The white swan

How ignoring the climate change is, and progressively will, upset life on Earth.

An armed bomb, the issue

The black swan has been through history, from Latins onwards, a metaphor for impossibility. Having none ever seen such animal, was commonly spread the idea that only white swans existed, until 1697 when a European explorer saw an example in Western Australia.

Nassim Taleb in several publications developed the “black swan theory” upon this metaphor, underlining how unpredicted events that occur as a surprise, have extreme impact and major effects on our history. Indeed can someone do prevention or be ready for something that is believed will never happen?

By now, climate change has been recognized as an issue since more than half a century and the scientific community widely warned about its catastrophic consequences, still we behave as it were a black swan.

The historic achievement of the Paris agreement in 2015, aimed at keeping a global temperature rise in this century below 2 degrees Celsius, is just the first small step to address the issue. Indeed, a well founded doubt concerns the respect of it by the ratifying nations, since there is no enforcement or measure to oblige a country to do so, and US, the second polluter of the world, under Trump leadership already declared the will to withdraw from the accord.

But even if the agreement is fully respected simply it will not be enough, it is necessary an urgent change in policies, habits and a raise in collective consciousness.

Many people know and care about the issue, but probably most of us still didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem. And it’s really a common situation because of the nature of the phenomenon. As David Wallace-Wells writes in his article “The uninhabitable Earth”, which, on the contrary of what the title could suggest, is a realistic data based analysis of what is happening and will soon happen, Climate change has features that make it difficult to be understood. Not only being confusing the speed and the slowness at which it occurs (today witnessing the effects of yesterday), but also, as he writes, “the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers”.

What is startling moreover is the speeding up of the trend: the warming is now twice faster than in 1998; according to NASA reports, the planet’s average surface temperature increased about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century; 2017 was the second warmest year for Earth’s global surface temperature since the use of modern recordkeeping in 1880; many experts warn that from pollution previously emitted we have already locked in at least 1.5 Celsius degree in temperature (bear in mind the Paris Agreement’s aim).

The catastrophic disasters that would occur in this century go well beyond the collective imagination of the rising sea level.

This is the situation we are in, still partly unconsciously, where drastic change and effort are required to slow down, and if possible eventually stop, the process of overheating.

It reminds me a scene of the film “Alice in wonderland”. Even tough Alice tries to run away as fast as she can, she remains in the same spot. As the Red Queen later on explains, that’s because in her country it is necessary to run at the best of one’s own possibilities just to stay in your position.

Record heat waves, drought, severe rainfall and floods, hurricanes, melting of the North Pole permafrost, raising oceans: all of this is already occurring all over the world and will progressively intensify.

The trigger, why is climate changing

According to most scientists, we already live in Anthropocene, namely an epoch where human activities are the main causes of change on Earth.

Anyway, without any doubt, since the first industrial revolution onwards, the exploitation of fossil fuel boosted an unprecedented growth: coal first and oil afterwards represented the ground upon which our society is built, and more worryingly on which is still growing.

They represented an impulse, real “fuel” for the society in every field (economy, commerce, transportation, industry, production, agriculture, military) and the link between the two is so strict that many talk about “fossil capitalism”, reading the history of human progress not as outcome of the success of economic and social system itself, but as the result of the adding of an essential value, as fossil fuel is, in that framework.

Nonetheless it is now clear that what once used to be our strength, it is increasingly becoming our greatest threat.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen in his book “Overheating” calls “runaway processes” this kind of phenomena, in which a continued growth cycle can lead to collapse or critical side effects.

In other words, an incredibly powerful tool that reveals itself potentially self-destructive.

Indeed, this growth process triggered by fossil fuels brought magnificent benefits which made the Western modern standard of living possible, but has now reached a point where the adverse effects are already evident and threaten to upset the whole life on Earth.

The main side effect of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil is the increase of concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other polluting gases in the atmosphere.

The “Greenhouse effect” has been mainly linked to its negative intrinsic effects, but that’s not fully right, as life on Earth strictly depends on this phenomenon. The energy coming from the sun reaches the planet surface, where it is partly absorbed and then radiated upward again. Almost all of this latter heat is absorbed by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and radiated back towards the surface, which therefore has an average temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius, which makes life on earth possible.

To better understand the importance of it, just think to the planet Mars, where due to a very thin atmosphere and weak greenhouse effect, the surface is mostly frozen and there aren’t the prerequisites of life.

The greenhouse effect works essentially as a blanket around the earth, but expanding it, with emission of those gases originated by human activities (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and Chlorofluorocarbons) entails a warmer planet where life would be drastically different.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, how the climate is changing

The world is getting hotter, there is no doubt, and will continue to do so if we don’t stop burning fossil fuel. But thinking that its only consequence will be a raise in temperature would be a terrible mistake. The warming of the planet triggers a series of extreme weather and climate events, most of which are already under our eyes.

The last book of the New Testament of the Bible describes the four horsemen coming to set the apocalypse upon the earth. They are in popular culture often associated with famine, war, pestilence and the antichrist. Do not know about the latter, but the other three crisis seems to be already here.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published a report foreseeing that the temperature increase will reach the 2 degrees Celsius threshold in less than 50 years and will equal 4 degrees before the next century.

