I'm worried about global warming. This summer hasn't helped my anxiety. June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. May gave us the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average.
Then last week, Bill McKibbon, one of the leading advocates fighting global warming admitted near defeat on slowing the rate of planetary temperature increase. In a recent article in Rolling Stone Magazine ("Global Warming's Terrifying New Math"), McKibbon acknowledges that since 1989 he has been "working ineffectively to slow that warming," and he "can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly--losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in."
He gives some numbers to show just how bad the situation is. Almost all the nations of the world agreed at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009 that we cannot raise the world temperature more than two degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) without catastrophic effects on all living species. Then McKibbon soberly tells us we already "raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius." So, we only have 1.2 degrees Celsius to go.
The next number McKibbon gives us is 565 gigatons. "Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees." But the bad news is that CO2 emissions increased 3.2 percent from last year and will continue to rise about 3 percent a year into the future. At that rate, "we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school."
The third number is 2,795 gigatons--"the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn." That number, 2,795 gigatons is already five time higher than the 565 gigatons that would push the world over the two degrees Celsius rise before all hell breaks loose. Fossil-fuel companies are already making money on that yet-to-be extracted energy, and they have no intention of leaving it in the ground no matter how hot Earth is getting. And government is holding energy's hand as the two of them lead us all into a future that may not be able to sustain much life.
But my worry grew more intense when I just learned that we oil addicts are not only putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but we are actually taking something out of the atmosphere, something critical to on-going life on the planet. That's oxygen. According to Dr. Ervin Laszlo, president of the Club of Budapest, an international think tank, "We are changing the composition of the planet's atmosphere...by reducing its oxygen content and increasing its carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas content."
He reports that "evidence from prehistoric times indicates an oxygen content of the atmosphere well above today's 21 percent of total volume. Oxygen in the air has decreased in recent times mainly due to the burning of coal, which began in the middle of the nineteenth century. The oxygen content of the atmosphere now dips to 19 percent over impacted areas and is down to 12 to 17 percent over major cities. This level is insufficient to keep body cells, organs, and the immune system functioning at full efficiency; cancers and other degenerative diseases are likely to develop. At oxygen levels of six or seven percent of the volume of air, life can no longer be sustained."
Just writing this makes me gasp for breath. It recalls the image of the aerial ocean, that layer of atmosphere that blankets the earth to about 20 kilometers. If we were pulled out of the atmospheric sea, we would die from lack of oxygen, just like fish die when they are reeled out of water. Only here, we aren't being pulled out of the oxygen-filled atmosphere; rather the oxygen is being sucked out of our fragile biosphere.
This summer, due to the warm water of our rivers, the dissolved oxygen levels have dropped precipitously. Without oxygen, fish are dying, becoming ill and deformed, and fleeing as best they can to deeper and cooler waters. Well, the same thing is beginning to happen to us. We are losing our oxygen supply as we use fossil fuels, cut and burn our forests and lands that produce oxygen through photosynthesis, and turn once verdant and nutrient-laden farm land into desert.
I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of this earth/species crisis. If I were a depressive sort, I'd probably give up now, sit in a dark room, and rock back and forth. But I tend toward anxiety, and so feel the urgency to do something to stop this madness. Like what?
First, I'm taking a deep conscious breath and appreciating it. I'm not sure what I'm all inhaling, but I am grateful that oxygen is still filling my lungs. I plan to keep practicing gratitude for oxygen.
Second, I'm not driving my car today, and I'm going to use hand clippers to trim a hedge rather than my electric trimmer. Each day I'm going to look for a way to use less energy from fossil-fuel.
Third, I'm going to tell someone once a week about global warming and the urgency for all of us in government, industry, and in our homes to face this issue head on, quit burning fossil fuels, and work to quickly build a world that honors the sun and the wind. I've told you today. Next week I write a letter to my senator and representative.
Fourthly, I'm going to strengthen my belief that my small actions to reduce global temperatures make a difference. Systems theorists claim that major crises cause chaos in systems. During this chaotic period of global warming, the system becomes very sensitive to any fluctuations that might tip it in a particular direction. In social systems, small acts by individuals can have a significant effect on the whole. Presently we are in a boatload of crises and chaos, and, I believe, the Earth system is highly sensitive to the small thoughts, decisions, and actions we take in living with less fossil-fuel energy and more mind and heart energy.