Friday, August 14, 2009

Why "Polar Cities" Might Not Ever Be Needed

Dear Mr. Bloom,

Thank you for your message regarding my letter on climate change today in the newspaper here. I am happy to answer your inquiry about polar cities, but I have a different view than you do. Please hear me out. I have done a lot of thinking about this.

Now, as to your idea on ''Polar Cities'' for which you sought my reaction.
Before answering, I looked at your blog. I note from it that the idea
of high northern latitude survival pods to benefit perhaps a few hundred or
thousand people originated some decades ago with James Lovelock. I am not a
physicist/biologist, but it strikes me as perhaps a reasonable strategy if
one believes that global climate change truly is likely otherwise to
obliterate the entire human race or make nearly the entire remaining planet

However, I doubt those two propositions, and thus I also doubt the pod concept
and, even more, the need to develop in a deliberate, organized fashion Polar
Cities to accommodate hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. I
say that for two reasons.

First, as you noted in your Blog, such a project would raise many
difficult questions (i.e. obstacles) and may be infeasible--for political
and financial, if not also for technical, reasons.

But, more fundamentally, as I noted before, I do not think mankind faces least not from climate change. Rather, I suspect that we
eventually will adjust to it, although at a VERY high price, perhaps
including the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. I think our
adjustment mechanisms will come in two forms:

-- First, since mankind (and political systems) have a tendency not to "wake
up" and inconvenience themselves or sacrifice until faced by clear and
immediate emergency (not the mere prospect of it down the line), I believe
that a really effective response to climate change is unlikely to emerge
among the nations until the physical and economic repercussions of it are
already upon us all in VERY serious ways. By that time, the built-in
momentum of the greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere and the changes it
is causing may take 1-3 centuries to reverse, even after a program of crash
measures is implemented. Perhaps current (and early-stage) research on
exotic high-tech methods to more quickly cool down the planet may bear
fruit, but that research is in early stages, of uncertain prospect, and
those techniques themselves could pose real peril to the planet from
unintended effects--so I have my doubts they will ever be implemented.

Thus, I think mankind is going to have a very rough ride for a century or
two and will face catastrophic consequences, affecting first and foremost
water and food supplies. Those consequences will be felt disproportionately
by the Third World, which tends already to live at the margins of safety, to
be stretching its environment due to overpopulation, and which in large
measure lies precisely in those regions of the planet most vulnerable to
climate change. I am thinking of the Sahel and near/Sahel regions of
Africa, most of the Middle East, Central Asia (including parts of China),
the Indian Subcontinent, and of course sundry low-lying islands in the
Pacific and Indian Oceans.

I foresee the potential in such regions for mass famine, chaos, and the
breakdown of political order and social support institutions in many areas,
perhaps resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions. That, regrettably,
will be one of the "natural adjustment" mechanisms the planet has to cope
with climate change and perhaps restore some balance. It will be a
Malthusian mechanism: namely, the reduction of population will reduce the
global demand for energy and with it the emission of greenhouse gases.

The other adjustment mechanism, perhaps just as important (and far to be
preferred), will be the development eventually of new technologies to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions, and the economically difficult shift of many
national economies (sparked finally and belatedly by the dire effects of
climate change catastrophes) to less intensive energy consumption and the
adoption of modern, if expensive, technologies.

In the meantime, climate shift in fact may make the Polar regions more
habitable. If that occurs, I don't think we will need to "organize" through
pre-designed Polar cities some human and economic migration to such areas.
It will occur of its own accord, given among other things the skyrocketing
cost of food and thus the economic lure of agriculture in such heretofore
difficult regions.

In sum, since I don't think mankind faces extinction, I don't think Polar
Cities are necessary for now
, and some of them may occur of their own accord
(not government-sponsored/designed/organized) as the far northern latitudes
become more habitable. Now, that conclusion of mine rests on the assumption
that, in the clear face of disaster, mankind will eventually find the
political will to mend our energy consumption/greenhouse emission ways over
the next century or so. If that does NOT occur and we go through another
two or three centuries of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, then at that
point--and here I emphasize I am not a climate scientist--perhaps the
climate changes those colossal emissions cause would, indeed, threaten the
planetary biosphere as a haven for mankind and make more relevant far
northern hemispheric biopods (or biopods wherever) for a small portion of
mankind to survive. But that is a decision not required for another hundred
years or more. Let's hope that, horrible though the deaths of millions or
billions may be, mankind wakes up in time to avoid even worse consequences
for our species.

My answer may not entirely satisfy you, because it is at some
cross-purposes to your current advocacy of the proposal. But it is
intellectually honest on my part, and I hope you will take it as such.


___ _________, Washington DC

No comments: