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Condemning Our Grandchildren to a Real-life Video Game

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Over the past seventeen years or so the temperature of the Earth had climbed from about 0.75 to 0.9 degrees Celsius above the pre-fossil-fuel era baseline. Last year was the hottest year recorded, coming in at a full 1.0C above baseline. Then last week something shocking happened – the “mild fever” crossed two “lines in the sand” and took a jump into an entirely new territory.

The global temperature numbers for this February came in at a “fever” of over 1.5C, or as one writer put it: The roof is on fire. Then something even more shocking happened. For one day – March 3rd – the temperature readings for the Northern Hemisphere hit the “mythical” 2.0C mark, the “Holy Grail” of dangerous warming.

What exactly is going on and what’s all this “shocking” business? To answer this question let’s go to a topic rarely cited in the climate change arena – video games!

Back in the day I played my share of “Space Invaders” and “Asteroids”. These days Google informs me that “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty” are all the rage. Video games almost always contain a surreal element. Whether blasting away at invaders from outer space or shooting at marauding mercenaries, the game world is “different from ordinary” – that is part of the fun. At the same time, most players would not voluntarily step into their often bizarre and dangerous game worlds if they were “for real”.

How’s this for a premise for a video game?: You are living on a planet that for its entire four billion year history received every bit of its life-giving energy from a star about 93 million miles away. Let’s call this planet “Earth” and call this star “Sun”. What if a species appeared that became so powerful, that altered the chemistry of the planet so drastically that, to continue to survive, it had to figure out a way to actually block the incoming heat of the Sun. We could call this game BTS (Blocking The Sun).

I don’t know about you, but this kind of world feels more than a little bit surreal to me. How do you possibly go about blocking the very thing that has given life to you and everything around you? How would you control the side effects of such an intervention? And why in the world would you do it in the first place?

This does not sound like a game world I would voluntarily enter. But, what if I told you that this is exactly the world we are in the process of creating for our grandchildren?

I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing that no climate change article has ever started off with a video game theme. Perhaps that’s because last weeks numbers – 1.5C and 2.0C – brought the prospect of truly “emergency heat” much closer than even pessimistic climate scientists had imagined. Suddenly the possibility of a quite “different from ordinary” video-game world seems much more real.

Of course, we’re not there yet. Even if we do reach 2.0C warming for an entire year, as opposed to part of one day in one hemisphere, it is unlikely that we would take the drastic measures that that BTS “game” would entail. But the road to BTS is much more than imaginary. Let’s take a look at that road.

Blocking the Sun

Blocking The Sun is an actual geo-engineering intervention that scientists are studying in case humanity refuses to halt fossil fuel use and our only recourse becomes a desperate technological Hail Mary to try and cool the planet. They call it “solar radiation management.” With BTS, the idea is to mimic an ongoing super volcano by injecting tens of millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. The sulfur dioxide particles reflect incoming sunlight back into space, forming a kind of heat-reflecting “shield” around the Earth and cooling the planet. The injections would have to continue year-after-year since the particles quickly fall out of the atmosphere.

Scientists look to the real life examples of the Mount Tambora (1816) and Mount Pinatubo (1991) eruptions which cooled the world about O.5C-1.0C degrees for a couple years.

The ‘”fun” of this “real-life video game” (generally speaking, the more challenging the game, the more fun) is found in the fact that it is an enormous, never-before-tried planet-wide experiment. And you had better get the placement and amount of the particles just exactly right because so very many things can go wrong. Let’s list some of those things in order of increasing severity:

1) The “White Sky” effect. Blue skies are one of those quality-of-life things that humans have taken for granted since forever. Not in the BTS world. The more millions of tons of sulfur dioxide injected, the hazier and whiter the skies become. Sorry, grandchildren.

2) Dramatic and unpredictable shifts in world-wide rainfall patterns that billions depend on for growing crops and drinking water. Ozone is likely to be greatly reduced. 

3) The ongoing man-made super volcano would do nothing to halt ocean acidification, which many scientists consider to be as big a threat as the warming.

