Unprecedented Crisis for Humanity - But There's Hope

Great danger is an overall tipping point.


Nature's Edge Notebook #31

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Interview with Climate Scientist Michael Mann, author of "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars"

Conducted by Bill Blakemore in New York's Central Park 4-19-12:

Some of Mann's main points and charges in Part 4 include :

- Unprecedented problem for humanity

- One reason for hope: we've handle ozone - but this is bigger

- Network governance may be one kind of solution, if people try it

- The overall grave danger: a tipping point that flips earth's climate suddenly back up to greenhouse earth, no snow or ice on the planet… and civilization cannot keep up.

- Already the climate is showing increased frequency of severe climate and heating

- Air-capture (sucking CO2 out of the air - may be one possible aid… but far easier and cheaper to keep genie in the bottle.

Climate Scientist Michael Mann Interview, Part 4 (of 5)

Unprecedented scale of the problem - the idea of network governance public/private cooperation


Blakemore: Isn't it true that this is an unprecedented kind of problem? That the human race has never…It's not just that journalistic editorial leaders haven't faced it, and that government leaders haven't faced it. The entire human race has never faced one of these before?

(Michael Mann nods.)

Mann: That's true. And we can look to the past for some hope, because we have confronted global environmental challenges before - whether it's acid rain or ozone depletion - we acted in time to avert disaster.

And so we can look to the past, and hope that we will do so here as well. Now, this is a bigger problem.

It gets at the core of our global economy - fossil fuels. We are dependent on fossil fuels for energy today. And so it's a bigger problem, in some sense, than ozone depletion was, or than acid rain was. But we can look to the past for hope, I believe, and that's part of why I'm optimistic. I think we will confront the challenge in time.

Blakemore: Central Park is a great story. In the '70s, it was a mess: the government was trying to run it alone, and then something called "network governance" came in. The people around the park formed the Central Park Conservancy. They work with the government … people who have a stake in it.

Look at it now - it's the most beautifully run park in the world, many people say. Is there a possibility, do you think, of some kind of network governance for the planet?

You know, the cooperation that E.O. Wilson is showing us is more than kin selection - the way humans work.

Can we see all of humanity as our group? Do you think it's possible there's going to be some kind of network governance that still leaves us free within out national groups?

Mann: I think so. I think we can look to the past for examples for where humans have risen to the challenge, and where we've developed technology, we've made informed decisions to preserve our environment, to preserve our quality of life of the people, of the planet. And so I think there is reason for hope, but you know, the problem is urgent. We don't have a whole lot of time to act if we are going to avert what might reasonably be the described as "disaster."

Blakemore: Inevitably you must get this question: Will humanity make it? Let me ask first as a very simple technical question: Is it not true that the paleoclimatologists, in general, give us a picture in which there does seem to be some single number - ppm (parts per million of CO2) or temperature - whichever way you want to take it - which leads to a runaway, overall tipping point? Zooms us back up to greenhouse earth?

That does exist out there? Nobody knows exactly where? Yes?

Mann: Well, sure. I mean, we know a hundred million years ago, in the early part of the cretaceous period, when dinosaurs where wandering the planet, global temperatures were warmer than they were - than they are today.

We know that C02 levels were much higher than they are today, and we know there was no ice on the face of the earth. Well, nature has a way of dealing with changing, you know, concentrations of greenhouse gases on timescales of a hundred million years.

But what we're doing right now is we're taking all of those fossil - all of that C02 that eventually got buried in the solid earth - and we're releasing it back into the atmosphere.

We're re-creating that early cretaceous climate, but not on a timescale of a hundred million years - on a time scale of a hundred years.

Blakemore: Or less - as I understand it, some people have said it could even be sooner than that.

Mann: Oh, we could easily, if we continue with business as usual - in a hundred years we could potentially be close, in terms in of C02 levels in the atmosphere, to where we were a hundred million years ago.

Blakemore: No snow or ice on the planet? - Fine for dinosaurs… And the problem again, to be specific here, not that humans aren't very adaptable, but all of civilization to adapt so quickly.

(Michael Mann nods.)

That's the problem, right?

Mann: Well, nature has prepared neither us, nor living things. Evolution never had to deal with changes in atmospheric composition and climate on the time-scales that are taking place today.

Nature hasn't prepared us for adaptation to these rates of change. And that's the real concern.

Blakemore: To say nothing of economic systems.

Mann: Absolutely.

Blakemore: We get a flutter in the market if somebody sneezes or gets afraid of something outside the door.

Mann: Well, and we saw how fragile our infrastructure was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which wasn't even a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall.

And we simply did not have the infrastructure to adapt to even that one disaster.

And by the way, climate change, we know, is increasing the frequency of weather- and climate-related disasters.

For the first time ever, this past year we had 13 weather- or climate-related disasters that each cost more than a billion dollars in the U.S.

Blakemore: In the U.S. alone?

Mann: In the U.S. alone.

Blakemore: So, links are there.

One last technical question, and we'll take a walk.

Air-capture. We've interviewed Klaus Lackner in this park about it. ( See link below) Air-capture sounds fascinating because it takes care of both (atmospheric) warming and (ocean) acidification, the two evil twins of C02. What role do you think air-capture may play in all of this?

Mann: Well, you know, maybe it'll be a safety valve. You know, I greatly respect the work Lackner and others have done in looking at these sorts of technologies that might allow us to actively take the C02 back out of the atmosphere.

And if, you know, in the event where we breach levels - where we're locking in permanent changes like the melting of the ice sheets - we may have to resort to those sorts of technologies.

But it's a whole lot easier to prevent the genie from getting out of the bottle than trying to put it back in once it's out.

Blakemore: Michael Mann, thanks so much for talking to Nature's Edge.

Mann: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Click here to see Klaus Lackner explaining air-capture in Central Park.

READ PART 5: Climate "Groundhog Day" for Scientists and Journalists Alike

(Ideas to cool earth with dust are dangerous)