1. The Present
Today is January 27, Sunday, 2008 AD. Over the last 11 days, the
Vancouver Sun newspaper ran the following articles:
• Jan. 16 – Climate Change Policy, Transportation Reality –
setting out to drastically reduce emissions
• Jan. 18 - Chinese Drought Hits Energy – power output from dams
dries up, forcing a switch to coal and oil
• Jan. 18 - Scientists Shocked at Size of Arctic Ice Cracks -
some unprecedented fissures over 100 kilometers across
• Jan. 21 - Carbon Taxes: The Road to Economic Ruin or a Plan to
Help the Planet?
• Jan. 23 - Humans Have Pushed Planet Into A New Geological Era,
• Jan. 24 - Arctic Sees Major Ice-Cap Retreat - area lost in 2
years equals twice the size of France, study finds
• Jan. 24 - Melting Glaciers Threaten to Flood Himalayan
Settlement, Group Says
• Jan. 24 - Brazil Tries to Slow Amazon Deforestation
• Jan. 26 – University of Victoria to Lead New Climate Institute
These are just a few sample signs of our time. The Jan. 23 article is
particularly pivotal. We are now standing on the edge, looking down into
a bottomless abyss, an abyss to which we have never been so close
before, a yawning chasm half filled with extinct species bygone. One
more step, and we will join them, and since we have so many strings
attached, we’ll drag hundreds of thousands or even millions of species
down with us.
Our civilization was born in the Holocene Epoch some 10,000 ago,
which has lasted until the present – both the civilization and the
epoch. But the epoch has just come to an end (google the article dated
Jan. 23). What does this signify for the civilization, and for the
species Homo sapiens upon which it is based, and the millions of species
currently in the process of being driven to extinction by Homo sapiens,
including possibly Homo sapiens itself, and the biosphere of the planet
Earth, and to mother Earth herself?
One thing is for certain, the Holocene Epoch may have ended, but the
Holocene Extinction (yes, this term exists) has just begun.
It is the Anthropocene Epoch now. Anthropocene means “human cause”.
Theoretically, the Anthropocene Epoch started with the Industrial
Revolution little more than a century ago. Hopefully, like the Holocene,
it will last ten thousand years or more, but it could also be the
beginning of the end. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels this very
second for good, the atmosphere and oceans will still continue to warm
up due to the greenhouse gasses already accumulated in the atmosphere,
and oceanic acidification and anoxia will still continue to worsen, and
species by the hundreds of thousands will still go extinct, beginning
with the polar bear and the harp seals, and almost all coral reefs, in
the very near future. But back to the Vancouver Sun meanwhile:
• Jan. 25 - Alberta Climate Plan Lets Industry Avoid New
Limits – province to let emissions rise over a decade before cuts take
hold – “It would be very difficult to bring in real restrictions…
without devastating the economy and quality of life of Albertans,” said
Ed Stelmach, Alberta premier.
With every day’s delay in implementing global warming counter
measures, a few thousand more species will be extinct by 2100. Stelmach
is selling our children for his oil revenue, and trading the survival of
millions of species, including our own, for another generation of
Hummers. I don’t think he understands anything about long term economy,
or know what “quality of life” means. I won’t waste my breath to ask him
about the meaning of life, that’s for damn sure.
The 4th Assessment Report of the International Panel for Climate
Change (IPCC) released in 2007 presented five computer generated
scenarios regarding the future usages of the fossil fuels and their
environmental consequences. The best case scenario stipulates a global
stabilization of fossil fuels consumption rate at the AD 2,000 level,
which is practically impossible, let alone stopping fossil fuels usage
immediately or sooner, but even so, the 2100 global temperature would
still rise by about 2oC, and the polar bear and the harp seal and the
coral reefs will still go extinct.
Three intermediate scenarios stipulate a range of moderate increases
in fossil fuels consumption for several decades before declining at
various rates. They led to a temperature rise of 2-6oC by 2100. A 6oC
rise is a very serious matter; it is at or near the point of no return
for our own survivability, and the tipping point of the runaway
greenhouse effect. The worse case scenario in the IPCC report aligns
very well with Stelmach’s plan, which will send the global temperature
through the roof, the roof being a 10oC rise.
And none of the scenarios even took into account methane clathrate as
a factor (see below). Methane clathrate (methane hydrate) – the most
dangerous stuff on Earth today, even more so than all the nukes in the
All in all, up to this point, most if not all of the past predictions
about the present have fallen short, some time way short, of the rate at
which global warming and its retinue of evils unfold in the real world.
