Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 16
Global warming and the unthinkable world of 2050
Global warming and planetary homeostasis
There has been mounting speculation in the last century - and particularly in recent decades - about global warming due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases due to a combination of industrial activity, fuel burning by internal combustion engines, deforestation and livestock agriculture. The Swedish physical chemist S. Arrhenius (of thermodynamic Arrhenius Plot fame) suggested one hundred years ago that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) would lead to an increase of average global temperature of about 50 C (degrees Celsius).1 The current consensus appears to be that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 in the absence of other mitigating factors will cause an increase of about 30 C in mean global temperature. It is now recognized that other gases contribute to atmospheric warming through absorption of solar radiation, including methane (CH4) (produced by rotting living matter and through the digestion of vegetable matter by cattle and termites), nitrous oxide (N2O) (contributed to significantly by agricultural application of man-made nitrogenous fertilizers) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (refrigerant and spray-can gases made notorious through their contribution to the depletion of the stratospheric, UV-absorbing ozone layer).2
The wholesale destruction of the world’s forests (most notably those of Africa, the Amazon basin and of South East Asia) contributes to atmospheric CO2 through the burning of timber and through the loss of photosynthetic capacity. 3 Photosynthesis by trees involves the reductive immobilizing of CO2 (as cellulose and related polysaccharides that constitute the bulk of timber). This process involves trapping solar radiation (solar energy) for the “photolysis” of water (H2O) to produce O2 (oxygen) and the “hydrogenating” or “reducing” power required for “fixing” of CO2 into the monosaccharide monomers (mainly glucose) that eventually polymerize into polysaccharides such as starch and cellulose. The process of combustion of trees involves the “oxidative” reverse of this process - O2 reacts with cellulose to generate CO2 and H2O and energy in the form of heat and light.4
It should be noted that there are negative feedbacks applying to this situation. Thus increased atmospheric CO2 , atmospheric temperature (within limits) and water availability (through increased precipitation in particular regions) will result in increased rates of photosynthesis and hence CO2 removal.5 The oceans represent a CO2-dissolving reservoir that also represent a major locus for algal photosynthesis. 6 Desertification and clearing for agriculture increase the amount of atmospheric dust and aerosols that are involved in global cooling through the reflection of solar radiation. The SO2 (sulphur dioxide) produced through the burning of the fossil fuels (coal and oil, the products of past photosynthesis) is oxidized further to sulphuric acid (H2SO4) and this in turn forms light-scattering aerosols of “non-sea salt sulphate” (n.s.s. SO42-). Indeed it has been estimated that man-made (anthropogenic) sulphate aerosols make a major contribution to global cooling. In addition to “anthropogenic” atmospheric components contributing to atmospheric temperature balances, we must include the contribution of volcanoes (dust and sulphur dioxide-derived aerosols that reflect solar radiation) 7 and dust generated by wind and through the bombardment of the earth by extraterrestrial material. About 10,000 tons of comet and meteoritic material is captured by the earth per annum and it has been concluded that variations in the amount of this extraterrestrial “rain” of dust-generating material may have driven glaciation cycles through effects on global cooling. 8 Finally the albedo (light reflecting capacity) of the earth’s surface and of clouds is of importance. A forest will absorb solar radiation but clouds and snow-fields will substantially reflect solar radiation. 9
In all of this we can see the warming and cooling effects of different environmental components and the elements of negative feedback. Thus we can see that burning of forests and of fossil fuels will generate CO2 which will warm the atmosphere, cause more water evaporation (and hence cooling cloud cover) and increase rates of photosynthesis, which will tend to decrease atmospheric CO2. It is such notions of negative feedback that are explicit in Lovelock’s Gaia model of the world - a world in which such homeostatic (or “stasis”-maintaining) mechanisms are so effective and inter-locked that the whole “system” begins to have the superficial attributes of an “organism”. The nicest example of such a homeostatic system involves a “Daiseyworld” planet covered by flowering plants with flowers that could be white, gray or black. If, for example, the flowers were all white, the resultant high albedo would cause a substantial reflection of solar radiation and a cooling of the planet. Mutant black-flowered plants are able to absorb more solar radiation, have a “selective advantage” over the white-flowered plants and accordingly multiply at their expense. Accordingly the blackening planet warms up. However there are limits to the efficacy of such biological or indeed non-biological homeostatic mechanisms. 10
