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Driving on Sunshine

posted Aug 1, 2014, 7:10 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:54 PM by Lauren Avery ]


July 31, 2014

 Driving on Sunshine

The pieces finally came together: I bought a plug-in hybrid car (Chevy Volt) and installed a new set of solar panels on the garage roof.

I’m driving on sunshine!

         The Volt looks and drives like any other car, just quieter, and it costs about what a new car ought to cost.  With a full charge, the first 40 to 45 miles are all electric.  After that, a gasoline engine kicks in and I get about 39 miles per gallon.  If I lived in town I would probably use no gas at all.

          The car is great – I love it – but it’s not the final answer.  For any kind of road trip it turns into the same old fossil dinosaur we’re trying to get away from.  The range just isn’t enough, and I still end up burning gas.  But I think we’ve turned a corner.  The hybrid technology will get better – batteries will improve and range will get up over the hundred-mile mark, maybe way over.  More charging stations will show up and charging times will diminish.  It will take a while for the infrastructure to come into place, and a while before we can get away from the gasoline backup, but this is a technology that we can trust.  It works.  I can go anywhere in this car.

           We’ve turned a corner with this technology because not only can we trust it, we can afford it.  Electric motors are much cheaper to operate and maintain than gasoline engines.  Only five moving parts: the drive shaft and four wheels.  No belts, carburetors, valves, pistons, pumps, distributors, or spark plugs.  No transmission.  Even the gas engine of a plug-in hybrid is simpler: all it does is charge the battery.  It’s not connected to the drive train so it doesn’t have to operate at a wide range of rpms like a conventional automobile engine.  It just kicks in – seamlessly – when the car is already moving.  Because electric motors are so much more efficient, the cost of the electricity itself is much cheaper than gas, even without solar.  If I charge up at a friend’s house, a full “tank” of electricity costs a little over a dollar – that’s less than 3 cents a mile!  You’re probably paying five times that much for gas. 

            That’s the part that scares me.  The electric car is going to happen because it’s cheaper.  Market forces will steer us in this direction.  But the plug-in car is only half the way toward driving on sunshine.  If we go electric without going solar we will end up burning less gasoline but more coal and natural gas to make the electricity.  That would be a little better because the efficiency factor would still be there – we would need less coal and natural gas to get the same mileage – but we would still be burning fossil fuel to run our cars.  We would still be in the hole we’re trying to get out of, only digging it deeper at a slightly lower rate. That’s not good enough.  To survive the climate crisis we are will have to make changes that do not save us money.  We will have to choose life whether or not it is cheaper than the alternative.

 We will have to choose solar no matter how expensive it is. If we have to pour billions into research and development for cheaper, more efficient, and more universally applicable systems of collecting and storing solar energy, we will do it.  If it costs the hundreds of billions of dollars that we are now investing, as a society, in fossil fuel infrastructure, we will do it.  If we have to put solar collectors in low-Earth orbit, we will do that, too.  If civilization continues to use energy beyond muscle power we will have to go solar in a big way – a really big way.  There are other sources of renewable energy, but the big one is the sun.

We will have to go solar no matter what, but it will turn out to be easier than we thought.  There’s going to be a convergence of survival and economic interests.  The new solar panels I put on my garage roof cost about a fifth as much as the ones I put on my house seven years ago.  The inverter is a little cheaper, too.  It harvests more energy than the old one and has an emergency power outlet that I can switch on in a black out.  (Until this year, grid-tied inverters would automatically shut off when the grid went down.)  Solar technology is becoming better and less expensive even as it becomes more essential to human civilization.  It may be cheaper, after all, to choose life. That part doesn’t scare me a bit.

I’m only getting the first 40 miles or so on sunshine, and I don’t yet see many charging stations at the stores and restaurants I go to, but I think we’re over the hump.  I think it’s going to happen.  Soon we will all be driving cars without any carbon fuel at all.  It’s going to boom.  We can do this thing.

 

What is the Connection Between Consciousness and Activism?

posted Jun 20, 2014, 7:19 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

June 20, 2014

Samuel Avery

 

 

Consciousness and Activism

 

 

            What is the connection between consciousness and activism?

