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by Larry

November, 2006

How We Might Cope with Global Warming

There are some who say it is too late, that we are already heading inevitably for overwhelming disaster due to runaway global warming, while others entirely deny there is any problem or say we have some lengthy period, like several hundred years, to correct the situation. Others, myself among them, believe we have something like 10-50 years to turn the atmospheric greenhouse gas predicament around and thus at least call a halt to further warming than is now built into the delicate system of climate checks and balances. Who knows which of these and other guesses will turn out to have been most correct?

I am aware that in previous decades a number of prominent environmentalists have gotten things very wrong in their headline grabbing doom and gloom predictions. Just as one example, Zero Population Growth (ZPG) founder, Paul Erlich, back in the 1960s said that within 30-40 years (by 2000 or earlier) billions of people would be dying of starvation. So, I am reluctant to make absolute statements regarding the environment or changes in our climate. Things scientists of today have not considered, such as the "Green Revolution" Erlich had not expected, may recast the situation before dire consequences, that once appeared so certain, actually occur.

It is true too that in the early 1900s few other than science fiction writers could imagine the extent of the transformations that would have happened, both for good and ill, before 2006. Even the most forward thinking in 1900 believed heavier than air flight an impractical fantasy. As recently as 25 years ago, the same would have been said of the internet, connecting people and vast quantities of information at an instant around the world. It seems reasonable to expect that in the 21st Century as well there may be changes beyond our ability to now conceive, positive or negative shifts as radical, for instance, as: virtually unlimited fusion energy; gravity or antimatter bombs; conscious robots; space travel without chemical propellants; routine replacement of living limbs; vast extensions of mental and physical capacities and of life itself; the elimination of most diseases; terrorist attacks that wipe out multiple cities or regions; repeated viral interruptions of entire global internet systems; creations of super-humans; the farming and harvesting of organ donors by the thousands or millions*; the reduction of the world's population to 5 billion or less; effective worldwide procedures for promptly dealing with major storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., to minimize their death and destruction consequences; globally reliable measures for assuring rapid, dependable health care services for all; total identity records on everyone, available for a fee or free, with the means to instantly determine precisely where in the world each person is, without fail; large colonies or cities of humans living miles below the Earth's surface; scientifically refined meditation methods, catering to the specific needs and neurology of each individual, offered in intense one-week or one-month courses promising and delivering enlightenment; preventative gene therapy a practical reality; an end to individual violence as we know it; adequate, comfortable housing, food, water, and pleasure for everyone, with even more luxurious accommodations and refreshments available for those who can afford them; holographic and telepathic communications beginning to be used; the breakup of nations into thousands of regional and sub-regional mini-states; a new, unforeseen spiritual tradition that sweeps the globe; etc.

I do not suggest that any of these examples would actually transpire, but that the changes to come may be as seemingly far-fetched, though different, of course, for we cannot now really imagine what they might be, anymore than a person in the 1900s could have forecast a hydrogen bomb, an average lifespan now about twice as long as then, the discovery of black holes, televisions and computers in nearly every home or office, or laser eye surgeries that could in minutes safely and almost permanently improve the vision of tens or hundreds of millions.

On the other hand, the truly unexpected might occur, that few if any big transformations arise in the next several generations, that, instead, so much energy or funding is taken up with simply coping with too rapid or negative changes already in the cards that little is left over for the genuinely innovative in the years just ahead. This scenario might play out if humanity needs a certain period of adjustment to adapt to the huge alterations that have just occurred over the previous 50-100 years or so. Or if we have an unparalleled accident, say a collision with a vast asteroid, the explosion in near space of a supernova, blanketing us with deadly rays, a highly contagious and deadly virus gets wildly out of control, etc.

Illustration: Courtesy of Roger Angel, UA Steward Observatory

Either way, it appears reasonable, given what we know of the prior century and what was assumed about it in advance, both with too great pessimism and optimism, or simply with an inability ahead of time to think sufficiently outside the box to grasp what could happen, that our prognostications at this time about life for those who will (hopefully) follow us are bound to be substantially incorrect.

