Monday, January 4, 2010

Environmentalism for a small planet

"The environmental movement has morphed steadily into the climate change movement... that means that Greens are no longer strictly the defenders of natural systems against the incursions of civilization; now they're the defenders of civilization as well."

- from Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand

The diameter of our Earth is a mere 7,926 miles... contrasted with our solar system... with a diameter of 2,790,000,000 miles... Earth is but a speck of air, water, fire and soil in the vastness of space. Our solar system, in turn, is but a speck compared to the Milky Way galaxy... which is but a freckle on the face of universe. However... to the flora and fauna on Earth... this planet is a vast, incredibly complex system of interdependent processes of life. The geologic/bio-diversity upon and within our planet is nothing short of a miracle. A useful analogy is James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis in which Earth is seen as a living organism.

It is reasonable and fast becoming necessary for earthling humans to actively assume the role of stewards of our small planet. This is so because it is also reasonable to assume the responsibility that humans have, through advanced agriculture practices and fossil fuel consumption, added a slight yet significant burden of greenhouse gases (CO2) to our atmosphere, thereby contributing to our planetary system's current atmospheric irregularity. It is now vital that we view the future with the eye of an environmentalist so we may ascertain and address our home world's atmospheric imbalance with a goal of planetary climatic equilibrium.

For clarification on what is considered planetary climatic equilibrium, the amount of greenhouse gases in earth's atmosphere is measured and compared to historic levels. These gases are measured in parts per million. Up until 200 years ago, the historic norm was 275 part per million. 350 parts per million is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. Today, the ratio stands at 390 ppm and rising a little more than 2 ppm annually. Having Exceeded the 350 ppm mark indicates that our planet (and its atmosphere) has gone beyond the point of no return for the old equilibrium. The resulting effect of exceeding this tipping point is collectively referred to as "climate change."

If humanity takes climate change seriously and acts now, we may be able to achieve a new planetary equilibrium and stabilize at around 450 ppm within the next 25 to 50 years. Leveling off at 450 ppm could result in a global temperature rise of only 3.6° F, with a potential large loss of species, more severe storms, floods and droughts, refugees from rising sea levels and other extreme and inhumane consequences. Unfortunately, this is an optimistic scenario.

The two basic strategies that humanity has at its disposal to combat climate change are mitigation and adaptation.

Mitigation is any action taken to permanently eliminate or reduce the long-term risk and hazards of climate change to human life and property. This would involve altering the activities that contribute to climate change through the application of technology and practices. The primary example would be the immediate cutting back of greenhouse gas emissions. This would require significant discipline on our part, as well as technological innovation.

Adaptation would require a "coming to terms" with climate change and managing its effects. This term refers to the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences. Adaptation pertains to how we react to climate change and what changes we make to deal with it's advancement. One example of adaptation would involve moving coastal populations to higher ground in anticipation of rising sea levels.

The bottom line is that our best scientific hypothesis is little more than an educated guess. We cannot completely fathom the chaotic complexity of our planet's environmental systems. Regardless, humanity must rise to the challenge of climate change. This is perhaps the most definitive opportunity in our lifetime for humanity to come together and collaborate on this global issue... responding on a global scale.

If we don't act now... we will be left with only one option... adaptation.