The New Old World

We sat high in a smallish office, a cubicle like that of most academics, littered with books, articles, files, individual sheets of paper. Like the shallow subtidal marine world of the tropics, it was a place where every square inch of surface was covered, not by animal life as in the ocean but by ground-up plant life turned to pulp, paper, ink, and knowledge. The man I talked to was tall, spare, disheveled in an academic way; colleagues of his kept butting in asking for graduate students' files, and I tried to keep up as David Battisti spun images of a new old world.

It was a lecture by this man, back at the end of the twentieth century, that stimulated this book. In that lecture, given not to students but to other science professors at the University of Washington, Battisti said that current climate models were inadequate to explain how the 60-million-year-old Eocene epoch of the deep past was so warm with the carbon dioxide levels that had been found to occur back then, and that we were heading for those same Eocene-like levels in the twenty-

first century. I had come to ask him if he still held those startlingly radical views, and as he talked and I scribbled, a whole new view of things became clear to me. Battisti's work has been featured earlier in this book, and he is one of the modern architects of climate science. He is a fitting guide to end this book and for seeing how the end of our familiar world will play out as well.

Yes, we are still heading for Eocene-like carbon dioxide levels. As shown in Figure 6.1 in Chapter 6, "The Driver of Extinction," the Eocene epoch had carbon dioxide levels of about 800 parts per million. And yes, he reiterated these many years later, we will hit that level by the end of the twenty-first century. I replied back with the hope with which I ended the last chapter, the societal hope, that we can hold the line at 450 parts per million. Battisti laughed out loud at that, a mirthless laugh at the inanity of that hope, a forlorn hope, for Battisti, like me, and surely like so many of you readers, has children. How about in the century after that? I asked. He frowned, mused, showed his infectious grin. It would be 1,100 parts per million, he said, because the destruction wreaked by 800 parts per million will finally have caused society to do something. But even that something, the real curb of emissions, will slow, not stop, the rise in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our world's atmosphere.

What about the ice sheets? I asked. After writing this book, I have concluded that the world's ice sheets are going, going, to be gone, leaving us with an ice-free world. Quite right, he said. Greenland first. Then Antarctica. How long for Greenland? I asked. I give it about 300 years at most, he replied. And Antarctica? Longer, was the reply, but it too will go to an ice-free condition, probably by the end of the millennium, for there is a pile of ice down there. But it will go. And then we really will be back to the Eocene.

Time was ticking by; I knew this man was frightfully busy. He had received the offer of a professorship at Harvard, the ultimate compli ment, but eschewed that offer, deciding to stay in the Pacific Northwest and part of a team of people at the University of Washington at the forefront of climate research, and much good, societally and scientifically, was the result. I felt embarrassed to be taking so much of his time, but he was not squirming or looking at the clock; he began talking faster and faster, carrying us into the new old world, and in the process alternately fascinating and scaring me. The inadequacy of the models to explain why a world with carbon dioxide levels of 800 parts per million could have been warm enough to allow crocs and palms in the Arctic and Antarctic was brought up. So what is wrong with the models? I asked. Clouds, he replied. The models do a very poor job of simulating clouds. Clouds are the wild cards, controlling opacity of the atmosphere to light, changing albedo, Earth's reflectivity, but also, if in the right (or for society, in the wrong) place, they act as super greenhouse agents. It is in very high parts of the atmosphere, the altitude where jumbo jets cross the world, where the change in clouds will be most important. Global warming could produce a new kind of cloud layer, clouds where they are not currently present, thin, high clouds, higher than any found today, completely covering the high latitudes and affecting the more tropical latitudes as well, but even that is a misnomer, as most of Earth will have become tropical at that time.

Take me there, I said, and he did, a verbal journey. We started first in the Arctic, in winter.

Trees can now grow everywhere, but all their leaves are gone, because we are in the months-long winter night. There is some light coming from a filtered full moon. There are no low clouds to be seen, but the moon is almost obscured by hazy high clouds, and the moonlight has an unfamiliar cast to it. There are no stars, and Battisti tells me that the haze above is high and ever present. There would be no starry nights, and, in summer, no perfectly clear days. High haze and high, thin clouds would see to that. A most notable aspect of this Arctic world is presence of lightning, gigantic bolts that seem to come from nowhere, and as my eyes adjust to the dim light, I can see that many of the trees are blackened, from fire. The surface is warm, but in the long night the air aloft is cold even in this globally warmed world, and lightning is common.

He then took me south, to the midlatitudes where most of the world's population lives now, in our time, to Seattle, in fact.

