Crossing The Line: It’s one thing to be told that anthropogenic global warming is a real and steadily worsening problem that the world needs to address with the utmost urgency. But, it’s quite another to be informed, with Zen-like calm, that the planet is trapped, inextricably, in a deadly process of runaway climate change that can no longer be reversed.
TEN YEARS – TOPS. That’s all the time the human species (along with every other complex organism on Planet Earth) has left. At least, that’s all the time Emeritus Professor Guy McPherson, climate-change doomsayer extraordinaire, reckons we have left. Ten years – or less.
It was enough to leave the usually unshockable Paul Henry spluttering helplessly in front of the television cameras. Henry, and everyone else who witnessed the breakfast show host’s disturbing interview with the genial Arizonan academic.
Because it’s one thing to be told that anthropogenic global warming is a real and steadily worsening problem that the world must address with the utmost urgency – lest by the end of this century, or the next, things start getting uncomfortably warm. But, it’s quite another to be informed, with Zen-like calm, that the planet is trapped, inextricably, in a deadly process of runaway climate change. A process whose every contributing factor is now worsening exponentially, and which long ago passed the point where human intervention might have averted the next great extinction level event in the planet’s history.
The most catastrophic extinction event, to date, called by some “The Great Dying”, occurred approximately 250 million years ago. The event featured volcanic activity on a truly massive scale (we’re talking lava flows kilometres thick) to be followed (or, perhaps, precipitated) by an equally destructive asteroid strike. (The asteroid is estimated to have measured nine kilometres across!)
Obliterating clouds of smoke rose to the heavens and fire fell from the sky. Carbon-dioxide levels skyrocketed and the atmosphere throbbed with heat. Oxygen levels plummeted and upwards of 90 percent of creatures living in the sea, and 70 percent of those living on the land, perished. So complete was the devastation that for a period of 10 million years there was insufficient plant matter to be compressed into coal. Geologists call it the “coal gap”.
How can the accumulated CO2 emissions of a mere two centuries of human industrial civilisation possibly equal the combined impact of the Siberian Traps and an killer asteroid? Surely Professor McPherson is guilty of the most grotesque and irresponsible alarmism?
That is certainly the judgement of his peers. According to the Science Editor of the Climate Feedback website, US geo-scientist, Scot K. Johnson:
“In many ways, McPherson is a photo-negative of the self-proclaimed ‘climate sceptics’ who reject the conclusions of climate science. He may be advocating the opposite conclusion, but he argues his case in the same way. The sceptics often quote snippets of science that, on full examination, don’t actually support their claims, and this is McPherson’s modus operandi. The sceptics dismiss science they don’t like by saying that climate researchers lie to keep the grant money coming; McPherson dismisses inconvenient science by claiming that scientists are downplaying risks because they’re too cowardly to speak the truth and flout our corporate overlords.”
Johnson’s words would be extremely reassuring if only McPherson’s visit to New Zealand hadn’t coincided with the release of the Arctic Resilience Report (written by scientists from the Arctic Council, a body made up of the eight countries whose national territory falls within the Arctic Circle). The Report warns that the Arctic is “undergoing rapid, sometimes turbulent change beyond anything previously experienced”.
The Council’s findings are echoed by the director of the United States National Snow and Ice Data Centre, Mark Serreze. He told Scientific American that, even in Winter, the Arctic ice-sheet is continuing to shrink. It’s a polar phenomenon without known precedent: “I’ve never seen anything like it this last year-and-a-half”.
That would be the same year-and-a-half during which, month after month, global temperatures have exceeded all previous records.
The beatific Professor McPherson takes all of this gloom and doom in his stride. He has made his peace with the planet, which, he’s convinced, is about to undergo its sixth extinction level event. He counsels us to hold fast to those we love, and to devote ourselves to living, if not long, then well. Not so much Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as Zen and the Extinction of Everything More Complex than a Microbe.
Some, of course, will not choose to “go gentle into that good night”. Others, like President-Elect Trump, will continue to deny the reality of global warming. Me? I’m putting my faith in humankind’s near-perfect record of predicting the wrong future.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 December 2016.