Dear future-born grandchild — as far into the future as possible, I hope! — reading these words… What’s your perspective? Your measure of things? What is the implication of the text you write yourself? Do your eyes glimmer with the same patronizing superiority we have when we look down on funny figures in black and white films…? Triumphant headlines in yellowed newspapers…? Couples, dancing the foxtrot on burning dancefloors…?
Surely, this is where you will look for us: in these residues of “content”, as we call it, of the second decade of the 21st century. This is where you’ll want to capture us: when three, six, nine, twelve! fifteen! successive months made the measurement record books; when we irreversibly passed the 400 CO₂ parts per million mark in the atmosphere; when in July 2016 the land-surface anomaly reached the level of 1.1 Kelvin, and the multi-month averages already indicate at a difference of almost 1 Kelvin compared to the average from the previous century, which already was a few tenths higher… When hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest turn into burnt-out wastelands every year, not only in Siberia and the American West, but also in Alaska, France, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, even Greenland… When the polar ice decline passed beyond two standard deviations on both poles simultaneously, a pattern collapse maybe…
Despite all that, as you know, we still use the term “climate change”, as if it described slight drizzle at a seaside resort, which might ruin a pleasant stroll before a hearty supper… We’re still talking about “the limit of one and a half, maybe two degrees of warming”, visualizing — pale inhabitants of northern latitudes — bright, sunny, and carefree days…
“Nonchalance” is probably the mildest of descriptions, with which… But still, still, are we to blame…?
We would probably be surprised, had we known that we are only 120 generations away from Thales, who had some vision at Latmic Bay and was the first man to recognize the possibility of existence of arché — the origin, first principle that guides the world, that is the source of everything, that permeates everything, and everything is necessarily submissive to it. Thales declared that water is arché, he was unable to see beyond it, but still! as Diogenes Laërtius states in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, it is believed he discovered the seasons, divided the year into 365 days, discovered the movement of the sun between the tropics, and was the first one to “be involved with astronomy and prediction of solar eclipses and solstices.”
He predicted eclipses. He said: “in this many days, the Sun will vanish and there will be darkness in the middle of the day” — and the day did come, when darkness fell upon a sunny day. Can people of today even imagine the fear and amazement our ancestors felt when the Sun followed the prophecy? When, in the thick of darkness, it became clear that there are words everything must submit to? At that moment, the eternal desire of the mind — to stretch the limits of knowledge about the future as much as possible — was promised an efficient method that was to replace divination by steaming entrails, fire, ash, smoke, and dreams. At that moment, logos emerged from the murky waters of the bay — from the depths, from an endless sea, from the ocean, from myth. And lo, there was reason — a thoughtful, comprehensible rule that governs everything and according to which everything transpires. Law emerged — and he who learns it, knows what will happen before it happens.
Would we even still believe that we are only a bit more than a dozen generations from Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, from the time when we started to gather knowledge in a systematic manner? The borders of our universe exploded in a flash, the horizon of our cognition stretched so much — from stationary Earth, fluids, and immaculate conception to telescopes aimed at the Beginning of Everything, microscopes that penetrate the very lining of existence, and genealogy that reaches the time of un-Living. This is where we peek now — with eyes trained for thousands of years only in recognizing snake patterns and antelope tracks — as a consequence of us diligently gathering facts about the world, and using those facts like a ladder to climb towards more facts. Soaring towers of the edifice of our science, constantly heightened by adding new rows of bricks, almost reach the sky, and its archives hold an impressive number of facts — verified and categorized — written in a precise, factual language, so clean and clear that it is transparent to the eye and soundless to the ear.
This is why our scientists, when reaching a conclusion, usually seem uncomfortable. “It is very, very disturbing,” they say for example, after thirty minutes of presenting facts. “It’s high time we take action.”
And nobody listens.
Among tens, hundreds of stories — and in our times, everyone and everything has one, not only the dull and the ignorant Desiderata warned us about, but also every car model and some watches — the one story that occupies the first pages of your schoolbooks, is somehow lost:
Through a subtly denser part of vacuum, dubbed the Local Interstellar Cloud, the Sun hurtles — it’s a ball of hydrogen and helium, weighing two quadrillion kilograms, constantly collapsing under its own weight in the process of nuclear fusion. Every second, four million tons of matter change into energy of over 384 yottajoules, radiated evenly into an almost perfect void, spreading across a billion kilometers. The word yotta designates a one with twenty-four zeroes. There are no specific words for greater numbers in our language.
One hundred and fifty million kilometers from the Sun, among other rubble and space dust, orbits a rotating rock, covered in water and surrounded by a thin layer of permanently agitated gas. The surface of this rock — a delicate membrane, over a dozen kilometers thick at most — is called the biosphere. It’s the only known zone in the universe where life exists.
Over 170 petajoules of energy radiated by the Sun reaches the perimeter of Earth’s atmosphere every second; with albedo of 0.29, this translates to power of over 120 petawatts. The word peta designates a one with fifteen zeroes.