That being the case, is it too great a stretch to assume that, even if with present knowledge a problem such as global warming looks insurmountable, by the end of the century or sooner the technological means may be found to adequately deal with it? It is analogous to the circumstance of someone with a terminal disease today who, if he or she can manage to hang on, might be alive long enough that a new medical breakthrough could provide the needed cure.

The idea I suggest here sounds so radical that one may question if it is at all practical, but just consider that at the end of the 1950s it was hardly conceivable that man might, even in 25-50 years, walk on the moon. Yet that feat was accomplished, though with the relatively primitive technology we had then, in only another decade.

Here then is one way that has been thought of to solve our global warming predicament. The notion, as suggested in UANews.Org, "Space Sunshade Might Be Feasible in Global Warming Emergency," by Lori Stiles (11/3/06), and POPSCI.COM, "How Earth-Scale Engineering Can Save the Planet," by Michael Behar (June, 2005), is simply to place in space orbit, about a million miles out between us and the sun, mirrors or filters, to reflect away some of the sun's radiation. With the engineering we have today, or can enhance from currently known laws of chemistry and physics, we should have sufficient resources to pull this off.

I do not minimize either the global warming threat or the extreme challenges of such a solution as indicated. Nor do I endorse it as the best approach. But it is one means, that just might work, which we can already understand. No doubt others may occur, perhaps ones that are far more practicable, after folks finally come to grips with the severity of the danger, should nothing be done.

Will it be started in time? Who can say? That is more a political question. But could it be done? Yes, probably. Would it involve enormous dedication, costs, and some risk. Absolutely. But what if the very existence of our species is at stake and that fact becomes apparent over the next few decades? Then yes, surely, considering the alternative, we could put them up there and cross our fingers or pray that they do the job and remain up there long enough for us to make the needed changes down here, dramatic alterations too long deferred.

Democracies have a tendency to delay important steps awhile. Sometimes, as with the British and Americans in the 1930s and early 1940s, putting off major preparations for a world war that in retrospect seemed inevitable, they may wait too long and cut things rather close. But once they finally get moving, watch out!

We may now still be largely in denial too about global warming. But when the problem begins to sink in, even if we cannot yet see the full scope of what climate change has in store for us, there is hope if we but apply the same dedication to this challenge as was done in overcoming Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo.

The answer may not be in orbiting space mirrors. It might be in severely curtailing the production of greenhouse gases, in bottling up the Bearing Straight, in new bacteria or plant strains that store vast quantities of carbon dioxide which then can be safely compacted and buried for millennia, or in strategically dumping millions of tons of iron filings into the oceans, painting most reflective surfaces white, or all of the above plus effective measures we have yet to discover, but even if only by the skin of our teeth with such commitment as if we were on a real survival-or-defeat war footing, humanity may well, perhaps against the odds, overcome this looming problem, save itself, and preserve a portion of the rest of Earth's species to discover with us what marvels our subsequent future may hold.

It is just our luck to need to deal, all at the same time, with a long-term energy crisis, global warming, diminishing vital resources, an aging population, and great geopolitical threats. Soon enough Hollywood may be called upon once more to offer us an array of inspiring films, such as those that stirred our parents and grandparents to patriotic, cooperative, above-and-beyond sacrifices during the last world war.

When we really get into it, though, we shall probably find that, just as was the case during World War II, the construction of our national highway system, and the race to the moon, there are side benefits as well, in great technological advances, enhancement of the workforce, tremendous stimulation of corporate communities and national economies, plus the promotion of science, math, and engineering.

One way or another, this should be an exciting time!

(*China is already using political prisoners in this way today, a liver transplant match being promised by its doctors in 3 weeks and the surgery costing a foreigner $100,000.)

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