- This was written by William Trachtenberg, a Physicist and my father
There is nothing more important to us than our children. This is a universal axiom shared by people around the world whatever their condition in life. At its base is Darwin’s survival-of-the-fittest concept, but as any parent knows, our feelings for our children are far deeper than Darwinian. We provide for their immediate needs till they become adults, but what are we doing to safeguard their long-term future? What world are we creating for them and for their children?
I just finished reading two books, Dancing at the Dead Sea by Alanna MItchell and T.Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alverez, that got me thinking again about the future. Not my future but the future of my children and grandchildren and of the world’s children and grandchildren.
Dancing is written by an award-winning Canadian environmental reporter, who throughout her career visited environmental “hotspots” around the world – Madagascar, Alberta, Jordan, Banks Island in the Arctic, Suriname, Iceland and the Galapagos Archipelago among them. Her driven purpose was to find out how natural – and by extension manmade – forces have changed our global environment, and how living organisms are adjusting to those changes.
T.Rex is a narrative that described the enormous scientific effort led, in part, by the author to prove a large asteroid or comet hit the Earth 65-million years ago that catastrophically caused the extinction of at least half the world’s animal and plant species. This concept called catastrophism was vilified by the scientific community much like Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was in the middle 1800s. Through the late 1900s scientists believed in gradualism, where evolutionary changes occur slowly over thousands or millions of years, but not by instantaneous, cataclysmic change. (Geological and paleontological evidence has shown there have been five major catastrophic events over the last few hundred million years. The T.Rex event was the last one.)
The author of Dancing lived among the people and places she visited. She saw first hand how their environments are changing very quickly, and how the indigenous people, fauna and flora are or are not adjusting to these changes. These are not strictly catastrophic changes nor are they gradual, but intermediate between the two. But most important they are manmade changes. Mitchell believes we are experiencing a sixth extinction event, which will forever change the face of the planet and its inhabitants. This will occur not in days or weeks or months; nor will it take place in thousands or millions-of-years. It will in fact occur in one, two or three generations. All credible scientific predictions say the world will be a very different place by 2100.
Enter the Gaia Hypothesis, a concept that was formulated by the Englishman James Lovelock in the 1970s. It proposes that living things interact with the Earth to form a self-regulating, highly dependent system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for animals and plants on the planet. Named after the Greek goddess of war, this hypothesis posits that the Earth will compensate for whatever conditions it is subjected — both natural and man-made. Thus, no matter how much mankind forces changes on the planet, the Earth will respond as if a living organism adjusting to its mutating environment.
For many millions of years before homo sapiens appeared, the planet’s atmosphere carried between 300 and 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2). Recently the scientific community reported that we have passed 400 ppm. While this 14% increase may not appear numerically large, it holds enormous consequences for Mother Earth and all of her children. This increased blanket of atmospheric CO2 is rapidly heating the planet to levels not seen for millions of years.
Based on rigorous scientific studies by thousands of scientists across many fields, here is a partial list of the frightening changes that we have begun to experience and that are certain to exacerbate with time:
• “Permanent” ice masses in Antarctica and Greenland are disappearing at an alarming rate, quicker than most computer models predicted in their worst-case scenarios. This is resulting in higher ocean levels that will forever change the coastlines of every country, causing cities and towns large and small to shrink or disappear altogether. Further, a reduction in the ice land area that reflects sunlight back into space creates conditions for further warming, because the Earth will absorb more of the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it back into space.
• The Himalaya Mountains are losing their massive snow covering, a vital source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of Asians, The medium- and long-term effects of these diminishing water resources is that the affected countries will be starved of fresh water with no means to replenish.
• The world’s oceans are a very efficient sink for atmospheric CO2, but as they absorb these huge quantities of excess gas, they become more acidic. Increased acidity has consequences that are unimaginable — thousands of marine animals and plant species will become extinct: tiny living amoeba-like animals with calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells called foraminifera, that comprise the vitally important lowest level of the marine food chain, will disappear; ocean coral reefs will be significantly reduced; and all other non-microscopic living things with CaCO3 shells will diminish, with many species forever lost.
• The frequency and intensity of super-hurricanes, monsoons and tornadoes that devastate areas all over the world will continue to increase. Costs to recover from these storms will cripple economies and potentially bankrupt many countries.
• As the Earth’s tropical regions continue to heat up, a tipping point will be passed where no living animal or plant can survive. A vast migration of animals, plants and people from the tropics to the north above the equator and to the south below the equator will squeeze the remaining habitable Earth land masses. As arable land is greatly reduced, widespread food shortages will occur while the world’s population continues to grow, squeezing life-viability at both ends. Robert Malthus’ early 1800s apocalyptic conjecture limiting human population will be fulfilled in ways unimaginable to him.
• With larger populations being crammed into smaller and smaller land areas, disease is expected to grow to the point where it may be impossible to control the pandemics that spread around the world.
• The profile of arable lands will be greatly reduced, as farmlands turn to desert or floodplains or lose their fertile soil, rendering them totally unproductive. The growing shortage of food will lead to increases in crime, and inevitably to mass starvation, revolution and war on a local, regional and global scale.
• Starvation will also lead to the mass slaughter of land and marine animals for food, reducing them to below their sustainability levels. The necessity to feed a desperately hungry world will cause many species to be lost.
These apocalyptic examples are among the probable results of climate change if we stay on the current trajectory. In the minds of the vast majority of knowledgeable people, humanity has to face up to these challenges before time runs out.
Coming full circle: Is this the legacy we want to leave our children and their children? Skeptics and deniers argue that there is little proof that these catastrophic changes are manmade, that they instead are natural perturbations of the planet. But, decades-long studies by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), universities and laboratories around the world agree that these projected disasters will be the result of man’s excesses, and some researchers believe we are already too late to take remedial action, that we have crossed into purgatory.
Some argue the world’s economies can’t afford to take the required action needed to begin to reign us back from oblivion. But the most important question is: Can we afford not to invest in our environmental future, to ensure we will be leaving a viable Earth to future generations? The choice is ours.