This is the energy that fuels everything.
It turns and mixes ocean waters, constantly dragging billions of square meters of it between the equator and the poles. It vaporizes water from the seas and commands clouds to give it back to earth, supplying mountain rivers and carrying the monsoons. It carries and dries masses of air over the equator, which then flow down the tropics as wind, scorching the desert belt of land from the Sahara Desert, through the Rub’ al Khali, to the Taklimakan Desert; and the Atacama Desert in Chile; and the sands of Australia; and the same dry gale brings the cold, wet polar air to medium latitudes. This energy fashions what we call “climate” — a pattern of cyclical repetition of temperature, humidity, insolation, and wind — the parameters that make the difference between desert sands and fertile lands, and the tundra and the jungle.
Even a hundredth of this energy is enough to trigger photosynthesis in chlorophyll-filled cells of autotrophic organisms — plankton in the sea, cyanobacteria, grass, or leaves of trees and bushes. Photosynthesis is combining simple chemical compounds into more complex structures, like carbohydrates — the fuel of life, and foundation of biomass, the matter, which courses in a circuit, created by billions of organisms: from producers, through consumers, to decomposers — ashes to leaves, leaves to roots, roots to stalks, fibers, pulp, stomachs, tendons, muscles, brains, and then to ashes again. The final station — coal deposits, hidden underground; this the ultimate remnant of this effort of combining and arranging, which did not leave the system — like most of it does — as lazy infrared into dark night sky.
This is life — a twirl, able to sustain its existence, inside a stream of solar energy, which flows around and through everything, holding within everything that is; a twisting, turning turbulence inside a turbulence, that changes its shape and internal program in a constant toil of self-replication. The changes that remain are the ones that allow to function inside the stream on better conditions, at the cost of constantly growing organization, demanding increasing amounts of energy. At the end of this chain of sun consumers are, of course, naked monkeys with ridiculously large brains, densely packed inside their skulls; it’s us. And if only we knew how to stop thinking of ourselves as residents of the highest level of the pyramid of creation, we could maybe see that we are actually hanging on a thin thread of DNA over the bottomless void of the cosmos.
For two million years, we patiently developed the ability to use tools in our African cradle, to (just as the climatic system achieved some kind of temporary balance, resulting in a few thousands of stably warm years) discover the order of the seasons and begin cultivation of plants, a systematized production of food, which created an energy surplus and allowed us to organize on a level unattainable to any other species — as civilization.
Civilization allowed us to proliferate and systematically fill the Earth and subdue it. However, a true explosion of our power happened only when we reached for the energy supplies — underground reserves of the arranged coal, millions of years old. It propelled factory machines, weaving machines, threshers, locomotives, ships with no sails, airplanes, tanks, computers, satellites, hospitals, hypermarkets, and the subway — everything that seems to constitute the obvious fabric of the world, but has been kept in constant motion for decades only due to exploitation of the energy remnants, focused in deposits of coal, oil, and gas.
However, the reaction of burning hydrocarbons, unleashing this excess of energy in foundry furnaces, in power plant cauldrons, and car, ship, and plane engines leads to the creation of simple compounds, including carbon dioxide, just like with reactions occurring in organisms. Organisms purge themselves of carbon dioxide by releasing it outside while breathing; we did the same with fossil fuel burning residues — we simply released them outside.
How could we have known there is no “outside”?
Everything remains within the system, changing its structure, particle by particle. CO₂ molecules (even now, there’s only four hundred of these per million particles of air), just like any particles, absorb electromagnetic waves at a certain range of wavelengths; the absorption peak is at the exact length of infrared waves released by the planet that the other particles allow to pass. This is why some miniscule amount of energy, radiated into cosmos by the Earth before, currently persists in the system. It remains here.
The entire imbalance, resulting from us introducing carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and other gases to the atmosphere, is estimated at only 0.6 W/sq.m. With average density of the stream of solar energy that reaches Earth’s surface around 240 W/sq.m., it is a surplus of about 0.25%. A quarter of one hundredth. That’s it.
The problem is, a quarter of one hundredth of 120 petawatts is 300 terawatts. Tera- comes from the greek teras, meaning “monster”. It designates a one with twelve zeroes. 300 terawatts translate to 300 thousand billion joules per second.
If we gathered the entire might of our civilization — all the power plants, all the engine rooms, all giant engines of all the locomotives, tanks, planes, rockets; all the aircraft carriers, submarines; everything that moves, and everything that’s immobile; the entire mechanism billions of our ancestors were diligently building for thousands of years — the monster we awakened now feeds on energy that’s twenty times greater than that. And it keeps on growing.
The additional heat we gathered for the past sixty years — the one that is now beginning to manifest itself — is estimated at 260 zettajoules. 260 with twenty-one zeroes. 260 thousand billion billion joules, stored within the system.
It’s as if the sun never set anywhere for twenty-five days. This is “one degree of warming”.