Our solar system provides us with examples of non-homeostatic progressions. Mars, being more distant from the Sun than the Earth and without (as far as we know) having had an ameliorating, homeostatic, biological component, descended into a deep freeze. Venus, closer to the Sun, became the victim of a run-away “greenhouse” effect. 11 The Earth, like the baby bear’s soup, was neither too hot nor too cold but became “just right” through a combination of biological and non-biological homeostatic processes. The real concern we have is that the planet is becoming more and more drastically “simplified” in the service of an impossibly expanding human population and homeostatic mechanisms vital for our survival are being over-ridden through the consequences of our massive interventions. 12
Of course we can surely all grasp the obvious point that nearly everyone is apparently missing - that there is a limit to how much energy can be released at the earth’s surface in the course of our activities without rendering life on earth impossible for all but thermophilic micro-organisms. The dreams of “inexhaustible energy” for terrestrial mankind from nuclear fission or nuclear fusion are hollow dreams indeed - except for those who would go out into the universe, “to go where no man has ever gone before”. For the purposes of argument, in relation to biodiversity, quality of life and global energy output we have essentially reached the limits of growth. The vast majority of mankind, who by their actions could be taken to think otherwise, are remorselessly pushing towards the ultimate blasphemy of terracide.13
Global warming - is it happening?
Naive inspection of a plot of global temperature change as a function of time from 1880 to the present reveals 3 apparent phases: a steady rise of about 0.40 C over the period 1880 to 1930, a plateau from 1930 to 1970 and a resumption of a steady but sharper steady rise of about 0.50 C over the period 1970 to 1990. 14 However the temperature change fluctuations are such that alternative interpretations can be put on the data. Thus, rather than concluding that global temperature is now increasing at a rate of about 0.250 C per decade, we could infer from the data that there is merely an underlying trend (described by a “line of best fit” through the data) of only 0.50 C per 100 years (i.e. 0.250 C per 5 decades). This example of 2 quite different interpretations of the same data illustrates well the type of considerations that have made scientists very cautious in interpreting apparent trends in this area. However the “warming” trend has continued through the 1990s and as outlined below there is now a strong scientific consensus that global warming is a reality.15 This consensus has now been reflected in the recent global political decision at Kyoto to make a start at constraining global warming through initial constraints on CO2 emission.
The Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in a report issued in late 1995 that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate”. This was reported in the top scientific (and accordingly necessarily conservative) journal Science under the headline “It’s official: first glimmer of greenhouse warming seen” in the News section. 16 The equally reputable British scientific journal Nature reported this in its News section under the banner “Climate panel confirms human role in warming, fights off oil states”.17A key element of this synthesis of available data was the recognition that aerosols were making a major negative contribution to global warming. These aerosol contributions were coming from volcanic activity (notably from the Philippino Mount Pinatubo eruption of June 1991), dust and smoke from agricultural practices and SO2-derived sulphuric acid aerosols from industrial activity. Consideration of a combination of aerosol cooling contributions and greenhouse gas warming contributions yielded more accurate models. 18
The IPCC Report concluded that the last few years had been the warmest since the mid-nineteenth century, that global mean temperature had increased by between 0.3 and 0.60 C and that sea levels had risen by 10 - 25 cm (centimeters) in the last century. The IPCC predicted a further increase in global temperature by about 10 C over the next century with a parallel increase in sea level of about 15 cm accompanying an increase of atmospheric CO2 from the current 330 ppm (parts per million) to about 500 ppm. 19
