Environmental Destruction: The Next Phase

21Dec12

We’ve known about human-induced climate change for more than half a century.  Important things have been changed in response:  auto emission rates, use of chlorofluorocarbons, recycling.  These changes have not been remotely sufficient to repair the problem, unfortunately.  It has generally taken dramatic events to bring about significant improvements.  The question for the future, then, is what the next cliff will be, the next situation that provokes major change.

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Here is an illustration of how things develop.  This graph from The Atlantic shows that only a sudden, global stop to carbon dioxide emissions by 2016 will be sufficient to hold damage to coral reefs at or below current levels.  The more realistic projections call for extensive damage to, and possibly dissolution of, coral reefs by midcentury.

The problem with that sort of scenario is that it unfolds too gradually to make people sit up and take notice.  Diminution of coral reefs is likely to seem normal.  Such developments, repeated across many marine and land ecosystems, will be factored into calculations; adjustments will be made; but fundamental change will continue to be deferred.

Meanwhile, however, there are other kinds of developments that could grab people’s attention.  Fracking may become firmly linked with earthquakes.  Drought, by itself and in its side effects (e.g., reducing Mississippi River levels and thus dramatically impairing barge shipping), could produce dramatic rises in food prices.  Other comparably stunning developments appear necessary to provoke fundamental political realignments and a desirable focus on radical change with respect to the environment.

Even so, there remains a problem.  Democracy is fundamentally reactive.  People do not want to pay taxes or higher prices to prevent severe crises in the distant future.  They did not, in fact, pay those prices, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the prospect of profound environmental jeopardy became widely publicized.  By the time people are ready to get serious about the environment, their ability to have a major impact will be reduced; too much damage will already have been done.  Climate change tends to unfold on the scale of decades.  In short, in coming years, this country will not be inclined to behave in a sufficiently proactive manner to preserve the environment and the climate.

And that’s OK, because even if everyone suddenly became responsible about such things, we are moving past the era when the U.S. was positioned to have dominant global influence.  Whatever we decide, poor people around the world who need firewood will continue to burn up all the trees, if that is their only option.  People who want a more comfortable life will continue to live with considerable environmental damage to have it.  These are existing patterns in human behavior vis-a-vis the environment.  They are not likely to change, even if American policy does someday come around.

At present, it appears that Americans and people elsewhere will continue to tinker around the edges with minor improvements, while continuing in substantially unchanged patterns of overpopulation, resource use, and environmental degradation.  Major global shocks will encourage change, but the change will be belated.

In short, one may speculate that the next big point of change will have several features.  It will entail horrific environmental catastrophe.  It will come after enormous underlying damage has been done.  That damage will limit the options for effective response.  Yet Americans will want a quick fix.  Thus, risky geoengineering responses will likely be considered necessary.  These will almost certainly carry unanticipated side effects, possibly to the point of triggering wars among nations that are differentially affected.  My guess is that this scenario will begin to unfold in earnest sometime around 2020 or 2025.

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