Dear future-born grandchild — as far into the future as possible, I hope! — reading these words… What’s your perspective? Your measure of things? What is the implication of the text you write yourself? Do your eyes glimmer with the same patronizing superiority we have when we look down on funny figures in black and white films…? Triumphant headlines in yellowed newspapers…? Couples, dancing the foxtrot on burning dancefloors…?
Surely, this is where you will look for us: in these residues of “content”, as we call it, of the second decade of the 21st century. This is where you’ll want to capture us: when three, six, nine, twelve! fifteen! successive months made the measurement record books; when we irreversibly passed the 400 CO₂ parts per million mark in the atmosphere; when in July 2016 the land-surface anomaly reached the level of 1.1 Kelvin, and the multi-month averages already indicate at a difference of almost 1 Kelvin compared to the average from the previous century, which already was a few tenths higher… When hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest turn into burnt-out wastelands every year, not only in Siberia and the American West, but also in Alaska, France, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, even Greenland… When the polar ice decline passed beyond two standard deviations on both poles simultaneously, a pattern collapse maybe…
Despite all that, as you know, we still use the term “climate change”, as if it described slight drizzle at a seaside resort, which might ruin a pleasant stroll before a hearty supper… We’re still talking about “the limit of one and a half, maybe two degrees of warming”, visualizing — pale inhabitants of northern latitudes — bright, sunny, and carefree days…
“Nonchalance” is probably the mildest of descriptions.
Our scientists, when reaching a conclusion, usually seem uncomfortable. “It is very, very disturbing,” they say for example, after thirty minutes of presenting facts. “It’s high time we take action.”
And nobody listens.
Over 170 petajoules of energy radiated by the Sun reaches the perimeter of Earth’s atmosphere every second.
This is the energy that fuels everything.
It turns and mixes ocean waters, constantly dragging billions of square meters of it between the equator and the poles. It vaporizes water from the seas and commands clouds to give it back to earth, supplying mountain rivers and carrying the monsoons. This energy fashions what we call “climate” — a pattern of cyclical repetition of temperature, humidity, insolation, and wind — the parameters that make the difference between desert sands and fertile lands, and the tundra and the jungle.
Even a hundredth of this energy is enough to trigger photosynthesis in chlorophyll-filled cells of autotrophic organisms — plankton in the sea, cyanobacteria, grass, or leaves of trees and bushes. The final station — coal deposits, hidden underground; this the ultimate remnant of this effort of combining and arranging, which did not leave the system — like most of it does — as lazy infrared into the dark night sky.
This is life — a twirl, able to sustain its existence, inside a stream of solar energy, which flows around and through everything, holding within everything that is; a twisting, turning turbulence inside a turbulence, that changes its shape and internal program in a constant toil of self-replication.
For two million years, we patiently developed the ability to use tools in our African cradle, to (just as the climatic system achieved some kind of temporary balance, resulting in a few thousands of stable, warm years) discover the order of the seasons and begin cultivation of plants, a systematized production of food, which created an energy surplus and allowed us to organize on a level unattainable to any other species — as civilization.
Civilization allowed us to proliferate and systematically fill the Earth and subdue it. However, a true explosion of our power happened only when we reached for the energy supplies — underground reserves of the arranged coal, millions of years old. It propelled factory machines, weaving machines, threshers, locomotives, ships with no sails, airplanes, tanks, computers, satellites, hospitals, hypermarkets, and the subway — everything that seems to constitute the obvious fabric of the world, but has been kept in constant motion for decades only due to exploitation of the energy remnants, focused in deposits of coal, oil, and gas.
However, the reaction of burning hydrocarbons, unleashing this excess of energy in foundry furnaces, in power plant cauldrons, and car, ship, and plane engines leads to the creation of simple compounds, including carbon dioxide, just like with reactions occurring in organisms. Organisms purge themselves of carbon dioxide by releasing it outside while breathing; we did the same with fossil fuel burning residues — we simply released them outside.
How could we have known there is no “outside”?
Everything remains within the system, changing its structure, particle by particle.
We created imbalance by pumping carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and other gases to the atmosphere at alarming rates. And it keeps on growing.