This should worry not only because, following these estimates, many parts of the world would be uninhabitable and deadly, but also for the consequent lack of food. Indeed, a basic rule for common cereal entails that for an increase of one degree from the optimal temperature, yields decrease by 10 to 17 percent. To put it in the context of the previous projections, it would mean that in more or less 80 years we will have approximately 40 percent less yields, which would be terrific considering that to produce just one calorie of meat are needed 16 of cereal, all this while the global population is expected to increase.

Some even argues that the scarcity of food and drought would have had a role in triggering the Syrian conflict, but anyway it is pretty clear that in a situation where the primary and essential goods run low, the possibility of wars and mass migration proportionally runs up.

It will soon be a security issue more than an environmental one.

More heat, less ice, very simple equation. The problem are the consequences of that.

Glaciers, Arctic and Antarctica are all melting down at an increasing and unprecedented rate and all the water goes straight to the oceans causing a serious problem of sea rising.

Just to give an idea of the phenomenon, as IPCC reports, until 1980 the extent of Arctic ice held always around 8.5 million square kilometers, since then it outscored the worst prevision of the models dropping below 5 million square kilometers.

Most of the scientific projections assume that in this century both Bangladesh and Miami will disappear. Even if the exploitation of fossil fuel stopped within ten years, the two location would be underwater in any case. This sounds just a dystopian nightmare, but actually it is the most reliable scenario.

Besides the loss of these huge poles, many little islands in the Pacific already are at a turning point of their existence. Anote Tong, the president of the small island of Kiribati, bought pieces of land on the Fiji islands to ensure a refuge to his citizens since all the scientific predictions are unanimous in stating that the island will be soon submerged.

There are even other consequences to the melting of the world reservoir of ice and possibly more alarming.

The effect Albedo is really a vicious cycle: ice and snow have a strong reflecting power radiating backward the heat, so when the surface becomes darker for the pollution and the ice mass decreases, the reflection weakens and more heat is absorbed with the final result of accelerating the overheating process more and more.

Moreover the ice is a Pandora’s box better not to open.

Last winter occured a series of day hotter than usual which melted part of the permafrost, funny if you think of the name, but not if knowing the potential threat.

In the permafrost are contained around 1.8 trillion tons of carbon and when the ice will melt it could evaporate as methane. As Wallace-Wells writes “In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

Scaringly enough, this is just part of the threat held in the “box”. In the Arctic ice there are trapped diseases such as smallpox, the bubonic plague and the spanish flu, that on the course of history decimated the humankind and could possibly, though not probable according to many scientists, come back when the container will be melted and the box opened.

A dystopian comics’ incipit states: The world we knew is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility” , though there is no zombie epidemic at hand, it seems quite appropriate anyway.

Where present and future mix, the action

The inaction that has characterized the facing of this issue is based on several problems, all complex to solve: the oil lobbies, being the world’s biggest industry, have considerable influence both on media and governments, thus entailing fake-news and pro fossil fuel policies; economies and societies around the world are essentially and strictly based on the exploitation of fossil fuel; people are scarcely aware of the problem.

I remember that, around 10 years ago, there was a great coverage of news around the issue, spreading the importance of practices such as changing bulbs, using bicycles or recycling.

In the end we didn’t understand that those kind of individual actions were virtually useless to stop the overheating. Worthless to say that it is clearly important to do environmentfriendly actions but it is absolutely not enough.

Politicians are representatives and usually do not take initiative by their own, but follow precise roots and footprints, the polls.

In a first moment, running for the presidency Barack Obama stated that he was against the same sex marriage, then he just switched direction as the polls changed.

As Gregory Mankiw, professor at Harvard University, noticed, in order to change the president’s view, and therefore the policies, it is necessary to change public’s view of it.

There is a need of mass awareness and collective action to drive the change were international decisions are taken. The political will to take a different path has to start from the people willingness to use their voice and vote.

In a Ted talk heard some time ago, there is a lovely story. In 1860 a group of experts reunited to speculate on what would be the future of New York in 100 years, and eventually the conclusion was unanimous: the city wouldn’t exist anymore. Indeed, they envisaged the population growth and, being horses the only possible way to move people around the city, New York would have needed six million horses that would have produced an amount of manure impossible to deal with. But none could ever have predicted the invention of the car, which changed the course of the history.

Now we find ourselves in a similar situation, the manure being merely figurative, a turning point where innovation, development and sustainability have to be combined.

A first meaningful step, essential to this purpose, would be to impose a carbon tax to force economy and society in the direction of renewable energies, thus more convenient and profitable.

Tesla is anticipating a further step, building the first Gigafactory with the aim of getting the cost of batteries affordable since these latter are essential for the use of solar energies. The idea is to store the energy of the sun and then make it available anywhere, at anytime, to everyone. According to Elon Musk’s calculation, to turn the whole world energy production and satisfy the global need, it would occur only 100 Gigafactory.

There is of course hope and future even facing what is becoming the biggest challenge to the history of progress and humankind.

Climate change is a white swan and it is already here, now it is time to take action.

(photo by Yamil Lage, Afp)

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

I am Giorgio, born and bred in Rome, in 1997. Currently attending the B.A. in Global Governance. I am passionate in international politics and global trends and I want communication to become my profession.

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