The Time We Have Left

11th hourLast Christmas, I was given the documentary The 11th Hour as a gift. I admit that I was somewhat skeptical of its legitamacy – as much as we all loved Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, I wasn’t sure how credible a documentary created by a movie star would be. It was also wrapped in something called BioFilm that sounded kind of sketchy (admittedly, I don’t know what the plastic was made of, but chances are that it’s corn ethanol – not the greatest of fossil fuel replacements).

However, when I watched the film, I was utterly engrossed. My favourite thing about the 11th hour is that most of the dialogue and narration comes from interviews with incredibly articulate experts. This film featured scientists, authors, First Nations leaders, CEOs of green businesses, and national security officials. David Suzuki, Stephen Schneider, Paul Hawken, and Stephen Hawking were just a few of those interviewed.

The 11th Hour dicusses many different aspects of environmental depletion, sociology, and solutions. It opened with a sort of celebration of life and the beauty of nature. I believe it was Paul Hawken that said something along the lines of, “In your body, right this very second, there are three (something with a lot of billions and trillions) things happening at once. That’s a three with twenty-four zeros after it. Right this second. And in the next second, as you sit there on the couch, one hundred times more things are happening than there are stars and planets in the universe. And that is what we call life.”

The section on climate change was brief, but quite well done. Most of the time was devoted to talking about possible impacts – how warming would affect our water security, food security…..However, Stephen Schneider delivered a fantastic quote that’s quite relevant to this blog:

“Some scientists are amazed that in the media debate and in Congress there are people who stand up and say, “I believe” or “I don’t believe in global warming,” as if it were some sort of object of religion, instead of based in evidence.”

(Check out the post Making Up Your Own Science for more on that topic.)

Following the climate change discussion were small sections devoted to forestry, aquatics, biodiversity, and hyperconsumerism. However, the discussion on extinction was so compelling to me that it dwarfed all the previous discussions. The film explored how extinction is inevitable to a species, that the demise of an entire species is as natural as the death of a single organism. It’s no secret that humans will eventually become extinct. The question is how our actions today are affecting when that extinction will happen, and how many other species we are taking down with us.

The last third of the movie was devoted to possible solutions. I applaud the filmmakers in this decision. The first part of the film was pretty darn scary, and ending on an optimistic note made me feel more motivated for action. And what an optimistic note it was! The film discussed how our current system of economics discourages environmental action, and how we could reinvent our economy so that it is more in tune with sustainability and quality of life. It discussed biomimicry, a principle of design which mimics nature, such as the incredibly strong spider’s silk, the structural (rather than pigmented) colour of the blue morpho butterfly, and self-cleaning leaves. “The generations alive today,” Paul Hawken said, “will have to reinvent everything…..what a great time to be born, what an opportunity.”

Happy things

The 11th Hour ended on such a hopeful note that I felt myself becoming more optimistic. There is time to solve the problem of climate change. If our global carbon emissions drop to zero by the middle of this century, we will never pass the 2 C warming which is estimated to be a tipping point. Some warming is inevitable, but we still have time to stop it getting out of control.

In the Discover article on climate change this June, the panel of scientists was asked how hopeful they were that humanity could solve the problem of climate change. Most of them answered that they felt very sure that we had the resources and technology to drastically reduce, or even eliminate, carbon emissions. But they weren’t so sure that we had the will. The world has known about this problem for over 40 years, but little has been done.

But to think that we still have a chance…..no matter how small….it makes me want to grab on to that chance and run with it and do all that I can to make it come true.

If it clashes with the economy, we’ll reinvent the economy. If the oil executives get mad, we’ll pay them a lot of money to develop wind power and geothermal. If the skeptics continue to argue, we’ll say to them, as we should be saying now, “The stakes are too high to base our actions on the best possible scenario.”

The fact that there still is a tangible chance, however small, that we could fix the problem of climate change altogether, is so exciting that I feel obliged to pursue it.

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26 thoughts on “The Time We Have Left

  1. Although the 11th hour has big beautiful images and experts who’s opinion I value, on the whole I found the movie frustrating. The folks like Mr. Schneider are on screen for incredibly brief periods of time. And that seems to me a mistake.

