Here in North Texas we’re currently experiencing the warmest start to a year on record. This comes on the heels of the warmest winter in Texas history. A few years ago we had the dramatic wildfire apocalypse — enabled by an epic drought — that engulfed huge portions of the state, and that had me nervously watching huge plumes of smoke billow up from behind the hillside in back of my house. The drought was ended by historic flooding. The same year as the floods, a positively crazy chain of severe spring thunderstorms tore right through the area where my family and I live, spawning a line of repeated tornadoes, one after the other, all afternoon and overnight. This is something that has always been more common back in the Missouri Ozarks where I’m from. Nor was the perception of something different down here merely a subjective one; 2015 ended up being a record year for tornadoes in Texas. Last year there was more severe flooding, including right where I live. Thus far, my entire time in Texas has been marked by one natural disaster after another. And to think, one reason my family and I moved down here in the first place was to leave behind the increasingly severe weather in Missouri, especially the brutal winters where crippling ice storms have become much more frequent during the past ten and fifteen years than they were during my entire previous life up there.
So in light of such things, this meditation in The New York Times Magazine on not just the future but the present reality of climate change really hits home.
The future we’ve been warned about is beginning to saturate the present. We tend to imagine climate change as a destroyer. But it also traffics in disruption, disarray: increasingly frequent and more powerful storms and droughts; heightened flooding; expanded ranges of pests turning forests into fuel for wildfires; stretches of inhospitable heat. So many facets of our existence — agriculture, transportation, cities and the architecture they spawned — were designed to suit specific environments. Now they are being slowly transplanted into different, more volatile ones, without ever actually moving. . . .
We seem able to normalize catastrophes as we absorb them, a phenomenon that points to what Peter Kahn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, calls “environmental generational amnesia.” Each generation, Kahn argues, can recognize only the ecological changes its members witness during their lifetimes. . . .
Scenarios that might sound dystopian or satirical as broad-strokes future projections unassumingly materialize as reality. Last year, melting permafrost in Siberia released a strain of anthrax, which had been sealed in a frozen reindeer carcass, sickening 100 people and killing one child. In July 2015, during the hottest month ever recorded on earth (until the following year), and the hottest day ever recorded in England (until the following summer), the Guardian newspaper had to shut down its live-blogging of the heat wave when the servers overheated. And low-lying cities around the world are experiencing increased “clear-sky flooding,” in which streets or entire neighborhoods are washed out temporarily by high tides and storm surges. Parts of Washington now experience flooding 30 days a year, a figure that has roughly quadrupled since 1960. In Wilmington, N.C., the number is 90 days. But scientists and city planners have conjured a term of art that defuses that astonishing reality: “nuisance flooding,” they call it.
Kahn calls our environmental generational amnesia “one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime,” because it obscures the magnitude of so many concrete problems. You can wind up not looking away, exactly, but zoomed in too tightly to see things for what they are. Still, the tide is always rising in the background, swallowing something. And the longer you live, the more anxiously trapped you may feel between the losses already sustained and the ones you see coming. . . .
The future is always somebody else’s present — it will very likely feel as authentic, and only as horrific, as our moment does to us. But the present is also somebody else’s future: We are already standing on someone else’s ludicrous map. Except none of us are in on the joke, and I’m guessing that it won’t feel funny any time soon.
Remember Ray Bradbury’s famous fascination with the idea that hot weather spurs an increase in assaults and other violent behavior? This was the basic premise behind his widely reprinted 1954 short story “Touched with Fire,” in which two retired insurance salesmen try to prevent a murder. In a key passage, one of them shares his thoughts on the relationship between heat and violence:
More murders are committed at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature. Over one hundred, it’s too hot to move. Under ninety, cool enough to survive. But right at ninety-two degrees lies the apex of irritability, everything is itches and hair and sweat and cooked pork. The brain becomes a rat rushing around a red-hot maze. The least thing, a word, a look, a sound, the drop of a hair and — irritable murder. Irritable murder, there’s a pretty and terrifying phrase for you.
