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Final Autumn: Climate Catastrophe And Its Spiritual Dimensions – Part 1

Betty J Dabney, Ph.D.


The following scenario and characters are fictional, but similar events could happen where you live:

October 26, 2065 dawned just like any other day for Wang Liu-Wen. He awoke in his small apartment on the fifth floor of a prestigious building in a coastal city by the sea. His wife, Shia-Wei, was still asleep at his side but was beginning to stir.

Liu-Wen considered himself lucky to be in this building. While it didn’t have the panoramic view of those higher in the mountains, it did have the convenience of being right on the harbor. This saved him at least half an hour in his morning and evening commute in his luxury automobile to his job as a supervisor in a software company. He could have taken mass transit, but that would not be fitting for a man of his prestige.

Slowly Liu-Wen got out of bed and reminded Shia-Wei of their dinner party that night. She had ordered special food for it, as well as fresh flowers to decorate their dining room.

Liu-Wen dressed quickly, for there was an important meeting at work with several international vicepresidents who had flown in for the occasion. They could have had a virtual meeting on-line, but these executives liked to fly to Hong Kong for the food and night life.

Always at the cutting edge of technology, Lie-Wen started his car remotely as he drank the last sip of tea and programmed it to drive itself from the parking place in the garage to the front door of the building. The car was waiting for him by the time he arrived downstairs.

Driving along the harbor to his office, Liu-Wen noticed something strange. There was a small leak in the retaining wall that had been built around the harbor to offset the rising sea level. He could see the water trickling down from one spot in the middle of the wall. Many other cities had taken this approach of walling themselves off from the ocean rather than move inland: New York, London, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. The engineers assured them it would be less expensive than moving and re-building the cities inland at higher elevations.

Quickly checking his portable data center on his wrist for real-time sea level in Hong Kong, he saw something alarming: over the past week the sea level had begun to rise even faster than its usual one centimeter per year. Something was happening that had not been anticipated. He looked at the data for other locations in the world; whatever was happening here was also going on in other parts of the world. He was gripped with a fear that scientists had been warning: it was as if all the polar ice had reached a tipping point and melted at once, in the space of a few days.

He looked at the real-time satellite image of Greenland and saw no ice, no snow. Moving his view to the Alps, then the Himalayas, he saw a similar picture: all the snow cover and glaciers were gone. All of them.

“It will be alright,” thought Liu-Wen. “We will have time to react. It won’t take long to build another level on the sea wall.”

The meeting went well, but Liu-Wen kept thinking about what he had seen. He tried to persuade his colleagues to turn the loss of ice and rising sea level into a new business opportunity. At the end of the meeting, Shia-Wei called.

“There is no food, Liu-Wen.”

Liu-Wen was incredulous. “What do you mean, no food?”

“The droughts in China and South America caused crop failures and the grocery cannot get the food we ordered for our dinner party. I checked with other stores in the on-line inventory – it’s the same everywhere. What are we going to do?”

Liu-Wen couldn’t answer. Instead, he stared at the wall of his office and realized that the predictions of the past fifty years were coming true. Then, as he drove home past the sea wall it collapsed. The water came and swept him away.

And, unbeknownst to Liu-Wen, at that moment the last polar bear died.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If Rachel Carson were alive today, fifty-three years after the publication of her seminal book Silent Spring, she might have written this as an introduction to its sequel. Now instead of mass extinction of birds all life on earth is in peril. The mass of humanity on the earth and its never-ending greed for consumption of material goods made from non-renewable resources has exceeded the capacity of the earth to support the life on it.

“Final Autumn” is the new Silent Spring. Each of us has a moral obligation to understand what is happening to the earth and to take personal action to prevent this apocalypse from becoming reality. In this article you will learn about the current and predicted effects of Climate Change around the world and how our reaction can be part of a spiritual practice. Whether they affect you directly or not at the present, it is just a matter of time before they might. We cannot continue with “Business as Usual” or the earth will not be able to support life as we know it within two generations, about fifty years.