4) A prelude to tragedy – humans could use the cooling sulfur shield as an excuse to keep thickening the warming greenhouse-gas blanket with fossil fuels: “Hey, we can cool things off AND use fossil fuels!” This would create a true extinction level event: If we ever stopped pumping the sulfur dioxide, the shield would fall out of the sky in a few years. But, sadly, the now-thicker greenhouse-gas blanket would remain for hundreds of years. Temperatures would ratchet up quickly and far beyond the planet’s ability to host our species. In this scenario, we would be locked into the BTS game forever or we would perish. The National Academy of Sciences found that, with continued fossil fuel use, BTS would have to be “sustained indefinitely and at increasingly large scales to offset warming, with severe negative consequences if they were to be terminated.”

And what about the fear factor? Grand Theft Auto has it in spades; so does Call of Duty. Well, the idea of messing with the Sun is so controversial – even to study – that scientists in the field are practically shunned by their peers. It is controversial for good reason; here is a leading BTS scientist, Dr. Matthew Watson: “I’m terrified because the potential for misstep is considerable.”

The scientists working in the very field are terrified, so….check….plenty of fear factor.

So what are those “lines in the sand” that we just crossed and how do they bring us dramatically closer to a BTS world for our grandchildren? Let’s take a look.

1.5C

We’ve been significantly thickening the greenhouse-gas warming blanket in our atmosphere for almost 150 years now. It started off rather slowly; some coal, a bit of oil burned by the one billion or so inhabitants of Earth, right up to our fossil-fuel saturated world of over seven billion.

It was a pretty long time until scientists even realized that the warming would be a problem: “What exactly was going to happen if temperatures kept rising, and when would it happen?”

Perhaps a helpful analogy is to having a fever (we’ll switch to Fahrenheit here). 98.6 is the “normal” functional temperature for a human body. At 100 you feel not-so-great, but not-too-bad. At 102 things get more intense. Still not dangerous, but definitely “down for the count”. At 104, alarm bells start ringing; much more warming and the body itself is in jeopardy.

At a 1.5C “Earth fever”, we move beyond not-so-great, but not-so-bad. To understand this, think “permafrost”. There is as much carbon locked up under the permanently frozen ground in northern Siberia and Canada as is now present in the entire atmosphere. But “permanently” is not truly permanent. It turns out that once the planet hits 1.5C warming, the permafrost begins to thaw in earnest, setting up possibly the planet’s biggest feedback loop; a loop that has not been activated in modern human history.  Those hundreds of billions of tons carbon start to escape their frozen burial into the greenhouse blanket. And the blanket thickens even more quickly and the planet warms even more quickly. And that thaws even more permafrost…and so one.

Until now, we have essentially been in control of the situation. We eliminate carbon emissions and the problem is basically solved. 1.5C starts to take the situation out of our hands in a big way.

2.0C

For not clearly defined reasons, “2.0C” has been internationally declared to be THE line-in-the-sand when it comes to dangerous warming; warming that threatens the very fabric of human civilization. At 2.0C (3.6F), more permafrost is thawing, more ice is melting, storms are more ferocious and droughts are deadlier. But, in reality, the 2.0C figure was chosen somewhat arbitrarily. Most scientists favor 1.5C as the “dangerous level”.

Something that is “momentous” about this line in the sand is that it was visioned to be “sometime in the future”, perhaps as late as the 2040s. Now, to be sure, 2.0C officially means maintaining this level of warming over an entire calendar year, so it is still in the future. To understand what has so terrified scientists about even a one-day reading of 2.0C in just one of our hemispheres we have to understand breathing oceans.

Breathing Oceans

Did you know that oceans breathe? Yep, they do. Here’s how it works: Heat travels 93 million miles from the Sun to the Earth’s surface. We’re an ocean planet. It’s what distinguishes us from every known planet in the universe. Our oceans are enormous and deep.

When that heat hits the surface, over 90% of it is “inhaled” by the oceans. It goes down into the murky depths where, temporarily, it is lost to the surface temperature of the planet. Then, after some years, the oceans “exhale” that heat out onto the Earth’s surface. This inhaling and exhaling occur as a natural cycle, inhaling periods called “La Nina”, exhaling “El Nino”.

Now, you might have read somewhere about a pause in global warming over the past fifteen years or so. Some folks who are very interested in continuing the production of fossil fuels have gone so far as to claim that “the warming has stopped” and, heck, let’s use even more coal, oil and gas! These folks had no idea what they were talking about; or, worse, they did know and were lying.

