today, as never before, our spaceship Earth entire, with its 7.2 billion humans increasing by 70-80 millions annually (Lester Brown, 2009), sorely needs unifying , calming , non-divisive influences. Our quarrelsome species has to establish a climate of international cooperation, to address our planet’s three major priorities:

(1) How to bring disastrous population increases in impoverished nations under control, while minimising distress?
(2) How to remediate local conflicts, keeping the global peace, while denying Earth’s latest tyrants and terrorists their historically unprecedented access to catastrophic weaponry?
(3) How to persuade economically developed countries to adopt environmentally sustainable use and a fairer distribution of global biospheric, atmospheric, mineral, agricultural and freshwater resources, while avoiding irremediable damage to our planet’s essential “civilization-supporting infrastructure”, including its climate.

The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that an extra Earth is needed by 2050 to retain even today’s rapidly diminishing level of biodiversity (the current mass extinction rate is greater than 100 species/million spp/year, at least 100 times pre-industrial levels), as our population approaches (and exceeds?) planet Earth’s carrying capacity: Thomas Malthus’ “feeding outrun by breeding”? Brown (2009): global population increase had slowed from 90 to 70 millions per year; hence Sanyal’s 2012 claim that falling global TFR (total fertility rate), then 2.4 births per woman, would limit us to 9 billions by the 2050’s, thereafter decreasing. This forecast has now been offset by Africa’s unanticipated rate of population increase: U.N. prediction is now 10.9 billions of us by 2100. In addition to biodiversity loss, other major concerns (as summarized in Scientific American, April 2010) which are approaching or exceeding Earth’s safe limits (i.e. its ability to repair ecosystem degradations while maintaining humankind’s needs), include: fertilizer overloading of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone depletion and atmospheric aerosol loadings, land use (conversion to croplands and pastures), freshwater consumption (2,600 cubic km/year!), ocean acidification, and various chemical pollutions of land, oceans and freshwater supplies.

Accelerating these problems is climatic change. Most (although not all) mathematical climate models indicate that humankind’s industrial/agricultural “greenhouse emissions” (with 2/3 of warming effects due to carbon dioxide, 1/3 due to methane/nitrous oxide/halocarbons) are mainly responsible for most of the global land-ocean surface warming, by about one degree Celsius from 1910 to 1998, with another 2 to 2.5 degrees (or worse?) locked in despite any “carbon neutral” emission controls. Warmer oceans, melting glaciers & polar ice caps, are raising sea levels (3 mm/year, or 30 cm/century); this can weaken thermohaline ocean circulation, including the Gulf Stream and Antarctic circumpolar current. Thawing Arctic permafrost can release additional greenhouse methane. Climatic models predict, for Australia, 50% less inflow in the Murray-Darling basin by 2050: a limiting factor on population growth? Jared Diamond (2005), reviewing our depleting soil/water resources, estimated Australia’s long-term sustainable population at present living standards to be 8 millions! Already with 23 millions, are we “the first-world’s miner’s canary?” Polar jet stream “wobbling” (Sci. Am. Dec. 2014) results in abnormally warm or cold air masses “getting stuck” over large regions, with more frequent weather extremes (droughts, floods, deep freezes and heat waves, e.g. Feb.2009 Victorian megafires); also, shrunken urban/rural and hydroelectric/irrigation water supplies (e.g. Sydney down 60%, Melbourne down 35% by 2030, requiring energy-guzzling desalination.) Also, we see salinity-damaged agricultural production, intensified tropical cyclones and diseases, flooding (Brisbane, 2011), and loss of essential animal/plant habitat. Globally, we face extinction of 25% of animal and plant species by 2050. Threatened national treasures include Kakadu wetlands (saltwater incursion), Great Barrier Reef (coral bleaching, oceanic acidification), tropical rainforests and Alpine snowfields (heat, drought).

