Imagine Asia without south Asia, the Middle East, Turkey, China or south-east Asia. Imagine Europe without the southern Mediterranean countries of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Now imagine North America without most of the USA except the northern states. On top of all this, think of the world without any South America, Australia and Africa. Essentially all that would be left is Canada, Alaska, the UK, Scandinavia, Russia, the Korean peninsula, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Japan. This is the mental exercise that the eminent British climatologist James Lovelock forces the reader to undertake when reading his book on catastrophic climate change, The Revenge of Gaia: why the Earth is fighting back, and how we can still save humanity. James Lovelock is the creator of Daisyworld, an early computerised climate model, and one of the world’s leading climate scientists. There is a world map on page 81 of his book which illustrates the above scenario.
Impossible? Not according to the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the majority of the world’s climatologists. The above describes a world which has warmed by about 5 degrees Celsius on average compared to today. The land masses will still largely be there, except for some unfortunately low-lying countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives, which would vanish. However, at 5 degrees warming, countries outside the most northern latitudes would simply be too hot and dry to sustain any agriculture or food production.The IPCC has predicted that at current rates of carbon dioxide emissions, global warming will be somewhere between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius. So 5 degrees is not science fiction. It could easily happen, unless the governments of the world start taking climate change seriously.
How close are we to 5 degrees warming and the end of perhaps 90% of the earth’s population? Many current climate models say that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today virtually guarantees at least 2 degrees of warming. All bets are now off, as 2 degrees is the only “safe” temperature rise. More than 2 degrees can start a runaway global warming effects; at any point beyond 2 degrees, huge quantities of methane gas could be released from under the Arctic snow and the ocean floor, places it was previously trapped by ice and cold. Since methane has a greenhouse effect many times greater than carbon dioxide, this would rapidly lead to 5 or even 6 degrees warming and the end of the world as we know it.
What can we do to prevent this? The rapidity with which the world needs to reduce carbon emissions is frightening. All fossil fuels essentially have to be abandoned, as they all create carbon dioxide emissions. Lovelock makes the point that all renewable energy such as solar, wind and tidal power is now still at an immature stage, and not capable of providing the bulk of the world’s power needs. The only proven technology which can immediately be implemented to replace most of the world’s coal and petroleum based power is nuclear. Unfortunately, nuclear power has become unpopular because of disasters at Chernobyl and now Fukushima; a pity, since both these reactors were built with decades-old technology. Modern reactor designs provide for far greater safety. Even without newer safety measures, nuclear is still safer than coal; the UN estimate of 15,000 deaths due to the once-in-decades accident at Chernobyl roughly equates to Chinese coal mining deaths every 4 years.
Essentially the world needs to stop thinking about economic growth, and start thinking about survival. The money that governments spend subsidizing industry and building coal and diesel power plants would be better spent on new nuclear plants. Climate change is the elephant in the room that our leaders pretend doesn’t exist because they can’t think of any quick fix; a most unwise course of action, since if the elephant actually moves, it will squash all of us under its feet.
(This was published in the New Age newspaper in Bangladesh on 26th September, 2011)