4.1 The Core Problem


In 2010, the late humanitarian and scientist, Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, was addressing a roomful of skeptics on climate change in Australia[13]. He was asked the inevitable question, “Since CO2 is good for plant growth, what’s the problem with humans emitting CO2 as part of our industrial activities?” Dr. Schneider patiently explained that yes, some plants grow faster with higher atmospheric concentrations of CO2, but other plants don’t. Then the faster growing plants crowd out the slower growing ones and kill them off, thereby upsetting the balance in the ecosystem and possibly triggering an ecosystem collapse.

The true reason that climate change is a crisis is that it is happening so fast that ecosystems are having a hard time adapting to the environmental changes around them and are dying off. It is hard for trees to pick up their roots and move because New Jersey has now acquired the climate of Virginia. At the current pace of climate change, within a few decades, New Jersey is expected to experience the recent climate of North Carolina making it that much harder for ecosystems to adapt. Vast swathes of forests in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado already contain dead pine trees due to bark beetle infestation. British Columbia in Canada is projected to lose almost all of its forests over the next five years for the same reason. The bark beetles migrated to these regions in response to the change in climate, and pine trees have not yet evolved any natural defense against them.

The ice core data from Greenland and the Antarctic reveal that the rate of change of CO2 due to human activities today is orders of magnitude faster than that experienced through natural cycles. A 30ppm (parts per million) increase in CO2 occurs in the ice core data over a 1000 year period, while that same increase occurs in a span of 17 years at the present time[14]. As a result, NASA scientists estimate that the rate of movement of isotherms (lines of constant average temperature) has also been an order of magnitude faster than the response rate of ecosystems[15]. A Nature Geosciences study in 2010 found that the ocean is also acidifying an order of magnitude faster than when a mass extinction of species occurred 55 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)[16]. And ocean acidification occurs when part of the CO2 increase in the atmosphere is absorbed by the water in the ocean to form carbonic acid. Rapid acidification leads to the death of marine species that need to form shells and with their demise, the food web in the ocean tears apart and disintegrates.
Therefore, it is Life that is under siege from climate change. The German scientist, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, recently asserted that the proper analogy for the Earth’s projected temperature rise is a corresponding rise in human body temperature due to a fever[17]. The normal human body temperature is 37C, and at higher temperatures, the human body reacts increasingly violently. Here’s a list compiled from Wikipedia[18]:

    • +1C: leads to sweating, feeling very uncomfortable, and feeling slightly hungry.
    • +2C: leads to severe sweating, flushed and very red, with increased heart rate and breathlessness. There may be exhaustion accompanying this. Children and people with epilepsy may be very likely to get convulsions at this point.
    • +3C: leads to fainting, dehydration, weakness, vomiting, headache and dizziness as well as profuse sweating. The fever starts to be life-threatening.
    • +4C: leads to fainting, vomiting, severe headache, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and drowsiness. There may also be palpitations and breathlessness. This should be treated as a medical emergency.
    • +5C: leads to coma, severe delirium, vomiting, and convulsions. Blood pressure may be high or low and heart rate will be very fast. Subject may turn pale or remain flushed and red.
    • +6C: leads to death or severe brain damage through cardiovascular or respiratory collapse, continuous convulsions and shock.

Here’s a list compiled from the British journalist, Mark Lynas’s book, “Six Degrees[19],” for an increase in the Earth’s average temperature:

    • +1C: leads to mega drought in the American west from California to the Great Plains, rivaling the dust bowl of the 1930s, depleting the agricultural productivity of the land. Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia will also face similar challenges as rainfall patterns are altered.
    • +2C: leads to drought-stricken cities in China and food emergencies throughout the world. Life in the ocean collapses leading to famine among dependent populations. Corals die. Europe wilts as it experiences the present climate of North Africa.
    • +3C: leads to a persistent super El Nino, the drying out and burning of the Amazon, the drying out of the Indus and Colorado rivers, extreme hurricanes, rapid sea level rise, famine and starvation throughout the world.
    • +4C: leads to Antarctic ice melts, eventual sea level rise of over 50 meters and possibly even an ice-free Earth, deluging not just our cities, but also our nuclear power plants and their radioactive waste dumps.
    • +5C: leads to an entirely unrecognizable planet Earth, with rain forests all burned up and humans herded into shrinking zones of habitability by the twin crises of drought and flood.
    • +6C: leads to near certain, rapid mass extinction, possibly Game Over for humans.

