Sunday, August 12, 2012

Climate Crisis 1989: After the Warming

I wrote this piece in 2007 and never published (or posted) it anywhere before, to the best of my recollection.  But it belongs here both as part of this climate crisis awareness history and because it summarizes a television program that deserves to remain part of the dialogue: James Burke's After the Warming, which I quote from in the previous essay.  I'm happy to say that in 2012 it can be seen on YouTube, although not with the quality of the rare and at the moment unavailable DVD version.  I'm not happy to say that 5 years after I wrote this and 23 years after these 1989 warnings, the climate crisis is still not being addressed directly or with the appropriate urgency and scale. 

Nor that Dr. James Hansen, whose 1988 Senate testimony is mentioned, just referred to it in a Washington Post oped in which he says that in terms of its relationship to extreme weather, it's now worse than he thought back then.

We called it Greenhouse Summer. Chicago had seven days over 100 degrees F, and a string of 18 straight over 90. Pittsburgh had more than five times the average number of days above 90, making 1988 the hottest summer in a century. In more than 70 US cities, hot weather exacerbated lingering and dangerous air pollution.

With the heat came drought, especially in the Midwest and South, where it contributed to a 31% decline in the country’s grain harvest. In the West, forest fires lingered into autumn. Titanic fires in Yellowstone resulted from the worst heat, drought and wind conditions there in 300 years.

The phenomenon called the Greenhouse Effect and the predicted catastrophes of CO2-induced global heating were not new in 1988. The first research began in the 1950s, the first tentative conclusions were being drawn in the 1960s, including the possibility of apocalyptic consequences. Arthur C. Clarke mentioned it in a casual conversation with playwright Arthur Miller, as Miller noted. Kurt Vonnegut described the same theory we know today as told to him by a young visitor, in an article published before the first moon landing. By the first Earth Day in 1970, many of us just out of college knew about it.

It was the fact that it was a known theory that made people sit up and take notice in the hot summers of the late 1980s.  In the summer of 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the Senate that global warming was happening and was going to get worse unless countermeasures are taken.

Then in 1989 and 1990, the first spasm of articles and books came out (Bill McKibben’s The End of NatureDead Heat: The Race Against the Greenhouse Effect by Michael Oppenheimer and Robert H. Boyle.) I believe it was around then that one of the TV networks did a miniseries about it, similar to The Day After, though I don't know what it was called and haven't so far been able to find reference to it.

 But it was definitely in 1989 that James Burke made a two-part television program called After the Warming. (Officially it's dated 1990.) James Burke was known in the US for at least two fascinating and provocative television series seen on PBS, both relating the history of technological development to other aspects of history, such as politics, warfare, social change, even fashion. They were Connections and The Day the Universe Changed.

Burke was so good on television because he explained things simply, yet the connections he made were dazzling in their complexity. He was a lively, even aggressive presence, but engaging. You had to watch him. He came at the end of a short golden age for these series, beginning perhaps with Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. The most elaborate, most famous of them—and just about the last one—was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I don’t know when it was actually broadcast. I happened to see the second part, but it was only a few years ago, when I found the two-VHS tape set in the library, that I saw the whole thing.  It is revelatory in so many ways, and I’m now about to describe it in detail.

The premise of After the Warming is that Burke is speaking from the year 2050, when the world has changed enormously because of climate change. He is looking back on the past fifty years or so, describing how human civilization dealt with the challenge.

But the first 50 minutes goes back much further than that, to describe the influence of climate on human history---beginning with pre-history. Humans became human, Burke says, during the Ice Age, and perhaps because of it. Because game became scarcer, hunting was more complicated, and required cooperation and communication. Humans responded by inventing language. Because plants were scarcer, humans explored for food, and with sea water frozen and sea levels down in such areas as the Bering Straits, they were able to migrate farther.

  Then the planet warmed, the seas rose, and the populations of the Americas and Australia were separated from Europe and Asia. The warmer temperatures and abundance of water led to better growing, more population, the beginning of agriculture and cities. There was so much grain in Iraq in 7000 BC that a system of accounting was needed, so writing was invented.