I will show you in the next section what a 10oC global temperature
rise can do, and indeed has done.
2. Five Blasts from the
The Planet Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago. About 3.3 billion
years ago, life originated in the form of unicellular organisms. About
600 million years ago, unicellular life gave rise to multicellular life.
By about 520 million years ago, during the Cambrian period, the great
Cambrian Explosion (speciation-wise) resulted in a biosphere rich with
marine and terrestrial species, both unicellular and multicellular. The
Ordovician period which followed expanded the Cambrian Explosion into
the greatest biodiversity the Earth had ever seen.
As of about 500 million years ago, however, the Earth experienced
five major mass extinction events, briefly as follows:
1. The Ordovician-Silurian Extinction, 440-450 million years ago. 27%
of all families and 57% of all genera went extinct.
2. The Devonian Extinction, 375 million years ago. 19% of all families
and 50% of all genera went extinct.
3. The Permian-Triassic Extinction, 251 million years ago. 57% of all
families and 83% of all genera went extinct.
4. The Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, 205 million years ago. 23% of all
families and 48% of all genera went extinct.
5. The Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction, 65 million years ago. 17% of all
families and 50% of all genera went extinct.
Diagram 1 (see attachment)
Now, at the end of the Holocene Epoch, as we live and as we speak, we
are in the depths and heights of the 6th Mass Extinction event of Earth,
one which threatens the survival of likely over half of the current
species, including our own. By “the end of the Holocene Epoch” is meant
that a geologically brand new epoch has arisen about 200 years ago to
take its place – the Anthropocene Epoch, the epoch of human causes. 200
years ago was about the beginning of Industrialization, the beginning of
the end of hundreds of thousands of species over the next few decades,
and likely millions of species over the next few centuries. Since the
cause of this 6th Mass Extinction is human, a human solution is needed,
which we might find by studying the natural processes involved in the
mass extinctions of the past.
When we speak of mass extinction, we usually talk about the 5th and
last event – the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) Extinction, which wiped out
the dinosaurs, known to be caused by a massive asteroid or meteoroid
strike in what is now Mexico. Such an asteroid or meteoroid would have
likely been some 10 km in diameter. It would have cast dust and
particulates by the billions of tons into the atmosphere, forming a near
opague layer that shielded the planet’s surface from solar radiation for
months. Further, the impact showered the entire planet with glowing and
burning embers, causing a global mother-of-all-firestorms, which in turn
sent billions of tons of ash and soot into the atmosphere, thus
intensifying the opacity of the dust layer, rendering the surface of the
planet pitch black at midday. This halted photosynthesis in the plants,
and precipitated starvation upon the animals, herbivores, omnivores and
carnivores alike, terrestrial as well as marine.
But as we can see from the above, in terms of percentage decimation
on the family and genus levels, it was the least of the Big Five, which
goes to show how much more calamitous the other Big Four were.
Another things unique about the K-T Extinction is that it is the only
one proven to be caused primarily by an asteroid strike. Primarily
because there seemed to be a secondary cause – the massive basaltic
flood from a huge crack on the Earth’s crust at present-day India’s
Deccan Trap, which released huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the
atmosphere, leading to global warming after the brief “asteroid winter”.
Fortunately, for the K-T, that is, Deccan Trap was not the biggest in
Earth’s history by a long shot, so the global warming was not as severe.
The other four were all primarily due to some form of climate change,
and the biggest flood basalt event occurred during the 3rd – the
Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction, the biggest ever.
The Permian-Triassic Extinction (#3) wiped out about 75% of
terrestrial life and about 95% of marine life within a span of about
80,000 years. The following two diagrams contrast starkly the before and
Diagram 2 (see attachment)
After the Permian-Tertiary Extinction, the same sea floor looked like
Diagram 3 (see attachment)
The exact mechanism that reduced the bountiful former to the pitiable
latter has still to be fully worked out, but the most probable theory is
coherent and fairly consistent with observed data. The important thing
here is that it is likely applicable in our quest for a solution to
combat Mass Extinction #6:
1. There is some debatable evidence that a meteoroid or
asteroid did impact the Earth shortly before or concurrent with the
beginning of the extinction event, and the impact worked in about the
same way as the K-T impact – “asteroid winter”, global cooling due to
shielding of sunlight, followed by a global firestorm which sent
megatons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the
atmosphere, causing global warming after the very brief global cooling.
But this alone is not enough to precipitate the colossal losses.
