No matter what we call it, poison is still poison, death is still death, and industrial civilization is still causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet ~ Derrick Jensen (dob 12/19/1960) an American author and environmental activist (and critic of mainstream environmentalism) living in Crescent City, CA. Jensen has published several books questioning and critiquing modern civilization and its values, including The Culture of Make Believe and Endgame.
Today I want to talk to you about the extinction of the human species. Unbelievable as it might sound, there are those among the living who could still be around when it begins. I'm not talking about global thermonuclear war or overpopulation; two of the other scenarios I could see that annihilate or doom us respectively... I'm talking about Anthropogenic Global Warming (Human induced climate change, or "AGW"). Some say "it has never happened before and it isn't happening now", but it HAS happened before. Global warming HAS nearly caused the extinction of all life on earth and it could happen again.
This previous global-warming-caused extinction, known as the Permian–Triassic extinction event, resulted in "96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate" getting wiped out. Of course humanity was not responsible for this warming-caused extinction, as humanity did not exist 252.28 million years ago (when this event took place), but an analogy between the human-caused warming of today and non-human-caused warming of the past can be made. Then, as in the past, carbon dioxide is what we have to fear.
Progressive talk-radio host Thom Hartmann explained how humanity could bring about it's own demise in a rant on the 2/22/2013 airing of his nationally syndicated program. What follows is an excerpt from that specific show, which I have edited for brevity and clarity...
Thom Hartmann: We need to use the words "global disaster" and we need to talk about extinctions. And I'm serious talking about extinction. The last major extinction on earth... not the last one, but the second to last one. The last one occurred at the end of the Jurassic period. That was when, 66 million years ago, an asteroid hit the earth [the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event] near what is now Cancun, leaving a giant crater which is the basin off the coast of Mexico that leads into the gulf of Mexico. That meteor killed roughly 60 percent of all life on earth, including virtually all the dinosaurs, with the exception of some of the hold-overs like the alligator.
But the extinction the preceded it, the Permian Extinction, killed 95 percent of all life on earth and resulted in a period of time roughly 80 thousand years in length during which the planet was virtually sterile and tens of millions of years for the planet to come back, and then 65 million years for the dinosaurs to evolve before the next strike happened [the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event]. That happened 250 million years ago... and up until the 1990s nobody knew what caused it. The assumption was that it had [also] been an asteroid strike like the other extinctions. They were always either asteroid strikes or massive tectonic activity... the changing of continents; breaking up of continents that blew all kinds of lava out into the atmosphere. Nobody really got what caused the Permian Extinction.
[According to] a brilliant BBC documentary about this, the Permian Extinction was caused by two events... first, there is this area known as the Siberian Traps, encompassing hundreds of square miles, that just kind of opened up as a giant volcano. Not volcanic activity... it is known as sheet lava... a giant flow of lava out onto the ground. That, in the process, released so much carbon dioxide that it warmed the planet 5 degrees Celsius.
There has been a strong consensus ever since the early 90 that is what happened when they first found the evidence of this up in Siberia... but the question has been... 5 degrees Celsius is enough to kill off 60 percent of life on earth, but not 95 percent [so what happened that caused the additional 5 degree temperature change?]. The scientists at the IPCC are suggesting that if we continue on the course we're on... and nobody thinks we will because we're not that insane... but if we continue to pollute at the level we are [pump CO2 into the atmosphere] that, by the year 2100 we will have raised the temperature of the earth 5 to 6 degrees Celsius. Keep that in mind as I tell you the rest of the story.
These Siberian Traps blew out all this lava, and that lava, and the gases from it... the carbon dioxide in particular, raised the temperature of the earth 5 degrees Celsius. But, like I said, that wasn't enough to kill everything. So what killed everything? Along the coasts of all of our oceans... along that area where the land meets the sea, this is the area of greatest biodiversity on the planet [this area is called the Abyssal plain]. Here you have a lot of life, particularly vegetable life [as well as microbial life]. This stuff has a life cycle, and when it dies it settles to the bottom... and as it settles to the bottom it is rotting, and as it is rotting it is producing methane gas... methane is also known as natural gas.
So, these things are rotting and sinking to the bottom... and as they do, the methane that is released; at high pressure deep under the ocean; gets locked up in these crystalline lattices in water that is at, or slightly below the freezing temperature, but doesn't freeze because the pressure is so high... what it forms is a slurry of methane hydrate crystals. Hundreds of trillions of tons of this substance can be found along the coasts of all the continents. It's there at a depth of maybe only 60 to 70 feet... above that it would turn into a gas and bubble up to the surface. Below that depth the decomposition and formation of methane stops.