    When I look at a movie like “The 11th Hour” I ask myself the question, would this change the mind of a neutral party who is up in the air regarding the evidence? Does the presentation answer all (or most of) the objections in a convincing manner? To me it seemed that Mr. DiCaprio bit off more than could be chewed and digested in the time he allowed himself. And that he was preaching to the “converted”.

    Could I have done better? Probably not.

    Could Mr. DiCaprio done better? Yes.

    The choice to cover information on over fishing, landuse, & consumer behavior was perfectly understandable. Global warming is a metonymy for a larger more inclusive problem of failing or refusing to see the consequences achieved or probable of our collective actions. (Kim Stanley Robinson makes this arguement in his google talk, and I agree with him.) But though the problems are interrelated they are NOT the same. Nineteenth Century technology would have been enough to kill every last single Sperm Whale. Which is relevant. What saved that species of whale was that mineral oil was cheaper than whale oil. Many of the issues that Mr. DiCaprio raises pre-date the problems which follow from greenhouse gas emissions. And if we manage to effectively address our global warming problem they will continue to trouble us. They are all questions of how to mannage commons. But are in a way besides the point. Because the solutions ARE different. Solving the problem of overfishing will not lower the levels of any greenhouse gas. Solving water management problems will note stabalize the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Stopping population growth will not prevent doubling CO2 levels. I could go on at length listing problems that will have to be solved. But there are priorities.

    Saying so is a problem. Because it does not imply that we stop work on other issues while addressing the worst. But if we did not address the production of ozone destroying chemicals we would be in a nightmare. You fix that problem or suffer the horrible results. And if the opposition to action on that problem had been as intractable as the opposition of the American Right is to global warming then the thing to do is fight that worst problem. Which means in the case of Mr. DiCaprio devoting enough time to the arguement so that the problem is presented EFFECTIVELY. Not a dozen problems in the time needed to address one problem.

    In American politics issues like off shore oil drilling and ANWR have been markers in the political debates of the country. The common notion being that exploiting off shore or ANWR oil reserves would make the US energy independent for decades, which is a canard – there isn’t enough. So one politician says to the other: “Give me your vote for the navy’s new fighter aircraft and I’ll give you ANWR”. While other more pressing problems fall to the side. Why? Because issues like these are environmental poster children. My cynical analysis is that if you’re a democrat ANWR is used as leverage against you to prevent stricter regulation of the mining industry (as an example) while the republicans of the mid-west couldn’t care less if oil platforms do or don’t go up off the coast of New Jersey or if oil drilling takes place in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.

    A very large reason why I have overcome my distaste for nuclear power is because it is such a low carbon source of power. (For me the issue of nuclear power turns on its cost effectiveness, and on the observation that all waste generated by nuclear power, by all the power I individually could ever use, could fit in my hat. With CO2 we talk in terms of tons per year.) My point being that we should build lots of nuclear power plants? Not necessarily. Wind power maybe cheaper. And the Negawatts you don’t use are always cheaper than the Megawatts you do use.

    Effective immediate action is needed.

    Which calls for an effective single minded message.

    The 11th Hour is at the same time to much and to little.

    Sorry to rain on rain on your parade. Though I do have an optomistic thought. Which is that future doesn’t have to invented. It only needs to be built. For me the next step is writting my congressman. What do you think: typed or handwritten?

    • Typed and handwritten. Write multiple letters.

      It’s great to hear someone else’s perspective on this video – no worries, you’re not raining on anyone’s parade. The purpose of a film like The 11th Hour is to generate thoughts and discussions. That’s what it did for me, anyway, and I found it very effective. I’d never really thought about the amount of issues it covered (there were an awful lot) or how quickly they were skimmed over or how the solutions are very different. It’s easy to lump problems like overfishing and climate change together as they were both caused by our technology and cultural paradigms. However, they should not be treated as one problem.

      Fascinating perspective, thanks for sharing it.

