After sustainability – what then?

Climate change is a very real danger, but one that we are already well on the way to fixing. Without wanting to sound complacent, I think it’s a challenge that the current generation will solve. But what then? Do we simply want to avoid affecting the Earth’s climate, like environmentalists say? Or should we aspire to actively manage it?

Ten thousand years ago, before humans started having any significant impact on climate, the ice sheets were retreating across northern Europe and North America at a brisk pace. During the height of the last Ice Age, permanent ice lay 3 kilometers thick across much of the northern hemisphere. This disappeared in a period of a few thousand years, leaving behind features such as Canada’s Great Lakes and Norway’s Fjords. As the ice melted, global temperatures increased by around 8 degrees Celsius, and the sea level rose by an astonishing 120 metres, swallowing huge areas of land, and turning Britain into an island.

By contrast with these enormous changes, human activities are estimated to have increased global temperatures by around 0.5 to 1 degrees Celsius and raised sea levels by 20 cm. Worrying though this may be, it’s a small change compared with natural climate variability in the long term.

So my question is, once we’ve got greenhouse gas emissions under control, are we going to be content to allow Nature to take its course?

Not unless we are happy to see catastrophic changes orders of magnitude greater than anything humans have inadvertently caused. So I think that climate engineering is going to be the next Grand Challenge, perhaps one for the 22nd century.

16 responses to “After sustainability – what then?

  1. An interesting post. I think the answer to your question is – yes we will engineer the climate of our planet in the future. (I also think that we will colonise other planets. It will probable take longer before we can do this this than the 22-nd century but that’s a separate topic. 🙂
    The Science Geek

  2. Human civilization arose during the current interglacial, the 10,000-20,000 year pause in the ice age that’s been going on for over 2 million years. That interglacial will likely end at some point. It might be in the 22nd century, or it might be still thousands of years in the future. From what I understand, although there are theories, no one really understands why the ice ages come and go, so we just don’t know when the next shift will come.

    If there is a silver lining to the whole climate change / global warming situation, it’s that it has demonstrated that we will have the ability to have some effect on what happens when / if the ice age returns. The trick, of course, is to avoid destroying ourselves before we have a chance to even deal with a new ice age.

    • I am increasingly convinced that we won’t destroy ourselves, and that therefore we need to start thinking about ways to prevent Nature from destroying us!

      • I think it’s far from inevitable that we will destroy ourselves, but I’m not sanguine enough about it to conclude we’re out of the woods. That danger seems more immediate to me than ice ages, supervolcanoes, or asteroid strikes. (All of those things will eventually come, but the probability of them happening in the next few centuries seem remote.)

  3. Good question. I hadn’t thought of that before… Let me ponder a bit.

  4. I think we’ll at least try to manage our climate, not sure how well we’ll do at it.

    The ironic thing is that there may be a temperature level and climate pattern that is better for us overall than our current one, i.e. more arable land, less desert. But we are so invested in where our farmland is now, that we would work to keep the climate pattern unchanged. Perhaps there’s a temperature level that would wind up with the Sahara becoming wetter, that would turn Africa into the breadbasket of the world, producing twice the world food resources we have now. But if that came at the possible cost of Europe and the American Midwest no longer being workable farmland, there’s no way we’d allow that to happen, if we had the ability to affect how climate shifted. We’re just too focused on the short-term benefits of nothing ever changing.

  5. “Climate change is a very real danger, but one that we are already well on the way to fixing.”

    I’m not sure that’s true at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t true.

    There are some who think we’ve already passed the tipping point so we should really be thinking about how to handle the coming famine and floods.

    But as to your question, of course we will. It’s what we do. Muck about with anything we can get our ape hands on. Absolutely, no question, of course we will.

    • You are disagreeing with me Wyrd? I am shocked 🙂 I am not saying that the climate won’t change due to our shenanigans – of course it will – but I’m pretty sure that it’s something our current generation will sort out as best it can. Later generations may decide that a warmer climate may actually be of some benefit …

      As for mucking about, of course, I agree, that’s what we do best 🙂

      • “I’m pretty sure that it’s something our current generation will sort out as best it can.”

        I’m reasonably sure we’ll muddle through on some level, too, but your statement here is a far patch on the opening line of your post! 🙂

        An important question is how much damage will occur in the meantime. Many believe Middle East terrorism is fueled, in part, by crop failures there due to climate change. There are other clear and present changes causing problems, so we’re already in repair mode, and we haven’t done much to stop the “fire” causing the damage, yet.

        Some think that, for example, Greenland’s glaciers are already too far gone and melting is likely to accelerate disastrously before we can reverse the warming trend. If Greenland’s glaciers were to melt entirely, the sea level would rise about 20 feet!

        Good bye, Florida. Good bye, New York.

        How far above sea level is London?

        Make no mistake. The problem is severe. And really scary.

        Worse, in my idiot country, there are a lot of people who deny there’s even a problem in the first place. (As I sit here in Minnesota January 4th seeing it’s +25 degrees outside… it should be more like -20… and, yes, I am complaining… a little dose of -20 makes you feel alive!)

  6. Okay, here’s my theory:

    I’m not sure how far into the future this will be, but at some point we’re going to colonize Mars. Once we do, we’ll probably make an effort to alter the Martian climate.

    After that, I think it would be a no-brainer: the technologies developed to manipulate Mars would be applied to maintaining Earth.

    Again, I’m not sure how far into the future this would be. The 22nd Century might be too soon. But eventually, I think something like this will happen.

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