 

            I am an activist.   I speak out.  I take to the streets.  I am content in my personal life, am not oppressed, and have no gripe against society, but I believe humanity is a danger to itself and to others.  In community with others I demonstrate to create awareness of the situation we are all in.  The objective is less to change what we are looking at than where we are looking from – to change consciousness of ourselves in relation to the world.

 

Population, war, climate, pollution, disease – each is enough.  Two or more in combination is more than enough to bring us to an end, and to bring other forms of life with us.  Each is global in scope.  Each involves humanity as a whole, yet there is no body to speak or act for humanity as a whole.  There is no doer of what must be done. 

 

Humanity is not going in the wrong direction; it is going in all directions at once.  It has no sense of wholeness, no self-identity.  Flags and idols divide it into pieces larger than the whole.  People do not understand themselves as a form of life in relation to the atmosphere, the oceans, the forests, or the Earth.  There is no concept of what to do because there is no concept of who we are.  If there were a clear path before us, we would take it.  We would summon our courage and meet the challenge.  But there is no path, and we are all walking in cross directions.  We are distressed not for having too much to do, but for seeing nowhere to go.  We are helpless. 

 

But helplessness cannot be accepted, no matter how real it may be.  The future is never a simple extrapolation of the present, and consciousness does not confine itself to physical reality.  The human future, because it is human, will proceed from imagination beyond the limits of current conditions.  We will create consciousness that does not now exist and become what we cannot now foresee.

           

            That is what public demonstrations should do.  They should not tell people what to think – they should make people look at what is there.  “You!  You, walking by on your way somewhere else – you, who have something else on your mind – you have to look!  Look at this war!  Look at this injustice!  Look at what we are doing to the Earth!  You are part of this!”   Peacefulness, non-violence, composure, and dignity draw witnesses towards identification with demonstrators.  “Hey!  That’s me sitting at the lunch counter.  That’s me arrested for what I believe in.”  Good demonstrations do not change people’s opinions – they change who people are. 

 

            Civil rights demonstrations of the fifties and sixties changed what it meant to be American.  White people came to see the world the way black people saw it.  America became a larger consciousness that included more kinds of people.  Demonstrations in the twenty-first century will change what it means to be human.  People will come to see themselves as a united presence on the Earth.  Each person will come to see the life of all things living as the life within.  Heartbeat will be that of all animals, breath, that of all plants.  Rock will be in our bones, and the oceans will flow through our veins.  We will resolve our quarrels peaceably.  We will modify our numbers.  We will care for the Earth in ways it did not need until now.  We will become what we imagine ourselves to be.

 

            Or, we will become something entirely different.  Humanity united in relation to the natural world is a not the vision of all people.  We may instead become what other imaginers imagine us to be: a stronger, resurgent America, or Russia, or China, or Germany: a nation above other nations – a religion above all others.  The heavens may open and bring about the end of time.  We may grow the economy to untold levels of personal wealth, devoting life force to consumption over all other things.  How, then, can those of us who imagine a united humanity know that our vision is true?  How is it any truer than other visions?

 

Truth unfolds in time.  Generations of the future will see in their time what is true in ours.  They will know if global warming, nuclear weapons, and overpopulation are true crises, or transitory distractions.  They will know if some of us are overreacting.  They will know that our vision was wrong or right, that we did or did not need to become a unitary form of life capable of taking a common direction.  They will see a truth not yet revealed to us.  But it will be too late for them to act.  If it is true that humanity is changing the climate, we should act before the climate is changed.  If it is true that nuclear weapons will destroy a divided humanity, we should unite humanity beforehand.  We cannot wait for the truth to take effect in the physical world.  Consciousness is seeing where we are headed before we get there. 

 

If the success of humanity depends on seeing truth before it becomes physical reality, public demonstrations should concentrate on bringing truth to the surface before it fully reveals itself.  The public should be forced to see what is coming before it comes.  The use of force is essential– not violence, not coercion, but force - truth force, or satyagraha.  Truth force is not opinion; it is not interpretation; it is not what demonstrators think or say; it is what those who witness the demonstration see for themselves.  It is an opening in the sky through the fog of prejudice and indifference.  Demonstrators create a force that parts the clouds, but they do not own the sky they reveal.  The truth may be other than their intention.  Demonstrators must, therefore, risk the difference between opinion and truth.

