The Industrial Revolution made life much easier for some, and much more miserable for others. Luckily, through time, mechanization helped ease that burden, and today most people in the world’s more developed economies enjoy a level of leisure our ancestors could have only dreamed of.
Around the first century A.D there were roughly five hundred million people in the world. Today there are just over 7.5 billion in just about every corner of the globe.
But even with so many people, what can we possibly complain about these days? Communism was virtually defeated with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Mcdonald’s and Walmart can be found in nearly every nation on Earth. More people die from suicide than from murder. Cardiovascular disease (mostly from too much junk food) takes more lives than starvation. We can travel across the globe, to exotic destinations, while staying in a resort that looks exactly like every other resort in the world.
Modern day life is awesome, isn’t it? It’s like the entire planet is one giant cruise ship, and all 7.5 billion human beings are living inside. Sure, some are staff members, and not everyone has a luxurious cabin, but it’s still like one big party in the middle of the ocean.
But there’s one big problem.
The ship is on fire.
Courtesy: Washington Post
Alright, enough metaphors for now.
In the early years of the 19th century, a Swedish chemist by the name of Svante Arrhenius was the first person to investigate the effect that the doubling of carbon dioxide (C02) would have on the Earth’s climate system.
It is now a scientifically accepted fact that C02 and other greenhouse gases cause the planet to warm because they trap solar radiation into the atmosphere and prevent it from going back into space. These gases have been naturally occurring throughout Earth’s history and necessary for life on this planet. Without them we would freeze to death, but too much of a good thing can be just as bad, if not worse.
Energy and transportation that require fossil fuels flood the atmosphere with additional greenhouse gases. But a significant proportion of these gases are invisible to the naked eye. That’s because every time a tree is felled, the C02 it captured throughout its lifecycle goes into the atmosphere. The leading driver of deforestation is cattle ranching, along with the clearing of trees to feed livestock, a result of the world’s growing demand for meat.
Atmospheric C02 levels are now higher than at any other time in human history and beyond. In fact, they may be much higher than at any other time in the last 800,000 years. As a result, the Earth’s temperatures have been rising steadily for decades, and the last ten years have been the hottest since measurements began.
Courtesy: Berkeley Earth
Basically, our giant cruise ship has caught on fire because too many drunken passengers have been flicking their cigarettes all over the place. But even though the fire is spreading, it’s only noticeable in certain parts of the ship, and a lot of the passengers are too drunk or too busy enjoying themselves to realize it, or care.
Those who do see the fire are desperately trying to sound the alarm, but not everyone is listening. The others are either too drunk or the music is too loud. Regardless, nobody likes a party pooper.
If we take a quick step back to reality, the problem is actually worse than most media outlets are projecting. That’s because there is little mention of the feedback loops. As the Arctic warms and the ice melts, open water absorbs more sunlight instead of reflecting it, warming the Arctic, and hence the entire planet, even faster.
Then there’s the problem with the methane stored in the ice. Methane is a greenhouse gas which is much more potent than C02. A growing body of scientists are speculating that if enough ice melts, there could be a release of approximately 50 gigatons of methane (or more) into the atmosphere, which could raise temperatures at a freakishly rapid pace, with potentially catastrophic consequences for all life on Earth.
It’s as if the ship, on top of being on fire, has tons of gunpowder stored underneath the deck.
But the ship has a new crew, and the captain is the biggest party animal of everyone onboard. Vehemently dedicated to keeping the party alive, he’s gone as far as dismantling the fire alarm system. After all, it might interrupt the fun. He also instructed his crew members to toss all the life jackets into the ocean (along with some of the passengers who won’t stop whining about the heat and smoke from the fire) to make more room for the never-ending celebration.
Indeed, this has been quite a soiree.
Let’s see if they can manage to ignore the upcoming fireworks display.
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