Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Weather Makers (3)


Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

Part 3

For the last 8000 years the Earth's climate has been stable and Flannery says this period of time has been the most crucial in the long history of our species. It allowed us to develop agriculture and create the industrial civilization we now have. Agriculture is older than the "long summer" but it was "during this period that we acquired most of our major crops and domestic animals...."

A few hundred years ago, after the inventions of Newcomen and Watt (Newcommen engine and improved steam engine) coal was in great demand as a cheap fuel. Flannery points out that Edison, in 1882, opened the first electric light power station in New York City and it was powered by coal. Steam engines are no loner in vogue and today coal is more or less confined to the production of electric power (there is some use of it in home heating but oil is more likely here).

Oil is a major source of energy production these days, but by 1995 it began to look like we might run out of it. Cheap oil [under $40 a barrel] was becoming a thing of the past and while we were finding new oil at about the rate of 9.6 billion barrels a year we were using about 24 billion barrels.

Flannery reports that scientists estimate it takes 100 tons of ancient plant life to yield one gallon of gas. You can imagine the vast sizes of the prehistoric forests of the Carboniferous period [286-380 million years ago] which now rest under our feet in great pools of oil. Oil is ultimately nothing more than fossil sunlight, Flannery says. How much sunlight did it take to grow 100 tons plant life in the Carboniferous period. It can be calculated. Flannery gives the figures for 1997. All the oil we consumed that year took 422 years of plant life to supply. In one year we consumed what it took 422 years "of blazing light from a Carboniferous sun" to produce.

Some of our resources are renewable and some are not. The oil in the ground is not renewable. As far as renewable resources are concerned, we are already using them up at a rate of 20% more "than the planet can sustainably provide." Flannery reminds us that in 1961 there where 3 billion of us on the planet and now we number 6 billion and growing. By 1986 we were using each year 100% of what the earth could reproduce for us in a sustainable manner. In that year we "reached Earth's carrying capacity." Every year since "we have been running the environmental equivalent of a budget deficit, which is sustained only by plundering our capital base."

Look at it this way. Our economy is tanking. Well so is the Earth. President Obama might get us out of the financial crisis-- but the crisis we are putting the Earth through, by maintaining capitalism, may finish us off. The oceans are more and more polluted, the coral reefs are dying, the fisheries are on the verge of collapse, the rain forests are being cut down, the Arctic is melting, and the Japanese still want to hunt whales.

If we don't get rid of capitalism, capitalism will get rid of us. The capitalist countries, despite all the talk about doing something, have no intention of taking meaningful action. This is all due to CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Hey hey, ho, ho, oil and coal have got to go! [And natural gas too.]

There have been two important years in the last thirty that stand out as having heralded major changes due to greenhouse gases. One is 1976. Before that date the tropical Pacific often had a surface temperature that often dipped below 66.5 degrees F. Since then the temperature rarely gets below 77 degrees F. This changes wind currents in the atmosphere and the distribution of rain. One of the biggest such disturbances happened in 1998 which dried out much of Southeast Asia which lost around 25 million acres to fire (50% was of old rain forest). Flannery says 2 million additional acres were lost on Borneo alone. The climate of the world has never been the same since.

However, climate change is slower in tropical and temperate zones. It takes longer to reveal itself. At the poles, however, Flannery reveals, "climate change is occurring now at TWICE the rate seen anywhere else." This is why, by the way, we all have been reading about the plight of polar bears and penguins and have seen on TV the glaciers falling apart and crashing into the ocean. All this drama is on its way here too. Its just a matter of time. Its already hinted at by the increase in the amount and intensity of the fires on the west coast of the U.S., the flooding in the midwest, and the number of hurricanes coming our way.

More info to come.

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