Because humanity has taken so avidly to the burning of fossil hydrocarbon deposits for the heat and energy to drive its industrialized way of life, an excessive amount of carbon dioxide gas has been exhausted into the atmosphere, especially during the 20th century. The atmospheric buildup of heat-trapping gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, has caused a steady rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s biosphere, that layer of our planet that includes its terrestrial, aquatic and aerial life. This anthropogenic emission of carbon dioxide has been in addition to the natural releases of carbon dioxide by the respiration of air-breathing life-forms, the normal release of methane because of the digestion and decomposition of organic matter, as well as a recent and accelerating seepage of carbon dioxide and methane from warming seas and thawing tundras.
This positive feedback phenomenon of global warming has become significant enough to alter weather, which is the pattern of atmospheric thermodynamics and hydrodynamics on the spatially fine scale of locality, and the temporally fine scale of hours to days. The persistence of droughts and ferocity of storms in recent years — hurricanes, monsoon flooding, and tornados — has transformed global warming from a remote abstraction to a visceral reality for billions of people. Now, with the evident melting of the Arctic Ocean ice cap and the Siberian and Canadian tundras, as well as the breaking up of offshore Antarctic ice shelves, we are beginning to see geophysical changes that will have climatic effects. Climate is the pattern of atmospheric and oceanic thermodynamics and hydrodynamics on a planetary spatial scale, and geological temporal scale.
Relative to previous natural history, Earth’s environmental conditions today are rapidly changing and will continue to do so for an indeterminate period. How mild or radical the ultimate change in climate will be is unknown, but the nature of Earth’s climate system is such that transition periods are brief in comparison to the durations of the stable climate patterns they separate.
The geophysical facts of global warming and climate change have caused much anxiety in human society by generating conflicts between people with localized fears about the unknown global outcome (for example, the people of the Maldives who observe a rising sea level and fear the imminent inundation and loss of their island nation) and people who fear that personal economic loses will result from accepting changes to industrial and financial practices they benefit from. So far, the dominant fear and thus controlling factor in humanity’s response to the realization of its own influence on climate change, by its profligate waste heat pollution, is the fear of economic loss, the yin side of a capitalism whose yang side is the exultation of successful exploitation. We have our left feet firmly planted on our gas pedals for an accelerating ride into unknown global changes with local color, and nobody and nothing damn well better get in our way to try and stop us.
The dominance of this attitude in the United States was tellingly exposed in a New York Times story by John M. Broder and Clifford Krauss, on the 23rd of May 2012, titled “New and Frozen Frontier Awaits Offshore Oil Drilling“. The essence of the story is that President Barack Obama has been pushing hard for Arctic offshore oil drilling by the Shell Oil Company since shortly after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico during the spring and summer of 2010. Because of global warming, the Arctic ice cap is shrinking and an expanding area of the Arctic Ocean is being cleared of its sea ice. This facilitates marine navigation for oil exploration, and the construction and operation of offshore oil drilling platforms above the Arctic Circle. Thus, global warming is making it possible for our technological selves to extract Arctic fossil hydrocarbons, which offers the roving gamblers in the oil game a potentially abundant infusion of mined and privatized profitability, threatens the viability of the Arctic eco-system and the Inuit people’s way of life should oil spills be catastrophic or simply chronic, and feeds the oil consuming public’s desire to continue their positive feedback into the global warming cycle.
It is heartening to read in the NYT story that a number of federal agencies and “government bureaucrats” (a.k.a. government workers focused on the public interest) took their regulatory and stewardship duties seriously and, despite presidential pressure, held up some of the exploratory drilling permits sought by Shell Oil Company, because the hazards were deemed too great and the justifications in the permit applications deemed too skimpy (NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worried about the threats to marine life, the Coast Guard’s concern is that no assured method of oil spill containment and cleanup exists now for seas with pack ice).
But, we gotta’ have it. “We can’t stop it,” said one senior agency official (quoted by Broder and Krauss) who had qualms about Arctic drilling but understood the president’s wishes. “We can only make it less bad.”
The traditional way of Inuit life depends on the hunting of whales and seals for food, and these creatures in turn feed on the fish, crustaceans and plankton of the Arctic seas. Besides the Inuit, polar bears also hunt for marine mammals if they are able to range out on ice shelves and pack ice. Many species of sea birds summer at high northern latitudes to raise their young because in some Arctic locations they can be less exposed to ground predators, and because the nearby seas hold one of the richest concentrations of marine life on Earth. Many species of birds that fledge and whales that fatten up in the Arctic summer migrate south during the fall to grace our populated middle latitudes with their presence. Also, the fishermen of Arctic seas (the most dangerous profession on Earth) bring back the crab and halibut that delight many palates at our dinner tables. A poisoning of the Arctic environment by an undersea oil gusher would wither life not only that shelters in the Arctic but also moves south to enliven our own temperate zone.
Out of habit and selfish convenience many will agree with President Obama that with technical ingenuity and modest government oversight the oil industry will be able to extract Arctic undersea oil without negative consequence and with the advantages of: providing local high-paying roustabout jobs to Inuit people (beads are outmoded), adding to the “domestic” (i.e., not Middle East) sources of petroleum and thus ensuring an increased and secure source of liquid fuels for the US military, and generating new private profitability (and modest additional tax revenue) that can in turn pinball its way through the Wall Street financial markets to the delight of the gaming elite.
Just don’t notice the drowning of the Maldives and the thawing and possible rotting of the Arctic as our stormy world plods relentlessly on. Not noticing is essential if we are intent to remain a nation of ignorant and contented mediocrities.
Manuel García, Jr. is a retired engineering physicist; his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
(Thanks to “Silver Fang”)