Even allowing for uncertainties in climatic models, including their failure to predict the 17 years pause in global surface temperature rise since 1998’s El Nino event, this “future-eating” outlook is alarming. In The Weather Makers (2005), palaeontologist Tim Flannery, a strong local supporter of the above scenario, admitted to large unknowns, e.g. “Although it is a greenhouse gas, water vapour is also an enigma in the climate change arena, for it forms clouds, and clouds can both reflect light energy and trap heat. By trapping more heat than reflecting light, high thin clouds tend to warm the planet, while low thick clouds have the reverse effect. No single factor contributes more to our uncertainty of future climate change predictions”. Although CO2 only slightly warms the atmosphere, this may enable it to retain more moisture, warming it further (a positive feedback), despite the above “clouds of uncertainty”. Further uncertainty (Smith, 2007) is due to cosmic rays (high-energy charged particles, probably from distant supernovae) which could be “pivotal” in cloud formation. Cosmic rays generate ions which help form molecular clusters (eg. O3/SO2/H2O) which aid in cloud condensation, reflection of solar radiation, and consequent planetary cooling. Cosmic ray inbound flux is reduced (deflected away from Earth) by “historically high levels of solar activity”; if true, planetary warming may decline, and precipitation increase, as solar activity reduces during the next few years of the solar cycle.

However, 5 IPCC climate experts (Collins et al, 2007, including our BOM’s Robert Colman)) have reviewed uncertainties in the 10 major modeled climate-driving “radiative forcings”. Warming (“positive”) drivers are natural solar energy (0.2 W/m2, Watts per square metre, down at Earth’s surface), plus 5 anthropogenic tropospheric greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, N2O, O3: 2.8 W/m2), plus aircraft contrails and stratospheric H2O vapour from methane (0.1 W/m2). Anthropogenic cooling (negative) drivers are land use (greater reflectivity - “albedo”- of pasture and croplands), aerosol sunlight reflection, aerosol effects on clouds (the major uncertainty), totaling 1.2 W/m2). Their conclusion: a 90% certain net (1.7 W/m2) “hands-down win” for anthropogenic (human-induced) warming forcings; see also Houghton (2009); IPCC Report, 2014.

From a longer perspective, David Johnson (The Geology of Australia, 2012) reviews our climate history since the mantle-plume-driven breakup of Gondwana, with Antarctica drifting to the south pole, and Australia still drifting northwards (67 mm/year) into warmer climes, with gradual episodic conversion from continent-wide cool temperate rainforests (e.g. remnant Antarctic beech Nothofagus forests in southern Australia) and tropical rainforests, to our modern semi-arid interior, with its dominant Eucalyptus, Acacia and other xerophytic (drought-resistant) vegetation. The five main factors influencing climate changes during recent centuries and millennia, have been as follows:

(1) Variations in solar activity, increasing by 25-30% (and still slowly increasing) since the Sun and planets formed, about 4.6 Ga (billion years) ago. Solar irrradiance varies with its 11-year magnetic (sunspot) cycle, too weakly to influence weather. However, an enveloping 80-90 years cycle’s maxima (1630, 1700, 1780, 1850, 1950) and minima do correlate with advance and retreat of Northern Hemisphere glaciers during the last few centuries (also studied using 10Beryllium isotope measurements in ice cores). So the northern globe, at least, has been subject to a natural cooling effect since the 1990’s, becoming greater until around 2030, then warming towards 2070.

(2) Variations in Earth’s orbit (Milankovitch “wobbles”): Earth’s rotation axis tilts between 21.5 and 24.5 degrees over 41,000 years, affecting solar heating (insolation) at high latitudes, and hence climate; the elliptic shape (eccentricity) of Earth’s orbit varies over 100,000 years; combined with precession of Earth’s position in its orbit, we see recurring intervals of 23 000, 41 000, 100 000 and 400 000 years. These match many of the known Pliocene and Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles during the last 2.5 Ma (million years). Calculations indicate that Earth’s orbit will become almost circular around the Sun for “an extended period”, hence avoiding large variations in surface heating (solar insolation) associated with elliptical orbits. When combined with ice-core CO2 and CH4 (methane) measurements, it seems that new ice-sheets should have appeared 6000 – 3500 years ago, but did not; unexpected increases in CO2 and CH4 did occur 8000 and 5000 years ago, possibly due to human farming activity. So we may have been starting to affect climate millennia in the past?

