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9. Calamity

The CO2 in the atmophere is the highest it has been in the last million years, (see CO2 DATA) when the temperature was about 3° C before we built industries and poured out carbon dioxide. The oceans were about 15 feet higher.

Scientists know well that effects of 412 ppm CO2 combined with the enormous energy stored in the ocean will have further effect on the climate. What they are counting on is a rapid decline in emissions and a new equalibrium at a higher temperature. But this could easily be 3°C or higher. This would be catastrophic in its effect on the planet’s ability to offer places to live.

While many actions were initiated to help amelorate the effects (e.g. solar power, windmills), actions were not nearly sufficient nor planned and enforced to achieve the necessary result. When the brakes failed we let the train accelerate down hill with hope our primary response. An attempt was made in 1989 by President H.W. Bush in coorporation with the United Nations at least partly in response to a speech to Congress by James Hansen. However, a multitude of pressures and opinions eventually killed the effort. (Click HERE for a link to the original web article and HERE for a reproduction of the text.) This may well be viewed in the future as a pivitol point in the history of humanity, with perhaps John Sonunu playing a decisive roll.

Another attempt was that of Bill McKibben’s organization 350.org that proposed a carbon dioxide level of 350 ppm. This was reasonable in light of the earth’s average CO2 level of the past million years of about 260 ppm. However, this effort also was ineffective.

More recently Paris and Katovice attempted to set goals, but there was nothing to make national leaders to take action. These experiences and others point to the problem of comprehending climate change. Despite many horrific events such as heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, these events remain difficult to relate to a developing planet-wide catastrophe. They are eposodic in space and time. They leave virtually everyone who should be playing a role unable to rouse either themselves or a nation or the world to the enormous changes necessary. India has built enormous solar capacity but only enough to accommodate growth.

An approximate picture of the future is the graph below. It is simply a one term exponential created by curve fitting to match as closely as possible NASA temperature data from 1860 to 2018. Most analysis use much shorter periods of time and appear more linear. The curve fitting suggests three key points: 1) we are near an inflection point of the temperature curve when the rate of increase will accelerate; 2) we likely have waited too long; 3) keeping on anything resembling the current track will be catastrophic. It reflects the fact that emissions have not been falling as needed and that any hope for a hospitable earth would require widespread use of nuclear power and large scale negative emissions an impossibility with attitudes as they are and at this late date. Could an effort resembling a declaration of war do the job. It would be a miracle. Unfortunate and avoidable nucleaar incidents have prejucided the public against nuclear power. And, despite MIT’s concept of prefab factory construction the cost remeains very high.

In other words, the best we can do is ameloriate what is happening and wait for the climate to eventually settle into equilibrium at a higher temperature with virtually all ice sheets melted and coastal cities flooded, among other disasters.

Even neglecting the impact of President Trump our civilization has met its match. All the drastic actions that should have been taken by scientists, politicians, media, etc. were not triggered by the nature of the problem: isloated in space and time so as to become, in a sense, invisible or too easy to postpone. Ill informed politicians (heads of science committees that do not believe in “science” for example), limited comprehension of very difficult science, and the singular driving force of successful modern economics, shareholder value, are insurmountable.

I ask myself does MIT have the stature and capability to lead a "war" effort and my answer is: if not MIT then who?

10. Risk Management

This is the kind of situation that screams “risk management,” which means, given that we are not making attempts to reduce CO2 emissions, what is the worst that could happen. Well, the worst is some combination of the calamities (drought, fire, storms, floods, heat waves, etc.) that we have already experienced leading to a planet that is less and less habitable, and conceivably uninhabitable. Was this certain? No. But it is like the plane you are flying in with smoke pouring out of both engines, you land as quickly as you can and do more analysis later.

As of September 2019 we are doing very little to improve the situation and a great deal to make it worse. That is the state of things and the question is what do we do now? More analysis is not likely to pay off since we have disturbed the climate so much that prediction is very difficult, and simple curves like mine suggest the worst case is possible.

So the only option is to do everything conceivable to improve the situation regardless of cost since nothing can cost more than loosing the planet as a place to live. And there appear to be a large number of obstacles to major improvement given Donald Trump as president. In simple terms, we are in deep trouble unless we want to take Franzen’s attitude: give up and break out the vodka.

One more comment, whether you take one of the optimistic scientific scenarios or one of the pessimistic ones, giving up feels like a betrayal of the creation that brought us here. And one more engineering experience: when the situation is complex and you do the morally correct course of giving it all you've got, surprises can happen that are both negative and positive.

In other words, we might make it to the airport and land the plane safely after all.

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