At present, the Earth has experienced a 0.8C (1.4F) rise in average temperature, which is equivalent to a human being running a 100F fever. Now imagine going to a doctor with a persistent 100F fever and the doctor tells you not to worry about it because such body temperatures are normal in cattle[20]! This is precisely the analogy when contrarians point out that the Earth used to have higher average temperatures several million years ago. Besides, notice how this year’s mega drought in Texas and in the American southwest resembles the above projections? Nevertheless, scientists have been reluctant to attribute the 2011 drought to climate change partly because of the inherent conservatism of their profession and mainly because a single event does not imply a long-term trend. But the preponderance of extreme events recently, the Russian heat wave, the Pakistani floods, the record tornado season and the drought in the American southwest all do point to the Earth experiencing a fever that is consistent with the above expectations. In addition, the extremely conservative IPCC is projecting anywhere from 1.7C to 5.8C increase in the Earth’s average temperature by 2100 under various scenarios. An MIT study projects a 50% chance that the average temperature will increase by over 5C by 2100 in their business-as-usual scenario[21]. The UK Met Office has a worst-case prediction of a 4C rise in temperature by 2060, due to carbon cycle feedbacks[22].

And that would be within the lifetime of the Miglets.

Complex life dies out with rapidly changing temperatures on Earth because ecosystems don’t have access to climate controlled environments as humans do. It is true that, given cheap access to sufficient energy, humans can crank up their air-conditioners and ride out the effects of climate change in the confines of their homes and automobiles, but the same doesn’t apply to wildlife, marine life, crops and other sources of the food that we eat. Nevertheless, at present, climate change is not yet the major reason for the loss of Life that is ongoing on the planet. Human consumption due to our industrial, Caterpillar culture, tops the list. Complex Life, as we know it, is dying off on the planet, mainly because we’re killing it and literally eating it up, directly and indirectly. Two-thirds of the ice-free land area of the planet has already been transformed for human use such as for agriculture, cities and livestock production, with less than one-third left for wildlife. Since three-fourths of humanity are still clambering up the development ladder and are yet to partake of the largess of the planet as the top quartile have been doing, they are increasing pressure on that one-third of the land currently used by wildlife. As a result, the Holocaust on complex Life is well and truly underway. Even the Western environmental movements of the sixties and seventies may have perversely accelerated this Holocaust by distancing the average Western consumer from the direct consequences of his consumption.

In her book, “The World is Blue[23],” Dr. Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence recalls an encounter with Kuzno Shima, the head of the Japanese delegation to the International Whaling Commission during the 90s. He challenged Dr. Earle with questions such as, “Americans eat beef, right? What’s the difference between eating steak from a cow and eating whale meat?” Dr. Earle responded earnestly contrasting the agricultural production of cows with the wild life of a whale and arguing that there were a billion plus cows on the planet whereas there were only a few thousand whales left. Shima listened patiently but was not moved, which Dr. Earle couldn’t fathom. As I read this passage in the book, it occurred to me that Shima was on to something and that Dr. Earle was missing his point. After all, to raise a billion plus cows and other livestock on the planet, humans have appropriated nearly one-third of the ice-free land area of the planet, displacing numerous other species and decimating their numbers. While Americans may not have eaten all the mountain lions, the Indians may not have eaten all the tigers and the Chinese may not have eaten all the giant Pandas, directly, they all might as well have done so. They certainly caused the habitat losses that have resulted in the near extinction of these magnificent animals through their appetites for beef, milk and pork, respectively. It is these second-order effects on Life of our ever-increasing ecological footprints on the planet that even great scientists such as Dr. Earle have failed to grasp and articulate.

Let us take, for instance, milk consumption in India. Most Hindus venerate the cow and do not eat beef, but they drink milk and eat cheese. In Western countries, the dairy cow is ruthlessly chopped up into hamburgers as soon as its milk production declines at the age of four[24], while the typical Indian cow lives out to an old age of 20 plus years, grazing on forest and other pasture land. This grazing reduces food for the sambhar deer and other wild ruminants which decline in population, putting a downward pressure on the tiger population. And the whole ecosystem suffers. This is why I realized that if I drink milk, then I must be prepared to eat the beef when the dairy cow ceases to be productive and I must be prepared to eat the veal from the male calves of cows, in order to optimize my ecological impact. Otherwise, there would be an order of magnitude more cows alive for a given level of milk production, which does happen to be true in India. And as I drink milk in India, I’m effectively eating the tiger and the sambhar deer, etc. Once this realization dawned, I became vegan instantly. And within a couple of months after turning vegan, I became lactose-intolerant as my body adjusted to my new dietary intake and my Gastro-Intestinal (GI) tract elongated according to my nephew, Arun, who’s a Gastro-enterologist. Now, I have a built-in mechanism that makes me feel awful if I accidentally consume any animal product, because that animal food becomes rancid when traversing my lengthier GI tract.