 

Activists must not only risk this difference; they must embrace it.  Those of us who sense that civilization cannot continue as it is now constituted, who envision a united humanity in relation to nature, must welcome the difference between projections of belief and that which actually comes to pass.  In this difference lies the full breadth of global vision.  In accepting all people, we acknowledge their belief along side our own.  We need not judge it – truth will do that for us.  Let us be neighbors then, if not friends.  Let us risk the imperfections of our own vision, acting for what we believe in, leaving space for what we do not.  Let us greet others over the fence, sharing the ground we do not hold in common.  Let us be polite, as we force each other to look at what the truth may be, creating ourselves as we go. 

 

There are no enemies.  There is no one who is not us.

           

            The creation of consciousness is the highest form of activism.

 

What is the Connection Between Physics and Consciousness?

posted Jun 19, 2014, 1:13 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

June 19, 2014                                                                         

Samuel Avery

 

 

 

What is the Connection Between

Physics and Consciousness?

 

 

 

            At first glance, the two are polar opposites: one is the external, objective, material world, while the other is the interior, subjective world of direct experience.   Physics is matter in motion, the concrete and the measurable, while consciousness is the private being of self.  Each could exist, seemingly, without the other.

 

            But old assumptions are wearing thin.  Physics has undermined its own metaphysical foundation, and now must take consciousness into account.  There is a revolutionary shift underway in the relation between physical dimensions and “the role of the observer,” i.e. consciousness.  The old assumption of conventional physics (and of everyday life) is that consciousness is to be found somewhere inside of space and time, inside peoples’ heads (and other living organisms) that are themselves inside of the dimensions.  In my work, I turn this around to suggest that space and time are to be found inside of consciousness. 

 

            A model for the conventional view is what I call The Box.  Everything “real” is inside the Box: galaxies, planets, tables and chairs, atoms and quarks.  The joists and beams of the Box are space and time dimensions. This universe exists, it is assumed, whether or not anyone is looking at it.  It is outside of conscious experience.  Consciousness exists within some of the objects floating about in the Box – within people and within some animals.  Life evolved inside the Box, and there are lots of consciousnesses in there, all looking at the same physical universe. 

 

            The Box makes good common sense.  It provides a solid metaphysical basis for science, especially for physics.  It worked without a flaw until, in the early twentieth century, quantum mechanics and relativity theory came along to disturb it.  In the light of these developments, I attempt to improve upon the Box with a model I call The Screen. 

 

            The Screen reverses the relation between consciousness and the dimensions.  Space and time exist within consciousness, as fundamental structures of a perceptual screen, much like a TV or computer screen, except that there are three dimensions of space instead of two.  A holograph might be a better model.  Everything perceived is on the Screen: all physical objects seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched.  Empty space is empty perceptual consciousness.  But the Screen is only part of consciousness; non-perceptual experiences that are not on the Screen include thought, emotion, dreams, imagination, and spiritual experience.  This “non-dimensional” experience is as “real” as perceptual experience on the Screen.  

 

            Everything – physical and otherwise – is within consciousness.  Experience is more fundamental than matter.  You can’t have planets and galaxies, tables and chairs, or atoms and quarks unless somebody is looking at them.  They are images on the
Screen.  There is no such thing as “matter” existing independently of perception.

 

            The big problem with this view, interestingly, is not matter.  We can do science – and go about our everyday lives – as well without the concept of matter as with it.  The big problem is; “Whose consciousness is this?  Yours or Mine?  The Western tradition within which science originally took hold does not understand consciousness well.  We have not studied it in a disciplined manner the way we have the physical world.  The scientific tradition assumes, as does everyday common sense, that consciousness and self are the same thing.  But they are not.  The Eastern tradition can be of assistance in knowing the distinction. 

