Global Warming and the Cold War

When I was 14, my father brought me down to the furnace area in our basement to show me the water, food, and other supplies he had stockpiled to the ceiling. He gave me memory tips for finding my way to his hometown in North Dakota and the drug store where “they will take you in” if the East coast was bombed. I remember watching Kennedy on television in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis the first year I was at college and thinking I might never get home. Into the 1980s, the nightmare was that if the shock waves and the fallout didn’t get us, the global chill from the atomic dust would.

The melting (scitechdaily.com)

The melting Arctic (scitechdaily.com)

Today the grand anxiety is of global warming instead of nuclear winter. Here in New Jersey, though, the concern is subdued. The state energy plan is all about natural gas and new pipelines, it’s a rare house that has solar panels, and people build new homes, on stilts at least, along the water.

The complacency about global warming comes in part from our disconnect from the environment. Rain and temperature are important to people according to how much or how little difference they seem to make in our lives. Perhaps early farmers and hunters, closer to the earth, would have reacted more readily to predictions of hotter summers or worse flooding. But in American suburbia, environment is mostly background. Weather is good or bad, a day is “beautiful” or not. The climate doesn’t feel closely connected to the food we buy or how well our houses keep us warm. Climate of course intrudes when storms hit or temperatures are extreme, but otherwise our human world is just that—a world settled and run by humans, not one bounded by nature.

We know better. We need to heed the data and find the will to act. We won’t have the fall of the Soviet Union to help get us through this time.

The Sixth Mass Extinction

Here’s how many people, if they are not in denial about it, view the current environmental crisis: global warming has begun, weather will become more extreme, and the changes in temperature will impact agriculture, the habitability of sea coasts, and the survival of some species. The last item—species extinction—sits like an afterthought in such a summary. The description minimizes the prospect that we are probably entering the sixth of the planet’s massive extinctions.

The first five mass extinctions took place over the last half billion years as the results of sustained volcanic eruptions, large meteors, and ice ages. They lasted for millions of years. Today, though, in the popular imagination, they seem like little more than fantastical events far in our past that are pictured occasionally in magazines and science fiction movies.

dinosaurs and meteors

A picturesque extinction. Dinosaurs looking alarmed. (rainbowdolphin.com)

The current mass extinction is man-made. Called the Holocene extinction for the present geological epoch that began in 10,000 BC, it results from the steady increase in human numbers and, in modern times, from global warming, environmental destruction (rain forests, for example), overfishing, pollution, and the movement of invasive species and diseases around the world. It seems likely that each of these plagues is just getting warmed up.

The first five extinctions saw the loss of more than half of existing species, most often around 70% or more (apart from microbes). The most recent mass extinction, about 65 million years ago, has gained some  reknown. A six-mile-wide meteor hit the Yucutan peninsula and its impact on the climate wiped out the dinosaurs as well as an estimated 75 percent of other species. (For comparison, the normal rate of extinction is a few percent annually, as species evolve into new ones or succumb to competition or normal environmental change.)

timeline of mass extinction

The first five mass extinctions. The dinosaurs came into their own after the Triassic-Jurassic extinction and went out with the Cretaceous-Paleogene one.
(historyoftheuniverse.com)

The severity of the current, sixth, extinction is debated. According to Wikipedia, estimates run between 100 and 1000 times greater than the normal extinction rate. Ten years ago, E.O. Wilson famously predicted the loss of half of the current species 100 years from now. The exact rate aside, the losses have already cut across the organic spectrum. Amphibians, including frogs and toads; bird populations; fish species; invertebrates, mostly insects; plant species—all have declined. Mammals are vulnerable because they are dependent on plants and other animals down the food chain. In part because humans live almost everywhere on the globe, our species is not likely to be pressed to extinction anytime soon. But we can’t know the long-term impact of the next several decades’  addition of billions more humans and their demands for water, minerals, meat, and cars.

No matter whether the current extinction turns out to be a major one or only a middling one, its severity will earn it a place among the turning points for life on the planet. The chain of earthly life that is billions of years long has been tested in the past by meteors and volcanoes. It’s painful to think that it will be tested this time by one of its own.