31. After we’ve passed the tipping points, irreversibly

Chapter 31:  Consequences of business-as-usual today for our children tomorrow

 

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While rarely stated quite this baldly, the reasoning goes like this: Government intervention in the marketplace is bad. Accepting the reality of climate change requires us to acknowledge the need for government intervention either to regulate the use of fossil fuels or to increase the cost of doing so. So we won’t accept the reality of climate change.
Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway,
The Collapse of Western Civilization

In Their Corporate Name, Congress controlled. That great old Congress with its two parts House and Senate, purporting to lead the great old America, ever recalls the same-but-different myths of the old Roman senate. In contrast with the glory that was Rome, lasting in all a thousand years, the fabled United States in only its third century did not lead anybody, not even itself, out of that mounting catastrophe which the world’s knowing science folk had long foreseen, had predicted, had described in oh-so cautious detail, in ScienceSpeak. They were polite, they did not speak loud enough, and the old Congresspeople were well paid to not hear their voices anyway.

 

No, they did not, though full well they knew. And so fuels from ancient buried fossils burned in ever increasing volumes, releasing their copious gases. This was our ancestors’ insanity – knowing the certain consequence but doing it anyway. And thus carbon dioxide and methane rose to ever greater concentrations in the worldwide atmosphere, humanity’s ultimate commons. Four hundred fifty parts per million came and went, then five hundred and rising. This was their certain suicide, a tipping point tipped.

 

Even as earth’s worldwide average temperature rose ever higher with every year, cold Arctic air circling high in the stratosphere looped inexplicably far southward – no one was quite sure why, maybe El Nino they said –  though scientists presumed it a cause of unusually cool weather prevailing a few years over much of the United States. The deniers did not so presume. It’s all just your imagination, see!, see!, they cried, ignoring or full ignorant of the mounting global average temperatures which conveyed truth.

 

Counterintuitive, cause and effect were not well understood, even among science folk who understood most. When with dismay they discovered the vast heat accumulating in the world oceans, and despite all opinions, no one well understood how or why such heat accumulation was occurring so rapidly. The best of them held educated guesses as to how long it could continue, but demurred on when it might pass the tipping point, the irreversible point. Like Pangloss mentoring Candide, those foolish deniers holding the power of that old Congress held fast to their certainty that all was for the best in that old best of all possible worlds. Just look, they said, at what progress our industry and technology have given you. Life is good. Be grateful. Don’t worry, they said, be happy.

 

The question has come down to this: Do they even have the capacity to care about the generations immediately behind them – their own children and grandchildren – who’ll still be here, trying to survive, after they’ve done their do,  after memories of them and their closed little mindsets are fading, detested, all of them dead and gone from the consequences they’ll leave behind? They and their stupid ideology are killing our future. How in God’s name could such dolts get elected in the first place? Don’t answer that, for I’d like to pretend I don’t know. It’s too sad to face, all that useless, senseless loss.
Elmore Bland

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Ever higher greenhouse heat melted those ancient glaciers high in those old Alps, the mighty Andes, the great American and Canadian Rockies, the grand massive Himalayas, while the monstrous ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica became unstable, slushy with melt. More and more of that old fresh-water ice flowed down to the sea, carrying away precious soil and harmful chemical residues alike. Hence did the oceans continued their rise, even as they underwent sure and steady decline of their purity, acceleration of their increasing acidity – the little shell creatures dying, and those that ate them, all dying.

 

All across the world the ocean floors, now disturbed by heat-altered currents flowing in new directions at new speeds, increasingly belched their methane clathrates, bubbles bigger than whole cities breaking the surface. While simultaneously in oil and gas fields around the world the vast hydraulically-fractured shales continued their prodigious leakage – all flooding enormous new quantities of carbon dioxide and volatile methane into the atmosphere, decisively beyond the irreversible tipping point. And then far beyond, without pause. Tipping points begat successors, a cascade of tipping points.

 

The darkly warmed Arctic Ocean now wholly free of ice, the new heat triggered extreme weather not seen so far north for a hundred thousand years. Capitalists hastened to send  their great diesel-burning container ships across the fabled Norwest Passage, open at last, a natural cutting of cost they said, their containers filled with baubles for sale in discount stores at a few pennies below market. Then also was triggered the tipping point for rapid melting of the permafrost, as they called the permanently frozen nine million square miles of Arctic ground encircling the world, and its melting released unmeasurably bigger clouds of carbon and methane so long entrapped. Houses and bulldozers sank from sight into muck previously frozen hard as rock for millennia, as the people fled south.  And the new heat this newly amplified greenhouse added to earth’s atmosphere tipped the point for Greenland’s mighty ice cap, already fast melting, its vast fresh water released at last into the sum of earth’s oceans. So many tipping points tipped.

 

Bigger still, Antarctica’s great caps followed.

 

Reclaiming her own notions of equilibrium, Gaia’s positive feedback, now more firmly in control than the wildest dreams of any puny corporation, caused every form of climate change to change faster still. A new equilibrium would not soon be reached.

