Buying a Prius and locally grown foods may convince you that you’re reducing your carbon footprint, but for Fred Pearce in With Speed and Violence, the damage may already be done. The planet’s carbon load is high enough that we may already be careening towards a tipping point, a moment when the climate changes suddenly, “with speed and violence.” Any way it goes is bad for humans (biology is fragile, and culture especially so), but hot looks especially pernicious.
Pearce is a self-described climate-change skeptic. He’s not a naysayer. To the contrary and while remaining skeptical, Pearce thinks the mainstream of climate science may not go far enough. So he’s kindly assembled a menagerie of horrors which, perversely, make for fascinating reading.
“Welcome to the Anthropocene,” Pearce writes, referring to the recently named heir to the Holocene era which, like the fabled days of September, were mellow when humans were young. In the Anthropocene, human activities act as climate-change drivers: no need to wait for a super-volcano to erupt or a comet to smack the earth. Thanks to billions of cook fires and cars warming the planet, we’ve now heated the place up to worry about melting ice caps raising sea levels and warming peat bogs farting super-heating methane into the air. Say hello to drought, fire and hurricane and clear sailing through the Northern passage (at last!); say goodbye to well-known agricultural areas, parks and ports. The world’s rainforests could shift from the Amazon to the Sahara in something much less than the blink of the geological eye. Who knows which way the winds will blow?
Although the International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, has issued reports imprimatured with the consensus of over a thousand scientists, Pearce finds more discontent, disagreement, and nail-biting than is portrayed outside of books. Book space gives Pearce the canvas he needs to do some serious myth busting and eye opening. Talk about your inconvenient truths.
Take methane. I’d always heard a sort of don’t-worry-about-it answer: methane is a greenhouse gas, yes, but it is short-lived. It’d take a lot of methane to mess things up. But Pearce points out that a trillion-ton release of methane 55 million years ago was “Earth’s biggest fart ever.” Wiped out two-thirds of species, and only the lucky first lot fast. Huge methane superdomes called clathrates still lurk just beneath the surface of the deepest oceans’ floors, sealed only by “a lattice of ice crystals rather like a honeycomb…. They exist unseen, usually just beyond the edge of continental shelves.”
In the mainstream consensus, methane isn’t such a big deal because, the story goes, it metabolizes rapidly. But for Pearce, a journalist who’s spoken to many and read much more, methane “is an even more potent greenhouse gas” than good old CO2.
He got an email from “a young Siberian ecologist… in the heart of Siberia” about melting peat bogs. Melting bogs in Siberia are, of course, evidence of at least polar warming, with all the dire consequences therein, but, too, bogs release methane big time. (Indeed, it is now known that most plants release methane as a part of normal metabolism, so one of the boons of global warming, more plants, may come with blow-back.)
When billions of tons of methane are released over a very short period of time, as is now happening, the scenario of a climate tipping point most precisely arises. As more and more evidence attests—though Pearce is always bumping up against and pointing out the limits of our knowledge—it’s not so much the extent of change as the pace of change that matters with big extinction-producing events. A short, sharp shock is often more productive of state change than a long, slow push. In past extinctions, as many as three-quarters of all species have gone X-eyed.
In the future, babe, it’s you, me and the roaches. And bye-bye the Bahamas, Manhattan, and San Francisco, too, except for Coitus Island left sticking there in the middle of the expanded bay.
There’s one thing missing from Pearce’s book - namely, the plain statement that life on Earth has been influencing geology and climate for a long time now, so long we can fairly warrant and in a court scientifically prove that plants are god. This isn’t the Anthropocene, it’s the Biocene and then, enter Homo, the most resource-maximum client this planet has ever seen. This statement doesn’t scapegoat all life for the indictment of human agency in climate change—it doesn’t excuse us from action; rather, it shifts the narrative of implication from the geological to the biological timescale. Evolution may not be fast, but biology is. We’d better be, too. Plus, it adds pace and politics to the story.
So do something fast like, say, read a book. And know that extreme creativity may be our last resort. Evolve or die, right?