Notably, Bradbury adapted this story twice for television, once for Alfred Hitchcock Presents as the 1956 episode “Shopping for Death” and then more than thirty years later for his own Ray Bradbury Theater as the 1990 episode “Touched with Fire.” He also inserted the same idea about heat and violence into his screen treatment for the 1953 minor science fiction classic It Came from Outer Space, which was thoroughly reworked by screenwriter Harry Essex, who got the actual screenplay credit, but which ended up including much of a Bradburyan nature, including a detailed statement of the 92-degrees thesis, placed in the mouth of a small-town American sheriff confronting an alien invasion. (Note that you can hear an audio clip of this dialogue at the beginning of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ 1986 song “92 Degrees.”)
Now comes a new study, conducted by several U.S. scientists, that appears to offer preliminary “official” vindication for this idea that so fascinated Bradbury when he encountered it somewhere or other during the early decades of his long and fertile career:
Bring on the cool weather — climate change is predicted to cause extreme weather, more intense storms, more frequent floods and droughts, but could it also cause us to be more violent with one another? A new study from scientists in the US controversially draws a link between increased rates of domestic violence, assault and other violent crimes and a warming climate.
That conflict could be a major result of global warming has long been accepted. As climate change makes vulnerable parts of the world more susceptible to weather-related problems, people move from an afflicted region to neighbouring areas, bringing them into conflict with the existing populations. That pattern has been evident around the world, and experts have even posited that conflicts such as Darfur should be regarded as climate related. But the authors of the study, published in the peer review journal Science, have departed from such examples to look closely at patterns of violence in Brazil, China, Germany and the US.
The authors suggest that even a small increase in average temperatures or unusual weather can spark violent behaviour. They found an increase in reports of domestic violence in India and Australia at times of drought; land invasions in Brazil linked to poor weather; and more controversially, a rise in the number of assaults and murders in the US and Tanzania.
. . . The underlying reasons could run from increased economic hardship as harvests fail or droughts bite, to the physiological effects of hot weather.
— Fiona Harvey, “Climate change linked to violent behavior,” The Guardian, August 2, 2013
To illustrate this study, here’s that episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents:
You can also watch the (alas, decidedly inferior) adaptation of the same story for Ray Bradbury Theater online.
In this article — which is the first installment of a four-part piece — he combines all of these interests to present a reflection and meditation on an often overlooked aspect of cosmic creation and destruction.
* * *
In mythic tales, the world often comes into being by noise. For example, in Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Genesis, the younger gods, begat by Apsû and his wife Tiâmat, engage in an incessant racket, and Apsû complains:
Their way has become painful to me,
By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep;
I will destroy them and put an end to their way,
That silence be established, and then let us sleep!
The resulting war among the gods results in the creation of the world order that we know today, as the younger gods defeat their parents and use the dismembered corpse of Tiâmat to create the cosmos and the blood of Apsû to create the human race.
Other “noisy” creation stories include the Ancient Vedic traditions, where the world comes into being by the boom and quake of a “Great Breath,” and the apocryphal “Eighth Book of Moses” (also known as the “Holy Book of Moses” or “Hidden Sacred Book of Moses”), written by a Hellenistic Egyptian Jew and teaching that there have been seven “laughs” of God that created the forces in the universe. Obviously, the idea of noise at the world’s origin is one with a long, and in fact an ancient, pedigree.
If we think about the matter long enough, it gives rise to an obvious question: if the world as we know it came into being because of noise, then will it end with noise as well? And when that end arrives, what exactly will be the sound that accompanies the collapse? Will it be music? Will it merely be some tacky, meaningless noise in the background? Will it be a dramatic, crashing wall of inconceivable resonance?
Let me quote from Stuart Sim’s Manifesto for Silence:
Noise, noise everywhere indeed, as the headline had it: above the earth, below the sea. No doubt one day science will be able to determine if there are any significant effects on wildlife from such pollution, but whether anything can be done about it by that stage is another question entirely. There are such things as “tipping points,” as we are beginning to realize very belatedly with the phenomenon of global warming: damage cannot always be repaired, nor processes reversed. (pp. 28-29)
So the question becomes not just whether the world will end in noise but whether noise itself might bring about the end of the world. Have we already crossed the point of no return? Could the accumulation of noise become one of the causes of the downfall of our civilization? Read the rest of this entry
Well, there you have it.
Using scientific theories, toy ecosystem modeling and paleontological evidence as a crystal ball, 18 scientists, including an SFU professor, predict the Earth’s ecosystems are careering towards an imminent, irreversible collapse.
