No matter what, knowledge is misused to promote hidden agendas

In her opinion article in the New York Time, Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff argues that an act of terrorism in London in 1894 attempted by a Frenchman triggered not only the first age of global terrorism but also a reaction that made migrants and civil liberties pay the price. Despite better knowledge, even today terrorism leads to actions that punish those who are not linked to terrorism and restrict civil liberties, implicitly making terrorists far more successful than they could be, would we use the knowledge we have to react differently. Already Joseph Conrad made this case in his analysis of terrorism in “The Secret Agent” published in 1907. A special report on terrorism in the June 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind summarizes what we know about the causes of terrorism and the actions needed to reduce the risk of terrorism, and comparing this knowledge to the societal reactions to terrorism shows that hidden agendas by key actors in those societies impacted by terrorism lead to actions that hinder migration of those in peril, take away our civil liberties, and by that, create more, not less, terrorism.

The same is true for climate change. We have all the knowledge about the causes and the severe consequences of current and future climate change, but the knowledge is not used to design actions that would reduce our impact on the Earth’s life-support system, keep climate change within a tolerable range, and ensure a basis for the welfare of future generations. A core step in this direction would be to limit growth – see the column on overcoming our growth addiction. But instead, we all are impressed by those who promise more growth. And this message of basically infinite comes from those who benefit most from more growth. Those who pay the price are the poor and less privileged, who carry the main load of the collateral damage of growth. It is time that we take responsibility for our knowledge and translate it into action.

 

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Knowledge must turn into action

It is amazing how much we know about our impacts on the Earth’s life-support system and the threat this poses for our future as a global civilization. Even more so, it is amazing that this knowledge does not turn into action. The reason for this are discussed in my most recent contribution to the column “On the Edge” in ApoGeoSpatial. What makes us truly different from animals is not tool-making and feelings, as previously stated. What really makes us different is that we have developed an economy and that this economy governs not only our lives but also all our interactions with the Earth’s life-support systems. And the current rules of the game that we call “economy” allow actors to make gains by degrading the life-support system. The metrics to measure gains and wealth are based on a human invention called “money” and the rules of the game allow individuals to accumulate basically infinite amounts of this imaginary unit, creating a few winners and many losers. All innovations are focusing on supporting the few who are winning in this wealth accumulation game, while their impact on the life-support system receives very little considerations. “Maybe worst of all, there is a belief that we can overcome all issues  of the degradation of the life-support system with more innovation.” In the column, I take the view of an alien coming from another plant. Impressed by the amount of knowledge we have created – they knew it all – the alien is helpless seeing that the knowledge does not turn into action to safeguard the life-support system. Rather, we play a game that is not respecting the rules of nature, and the alien realizes that this can only result into disaster, because the laws of nature cannot be violated.

Overcoming Our Growth Addiction

In a recent contribution to my column “On the Edge” in ApoGeoSpatial, the necessity of overcoming our growth addiction as a prerequisite for sustainable development was at the core of my thoughts. Like other immutable truths of the past that were discarded in the universal waste basket of fallacies (like the immutable truth that slavery is necessary, women should not vote, or the oceans and the planet are invincible), the current widely accepted truth that our welfare and economic prosperity depends on growth has to end up in this waste basket soon if civilization is to continue at a reasonable level. Our growth addiction is rapidly degrading the Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of the current and future generations depends (see E4H), and if this process continues much longer, there is little chance that the life-support system can be restored to sustain our civilization for much longer.

Climate Change Optimism or the Anthropogenic Cataclysm Virus (ACV)?

At the “Rising Seas Summit” in Boston, MA, on November 4, 2015, a speaker during the lunch break asked us to be positive and have “climate change optimism.” Really? Climate change optimism? If I discover tomorrow that I am infected by Ebola, how could I be optimistic about my rising body temperature? Being optimistic about climate change is comparable to this: the Earth’s life support system is infected by ACV, the Anthropogenic Cataclysm Virus. The ACV changes very rapidly the main cycles, such as the water, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles. It reduces the diversity of all other “bacteria” that have crucial functions in the life support system. It affects the planetary skin in a way comparable to skin cancer. There is not much room for optimism. If you have Ebola, looking for an emergency room is the thing to do. But there is no such room in sight for the planetary life support system. And the ACV is happily continuing its disastrous job causing what seems to be the fastest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, and transforming the biosphere permanently and irreversibly.

Where should the “climate change optimism” be rooted in?

Optimism could come from a great transition. Humanity needs a transition, or a revolution, as great and fundamental as the one from hunters and gatherers to agriculture – but we have to do this much faster. The time is running out rapidly.  We need to become the planetary physicians who take care of the Earth’s life support system. This is much more than being a Stewart, and much more than geo-engineering. It requires a deep understanding of the life support system and our role in it. This is very similar to medicine. But it is also very different because we are part of the problem. We are the ACV. The virus needs to transform itself into the healer. Is this possible?  If not, humanity will turn out to be a short transient blurb in Earth’s long and amazing history.