Evidence of global warming of a more arguable but nevertheless more dramatic kind has come from the disappearing glacial remnants in the highlands of New Guinea. These tropical glaciers have declined dramatically in size over recent decades 20, and similar phenomena have been observed in Antarctica in relation to ice-shelf shrinkage. Atmospheric warming has occurred in Antarctica as determined from inspection of long-term meteorological records kept over half a century. This warming has been associated with the retreat of some ice-shelves that fringe the coast of Antarctica but some ice-shelves have not been so clearly affected. This has been interpreted as indicating that there are sharp temperature limits to the viability of ice-shelves and that global warming in conjunction with other factors has led to a southerly movement of the zone of instability and the consequent very dramatic declines of some of these geographical structures. Thus representations of the Wordie Ice Shelf from 1936 to 1992 show that this huge floating ice geographic structure diminished by about half in 50 years and then diminished by half again in the subsequent 5 years. Nevertheless the authors of this detailed study were properly cautious in their attribution of the causes of this phenomenon. 21
Evidence of changes that may be linked to global warming has also come from damage to life in Canadian lakes that is reflected in a decreased amount of “dissolved organic carbon”. Climate warming, lake acidification (from industrial SO2) and increasing exposure of lake organisms to “UV B” (ultraviolet B) radiation correlate with a decline of dissolved organic carbon content in the Canadian lakes studied. The researchers concluded that warming and acidification could be more effective in enhancing aquatic life exposure to UV radiation than depletion of the protective stratospheric “ozone layer”. 22
Evidence of a more anecdotal kind comes from the meteorologist Harold Bernard who in his dramatic book Global Warming Unchecked gives one a feel for a pattern of drought, flood and hurricane in the United States this century. He perceives a pattern of a drought every 22 years that correlates with a cycle of increased sun-spot activity every 11 years, severe drought occurring immediately after a prior succession of 2 peaks of enhanced sun-spot activity. He believes that this climatic cycle will simply be superimposed upon a background of increasing temperature and with consequently magnified effects. Thus if the effects of global warming are normally relatively imperceptible (or even blanketed by the global cooling effects of volcanic eruptions such as those of Mount St Helens or Pinatubo), the effects will be most apparent to people (as well as to monitoring machines) in drought years. These effects will be complicated by possible changes to the Northern atmospheric jet-stream component of the Westerlies that heavily determines patterns of cooler/wetter or warmer/drier climate in particular parts of North America, Europe and North and Central Asia. Thus he suggests that the1930s experience of elevated temperature and superdrought in the Mid-West and horrendous hurricanes (such as the Florida Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and the New England “Long Island Express” Hurricane of 1938) will provide a good model for what he expects to happen in the mid-1990s. 23
1995 saw an extremely hot summer in the United States that actually killed people at risk (notably poor and old people) in big American cities such as Chicago and New York. However the assertion that “1995 was the warmest year” on record has been criticized because the global mean temperature in 1995 was a statistically insignificant mere 0.040 C above that in 1990. 24 Nevertheless in 1996 drought and forest fires affected the United States and the high incidence of hurricanes was reported to have created a problem for those charged with naming them on an alphabetically-ordered Christian name basis.
While there is a scientific consensus about the reality of global warming there is a mixed political response. Thus the recent Berlin Climate Change Conference failed to agree on any agreed national or global targets for greenhouse gas emission. The Conference concluded by adopting a generalized agreement to continuing to assess the situation. 25 However major dangers from this passivity are that entrenched interests may become even better entrenched and that future collective action may be vetoed by countries with economies that are heavily dependent on activities associated with greenhouse gas emission. Thus Australia, while having among the world’s best per capita prospects for solar energy conservation, is per capita one of the world’s major greenhouse gas emitters through coal production and utilization. Not surprisingly there is a low-key, bipartisan consensus in Australia from both the ostensibly “labour”- and “business”-oriented sides of politics against doing anything substantial at present in relation to global warming. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are major oil producers and are very much opposed in practice to adoption of concrete steps to limit greenhouse gas emission, as is Australia, a major coal exporter and consumer. 26 It has been argued that imposition of tough and rigid timetables and targets may not be the way to go initially and that it would be better to have an informed, sensibly negotiated process taking special circumstances into account. One now senses a growing movement towards effective action by both the EEC (EU) and the US 27, and indeed the 1997 Kyoto world conference has finally decided on some limits to CO2 emission (with a surprising and exceptional status granted to energy-exporting Australia).
