Monday, June 22, 2015

Separating REAL Threats To Human Existence From Specious Ones: The Case Of WR 104

Image result for wr 104
The object WR 104. Why are so many more concerned about it than global warming?

An interesting question directed at me, and received at ALL Experts barely a week ago, concerned how to "defend" against a monster gamma ray burst from the object WR 104. Evidently, this possible event (supernova)  has been on a number of questioners' minds for at least seven years now. It reflects again the inability of the human species to distinguish distant, improbable threats (and events) from much more dangerous proximate ones that concern us in the here and now.

Of course, in the fantasy world of pie-eyed optimists no one would fret about any cosmic threat - or even the Earth getting a little warmer (in their minds). We should all just enjoy the lives we have and simply dismiss all such concerns, understanding that compared to the brutish, short lives of past humans we are living the 'life of Riley'.

Alas, the sober realist, and especially those of more serious scientific bent, can't be so blase.

Anyway, getting back to the question, I had to inform the person that those in the know (astronomers and astrophysicists)  ascribe a large uncertainty to powerful gamma rays bursts from WR 104 . In fact, most of the popular accounts that insist it's "coming" really mean any time from today to 500,000 years from now. That's how much uncertainty is attached to the potential event.

 For my odds, it is likely much later, and global warming is much more likely to take humans out than gamma rays from WR 104.  (Note the most recent data indicate that the mean global temperature rise by 2100 to be 4C-6c - in runaway greenhouse territory).  The worst effect of a gamma ray burst (GRB) from WR 104 would be violently eradicating up to 50 percent of the ozone layer, leading to much higher levels of UVB radiation being absorbed and a major uptick in skin cancers, as well as cataracts.

As for "defending" ourselves I  informed the questioner that I saw no technological way to do it. In fact the only moderate way to do it is passive: i.e.  to ensure we aren't enlarging the ozone hole over the Antarctic given any WR 104 GRB is estimated to take out 50 percent of the ozone layer.

Thankfully the cessation of use of CFCs (chloroflourocarbons) via the 1987 Montreal Protocol has caused human input of CFCs to stop - which were eroding the ozone layer. The bad news is that erosion is still going on because of the long length of time (up to 1,000 years) that CFCs remain in the atmosphere.  Still, recent research suggests that it is feasible all ozone hole erosion can be halted by 2070.

I then reiterated that it is much more important  we concern ourselves with the vastly more immediate threat for human extinction:  the runaway greenhouse effect. Are we talking about  a "little warmer Earth" to make us sweat a bit more and feel uncomfortable? No, we're talking about extinction level events and heat - with all existing human technological prowess reduced to useless dross, especially power grids.

We're talking of fires blazing across two thirds of the planet from dawn to dusk and temperatures topping 120F, or close to what New Delhi experienced for over a week earlier this month. Only this time going on for months. We're talking of little respite even at nightfall with temperatures still in the 100F -110F range. We're talking of millions dying, unable to get relief from the unbearable heat - or  even  to garner enough water because the electricity use will face such demand that even the pumps to bring up water into pipes will cease working.

Thus the Pope was absolutely correct in his encyclical when he warned:

"Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades."

The problem is that the onset of the runaway greenhouse may be as close as two decades.

However, the effects of unmitigated climate change are experienced in the here and now, and have drawn alarm in serious quarters. For example, both insurance and re-insurance companies (like Munich Re) are already factoring in major extreme weather events - such as the flooding in TX and drought in CA - as climate change related and computing current and future costs of premiums on this basis - as well as potential future payouts.

Meanwhile, few ordinary citizens are aware that on April 24 this year the 'Defense, National Security And Climate Change Symposium' was held in Washington, D.C.  At the Symposium Brigadier General Stephen Cheney stepped up to the podium to discuss 'Conflict and Climate Change'. Cheney, like some other speakers- zeroed in on climate-driven migration, asserting:

"We know for a fact that climate change is already driving internal and cross border migration"

Referencing here, for example, that in Bangladesh - the 'ground zero' of global warming- rising sea levels could displace 15 million by 2050. Oxford University's Norman Myers has projected there could be as many as 200 million climate refugees by mid-century.

Cheney's presentation tagged a number of conflict climate triggers, including the desertification in the borderlands between Chad and Nigeria which "has caused a lot of migration". He also indicated that the terror organization Boko Haram "is simply taking advantage of that".

Other aspects of Cheney's talk cited beefing up military infrastructure at home and abroad to be resistant to harsher climate. The army, in fact, has adopted a 'Net Zero' initiative to make its U.S. bases water and energy independent.

Less well known is the Dept. of Homeland Security's Climate Action Plan. In effect since 2013, the Plan acknowledges that it may be necessary to prepare U.S. border for "frequent, short term, disaster driven migration".  The Plan anticipates legal and illegal movements across the U.S. border because of "severe drought and tropical storms".

More unsavory, the presence of over 100 military weapons vendors at the 9th annual 'Border Security Expo' in Phoenix in April - all slavering at the potential to make war on climate refugees - which would spell profitable business opportunities.

Climate change - global warming, never mind the seemingly small increments (which delude too many into complacency), is the most serious threat humans face. Can humans still be happy with their situations and not be overtaken by constant misery? Of course! But it would be stupid to single-mindedly pursue a perpetual "happy"   while being oblivious to the calamity unfolding around us- to the extent of emulating the proverbial ostrich with head buried in the sand.

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