Phantom of the Globe

When I read articles like this one, I cannot help but recall the Phantom of the Opera.

I know, I know… it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the article itself. Still, when reading it, I can’t help but feel that all signs point to the fact that we are “past the point of no return!”

Two issues particularly exercise climate scientists: positive feedbacks and ice-sheet dynamics.

Water is not white, like ice

A positive feedback is a causal cycle — essentially a vicious circle — in which warming causes a series of changes that reinforces warming. One feedback of special importance to Canada is the ice-albedo feedback in the Arctic. The sea ice floating on the Arctic Ocean is white, so it reflects a large proportion of the sun’s radiation back into space. As this ice melts from global warming, it leaves behind open water that absorbs about 80 per cent more of the sun’s radiation. This ocean water becomes warmer. Then, after the summer passes and fall comes, the water releases its heat back into the atmosphere, which impedes refreezing. So winter generates thinner ice, which melts more easily the next summer.

This feedback is one of the reasons why the planet is warming, and will continue to do so, much more rapidly in its northern reaches. The IPCC predicts about 3 C average warming by 2100, and in the neighbourhood of 6 C to 7 C across much of Canada. Some people say we will benefit. Well, we may have lower heating bills in the winter for a few years, but because we’re a northern country, warming here will be about twice as fast and the ultimate magnitude will be twice as great as the planet’s average.

The consequences will be immense for our flora and fauna, for our forests that can’t adapt and die en masse, for our grain-growing regions that could turn to desert, for the Great Lakes as their levels fall, for transportation in the St. Lawrence Seaway and for northern permafrost that melts.

Colour’s a weird thing. Weird enough, that some of the best episodes of the Magic School Bus were concerning colour, and, more specifically, coloured light. Still, the fact that the Earth is being destroyed because less white covers the ocean is a hard concept for me to get my mind around.

So how do you counter it? Unless we develop white oil and can go spill it across the ocean, I really don’t see how you can reverse this trend easily. Which, of course, is the point.  The article goes on to explain that carbon emissions have a similar cyclical trend, with it becoming more and more self-sustaining as time goes on, suggesting that sooner or later, the biochemistry of the Earth would generate huge amounts of excess carbon on its own

At that point, warming could become its own cause; it would no longer really matter what we do to mitigate our emissions of carbon dioxide. The global ecosystem would take over.

The moral of the story is clear enough: Mitigate our carbon emissions now.

It’s covered pretty well in this video, and though the guy strikes me as a bit … patronizing? … it’s a solid argument, and not entirely unheard of:

He simplifies it. A lot. The biggest problem I would see arising from this is the question “what if we can’t change it?” It’s great to assume that we can change it, and we either get depression or 🙂 . But what if we spend all that time and money trying to alter the future, and it’s more prudent to spend it bracing ourselves for it.

But then, how do you brace yourself for the end of the world?

Sounds like the field for theologians, to me. But from a political perspective, it seems hard to argue that you can continue dancing around the issue of “yes” or “no.” Climate change is real, whether human-controllable or not. Soon we’ll be past the point of no return to make any action at all, from the looks of things.

Sometimes, the weather can be depressing!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Stephen
    Dec 05, 2007 @ 14:57:26

    Good post. I like the video. The speaker is a capable logician and teacher, smiley faces and all!

    Your point about bracing ourselves for the worst is a good one. It’s an option he didn’t consider.

    On the other hand, what would that look like? Government passing legislation to force people to leave their homes along the coasts? Maybe building houses somewhere inland at a discount?

    I guess we could be like Joseph and store up food against a drought. But a global drought that lasts decades? We will be fighting over the most basic necessities of life in no time.

    I’m not sure what my point is, I’m just genuinely wondering what we would do. If the doomsday scenario comes to pass, it’s going to be so vast that I’m not sure we can shelter ourselves from it.

    I don’t like to spread fear. But in this case, maybe we aren’t as afraid as we need to be.


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