Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coping with Climate Change: Earth from Jupiter


Imagine standing on the surface of planet Jupiter. How would the Earth look from there? It could be inferred that, in the same way that Jupiter is not visible through the naked eye from Earth, the same would hold true in the opposite direction.

This visualization exercise is useful to put into perspective the dimension of the global conflict otherwise referred to as climate change: it is not perceptible from Jupiter.

Nevertheless, as one approaches planet Earth from outer space, the degree of the problem becomes more and more visible: burning fossil fuels means burning the fossilized remains of living matter that grew with sunlight, decomposed and was compressed over layers of new material decay. The present rate of fossil fuel consumption is equivalent to one million years of ancient sunlight every year. This explains two facts: a) that fossil fuels will eventually be exhausted permanently from the planet; and b) that the exhaust fumes from such burning process accumulate in the atmosphere, as they have nowhere else to go outside of the physical constraints of the planet’s environment. This causes the well-known greenhouse effect, increasing the temperature of at least the Earth’s land and water.

The last four million years, the planet’s long-term average temperature had remained stable, after hundreds of millions of years of instability. Naturally, the geological process of tectonic and volcanic turmoil created the required conditions for life to evolve into more complex species and into an incredibly wide variety and diversity of them.

In only two hundred years, human industrious activity spawned sufficient carbon dioxide to alter such stability, bringing climatic uncertainty to a habitat that had become quite predictable to human understanding.

Excess evaporation and the melting of ice formations have additionally triggered a disruption in the planet’s water cycle, from cloud formation to sea levels, and from potable water to floods.

The wrong question.

I am fundamentally at odds with the case study and subsequent questions for this Module. Although there may or may not be subtle ecosystemic differences between the vulnerability of the Sundarbans region in India and Bangladesh, another fact holds true: c) as climate change consequences progress in visibility, the alteration of living conditions –not only for humans- in an already vulnerable geographical area will become more evident.

Living in Australia I had the opportunity to visit several natural sites where there is physical evidence of sea levels way above present levels. Such water surges are not as old as climate instability, but the result of climate oscillations that provoked melting of ice formations, altering sea levels significantly. Subsequent ice ages re-captured water in the form of glaciers and polar ice caps, making sea levels recede worldwide.

This allows me to understand two additional facts: d) whether there is anthropogenic climate change or not, sea levels will rise again, perhaps not as the result of human activity and not in such a short period of time in geological terms; and e) relocation of human settlements will be forced by sea levels in this century or a few centuries later regardless of what mitigation efforts humanity embarks on.

Although I could make an effort to substantiate a statement in either direction in response to Assignment Question 1, I prefer to consider the worst-case scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Stern Report, other geological data about ice ages and higher sea levels in previous millennia, and take action counterfactually from there. In other words, if there will be a one-meter sea level rise by the end of the century, what kind of adaptation should we engage in? If prior to the next ice age sea levels will rise 60 meters, where would be the safest places to establish human settlements?

The right question.

Our scientific reasoning is based on methodologies that embrace deduction and induction as principles to advance new knowledge. A principle that has been neglected is abductive reasoning, paradoxically being the source of the initial hunch that leads to all scientific research. As Einstein reminds us, “imagination is more important than intelligence.”

The way abductive reasoning could help us cope with climate change is by allowing us to collaborate creatively in the process of imagining a new model for thriving life -also human- on the planet given the global constraints that we already know and even considering a few that, although there is no certainty about, there is some likelihood of. For example, the constraints by 2050 if human population reaches 9 billion, greenhouse gas emissions continue a steady rise, and the planet’s biocapacity –forest coverage, land fertility and ocean resilience- continues a steady decrease.

It is paramount that humanity imagines those scenarios –regardless of the likelihood of them happening- so that we can start generating ideas and building solutions for that not-so-distant future.

One last fact I would like to propose: f) I will not be alive in 2100. But that is not necessarily the same expectation for my unborn children, who might, and my grandchildren, who most likely will be around at the coming turn of the century. This leads me to believe that the efforts that we are doing and should continue doing to save the planet from humankind are not to improve the world we will live in, but the world our grandchildren will. This is why I strongly support the promotion of intercultural ethics as the way forward to reach global agreements towards the build-up of critical masses of leaders who will bring about a sustainable change that can ensure the regeneration and preservation of natural habitats as rich and unique as the Sundarbans. 

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