One prospect that one hopes should spur urgent international action on the matter is that climate change may on occasion occur in a precipitate fashion as opposed to developing in a gradual fashion that would allow plenty of time for social and industrial response. Recent discoveries have raised serious concerns in this respect. Thus temperature records from Greenland ice cores show marked changes in sea surface temperature occurring over a decade rather than over centuries or millennia. The general possibility of such short-term changes has awful implications for an increasingly crowded world. In this specific instance these dramatic and relatively rapid temperature changes were likely to have been brought about by changes to the amount of fresh water entering the North Atlantic Ocean, a process likely to be affected by global warming. 28
The coming holocaust
Accepting the conservative assessment of the IPCC Report, what are the possible consequences of global warming for the world and, more specifically, for third world regions such as West Bengal and Bangladesh? The major effects fall into 4 inter-connected categories relating to climate change and hurricanes, sea level rises, agricultural productivity changes and health. Of course the nature and magnitude of the consequences to be considered will depend upon the size of the actual global warming achieved by international profligacy. We will briefly consider these areas in turn.
Climate changes will involve a global background of elevated temperature that will be much greater in particular regions and at particular times of year. Changes to the disposition of prevailing winds will cool certain regions and greatly elevate the average temperature of others. The scenario advanced by Bernard (1993) predicts super-hurricanes for tropical regions such as the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mexico. These coming events will have a much more energy-rich environment to feed upon and their victims will now regularly experience extraordinarily destructive events that they would previously have expected to encounter only once in their life-times. Thus Bangladesh experienced a major cyclonic disaster in 1970 that killed about 300,000 people in coastal regions. In 1991 a similar event claimed 140,000 lives in Bangladesh. The hurricanes of a much hotter world will be much more likely to be extraordinarily destructive super-hurricanes of this kind and the destructiveness of these events will be seriously compounded by increases in population density and by the effects of sea-level rises brought about through global warming.29
All kinds of estimates have been made about the sorts of sea-level rises to be expected next century. However even modest estimates become very significant in relation to storm-surges that are associated with hurricanes. The hurricane essentially forces up a broad hump of water that translates into a tidal wave tens of feet high that is typically responsible for most of the deaths associated with hurricanes in coastal regions. The relatively shallow northern reaches of the Bay of Bengal are very susceptible to this problem. About 15 million people live on coastal chars, islands built up from the silt brought down from their catchments by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. After the 1970 hurricane disaster concrete refuges were constructed but the 1991 disaster showed the limited utility of those installed. Even modest sea-level rises will seriously compound the storm-surge potential of the super-hurricanes of a century hence. 30
The UN IPCC Working Group 1 developed a series of pathways for achieving stabilization of atmospheric CO2 at various levels over the next few centuries. These pathways involve anthropogenic CO2 emission peaking next century at various times. Thus for a pathway resulting in an approximate doubling of atmospheric CO2 the emission maximum occurs in the middle to late 21st Century (depending upon the particular model employed). While the average global temperature increase stabilizes in these conditions at about 2o C by the early 22nd Century, the sea-level continues to steadily creep up century after century, up about 40 cm by 2100, about 80 cm by 2200 and 90 cm by 2300. We could regard these estimates as conservative given the typical tardiness of international responsiveness. Nevertheless these sorts of sea level rises become highly significant in terms of inundation of low-lying delta lands and salination of river-derived fresh water supplies in high-tide and storm-surge conditions. 31 What happens to delta communities in situations in which the world is insufficiently resolute or timely in its response? Indeed, as discussed later, it is quite likely that the considerable benefits that global warming (or its genesis) will have for some societies will in an all too familiar fashion act as a compelling brake upon requisite drastic international action.