But scientists knew. They knew that the oceans breathe. They knew that the oceans were in a “heat swallowing” period, slowing but not stopping the warming. They knew that our carbon emissions continued to increase substantially and that much more heat was being trapped and held in by our atmosphere. They knew that surface temperatures, would take another jump when the oceans exhaled. So while the climate denial folks went about their shady business, and the rest of us went about our fossil-fueled business…they waited.

And then, inevitably…exhale… the next El Nino cycle arrived last year. And…wow. The jump has stunned even the scientists. Yes, the 1.5C was only for a month (so far). The 2.0C was only for a day in the northern hemisphere (so far). But these are pre-cursors. It is coming and it is coming with (anthropomorphically speaking) a fury and a vengeance.

So…we could stop. Of course, we could stop. Draw down fossil fuels quickly and our grandchildren don’t have to grow up inside of a video game. Our “last best hope” for an agreement to transfer away from fossil fuels was last December’s Paris Climate Summit. How did that go?

Notes on the Paris Climate Summit

The politicians and scientists that gathered in Paris in December knew about 1.5C and 2.0C. Three short months ago, these figures were still thought to be “somewhere out in the future”, even if on a monthly or daily basis. In a grand gesture, the summit issued an “intention” to limit future warming not only to the famous 2.0C line, but, what the heck, let’s limit it to 1.5C!

The summit was supposed to be our last great hope of changing our ways. And it’s true that most of the world’s nations reached an accord intending to cut their carbon emissions. But here’s the problem: Paris has no teeth. No price was put on carbon use. There are literally zero financial penalties of any kind if a nation does not live up to its carbon cutting intentions. Not one.

The even worse news about Paris is that even if every nation miraculously met its intentions to cut carbon emissions, the Earth would still be on a path to anywhere from three to seven degrees centigrade warming.

No, despite all the back-patting that followed the summit, Paris does not send the message that we actually mean business.

What Does 1.5C and 2.0C Portend?

What kind of world could induce our grandchildren to “play dice with the Sun?” What kind of world would prompt humanity to forfeit blue skies, to invite a clearly defined “prelude to tragedy?” What kind of world would usher in such monstrous intervention?

Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, said about climate change: “We’ll adapt. It’s an engineering problem and we’ll find an engineering solution.  He probably didn’t realize it, but the most likely engineering “solution” will be BTS! And what does science say about that “adapting”?…

As things now stand, we are on track to possibly hit 4C warming by the 2060s. This world would be different than anything you or I or any human in history can understand. Here’s is how a comprehensive scientific study described it: “Given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degrees Celsius world is possible…communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation. The projected warming simply must not be allowed to occur.”

In a “non-adaptable” world – Mr. Tillerson’s reassurances notwithstanding – what will we do? More to the point, what will we be forced to do? By then it will be far too late to simply cut down on fossil fuels. By then, what we now call “desperate”, they will call “necessary”.

All this video game stuff may seem a bit silly. But it is important – surpassingly important – to understand that the world we are in the process of creating will not only be much harder, it will also be heartbreaking in surreal ways that will make it even more…heartbreaking.

How old will your grandchildren/grandchildren-to-be be in 2060? This 4C world is where we are headed, Paris notwithstanding, unless we get much, much more serious about the current state of things. As it is, China has no plans to cap emissions until 2030, Russia is rushing to claim Arctic drilling rights and the U.S. President is signing off on new oil leases. In such a world, blocking the sun might simply be the only option. The BTS game is not, in reality, “fun” at all. Though it is already being studied here in 2016, it is a game that nobody wants to play. But the blanket continues to thicken. Even if we stabilize our emissions or cut them, let’s say 10% or 20% or 30% in the coming years, the blanket will thicken.

In a year or two when the oceans go into inhale “La Nina” mode and the surface warming slows a bit, we will wait – and watch. Our grandchildren will also be waiting. What had been still hazy milestones off in the distance popped in for a shocking visit last week. They won’t be staying for now, but they do presage our not-too-distant future. Our grandchildren may very well want to be playing video games in their own futures. They certainly do not want to be living in one.

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