 

            At this point, I should apologize to the practical, hard-headed, no-nonsense scientists out there who have little patience for the ramblings of philosophy.  I am sorry to have mixed their solid, concrete science of physics with the mushy speculations of metaphysics.  But this is not my fault.  Physics has led itself into this conceptual quagmire by way of its own scientific discoveries.  Before the twentieth century, space was everywhere rigid and unchangeable, and time always passed at the same rate no matter what.  But now, modern physics is telling us that:

 

1.         For objects moving near the speed of light, space contracts (in the direction of motion), time slows down, and mass increases.

 

2.         Light travels at the same speed relative to all objects, no matter how fast they may be moving relative to each other.

 

3.         Light can be a particle or a wave, but never both at the same time.

 

4.         Time slows down in a gravitational field.

 

5.         Energy is not infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller parts; it comes in discrete bundles, or quanta.

 

6.         The dimensional components of energy (space, time, and mass) become indistinguishable at extremely small values.

 

7.         The behavior of “material” particles is affected by the “act of observation.”

 

8.         Mass, supposedly the measure of material substance, is equivalent to energy, an immaterial substance, by a factor of the speed of light, squared.  It is in this equivalence that the Screen is created from minute tactile sensations.  When mass becomes energy, four new dimensions of space and time are created from nothing.

 

These enigmas are too small to affect everyday life in the middle latitudes of space and time.  That is why we did not notice them until fairly recently.  But they do show up in a big way at dimensional extremes – in the realm of the extremely small, the extremely fast, or extremely large, massive, or distant.  They are very real and tell us what we could not know previously about the physical world.   All of the enigmas have to do with dimensions.  All have to do with observation, that is, with consciousness.  All have to do with light.  All distort the space-time Box to the point where it no longer serves as a meaningful model of physical reality.

 

The Screen becomes a more viable model once we realize:

 

1.         Light is not in space-time; space-time is in light.

 

2.         Light is visual consciousness.

 

3.         The structure of the Screen is the structure of light.  One second of time is equal to 300,000,000 meters of space.  Objects traveling across the Screen near the speed of light become distorted because they strain the space-time structure of the Screen itself.

 

4.         Where and when you see an object on the Screen is where and when you will hear, taste, smell, and touch it.  It is this coordination of the senses in space and time that gives the illusion of matter independent of perception.

 

5.         The concept of material substance is unnecessary to science.  The supposed material content of a physical object can be understood as a location in the mass dimension.  This additional dimension is revealed as a second time dimension: the per second per second that you feel under acceleration.

 

The progress of science is a continuing refinement in the understanding of experience.  A physical world external to experience has never been experienced, and never will be.  The concept of matter, therefore, stands in the way of scientific progress.

 

The Box does not allow for a meaningful connection between physics and consciousness.  The Screen unites them as a single whole: physics and consciousness become one and the same.  There is no absolute proof or disproof of either model; the only question is “Which better describes what we actually know?” 

Sierra Club Presentation on Solar Energy: Closing Statement

posted Jun 18, 2014, 3:28 PM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

June 18, 2014


Sierra Club Presentation on Solar Energy

Louisville

 

           

            2 ½ billion years ago a little single-celled bacterium invented the solar collector.   At the time, there were no plants and no animals on the Earth.   An ocean of solar energy was falling on the ground every second of every day, as it does now, but life did not know how to use it.  Life, however, does not stand still.  It always finds new ways to live.  If one way does not work, it finds a way that does.

That little bacterium with its blue-green solar collectors learned how to use energy from the sun to make energy for life.  Later, it was engulfed by larger cells and became the chloroplasts in every living plant cell on Earth.  Through the foliage of plants it has provided food and free oxygen for the evolution of animals and people. 

            The Life you see around you – the plants and trees and birds and insects – are all here because of these little bacteria and their solar collectors that became parts of plant cells.  The grass beneath your feet is a structural support for little solar collectors.  You are standing on solar collectors.

            The energy you feel in the muscles of your body is from the sun.  The breath you take is from the sun.  The sun that shines over our heads now was shining billions of years ago when the force of life rose from the Earth and opened its foliage to the light.  The same force of life stirs within us now, in the current hour, to reach out and harvest the sun’s energy – to evolve new ways for people to live on the Earth. 