(3) Tectonic plate movements and mountain building (orogenies): when elevated landmasses intersect cold atmosphere above 5000 metres, major ice sheet formation can start climatic feedbacks, with global cooling to ice-house states. Clear evidence exists of episodic orogenies during compressional plate collisions forrning Gondwana and Pangea: e.g. the Alice Springs Orogeny, 450-300 Ma ago, during Earth’s prolonged Permo-Carboniferous Gondwan ice-house. Also, tensional events affect global climate, as occurred when the separation of South America and Australia from Antarctica allowed Antarctica to be thermally isolated by its cold circumpolar ocean current, with formation of its massive ice sheet. Due to their major transfers of heat between equatorial and high polar latitudes, and their effects on surface air temperatures (e.g. the Gulf Stream warming northern Europe, while Canada freezes), oceanic current changes in heat balances cause climate changes. The most recent icehouse closely followed the collision of India with Asia 54-49 Ma ago, with upthrust of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya mountains by some 5-8 km.

(4) Volcanic eruptions: large ones can erupt vast amounts (e.g. Sumatra’s Toba, estimated 2800 cubic km, 75,000years ago), injecting dust and SO2 (sulphur dioxide) up to20-39 km into the stratosphere; e.g. the Phillippines’ far smaller Pinatubo plume: jet stream winds circulated some 30 billion tonnes of sulphurous aerosol layers of for years, cooling parts of the northern hemisphere by 2 degrees during 1992. While periods of intense volcanic activity (measured by acidity along ice cores) do match glacial advances, resultant falls in global temperatures last only a few years.

(5) Greenhouse gas interactions: past CO2 levels, as measured by stomatal density in fossil leaves from the past 300 million years, and Boron-11 levels of Foraminifera shells in deep-sea sediment cores, have “certainly fluctuated considerably over geological time, and commonly were much higher than present (400 ppm) levels” (Johnson, 2012). E.g, only 2 periods of CO2 less than 1000 ppm are indicated, both coinciding with glacial climates (Permo-Carboniferous and Tertiary Periods), with intervening CO2 levels up to 2000 ppm, even greater, during the very warm Cretaceous climate when dinosaurs were dominant and sea levels up to300 metres higher than today. During the following 65-52 Ma, CO2 levels are estimated at more than 2000 ppm, then declining to less than 500 ppm for the last 24 Ma. Such variations in the carbon cycle are due to a range of very complex gas exchange interactions – changing rates of plant evolution and photosynthesis, CO2 absorption in peatlands, coal seams, by marine phytoplankton and oil, by tectonically exposed rock weathering, by varying oceans and their currents, with the atmosphere as a central component in global temperature regulation.

So: what are Johnson’s conclusions from all this? From ice core data, during the past 800,000 years greenhouse gas concentrations have oscillated between 180-300 ppm (parts per million) CO2, and 320-790 ppb (parts per billion) methane, being higher when warmer and lower during cold periods, until 1800 AD. Since 1800, CO2 has risen to 400 ppm, and methane to almost 1800 ppb. At present rates of increase, CO2 will be within 450-500 ppm before 2050, above levels which have maintained the Antarctic ice sheet since its formation around 34 Ma ago, and Arctic sea ice cover since its formation around 2.8 Ma ago. Earth is fast approaching a climate never experienced by humankind, with re-melting en masse of polar ice, and a raft of accompanying problems. IPCC has estimated that in 2005 compared with 1750, anthropogenic greenhouse gas production has increased the heat retained in Earth’s atmosphere by 2.6 Watt per square metre (W/m2): a major increase, compared with a small solar contribution (0.12 W/m2) and those from the other 3 sources (above).