2. Concurrently or nearly so, and perhaps due to the physical
trauma of the impact, a crack in the crust many times the length of the
one at K-T’s Deccan Trap opened up at the Siberia Trap in Western
Russia, resulting in a flood basalt outflow in the order of a million
cubic kilometers, covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometers to
thicknesses a kilometer or more, all in many orders of magnitude larger
than the Deccan trap equivalents. The extruded magma contained vast
amounts of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, among other greenhouse
gasses (GHGs), which are degassed into the atmosphere. This took global
warming to a new height. But still, #1 and #2 combined could raise the
global temperature by 4-5oC, enough to drive perhaps 30-40% of the
species to extinction, but not the 70+% on land and the 95% in the
3. In the ground are vast deposits of the aforementioned “most
danger stuff on Earth today, even more so than all the nukes combined” –
methane. Methane is one of the most potent GHGs in existence, each
molecule about 20 times as potent as a CO2 molecule. In the ground,
these methane reservoirs took the form of solid methane clathrate
(methane hydrate) deposits, which under high pressure is stable up to
18oC. Methane clathrate is present in permafrost on the ground as well
as the rock layers in the ground. The massive molten flood basalt
outflows in the Siberia Trap, which occurred repeatedly and at different
locations over many millennia, destabilized many methane reservoirs and
released huge quantities of the powerful GHG into the atmosphere,
possibly doubling or even tripling the atmospheric GHG concentration.
This drove the global temperature even higher, perhaps by up to 7-8oC.
This could push the extinction rate up above 60-70%
4. With atmospheric warming comes hydrospheric warming. The
characteristics of ocean warming is that it warms up much more near the
poles than near the equator. This decreased the temperature gradient,
and therefore slowed down or shut down some or all of the ocean
currents. This led to stagnancy, thermal layering and anoxia (oxygen
deprivation) of the deeper layers, which caused the proliferation of
anaerobic bacteria which exhale copious amounts of CO2 and poisonous
hydrogen sulphide, some of which being absorbed by the water, thus
leading in part to oceanic acidification which, for one thing destroyed
shell-forming organisms including snails, bivalves and corals, and some
released into the atmosphere, thus intensifying global warming even
5. Methane clathrate also existed in huge deposits on and under
continental shelves deeper than about 100 meters. With ocean warming,
some of the methane could be released. More methane released into the
atmosphere means higher temperatures, and higher temperatures released
more methane. This constituted a positive feedback loop spiraling into a
runaway greenhouse effect leading to global temperature of 10+oC. This
finally administered the coup de grace.
There is convincing evidence that methane did play a significant part
in the calamity. The evidence is in the presence of a rock layer at the
Permian-Triassic boundary with an unmistakably reduced C13/C12 ratio.
The lighter carbon isotope C12 is much more prevalent in methane than in
carbon dioxide. More C12 in the sediment means more methane in the mix.
As it did happen, the 80,000 years or so it took for the Permian
Triassic mass extinction to run its course, it comprised three phases,
the first corresponding to #1 above, the second to #2 and #3, and the
third to #4 and #5.
This made the early Triassic almost a lifeless wasteland, and
whatever ecosystems remaining was so simple a kindergartener could grasp
it. It took quite a few million years for the Triassic to get back to
par to hand the baton to the Jurassic. Unfortunately, the
Triassic/Jurassic boundary was marred by yet another mass extinction,
and that was Mass Extinction #4, also due to climate change.
Now, we must deal with Mass Extinction #6.
3. The Future
In spite of the lack of an asteroid impact and any flood basalt
eruption, Mass Extinction #6 is not far different from Mass Extinction
#3. Just replace the asteroid and the flood basalt eruption with two
words: “Human cause”. Neither do we need the flood basalt eruption to
release the methane from the permafrost. Currently, the permafrost of
the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra holds up to 400 gigatons of
CO2-equivalent in methane. That of Antarctica is uncertain.
And the permafrost is melting. Its total meltdown seems all but
The current CO2 total in the atmosphere is about 700 gigatons (Gtons
- billion tons), or about 370 ppm (parts per million). If 350 Gtons-C of
methane is released into the atmosphere from the permafrost, it would
increase the amount of CO2-equivalanet by 50% to 1,050 Gtons C, and the
density increased to 550 ppm. The general consensus is to try to
stabilize the density below 400 ppm. And this does not even take into
account the methane stored in clathrate form on continental shelves
under the sea.
