Mike Davis, Has the Age of Chaos Begun?

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Discussions of “tipping points” have, in recent times, largely been relegated to the war in Iraq where such moments, regularly predicted by the Bush administration, never arrive. In the meantime, an actual tipping point may have been creeping up on us on another front entirely, one that is anathema to this administration — that of climate change.

The latest news from scientists laboring in cold climes has been startling. The expanse of Arctic sea ice has been shrinking in the summer since the late 1970s, though usually rebounding to near normal levels in the winter. Until recently. For the last few years, winter ice cover has been shrinking as well. This will be the fourth consecutive year of record, or near record, shrinkage of September sea ice in the Arctic. Scientists speculate that a threshold has been crossed.

“Experts at the U.S. National Snow and Data Center in Colorado,” writes David Adam, environmental correspondent for the British Guardian, “fear the [Arctic] region is locked into a destructive cycle with warmer air melting more ice, which in turn warms the air further. Satellite pictures show that the extent of Arctic sea ice this month dipped some 20% below the long term average for September — melting an extra 500,000 square miles, or an area twice the size of Texas. If current trends continue, the summertime Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free well before the end of this century.”

Maybe this is bad — extinction-bad — for the polar bear, but otherwise doesn’t it open new vistas for us all? For instance, the fabled “Northwest Passage” from Europe to Asia, so energetically, if fruitlessly, searched out by early European explorers, is now almost a reality. This summer only 60 miles of scattered ice floes stood in the path of a completely open passage across the Canadian northwest.

Unfortunately, as Mike Davis explains below, the vistas opening before us are anything but pleasing. This is, in fact, a tipping point none of us will want to see — and none of us may be able to avoid. Let’s at least hope, as environmental writer Mark Hertsgaard recently suggested, that some kind of threshold or tipping point is also finally being crossed in American society. As he commented in the Nation magazine recently:

“[G]lobal warming foot-draggers have succeeded in the past largely because the public was confused about whether the problem really existed. That confusion was encouraged by the mainstream media, which in the name of journalistic ‘balance’ gave equal treatment to global warming skeptics and proponents alike, even though the skeptics represented a tiny fringe of scientific opinion and often were funded by companies with a financial interest in discrediting global warming. Katrina, however, may mark a turning point for the media as well as the public.”

If sales of gas-guzzling SUVs are any mark of an American awakening, their recent plunge may indicate that things are indeed looking up a bit. But I fear that, when it comes to the issue of climate change, American denial extends well beyond the present obdurate administration. We like to think that, as a can-do nation, when the (ice) chips are down, when things really get tough, we can always, in cavalry fashion, ride to the rescue just in the nick of time. As it happens, as Mike Davis makes clear, climate change is unlikely to work that way.

Davis tends to migrate in his writings (and sometimes in person) to dangerous climes and tipping-point fronts almost by nature. He has just returned from New Orleans where what may well be the hurricane-version of global warming has created a potential eco-disaster (just as the news of Katrina begins to fade). He spent the previous year following the course of, and writing a must-read book (Monster at Our Door) about, a potential avian flu pandemic for which the United States is unbearably unprepared.

The President finally responded to the danger of avian flu at his news conference Tuesday by suggesting, “If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country, and how do you then enforce a quarantine?… And who best to be able to effect quarantine? One option is the use of a military that’s able to plan and move.” There’s no surprise in this. The Bush administration, facing any crisis, automatically reaches for its guns as if it were always poised at some eternal OK Corral. Think of the President’s response to a potential pandemic as public health as coup d’état.

On Thursday, Bush gave his millionth speech on his Global War on Terror (and his war in Iraq). This was a day when, on the front page of the New York Times, reporter Gina Kolata broke a story about the 1918 flu virus that created a global pandemic, killing perhaps 50 million people. (Some historians believe that, even in that era before air travel, the numbers may still have approached 100 million.) According to two teams of scientists who have reconstructed that virus, it was, to the surprise of all, a bird flu that jumped directly to humans. A friend of mine, in a private e-letter he sends out, just wrote: “One one-hundredth of the money we’ve spent on Iraq would help prepare us against an avian flu pandemic. But now we will be told we need to spend money on the war against terror cells in the Philippines, Indonesia and, no doubt, Canada. Maybe Bush ought to declare war against birds.”

