By John Scales Avery*
The threat of catastrophic climate change requires prompt and dedicated action by the global community. Unless we very quickly make the transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, we will reach a tipping point after which uncontrollable feedback loops could take over, leading to a human-caused 6th geological extinction event.
This might even be comparable to the Permian-Triassic event, during which 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates became extinct.
New hope that such a catastrophe for human civilization and the biosphere can be avoided comes from two recently-released documents: The Encyclical “Laudatum Si’ ” by Pope Francis, and the statistics on the rate of growth of renewable energy newly released by the Earth Policy Institute.
The danger of reaching a tipping point
Arctic sea-ice is melting at an increasingly rapid rate, because of several feedback loops. One of these feedback loops, called the albedo effect, is due to the fact that white snow-covered sea-ice in the Arctic reflects sunlight, while dark water absorbs it, raising the temperature and leading to more melting.
Another feedback loop is due to the fact that rising temperatures mean that more water is evaporated. The water vapor in the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse gas, and raises the temperature still further.
If we consider long-term effects, by far the most dangerous of the feedback loops is the melting of methane hydrate crystals and the release of methane into the atmosphere, where its effects as a greenhouse gas are roughly twenty times great as those of CO2.
When organic matter is carried into the oceans by rivers, it decays to form methane. The methane then combines with water to form hydrate crystals, which are stable at the temperatures which currently exist on ocean floors. However, if the temperature rises, the crystals become unstable, and methane gas bubbles up to the surface.
The worrying thing about methane hydrate deposits on ocean floors is the enormous amount of carbon involved: roughly 10,000 gagatons. To put this huge amount into perspective, we can remember that the total amount in world CO2 emissions since 1751 has been only 337 gigatons.
Pope Francis and his message of hope
Despite the worrying nature of the threats that we are facing, there are reasons for hope. One of the greatest of these is the beautiful, profound and powerful encyclical that has just been released by Pope Francis.http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
When he accepted the responsibility for leading the world’s 1.2-billion-strong Catholic Church, Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina adopted the name Francis, after the universally loved Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life of simplicity, love for the poor, and love of nature he chose as the model for his Papacy. The Pope’s inspiring encyclical letter “Laudato Si’ ” takes its name from a canticle of Saint Francis, that begins with the words “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister, mother Earth, who sustains and governs us…”
Photo credit: Greenpeace
We can remember that Saint Francis regarded birds and animals as his brothers and sisters. He even thought of the sun, moon, clouds, rain and water as brothers and sisters. Like his chosen namesake, Pope Francis stresses the unity of all of nature, and our kinship with all of creation. Francis appeals to love. We can be saved through love.
His encyclical is addressed not only to Catholics, but also to all men and women of good will, and almost all of its 102 pages appeal to moral sensibilities and rational arguments that can be shared by all of us.
Pope Francis stresses that the natural world that sustains us is in grave danger from our ruthless exploitation and greed-driven destruction of all the beauty and life that it contains: animals, forests, soil, and air.
Pope Francis tells us that the dictates of today’s economists are not sacred: In the future, if we are to survive, economics must be given both a social conscience and an ecological conscience. Nor are private property and profits sacred. They must be subordinated to the common good, and the preservation of our global commons.
Less focus on material goods need not make us less happy. The quality of our lives can be increased, not decreased, if we give up our restless chase after power and wealth, and derive more of our pleasures from art, music and literature, and from conversations with our families and friends,
Please read this great encyclical in its entirety. It can give us hope and courage as we strive to make the changes that are needed to avert an ecological mega-catastrophe.
Photo credit: Greenpeace
Another reason for hope: The rate of growth of renewable energy
Another reason for hope can be found in the extremely high present rate of growth of renewable energy, and in the remarkable properties of exponential growth.
According to figures recently released by the Earth Policy Institute, http://www.earth-policy.org/books/tgt, the global installed photovoltaic capacity is currently able to deliver 242,000 megawatts, and it is increasing at the rate of 27.8% per year. Wind energy can now deliver 370,000 megawatts, and it is increasing at the rate of roughly 20% per year.
Because of the astonishing properties of exponential growth, we can calculate that if these growth rates are maintained, renewable energy can give us 24.8 terawatts within only 15 years! This is far more than the world’s present use of all forms of energy.
All of us must still work with dedication to provide the political will needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. However, the strong and friendly voice of Pope Francis, and the remarkable rate of growth of renewable energy can guide our work, and can give us hope and courage.
Some suggestions for further reading
*John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century http://www.learndev.org/dl/Crisis21-Avery.pdf.
Other articles by John Scales Avery published by Human Wrongs Watch: