Climate change is receiving a lot of attention lately. There is the Copenhagen Summit in December, October 24th seems to be the International Day of Climate Action and, of course, the topic of this Blog Action Day is also climate change. But these are just a few events, albeit taking place at very different levels, while I’m mainly talking about all the people, companies and organizations that keep mentioning this issue. Some do so because they truly care about it, yet in many cases it’s just greenwashing. It’s quite easy to say a few things about climate change and appear to care, so many do just that and little else. And yet, you see, climate change in itself is not the problem. It’s only an effect of the problem.
Yes, global warming causes many other issues. It means summers will be even hotter, it means wet areas will risk even worse floods and dry areas even worse droughts, it means sea levels will rise and potentially destroy coastal settlements, it means glaciers will shrink or even vanish and deprive those who rely on them of their water supply, it means species and entire ecosystems will need to migrate in order to survive, it means many of those species and ecosystems will not be able to move fast enough or simply won’t have anywhere left to go and therefore will go extinct. It means unrest, disease, starvation, dehydration, wars, destruction, death and, once the systems that managed to ensure Earth’s balance for billions of years will kick into motion, it means the start of a new ice age. But it has a cause as well, and that cause is our behavior, specifically all the things that harm the environment as a whole. Climate change is just one of the many harmful effects of the things we do to this planet and Earth is quite capable of eventually restoring the balance on its own if we’d only stop hurting it for once. Sure, Earth doesn’t measure time as we do so we’ll need to help it restore that balance if we want it to happen before it’d be too late for us and many of the other species we share this planet with, but first we need to stop harming. And we need to stop harming the environment as a whole, not only focus on the types of harm that appear to directly cause this or that specific negative effect!
If a patient is seriously ill and the doctor only treats the pain, the patient will end up just as dead. Of course you should also ease the symptoms when you can, but the priority must be finding their causes and eliminating them. And, once those causes are eliminated, you should find out how did the patient fall ill in the first place and try to prevent a relapse. Only then can you rest a bit easier and focus on accelerating the patient’s recovery. So this is what we should do when it comes to climate change too. The environment is the patient, our behavior is the disease and climate change is one of this disease’s many symptoms. The really tricky part is that we must also be the doctor…
Let’s put this one issue aside for a moment and focus on the big picture. We act like a virus or a very stupid parasite. The first problem is that we have reached unsustainable numbers at least 50 years ago and our population kept growing more and more even after that point. The second problem is that we take and take and only give back toxins and waste. So we must first reduce our population to a sustainable level, preferably by severely limiting the right to breed to only a relatively small number of gifted individuals and offering the right to die in a dignified manner to all those who wish it. If we do so, we might still achieve this goal without killing anyone and while continuing to improve medical services and prolong the lifespan of those who wish long lives. Then we must change our behavior and turn ourselves into a symbiote inside this great organism called Earth. The current situation has been created by the idea that we need to increase production to improve our lives and that we need more people to increase production. But production requires resources, which we take from the planet and only replace with waste and toxins, so more people generate more consumption, more consumption requires more production, more production requires more resources, and those resources are taken from somewhere and not replaced, inevitably leading to the destruction of our environment. If we could learn to only take what the Earth can afford to give, reuse what now appears to be waste and replace everything we take with materials and substances that the planet will then be able to use properly, we would break free of this cycle and start the healing process.
Sure, it’s easy to take things out of context and claim that we can solve the problem of climate change just by lowering our carbon dioxide emissions, but that’s completely false. Plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere, so in order to reduce the existing concentration we need a healthy flora. Polluting, logging and clearing wild areas to make room for crops and cities destroys that flora. Monocultures make the situation even worse because they deplete the soil, making it harder and harder for plants to grow, which in turn prompts the use of more and more chemicals, which in turn tends to breed stronger pests, which end up causing even more damage to plants everywhere and therefore freeing even more carbon, since that’s what happens when dead plants rot. Depleted soils and stronger pests mean that all animals, including humans, need to exploit larger areas in order to obtain what they need, which creates conflicts and even more destruction. But such habitat destruction causes species to become threatened or even go extinct, species which would otherwise eat the pests or pollinate the plants, creating yet another cycle of destruction. On the other hand, oceans absorb carbon as well and store it for a very long time, but that makes them more acidic, which harms sea life, starting with corals and shellfish and then propagating through the food chain. And since oceans are the cradle of life, such harm will end up having serious consequences on all life on Earth. What’s more, carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. Water vapor contributes greatly to the greenhouse effect. As the temperature increases, more water evaporates and less of it falls back as rain, which increases the atmospheric water vapor concentration, which increases the temperature even more, which only continues the cycle. And let’s not forget methane, which we rely on so much but also produce in significant quantities. Just think of cows… And this is just a very simple analysis, but I think it serves well enough to show how things are connected, how reducing carbon dioxide emissions is a necessary but far from sufficient step and how climate change is one, but far from the only, problem we’ll solve if we’ll take all the steps.
Yet we do need to alleviate the symptoms while we’re working on curing the disease itself, though that’s only because we have waited so long to start. But the methods that are most often suggested for this purpose are all wrong, because they keep trying to bend Nature to our will. Proper measures would include moving those who are threatened by rising sea levels, floods, drought, extreme weather or lack of resources to areas which are less risky. This would also apply for those who live in areas which need to be given back to the wild in order to help the ecosystem heal itself, as well as those who live in areas where specific programs will need to be enforced in order to restore the soil, biodiversity or other such things. Other measures include a lot of conservation work in order to preserve as much of the current biodiversity as possible and restore all those plants and animals to their rightful place once a suitable habitat will once again exist. Carbon sequestration could also be a solution, but only if it’s done right. If that carbon dioxide is simply dumped somewhere, it’s the equivalent of sweeping the dirt under the rug and will eventually come back to haunt us. If, however, we can find a way to use that carbon to create rocks and minerals, therefore simply hastening a natural process, it could be a pretty good solution. After all, using atmospheric carbon to create new rocks and minerals is how Earth has kept the concentration more or less constant, with a minimum that was slightly over 200 ppm and a maximum that was slightly under 300 ppm, for the past 25 million years, until we destroyed that balance during the last few decades, currently forcing our poor planet to deal with a concentration of 387 ppm.
Of course, it’s not the Earth we should worry about. Despite Venus’ frightening example, life on Earth in general will most likely survive global warming, pollution and all the destruction we can cause. Some 50 million years ago it was dealing with an atmospheric carbon concentration of over 1000 ppm and truly extreme temperatures, after all. However, the current ecosystem won’t be able to survive something like that, and we are also part of that ecosystem, no matter how much we try to deny it.
It’s been a long time since the last truly massive volcanic eruption, an even longer amount of time since the last major asteroid impact, and we still have roughly a billion years until the Sun’s luminosity will start to increase, so we’re the only ones to blame for the current situation and we therefore owe it to ourselves and to all the other species that we currently share this planet with to stop the destruction and then help the ecosystem heal itself as soon as possible, because without our help it will need thousands of years for that and many species, including our own, can’t afford to wait that long. Let’s stop focusing on this or that specific issue and, more importantly, let’s stop focusing on us and start doing what needs to be done for the world. Let’s change our behavior to cure the disease, let’s take precautions to ensure that such behavior will never arise again to prevent a relapse, let’s implement proper and effective measures to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation to alleviate the symptoms, and let’s fix the damage already done to accelerate recovery. Everything will get solved once we do. Until then, climate change is just a symptom…