Posed at AGU. “Is Earth F**ked?”

December 13, 2012

Sobering to come away from the world’s largest scientific meeting with a very real and urgent question. One that would have seemed science fiction a generation ago.


Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: “Is Earth F**ked?” But it’s not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.

Nestled among offerings such as “Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics” and “Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle,” the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.  Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he’s the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner’s panel announced the talk’s title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.

Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”

Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet’s critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.

Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:

Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

21 Responses to “Posed at AGU. “Is Earth F**ked?””

  1. jimbills Says:

    A generation ago we had the book “The Limits to Growth”, which spelled out the exact same things (although it didn’t spell out the details of climate change) we’re seeing now.

    As George Carlin says, the Earth will be fine. It’s the humans that are screwed. It’s too bad we’ll erase millenia of evolved species with us, but que sera, sera.

    The best place to understand this is in Al Bartlett’s explanation of exponential growth. We are at 11:59 on the clock. The glass is still half empty, though, and so to many it seems like there isn’t a problem. “Look, there still plenty of room and resources – everything’s fine.” But in reality we have one minute left until the glass is full.

    The only way to avoid it is a unanimous and voluntary power down on the world level. We need to raise the standard of living to comfortable levels in developing countries, vastly decrease the consumption in the developed world, urge population control (one child policies on the world scale), and get 1000x better at managing resource use and environmental effects. We’d have to kill systems that are built to overuse resources and write off the externalities. We’d have to do so against not only deeply held religious and cultural beliefs, we’d have to do this against our own biological urges (achieve status by materialism and the propagation of genes). We’d have to do it against the iron wall of faith in political beliefs and the paranoia of conspiracists. We’d have to do it in a non-violent way, or else 100% unanimity is an impossibility.

    Or, we hit the limits, and we achieve overshoot. There is only one end result from that. We have one minute left.

    • William Burr Says:

      JIMBILLS SAIS. You are Correct but don’t ignore Alternative Energy Solutions to Global Climate Change. We don’t have to Go Down the CO2 Path if We Substitute Sustainable Renewable Resources for non renewable Fossil Fuels. Wind, Tidal, Solar and Geo-thermal Heat each offer Millions of times as much Clean Cheap Reliable Power as We currently need, if Combined with Practical Ways to Store Power. Iceland, Brazil, Australia, the UK, and the EU have already proven the AE Potential. Power Storage Capacity Research has Proven Four Viable Options. 1 Pump Water to a High Resevoir, then Draw High Water thru a Pelton Wheel to Generate Electricity when Needed. 2 Pump Air into an Underground Mine or Oilfield then use Compressed Air to Generate Electricity. 3 Use Electrolysis to separate Water into Hydrogen and Oxygen, then burn Hydrogen as Fuel, which generates 100% Water as Exhaust. 4 Centrifugal Force. Use AE to spin a Heavy Flywheel, then use Potential Energy of the Fast Spinning Flywheel to Generate Electricity.
      All Four Methods of Power Storage are now Being Used to Tailor intermittent Power Supply like Tidal or Wind to meet Demand during Peak Hours. Without Power Storage Alternative Energy like Wind, Tidal, and Solar can’t produce Energy on Demand as Needed. Only Geo-thermal Heat is Available on Demand, and even that 1 Option would meet 100% of America’s need for Power 2500 times over at Current Levels of Consumption. America has a Million Times as Much Cheap, Clean, Renewable Energy as is Currently Required, and only Research, Development, and Private Investment combined with Government Planning can Accomplish this. GreenmanPA

      • jimbills Says:

        William – sorry, but it won’t happen. If it was truly that easy, we’d be doing it.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for renewables, and I think we’ll desperately need them in the years ahead. I think our society is retarded in that it doesn’t realize the urgent need for a ‘green revolution’. But I’ve lost faith that technology will solve the problems of technology. We need a massive power down on the world scale – nothing else will work for the inconceivably vast problems we face. All the projections, even the very optimistic ones with 100% renewables replacement, still put us way above what we need to slow climate change or hold off the other resource and environmental limits.

        This is a VERY difficult thing to grasp. We’re comfortable in our current life, and no wonder – we don’t worry about food right now, we have cool little toys to play with, and most of us don’t worry about shelter or the elements (too hot? turn up the A/C, yo). So we naturally want the future to be like our immediate past, except with even cooler gadgets. But it ain’t gonna happen. The limits are here.

        Whatever. If I’m wrong, great.

        Just a suggestion – it makes it very hard to read your text when you capitalize nearly every word. Not a criticism – just a suggestion. Best wishes.

    • andrewfez Says:

      I listened to an interview on public radio 3 or 4 years ago; maybe longer. The person being interviewed was an author who had translated the science of advertising and brand loyalty psychology into something the common man could grasp (and was cleverly plugging his product on the radio).

      The idea that stuck out in the interview is that once a person bonds with a brand, if and when that brand is no longer in easy reach of the person, they will go against logic and reason to continue consuming that brand. They will irrationally waste resources to secure their brand product. For example, if the drug store near their home stopped carrying Crest Toothpaste, and they were convinced it was ‘the best’ through a flawed belief system, they would travel several miles extra, wasting gas, to secure the Crest paste, at a more distal location.

      Of course we’re talking significant subsets of consumers – not 100% of the folks that like Crest are gonna do that – but a significant amount are.

      Now, apply that same idea to gas consumption vs. electric cars. Apply it to trying to get the public to push against coal, replacing it with sun and wind. And that (the fear of change) is only one in a series of primary barriers. Even when the public is in high favor of something (healthcare reform, etc..), it’s hard to push against special interests to get anything done credibly.

      Thus the first step to get Americans to do anything is to have a darn good advertizing campaign.