In the case of low-lying island countries such as the Maldives (in the Indian Ocean) and the Marshall Islands (in the Pacific Ocean), a 1 metre sea-level rise would see these countries repeatedly devastated by hurricane-driven storm-surges. With a 2 metre sea-level rise these island communities would simply disappear. In the case of Bangladesh a 2 metre rise would inundate the rich coastal 20% of the country that supports 10% of the population. By the middle of the 21st century this would mean the displacement of some 20 million people. In the case of Egypt this scenario would similarly flood the most highly productive agricultural land. This would be the lot of other delta and coastal communities throughout the world including the US Gulf states, Holland, Indonesia and the river delta regions of Africa, South America, Thailand, Vietnam and China. While Australia is behaving in a troglodytic fashion in relation to greenhouse gas emission control, it is actually under some threat because most of the population is confined to major coastal cities. 32
Temperature rise and CO2 concentration rise will have different effects in different regions of the world. In short there will be winners and losers and the nature of the winners (primarily affluent and powerful “First World” countries) leads to a cynical conclusion that humane and equitable international responses to the potential threat of the events outlined above will be severely delayed and circumscribed. Already people are arguing for a global “market forces” approach to this new “problem”. According to this analysis the severely affected poor countries will be unable to “pay” for the economic losses to rich countries occasioned by requisite mitigation of global warming. 33
It is hard for people in liberal democracies to accept that quintessential Nazism was not extirpated in the Battle for Berlin in 1945 but lives on alive and well in the board rooms of our corporations and the faculty common-rooms of our universities. “Truth” and reason exercised in relation to economic productivity and profit will prevail over “emotional” sentiment for the losers in an ostensibly efficient “market forces” world. Of course all of this begs the indisputable reality from the perspective of a biological scientist such as myself: that the Bengali peasant subsisting on a coastal char is easily one of the most efficient human users of the resources of the biosphere.
Cereal grain production projections have been made by Rosenzweig and Parry (1996) based upon a 2060 scenario in which CO2 levels have approximately doubled to about 600 ppm, average global temperature has increased by about 40 C and average precipitation has increased by about 11% as predicted independently and in reasonable agreement by 3 different groups namely the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and the United Kingdom Meteorological Office (UKMO). Rosenzweig (from Columbia University, New York) and Parry (from the Environmental Change Unit, Oxford University) employed crop growth models in a very extensive international collaboration to predict crop yields in various countries and geographic regions with different versions of the above climate change scenario. Climate scenarios were predicted from 3 “general circulation models” (GCMs) for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 as developed by the 3 groups listed above. The crop yield modelling took advantage of other such modelling studies and was based on the predicted temperature and precipitation effects from the 3 climate modelling groups. Global pictures of potential change in grain yield were developed employing each of the 3 climate change models and with 4 further sets of assumptions: (a) with the physiological effect of only the current CO2 level of 330 ppm on crop photosynthesis and water retention through leaf “stomata” opening incorporated; (b) as for (a) but with the physiological effect of 550 ppm CO2 incorporated; (c) as for (b) together with minimal adaptations of farmers to the changing circumstances; and (d) as for (b) but with national adaptations included such as major investment in irrigation works. We receive “the good news and the bad news”.