What Is Climate Change?

Climate Change, which was formerly called Global Warming, is the unprecedented increase in the earth’s temperature that has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution over the past 100 years or so. While weather refers to acute (short-term) atmospheric events that occur over a period of days to months, climate is measured in decades.

Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project lists ten key indicators of Climate Change (Accessed 19 August 2015):

  • Increasing air temperatures over land;
  • Increasing air temperatures over oceans;
  • Decreasing Arctic sea ice;
  • Melting glaciers;
  • Rising sea levels;
  • Increasing humidity;
  • Increasing ocean heat content;
  • Increasing sea surface temperatures;
  • Decreasing snow cover;
  • Increasing temperature in the lower atmosphere.

What is causing this unprecedented warming of the earth? As shown in Figure 1, there has been a close association with concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and the surface temperature of the earth for the entire historical record of 400,000 years. Recently both have risen dramatically, and most of this increase can be attributed to burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas). Indeed, the correlation between CO2 and global temperature for the entire historical record is remarkable. Other gases such as methane and oxides of nitrogen (the latter also products of fossil fuel combustion) can contribute as well, but the greatest contributor is CO2.

Carbon dioxide occurs naturally and normally in the atmosphere. Our bodies and all animals produce it with every breath from the metabolism of our food. Plants use it in a reverse pathway called photosynthesis to convert CO2 into organic carbon-based compounds. Thus plants and animals complement each other in their needs and exist in a beautiful mutually beneficial relationship. But when the concentration of CO2 becomes too high the equilibrium is thrown off. Indeed, at very high concentrations (above ca. 10% or 100,000 ppm), CO2 is an asphyxiant and can cause death by displacing oxygen.

In May 2014 the concentration of atmospheric CO2 reached an all-time high of 400 parts per million (ppm), and it is still climbing steadily. There is some agreement that 350 ppm is the highest level that will not cause irreversible harm. We are already past that point, and the CO2 is now rising exponentially – that is to say the rate of increase itself is increasing. This concentration has never occurred in the historical record of 400,000 years determined from analyzing CO2 concentrations in trapped air bubbles of very old Antarctic ice. Indeed, climatologists have gone back to the drawing board to develop new models because the rate of change is ten times faster than previously thought. Ten times faster.

How do these gases make the earth heat up? They act as blankets in the earth’s atmosphere and trap the heat radiated by the earth. Figure 2 shows this in a simplified way.

At the present time 99 percent of climate scientists agree that the rise in global temperature is real and is anthropogenic (man-made). They believe if the temperature rises more than 2o C from where it was in 1970 and/or if the CO2 is higher than 350 ppm, the earth is in danger of reaching a “tipping point” where the changes may be irreversible. The historic upcoming 21th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11 “Paris 2015” November 30th to December 11th has set a goal for the 193 member countries. It is to reduce global CO2 emissions by at least 60% below 2010 levels by 2050. However, some scientists (including this one) feel this goal is too little, too late.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence for Climate Change, there is still a great deal of resistance to change on the part of both governments and individuals. They just don’t seem to grasp that life as we know it hangs in the balance. We need a new terminology to describe what is occurring with Climate Change. Scientists have recently begun to use the term Climate Crisis, but that may not sufficiently convey the urgency of the situation. Therefore I propose the name Climate Catastrophe to describe what is happening around the earth now as a result of anthropogenic activity. Viewing the situation as a catastrophe in the present rather than a vague goal many years off may be enough to motivate many people to change their behavior and make a difference.


What Are the Effects of Climate Catastrophe and Why Should We Be Worried?