The city that I had been so familiar with is gone: The Space Needle is now a 400- rather than 600-foot monument, emerging from the sea like a societal middle finger directed at the human generations before that had created this world. Here too the sky is different, but this is daytime, and its color has changed. The distribution of plants and the omnipresence of dust in the summertime due to the drying of the continents in the midlatitudes has changed the very color of the atmosphere; it is strangely murky as yellow particles merge with the blue sky to create a washed green tinge, a vomitous color, in fact. Gone too are the periodic cold and wet fronts that hit the Pacific Northwest every three or four days in winter. These storms are gone, the climate tranquil, kites a thing of the past in this world. Palm trees are everywhere.

Finally, on to the tropics, and here there is nothing but destruction. Unlike the midlatitudes, where storms have subsided to a calm tranquility, here the violence of hurricanes has only increased. The tropics have warmed, which breeds more ferocious storms, but storms with shorter tracks, no longer menacing the regions that had once feared them most. They stay confined in the tropics, but because the world has warmed, there is far less wind shear now, and wind shear is a tamer of hurricanes. But with it gone, they are unchecked, monster storms, category 5 hurricanes now the norm, and newer, higher categories have been invented. There are no crops here, and there is little human habitation.

To the North Atlantic, to see the conveyer system. In the twenty-first century, it had stopped, for some decades, and Europe had indeed cooled. The alarmists had predicted quite wrongly that Earth was finally sliding into the much overdue ice part of the ice ages, but this cooling was regional to Europe and short; the rocketing carbon dioxide levels saw to that, shooting well past any chance of a global glaciation as so often happened over the last two million years. But the conveyer had not stayed shut down for long; now it was chugging away, but in a far different geography than before. The superheated warm water of the tropics headed north as before, but the sinking happened well south of its original Greenland location. Now the vast quantities of water slightly cool while heading north and sink in the mid-latitudes, and the water sinking is very different from the cold, oxygenated water of before. This is warm water that no longer can sink to the abyss, and thus the delivery of oxygen to the bottom of the ocean has stopped. The deep ocean is now a graveyard, warm deadly water bathing species that had evolved and adapted for something quite different, and the start of the mass extinction is already under way. The ocean is returning, rapidly, to its most common ancient state, the anoxic state, and already poison is accumulating on the bottom, hydrogen sulfide concentrating, year by year.

How did we get to this future? I asked. Easy, Battisti said.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by 1 part per million per year, just like clockwork. But every year from then on, the rate increased, until by the year 2000 it was increasing by 2 parts per million per year. By the middle part of the twenty-first century, it was increasing at 4 parts per million. The reason was simple. The vast multitudes in India and China had all demanded, and bought, a car for every house, and were now moving toward two cars in every garage, as their North American and European fellow world citizens had long enjoyed. Now two cars in garages were appearing in most houses in the Middle East and North African shores, places with the highest birth rates on the planet. In the twenty-first century, the human population hit nine billion, and a goodly percentage of them drove to work each day.

An hour had gone by. I was back among the stacks of paper with Battisti. I had one last question. I need to close the book, I implored, and as yet my last chapter just seems to end flatly. He mused, then asked if I knew the stages of acceptance that anyone diagnosed with a fatal disease goes through: first denial, then anger, then action, and, if that action fails, the final acceptance before the final event itself. I did not see the connection. Look, he said; think about the major environmental problems faced and ultimately solved during the twentieth century. The ubiquitous presence of DDT, for instance. Rachel Carson, in her masterful book The Silent Spring, most famously alerted the world to the dangers of this chemical. Change ultimately occurred; different pesticides were ultimately used. So too with many of the victories in the United States; the Clean Air Act did clean the air to a chemistry far more healthy for humans in large cities. The Clean Water Act did help reduce toxins in the water. The Endangered Species Act did save spe cies. In each case there were defeats, but in each case, victories were won, year by year.

I was still not getting it. What did this have to do with the current problem of global warming? I asked. Battisti was quick: Each of those environmental victories already had a political system or structure in place that could implement the required changes, at least in the United States. And because the United States was the main producer and exporter of so many environmental toxins, the changing of rules there resulted in improvement globally. But that is the main difference with the global warming threat from those other examples, Battisti explained. At the present, there is not a political system in place that can—realistically—accommodate and accomplish the necessary changes. What is necessary, he said, is a true global system for implementing regulations and economic incentives that will, on a worldwide basis, lead to emission reduction. That is a pipe dream now, but as the world warms and climate rapidly changes, that too will surely change.

My time was up. I had a notebook crammed with new facts. I bid him good-bye. That was fun, he said, having this discussion. Best time I have had this week. And then a look flickered across his face, the realization of what that new old world that we had constructed in our talk would look like, do, affect, change. Fun to talk about? Yes, but then came guilt with the realization of what the "fun" translated into.

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