And now for alternative opinions: climate has always changed, is a self-correcting system; we can adapt to “lukewarming” without economic ruin. E.g., palaeoclimatologist Robert Carter (2008), citing the long record of climate change within ocean-floor sediments, maintains that CO2 is “the best aerial fertiliser”, boosting crop yields (by up to 14%: greenhouses can increase CO2 concentration from current 400 ppm up to 500 ppm, when increasing plant growth levels off); this helps to feed the world, and helps revegetation of degraded areas, including Africa’s Sahel. The $trillions Kyoto Protocol would “deliver no significant cooling – less than 0.02C by 2050”; “deep cuts to Australia’s 1.2% of global emissions would…delay warming by 0.001C.” The past (Pleistocene) 2.5 million years have seen 50 glacial and interglacial periods, with Earth colder for 90% of the past 400,000 years, and brief warmings of about 10,000 years; the last glaciation’s cold peak was only 20,000 years ago. With civilisation’s 10,000-years “long summer” ending, Carter’s “reputable climate change scientists” agree that climate will again cool (are human greenhouse gases delaying an ice age?). Northern hemisphere was warmer than now in Roman times (200BC-400AD) and mediaeval times (800-1300AD), followed by a “little ice age” (the Thames could freeze during winter) between 1550 and C18th. Global mean surface temperature cooled from 1880-1910, rose until 1940, cooled until 1970, again rose (0.19C per decade), peaking in 1998’s El Nino event. Despite CO2 increasing by 2 ppm annually, the 5-year moving average global surface temperature has since stabilized, with 2014 marginally warmer (by 0.04C: NASA, 2014; geophysicist Michael Asten, 2015). Meteorologist W. Kininmonth (2008): evaporative cooling from vegetation and warming oceans, extra cloud formation, extra precipitation and removal of atmospheric H2O vapour (negative feedback) will restrict global warming, to 0.5C rather than IPCC modelled 2.5C, even if pre-industrial CO2 doubles to Professor Garnaut’s “realistic goal” of 550 ppm; modelling “grossly exaggerates” human-induced climate change. On geological time scales, temperature rises can precede CO2 increases, including the Mauna Loa (Keeling) CO2 graph used in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; however, as noted by David Johnson (The Geology of Australia, 2012), these two climatic factors interact as “a coupled system: if one rises or falls, the other responds, no matter which happened first.” Without natural greenhouse effect, average Earth temperature would be -18C (“icehouse Earth”) instead of +15C. Carter (2008): H2O vapour causes up to 95% of this greenhouse effect, with CO2 a trace gas responsible for 3.6%; only 0.12% or 0.036C is due to human activity. Monckton (2011): European cap-and-tax is “a costly fiasco”; late C20th warming is due to natural “blocking highs”.

If such arguments are correct, then mitigating climate change is Carter’s “futile quest”. However, starting in 2006, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Dayton, 2006) has strongly denied that “catastrophist” climatologists fail to consider deep time, and reminders (e.g. by geologist Ian Plimer, 2009) that Earth has been warm and wet for most of geological history, and claims that climate change is natural and poses no serious hazards. Plimer also reminds us that at least some Pacific “rising sea levels” are due to crustal subsidence; during such times, coral atolls are actually produced by reef growth (first described by Charles Darwin in 1845; now supported by independent research from Auckland University). However, an AAAS panel of experts on ancient climate states that we are performing a high-stakes climate experiment by burning fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse CO2 by 2ppm/year. Past extreme global warming events (e.g. 3 million and 55 million years ago) suggest that abrupt climate change could occur, far worse than predicted; these greenhouse warmings were triggered by volcanic eruptions and massive release of gases trapped in icy “methane hydrates”. Palaeoclimatologist James Zachos maintains that “the emissions that caused the PETM episode of global warming (Palaeocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55 million years ago) probably lasted 10,000 years; by burning fossil fuels we’re likely to emit the same amount over the next three centuries.” While Earth is resilient and will adapt to rapid warming, burgeoning human societies – especially those in coastal areas – are another matter. Palaeobiologist Scott Wing (Smithsonian Museum) said: “hoping that we need not curtail GHG’s is equivalent to hoping the tooth fairy will come.” For Australia, it is claimed that decarbonised electricity generation (40% wind, 60% solar thermal “power tower”/molten salt storage, hydro & biomass backup) could be economically feasible within 10 years (Wright & Hearps, 2010).