  2. nice review. I still havent seen “an inconvenient truth” but i figure I am a bit past being influenced by it. I definately will check this out. I might also recommend “Baraka” “Koyanasquatsi” and “powanasquatsi” (play around with the spelling of the last 2)

    they were all released some time ago, but describe “a world in chaos” and beautifully demonstrate how the world is…without a single word. In fact, it is all music and video. The best part is…it is not subject to interpretation or spin, it is simply footage taken and set to music. pretty intense stuff.

    • Those videos sound like they might be good. Geographical footage is fascinating. Not as good as the live show, but close. Can I get them on YouTube or do I have to go somewhere else?

      • you can definately get clips on youtube. netflix is a good option if you have the service, you will get a good quality, full length version. Also, here are the correct and full spellings, years and if they are netflix available…

        baraka (1992) – Available
        koyaanisqatsi (1982) – Available
        powaqqatsi (1988) – Available
        naqoyqatsi (2002) – Available

        Baraka is probably my favorite. I have not seen naqoyqatsi.

        I also just wrote something that you might find interesting, a bit about bridging this gap between the science and the public. Check it out if that interests you:

        http://ericgwilliams.wordpress.com/2009/06/10/deaf-ears-science-may-have-not-have-even-fallen-yet/

      • Thanks for the film references, I’ll watch them when exams are done (I have hardly enough time to reply to comments these days…)

        That was a fantastic article you wrote, I left a comment there as well.

  3. I am pretty well convinced that we have already altered the climate enough to collapse ecosystems across the globe, and have already assured positive feedbacks that will inexorably lead to disaster.

    I certainly don’t advocate giving up. I retain a shred of hope that, once this becomes obvious to all, humans will work cooperatively together to find ways to survive.

    • To avoid such catastrophic events, we’d need to actually reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the air – we’re at 388 ppm right now, we’d need to get to 350 or lower. But there’s a lag time between carbon emissions and carbon dioxide concentrations….so even if we stopped emitting carbon altogether today, the levels would still reach about 450 ppm (don’t quote me on that – I can’t remember the exact number) before levelling off.

      We have a long, long way to go, but that’s no excuse for not giving it our best shot.

      Keep up hope.

  4. plastic was made of, but chances are that it’s corn ethanol

    Pretty sure you can’t make plastic out of ethanol. Not without a great deal of effort. Usually bioplastics are made out of oils or carbohydrates.

    Nice blog, by the way :)

  5. “If our global carbon emissions drop to zero by the middle of this century, we will never pass the 2 C warming which is estimated to be a tipping point.”

    Two quick questions:

    1) What’s a tipping point? I’m not too au fait with the terminology, which is becoming vast. Seems like more of a meaningless buzzword used by our pal Al, but perhaps I’m wrong.

    b) You mean to say that we eliminate every single instance of combustion? While that’s not the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard (that distinction belongs to Scientology), it’s pretty close. For any “scientist” to say that we can completely “eliminate carbon emissions” is an instant strike-3 on his credibility. How do you suppose the Anti-Corporatist Anti-Globalist Hippie Bandwagon will smoke their preemo weed ?

    • Hi there, thanks for dropping in.

      1) A tipping point is the point of warming which will bring us into a new climatic state – essentially, a new geological era. The chemistry of the oceans, variability of the seasons, geography of the coastlines, and strength/direction of ocean and wind currents will be altered so much that the life the Earth can support will change dramatically. A tipping point will likely cause a mass extinction. I’d suggest reading about historical extinctions – “The Big Five” – and how many of them coincided with climate changes. That’s the sort of thing we’re looking at.

      2) A carbon-neutral global society is a lofty goal. Nobody is saying that we can acheive it, but if we were to achieve it, we would never pass the tipping point. (Whereas, if our emissions dropped to 10% of current rates, we’d eventually pass the tipping point, but not for another 5 centuries or so). It’s a pretty hypothetical situation, I agree, but if renewables developed enough I suppose it could be possible.

      • I’m sorry for what can be perceived as a hostile tone of my previous posts, I’ll stick to the salient points.