Within the space of two generations (ca. 50 years), Climate Catastrophe will affect every aspect of life as we know it. In some cases it already has. For the sake of simplicity, we will discuss these effects on the classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

• Earth

There will be dramatic changes in the food supply. Partly because the practice of monoculture has led to depletion of nutrients in the soil, partly because the inexorable creep of warmth toward the more temperate latitudes will require traditional crops either to adapt to heat or grow in higher latitudes/altitudes. Not all crops will be able to adapt. We will see total crop failures and severe famine with increasing frequency and perhaps extinctions of some crops altogether. Severe drought (see discussion under “Water”) will become commonplace.

As food shortages develop in the local and global markets, there will be increasing competition for the limited supply. A joint US-British Task Force on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience recently concluded that global food shortages will be three times more likely because of Climate Change. Events that were previously occurring once a century are now predicted to occur every 30 years. Food riots and armed conflicts over food will occur. As in every situation of limited resources, prices will skyrocket and the poor will be left behind, perhaps to the point of not being able to buy, find, or grow enough food to survive. As food becomes more and more scarce, more and more people will become marginalized and more famines will occur.

Humanity will need to change the way it eats and become vegetarian or even vegan, because of the great quantities of water required to raise meat in comparison to vegetables, and water is in critical shortage (See Section on “Water” below). Figure 3 shows some examples of the cost in water of different kinds of foods. It is evident that all foods from animals require more water kilogram-for-kilogram than plant-based foods. This is simply because animals grown for food traditionally eat plant-based diets but must further convert the plants into meat and fat.

It would be more efficient if people eliminated the animals and ate plants directly.

Perhaps a more pertinent comparison would be the amount of water required to produce different foods normalized to total caloric value, protein and fat. In Table 1 we can see that animal-based foods still require more water than most plant-based diets, with beef being the highest consumer of all. Exceptions are fruits and nuts, which are less efficient than beef for using water to make protein but are still more efficient for overall calories. Vegetables in general require only one-fourth to one-seventh as much water per gram of protein, the most critical component because protein deficiency is the most common type of malnutrition worldwide. Thus a worldwide food catastrophe will be part of Climate Catastrophe. Indeed, some parts of the world are already affected.

In its never-ending demand for more material goods and an unhealthy Western diet that accompanies economic development, people are destroying habitats at an unprecedented rate. Rain forests are cleared to make room for raising beef cattle and palm oil plantations, and are no longer available to sequester CO2. Palm oil plantations threaten the survival of endangered orangutans. Oil-producing plants are the most efficient at trapping CO2 because oil has twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrate or protein. Oil-producing plants would be more valuable to the planet if they were allowed to grow unmolested to suck up CO2.

Besides extinction of some crops, there will be mass extinctions of wildlife in those species that cannot adapt to warming or find new habitats. This socalled “Sixth Great Extinction” has been described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her book The Sixth Extinction, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non- Fiction in the US. While species extinctions and emergence of new species are constantly occurring, the earth is entering an era where the rate of extinctions may be 100 – 1,000 times higher than usual. Scientists are concerned about the Sixth Extinction because it is largely anthropogenic.

While the actual number of species is not known, one study estimated that 75 percent of vertebrates could be extinct within several lifetimes, and several thousand are becoming extinct every day. Some scientists have named this the Anthropocene geological era because the effects of humankind on species and topology are so large that they will alter the paleontological and geological records. Climate Catastrophe with its droughts, heat waves and storms makes species extinction worse, and Climate Catastrophe will occur faster with destruction of vegetation no longer available to sequester CO2.

We will also see different global distributions of diseases as the earth warms. Tropical diseases will creep toward formerly temperate climates and cover larger areas. New heat-resistant strains of infectious agents will appear as part of their adaptation and evolution. This is already evident for some diseases. For example, highly infectious bacterium Vibrio vulnificus from shellfish has been reported in more northerly areas for the first time. Harmful algae blooms (red tides) from massive infestations of algae will also become more frequent in higher latitudes in coastal areas.

Once begun, Climate Catastrophe and ecological destruction feed on each other like a dragon eating its tail. Because everything is connected and interdependent, when we deliberately destroy life of any kind we will ultimately destroy ourselves.