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On Earth Day, Forget About the Planet -- We're the Ones Who Are Screwed

Affection for our planet is misdirected and unrequited. We need to focus on saving ourselves. It's time to dump Earth Day.

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And speaking of God, Creation Care is also woefully misnamed. If humans are special, invested with a soul by our Creator, along with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then why should we sacrifice even a minute of that pursuit worrying about the inferior species? Sounds to me more like paganism than monotheism.

All of these phrases create the misleading perception that the cause so many of us are fighting for -- sharp cuts in greenhouse gases -- is based on the desire to preserve something inhuman or abstract or far away. But I have to say that all the environmentalists I know -- and I tend to hang out with the climate crowd -- care about stopping global warming because of its impact on humans, even if they aren’t so good at articulating that perspective. I’m with them.

The reason that many environmentalists fight to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the polar bears is not because they are sure that losing those things would cause the universe to become unhinged, but because they realize that humanity isn’t smart enough to know which things are linchpins for the entire ecosystem and which are not. What is the straw that breaks the camel’s back? The 100th species we wipe out? The 1,000th? For many, the safest and wisest thing to do is to try to avoid the risks entirely.

This is where I part company with many environmentalists. With 6.5 billion people going to 9 billion, much of the environment is unsavable. But if we warm significantly more than 2°C from pre-industrial levels -- and especially if we warm more than 4°C, as would be all but inevitable if we keep on our current emissions path for much longer -- then the environment and climate that made modern human civilization possible will be ruined, probably for hundreds of years.  And that means misery for many if not most of the next 10 to 20 billion people to walk the planet.

So I think the world should be more into conserving the stuff that we can’t live without. In that regard I am a conservative person. Unfortunately, Conservative Day would, I think, draw the wrong crowds.

The problem with Earth Day is it asks us to save too much ground. We need to focus. The two parts of the planet worth fighting to preserve are the soils and the glaciers.

Two years ago, Science magazine published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” -- levels of soil aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas and Oklahoma to California. The Hadley Center, the U.K.’s official center for climate change research, found that “areas affected by severe drought could see a five-fold increase from 8% to 40%.”  On our current emissions path, most of the South and Southwest ultimately experience twice as much loss of soil moisture as was seen during the Dust Bowl.

Also, locked away in the frozen soil of the tundra or permafrost is more carbon than the atmosphere contains today.  On our current path, most of the top 10 feet of the permafrost will be lost this century -- so much for being “perma” -- and that amplifying carbon-cycle feedback will all but ensure that today’s worst-case scenarios for global warming become the best-case scenarios. We must save the tundra. Perhaps it should be small “e” earth Day, which is to say, Soil Day. On the other hand, most of the public enthusiasm in the 1980s for saving the rain forests fizzled, and they are almost as important as the soil, so maybe not Soil Day.

 
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