We might yet all disappear in the blink of an eye


OPINIONWe are intelligent enough to wipe out our species, but whether we are smart enough to prevent this remains to be seen, writes David Adams

FOR ALL practical purposes, it hardly matters whether global warming is a natural cyclical phenomenon or caused by industrialisation.

In respect of the latter, even if it were possible for developed nations to de-industrialise without grinding to a halt, and if it was certain that their doing so would slow down or stop global warming, it still wouldn't matter, for they lack the necessary will. Moreover, even if they were willing to embark on such a programme themselves, they haven't the power to impose it on others.

If by some miracle they managed to devise an effective and agreed plan of action and stuck rigidly to it, how could they ever begin to sell the notion of "Don't do as we have done, but do as we say" to developing countries trying to lift themselves out of poverty? As things stand, even the precautionary measure of putting sufficient resources into the development of practicable and renewable sources of energy that aren't harmful to the atmosphere is a bridge too far.

Never mind the causes of climate change, we should just accept that it is happening and prepare for the worst. Except, we don't seem to be making preparations at all. It's as though everything will be okay if we simply carry on as normal and pretend that it is so.

There is a popular belief, unchallenged by western governments who know better, that global warming is necessarily a gradual process, allowing us time to develop counter strategies (or to pass the problem on to future generations). This is far from being the case.

Scientific studies of snow samples taken from deep beneath the ice in Greenland and dating back many thousands of years, show that previous substantial changes in global temperatures have often occurred very suddenly, sometimes within one to three years (with the subsequent change lasting anything up to a thousand years).

What is more, scientists have just discovered that rising temperatures are allowing large quantities of methane gas to escape from the Arctic seabed, and are fearful that this will accelerate global warming.

So, literally at any time, world temperatures could suddenly rise by as much as four degrees, leading to a rapid acceleration in the melting of the icecaps and a subsequent worldwide rise in sea levels. In the event, some of the poorest and most densely populated parts of the world will be rendered uninhabitable by massive flooding, with Bangladesh, for example, set to lose up to 18 per cent of its land to the sea. The projected loss of life and displacement of people is barely imaginable when one considers that 13 of the world's 15 largest cities are built on coastal plains.

Global warming will extend the geographical range of many tropical diseases, particularly of the insect-borne type such as malaria, which is expected to spread throughout Europe, North America and North Asia.

The rise in global temperatures will also herald an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and these, along with flooding, drought and accelerated desertification, will severely curtail food production.

In a massively overpopulated world already struggling to produce enough food (the global population has increased from around two billion in 1940 to over six billion today, and is set to rise to at least eight billion by 2050) this creates yet another major problem.

Even without the devastating effects of global warming, and even if the world's population were to remain static, the ever-increasing demand for ever-depleting natural resources would lead inexorably to major conflicts over oil, gas, food and water. With global warming, this will be exacerbated with yet greater demand for still fewer resources.

And all this against the backdrop of continuing "international terrorism", and the countless territorial, religious and ethnic conflicts forever taking place around the world.

Nor should we imagine that most resource-driven conflicts will involve undeveloped nations without access to weapons of mass destruction.

Already-industrialised nations are the greatest consumers of energy and, almost without exception, have least access to what they require.

Besides which, Pakistan may be a barely cohesive country, yet it has nuclear capabilities.

It is vital that our industrialised nations seek urgently to develop practicable and renewable sources of energy, not as some imaginary counter-measure to global warming, but because of the threat posed by growing competition for rapidly depleting resources.

Such is our inflated notion of ourselves that when we refer to the dangers of global warming or nuclear warfare, we talk of running the risk of destroying the planet.

Humans are not capable of destroying the planet. However, we do run a real risk of destroying ourselves (and whatever other species we happen to bring down with us). If man were to disappear completely, the planet would keep trundling along as it has always done.

Within a few hundred years (in relative terms, the blink of an eye), there would be little left to show that we had ever been here at all.

It could easily happen, for we are intelligent enough to destroy ourselves, but it remains to be seen whether we are smart enough to avoid doing so.