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Darwin And The Climate Apocalypse

Politics / Climate Change Sep 27, 2014 - 04:18 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


We All Have to Die
In 2006, Britain's leading exponent of climate change doom, Sir James Lovelock said: “Billions will die from global warming before the end of the century”, perhaps a third of the whole human race.

He calmed down later on, but well over 98% of all known and documented species that ever existed are now extinct. One of Darwin's own musings was that he thought humans should marvel at the wonders of an average beetle rather than the structure of the Universe, because since the late Ordovician geological era beetles and other insects have managed to hang in and hold on. His theory of survival of the fittest in fact concerns the fantastic loss over time of nearly all living things on this planet.

This suggests the question: Why produce life like confetti and then throw almost all of it away? And another: Can life survive on this planet?

Darwin was uber-pessimist about the survival of life on this planet. The struggle for survival is a lose-lose proposition, not only against living rivals but against time with a capital 'T'. He described remaining and surviving species as “thin straggling branches” that “here and there survive” on the so-called Tree of Life. What Darwin did not know in his time was that beetles, and all other insects, only appeared on this planet after a real apocalypse. This was the late Ordovician mass die-off of about 440 million years ago, when around 90% to 95% of all then-living things on this planet were wiped out. This was almost certainly caused by climate change. We mean catastrophic climate change.

Some scientists believe that expecting extinction is hard-wired into all living things. They know it is lose-lose. This can explain quite a lot of animal and human behavior, but the planet's history shows that mass extinctions occur at an uneven rate and in nearly 100% of all cases are due to a sudden crisis. They are apocalyptic. We have to consider these mass extinctions were unanticipated and unplanned events, to the extent that extinction might ever be planned by any living species – but it is likely that humans are the only one species that ever thought about planning its own extinction.

Last Out is not First In
Paleologists believe that apart from the irregular and sudden mass die-off catastrophes, the approximate long-term average rate of extinction is about 2 – 5 major genera or species families of animals or fishes every 1 million years, but the emergence of new species does not run at the same rate. They emerge in bunched staccato bursts during favoured periods of geological time. The ratio of extinctions to the creation of new species does not simply vary a few times or even ten fold, but more like 100-fold. After a mass die-off like the late Ordovician apocalypse, this planet made do with about 95% fewer species for a very long time. Biding its time, so to speak.

Life doesn't “just bounce back”. Some experts on evolution and extinctions say that how existing species adjust to this real world situation spanning more than 500 million years, or how new ones adapt, for that matter, is not evident. The fear of extinction is probably intrinsic in all species.

Human beings are no exception. The fear of catastrophic climate change has generated the concept of “ethical adaptation to extreme climate change” which is now a defined mainstream academic theme at institutions including the USA's Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Advocates of this premonitory adaptation say we humans know full well that we are creating runaway climate change through burning fossil fuels and emitting other climate-changing gases alongside the CO2 from thermal power plants, steel and cement works, ships and airplanes, the family car and even from producing the food we eat and the trash we throw away.

A large number of the students who look at how we can adapt our thinking, our culture, our religions and ethics, our economy and technology, and our laws and lifestyles to climate change say that the coming mass extinction from climate change is inevitable. They say that in theory it could have been prevented, but that was an opportunity that is “already way back in time”. A certain number of associations, NGOs, action groups, and some political parties and party leaders say the same thing.

To some extent this can be brushed aside as outright doom-mongering somewhat like the entropy theory and its theorists of the 1930s who opined that the onrush of fascism and Nazism was part of the general entropic decay of everything. The problem is that humans, like other species fear extinction but in the human case believe they can pre-empt, mitigate or slow down the coming mass extinction. This is more philosophy than science. Defenders of ethical adaptation to massive climate change say they are proposing a sustainable-oriented survival philosophy of life.

Save What You Can
The bottom line for the new philosophy is this. Our only chance and the best we can hope for is triage or sorting-based partial survival. As already noted, James Lovelock felt able or compelled to claim that by 2100, there could be a 33% die-off rate for human beings on this planet. Very obviously CO2 emissions would fall, but for survivalists the linked catastrophe for all other species and ecosystems means that humans are ethically responsible for rebuilding life after the disaster.

This is called ecological restitution and species recovery, and goes a whole lot further than simple tree hugging, recycling used bottles, using bicycles or not running over rabbits.

Today, there are undergraduate, masters and doctoral study programs, for example at MIT, on catastrophe mitigation, ecological restitution, and linked studies such as nanotechnology for a sustainable world. This notably include research aimed at creating GAP or Global Artificial Photosynthesis. After climate catastrophe, the loss of agricultural land may be even larger than the loss of life from die-back,  making it necessary to develop new methods of food production.