Direct solar energy is not the same as fossil fuel energy.  It is not compact and explosive like coal or petroleum.  Bringing it into our lives is not just a matter of tax credits and fluorescent light bulbs.  To adapt to it we will have to change the way we understand ourselves.  But that is what life does.  Life that lives is life that perceives what is real and makes the changes that have to be made.  Life has to have a vision of itself in this world.

The tall buildings in our great cities – they are mere trunks and branches.  We want to see them with leaves and foliage.  We want to see them with solar collectors growing out of their walls and rooftops.  We want a vision, today, that will become real, a vision that will bring us into harmony with the rest of the living world.

That is why we have assembled today.  We are here not merely to protest the destructive habits of the present, but to create new visions of who we are and where we must go.  We are life.  Let us proclaim it.  Let us create new awareness of how we must live with every other being on the planet.

Climate and the Keystone XL Pipeline

posted Feb 10, 2014, 4:42 PM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:55 PM by Lauren Avery ]

Here's a video of some words I shared about climate and the pipeline at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville: http://vimeo.com/83546694

There Are No Enemies

posted Nov 20, 2013, 4:39 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]

There Are No Enemies

 

November 19, 2013

Samuel Avery

 

            Climate chaos is the first crisis in human history that is truly planetary in scale.  It involves all people everywhere in relation to the natural world. 

Within the Earth’s atmosphere humanity exists as a single entity in relation to plants and animals.  There are no divisions of nationality, class, party or ideology – no good people or bad.  Enemies have served as focal points for revolutions, campaigns, and social movements in the past but there can be no such luxury in the current crisis.  What humanity does within the atmosphere it does as a whole.  There are no enemies. 

Those who own or work for oil companies, those who build pipelines and fracking wells, those who gauge the Earth for tar sand or blow tops off mountains for coal – these are not bad people.  There is no evil here.  These people do what we want them to do.  They fill the demand we create by our continued use of fossil fuel.  They sell only what we buy.  There is no us and them.  The fuel they extract heats our houses, powers our telephones and computers, turns our lights on, and drives our cars.  It feeds the Earth’s 7 billion people in the form of tractor fuel, refrigeration, and nitrogen fertilizer.  It is the moving force of modern civilization and we should appreciate what it does for us.  We should be thankful for it

The mistake is not in seeing the utility of fossil fuel; the mistake is in seeing its permanence.  Coal, oil, and natural gas are transient fuels: they have not been with us for long and will not be with us for long into the future.  This is a stage we are going through.  This is not the culmination of human history.  Fossil fuels have brought us from the horse-and-buggy days to the present, and will deliver us on into the renewable energy future, if we keep moving.  The vision, then, is of humanity as a whole in relation to the natural world, moving through this particular stage in our development.  We need not hate the people who meet our needs, nor hate ourselves for continued dependence; we need only see ourselves in transition, and do what must be done to keep the movement moving.  There are no enemies.

It is true, however, that many will not see the vision.  There will be opponents – people who do not understand and will not be convinced.  We will respect and honor them as neighbors, but we will stand before them.  We will use force – truth force – what Gandhi called Satyagraha.  We will understand that we do not own truth.  Our ideas have no more direct access to truth than those of our opponents and the truth we reveal may be other than we imagine.  Our actions, therefore, must direct attention away from ourselves and toward the world beyond, toward what is actually happening around us in the oceans and forests and land and atmosphere.  We must direct attention to the truth, whatever it may be, and what little of it we may see.

True comes out in time.  It is seen clearly only after the events that reveal it.  But there is little time.  We cannot wait until everyone sees what is happening.  We must bring truth to the surface now before it is too late.  We must risk the difference between what we see and what is really there.

If there is truth in the vision of a united humanity, it is not in what we think, but in what everybody everywhere will see – in time – with his or her own eyes.

The Right Question

posted Jul 9, 2013, 5:51 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]

 

 

We all heard Obama say he would turn down the Keystone XL pipeline if it causes carbon emissions to be “significantly” worse.  We also know that the Canadian tar sands constitute the second largest carbon sink on the planet, and that burning billions of barrels of this crudest of crude oils will “significantly” increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. So we won, right? 

But wait… what was the question?