The additional heat we gathered for the past sixty years — the one that is now beginning to manifest itself — is estimated at 260 zettajoules. 260 with twenty-one zeroes. 260 thousand billion billion joules, stored within the system.
It’s as if the sun never set anywhere for twenty-five days. This is “one degree of warming”.
Energy is never lost; it only changes form. Higher temperature means higher kinetic energy of particles. Higher kinetic energy means particles are moving faster. The air over the equator rises higher and falls faster, spreading wider across the surface. More water evaporates in the tropics, and greater temperature difference sucks it deeper into land. Warm water flows deeper under polar ice, melting it quicker. The highs are higher, the lows — lower, the fronts — more turbulent, and wind is stronger. Everything is already more intense, even though 93% of this surplus of thousands of billions of billions of joules was assimilated by the oceans. All we see now is but the tail of the dragon.
“One degree of warming” is an unimaginable complexity of effects at the edges of the system. As the distortions progress, these phenomena grows in strength, and even the slightest change in the tiniest of systems creates an incomparably larger reaction in every other connected one. The world is a sum of these coexisting, connected subsystems — how extended is our apprehension of what the world is and what is it like? What can we know about the world warmer by two degrees? Is it within our powers to even have a feeling about the world warmer by three?
If we know anything about the interdependence of atmosphere contents and the climate, and the climate and life, it is what we have read from the fossil records of the only known biosphere, never before subjected to such drastic experiments.
There’s even enough of what we know we don’t know to only be able to create forecasts by creating averages from results of many cycles of many systems of different models; computers, fed with data from the last four hundred thousand years, were quite accurate in predicting temperature anomalies in the following five years.
Here’s what we’ve learned from the latest IPCC report, which is the basis for our decisions, however reluctant they might be — that the loss of Arctic ice is related to the change in albedo, which added 25% to the effects of CO₂ emission of the last thirty years; that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the soil as a result of temperature rise is larger than we thought; finally, that the melting permafrost releases accumulated methane, the greenhouse potential of which is thirty times that of CO₂…
We dubbed this long chain of question marks between the world today and the future of our species “cascade of uncertainty” — isn’t it a beautiful name? Still, only a few people are using it, and reluctantly at that, since it encodes the most terrifying of all the fears of ten dozens generations of the logos civilization — nobody knows what will happen next.
Today, all of this still seems to be unrelated — floods in Peru, drought in South Sudan, the whitening of the Great Barrier Reef all are just news, short, illustrated stories on distant tragedies of unknown people. This is why we still use the phrase “climate change” to describe the change of the world. We’re still talking about a “prolonged drought”, while the desert is progressing north and south. We’re still calling regular rain “exceptional downpours”. We’re still counting “warmest months on the record”, even though these will be the coolest months we’ll spend on the hottest Earth on the record.
So, even though you will think we knew it all — that the destabilization of Earth’s life system already has the status of rapid extinction, and animal population decreased by 50% in half a century; that over half of living species is endangered in the 80-year perspective; that in Sahel, Syria, Mongolia, and Pakistan millions of people abandoned their villages and moved to the cities, and hunger and drought are a threat to tens of millions of people — please, remember that the future is not evenly distributed. Right now, only the clouds over the cities are more picturesque than ever, and even though they result in a small deluge, they eventually give way to an even sunnier aura than ever before. The differences are small and truly insignificant, so do not blame us that in the most important matter of all, we are mainly counting on artificial intelligence that will come and save us from ourselves, and geoengineering, which will allow us to chase these billions of billions of joules into some bottle, even though today we can’t even use a bottle to collect spilled milk. Don’t blame us that a year after signing an international agreement — our only policy — only a few countries treated it seriously, and the one that became the richest thanks to the largest emissions is not one of them. Or that our greatest success is halting the emissions at the current level of a million kilograms of CO₂ sent into the atmosphere every second. Well over three million tons every hour. Almost three billion tons every month. Thirty-three billion tons annually.
And we don’t know that, either. Remember us like that — innocent, fully engrossed in important matters. We lived in cities, had gardens, and in them, bees were circling clover.