Although annual global demand for fossil fuels is rising, due to population increase and rising living standards, tree planting and increased plant growth in CO2-enriched air can help its re-absorption. CO2 capture/sequestration (CCS) occurs in soil biochar, oceanic 2.7 km depths, or below 800 m in worked-out coal seams, oil fields or deep porous sandstone: e.g. 1 megatonne/yr since 1996 in Utsira aquifer, North Sea (no leakage), and in an Otway Basin depleted gas well (Williams, 2008). A “hydrogen energy economy” (e.g. reacting coal/steam/oxygen to obtain H2 while burying CO2) may augment solar photovoltaic, lithium-ion battery storage, wind and geothermal energy, safer post-Chernobyl thorium reactors and waste disposal, even deuterium fusion power (e.g. ITER’s 500 MW reactor, 5-30 power gain: Hole & O’Connor, 2009). Renewable biofuels (ethanol), petrol/electric (regenerative braking) motors, electric cars (range 600 km), can assist. Resource recycling, including minerals and fresh water, is increasing. Wildlife reserves, breeding programs, help to conserve remaining biodiversity. Consumer capitalist economies, having brought material prosperity to majorities in many nations (share-owners partly realising Marx’s vision of workers owning the means of production!), could rescue “third-world” populations from poverty if their ruling elites reform their economies to enable access to their goods and services. If “first-world” populations are weaned from reckless over-consumption of resources to responsible sustainable economies (see, e.g. Wald, 2009), Earth may be able to support a population of 10-11 billions at a reasonable living standard while a return to sustainable population levels takes place (Fernandez-Armesto, 1997; Foley et al, 2010; Flannery, 2010).

Our best reason for optimism lies in a rapid diffusion of the knowledge of our planet’s resources: “a problem stated is a problem half-solved.”. When the 1970’s “UV ozone hole” formed, nations did co-operate in remedial action: the Montreal protocol’s phasing out of ozone-depleting CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons). Likewise, the 2010 Copenhagen non-binding agreement among major emitters may yet reduce their CO2 outputs. The technologies exist to avoid Gandhi’s 1928 warning: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West….if an entire nation of 300 (now 900) million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts”. (Gandhi also once remarked: “Western civilisation? That sounds like it could be a good idea”). Political and business leaders are responding to global priorities as well as local constituencies’ immediate demands. Humankind at large can still avoid the “ecocide” of agrarian civilisations such as the Maya, Khmer, Sumerians, and Rapa Nui (Easter Islanders), who in ignorance trapped themselves in what population ecologists call the MIGODS pattern of development when a species enters a new ecological niche: Migration, Innovation (e.g. from foraging to farming), Growth (of population), Overexploitation (of food, soils, water, etc), Decline of population, then Stabilisation at a reduced carrying capacity in a degraded environment. One classic example was Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau deer population’s rapid J-curve overshoot during the 1930’s from a stable 30,000 to 63,000, causing winter starvation, followed by rapid collapse to 10,000 in a degraded forest environment; this was due to removal by overhunting of the control population of cougar predators (Kormondy, Concepts of Ecology).

