The Only Two Things That Matter

There’s one from the manufactured world, and one from the natural world. Both of them will profoundly disrupt everything we do on our beautiful blue planet.

We’ve known about both of these things for a long time, but we either haven’t taken them seriously or we don’t believe they are real. We are not addressing either of them in any meaningful way.

The first is the computer-robotization of everything we do.

You’ve already seen pictures of the robots that make everything from cars to watches to cheeseburgers. In every case, these robots have replaced real live workers, lots of them, and only a few of those workers still work where the robots moved in. The rest may or may not have jobs.

But you may not be as aware that these robots—by which we also mean computers—have also taken over millions of other jobs, even high-salary jobs on Wall Street. Not even top executives are safe, because newer algorithms can make executive analyses. In some cases all the top executives have been replaced by a small staff of seriously computer-wise Indians, who do the same jobs for a fraction of the cost.

have already taken over
many thousands of jobs.

Check out Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots. Ford will convince you that unless we make some radical changes—namely, creating conditions so the bulk of the population will get some benefit from the money gained by machines owned by billionaires—we face a grim future where no one has work or money except the billionaires. It’s a very serious situation, but it’s not hopeless, as long as we don’t try putting off for a half-century what must be done today. Unfortunately, it may result in a pitched battle against billionaires who can’t imagine surrendering a penny to the rest of us.

The situation with climate change is completely different. It’s already far too late to avoid climate change. Now we can only try to deal with the emergency.

It’s already far to late too avoid climate change.

Climate change has been in the news for so long we’re all tired of hearing about it. It’s boring, and the conservatives whose income would be most affected by our doing something serious enough to actually make a difference can’t bring themselves to understand that their party is over. But it is, and no one will be exempt from paying for the festivities, even those who didn’t get to go.

The subject doesn’t bore scientists; it scares the hell out of them. They understand the consequences of our failure to respond with even a small fraction of what we must do. In fact, they understand that it’s too late, far too late to prevent global warming and climate change. If we were able to stop pumping all carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in an instant, the temperature would continue to rise for decades. It might take Earth 100,000 years to get back to “normal”, as we think of it.

Climate change
scares the hell out of scientists.

We have already set in motion several forces that will continue to worsen for the foreseeable future. Among them are the progressive melting of polar ice, accelerating melting of every glacier on Earth, the melting of ancient permafrost that releases carbon dioxide and methane—which is five times as damaging as carbon dioxide—and the melting of huge masses of ice on Greenland and Antarctica. All of these things are susceptible to a tipping point, after which they cannot be reversed. We may already have passed some of them.

The latest estimates are for three meters of ocean rise in a mere 50 years. That’s the height of a basketball rim.

This summer we’ve had temperatures that challenge human ability to survive. Wet-bulb temperature—which tells us what it feels like—in the eastern Mediterranean, Pakistan, and parts of India have reached as high as 165ºF. Like simmering in a slow cooker. There were thousands of deaths, just like in Europe a few years ago. Every summer will be like that, or worse.

This year we had thousands of deaths
from low-oven temperatures.

California is experiencing record temperatures and record dryness. In San Francisco, even surfers in the usually cold ocean have told us the water is abnormally hot. There is good reason to think that the fourth year of drought is not actually a temporary drought, but a return to the historic arid norm. Read The West Without Water, by Ingram and Malamud-Roam, to learn about the science behind this.

No part of our world will be unaffected, and most effects will be drastic. Ocean acidity is rising rapidly, affecting every living creature in the sea. Oyster harvests are sharply down because the acidity prevents them from making strong shells, and they will probably never recover. Rising ocean temperature has already had drastic effect on coral reefs worldwide. It will take only an ocean rise of a couple of feet to put most of Florida under water, and hundreds of millions of shore dwellers around the world will have to move to higher ground. High tides already come up from city sewers, put streets under water, and slosh over sea walls. Now, imagine what three meters will be like.

No part of our world will be unaffected,
and most effects will be drastic.

These are not things that can be fixed by new technology, or another agriculture miracle. The planet is changing, irrevocably. Now we have to learn how to deal with it, and it’s much more serious than most people seem to think.

This is not a political issue. Climate change deniers in Congress—every one a Republican—are utter fools who have been risking the lives and wellbeing of every living thing on the planet for decades. The worst of them is Senator James Inhofe, a Republican appointee who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, a position where he has been able to kill all reasonable action for years. It’s hard to say which is worse, that such people are beholden to the promise of money from planet-killing activities like coal mining, or that they are too stupid to understand science.


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