Well, we don’t know.  The question we are asking ourselves is whether or not we should be tapping into a new gigaton source of carbon fuel in the form of the tar sands. That’s the real question, the one that will determine the future of Planet Earth.  The answer is obvious.  But Obama’s own State Department avoided that question entirely last spring in its preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline by asking a much simpler question: “Would the pipeline be more environmentally friendly than rail transport?”  The answer to that one is also obvious: of course it would!  Both answers are easy; the difficulty (and the fate of the Earth) lies in asking the right question. 

So, is Obama thinking about the overall effect of billions of tons of new carbon in the atmosphere or merely comparing different ways of getting it there?   By manipulating the question he can get the answer he wants. 

I know what the answer is, I just don’t know the question yet.

Two Degrees: The Fuel Supply

posted Jul 1, 2013, 6:04 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]

 

  How much more fossil fuel can we burn before we get to the two-degree limit?

            Recent studies show that we can burn between 565 billion and 900 billion additional tons of carbon before the average global temperature rises above two degrees Celsius.  That sounds like quite a bit, and it is, but the same studies show that proven reserves of fossil fuels around the world amount to over 2700 billion tons of carbon.  That’s 3 to 5 times as much as would get us into a run-away climate. 

  3 to 5 times as much!

            That changes what it means to be a human being.  We all used to think that fossil fuel was running out.  As supplies got low, prices would rise, and there would be a natural shift to renewable forms of energy.  Market forces would create a gradual transition in the right direction.  But that’s not going to happen.  Instead of investing in solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal, energy companies have invested in huge new sources of unconventional fossil fuels, like tar sands and shale oil, and unconventional technologies like fracking.  That’s where the quick money is.  The result is an enormous new supply of carbon-based fuel and a future of cheap, climate-busting energy.  This updated scenario puts giddy smiles on the faces of the “drill, baby, drill” crowd, but points us dead center at global disaster a few years down the road.

            This is where the word paradigm comes in.  “Paradigm” is a fancy, somewhat overused word for a worldview based on unquestioned and largely unconscious assumptions.  The economic paradigm that I discuss in my book is the prevailing paradigm of our time.  It is based on the assumption that economic growth is the primary purpose of human society and that market forces will lead us where we should go.  But the economic paradigm does not, and cannot, value life.  When it looks at a tree, it sees two-by-fours; when it looks at a river, its sees a sewer; when it looks at a mountaintop, it sees a coal mine.  Non-human life has no value and no meaning.  How much is a polar bear worth in dollars, or a tropical frog, an icecap, or a climate?  Climate change does not fit into the paradigm, so we don’t know how to deal with it.  Denial becomes the easiest response for many: if it is not in the worldview, it must not be in the world.

            But as evidence accumulates that there is something going on in the world beyond the worldview, the paradigm begins to shift.  Old assumptions die and new ones arise.  The ecologic paradigm emerges, based on the assumption that life is more valuable than economic growth.  It does not put an end to the economy; it puts the economy within the ecology.  Human activities take place in relation to the forests, the oceans, and the atmosphere.  Rather than blindly gorging on resources because that’s where the money is, the proper role of society becomes shaping economic activity to fit the carrying capacity of the Earth.

            A paradigm shift is a change not in what we are looking at, but in where we are looking from.  It is a change in who we are.  This might sound like so much word play, but there really are 2700 billion tons of carbon at our finger tips, and we really do have to decide whether or not to burn them.  If all we are is an economy, we will use them all.  If we are a form of life in relation to other forms of life, we will leave 2000 of them in the ground. 

It won’t be easy.  Those carbon tons are worth somewhere around a quadrillion dollars.  To live into the future, we will have to value life even more than that.

Two Degrees: The Feedback Loops

posted Jun 27, 2013, 9:51 AM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]

 

So, what happens if we go above the two-degree limit?

