S. David Stoney, Ph.D.

Coming to Grips With Climate Change

Consciousness without freedom is useless; freedom without consciousness is senseless.

Our task is to accomplish, by reason, by love of life, and by a resolute will to cooperate, what evolution by means of natural selection can not: the survival of civilization and the modern mind that it supports across the interglacial/glacial transition.

"To the long list of predicted consequences of global warming - stronger storms, methane release, habitat changes, ice-sheet melting, rising seas, stronger El Niños, killer heat waves - we must now add abrupt, catastrophic coolings.  Whereas the familiar consequences of global warming will simply force expensive but gradual adjustments, the abrupt cooling and drying promoted by human-enhanced warming looks like a particularly efficient means of committing mass suicide."  (William H. Calvin, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

"A major finding of this study is that the only thing we can be sure of is that there will be climatic surprises.  Physical, ecological, and human systems are complex, nonlinear, dynamic, and imperfectly understood.  Climate changes are producing conditions outside the range of recent historical experience and observation, and it is unclear how the systems will interact with and react to the coming climate changes."  (National Research Council, Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, pg. 155, 2002)

I. Introduction - Getting Real

The issue is not "if" earth's climate will shift into a glacial phase, but rather "when" and "how rapidly" the shift will occur (see Understanding Our Predicament).   The future of each culture depends on how this plays out, together with the extent to which each culture has adequately planned for the transition, given their own unique vulnerability. The future of civilization depends, of course, on the viability of individual cultures and on the extent to which intercultural links can be maintained across the climatic transition.

First let's address the easy part, i.e.,  "How rapidly will the interglacial/glacial phase transition occur?"   Will the interglacial/glacial transition be a sudden change, a "flip-flop" as William H. Calvin referred to it in his informative article in the Atlantic Monthly?  Or will we have a long period of slow change suitable for gradual adaptations to be worked out?  Here our thinking should take into account the lesson learned from the Cold War: we must incorporate worse case scenarios into our planning, even when uncertainties are large.  Since climate models seem to be a long way from being able to accurately predict the future course of global warming, much less the topsy-turvey events that will accompany the transition to glacial phase temperatures, our best guess about what to expect must, at least for the time being, be based on information about past interglacial phases.

Regrettably, the (Greenland) ice core data only goes back for about 250,000 years, to the second to last glacial phase, because all of Greenland's ice melted in the third to last interglacial phase.  So, we only have data for the last two, and the most certain of that data is from the early parts of the current interglacial, the last glacial,  and the interglacial phase immediately before it.  Here's what the data shows :

II. What to Do?

So, our task is to begin planning for an event whose final magnitude is pretty well know (think of the earth's situation at the last glacial maximum about 18,000 years ago), but whose rate of development is uncertain.  I propose to that we consider three scenarios, involving abrupt, fast, and gradual transitions, with abrupt being 100 years or less, fast being 100 - 500 years, and gradual being greater than 500 years for the transition to glacial phase temperatures.  Obviously, the terminology is quite different from what we normally think of as "abrupt" or "fast," but we need to be thinking about the time scales for changing our ways of thinking, time scales for changing the way our culture approaches the world, all in the context of very considerable uncertainty and in the face of eons of subconscious fear.

Time Frames for Considering Responses to Global Climate Change

ABRUPT (<100 yrs) FAST (100 - 500 yrs) GRADUAL (>500 yrs)

It is too soon to propose specific adaptive trajectories, and, furthermore, each culture's adaptive trajectory will be dictated by latitude, population, and access to migration, so one size will very definitely not fit all.  Nevertheless, certain broad arenas of effort are worth comment.

A. Science and Education.  A massive, global effort is required, including more and better science, with more and better computer modeling.   The current fragmented approach, while allowing the benefits of competition and essential for dealing with local prospects, may actually be slowing down the rate at which we gain knowledge about global climate.  Why not operate the supercomputers of Brazil, Australia, Japan, China, India, Europe, Canada, and the US as a parallel network to model global climate?  Surely that would be a more important computing task than programming supercomputers to shoot down dummy warheads from space?

