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Jonathan Schell, Climate Change, and the (Still Pending) Fate of the Earth

Mark Izeman

Posted April 4, 2014

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It would be overblown to say that the writer Jonathan Schell changed my life.

But it is not a stretch to say that Schell, who died last week at the age of 70, played an instrumental role in my decision to become an environmental advocate.

And much more importantly, his famous book The Fate of The Earth helped influence a generation to tackle head-on the threat of nuclear arms proliferation.

The book came out in 1982 – the year I started college –and it scared the hell out of me.

In an elegant and calm tone, a large chunk of the book described what the Earth might look like in a post-nuclear apocalypse. 

            Thumbnail image for SCHELL-obit-videoSixteenByNine1050.jpgThumbnail image for the-fate-of-the-earth-jonathan-schell.jpg

That is most of what I remember from reading the book more than 30 years ago, and its psychological punch led me to get involved in anti-nuke issues.

A few months ago, I re-read the book and what I took away the most was not the vivid “day after” depictions. 

Instead, I was struck a key observation he made about the societal response to the impending nuclear threat and how this insight may be applicable to our current climate change crisis.

Specifically, Schell pointed out that despite the enormous scientific evidence of what nuclear obliviation would bring, there was little political or public action to address this threat.

 “We have thus far failed to fashion, or to discover within ourselves, an emotional or intellectual or political response to” nuclear arms, he wrote.

Schell continued: “This peculiar failure of response, which hundreds of millions of people acknowledge the presence of an immediate, unremitting threat to their existence and to the existence of the word they live in but do nothing about it…”

Fortunately, his 1982 book, as The New York Times noted in its obituary, was “widely credited with helping rally ordinary citizens around the world to the cause of nuclear disarmament.”

And while huge challenges still lie ahead, major gains have been made by decision-makers in confronting nuclear proliferation since the book was published.

The outlook for combating climate change, however, remains very uncertain.

Just this week, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new scientific report on what our planet will look like without significant, immediate action. Among other dire predictions, the IPCC study details what only a few degrees of warming on the planet will do to trigger new extreme weather events, coastal flooding, drinking water scarcity, species extinctions and large reduction of food crop yields. The UN report also confirmed that many large-scale impacts are already underway throughout the globe.

Fortunately, the IPCC also says in effect that there is still time for the global political or “decision-making” process to minimize climate change impacts in the future through bold mitigation and adaptation measures.

Yet despite mounting scientific evidence on the monumental impacts of climate change, and that 97% of climate scientists agree that warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, our collective response to this generation’s biggest global threat remains muted.

It is unclear what it will take to invoke the type of public or political reaction to climate change that Schell called out for – and got to a large extent – on the issue of nuclear arms.

But for the fate of the Earth, I hope it is very soon.

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JakeApr 5 2014 09:45 AM

It is interesting to note that not only has warming "paused" for the past 13 years, and not only has the warming in the deeper ocean (the explanation for the "pause") slowed, but according to data from the University of Colorado, sea level rise has "paused" for the past 2 years.

Of course, I am sure all of these pauses will end at some point, but it is still more and more evidence that the worst case scenarios painted by the Sierra Club are out of line with reality.

On the one hand, we're told sea levels will rise 4 feet in the next 85 years (that's over 0.5 inch per year). In reality, sea levels are rising at about 0.13 inch per year, and have actually not risen at all in the past 2 years.

Every year that passes, it gets harder and harder to make the 4 feet by 2100 claim, but I'm sure that won't stop you.

JohnApr 6 2014 11:47 AM

Just a quick response to Jake. I am not a climate scientist but have been interested in the issues of overpopulation, pollution and nipuclear war since I was in university and took a course coving theses issues. "The fate of the earth" was one of the books we read and discussed.

The idea that somehow a system as large as the planet, literally, is going to change in a simple straight forward progression steadily rising each year to fit the curve is simplistic. This is a very complex problem and requires a long view. What we need to determine are what are the impacts on the overall system when we create a major change in the overall equation.

To give you some idea let me pose an possible explanation to the pause that has been noted and then ad a few issues that may impact an acceleration in warming going forward.

The slow may be as a result I of the melt that is occurring. When the water is released it is carried into the oceans, because it is cold it sinks cooling the deep ocean and dropping the temperature. There are two scenarios as to what this means. The cold super oxygenated water is a boon to plankton blooms that have a very positive effect on reducing CO2 as they draw in CO2 produce oxygen and then sink to the ocean floor trapping the CO2. The cooler temperature extending beyond the polar regions, think of ice melting in a glass, could also cause period if time that causes lower temperatures modified weather patterns that produce more snow and extend glaciers. If that occurs the snow covered portions of the planet reflect more of the radiation from the sun off the planet. In theory this could trigger further cooling. This theory postulates that warming could lead to a cycle that in fact leads to an ice age.

The other side of this equation says that the shirt term pause may be just that, a pause. This one fits the more common sense result of warming, where is apparently a great deal of methane that is currently trapped in the floor of the ocean in the north and in the tundra that is currently frozen. There is a tipping point where the temperature reaches a certain point and that methane is released and accelerates the greenhouse gas temperature rise, entirely melting the ice caps and radically changing to temperature to the plus side.

Climate change is the correct term for this complex system. When we disrupt the cycle the results are difficult to determine but they are going to have an impact. The reality is that we may not be able to do anything to stop this cycle.

Does that mean that we should not try to understand what is happening and what we might do to improve our chance of survival?

JakeApr 9 2014 06:55 AM


I have no illusions that global warming has stopped. My only point is that the evidence clearly shows that the progression is much slower than environmental groups want us to believe. I am sur both pauses will end soon, and the upward march will resume.

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