In 3000 BC drought struck the prosperous area of Egypt. The Nile was the only reliable water source when it flooded, which led to developing systems of irrigation and a host of related innovation: “maps to design the irrigation network, surveying and engineering to lay it out, mud and straw bricks to build it, geometry to measure reservoir volume, metallurgy to make the tools, a calendar to get the river flood date right, management to run it all, tax collectors to cream off the profits, and a state bureaucracy to spend them.” That is, the basics of modern civilization, according to Burke.

Climate changes didn’t have to be global or even very large to have major effects. A change in rain patterns doomed the great civilization of Mycenae, where because of shifting cold air patterns, it didn’t rain for a hundred years. By 300 BC it was warm and moist again in Europe. The Alpine passes in northern Italy became open year round, allowing Rome to conquer the Mediterranean world. China seized the same sort of opportunity in its part of the world. Good weather opened up the “Silk Road” and sea routes, so these two superpowers began trading.

But in 500 AD, the global temperature went down. The Huns of central Asia suffered freezing drought, and invaded the south, displacing other “barbarians” who eventually overran the Roman Empire and ushered in the Dark Ages. A half century later, the temperature went up. Vikings colonized Greenland, where there was grass for sheep. Then it turned cold again in 1300. Greenland had no trees, and soon sea ice isolated it. By 1408, the last colony died out.

 The Little Ice Age gripped Europe in the 16th century, but in England, new technologies were developed to cope with it. Burke demonstrated the innovations of the new manor house: “Stone walls and gravel surround to keep out wet and mud, no more open colonnades and courtyards, steep roofs and guttering to handle a lot of rain, but in spite of the cold they put in big glass windows. New technology… changed their lives.” Like chimneys and fireplaces to heat up small rooms separately. Everyone no longer living around one central fire in a big common room. Those smaller rooms had tapestry, paneling, plasterwork and curtained beds to keep the warmth in and cold out. So now there was privacy. And with those private beds, romance. The chimney allowed for heated offices, so accounts could be kept all year, instead of stopping when the ink froze: more business. The cold meant more life lived indoors, and led to indoor entertainment, like making music.

Then came three decades of warming. With hot, moist summers and warm winters, crop yields in England were at historic highs. Food was cheaper, work was plentiful, and in these prosperous times, people had more children. More households created the need for more household goods. Here’s where Burke shines, with one of those very specific chains of circumstance and (perhaps) causality: the demand for more household goods included iron cooking pots. But to heat the iron to make the pots required wood, which was in dwindling supply. There was lots of coal, but impurities in it spoiled the iron—until someone figured out how to burn out the impurities, to make coke that would be used to make iron. It was at this point that James Watt figured out how to make a steam engine, but he needed high quality iron to make it work. Now he had it. The industrial revolution began—all because of improvement in the weather.

It is at this point that FutureBurke pauses to note the irony in iron: the growing populations and now the steam engine began the era of mass production, and expanding economies and populations. Europe needed more natural resources to keep the machines going, and so the era of colonization began. From coal-fed railroads to oil-fed cars and the next round of petroleum-based innovations—in an age of moderate climate—the cause of the next great climate change was literally being manufactured.

The second fifty minutes of After the Warming begins in our recent past, moves into what was the future in 1989 (when the show was made) but is now also in our past, and then into what is still the future.

Burke reviews the discovery of the CO2 based global warming phenomenon beginning in the late 1950s with the same experiments and measurements in Hawaii that Al Gore describes in An Inconvenient Truth. He described the early manifestations of heating, and the endless studies. He projects inaction into the future, into the 1990s.

But in his scenario, a series of devastating droughts resulting in hundreds of thousands starving in Third World countries, plus food shortages in the US, and a series of wars in the Middle East over oil, pushed the United States into finally supporting action on global warming…in the year 2000.

Think about this for a moment. There have been devastating droughts in Africa and Asia, and hundreds of thousands have died in wars and genocides (as in Darfur) that are likely related to them. There’s been drought in the American West for several years, though globalization has kept food supplies up in the US. And we’ve certainly had wars in the Middle East, though no one announces that they are about oil. Burke’s description may turn out to be how the historians describe our recent past. But we don’t allow ourselves to see it that way.

Burke next posits something startling, based on something that hasn’t happened—but might yet. In his year 2000, Pacific nations had become major powers, to the extent that they led the fight to address global heating. Burke named Japan, which probably seemed more reasonable in the 1980s than now. But how many decades are we from a China and perhaps an India so economically powerful that world leadership does fall to them?