In the short term: environmental prospects? Additional pressure on Earth’s stressed climate, agricultural resources, fisheries and remnant biodiversity also seems unavoidable Our small planet’s climatic balance and biosphere must somehow cope with inter-tribal strife in failed states and the consequent export of crime, drugs, terror, and refugees; the rapid catch-up industrialisation of burgeoning “third world” populations; and irresponsible “first-world” over-consumption of limited resources. Evolutionary psychologists such as Geoffrey Miller (2006) consider the problems of wasteful consumption and consumer-driven “adult infantilism” to be curable: “Darwinian critiques of runaway consumer capitalism should undermine the social and sexual appeal of conspicuous consumption. Absurdly wasteful displays (by“excess airheads”and “vacuous celebrities”) will become less popular once people comprehend their origins in sexual selection, and its pathetic unreliability as a signal of individual merit or virtue”.

Inevitably, Earth’s recovery of MIGODS sustainability will prevail, with or without our management of it. While global warming requires a global response (greenhouse emission reductions), worst-case scenarios should be seen in context: “Earth’s climate (is) extraordinarily complex… scientists do not yet fully understand it…we are looking at an intricate coupled system which links the behaviour of the atmosphere, oceans, land surface and the planet’s orbit around the Sun…..climate change is not an aberration or some malfunctioning of our planet; it is part and parcel of its natural behaviour (Lamb and Sington, 1998; Calder, 2007; Aitken, 2008). Physicist Frank Wilczec (New Scientist, 18/11/06) is optimistic: “The sun rains about 10.000 times as much energy onto Earth as we now use. We’ll learn how to capture at least a thousandth of that energy (eg. wind, solar thermal/salt storage), vastly increasing the world’s wealth”.

Kurt Lambeck (President, Aust. Academy of Science, 2007) is less sanguine: “Our children will be living in a world well-nigh unrecognisable to us”; forecasts include a major mass extinction, a Jurassic-type warm climate, acidic rising oceans, and no polar ice (as was the case for 89% of Earth’s geological history) unless we globally reduce greenhouse emissions. Changes explicable only by a 35% increase in atmospheric CO2 due to coal/oil/gas combustion are as follows: annual oceanic CO2 absorption has declined to 37% of emissions; surface air temp. is up by 0.7C last century, with probably a further 1.3C to 1.7C rise as early as 2050; global ocean warming, down to several hundred metres, accelerates sea-level rise; the stratosphere is cooling (not good news); northern hemisphere sea ice and snow cover are decreasing; glaciers are retreating; more extremes (heat waves, droughts, cyclones, intense rainfalls) are anticipated. Australia can expect a poleward shift in mid-latitude westerly winds and associated storm tracks, hence more frequent droughts and bushfires, eg. 2009 Victorian tragedy; also declining S/E Aust. rainfall, increased rains elsewhere (e.g. 2011 S/E Q’land floods), changing seasonal weather patterns and economic/social impacts. Arctic sea ice is melting 30 years faster than IPCC modelling (7.8% per decade, 3 times faster than predicted): no summer ice by 2020? Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting at about 125 billion tonnes annually ; we face global sea level rise, up to 1.4 metres by 2100, thereafter about 12 metres (Kristof, 2007). Bell (2008) warns that newly discovered abundant water under these ice sheets, lubricating accelerating slippage into the oceans, could hasten these rising seas; however, increasing sea levels are offset by a 2015 NASA report of increased ice accumulation on the East Antarctica ice sheet, more than making up for ice losses elsewhere.

Alternatively, can melting ice, with reduction in salinity and density, shut down thermohaline deep oceanic circulation including the Gulf Stream, causing Arctic re-freezing and a rapid-onset ice age, commencing in the northen hemisphere? BBC TV, The Next Ice Age (2006), presents evidence for such past events: Canadian glacial pebbles dropped from icebergs into French/Spanish offshore sediments, and temperature changes recorded in Greenland ice cores. Geologist Ian Plimer (2009) also considers that Earth, following the breakup of Gondwana (with Australia still drifting north-east at 67 mm/year) is in a lull in an ice age that began in the Oligocene, 37 myBP, when the Antarctic ice cap began to re-form; climate is changing within its normal cyclic parameters, less dramatically than during previous geological events, with none of the predicted catastrophic consequences. In short: do we fry or freeze? Can we adapt to climatic impacts, while being unable to mitigate them?