The best estimate we have today suggests the global inventory of
between 1×1015 and 5×1015 m³ (1 quadrillion to 5 quadrillion cubic
meters), which corresponds to 500-2500 gigatons carbon. Even if just the
low end of 500 Gtons-C is released into the atmosphere, it would add up
to 1,550 Gtons-C or more than twice today’s amount, with the
corresponding density of 820 ppm, which is as good as a death sentence
for life on Earth. There is no point to talk about any larger releases.
And we haven’t even bothered to factor in the 7 Gtons-C of GHGs we’re
pumping into the atmosphere by artificial means every year at today’s
rate, and increasing.
Quite simply, if we value the wildlife of this planet, if we prize
the integrity of the biosphere, if we love our children, if we want to
survive, we simply cannot allow this to happen.
There is no cure to the problem once it has occurred, or even started
to occur. There is only prevention. And we are running out of time, if
we are lucky. If not, we already have.
Even today, at 370 ppm carbon the atmosphere, we are losing species
at the rate of about 150-300 species per day, or 50,000-100,000 species
a year, or 500,000-1,000,000 species a decade, or 5 million to 10
million species extinct by 2100, out of a total of about 20 million
species, or a 50% loss.
At this point, recall the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction, where 75%
of terrestrial species and 95% of marine species went extinct, and
remind ourselves that not only is it possible, it has happened, and it
can happen again.
To just barely survive, we have no choice but to do all of the
following without delay. Each day’s delay will mean several thousand
more species extinct by 2100. Can we live with this kind of blood on our
4. What is the solution?
First and foremost, we must realize that the use of fossil fuels must
be phased out as soon as physically feasible. We must develop the wisdom
to know that not all extractable fossil fuels can be burned, and the
self-restraint to leave those that cannot be burned unburned.
For whatever quantity of fossil fuels that still can be burned, we
must strictly prioritize their use according to the following order of
- The highest priority for the use of the fossil fuels is for
building alternative technologies and industries to ultimately
replace itself, and for educational purposes in regards to global
warming and its consequences.
- The second highest priority for the use of the fossil fuels is
for the production and transportation of necessary goods and
- The third highest priority for the use of fossil fuels is for
the production and transportation of unnecessary but preferred good
- The fourth highest priority for the use of fossil fuels is for
the production and transportation of trivial and luxury goods and
services, including gas-guzzlers, yachts, monster houses (MacMansions),
tourism, disposable anything,…
- The lowest priority: the annual Christmas shopping craze and
consumer orgy must go!
The quick answer –
Conservation and Technology
Conservation can be summed up in two words: CARBON TAX. This will
drive fuel prices sky high, and that is good. It will also cause an
economic recession, and that is good too, other than necessary. Put
plainly, tighten your belt now, or starve later.
Want more details? Much exist in the Stern Commission report titled
“The Economics of Global Climate Change”, in the Stern Review.
Renowned economist Sir Nicholas Stern is a former head of the World
Bank and chief economist for the UK government. His review of climate
change is among the best and most succinct in the world.
Here are his suggestions in a nutshell:
- Give priority to the precautionary principle
- Internalize environmental costs – to make the polluter pay, by
pricing the costs of carbon, first by carbon taxing, then by
regulation (an enforceable cap on emissions, fuel and efficiency
standards etc.), and least of all, Carbon trading
- Minimize future discounting (better still, zero future
- Increase funding for research, development and deployment for
non-combustion alternative energy technologies (solar, wind, tidal,
hydro-electric, geothermal, nuclear) and carbon sinking and
sequestration technologies – by orders of magnitude
- Remove barriers to energy efficiency
- Inform, educate and persuade the public to respond to climate
change (this is where the kids can have their best impact!)
- Reduce deforestion
- Provide best available technology and funding to assist
developing nations to industrialize using clean, renewable energy.
The one big emitter that Stern, as well as Al Gore, failed to
mention, let alone emphasize, is meat ptoduction – 22% of GHG
emission more than transportation! Don’t forget: A meat-eater riding
a bicycle produces more GHGs than a vegan driving a Hummer!
- Tax meat!
Things NOT to do:
- Continue funding and subsidizing fossil fuel industries for any
- Buy fuel inefficient good, including gas-guzzlers
- Rely only on carbon trading
- Rely on voluntary measures
To put this in a language everyone can understand, Auschwitz killed
over 10,000 prisoners everyday. Every day the Allies delayed in
liberating them means another 10,000 lives added to the grand total of
the Holocaust. Again, every day we delay in acting now means another
10,000-100,000 species added to the grand total of the Holocene
10. Act wisely, immediately
Anthony Marr, founder and president
Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE)