Our vanishing ice caps, disaster-film style

UW Professor Peter Ward's new book, "The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps," paints an apocalyptic future based on his scientific prowess. But is his call for solutions compelling?
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The Earth: How to protect it from climate change?

UW Professor Peter Ward's new book, "The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps," paints an apocalyptic future based on his scientific prowess. But is his call for solutions compelling?

"Day of Satan's painful duty!
Earth shall vanish, hot and sooty."
So says Virtue, so says Beauty.
"Ah! what terror shall be shaping
When the Judge the truth's undraping
Cats from every bag escaping!"

&mdash From "Shapes of Clay," Ambrose Bierce'ꀙs 'ꀜtranslation'ꀝ of "Dies Irae," a 13th Century Latin Hymn

Stories about the end of the world are as old as the world itself. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, doesn'ꀙt finish without God destroying by flood in Chapter 6 the world He created in Chapter 1. But the moral of these stories &mdash the call to action &mdash often pales compared to the destruction itself.

Can you remember the last disaster movie you saw? You can probably remember the way the Eiffel Tower was sliced in half by alien laser beam or how Manhattan was destroyed by a massive flood, but can you remember the lesson at the end? Peter Ward's new book, "The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps" &mdash an example of apocalyptic science &mdash suffers from the same burden: it needs a better ending.

Ward'ꀙs book is believable, but sometimes reads like "The Late Great Planet Earth", which was also a movie — oddly 'ꀜhosted'ꀝ by Orson Welles — describing in vivid detail why the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Wars, food shortages, killer bees, poison in our food and water, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and, yes, climate change are pointed to as examples of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. 'ꀜNow," Welles's voice intones, "in his lofty perch as lord of the Earth man is faced by an unprecedented peril that threatens to send him crashing into the dark depths of silence known as extinction."

Ward's book doesn't deploy such purple prose but comes close: "When people ask about the fate of humanity . . . most of us seem to respond that humans might have very little time left before we somehow doom ourselves to extinction," he writes. His story of impending planetary doom isn't about the looming judgment of an angry God, of course, but rapidly melting ice caps caused by human-initiated climate change.

And Ward is no Jeremiah. A University of Washington professor, Ward is a brilliant and accomplished scientist, laying out in lucid and understandable terms the relationship between carbon dioxide, the planet's temperature, the oceans, and life on the planet. Carbon dioxide levels function as a kind of wall thermostat for the planet: Dial the levels down and life can't exist, but dial them up and temperatures begin to increase enough that fresh water stored as ice begins to melt.

That melting will affect the chemistry of the oceans and raise their levels. More carbon dioxide and methane will affect ocean currents, reduce oxygen levels in the oceans causing massive growths of bacteria, which, in turn, produce toxic amounts of gas in the atmosphere, breaking down the planet'ꀙs ozone layer and wiping out plants and animal life.

Ward connects the science to political and social impacts of rising seas in vivid fictional vignettes. Rising oceans, famine, and diminished resources caused by high levels of carbon dioxide lead to chaos and political collapse. The world as we know it will end as coastlines become engulfed by the sea and the delicate balance of planetary chemistry is disrupted.

But what does it all mean? Does Ward's book have a plausible punch line? Not really. Ward's call to action doesn't match the gravity of the impending doom we are facing.

His call for repentance is that we should change our behavior (drive less) and figure out how to build a massive 'ꀜsuperfine reflecting mesh to be engineered out in space and positioned between the sun and the earth." These dramatic engineering projects must be undertaken with "alacrity and efficiency." Right.

The problem is that Ward assumes that somehow politicians who have failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation are going to be suddenly motivated to do so and — with alacrity and efficiency — support building wildly expensive and complicated projects like a reflecting mesh in space. When was the last time we saw elected politicians act with alacrity and efficiency about anything? The only thing that is more disturbing than Ward's vision of the climate change apocalypse is that we'ꀙre dependent on politicians to stop it.

Here'ꀙs a better and more dramatic ending. How about we shift away from our belief in natural rights and toward a more positivist view of rights under the law? That means making policy decisions based on what is indicated by science rather than based on what is best for individuals. Such a shift means more emphasis on the preamble of our constitution ("We the people") and less on the Declaration of Independence ("certain inalienable rights").

Let'ꀙs be blunt. After all, this is the end of the world we're talking about. As long as Americans believe they have a God-given right to live and drive wherever they want we probably can't reduce carbon emissions with alacrity and efficiency. Emissions from transportation are the leading contributor to climate changing emissions. Land-use patterns that favor the use of cars foster oil dependence that propels us further into the world that Ward describes.

The crisis Ward describes calls for individual sacrifice of comfort and convenience in favor of the good of the whole. The idea that we are born with rights that government must respect first before it acts in the interest of society is incompatible with solving a crisis of the scale Ward describes. I'm not talking about green fascism, either.

During World War II, Americans lived with rationing because they believed wining the war was worth the sacrifice of their individual convenience. How far would an idea like that get in today's political climate?

If we decide to build vast cordons of reflective mesh in outer space or pass comprehensive cap and trade legislation or both, it will be because we stop believing we have the right to live however we damn well please. Countering the onslaught of rising oceans and the destruction they will bring would call for reordering our priorities &mdash and doing it fast. Of course, we can always move to higher ground, stockpile gold, food, and ammunition, and pray that Ward is wrong.


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