The IPCC has estimated (in April, 2007: draft 4th assessment report on global warming; physical climatic factors reviewed by Collins et al, Aug. 2007) that the rise in global emissions, with 75% coming from developing countries including China and India, can be stabilised at a cost of up to $US100 per tonne of carbon – a reduction of about 3% of GDP by 2030 (which is a great deal of money!). Its top three recommended technologies are CO2 capture and sequestration (CCS), advanced nuclear power, and advanced renewables (solar, wind, hydro, etc.); also, H-powered fuel-cell vehicles, biofuels, genetically modified energy crops, more efficient aircraft and electric/hybrid vehicles, integrated solar photovoltaic electricity, smarter metering, “new generation” cement and fertilisers, inert electrodes for aluminium smelting, and more. Extreme possibilities include “climate engineering” (“geoengineering”): eg. cooling the planet by injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to enhance its albedo (reflectivity); uncertainties could include permanent overcast, no more blue skies, even an ice age.

According to a Nov. 2006 UN Report, planet Earth “plays host to 1.3 billion cattle”, with environmental consequences including deforestation and “a giant contribution to global warming”. 18% of greenhouse gases are directly emitted from the bellies of domesticated livestock; that’s 5% more than total worldwide emissions from global transport systems (road, rail, sea and air), with cows “by far the major culprits because of their huge numbers and their penchant for producing nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4), far more powerful greenhouse gases than the CO2 produced by human industry”. To keep up with global food demand, meat (230 million tonnes in 2009)) and milk production will have to more than double by 2050, unless people are persuaded (by extra taxes?) to eat less “ecologically unsustainable meat”. And: “turning vegetarian is probably the biggest single personal contribution any one person can make in today’s battle against global warming”. Also, some good news: heat is “not undermining Greenland’s ice sheet” (Matt King et al, PNAS, 19 Nov. 2013). Measurements of Greenland’s immense ice cap in 2012 show that its movement, using GPS tracking of poles in a 120km strip of ice in its S/West, has slowed to 6% less ice flowing into the ocean than during the “average” melt year of 2009, despite a 2012 (July 12) warm episode when 99% of the ice sheet experienced some melting. It now seems less likely that its feared slippage into the ocean, lubricated by meltwaters, will occur, causing increased sea level rise and iceberg production.

To sum up: surely, is it not time for 7.2 thousand millions of us who share our small planet Earth, to accept that we are one human family, that we urgently need to de-tribalise, to come to our senses in time to concentrate on co-operative solutions to historically unprecedented global population-driven political, environmental and climatic problems? The coming few decades will reveal how widely Shelley’s oft-quoted re-working of Pharaoh Ramesses 11’s funerary temple inscription, “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. If anyone wishes to know how mighty I am and where I lie, let him surpass my works” , applies to the failure and collapse of seemingly secure nation-states, and our present use and abuse of our home planet:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

On the other hand, as optimistically pointed out by Pamela Bone (2008): “In the past century there has been a revolution in health, longevity, education, human rights. The proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty has dropped from about 80% in 1820 to about 20% today. You’d never think it by watching the nightly news, but since the early 1990’s the number of armed conflicts in the world has fallen by 40%. The percentage of men estimated to have died in violence in hunter-gatherer societies is approximately 30%. The percentage of men who died in violence in the 20th century, despite two world wars, is approximately 1%. The trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century are still falling, despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a story the media has missed.” (Horgan, 2009, also reviews evidence that “levels of violence are much lower in our era than before the advent of modern states.”) While global population has indeed doubled since 1961, food production per capita has increased by an estimated 20%. So we need to build on these global improvements, assisting in the distribution of food and assistance to victims of state failure, restoring good governance when circumstances permit, while heeding Shelley’s warning.