So, it's only in this specific area [the Abyssal plain], and the oil companies have been exploring how to suck this stuff up because it's almost pure natural gas... so, one of the things they learned during the late 90s, when they were drilling for methane hydrate crystals of the coast of England, is that this stuff was really rich in what is known as carbon 12. Carbon 12 is a form of carbon that results via rapidly decomposing plant [and microbial] matter.
About the same time, a group of geologists were looking at the Permian extinction in Antarctica, in South Africa and in Greenland and they found that, in the Permian extinction layer, that 80 thousand year layer... about 40 thousand years into it, long after the Siberian Traps had ceased erupting, but while the planet was still 5 degrees warmer, there was a second giant warming of the planet. It was that second warming that raised the temperature of the planet an additional 5 degrees, and that killed 95 percent of all life on earth. That cumulative 10 degrees of warming was enough to basically sterilize the planet.
At the time that happened the geologists expected to see the signature of an asteroid hitting .. a large amount of iridium [in the sentiment]. Instead they found carbon-12. So the question was, how did carbon-12, which is the product of centuries of plant decomposition, end up in the atmosphere in such massive amounts that it is buried 40 thousand years into the sentiment layer of the Permian Extinction? Turns out that the initial 5 degree temperature rise was enough, over that 40 thousand years, to warm the oceans to the point where that the methane hydrate aggregate [methane plus water frozen in a crystalline structure found under the ocean on the Abyssal plain] warmed up and started melting... which released the methane gas, which bubbled to the surface and into the atmosphere.
Methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and that is what raised the temperature an additional 5 degrees [for a total of 10 degrees] and that was the cause of the Permian extinction. And that is what we are doing to ourselves with our unabated use of fossil fuels. This is a climate crisis.
My Commentary: Don't listen to people who tell you that "the earth is essentially a living organism, and living organisms mostly adapt"... they may be right, but it's the earth that adapts; not always life. Sometimes this "adapting" takes millions of years... that is what we could be on the verge of right now... an accelerated warming that could eventually lead to the extinction of the human species.
A 10/24/2012 Examiner.com article reveals that this is already happening. According to a scientist at the University of Fairbanks AK, "subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap". Furthermore, the Examiner article (reporting on findings published in the Journal "Nature") says...
Examiner.com: We may approach a turning point... from a warming driven by man-made carbon dioxide to a warming driven by methane. ... Using seismic records and ocean models, [it is] estimated that 2.5 gigatonnes [1 billion metric tons is the same as 1 gigatonne] of frozen methane hydrate are being destabilized and could separate into methane gas and water.
In comparison, in 2010 man (via the burning of fossil fuels) released 36.7 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, so the 2.5 tonnes (of methane) mentioned above is only a fraction of the CO2 that is released annually... but it is important to keep in mind that methane is 25 to 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas (multiply 2.5 times 25 for the equivalent amount of CO2). And this is just an estimate of what is currently destabilizing... as the oceans warm the amount of methane released could rise exponentially. The result could be an abrupt climate change.
Wikipedia notes that the term abrupt climate change "is also used within the context of global warming to describe sudden climate change that is detectable over the time-scale of a human lifetime". It has happened before... the Permian–Triassic extinction event was triggered by an abrupt climate change; and it is on the verge of happening again. Naturally things would get uncomfortable for humanity long before 2100; and we would know before then if we were on an irreversible course such that an abrupt climate change was unavoidable.
A 10/17/2012 article from Phys.Org warns that it is "too late to stop global warming by cutting emissions" and that humanity should concentrate on "adaptation policies". Thom Hartmann may believe that "we're not that insane" to not do anything about global climate change, but I believe we ARE that insane... especially given the fact that there are those who believe AGW is a "hoax" or that "this whole CO2 theory is being discredited as we speak". AWG is being "discredited" only if you believe that "95% of active climate researchers actively publishing climate papers endorse the consensus position" equates to discreditation.
For the record it should be noted that I am a pessimist while Thom Hartmann is an optimist. Humanity is very possibly doomed, in my opinion. But while I am worried about the economic impact this coming disaster may have on my life, it looks like the worst of it will come some time after I'm dead. While I believe we do have an obligation to future generations to not screw up the planet for them... quite frankly I believe "we" will fail them and they are f*cked. Seeing as it's inevitable, I'm not going to spend to much time worrying about it.
Thom Hartmann Postcast Info: Subscribers to the Thom Hartmann program podcast can locate of this segment of audio at 20:15 to 28:35 of Hour 2 on Friday February 22 of 2013.
Image Description: Methane ice worms on a methane hydrate aggregate in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers speculate that the worms may be grazing off chemosynthetic bacteria that grow on the methane or are otherwise living symbiotically with them.