 

Humanity, a planetary accident causing Earth’s sixth mass extinction event

I have written about this before, see e.g. http://www.apogeospatial.com/issues/apogeo-spacial-fall-2013.pdf#page=14. Now others are also picking up on this: http://time.com/3645387/mass-extinctions/.

Some say that we are conducting a global, uncontrolled experiment, but I think that is a very biased view on what is happening today. It certainly is not an experiment, that is, “an orderly procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, refuting, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis.” What would be the hypothesis? That we can get away with whatever nonsense we do on this planet, and to this planet? That we can play a Monopoly game in which the goal of economy is to grow and increase fictitious wealth instead of meeting “the needs of the presence while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends” (see http://www.economy4humanity.org) and still survive on this finite planet? It almost seems like it.

But that is not what is happening. Using four categories for global events:

  • Extinction Level Events are so devastating that more than a quarter of all life on Earth is killed and major species extinction takes place.
  • Global Catastrophes are events in which more than a quarter of the world human population dies and that place civilization in serious risk.
  • Global Disasters are global scale events in which a few percent of the population die.
  • Major Disasters are those exceeding $100 Billion in damage and/or causing more than 10,000 fatalities.

(modified from Hempsell, 2004), we can assess in which category the combined 20th and 21st century may fall. According to the United Nations’ Biodiversity Convention, we have lost already one third of all species, and recent assessments showed that more than 50% of the wildlife was lost during the last 50 years. It is true, we have not lost a quarter of the world’s human population, but current trends in climate, disaster risks associated with natural and human-made hazards, management of food and water security, conflict resolution, and sustainability increase the chance that a mega-event soon might help us to achieve this, too. However, if we forget for a moment that humans are mentioned in the “Global Catastrophes” category and just focus on the “Extinction Level Events” we have reached one of the two conditions: a major species extinction is taking place. It also is very likely that with deforestation, reduction of birds, insects, mammals, and marine life we are already , or soon will be, past the other condition: a quarter of all life on Earth has been killed.

It is obvious: Humanity is causing ethe sixth extinction level event in Earth history.And it is happening now. There is reason to fear that humans will not be among the few species that will make it through this extinction level event. I remain an apocaloptimist, though. Why? Have a look here: http://apogeospatial.com/the-year-2015-the-start-of-a-new-decade-of-making-it-right/.

(Hempsell, C. M., 2004. The investigation of natural global catastrophes, J. British Interplanetary Society, 57, 2-13.

Nuisance flooding is not the problem, sea level rise is the disaster

Recently there is a lot of talk about increased nuisance flooding experienced by U.S. coastal cities, and a number of scientific papers have been published aiming at a quantitative characterization of the current and future increase in the flooding. The papers are commented on in the national press, and at the recent AGU Fall meeting in San Francisco a press conference (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CwOlis6GPQ) was devoted to this topic. A Bloomberg article (see http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-18/front-yards-turn-to-wetlands-as-climate-change-takes-toll.html) brings it down to the personal level, where people complain about their front yards are turning into wetlands. It amazes me to see all this chatter about nuisance flooding. The obvious is that if you build just above the tidal range, then even a small sea level rise will eventually bring the tidal range into your front yard and then into your house. So the issue is that we did not want to account for the fact that sea level could rise when we planned and built our coastal cities. Now, with a small sea level rise of a few millimeters per year, we are running into problems. And most of us still don’t want to accept that future sea level rise might be much, much more. But the prospect for the future does not look good. In fact, sea level rise is a slowly developing disaster. Over the last 800,000 years the earth system produced roughly one meter of sea level change for a change of one part per million (ppm) of Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The total range in sea level change between glacial periods and warm periods was about 130 m, and the corresponding total range in CO2 change was about 130 ppm. That was so until about 100 years ago, when we started to actively interfere with atmospheric CO2 and other Greenhouse gases (GHGs). Now atmospheric CO2 is roughly 100 ppm above the range earth has experienced in the last 800,000 years. Consequently, we should expect a sea level rise of 100 m. Well, that cannot happen because the main contribution to sea level changes comes from changes in the land-based ice cover. Melting all ice currently on land would only produce about 75 m in sea level. But if the current interference with GHGs and other climate drivers continues, then we better expect that we will get 75 m – eventually. Raising the house a meter or two, like people in Norfolk and other coastal cities have started to do, won’t make much difference.

What would make a difference is a paradigm shift from trying to mitigate sea level rise and adapt to it with a “we will stay” mentality to the acceptance that eventually we will have to move horizontally to much higher grounds following the coast line as it migrates inland. This paradigm shift has a major consequence: we need to prepare the coastal zone for the inundation that no doubt will happen. This means that we accept that we have borrowed the coastal zone from the oceans and that they are about to take it back, that we need to clean up the mess we have made, move Superfund sites and all other potentially polluting infrastructure out of the coastal zone, and stop developing more permanent infrastructure and urban areas in location that will be inundated. Anything built newly in the coastal zone has to be built so that it can be taken out in the future when sea level rises much more rapidly than today.

