Climate Change: A Catastrophe in Slow Motion

By Pierrehumbert, R. T. | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Climate Change: A Catastrophe in Slow Motion


Pierrehumbert, R. T., Chicago Journal of International Law


I. INTRODUCTION

The word catastrophe usually brings to mind phenomena like tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, or asteroid impacts-disasters that are over in an instant and have immediately evident dire consequences. The changes in Earth's climate wrought by industrial carbon dioxide emissions do not at first glance seem to fit this mold since they take a century or more for their consequences to fully manifest. However, viewed from the perspective of geological time, human-induced climate change, known more familiarly as "global warming," is a catastrophe equal to nearly any other in our planet's history. Seen by a geologist a million years from now, the era of global warming will probably not seem as consequential as the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs. It will, however, appear in the geological record as an event comparable to such major events as the onset or termination of an ice age or the transition to the hot, relatively icefree climates that prevailed seventy million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. It will be all the more cataclysmic for having taken place in the span of one or a few centuries, rather than millennia or millions of years.

Humans have become a major geological force with the power to commit future millennia to practically irreversible changes in global conditions. This is what Bill McKibben refers to as "The End of Nature."1 As an example of the impact life has on global climate, the imminent global warming caused by humans does not stand out as unique or even unusually impressive. When oxygen-generating photosynthetic algae evolved between one and two-and-one-half billion years ago, they changed the composition of one-fifth of the atmosphere, poisoned much of the previous ecosystem, and more or less terminated the dominant role of methane as a greenhouse gas (oxygenation also, to be fair, set the stage for evolution of multi-celled organisms-the animals and plants we know and love). And when plants colonized land half a billion years ago, they vastly increased the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide is converted to limestone in the soil, leading to severe global cooling. One hardly wants to contemplate the kind of environmental impact statement that would have to be filed for either of these innovations.

What makes global warming unique in the four billion year history of the planet is that the causative agents-humans-are sentient. We can foresee the consequences of our actions, albeit imperfectly, and we have the power, if not necessarily the will, to change our behavior so as to effectuate a different future. The conjuncture of foresight and unprecedented willful power over the global future thrusts the matter onto the stage where notions of responsibility, culpability, and ethics come into play. The philosopher Hans Jonas finds in this "imperative of responsibility" a need for a fundamentally new formulation of ethics-one that takes greater cognizance of future generations and of the biosphere at large.2 It is against this backdrop that the foundation of international institutions capable of dealing with the catastrophe of global warming must be seen.

II. UNIQUE PHYSICAL ASPECTS OF THE CLIMATE CHANGE PROBLEM: IMPOSING OUR WILL ON THE NEXT 5000 GENERATIONS

In this section I will review the basic physical features that make global warming fundamentally different from all other pollution problems faced by humans. The problem of ozone destruction by chlorofluorocarbons (the "ozone hole" problem) was a small warm-up act sharing some characteristics with the global warming problem. But because the ozone hole problem was somewhat more limited in scope, and abatement of chlorofluorocarbons did not force society to confront any really difficult economic decisions, it is in a qualitatively different class. Human-induced emissions of several gases other than carbon dioxide also contribute to global warming, but in the long run, carbon dioxide is by far the biggest player and the most embedded in economic activity. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Climate Change: A Catastrophe in Slow Motion
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.