 

If the average global temperature rises above two degrees Celsius, we risk initiating what are called feedback loops.  A positive feedback loop is a dynamic system in which a change in one direction causes further change in the same direction.  This is already happening in the case of melting sea ice.  Ice has a reflective white surface that bounces about 90% of incoming sunlight back into space, preventing build up of solar energy in the planetary system.  But sea ice melts as the Earth warms, exposing more open seawater, which is dark in color and absorbs sunlight instead of reflecting it.  This causes more global warming, which causes more ice to melt, which exposes yet more open water, which causes more warming, etc.  The hotter it is, the hotter it gets.  The ice-melt feedback loop is already in effect and we have lost about half of the Arctic ice cap so far.  We are likely to lose it all some summer in the next thirty years or so.

 

Somewhere above two degrees the permafrost feedback loop begins to kick in.  Methane (natural gas) is an especially bad greenhouse gas.  It does not stay in the air as long as carbon dioxide, but while it is there it traps twenty times as much solar radiation.  Billions of tons of methane are frozen in the permafrost soils of Siberia and northern Canada.  As the planet warms, these soils begin to thaw, releasing huge quantities of methane into the air.  This results in more global warming, which leads to more thawing, which leads to yet more warming, etc.  The hotter it is the hotter it gets.  Once we enter this feedback loop the climate will continue to heat on its own even if we stop burning fossil fuels altogether.  This is what is meant by a runaway climate.

 

And that’s not all.  The carbon cycle feedback loop can be either positive or negative.  Enormous quantities of carbon are tied up in trees, grasses, algae and other plant life, but the overall amount varies.  As biomass increases, more carbon is taken out of the atmosphere, but as biomass decreases, carbon is released into the air.  Initially, a negative feedback loop can set in: as atmospheric carbon levels increase, plants photosynthesize at a higher rate, sucking carbon out of the air and cooling the Earth.  It would be nice if we could depend on this to protect us from a runaway warming, but at the very time that we could benefit from it, we are cutting down tropical forests at an alarming rate.  Also, as temperature ranges change and rainfall patterns shift, vegetation tends to die back, releasing stored up carbon back to the air and creating a positive feedback loop that heats the Earth.  El Ninos, for instance, have twice in the last ten years shifted rainfall away from the Amazon, resulting in massive droughts that have killed billions of trees.  The Amazon forest, the largest carbon sink on the planet, became a net producer of atmospheric carbon.

 

And then there’s the gas hydrate feedback loop.  But it’s way too scary to get into right now.  It may have had a lot to do with the greatest mass extinction of all time (the one that killed 90% of all species 250 million years ago) but it would take a long time to set in, so let’s not talk about that one just yet. 

 

Let’s just avoid the two-degree limit, for now.  At this rate we’re heading for it sometime in the 2030s.

Two Degrees: The Fever

posted Jun 24, 2013, 2:52 PM by Sam Avery   [ updated Oct 2, 2016, 8:56 PM by Lauren Avery ]

 

Somewhere, deep down inside, we all know the climate is a global and not a national crisis.  One country cannot control its carbon emissions, protecting “its own” atmosphere, while another country does not.  We are all in this together.  That is why we hold international conferences every few years in places like Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen, and Kyoto to develop worldwide strategies to avoid climate disaster. 

 

These conferences have accomplished next to nothing in the way of workable solutions, but one thing has come out of them: The Two-Degree Limit.  A consensus has developed among scientists, activists, and governments all over the world that we cannot let average global temperatures rise more than two degrees Celsius without risking a runaway climate catastrophe.  Hotter than two-degrees and the planet is likely to spiral out of control, growing hotter and hotter on its own.  At the rate things are going now, we will climb up over the two-degree threshold some time around the year 2030.  That’s not so far off.

 

Two degrees Celsius doesn’t sound like much.  It’s only 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s the difference between 100 degrees on a hot summer afternoon and 103.6 degrees.  You might not feel the difference.  But that much difference worldwide, on a year round basis, would make an enormous difference to forests, oceans, glaciers, wildlife, and agriculture.  The Earth would “feel” like it had a fever – a serious fever.  Two degrees Celsius hotter than now worldwide is the difference between a 100-degree fever and 103.6-degree fever.  You would feel that difference.

 

The world does not have a plan to face up to global climate change.  We have not yet found our common humanity.  But at least we know we all have the same fever and that it is getting worse.  And we know where the danger point lies.

 

So, what happens above the two-degree limit?…  I’ll get to that next week.

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