        As far as “tipping point”, I haven’t been able to find any credible evidence of such instability within the climate system, even RealClimate (the ultimate authority on AGW) agrees that there is no “runaway effect”. This “tipping point” idea is so loosely defined that I challenge you to pin the tail on the donkey and show this point on the vostok ice core data:

        I have, however, found lots of newspaper articles featuring this catchy phrase, usually accompanied by James Hanson and his apocalyptic predictions for the year 2100. The predictions are usually of the order of 5-7 C increase, and in case you’re wondering, come from the maxima of state-of-the-art computer model runs (to be taken with large amount of grains of salt) tuned to several sensitivities and climate scenarios.

        To be honest, the phrase is more of a political slogan to rally support for action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a real identifiable climate state, which I think is very distracting from the real and legitimate science being done on global warming.

      • A tipping point is hard to pinpoint to an exact year. It is more sort of a general term, I agree, to help the public understand climate change better. I’m not the right person to ask regarding specific examples – a climatology prof at your local university prof could probably help you.

        There certainly are positive feedbacks, but a “runaway effect” isn’t how I would put it.

        RealClimate is absolutely not the ultimate authority on AGW. It is written by publishing climatologists, so it’s better than most blogs. However, it’s not even peer-reviewed. Read the post “The Credibility Spectrum” to see which sources are the most credible.

      • One more thought – a so-called “tipping point” would probably be easiest to identify on a graph of extinction rates, as it is really defined by the climate’s impact on the biosphere, not just the climate on its own.

        The graph to which you refer deals with glacial-interglacial cycles. I believe every time the CO2 level declines sharply (new glacial cycle beginning, reduced solar radiation from Milankovitch orbital cycles triggers increased CO2 sinks such as the oceans) could be considered a “tipping point” or shift from one climatic state to the other.

        But then, I’m not a climatologist (yet), and my words regarding climate science should not be taken as credible. I only try to point you in the right direction.

      • Hello climatesight!

        Since your commenter knows how to use wikipedia it seems disingenuous for him to profess ignorance of the meaning of the term “tipping point” as used by climatologists.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipping_point_(climatology)

        It is not only the models that predict tipping points, it is simply empirical observation of the current 6th mass extinction, and study of the past 5, that indicate the existence of tipping points.

        And it’s not hysteria or models that cause Hansen (a true American hero) to predict catastrophic effects from climate chaos, it’s geology and physics. And they will happen well before 2100, a time frame that is batted about due to scientific reticence.

        I am not a scientist and so I feel free to link climate change with Katrina and other extraordinary violent weather. It’s simply a fact that CO2 dissolved in the oceans is killing coral reefs and shellfish such as oysters. It’s going to destroy the entire marine ecosystem and we will have dead oceans, which happens to be the source of much of the oxygen on earth.

        We have passed the tipping point on that one, for sure.

        Check out the studies linked to this post on my blog here http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2009/06/how-fast.html for a couple of random examples of studies demonstrating that rapid climate change occurs when tipping points are passed.

      • Thanks Gail. The Wikipedia article on tipping points isn’t bad. And James Hansen is great. I find it amusing that so many people call him a crazy socialist liberal, but he’s a self-professed conservative, and has something along the lines of “….as long as it doesn’t interfere with the free market” at the end of all of his policy recommendations during speeches.

        Oceans are very important to our biosphere, and in the past, rapid climate changes have extinguished over 80% of species on Earth. Very scary stuff.

        You can’t really directly link climate change to Katrina, as it’s impossible to prove it wouldn’t have been as bad otherwise. However, Katrina is an example of the kinds of hurricanes we can expect more and more as the temperature rises.

        Thanks for the link to your blog. Gorgeous flower pictures. Are you also a tree person by any chance?

      • yes, if you dig a bit deeper, you will find a am a life-long, unapologetic tree hugger.

        Your blog is wonderful, I admire you tremendously, stick to it!

