Global Warming and Mass Murder

by Bradley Jarvis

In the October 2006 issue of Scientific American, paleontologist Peter Ward describes a theory that implicates global warming in several major mass extinctions in Earth's past. According to the theory, just prior to these extinctions, carbon dioxide and methane expelled from volcanoes reduced the amount of oxygen entering the ocean. This induced anaerobic bacteria living there to thrive and expel enough hydrogen sulfide into the oceans and atmosphere to kill most other species in the oceans and on land. The concentration of carbon dioxide required to trigger such an extinction corresponds to what we may have by the end of the next century if global warming continues unchecked.

The possibility of such a disaster far overshadows any of the reasons presently considered for reducing global warming. By aiding and abetting an extinction event of this magnitude (much greater than what we are already causing), our species would lose any claim to being "good" or "an improvement over the others," becoming in fact the absolute, exact opposite.

According to James Hansen, one of the world's top experts on global warming, we have perhaps ten years to reduce greenhouse gases before the process gets out of control. By coincidence, this corresponds to the amount of time we have left to avoid the worst consequences of overconsumption. Since greenhouse gases comprise much of our waste, cutting back on consumption will also mitigate global warming.

I've estimated that by reducing annual consumption (mass) by at least 22 percent per year, with renewable energy and reusable products making up the difference, we could extend our current energy supplies long enough to create a sustainable economy, and in the process avoid global disaster. In Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction, Mark Maslin estimates that it would cost two percent of GDP (GWP) to make the necessary reductions in greenhouse gases. My model indicates that to avoid the consumption peak, GWP would need to grow much slower than presently, gaining only five percent of its current value in ten years (as opposed to 19 percent if the present rate continues - which it likely won't); the gain would more than account for what's needed.

The 2006 annual meeting of the U.N. dealing with global warming concluded without any significant progress on new agreements beyond the modest Kyoto Protocol. The United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, refuses to even abide by Kyoto, continuing to increase its contribution to the problem rather than alter its economic growth trajectory.

Every year we wait makes the required cuts much deeper, and we cannot afford to waste any time. What's at stake is far more important than our economic welfare. And when you consider that we may hold Life's only hope for establishing a foothold somewhere else to decouple its existence from the fate of the Earth, we literally risk being responsible for the ultimate destruction of everything that matters.

© 2006 Bradley Jarvis, All Rights Reserved