In the short and medium term, and taking into account the above large uncertainties in modelling and predicting regional and global climate changes, an optimum approach for our minor contributor nation (less than 1.3% of global CO2 emissions) would be to avoid over-reacting to exaggerated alarmist “gloom and doom” claims (these will be plenteously evident at the forthcoming Paris conference). Our emissions reduction target (26% to 28% from 2005 levels by 2030) seems appropriate, in line with comparable economies, and achievable through current “direct action” proposals (carbon storage, soil biochar, tree planting, emission reductions and improved energy efficiency from gas and cleaner coal, the progressive use of moderately subsidized wind and solar renewables), while avoiding serious economic and employment disruption. We should recall that the climatic effect of a total shutdown of Australia’s transport, power generation, and economic activity, would be miniscule; it could not “save the Barrier Reef”, or Kakadu, or restore previous rainfalls to south eastern Australia, or solve any other globally-induced climate problems, including the targeted restriction of global temperature rise to 2C. Acceptance of a degree of warming, and a preparedness to adapt as needed (“stay calm and carry on”), seems sensible and appropriate, while encouraging and assisting where possible in a steady global withdrawal from fossil fuel use. For other than developed economies, this last will be very difficult for the near future, with China building a new coal-fired plant every 7 to 10 days, planning to increase its coal power by 50% by 2040; India intending to double its coal production by 2020; African and other less developed nations also intent on lifting millions of their citizens from poverty.

In the longer term, we are subject to the laws of biological, ecological, planetary and stellar evolution, beyond any human control. Some two hundred years ago, long before our planet’s remote destiny as a scorched remnant of the sun’s red giant expansion was known, poet Robert Burns presciently wrote: “Though all the seas gang dry, my love, and the rocks melt wi’ the sun…” Perhaps our remote descendants, assuming their survival a few billion years into the future, will have to re-locate to a more bio-friendly world? We live our instant, our cosmic eye-blink, our atomic flicker, in Bertrand Russell’s hope that “all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius” will not be dimmed or extinguished through our species’ wilful folly.

Our recent cosmic perspective of ourselves and our origins can assist, provided that enough of us broaden our horizons in time for ancient tribal inter-cultural enmities to be overcome, and to be replaced by global rational co-operation. Among many optimists (see, e.g., New Scientist’s 50th Anniversary Special Issue, Nov. 2006) is bioethicist James Hughes, who espouses “Enlightenment transhumanism”: “We can use scientific enquiry, religious tolerance, freedom, democracy and individual liberty to build a better future for ourselves. That idea is still young and the battle for it is still being fought…….If we defend liberal society and use science, democracy and regulation to navigate (the above-listed) challenges, we have a shot at an inconceivably transcendent future. We can become a new species of great diversity, united by our shared appreciation of the preciousness of self-awareness in a vast, dark universe. This is the positive vision of the Enlightenment, each of us reaching our fullest technologically enabled potential while living as a single tolerant democratic society…..Whatever projects our descendants pursue, they – and perhaps even some of us – will look back on our lives with the wonder, pity and gratitude that we feel for our Palaeolithic ancestors. Just as they left their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to build farms and cities, we must now take rational control of our biological destiny…”

To achieve such a future, we surely need local and global policies that steer human evolution away from the dead ends of self-addictive absorption and suppression of our freedoms of inquiry, towards greater sociability, sustainability, self-awareness and reason. May Jared Diamond’s “two-horse race between Rationality and Irrationality” be decided in favour of “the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time”, and in favour of humankind’s sustainable stewardship of our only home, our good planet Earth, our “dust mote suspended in a sunbeam” in the vastness of space and the immensity of time of a mainly lifeless universe.

(Dr) John O’Connor.
340 Strathewen Road, Cottles Bridge, Vic. 3099