The bad news is that global warming together with the positive effects of elevated CO2 on crop yields is predicted to cause a decline in grain yields in tropical and sub-tropical regions of South America, Africa and Asia. These are precisely the regions that are currently struggling to maintain minimal human subsistence in the face of high population growth rates and barely sufficient food production. The ratio of available food/population will be drastically reduced in the “2 times CO2” world of the 2060s. On the other hand for Chinese, Japanese and Europeans the news is good - and this in itself may make things much worse for the “Third World” through a predicted disinclination of beneficiaries of the “developed” world to do anything timely and substantial about global warming. The predicted picture is particularly good for Canada and China in the Northern Hemisphere and Australia in the Southern Hemisphere in all 3 climate models and with direct CO2 effects and sensible human adaptations incorporated. If we look at the “best” scenario (GISS climate model with all extras) temperate South America, the United States, Europe and the CIS also have an increased grain yield. However the tropical and sub-tropical regions of South America, Africa and Asia suffer a decrease in grain yield in all situations examined. 34
Ultimately whether the world acts in an adequate and timely fashion about global warming will be the outcome of a complex function of economic power and self-interest. The current indications are that global warming will greatly increase disparities in agricultural production between the developing world and the developed world. The Kyoto “first steps” aside, a worry persists that the developed world countries will be doubly disinclined initially to do anything too drastic about it. They have complex, high energy-utilization economies strictly dependent on the very industrial activity that is producing global warming and are also set to benefit enormously in an absolute (and certainly in a relative sense) in relation to global warming-induced increases in agricultural production.
Global warming and human health
Global warming-induced health problems are currently being discussed in terms of the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and cholera to temperate zones through the increasing effective geographic range of organisms that harbour these diseases or which otherwise act as vectors. Thus global warming has created concerns about mosquito-borne malaria extending northwards in North America, Europe, China and the CIS. This is a particular concern in Australia which has a substantial if relatively unpopulated northern tropical region. The malarial problem is complicated through the development of resistance in malarial populations against major anti-malarials such as chloroquine, a process that was very likely to have been spurred on by use of such anti-malarials during the massive, long-term American involvement in Vietnam. However a major benefit for tropical third world countries in relation to malaria is the increasing likelihood of anti-malarial vaccines and new chemotherapeutic agents. The latter have little to commend themselves at present to major drug companies as prospects for major research investment since there would be little profit to be made from this source from the impoverished, malaria-infested Third World. However global warming and the predicted spread of malaria to the rich “white folks” of formerly temperate zones will make anti-malarial chemotherapeutics increasingly attractive to pharmaceutical industry. That in turn may produce one of the rare benefits of global warming for the tropical Third World.
Global warming dangers for the temperate zones are illustrated by health effects of the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that affects the central and southern Pacific rim countries. In one phase of the ENSO phenomenon warm water moves from the western Pacific to the central and eastern Pacific. This influx of warm water brings plankton blooms that can harbour cholera bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) and this indeed has been connected with the major cholera epidemic in Central and South America in 1990-1991. The increasing temperatures and precipitation on the west coast of the Americas in this cycle of the ENSO phenomenon has the potential to promote disease vectors such as ticks, mosquitoes and rodents. The boost in the population of the deer-mouse due to such climatic changes led to enhanced probabilities of human contact and the consequent outbreak of mouse-borne Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in South-Western United States in 1993.35
The major medical problems associated with global warming will occur in the impoverished Third World and will directly relate to susceptibility to disease of people weakened by starvation. This susceptibility will be dramatically intensified in regions currently suffering epidemics of HIV infection (Africa and Thailand) and regions about to experience an escalation of HIV infection (India). We have already seen that while explicit starvation was the major killer in the Bengal Famine in 1943, in 1944 the major famine-induced mortality was due to cholera and malaria.
The impact of the population explosion
The mathematical inevitability perceived by Malthus over 2 centuries ago 36 is now seen to be a major threat to the world as we know it. 37 Past events such as the Irish Famine have been taken as early warnings of requisite food/population inequalities and we have seen the obscene opinion of Charles Trevelyan that the only solution is starvation-induced population correction. 38 We have seen in Chapters 10, 13, 14 and 15 that some famine events in the past have been deleted from “history” and rationalized as “acts of God” whereas the reality has been that enslaved people forced to the edge of survival and deprived of adequate exchange means to obtain food in emergency have simply been sentenced to death by their rulers. 39 These singularities of the past that have been swept aside from general perception must be restored to global consciousness to the same extent as the “deliberate” mass murder of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge or of the Jews and Gypsies by the Nazis. The “passive” starvation of millions of helpless subjects is surely per se a far worse way of killing people than the “active”, quick , “industrial” shooting or gassing of victims but is paradoxically regarded somehow as “acceptable”, as being an “act of God” rather than down to economic hegemony.