In any case, Burke posits something that by the realities of our 21st century, we might well find incredible: a Planetary Management Authority to organize and enforce efforts to address global heating. The efforts themselves are familiar to us now, however strange they might have seen in 1989, like carbon trading. But there’s a twist in Burke’s history of the future that is just beginning to be talked about: how to get less developed nations into the process. Burke’s PMA manages a system in which advanced nations trade expertise for carbon use rights, as they cut their emissions. That expertise is applied to helping less developed nations become prosperous with clean technologies, as well as to create better health care and education.

The methods used to cut emissions are startlingly familiar: everything from the end of incandescent light bulbs to tax credits for energy efficiency and computer controlled homes to manage that efficiency, plus various clean energy technologies including solar and wind. Burke throws in some realistic details, some of them already on the mark: beginning in 2008, there are several years of devastating tropical storms that kill hundreds of thousands in Australia, Bangladesh and Florida. By 2010 there are refugees and military confrontations at borders over food and water shortages.

But the PMA has some military authority, and must stop a wave of Indonesians trying to get into Australia. By 2010 the global temperature has gone up by 3 degrees F, and water levels have risen by over a foot. Two million have died by starvation. A temperature rise of 5F is forecast for 2020. In that decade, there is greater concentration on local energy systems. Societies are reorganizing into smaller communities instead of big cities. Forestry is a major career. Water is a greater problem. Major rivers in the US and Russia have gone dry. Sea walls are going up to protect coastal cities.

Though there is grain growing in the far north, and being transported through newly opened Arctic waters, there is severe drought in the US. And despite the ongoing transformation, the effects of past greenhouse gas emissions continue to multiply and create feedback loops. Ocean plankton, which now absorbs CO2, begins dying because of the hotter water temperatures, and that CO2 is no longer being absorbed.

Without plankton, the only hope for absorbing CO2 becomes the forests. When several South American nations fail to halt deforestation, the PMA organizes a sea and land blockade to force enforcement. Because of the land required for cattle that had resulted in decades of deforestation, beef is so highly taxed that it disappears from most tables.

Still…by 2020 the temperature has risen 5.4 degrees. The sea has risen 2 feet. Between 2025-2040 it has risen 3 feet, breaking into sewage treatment plants and toxic waste dumps, and spreading disease. In 2050, the PMA assesses its half century of crisis management. There have been 20 million deaths by starvation, but only one nuclear exchange (in the Middle East.)  Kansas and the Riviera are arid, there are palm trees in Massachusetts. But the civilized world is very different than it was in 2000, and carbon neutrality has been achieved.

But then data from the deep ocean comes in, indicating that melting ice and rain in the far north has added so much fresh water to the oceans that the great ocean conveyor—the deep currents snaking in a particular pattern that sets our climate—is slowing down. The result of warmer water is less carbon being absorbed, so the globe is heating twice as fast.

The PMA concludes that carbon emissions will have to be reduced to almost pre-industrial levels of the year 1800. FutureBurke, who has been upbeat throughout, and lives in a prosperous looking if conspicuously energy efficient dwelling with lots of computerized technology, now mentions that the prospects beyond 2050 could have been a lot better if humanity had used that 20 years---between 1980, when global warming became apparent, and 2000, when the PMA was established—to start action instead of arguing.

He ends with a joke from our era. The one about the man who falls from the top of a skyscraper. As he passes the 17th floor somebody asks him how he’s doing. “So far, so good,” he replies.

So here we are. There seems little use in reciting again what has already happened and is happening now: the hundreds of millions of people displaced by drought and natural disasters, the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic, the slowing down of ocean circulation below the Arctic Circle, the dying and migrations of animal and plant species everywhere, the increase of pest-borne diseases with increased heat. The droughts, the storms, the heat waves—they’ve all become background noise.

 We’ve had many hotter summers after Greenhouse summer. Flying coast to coast in the US is becoming increasingly difficult because of weather-related delays and cancellations, but it’s just one more of those things, like the idiocy of removing our shoes for Homeland Security. Clearly there is increasing concern, and even increasing political pressure. Al Gore says that no matter who is elected President in 2008, dealing with the Climate Crisis will be high on his or her agenda. But we’ve let more than those 20 years go by.