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Delay in dealing with global warming exposes planet’s inhabitants to the Sixth Extinction

December 2, 2016

6-minute read

On the street of By-and-By, one arrives at the house of Never. —Cervantes.

While rummaging recently through the piles of old publications I’ve hoarded in boxes in my basement, I came across a copy of The Limits to Growth. Commissioned by the Club of Rome and conducted by researchers working out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it was published in book form in 1972.

The Club of Rome was comprised of renowned scientists, economists, and educators, who first met in April 1968 at the Academia dei Lincei in Rome. They were concerned about the folly of pursuing infinite growth on a finite planet, and the MIT report they initiated solidly validated their concern. Rereading my original copy, I was struck anew by the magnitude of the global catastrophe the report foresaw if extents of pollution, resource depletion, armed conflict, and overpopulation – quite apparent even then – were allowed to worsen.

The Nonagenarian's Notebook

The MIT researchers tracked the likely effects of these troubling trends in a range of scenarios up to 2100, depending on whether or not the world’s political and business leaders took serious concerted action on environmental and resource problems. If they failed to make this effort a priority, the MIT model predicted global collapse to occur some time in the 21st century -- as early as 2040, but no later than 2070.

Such precautionary measures, however, could not safely be delayed until the process of global degradation became glaringly evident. That process has been comparatively rapid in geological terms, but snail-paced and virtually imperceptible in human terms. So it was inevitable that the Club of Rome’s 1972 study was widely spurned and ridiculed – and why all subsequent warnings from scientists about global warming have suffered the same derisive fate.

Our business and political leaders have thus been left free to confine their priorities to pressing short-term goals, while continuing relentlessly to plunder and pollute the planet. Global warming is something they think they can ignore until its destructive effects reach levels that are politically unacceptable. Many of them, like the new U.S. President-Elect, even dismiss the climate change threat as a hoax.

Is it unpardonably pessimistic, then, to conclude that this entrenched short-term perceptivity of homo sapiens could lead to its extinction? Unfortunately, it could happen. If the Club of Rome’s 1972 warning had been heeded and gradated curbs to growth implemented at that time – or even as late as the 1990s -- the current crisis could have been averted. But that was not done, and the subsequent course of decline is now unstoppable. Even if the best possible preventive measures were to be launched tomorrow, they could probably save no more than half a billion human lives -- and the longer this global rescue mission is delayed, the fewer the survivors.

The Sixth Extinction

Some readers may find this stark outlook unrelievedly bleak, and attribute it to the vagaries of old age. I wish it were. But many scientists and analysts, all much more knowledgeable and experienced than I am, have reached the same bleak conclusion.

Let me cite the recent assessment of one expert: Elizabeth Colbert, a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of last year’s best-selling The Sixth Extinction. In this book, she lists the five major extinction events that have occurred since complex animals evolved on Earth over five hundred million years ago.

She quotes from a plaque in the Hall of Biodiversity in the Museum of Natural History in New York, which states that “Global climate change and other causes, probably including collisions between Earth and extraterrestrial objects, were responsible for the previous five extinctions. But today we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, this time caused solely by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape.”

“In an extinction event of our own making,” Colbert muses, “what will happen to us?” Her answer: “Most likely, we will cause our own extinction.”

She reminds us: “Having freed ourselves from the constraints of evolution, humans still remain dependent on Earth’s biological and geochemical systems. By disrupting these systems – cutting down tropical rainforests, altering the composition of the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans – we are putting our own survival in danger.”

Much of her book consists of describing how humans have already driven hundreds of other species into extinction, and many more to near-extinction. On a planet where most forms of life are interdependent to some extent, this mass slaughter is disastrous. “In pushing other species to extinction,” says Paul Ehrlich, an ecologist at Stanford University, “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

Colbert concludes her book with this somber epilogue: “Right now we are deciding, without meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will unfortunately be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have inherited the Earth.”

The Greenland ice sheet

Colbert spent a few months in Greenland last summer with a team of glaciologists studying the melting of its massive ice sheet caused by global warming. Their East Greenland Ice-Core Project (EGRIP) is studying the effects of one of the country’s largest ice-melt streams.

The rapidly increasing pace of the melting process, combined with the equally rapid “calving” of huge icebergs, has already contributed to rising ocean levels. According to the scientists, in the past four years alone, more than a trillion tons of ice have been lost. “This is 400 million Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water,” says Colberg, “or enough to fill a single pool the size of New York State to a depth of 23 feet.”

Greenland’s ice sheet, a holdover from the last Ice Age, is more than two miles thick at its centre and covers 80% of the world’s largest island. As Colbert notes, global warming has awakened the ice sheet from its post-glacial slumber, and its colossal melting process is now irreversible and starting earlier each spring. “This year’s melt season began so freakishly early, in April,” she notes, “that when the data started to come in, many scientists couldn’t believe it (until they doublechecked their instruments).”

In addition to Greenland, enormous amounts of ice are also melting in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. A recent study of the West Amundsen Sea sector of the Antarctic, conducted by glaciologist Eric Rignot, found that its 200,000 cubic miles of ice had gone into “irreversible retreat.”

Scientists can only speculate how high and how soon all this ice-sheet melting will raise the world’s ocean levels. The melting of just the one part of the Antarctic ice sheet analyzed by Rignot would add an extra four feet to sea levels on its own, and the much larger Greenland ice sheet’s liquefaction will surely triple that disastrous inundation of coastal communities. Some of the seashore streets of Miami have already been flooded, forcing the city to spend millions on a Holland-like dam project.

And still, most of the world’s political leaders continue to take a lackadaisical view of global warming. Even those who admit it’s real and should be addressed keep thinking its worst effects are so far in the future that they can safely be given a low priority. So governments are imposing weak and ineffectual carbon taxes and putting inadequate curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. They boast about getting climate change under control by 2040 or 2050 – as if the ice sheets will stop melting, and ocean levels stop rising to accommodate their inexcusable procrastination.

As Cervantes put it long ago, we citizens are left on the “street of By-and-By,” while the politicians dawdle in the “House of Never.”


Since I’ve quoted so freely from Elizabeth Colbert’s book and essay, readers might like to read the full texts. The Sixth Extinction is available at (or can be ordered from) most bookstores. Her essay on the Greenland ice sheet was published in the October 24 issue of The New Yorker.

Ed Finn was Senior Editor at the CCPA and editor of the CCPA Monitor from 1994-2014. Formerly, as a journalist, he worked at The Montreal Gazette and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. And yes, Ed is a true nonagenarian, having celebrated his 90th birthday this past summer. Stay tuned for more passages from The Nonagenarian’s Notebook.





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