The world is facing a prospect of a massive gap between available food and population demands in the coming century. Even with a radical change in global attitude to the economic realities (and specifically, the inequalities) of famine, there will be a crisis of moral responsiveness in the face of a situation well beyond normal human experience and conception. We have seen that agricultural projections for the tropical Third World are bleak, this problem being compounded by desertification, storm inundation, salination, deforestation, loss of sustainable fish stocks and continuing soil degradation. While population growth in the prosperous parts of the world has declined markedly, population growth in the tropical Third World of Latin America, Africa and Asia remains out of control in relation to biological sustainability. This has serious consequences for the environment, biological diversity, sustainable agriculture and socio-economic decency. 40
The current world population is about 6 billion (6.6 billion in 2008) and there are various projections of where we are going. 41 Thus Porrit (1991) estimated a population of 7.5 billion by 2100 if the “replacement” 2-child average family were achieved by 2010 and 11 billion or 14.2 billion if this was attained by 2035 or 2065, respectively. 42 We can already see the impact of circa 6 billion people on the planet in terms of diminution of marine and forest resources, biodiversity and water quality, ozone layer depletion and global warming. We are actually already approaching one kind of limit - at a global population of about 6 billion people we are already consuming about 40% of land-based photosynthetic production. 43 There is a large literature dealing with the current departure from the homeostasis of a sustainable global biological system and suggestions of how this can be addressed. 44 However whatever solutions that are found for a given global population at a particular average standard of living will be eroded by increases in population and per capita consumption and departures from a sustainable equilibrium through environmental degradation. Thus China has instituted the “one child policy” and the birth rate is further constrained by economic advance and improved education, health and life expectancy. However economic advance in China is dangerously and irreversibly consuming what Bochuan (1991) has called “environmental capital”. 45 A converse situation occurs in Bangladesh where the population is still increasing catastrophically but per capita consumption is highly constrained. 46 An intermediate situation occurs in the Indian State of Kerala where there is a much higher female literacy than in the rest of India coupled with better economic independence and security, a lower infant mortality and a better expectation of child survival - all of these factors contributing to a lowered birth-rate, albeit in a very poor part of the country. 47
The solutions to the global crisis will have to be put in place in the next decade or so to prevent catastrophe. In the words of Gordon & Suzuki (1990):
“There has never been a bigger crisis than the one we now face. And we are the last generation that can pull us out of it. We must act because this is the only home we have. It is a matter of survival” 48
We are all in this together in the sense of a common atmosphere, ocean and global economy. It is clear that the First World countries consume vastly more per capita than the Third World countries and are having an increasingly negative impact on the impoverished nations through crushing debt impositions, economic control, environmental degradation and resource depletion. Industrial growth and resultant global warming is a reflection of this inequitable occupancy and exploitation of the planet and will differentially impact upon the impoverished tropical Third World countries.