The philosophy underpinning such study programs is in fact ancient. Knowing exactly when we have to die from a disaster we caused by what we can call 'hubris', is a full-blown, long standing literary and even religious genre - for example the Prometheus myth and Goethe's Faust. Based on the fossil record since life began on Earth, there have been five mega extinctions or mass die-offs. The geological, climatic or other reasons for each of them are unknown or at very best partly-known or inferred. There are scientific theories and scientific dispute about each of them, for each of these mass extinctions.

One major theory is that some, like the late Ordovician die-off may have been due to climate change, but all five of these catastrophes also caused climate change - often for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years after the event.

The K–T Extinction
The most recent was the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, sometimes called the K-T extinction (K for Kreide or chalky in German, and T for Tertiary), which occurred about 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous – one of the most carbon-intensive geological eras the Earth has ever known. Simple and massive proofs of this exist in the world's chalk cliffs and marine sediments. Often more than 1500 metres thick, these contain hard-to-calculate amounts of dissolved carbon, measured in tens of trillions of tons for even one small restricted area like Europe's North Sea basin. 

How the K-T event happened and how long it lasted are both heavily discussed and disputed, but most experts agree  it was a large-scale mass extinction of animal and plant species in a geologically short period of time. That is less than 1 million years but probably more than 50 000 years.

The fastest-possible cause for the K-T event and probably most other mass extinctions except the late Ordovician, and the possible cause of several of the twenty-odd “midsized and smaller” mass extinctions, would have been a large meteorite hit. For the K-T event this is believed by several paleo-geologists to have been a strike on what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, of a mostly-rocky meteorite about 4 to 9 kilometres in diameter traveling at around 20 000 kilometres per hour.

Among the climate change effects of this mega event, which is believed by some astronomers and physical cosmologists as not possible, or probably not possible today because of solar system orbital changes – there would have certainly been a “nuclear winter”. That is the ejection of so much dust, rocks, gases and debris into the atmosphere that the Sun would have been invisible for months, even years after the event.

The nearest thing to this in recent times was the 1815 Tambora explosion of an Indonesian island, ejecting at least 75 cubic kilometres of rocks and debris into the stratosphere. The following year of 1816 was called “the year with no summer” in large regions of the planet. The effects included gloriously long red-tinted dawns and sunsets, historical reports say, visible across Europe as well as in Asia and North America.

Apart from a meteorite hit or volcanic-tectonic explosion which in any seaboard or open ocean area would cause huge tsunami and a nuclear winter from ejected dust and debris, there is another clear climate change link with any major meteor strike on Earth. This can be a single strike or several smaller ones bunched in a short period of time, like one theory explaining the very large Shiva crater offshore western India. These mega events would certainly heat the sea over quite a wide region to temperatures as high as 50 degC.  At this temperature there is an almost instant release of dissolved CO2. Quantities released would be sufficient to simply and starkly suffocate any living thing over several thousand square kilometres around the meteor impact zone. Carbon dioxide can kill.

Slowly Or Not
In the past 540 million years the five mass extinctions probably killed off a minimum of 50% of all land animal species then living, each time, but we have to go back to the Permian-Triassic or P-T event of about 252 million years ago to also find a huge rate of dieoff in marine species. In this event, the biggest of all mass extinctions, paleologists believe about 90% - 95% of all marine species were wiped out, alongside at least 70% of the relatively few land species (insects and amphibians) which existed at the time. Explanations of why marine life was so hard hit are controversial, but some scientists argue this would indicate a huge upsurge in seafloor volcanic and orogenic-tectonic activity had occurred, and was the secondary cause of the catastrophe. Some Darwinists claim this huge die-back in existing life forms gave an opportunity window to so-called “mammal-like reptiles”, whose evolutionary path from the P-T event to the K-T event was very slow but constant, they argue, creating or at least enabling birds and then true mammals to emerge over a few million years after the K-T event.

Mass extinctions are a part of the Earth's history but even the fastest or most sudden of the “recent mass extinctions”, the P-T event, took around a hundred thousand years to cause its maximum damage, most paleologists believe. The anthropogenic carbon catastrophe of perhaps 1800-2100, according to its present proponents, is probably not going to wipe out as much of the Earth's life forms, genera and species as the five great “classic extinctions” – but is going to be geologically lightning fast.

Apart from the late Ordovician mass die-off, probably or possibly caused by cosmic-source gamma ray bursts and literally lightning fast, no other majors extinctions happened at the speed the “carbon pessimists” claim as sure, certain and coming. As already noted, we now have the part-scientific, part-philosophical quest for ecological restitution on an anticipative and premonitory basis. Time will tell.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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