Climate change and extinction: “We’ve never been here as a species”


Dahr Jamail, a top investigative journalist currently with al-Jazeera, has just published an an eye-opening piece at The Nation with one goal: Waking people up about the seriousness of climate change.

He said he was inspired to write the article after a recent mountain climbing trek to Washington State’s Mt. Rainier, where the glacier that he’d walked across two decades earlier had completely disappeared. Talking to some of the world’s top climate scientists, he notes that the Arctic ice cap is now disappearing faster than anyone had previously predicted and voices deep concern about the dramatic warm-up of Siberia — where massive amounts of the greenhouse case methane are now being released from the ice where it had been trapped for thousands of years.

What’s the significance of that?

How serious is the potential global methane build-up? Not all scientists think it’s an immediate threat or even the major threat we face, but Ira Leifer, an atmospheric and marine scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the authors of the recent Arctic Methane study, pointed out to me that “the Permian mass extinction that occurred 250 million years ago is related to methane and thought to be the key to what caused the extinction of most species on the planet.” In that extinction episode, it is estimated that 95 percent of all species were wiped out.

Also known as “the Great Dying,” it was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of six degrees Celsius. That, in turn, caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, it caused temperatures to skyrocket further. All of this occurred over a period of approximately 80,000 years.

We are currently in the midst of what scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily, a pace 1,000 times greater than the “natural” or “background” extinction rate. This event may already be comparable to, or even exceed, both the speed and intensity of the Permian mass extinction. The difference being that ours is human-caused, isn’t going to take 80,000 years, has so far lasted just a few centuries and is now gaining speed in a non-linear fashion.

It is possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying. Some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible—even in the course of just the next few decades.

Jamail quotes Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of evolutionary biology, natural resources, and ecology at the University of Arizona:  “We’ve never been here as a species and the implications are truly dire and profound for our species and the rest of the living planet.”

His article notes that from extreme weather, flooding, drought and other events, climate change is already linked to as many as 5 million deaths a year — a remarkable number. And yet things will get much worse if temperatures escalate dramatically with the release of methane. While the human body may be able to survive at these temperature levels, our agricultural food chain cannot — which would mean catastrophic consequences for humans, as well as many other species, perhaps in this century, perhaps in your lifetime.

It’s important to read the whole article — summarizing this important in-depth piece doesn’t really do it justice. And he’s not the only serious journalist asking these questions: Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker just published The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History covering some of the same ground. The biggest question these writers raise, obviously, is: What is to be done?

Jamail quotes the climate scientist Ira Leifer as saying that despite the already gloomy outlook, there’s a moral imperative for humankind to do what we can — and I agree with that 100 percent. This is why, for example, I’ve joined millions of others in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the further exploitation of the Canadian tar sands, which produces some of the dirtiest fuel on earth. That will make a real difference and also show that we take climate change seriously. More broadly, here at home, it’s time to stop celebrating our recent surge in oil-and-gas production and devote more of our own energies to renewable sources of power. As Jamail makes clear in this must-read piece, we owe that to our children, and their children. 

Read Dahr Jamail’s new must-read article at The Nation:

Check out Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2014 – All Rights Reserved


Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This