If we have any concerns for the future of our children and their children, then cleaning up the coastal zone and preparing it for inundation is what we need to do now. It would stimulate economy, reduce disaster risk, and constitute adaptation to the inevitable. Not accepting the responsibility means that we expose future generations to heavily polluted oceans, poisoned marine food resources and high health risks to all approaching the oceans. The choice is ours.

…cene or …transition?

Some say that we are in the Anthropocene. I agree that we have moved out of the Holocene, but I have concerns that we have not reached the Anthropocene. A “…cene” is normally a longer and stable geological epoch. For me, the evidence looks more like we are still in a rapid transition to a new epoch with increasing rates of change. Therefore, I prefer to say that we are in the transition to the Post-Holocene. All evidence points to the Post-Holocene being very different from the Holocene, as different from the Holocene towards a warmer planet as the ice ages were towards a cooler planet. The Post-Holocene will be characterized by a strongly reduced biosphere and biodiversity, a more acid ocean, a much higher energy available to the climate system with most likely much stronger variability and extremes, a redistribution of climate zones, several remodeled material cycles (in particular nitrogen and phosphate) with severe consequences for the carrying capacity of the planet, and many other changes still difficult to imagine. I would not want to call the Post-Holocene the “Anthropocene” because we may not be around to name it after us. Although we are currently in the “driver seat” and causing what I would call the “Anthropotransition,” the changes to come have the potential to kick us out of that seat very rapidly.

As the study by Motesharrei et al. (2014) (see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615) shows, the collapse of human societies can be triggered not only by environmental conditions but also by endogenic processes – and our current society has a number of characteristics that seem to point towards a collapse, if we don’t manage to make very significant adjustments very fast. Combining a negative endogenic trajectory with critical environmental changes does not seem to promise much good. This is an enormous challenge my generation and previous ones have put in front of the young generation and future ones. The young generation ended up in a bus where the drivers don’t seem to have the knowledge, or do not want to use the knowledge, that would enable them to keep the bus on a safe track. The book by Naomi Oreskes and E Conway on “The Collapse of the Western Culture” describes a possible scenario and emphasizes the fact that we had the knowledge but it did not turn into power. I think, Desmond Tutu points into a direction of how the knowledge we have could be translated into power (see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/21/desmond-tutu-climate-change-is-the-global-enemy), and this has decisive consequences for those being born into this situation. Conceptually, a way out of the current crisis is a total transition of economy from an economy against humanity to one for humanity (see http:/www.economy4humanity.org) and again, only the young generation has the power to force this transition before the Earth’s life support system is completely destroyed.

The Empire of Climate Deniers Strikes Back

A few days after “climate Luke Skywalker” Dr. Christopher Keating offered a $30,000 reward to anyone who can disprove that man-made climate change is real (see http://washington.cbslocal.com/2014/07/02/physicist-offers-30000-reward-to-anyone-who-can-disprove-climate-change), the Galactic Empire of climate deniers strikes back: At a climate skeptic conference in Las Vegas, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) announced a fundraising effort to produce a documentary that would offer the climate skeptic’s perspective on global warming. The attack is spearheaded by “Climate Darth Vader” Marc Morano, dubbed the “king of skeptics” by Newsweek. See http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/211686-climate-skeptics-want-own-inconvenient-truth for more details …

What you do matters

May 2014: What you do matters: After a lecture on the severity of climate change and the threat to our civilization, a student asked me what I would like to tell my 20-year old self. It took me some time to find the answer. In my column in ApoGeo in February 2014, I provided a first part, and developed an avenue to an economy for humanity, which is now being implemented by Economy4Humanity. The second part of the answer was indicated in a guest column in the Virginian Pilot, which stimulated many comments. The longer version of this second part of my answer is published in my column in ApoGeo, see here. The column ends with this: “I would want to shout to my younger self that you are living at the beginning of a period that will turn out to be a crossroad for our civilization and that what you do, what your neighbor does, what your group does, matters: you are determining civilization’s future, which will be somewhere between the hopes of “Independence Day” and the devastation of “The Road.” Nothing less! Your choice.

Take responsibility. That is what I want to tell my twenty year old self — and also my much older self.”

Climate Change: an enemy with weapons of mass destruction

May 2014: Climate Change: an enemy with weapons of mass destruction:. As Tom Engelhart in his May 22, 2014 post in Huffington Post points out, Dick Cheney created to so-called “one percent doctrine,” which basically states that “if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95% to 100% certainty.” Engelhart then goes on to claim that climate change is a weapon of mass destruction that actually has a 95% to 100% chance to attack the U.S. in many place. I full agree with him, and I have often stated that climate change and sea level rise will cause many Pearl Habor attacks. Despite the clear evidence of this very powerful enemy preparing to attack, the U.S. House does not follow Dick Cheney’s doctrine. In fact, they decided to do the opposite and try to keep Pentagon from even assessing the enemy: as Kate Sheppard reports on May 23, 2014 in an article in Huffington Posts, the House directs the Pentagon to ignore climate change. With this, the house actively undermines national security and prepares the ground for many disasters caused by the most powerful enemy the U.S. ever had.