 

As before in ages past, the Gulf Stream shut down – its drive-belt rotation undone by influx of cold fresh meltwater off Greenland and new circulatory patterns in the Arctic’s newly ice-free ocean.  Eire-land and then all Europe stopped receiving the moderating equatorial warmth the Gulf Stream had long delivered. That warmth which still arrived by atmospheric flow was not the measure to which European peoples, their civilization and agriculture had been accustomed for ten thousand years and more.  Arctic storms worsened and global warming did not warm the people. And as understanding came, over all Europe there spread a great sadness. Subtropical Madrid, latitude parallel to Chicago, became Chicago-like in weather and climate, less warm than Oslo.

 

Demise of the Gulf Stream’s great wet arch, long keeping sea levels and tides abnormally low along the American east coast, now allowed sea level increases along that coast to develop far in excess of the average worldwide ocean rise. The great drowning of coastal lands was unprecedented; most of Florida and so-called tidewater regions in all eastern states vanished beneath new waves and higher tides. Around all continental edges grew hurricanes and typhoons more severe each year, their increasingly huge storm surges raging across aptly-named floodplains. Super-tornadoes of unknown ferocity and magnitude came now interspersed with unprecedented torrential rains and floods, heat waves that killed like scythes, wildfires of enormity never before seen, and spreading droughts which withered crops, people, every living thing. And across the world, death.

 

Age-old aquifers shrank until, total depletion reached, the people – after uncountable millennia – could no longer pull the life-giving water up from the depths. More millennia would pass while rainfall and slow percolation down through the ground oh-so-gradually recharged them – provided, of course, that Man’s millions of water pumps remained turned off. Ever larger swaths of once-fertile farmlands simply stopped producing enough food crops, all over the earth. In that old America the pay checks, the pension checks, the welfare checks and, especially, the dividend checks – they all sputtered on, until finally they stopped coming altogether, a new kind of equality. People going to withdraw savings were turned away by armed guards who told them withdrawals were not permitted that week. Forests wilted then slowly they died, and new saplings did not come with the spring. Died too the small creatures of the forests, but only after suffering.

 

Unstoppable, an old problem now much expanded – climate refugees – swarmed across every national boundary on earth, in both directions, seeking food, and security, and respite. But little respite could be found, and where it was were too many people. Self aggrandizement now unchecked, there arose more of the inevitable petty warlords whose endless wars of petty aggression spread, morphed unnoticed into ceaseless uncontrolled and uncontrollable savagery in what euphemistically were still called “developing countries” – and then in every country. Ammunition finally exhausted, machetes were taken up. Sanitation broken beyond repair, medical systems in collapse, the unleashed diseases could not be coped with. Life expectancy declined precipitously, infant mortality soared, fertility plummeted. Everywhere on the earth, life changed.

 

            And God smote the deniers in their arrogant pride. But all humankind suffered.

 

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Our history keepers tell us the stories of how those old climate disbelievers of that old Congress, and more like them, nearly killed us all, and the stories they tell us, though hard to believe, are true. We hear the old stories of the roiling black clouds that came towering beyond the top of the sky, blowing fast and wild between horizons, dark gray and then darker still – how they came day after day after year for years on end, for whole generations of lifetimes. Then came more often then finally stayed, those great dark clouds, darkening all our skies unrelieved, the very earth receiving so little of Sun’s blessed divine light that photosynthesis failed, more and more did it fail in so many parts of Earth. People rejoiced, giddy and festive, when came here and there a day half lightened. So many of the plants died, even the weeds, gone and did not return. Of those surviving, few could be eaten to sustain the people who sought to survive also.

 

It all became worse, then worse still as if old gods were marching a hundred abreast in endless columns, pounding their great and terrible drums to destroy us. The mere mortals who survived, the grandparents of our grandparents, did not thrive. No. Like the brave hardy salmon, they could overcome very much adversity, but not all. They hungered. All were deficient in the vitamins, especially the D from Sun’s light. Many were the fallow women. Birthing became rare, and children gained were so puny that few survived long. People fell away from each other, into groups. Then groups became smaller, and felt themselves apart, isolated from other humankind. Governments seemed to go away, and did not help. The people suffered, we know, for we have heard their true stories.

 

Those most terrible of all stories, of those hundred and forty years 2075 to 2215, are not usually told in their details. No, they cannot be. Rarely are they heard in fullness, for even the history keepers cannot bear to say all of that which happened, the incomprehensible magnitude of loss, the sadness. Yes, incomprehensible. Compare you:  tens of thousands of meticulously written scrolls, the incomparably wonderful accumulated knowledge from Three Thousand Years of antiquity, irretrievably lost when religious fanatics in their right’eous closed mindsets burned the great library at Alexandria, in old Egypt.

 

Compare again:  after Two Thousand more Years, the great Library of Congress, shining hope symbolized in Liberty’s statue, the ever-hopeful United Nations. The unprecedented American Constitution, the American Dream, the American Way of Life. Western civilization. Eastern civilization. Civil humanity. The Good People, all God’s children. All things great and beautiful. Brought down by self-righteous fanatics in their righteous mindsets – Business as usual; Drill baby drill; This global warming folderol is just made-up lies by greedy professors trying to mooch grant money off the government! So certain that they alone were right. So certainly now in Hell, may their backs be broke too.

 

All lost, dreadfully forfeit after more than five thousand years of striving humanity. The Déluge. Those hundred and forty years were too horrible, empathy cannot bear it. Please no. Just read on, learn and know.  That which follows, too, was found in the metal box.

 

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