If you want to know something more detailed about the nature of government preparations for terrorist and military-related disasters versus natural or non-military ones in this country, William M. Arkin at his remarkable new Early Warning blog at the Washington Post has done the math for you. He’s carefully sifted through the Department of Homeland Security’s 36-month “exercise schedule,” covering the department’s “war-gaming” of disasters of every sort that might befall our “homeland.” He found that the document “makes reference to 222 separate nationwide and local drills, ‘tabletop’ exercises, workshops and full-scale rehearsals. Of the 222, a total of two deal with hurricanes. A whopping total of 179 deal with biological, chemical, explosive, radiological and nuclear events. Seven national exercises are listed in Louisiana and Mississippi during the 36-month period: none deal with hurricanes.”

Below, Davis turns to the issue of whether various signs, especially that disappearing Arctic sea ice, indicate that we are indeed approaching, or have already passed, a climatic (as well as climactic) tipping point that may catapult us out of the last 1,000,000 years of weather patterns and right into the unknown. The only disaster that seems to be missing from our collective plate these days is the Big One, the earthquake that will sooner or later hit California. I have no doubt that, when it does, Davis will be surfing the largest slab of basalt in sight directly into the fault.  Tom

The Other Hurricane
Has the Age of Chaos Begun?
By Mike Davis

The genesis of two category-five hurricanes (Katrina and Rita) in a row over the Gulf of Mexico is an unprecedented and troubling occurrence. But for most tropical meteorologists the truly astonishing “storm of the decade” took place in March 2004. Hurricane Catarina — so named because it made landfall in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina — was the first recorded south Atlantic hurricane in history.

Textbook orthodoxy had long excluded the possibility of such an event; sea temperatures, experts claimed, were too low and wind shear too powerful to allow tropical depressions to evolve into cyclones south of the Atlantic Equator. Indeed, forecasters rubbed their eyes in disbelief as weather satellites down-linked the first images of a classical whirling disc with a well-formed eye in these forbidden latitudes.

In a series of recent meetings and publications, researchers have debated the origin and significance of Catarina. A crucial question is this: Was Catarina simply a rare event at the outlying edge of the normal bell curve of South Atlantic weather — just as, for example, Joe DiMaggio’s incredible 56-game hitting streak in 1941 represented an extreme probability in baseball (an analogy made famous by Stephen Jay Gould) — or was Catarina a “threshold” event, signaling some fundamental and abrupt change of state in the planet’s climate system?

Scientific discussions of environmental change and global warming have long been haunted by the specter of nonlinearity. Climate models, like econometric models, are easiest to build and understand when they are simple linear extrapolations of well-quantified past behavior; when causes maintain a consistent proportionality to their effects.

But all the major components of global climate — air, water, ice, and vegetation — are actually nonlinear: At certain thresholds they can switch from one state of organization to another, with catastrophic consequences for species too finely-tuned to the old norms. Until the early 1990s, however, it was generally believed that these major climate transitions took centuries, if not millennia, to accomplish. Now, thanks to the decoding of subtle signatures in ice cores and sea-bottom sediments, we know that global temperatures and ocean circulation can, under the right circumstances, change abruptly — in a decade or even less.

The paradigmatic example is the so-called “Younger Dryas” event, 12,800 years ago, when an ice dam collapsed, releasing an immense volume of meltwater from the shrinking Laurentian ice-sheet into the Atlantic Ocean via the instantly-created St. Lawrence River. This “freshening” of the North Atlantic suppressed the northward conveyance of warm water by the Gulf Stream and plunged Europe back into a thousand-year ice age.

Abrupt switching mechanisms in the climate system — such as relatively small changes in ocean salinity — are augmented by causal loops that act as amplifiers. Perhaps the most famous example is sea-ice albedo: The vast expanses of white, frozen Arctic Ocean ice reflect heat back into space, thus providing positive feedback for cooling trends; alternatively, shrinking sea-ice increases heat absorption, accelerating both its own further melting and planetary warming.