  6. Gail, the wiki link you provided (incidentally also happens to be where I lifted my last blurb wholesale) provides “tipping point” examples as _events_ (depletion of ozone, extinction of species), not as discrete climate parameters. My argument is with the 1-2oC rise that the true American hero Hansen proclaims to be the start of the next mass extinction, that or the 350ppm C02 concentration, your pick. Though it’s not obvious, I’ll concede that he does NOT mean that at 1-2C rise, the earth climate comes to a point of instability and is unable to return to equilibrium (that’s what I thought he was referring to before). Then, what are we left with as far as tipping point events? You seem to be convinced it’s the ocean, specifically the “[destruction of] the entire marine ecosystem, and we will have dead oceans”. Fair enough, but mind you, that depends on a very large presumption — that this temperature increase will actually do what you claim it will. I’ll point out that the oceans during the paleozoic period were anything but dead, with an order of magnitude higher atmospheric CO2 levels and higher temps.

    What else? Another popular prognosis is that we won’t be able to grow enough food to sustain our population. Perhaps. But in the last 35 years of warming (for whatever reason) we’ve put roughly an extra 2bil people on earth and our food production has increased accordingly

    “I am not a scientist and so I feel free to link climate change with Katrina and other extraordinary violent weather.” I find it bizarre that being a non-scientist warrants you the liberty to make such a link. Why not also link the largest magnitude earthquake in US with mid-century cooling? Moreover, I don’t see how that single statement furthers one’s argument the slightest, other than appeal to sympathy.

    • The 2 C warming is generally agreed to be the best estimate of the point where things will get really bad. For exact details of how it will get really bad I’d look at the IPCC AR4 report, probably chapter 10, possibly 11 as well. I’m not sure if it’s considered a tipping point or not, and I apologize if I previously made that assumption. I believe the exact parameters of tipping points would change depending on the situation (eg current times vs Paleozoic times), and would probably be measured in radiative forcing (W/m2) rather than temperature. A paleoclimatology person would probably be able to help you with that. The guys at RealClimate might be worth asking.

      350 ppm is suggested to be the point at which ice caps will begin to melt. If concentrations are kept at that level indefinitely, the ice caps will eventually all melt away. However a brief spell above 350 ppm is probably okay, as there is a lag time between CO2 and warming.

      The real trouble is not the temperature, or the CO2 concentration, as much as the rate of change. In the Paleozoic era, temperature and CO2 were much higher than today, but all life was adapted to it. The real problem is if ocean temp and pH change too quickly for marine life to adapt. Same goes for terrestrial and aquatic life.

      I don’t know a lot about agriculture so I can’t really answer that question. But I believe the biggest concern for agriculture is heat waves, as staple crops (eg wheat, corn) can often not survive heat waves. Our technological advances have likely outweighed decreased yields due to warming….to this point anyway.

      Earthquakes have nothing to do with climate – only plate tectonics.

      Even if we are not all scientists, when we are discussing science, we should all think like scientists. We should view Katrina as a warning, but not as evidence.

    • All puns intended – The oceans are but one example of many ecosystems in collapse, and in that case it’s not warming per se although that is deleterious, it is acidification from CO2. Perhaps there was life in the oceans with higher levels of CO2 but the point is, it would have been adapted to survive in those conditions. The current species in the oceans are not, and it is being acidified at a rate that is too fast for them to adapt thus, they are dying.

      I suggest sciencedaily.com which is a marvelous compendium of current research. Look up glaciers, forests, oceans, ice caps, wildfires, population, food shortages, sea level rise, etc. and you will find an overwhelming number of reports that support everything I’ve said and then some.

    • “What else? Another popular prognosis is that we won’t be able to grow enough food to sustain our population. Perhaps. But in the last 35 years of warming (for whatever reason) we’ve put roughly an extra 2bil people on earth and our food production has increased”

      The way we have fed the exploding population is through monoculture, which requires massive amounts of (oil-based) pesticides and fertilizers, which is all by itself destroying oceans

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090618124956.htm

      And furthermore, we DON’T have enough to feed the population, word food stores are at record lows, people are rioting in poor countries over food shortages, third-world countries such as Vietnam that used to supply staples to other countries have banned exports because they don’t have enough to feed their own, climate change induced droughts have caused widespread crop failure and over a million cattle starved to death in Argentina last winter because there wasn’t anything for them to eat.