No individual can assume, however, that someone else will solve this problem for him or her.  Everyone has the responsibility to begin educating themselves on this issue.  For example, if you think that "global warming is an unproved theory" or if you're thinking that it would be "nice" to have four children when you marry, then it is possible that you are simply ignorant on the subject.    If each of us is unwilling or afraid to address the issue of impending global climate change in our own lives, then how can we expect or ask for better leadership from our elected officials?

There is so much we need to begin learning about:

B. Reproductive Rights.  It is fun, of course, to celebrate our animality and, in fact, as I argue elsewhere, to ignore our ancient origins is a fundamental mistake.  Nevertheless, it seems clear that the celebration of fertility is, under "normal" conditions, most appropriate for the early portions of the interglacial phase when rapid population increase from the low numbers that are sustainable during the glacial phase is desirable.  Family planning, availability of contraceptives, and reproductive restraint, along with the acknowledgment and development of new roles for women in the world, would seem particularly appropriate for the late portions of the interglacial phase.  In the industrialized world, heterosexual women and men, with an interest in reproduction, might want to consider withholding sex from potential partners who refuse to learn about the climate cycle.

C. Politics.  The reality of abrupt global climate change is a recent addition to the radar screen of human consciousness and some leeway can be granted to our leaders to allow them to get up to speed on this issue.  However, the issue is important and time may be short, so it seems unlikely that we shall be able to continue to afford "the best politicians that money can buy."  Instead of politicians who owe their election to special interest money, we must demand politicians who are knowledgeable about the global climate cycle and who are willing to engage the issues of what to do.  Politicians who obfuscate, deny, or delay should not be supported for more than one term in office.

D. Property rights.  Well, damn! It turns out we're all renters, after all!  Congress should immediately cease the income tax deductions for second homes built in vulnerable areas.  Individuals who build second homes along the coast should be responsible for insuring their homes against any sort of property damage that occurs due to storms or sea level rise, as well as the cost of home removal when sea level rises.   Tax payer dollars are going to be needed for more important projects, such as tax credits for single home families who live at the coast and who desire to dismantle their homes and move to higher ground.  Surely "private property" should continue to exist in the glacial phase, but the presumption that unlimited accumulation of wealth and land by individuals is highly desirable appears to be most appropriate for the early parts of the interglacial phase, i.e., what we have mistaken for "normal" conditions.

E. Cooperative international accords.  Nations north of 40° north latitude will be most powerfully impacted by a change to glacial phase conditions.   No doubt many people will prefer to stay put in their land of birth, whatever the conditions and prospects.  In many other cases, a sizable portion of the population will want to immigrate to another country.  Countries should begin planning now to make room for and integrate large, new groups of people into their cultures.   Maintenance of human rights, trade, monetary stability, communication, and food and energy supplies will be critical for the success of such projects.

F. Courage and Hope.  We must not underestimate our capabilities.  While it is true that human beings have often, for the sake of perceived self-interest or simply because of stupidity, behaved badly, it is also true that we have never before known ourselves to be faced by such an impersonal, global, equal opportunity destroyer.  There is no choice but to face this situation together with courage, holding Hope close to the heart.  Although it is certain that no one person can succeed alone, we must admit our uncertainty about what we can do if we work together.   Nevertheless, it is better, I suggest, to hang together, than to hang separately.  The carry over of best hopes and values to future phases of the climate cycle may be very significantly greater with a cooperative rather than a competitive strategy.


1. Experiments in group psychology have clearly shown that problems that require the cooperative efforts of opposing groups can break down group boundaries and lead to reconciliation.  See, for example, Irving D. Yalom (1985) The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, NY: Basic Books, especially the footnote and related text on pg. 67.  It is standard fare to suppose that we could all get along if faced with an invasion of mind-stealing aliens from outer space.  Well, abrupt global climate change, though not as sexy, ranks right up there as a threat and we will rue the day if we fail to react appropriately to it.