Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut, Enrico Fermi and Climate Change

In college, I read lots of books by Kurt Vonnegut.  He had a unique ability to paint a surreal picture in novels like Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.  His capacity to turn logic and our belief systems on their heads is evident in this quote (speaking of the human race):

"We're terrible animals. I think that the Earth's immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should."

As surreal as that might be, its sentiment echoes Enrico Fermi.  The brilliant Italian physicist once asked a casual question that has led to a half century of metaphysical inquiry about the nature of civilizations on this and other planets.  Known as the Fermi Paradox, it is a question with no answer.

Every star in the Milky Way has planets.  With over 300 Million stars, Fermi speculates that there must be some other civilizations out there.  In the absence of evidence of their existence, should we assume that they never existed or that they have existed but become extinct?  I might put it another way.  Are civilizations sustainable?

Have we Earthlings, like others before us, hit the sustainability wall?

As we know, burning fossil fuels creates toxic by-products.  And, what of the alternatives?

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute have determined that deploying wind turbines on a massive scale would have environmental consequences…. 

Producing bio-fuels on a large scale requires vast plots of land and quantities of water…. 

Extracting hydrogen from natural gas emits green house gases (carbon dioxide)…

And so it goes….

John Englander, author of “High Tide on Main Street: RisingSea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis”, doesn’t trouble himself with metaphysical questions. A former CEO of the Cousteau Society, John believes that we have passed the tipping point ofglobal climate change.  There is no looking back.  We must focus on how to adapt to Sea Level Rise (SLR).

John tracked me down to make sure I got the message.  In my last post, I expressed some doubt about the conclusions of the IPCC report.  My reading of the definitive report by the UN sponsored International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lends some doubt on those projections as the IPCC uses the adjective “likely” or “very likely” when describing their projections.  Science is never certain,” I said.

John doesn’t dispute my reading comprehension.  He simply points out the IPCC drew conclusions least subject to attack by political factions inimical to their findings.  So, their findings present the most optimistic case.  The range ofpossibilities is much worse than the IPCC lets on.

John eschews the politics of climate change.  “Ice turns to water at 32°,” he says.  “It doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

He makes a compelling case.  Sea level has been rising and falling hundreds of feet for each ice age cycle of 100,000 years.  The one and a half degree change in ocean temperatures over the last 100 years guarantees that the ice will melt for centuries, raising sea levels.  Done deal.

Speaking at the TEDx Conference in Boca Raton, Florida last year, he advocated that we stop debating where we are and how we got here.  Let’s focus on what to do next.

In his book, Englander lays out the options for several cities.  Solutions vary depending upon the geology of each city.  New York, for example, sits on granite.  So, the system of dykes planned by the Bloomberg administration may work to counter the impact.

Miami, sitting on a bed of limestone, may not survive.

The effects can already be seen in Miami Beach where the city has begun a $15 Million project to install pumps to keep the streets dry during regular high tides that flood them.  Counter-intuitively, the city has also approved construction ofmulti-million dollar condos so they can raise enough real estate taxes to pay for the project. 

Are they just whistling in the dark?  Englander might say so.
High tide comes up through storm drains in Miami Beach

A foot of SLR will move the shoreline inland 300 feet, globally averaged. In low-lying coastal areas, like Miami Beach, the average will be exceeded. The IPCC estimate of minimum SLR this Century is 2 feet.  You do the math!

As for the predictability of the study, John points out that the Antarctic ice ledge poised to break off into the ocean will add 10 feet to SLR in a very short timeframe.  We don’t know if that will happen this Century or next.  But, it will happen.

There are no answers to Fermi’s Paradox because there is no time limit to the question.  It’s possible that civilizations throughout the Universe have always hit the wall of sustainability.  We may be next.

Perhaps we should just leave an epitaph, again quoting the quotable Mr. Vonnegut: 

“We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap.”



  1. Ha!
    Kurt Vonnegut said,
    "We're terrible animals. I think that the Earth's immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should."

    My sentiments exactly. Maybe The Great Flood will do it! I happen to think it's more likely to be a bloody great meteorite. Either way, it'll be a good thing! Humans simply don't deserve this heaven!

  2. There are some things you do “just in case” they are right. Ebola prevention perhaps; restraining orders against those who offer threats, etc. so why not global warming. The sneakiness of this environmental transition is that it is so slow that it may be an epidemic proportion before the world really does anything substantive to effect or try to reverse it. And then it may be too late. The good news, perhaps, is that it is so slow that it may take centuries before it is an issue of major proportion. That is unfortunately the way people at large live…by the generation or less time than that.

    Glad you are pointing it out. I don’t think it’s something that will impact you and I during our life, but still no excuse because it is part of our legacy. Our generation found it…so we should be the stewards to do what we can to help fix it even if its only to slow it down.

  3. I knew if I read your wonderful posts long enough and thoroughly enough, I would eventually find a tiny mistake. Your off by a factor of a thousand, John. Over a hundred billion stars in our little neighborhood.


    Which is not to take anything away from your good points about Vonnegut, one of my favorite too!

  4. Wow, that was certainly uplifting, and unfortunately only too accurate.

  5. You will find this amusing. The exact Vonnegut quote that you close with, was originally a 3rd quote on page 151 of my book. At the last minute before publishing, my editor suggested it was not the right tone and we deleted it. When I do the 3rd edition -- hopefully imminent -- I may reinstate it.

    John Englander

  6. John, Doesn't really matter why the sea level is rising, what matter is how we deal with it. There's still a lot of potential beachfront property available in Western Colorado. WB

  7. Bob Fritz 1st
    New Business Creator and Life Coach
    The problem with all this "science" is that temperature ups and downs have happened for centuries. The problem is that man has built civilization-related structures on areas that could "disappear". And man doesn't like that. He wants the world to only change when it doesn't inconvenience him. He wants to enjoy the benefits of living close to water, but doesn't like negative natural consequences. Example: several years ago in Ocean City, Maryland, the owners of oceanfront condos pushed the taxpayers to fund a "beach replenishment project to protect their properties. So they pumped thousands of tons of ocean bottom from the sea to the shore. It took many weeks. Project completed. Now it looked like the beach miles to the south. But since that was done, the beach continued to grow by huge amounts. The beach further south shrunk --- both occurrences were natural. Bottom line: if nothing had been tampered with, nature did its "thing". And my final point: no one...no one...has any idea how the climate changed long before we could measure it. But we base major decisions on a limited data set.

    1. Not to quibble, but we have a very good geologic record that goes a long way back. The ice cores from Antarctica give us detailed records of global temperature changes and CO2 levels as far back as 800,000 years ago. Sea level has moved up and down hundreds of feet, following the minimums and maximums of the ice age cycle, which ranges from 95 - 125 thousand years for several million years. Those dramatic changes in SL, reflect changes in Earth's average temperature over long periods of time -- what we think of as climate change. The fact that ice melts at a certain temperature means that SL reflects average global temperature over thousands of years.
      Just 20,000 years ago, SL was 390 feet lower. 120,000 years ago it was 25 feet higher, reflecting a cold period and a warm period. We have now broken out of those natural cycles of the last few million years. Before those measurements, the rock record is a little less precise, though good estimates of sea level go back about 500 million years.

    2. Well said Mr Englander. Much ado about nothing perhaps?