An article in yesterday's i newspaper highlights the accelerating rate of polar ice melting ("Polar ice melting three times as fast as 20 years ago", Lewis Smith, Friday 30 November, p.25). The article states that:
"More than 4,200 gigatones were lost from the polar ice sheets from 1992 to 2011, an average of 223Gt a year and rising. Researchers described the rate of losses as being at "the very upper end" of forecasts published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007."
"During the 1990s ice sheet loss accounted for 10 per cent of sea level rises, but in the last five years it has risen to more than 30 per cent, the researchers said."
"The Antarctic ice sheet contains 30 million cubic kilometres of ice and holds around 90 per cent of all the fresh water on the surface of the Earth. If the whole Antarctic ice sheet melted, sea levels would rise by more than 60 metres."
What are we to make of this? I think we need to accept our limitations, utilise our strengths, and properly acknowledge the level of uncertainty about what might happen in the future. Perhaps the most important of these is to accept our limitations. Let us consider the forces at work on the Earth:
1 Biogeochemical Forces - There have been biogeochemical forces slowly building up in momentum over hundreds of years which are resulting in the current changes we are seeing on the planet, changes such as a worrying acceleration in polar ice melting.
2 Socio/Economic/Political/Cultural/Individual Forces - These forces have been slowly building up for thousands of years, they have propelled cultural evolution towards globalisation and the human modification of large parts of the planet.
These forces are very strong and they are not about to suddenly weaken. In other words, if human 'interference' with the planet ceased tomorrow (no construction, no greenhouse gas emissions, no car or airplane travel, no deforestation, etc.) then the polar ice would still continue to melt at an accelerating rate for the foreseeable future. In other words, the two forces are interconnected, but also largely independent when they pick up their own momentum (think of a large boulder on the top of a hill; it might need a human to push it to get it to start rolling, but once rolling the human cannot stop it - it keeps on rolling until it gets to the bottom of the hill!).
We need to accept the reality of the situation. We need to accept the existence, the strength, the inertia, of these two forces. We need to accept our inability to stop these forces. For the foreseeable future humans are going to keep on consuming, modifying and altering, and greenhouse gas emissions are going to stay at a very high level - a level which will cause potential catastrophe if we don't utilise our strengths.
What are our strengths? This is obvious. We have walked on the moon, sent probes to Mars, and created a feast of engineering delights across the planet which would have utterly bewildered our ancestors. Surely, with all of that engineering expertise, pulling some carbon out of the atmosphere should be a very simple affair. Releasing carbon from its underground storage areas and releasing it into the atmosphere was a fairly simple human activity; the reverse movement is surely not beyond us. We just need to realise the urgency of the need. Unfortunately, there are many powerful voices which are 'emission-reduction obsessed'; they do not see the need, so they definitely do not see the urgency of the need. These voices could be piloting us towards a very dark future.
Finally, let us move towards uncertainty. There is obviously a very high level of uncertainty about the future. Forecasts have been made in the past, and as time passes the outcomes have been at the very worrying end of forecasts (the most extreme changes, as with polar ice melting). As the Biogeochemical Forces accelerate then it is likely that the changes which occur will far exceed the most extreme forecasts which are currently made. Whilst there is uncertainty, all the danger is on the upside. In other words, the most extreme forecasts could be overshot by a small amount, a large amount, or an exceptionally massive amount! In the face of all this uncertainty we most definitely need our most precious gift at our disposal, our exceptional ability to modify, to geoengineer.
So, we need to accept our limitations, utilise our strengths, and properly acknowledge the level of uncertainty that we face. This seems like a sensible strategy for the future. And all of these factors lead to the conclusion that we need to overcome the current 'emissions-reduction fixation' and push ahead with geoengineering efforts in the immediate future. Our future, and the future of life on Earth, could depend on it.