The American environmental movement of the sixties and seventies resulted in a slew of important legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. While the air, water and endangered species in America were better protected as a result of these measures, they also caused the outsourcing of manufacturing operations to developing countries where such environmental measures were non-existent. In the meantime, American consumer desires continued to escalate so that the net pollution on the global environment kept increasing, but far from where the consumers lived. When I asked a reputed environmentalist whether these Acts were really such good ideas if they simply outsourced the destruction of the environment to Third World countries, he responded with “none of it is perfect, but I’ve seen no golden bullet for changing consumer desires so far.” As we protect land in the US to save one species or the other, we simply make life harder for numerous species, for example, in the Amazon, in what is, at best, a questionable tradeoff.

Therefore, focusing on climate change as the primary problem to address is like focusing on the fever resulting from a rapidly spreading cancer in our body. While we need to keep a healthy stock of aspirin to douse the fever as it gets serious, it is more important to undergo the cancer treatment. And it is even more important to stop ingesting carcinogens on a daily basis.

AIT focused on the Earth’s fever, but glossed over the cancer that is our Caterpillar culture. One of my fellow presenters at the Climate Reality Project (TCRP) wrote me to the effect, “You are trying to save ‘climate through species,’ while we are trying to save ‘species through climate.’ In the long run, our approach is better because people don’t really care about biodiversity.” And thus, he highlighted the true tragedy of my generation, that we are standing by idly with folded hands while the biodiversity of the planet is ravaged by our Caterpillar culture, thinking that the majority of people don’t care that it is being ravaged. As Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

Perhaps, it is the steadiness of the biodiversity decline that lulls us into this apathy. When I was growing up in India, I used to participate in a ritual on each anniversary of my grandfather’s death, when my mother would make a feast and arrange the food items on a banana leaf outside, while my siblings and I took turns to call the birds. Usually, we would attract a flock of crows to come by and feed on the offerings, signifying that our grandfather had accepted our prayers and remembrance. After my parents passed away, I happened to be in India during one of their death anniversaries and I asked my sister why we are no longer practicing this ritual. She told me that there were very few birds left in the cities of India and that it would be devastating if the offerings were not accepted. Therefore, this ritual is no longer in common practice today.

Scientists have long recognized that if we care to look up in the sky and count the number and diversity of birds that are flying around, we would get a good indication of the extinction that is already under way in our local area[25]. When it comes to energy and minerals, humans have barely scratched the surface of the Earth. I believe that humans are perfectly capable of developing more powerful technologies to access the “inaccessible” sources of these necessary ingredients for industrial civilization, if need be. On this, I agree with the cornucopian economists that human ingenuity will prevail when it comes to material resources, with the caveat that as we deploy more extreme technologies to access those resources, we will be undertaking more extreme risks as well. But there is no hidden reservoir of keystone species to revive the ecosystems that we destroy. And it is hard to rebuild ecosystems when we don’t know 95% of the species that were in the ecosystem in the first place. Despite our technological prowess, humans are not very good at rebuilding complex systems as one disaster after another has illustrated, starting with Hurricane Katrina and continuing on through to Fukushima. How smart are we really when the best engineering minds in the world can only stand around and watch as nuclear reactors melt down and irradiate vast swathes of our planet?


[13] Stephen Schneider, “Stephen Schneider talks to 52 Climate Change Skeptics,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWgLJrkK8NY

[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_in_Earth’s_atmosphere

[15] Hansen et al., “Global Temperature Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2006. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/39/14288.full

[16] A. Ridgewell, D. Schmidt, “Past constraints on the vulnerability of marine calcifiers to massive carbon dioxide release,” Nature Geosciences, 2010. http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n3/abs/ngeo755.html

[17] Hans Joaquin Schellnhuber interview in Australia. http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3268037.htm

[18] Compiled from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermoregulation

[19] Compiled from Mark Lynas, “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet,” National Geographic, January 2008. http://www.amazon.com/Six-Degrees-Future-Hotter-Planet/dp/142620213X

[20] Normal body temperatures of various animals can be found in  http://www.fao.org/docrep/t0690e/t0690e04.htm

[21] Sokolov et al., “Probabilistic Forecast for 21st Century Climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions (without Policy) and Climate Parameters,” MIT Report,  2009. http://globalchange.mit.edu/pubs/abstract.php?publication_id=990

[22] Richard Betts et al., “4C Warming: Regional Patterns and Timing,” 4C+ Conference, Oxford University, 2009. http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/4degrees/ppt/1-2betts.pdf

[23] Sylvia A. Earle, “The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One,” National Geographic, September 2009. http://www.amazon.com/World-Blue-How-Fate-Oceans/dp/1426205414

[24] Richard L. Wallace, “Market Cows: A Potential Profit Center,” Illini Dairy Net Papers, 2002. http://www.livestocktrail.uiuc.edu/dairynet/paperdisplay.cfm?contentid=354

[25] “Birds Could Signal Mass Extinction,” Oxford University study, 2010. http://www.physorg.com/news205483725.html

4. The Really Inconvenient Truth
4.2 The Root Cause
Sailesh Rao
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