Thresholds, switches, amplifiers, chaos — contemporary geophysics assumes that earth history is inherently revolutionary. This is why many prominent researchers — especially those who study topics like ice-sheet stability and North Atlantic circulation — have always had qualms about the consensus projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world authority on global warming.

In contrast to Bushite flat-Earthers and shills for the oil industry, their skepticism has been founded on fears that the IPCC models fail to adequately allow for catastrophic nonlinearities like the Younger Dryas. Where other researchers model the late 21st-century climate that our children will live with upon the precedents of the Altithermal (the hottest phase of the current Holocene period, 8000 years ago) or the Eemian (the previous, even warmer interglacial episode, 120,000 years ago), growing numbers of geophysicists toy with the possibilities of runaway warming returning the earth to the torrid chaos of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM: 55 million years ago) when the extreme and rapid heating of the oceans led to massive extinctions.

Dramatic new evidence has emerged recently that we may be headed, if not back to the dread, almost inconceivable PETM, then to a much harder landing than envisioned by the IPCC.

As I flew toward Louisiana and the carnage of Katrina three weeks ago, I found myself reading the August 23rd issue of EOS, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union. I was pole-axed by an article entitled “Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free State,” co-authored by 21 scientists from almost as many universities and research institutes. Even two days later, walking among the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward, I found myself worrying more about the EOS article than the disaster surrounding me.

The article begins with a recounting of trends familiar to any reader of the Tuesday science section of the New York Times: For almost 30 years, Arctic sea ice has been thinning and shrinking so dramatically that “a summer ice-free Arctic Ocean within a century is a real possibility.” The scientists, however, add a new observation — that this process is probably irreversible. “Surprisingly, it is difficult to identify a single feedback mechanism within the Arctic that has the potency or speed to alter the system’s present course.”

An ice-free Arctic Ocean has not existed for at least one million years and the authors warn that the Earth is inexorably headed toward a “super-interglacial” state “outside the envelope of glacial-interglacial fluctuations that prevailed during recent Earth history.” They emphasize that within a century global warming will probably exceed the Eemian temperature maximum and thus obviate all the models that have made this their essential scenario. They also suggest that the total or partial collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet is a real possibility — an event that would definitely throw a Younger Dryas wrench into the Gulf Stream.

If they are right, then we are living on the climate equivalent of a runaway train that is picking up speed as it passes the stations marked “Altithermal” and “Eemian.” “Outside the envelope,” moreover, means that we are not only leaving behind the serendipitous climatic parameters of the Holocene — the last 10,000 years of mild, warm weather that have favored the explosive growth of agriculture and urban civilization — but also those of the late Pleistocene that fostered the evolution of Homo sapiens in eastern Africa.

Other researchers undoubtedly will contest the extraordinary conclusions of the EOS article and — we must hope — suggest the existence of countervailing forces to this scenario of an Arctic albedo catastrophe. But for the time being, at least, research on global change is pointing toward worst-case scenarios.

All of this, of course, is a perverse tribute to industrial capitalism and extractive imperialism as geological forces so formidable that they have succeeded in scarcely more than two centuries — indeed, mainly in the last fifty years — in knocking the earth off its climatic pedestal and propelling it toward the nonlinear unknown.

The demon in me wants to say: Party and make merry. No need now to worry about Kyoto, recycling your aluminum cans, or using too much toilet paper, when, soon enough, we’ll be debating how many hunter-gathers can survive in the scorching deserts of New England or the tropical forests of the Yukon.

The good parent in me, however, screams: How is it possible that we can now contemplate with scientific seriousness whether our children’s children will themselves have children? Let Exxon answer that in one of their sanctimonious ads.

Mike Davis is the author of many books including City of Quartz: Dead Cities and Other Tales, and the just published Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press) as well as the forthcoming Planet of Slums (Verso).

Copyright 2005 Mike Davis