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.
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.”
WHO WILL LEAD?