The Pity and the Wonder

Part 4

by Patrick Lewin (other parts: 1 2 3 4 5 6)

from Signs of the Times, No. 26 - Jul 2007

Doomsday was approaching in the form of an overwhelming flood. A worldwide hook-up of television networks was arranged at unprecedented speed for the day before, to enable religious leaders around the globe to deliver brief words of advice and comfort. The Pope spoke first from the Vatican, his prescription a thousand Hail Marys. Billy Graham implored everyone to fall on their knees and open the doors of their hearts to the Lord Jesus. Then came the Chief Rabbi with the stern visage of an Old Testament prophet. 'You've got exactly twenty-four hours,' he said, 'to learn to breathe underwater.' 

If we laugh or smile approvingly at the last speaker's realism, isn't it in part because we don't believe a word of the entire story? After all, we are not fundamentalists. We know that catastrophic floods are a reality and that some in the past were attributed to the anger of the gods. There is a Noah figure in several mythologies. Manu is the Hindu one.

Despite the prominence given to eschatology in the New Testament - the study of the four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell - Christian liberals aren't alone in recognizing that the world view of the writers was very different to ours, and if we do have a sense of responsibility it is all the better for not being driven by fear. Fear, however, may have given way to complacency.

'Doomsday', stripped of its supernatural association with the judgement of the gods, lives on in science. A hypothetical Doomsday machine would be a weapon so lethal none but an irrational political leader or a Dr Strangelove would think of employing. Enrico Fermi in Chicago designed and directed the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, so the University of Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists devised a clock-face known as the Doomsday Clock, its hands first set in 1947 at seven minutes to midnight. Since then the hands have been moved eighteen times, the closest being two minutes to 'Armageddon' in 1953 when the US and USSR both tested hydrogen bombs, the furthest in 1991 to seventeen minutes when a new nuclear arms treaty was signed following the collapse of the USSR. Advanced in 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, and again by two minutes on January 17, 2007, it now stands at five minutes to midnight, the reason this time the added threat of global warming.

The Drake equation was devised by the American astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, endeavouring to calculate our chances of contacting alien civilizations. The last of its terms is the length of time any technological civilization like ours, capable of communicating with alien life yet also possessed of fearsome weapons, survives before it annihilates itself or bombs itself back into the stone age or its equivalent on another planet. And, intriguingly, that number of years is said to be close to the first term, the number of such civilizations in our galaxy. If the number is only, say, 100, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which Drake founded, is a waste of money. If the number is 10,000 the chances of fruitful exchange are much greater.

The late Arthur Koestler called himself a qualified optimist because, although the baddies, among whom he numbered us, would self-destruct, that would leave the good to go out and propagate among the stars. (Which would be no bad thing since it would make the notion of star wars an absurdity.) A chapter on evolution in Freeman Dyson's Imagined Worlds , 1995, ranges gracefully across time-scales from ten years to infinity surveying the possibilities should we or alien civilizations succeed in colonizing space before the home planets become uninhabitable.

The 'Doomsday argument' was first put forward by the Australian theoretical physicist Brandon Carter, then at Cambridge, in 1983. This makes use of the Copernican principle or 'principle of mediocrity' in which, since we no longer think of ourselves as at the centre of the universe, we try to avoid thinking of humankind as exceptional. On one calculation about sixty billion of us have died. There are six billion alive today so, if we are not to be exceptionally early or late, the total number of humans before we become extinct shouldn't be much more than a hundred billion, and at the rate we are breeding that could be within one or two centuries. 

Our Final Hour?

Now what scaremonger would write a book discussing such matters with the title, Our Final Century (in the United States Our Final Hour , both publishers in 2003 omitting the author's question mark), subtitled 'A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future - On Earth and Beyond'? Do we remain complacent when we know the answer? It was Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, now Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

One of the world's leading cosmologists, with a light touch he takes the general reader soberly through many of the reasons for not being complacent and rates the chances of our civilization surviving beyond the end of this century at no better than 50/50. Furthermore, in 2002 he staked $1,000 on a bet: 'That by the year 2020 an instance of bioerror or bioterror will have killed a million people.' He adds: 'Of course, I fervently hope to lose this bet. But I honestly do not expect to.'

He is not saying there will be no survivors. The implications, though, for our children or grandchildren are almost too dreadful to contemplate. Another reputable work covering the same ground is the British-Canadian philosopher John Leslie's The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction , 1996, paperback 1998. 

In theory, no one who reads a serious newspaper, particularly The Independent, can be left in any doubt about the consequences of climate change aka global warming. In practice, we bury our heads in the sand. In a trenchant column on 11 June, 'What makes us think that we can entrust the future of the human race to these people? The G8 was a slap-in-the-face reminder that we can't leave it up to our leaders to choose a sane path', Johann Hari referred to a remarkable new book by Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet , 2007. Lynas, who was born in 1973 and took a First at Edinburgh in history and politics before becoming an expert on climate change, summarized it in The Guardian on 23 April, 2007: 'Six Steps to Hell'. It is a real-life Dante's Inferno.

For this, as the seasons passed in Oxford, he 'trawled through tens of thousands of scientific papers' so that they became the basis of his chapters, each describing what will probably happen to Earth one degree warmer after another as the average temperature rises. As we fail to stop each rise, the next changes will become more severe and harder to reverse.

For instance, during the rise to three degrees it becomes probable that most of the Amazon rainforest, ordinarily so humid that the wood is not fire-resistant, will be destroyed in one tragic conflagration, releasing its huge store of CO 2 (the principal greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere, after which during the fourth rise Siberia's melting permafrost will add more CO 2 and the deadlier methane gas. With methane hydrates venting up from the floor of shallower seas we reach the level at which the 'Great Dying' took place some 250 million years ago when up to 95 per cent of all living creatures perished.

What makes this particularly chilling are two facts. First, we have an inbuilt psychological resistance to taking on board whatever information is too unsettling, and secondly the evidence, in his words, 'illustrates how hopelessly inconsistent current climate policies are - even of some major environmental groups. The European Union has mentioned (though not formally adopted) a 550 ppm target [carbon dioxide parts per million; it is already 380 and mustn't be allowed to peak above 400], whilst at the same time demanding that global temperature rise be kept below two degrees. Friends of the Earth [whom he praises] only seeks to achieve a CO 2 stabilization of 450 ppm, despite the fact that this carbon concentration, according to the best available science, gives a 75% chance of missing its two-degree target. Many other groups are caught on the horns of the same dilemma: that only by advocating 'politically unrealistic' CO 2 concentrations can runaway global warming be avoided. But then what is politically unrealistic for humans is wholly unrelated to what is physically realistic for the planet.

'So if our target is two degrees, in order to avoid the unstoppable climatic domino effect of positive feedbacks, global emissions of all greenhouse gases must peak by 2015, and drop steadily thereafter...

'So is the conclusion of this book really that we have only eight years to peak global emissions before facing escalating dangers of runaway global warming? Regrettably so... '

There is one further fact. The three atom bombs in 1945 that ended World War Two, and the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, were arrestingly dramatic, as would be global warming were it to cause the White House roof to fall in on a complacently sleeping president. Instead it creeps up insidiously on us, allowing us to argue that the scientists have got it wrong, that there's nothing we can do, that some new scientific breakthrough is sure to save the day...

We used to believe that Almighty God loved us too much ever to allow us to destroy ourselves. We used to believe in Santa Claus.

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Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.