Energy is never lost; it only changes form. Higher temperature means higher kinetic energy of particles. Higher kinetic energy means particles are moving faster. The air over the equator rises higher and falls faster, spreading wider across the surface. More water evaporates in the tropics, and greater temperature difference sucks it deeper into land. Warm water flows deeper under polar ice, melting it quicker. The highs are higher, the lows — lower, the fronts — more turbulent, and wind is stronger. Everything is already more intense, even though 93% of this surplus of thousands of billions of billions of joules was assimilated by the oceans. All we see now is but the tail of the dragon.
“One degree of warming” is an unimaginable complexity of effects at the edges of the system — even a global difference of half a Kelvin translates to four Kelvins of difference at the poles. As the distortions progress, these phenomena grow in strength, and even the slightest change in the tiniest of systems creates an incomparably larger reaction in every other connected one. The world is a sum of these coexisting, connected subsystems — how extended is our apprehension of what the world is and what is it like? What can we know about the world warmer by two degrees? Is it within our powers to even have a feeling about the world warmer by three? Do we know where in the weaves of solar energy streams (their relations are still mostly unclear to us, although we are able to discern some of them by following photons traveling from the Sun to this database of ours) hide the tipping points? Interruptions? Changes that alter everything? Peculiar spots where quantity becomes quality, which in turn reveals entirely new worlds?
If we know anything about the interdependence of atmosphere contents and the climate, and the climate and life, it is what we have read from the fossil records of the only known biosphere, never before subjected to such drastic experiments. The data we have comes from varied sources and is constrained by distortions we continuously attempt to eliminate by adding and subtracting some elements. Changes of energy in a system with billions of cubic meters of volume is reconstructed from samples of only a few thousands of measurement points. Such imprecise and uneven extrapolated data is run through models, with which — to the best of our abilities — we project whatever we managed to comprehend from the infinitely dense network of connections between the elements of Earth’s energy distribution system, and store all this information in the memory of our supercomputers.
There’s even enough of what we know we don’t know to only be able to create forecasts by creating averages from results of many cycles of many systems of different models; computers, fed with data from the last four hundred thousand years, were quite accurate in predicting temperature anomalies in the following five years. What warranty does this success grant us in a longer perspective, for the next 25 years, for example? Well, none. If our models are correct in modeling all the important elements of energy circulation, the global temperature change will amount to 0.8K-2.2K in 2040; however, if our models are missing anything important, the change may be different. Here’s what we’ve learned from the latest IPCC report, which is the basis for our decisions, however reluctant they might be — that the loss of Arctic ice is related to the change in albedo, which added 25% to the effects of CO₂ emission of the last thirty years; that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the soil as a result of temperature rise is larger than we thought; finally, that the melting permafrost releases accumulated methane, the greenhouse potential of which is thirty times that of CO₂…
We dubbed this long chain of question marks between the world today and the future of our species “cascade of uncertainty” — isn’t it a beautiful name? Still, only a few people are using it, and reluctantly at that, since it encodes the most terrifying of all the fears of ten dozens generations of the logos civilization — nobody knows what will happen next.
Today, all of this still seems to be unrelated — floods in Peru, drought in South Sudan, the whitening of the Great Barrier Reef all are just news, short, illustrated stories on distant tragedies of unknown people. This is why we still use the phrase “climate change” to describe the change of the world. We’re still talking about a “prolonged drought”, while the desert is progressing north and south. We’re still calling regular rain “exceptional downpours”. We’re still counting “warmest months on the record”, even though these will be the coolest months we’ll spend on the hottest Earth on the record.
So, even though you will think we knew it all — that the destabilization of Earth’s life system already has the status of rapid extinction, and animal population decreased by 50% in half a century; that over half of living species is endangered in the 80-year perspective; that in Sahel, Syria, Mongolia, and Pakistan millions of people abandoned their villages and moved to the cities, and hunger and drought are a threat to tens of millions of people — please, remember that the future is not evenly distributed. Right now, only the clouds over the cities are more picturesque than ever, and even though they result in a small deluge, they eventually give way to an even sunnier aura than ever before. The differences are small and truly insignificant, so do not blame us that in the most important matter of all, we are mainly counting on artificial intelligence that will come and save us from ourselves, and geoengineering, which will allow us to chase these billions of billions of joules into some bottle, even though today we can’t even use a bottle to collect spilled milk. Don’t blame us that a year after signing an international agreement — our only policy — only a few countries treated it seriously, and the one that became the richest thanks to the largest emissions is not one of them. Or that our greatest success is halting the emissions at the current level of a million kilograms of CO₂ sent into the atmosphere every second. Well over three million tons every hour. Almost three billion tons every month. Thirty-three billion tons annually.
And we don’t know that, either. Remember us like that — innocent, fully engrossed in important matters. We lived in cities, had gardens, and in them, bees were circling clover.
september 2016 — april 2017; translated by Piotr Czarnota