More general education and a modest increase in economic security would have a very substantial ameliorating effect on the global impact of Third World countries. 49 However unless there is a profound change in global ethos, it is likely that the greed of the First World resource consumers will deny them such relief and indeed compound their problems by imposing the damaging consequences of global warming upon the Third World. 50 Ben Elton (1990) has provided a powerful metaphor for this tightening situation in his play Gasping in which the Third World huddle black and blue having been forced to sell the very oxygen they breathe to the Corporation. However the anti-hero eventually becomes a victim of the circumstances he has created and of his incorrect perceptions. 51
Our final Chapter considers the moral problem of effective response to increasing environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, declining food production 52 and burgeoning human population. 53 We have already seen how conquered Bengal was rapidly transformed from a rich, prosperous, sophisticated and sustainable society into an impoverished, enslaved “human farm”. That state, punctuated by the most appalling famines, persisted for 2 centuries, ignored by the world. We have seen how the massive Bengal holocausts of 1769-1770 and of 1943-1945 have been effectively deleted from history. It is apparent that Bengal, and indeed the tropical Third World in general, is facing a major catastrophe in the next century. It has been the purpose of this book to inform, so that a world apprised of past “forgotten” holocausts may be more likely to effectively respond to the looming holocaust of the 21st century. The last Chapter adopts an empirical approach to assessing this likelihood. We will consider the 2 centuries of genocide, ecocide and environmental degradation since the initial British invasion of Australia and assess the responsiveness of this presently prosperous, educated and liberal society to social decency imperatives and the crisis of biological sustainability.
My dire 1998 predictions have been exceeded by 2008 realities. In 2007 the IPCC published its Fourth Assessment Report based on an international consensus of thousands of climate scientists but with a literature cut-off date of about 2005. 54 The dire findings of the latest IPCC Report in relation to threats to agricultural productivity, natural resources and sustainability have been rapidly supplanted by findings that ice is melting much faster than predicted in the Arctic, the Antarctic, Greenland and the Siberian and North American tundra. The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is now 385 parts per million (ppm) by volume and increasing at about 2.5 ppm per year but “positive feedback” can increase this rate (e.g. the solar radiation-reflecting white ice to radiation-absorbing black water “albedo flip”; release of the greenhouse gases methane and CO2 from melting tundra; melt water lubrication of glacier movement to the sea; and loss of CO2 sequestration by phytoplankton, forests and storm-stirred oceans). 55 Above about 450 ppm CO2 (in 26 years’ time at current rates) the world’s coral reefs – including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – will start dying because of ocean acidification and ocean warming. 56 At about 500 ppm (in about 115 years’ time at current rates) there is huge damage to the ocean phytoplankton system (crucial for ocean food chains and for global temperature homeostasis (balance) by sequestering CO2 and for light-reflecting cloud formation through production of cloud-seeding dimethylsulphide) and the Greenland ice sheet melts with huge attendant circa 7 meter sea level rise. 57 At the current 385 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration we have already passed a “tipping point” for the complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice that may be completely gone within a decade with huge implications for polar warming, Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheet melting, tundra melting and sea level rise. 58 At current levels of human impact (e.g. 0.80C above pre-industrial, current 385 ppm CO2) we already have species extinction rates that are 100-1,000 times greater than that of the fossil record. 59 Atmospheric CO2 pollution is increasing rapidly at an annual rate of 3.2% increase per annum (2000-2005) as compared to 0.8% (1990-1999), corresponding to the very worst of the various scenarios envisaged by the IPCC i.e. the scenario of unaddressed carbon pollution. 60 Top US climate scientist Dr James Hansen (Head, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, GISS) says we've gone too far: "The evidence indicates we've aimed too high -- that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350 ppm"; he wants a “negative CO2 emissions” policy of cessation of CO2 pollution and reducing atmospheric CO2 pollution (e.g. by use of renewable and geothermal energy, re-afforestation, and returning biochar carbon to soils). 61 However the world is already facing a global food price crisis 62 driven by global warming effects (drought), globalized markets (with big demand from India and China), oil price rises, grain use for meat production and legislatively-mandated US, UK and EU food to biofuel diversion (notwithstanding the reality that crop-based biofuel is highly CO2 polluting). 63 The global food price crisis threatens “billions” (UK Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington FRS) 64 and unaddressed climate change will kill over 6 billion people this century (Professor James Lovelock FRS). 65 As predicted in 1998 the US and Australia are still top CO2 polluters and continue to sabotage global action against greenhouse gas pollution and man-made global warming. 66