In “Approaching a state-shift in Earth’s biosphere,” a paper just published in Nature, the authors examine the Earth’s accelerating loss of biodiversity, increasingly extreme climate fluctuations, its ecosystems’ growing connectedness and its radically changing total energy budget. They suggest these are all precursors to reaching a planetary state threshold or tipping point. Once that happens, which the authors predict could be this century, the planet’s ecosystems, as we know them, could quickly and irreversibly collapse.
“The last tipping point in Earth’s history occurred about 12,000 years ago when the planet went from being in the age of glaciers, which previously lasted 100,000 years, to being in its current interglacial state,” says Arne Mooers, SFU professor of biodiversity. “Once that tipping point was reached, the most extreme biological changes leading to our current state occurred within only 1,000 years. That’s like going from a baby to an adult state in less than a year. Importantly, the planet is changing even faster now.”
Mooers is one of the paper’s authors. He stresses, “The odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations. Remember, we went from being hunter-gatherers to being moon-walkers during one of the most stable and benign periods in all of Earth’s history. “Once a threshold-induced planetary state-shift occurs, there’s no going back. So, if a system switches to a new state because you’ve added lots of energy, even if you take out the new energy, it won’t revert back to the old system. The planet doesn’t have any memory of the old state.”
— “Study predicts imminent irreversible planetary collapse,” SFU News Online (Simon Fraser University), June 8, 2012
The Nature study was of course reported elsewhere, with some exceptionally detailed information about it appearing in an article from Wired (“Is Humanity Pushing Earth Past a Tipping Point?“). But the SFU article wins the prize for most hair-raising title.
It also contains this admirably Armageddon-inflected and horror-filled final paragraph:
“In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there,” says Mooers. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.”
In the dark light of such things, we might do well to recall that James Lovelock, the father or grandfather of climate science, who made waves a few years ago by issuing some starkly doom-laden statements about the civilization-ending effects of climate change that he expected to play out over the course of this century and last for a millennium, reversed his position earlier this year and said that he and other scientists had been caught up in an attitude of undue alarmism.
So, who to believe? Given the manifest increase in wild and terribly destructive (and deadly) weather around the world, as seen on an epic scale most recently in the United States with the monster that was Hurricane Sandy — whose problematic aftermath is still unfolding and will continue to do so for a very long time — one can’t help thinking that at this point, on a practical level, it’s prudent to bracket out the scientific side of the question, bet on the negative outcome, and batten down the hatches.
Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
This appeared in The New York Times last Saturday. It’s written by three scientists: Christopher R. Schwalm, research assistant professor of earth sciences at Northern Arizona University; Christopher A. Williams, assistant professor of geography at Clark University, and Kevin Schaefer, research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
[I]t is increasingly clear that we already live in the era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires … [L]ong-term climate records from tree-ring chronologies show that [the 2000-4] drought was the most severe event of its kind in the western United States in the past 800 years. Though there have been many extreme droughts over the last 1,200 years, only three other events have been of similar magnitude, all during periods of “megadroughts” … Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal … These climate-model projections suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness by the end of the century and that a coming megadrought — a prolonged, multidecade period of significantly below-average precipitation — is possible and likely in the American West.
The current drought plaguing the country is worryingly consistent with these expectations. Although we do not attribute any single event to global warming, the severity of both the turn-of-the-century drought and the current one is consistent with simulations accounting for warming from increased greenhouse gases. The Northern Hemisphere has just recorded its 327th consecutive month in which the temperature exceeded the 20th-century average. This year had the fourth-warmest winter on record, with record-shattering high temperatures in March. And 2012 has already seen huge wildfires in Colorado and other Western states. More than 3,200 heat records were broken in June alone … Many Western cities will have to fundamentally change how they acquire and use water. The sort of temporary emergency steps that we grudgingly adopt during periods of low rainfall — fewer showers, lawn-watering bans — will become permanent. Some regions will become impossible to farm because of lack of irrigation water. Thermoelectric energy production will compete for limited water resources. There is still time to prevent the worst; the risk of a multidecade megadrought in the American West can be reduced if we reduce fossil-fuel emissions. But there can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is suddenly, catastrophically upon us.
Full story: “Hundred-Year Forecast: Drought,” The New York Times, August 11, 2012