      • Gail, you may be right that we don’t have enough to feed the population, in which case, the population will naturally come to an equilibrium which can be sustained. I thought I heard somewhere that we produce enough food to feed the world. I suspect the rioting that you refer to in poor countries is not a result of not enough food production (globally), but the result of disproportionate distribution. It’s the reason that you and I can roll into the nearest supermarket, obtain as much food as we want, and pig out to our hearts’ content. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re right.

        Also, so far you’ve presented 3 things that are destroying oceans: temperature rise, acidification (dealkalization doesn’t have the same ring, huh), pesticide run-off. I’m venturing a guess that acidification is the least concern of the three.

        To be honest, I don’t know why you praise sciencedaily.com so much. Most of the articles are boiler-plate templates consisting of: observed dramatic change, phrase like “But a new study by [name] from [university] suggests that [dramatic change] is caused by climate change, then shamelessly make a link between climate change and CO2, with poor facts in between.
        Here’s an example:
        “This “ocean acidification” creates a corrosive environment for marine organisms such as corals, marine plankton, and shellfish that build carbonate shells or skeletons.” Oceans are not corrosive or acidic, they are basic, and have a long way to go before they come to PH7 (neutral) because of extensive buffering in ocean water. Corrosive environment, please.

  7. Before we digress further, let me again return to the “2C Warming Tipping Point” argument. I am yet to be convinced that the phrase “We are reaching the +2C Warming Tipping Point” is anything but a catchy slogan and shock mechanism designed to shake people out of apathy and scare them into action. While it may be effective, I don’t prescribe to fear-mongering as a way to get people on board. You may make parallels to other leader-type individuals who use fear to control public opinion.

    The IPCC (thanks for info, ref. http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/wg1-report.html Vol. 10 p.25 local) actually defines it as a more-or-less classical force-response system (not as an event as suggested by Wikipedia), I get it, then temperature becomes the response parameter of the system (which may be a forcing of some other system, which behaves linearly or predictably at +1.9C, but becomes non-linear or drastically different at +2.0C). The “Abrupt Climate Change” scenarios outlined in the report immediately following have no such “tipping” values attached.

    “350 ppm is suggested to be the point at which ice caps will begin to melt”. Nah, that’s not a tipping point for ice caps, since ice does not melt as a result of increased CO2, but rather of increased temperature. That relies on a presumption that 350ppm of CO2 will increase the temperature by amount critical to initiate the non-linear behaviour of ice melt (+1.9C things are ok, +2.0C things get really bad).

    You suggested forcings, I like that idea more. Positive forcings imply a rate (W/m2) so that’s more congruent with your “rate of change” argument. In terms of heat transfer, that amounts to almost a linear relationship to temperature increase rate (C/decade), and this rate at which things start to “get really bad” (non-linear or irreversible) is not well defined.

    • Thanks for digging that up. It’s really interesting and something I hadn’t researched much until now.

      It’s hard to figure out which values and stats are just “catchy slogans” for the public to better understand climatology, and which are actually fully correct. Eg 350 ppm CO2 would only melt the ice caps if the negative forcings (eg aerosols, albedo) stayed at a certain constant rate. I’m dragging my way through the Britannica Guide to Climate Change right now (written by the former head of the Royal Society) and one chapter lists all the climate forcings. It’s crazy. Most of them can either warm or cool depending on the situation. Then that warming or cooling can set off further warming or cooling. It’s all like basic physics – finding the net force from dozens of opposing forces of different magnitude.

      • Right, so I gather that we agree that the +2C tipping point is defined veeeery loosely.

        Where we disagree is that you think that the phrase may be something “for the public to better understand climatology”, whereas I think that it’s a deliberate ambiguity, made up just to get people “on board” instead of presenting proper information.

      • I think explaining the whole backstory of how tipping points exactly work (you’d have to go into feedbacks, climate forcings, climate senstivity, etc) would take far too long and be a waste of space in the popular media. Most people wouldn’t really care. However, I do feel it should be more available for those who are interested – we shouldn’t have to sift through the 1000-odd pages of IPCC.

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