      • uknowispeaksense Says:

        Andrew, you can apply it to denial itself. Rather than a barrier to brand switching, it is a brand in its own right with a massive amount of emotional investment. How to switch from brand denial to brand reason is the biggest problem. Once that switch is flicked, the rest falls into place.

        • andrewfez Says:

          I watch, from time to time, the denialists that have set up camp on greenman’s youtube videos in an attempt to ‘create skeptics’, according to one of the major players.

          I’d say the biggest hurdle for those guys is the ability to quantify natural variation versus the CO2/CH4/CFC/etc. signal. They don’t seem to understand the mathematics behind the ideas. One fella seems perfectly capable of understanding part of the math, but he’s in deep, often succumbing to poor rational and the Dunning-Kruger effect, creating delusive rhetoric, etc…

          Recently, what i gathered to be a young geophysics student, who had a high aptitude for math and science, and who was knowledgeable regarding the current climate literature, was engaging these denialists. He was quick to cut their ideas down, and had the lit. references to back up what he was saying.

          Over the course of several months he dropped hints about who he was until the denialists had enough pieces to say, with some probability, who he was. This became a side issue in their debate, and at one recent point, it became the largest subject in their exchanges. The fella, for whatever reason decided to launch a flawed attempt at throwing the denialists off track regarding his identity, which was a failure; he’d already dropped too many hints.

          What came after this failure, was a character assassination, and much self congratulating on the part of the denialists. For all the lousy ideas the student had debunked, he was cast as a liar, cocky, etc… The denialists went further in offering the this guy was the ‘typical climate scientist – a little too sure of themselves, etc..’

          It was fairly entertaining at some level.

  2. William Burr Says:


  3. We have seen the enemy and it is us. We have truely f@@@d up!

  4. What is the point to life? Life. Not now….

  5. William Burr Says:

    Mother Earth is Used to Being Fucked, but is ready to Fuck Back Hard at the Limp Dicks and Motherfuckers who Fuck Her Children to Death. Pity Them when Mother Earth no Longer can Afford to Suckle this Venomous Brood. Then Look for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to arrive from the East bringing; 1 Famine 2 Death 3 Disease 4 Plague. Expect 95% Casualties World Wide when Fiery Comets, or Stoney Asteroids, Plunge to Earth with 150 Million Megaton Explosive Power. Global Warming to 300 Celsius in One Day after Impact upon Oceans. Global Tidal Waves to Circumnavigate Earth for Weeks if not Months One Large Asteroid means Ten Years Global Winter followed by Ice Age. 100 ton Asteriod would equal a Large Hydrogen Bomb Detonated at 1000 ft Elevation. It would look like a Hydrogen Bomb from the Ground, and 100 Kilometres in Diameter the Earth would be Incinerated at 100,000 Celsius, and One Sun Atmospheric Pressure. All Fuel would be Combined to Produce Super Heated Steam and Plasma which would Generate a Deadly Sonic Boom and Circle the Planet with Reverberations for Months. Extreme Fluctuations of Atmospheric Pressure will Trigger Plate Tectonics, as well as Volcanoes, on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Stay 2000 feet above Sea Level, and 500 Miles back if This Happens anywhere on Earth. Islanders keep to High Ground. Good Luck. GreenmanPA.

    • Friendly meta-comment: when you capitalize almost every word, it makes it really hard to read. If you want to get your points across, they have to be read.

      I think the greater influence on the tectonic plates comes from the warming ocean – less dense water spreads out and this changes the pressure on the plates. When land ice melts, it changes the localized “extra” gravitational pull – and the land under the ice will rise up higher, too. The higher ocean level, and the changes in the gravitational pull of the ice will change the very shape of the earth from the “sagging” oblate spheroid toward a more regular oblate spheroid.


      • rayduray Says:

        Re: “will change the very shape of the earth from the “sagging” oblate spheroid toward a more regular oblate spheroid.”

        Are you suggesting more sit-ups for Pachamama?

        Where can I learn more about this sagging? I once visited Saginaw, Michigan, but I suspect that wasn’t what you are talking about.

        And to my friend jimbills. Are you billing hourly, or by the job? I think I’d like to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice” a few fossil fuel corporate CEOs, but I’m worried about getting stuck with a “cost-plus” contract. I need a fixed rate of CEO eradication as a thinking man’s alternative to species eradication.

        You think I’m joking? Of course I am. But apparently not this goddess of the green, Naomi Klein. She’s got more common sense in one hand that humanity does in every smartphone ever invented:


        Oh, yes. I did have a point in posting this idle comment. In spite of all appearances to the contrary. 🙂

  6. Yes, it is. At least as long as “green” anti-nukes work along with fossil fuel interests in holding back the only energy source that is capable of replacing fossil fuels on a large enough scale to matter.

  7. rayduray Says:


    And in an ongoing prediction, it is believed the Mississippi River in the stretch between St. Louis and Cairo will be shutting down in the next couple of weeks, barring some precipitation miracle:

    The Guardian has an interesting video:

    “Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent for the Guardian, investigates critical water levels on the Mississippi. The river has become a vitally important aquatic super highway, transporting more goods than any other road or rail system in the US. Water levels have now reached a historic low, threatening jobs and industry that depend on the Mississippi to survive”


    I loved the comment from the Washington University professor who states the obvious, that America’s love of gigantism is reaching and exceeding the limits of sanity.

  8. Caleb Lawson Says:

    Earth will still be here until an expanding sun consumes it billions of years from now. The issue is whether humanity is “f**ked”. The answer seems to be, yeah, we pretty much are.

  9. […] 2012/12/13: PSinclair: Posed at AGU. “Is Earth F**ked?” […]

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