Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Future of Human Survival

it is proposed that the future survival of humans on Planet Earth, now threatened by global warming, will depend instead on the immediate implementation of three key actions-

A Mandate for Global Cooperation

Co-option of the Power of the Internet/Web

Immediate Implementation of Mega-Baseload sustainable energy projects  

Steinbeck’s harrowing narrative – Of Mice and Men and the devastating power of the recent hurricane Sandy, have a great deal in common.

The current powerlessness of humanity in the face of global warming related natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy is a wakeup call for the future direction of a civilisation heading towards oblivion.

Steinbeck’s novel portrayed two displaced migrant ranch workers and their dream of settling down on their own piece of land during the great depression- only to find that their best laid plans go awry and their aspirations end in disaster.

And so it is with humanity’s benign view of nature tailored to human aspirations; but now shown to be a mirage, as climate change in the form of roiling extreme events demonstrates the powerlessness of human society when faced with the overwhelming might of  environmental catastrophes.

And when the causes are proven to be primarily human induced, except to diehard climate deniers, then it is vital to address those causes before our dreams of a vibrant future civilisation vanish in the blink of a cosmic eye.

According to the recent climate report commissioned by the World Bank, humans must immediately implement a series of radical measures to halt carbon emissions or prepare for the collapse of essential ecosystems; resulting in the extinction of numerous animal and plant species and widespread starvation, coupled with the displacement of tens of millions of people in coastal  areas and an explosion of diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever.  The report states that the resulting massive storms, floods, droughts, blizzards and heat waves will wipe out whole cities and communities, eventually leading to widespread conflict, which could cause the destruction of the fragile fabric of democratic society.

Also according to new forecast data from the Global Carbon Project, released at the Doha climate conference and published in Nature magazine, the world is on track to become an ‘unrecognizable planet’, with temperatures reaching between four and six degrees by the end of the century.

Since 1990 carbon emissions have increased by over fifty percent, not including the projected release of huge amounts of methane from the thawing of Arctic ecosystems. According to NASA estimates, although the climate has changed due to natural influences in the past, human generated emissions imposed on top of this variation is now driving change twenty times faster than pre-industrial times.

So what can be done?

Any plan to save the planet and its life cargo must incorporate the following immediate implementation of three key actions –

·        Mandate Global Cooperation

·        Co-opt the Power of the Internet/Web

·        Implement Baseload Sustainable Energy Projects  

Global Cooperation

This is essential and obvious. No one nation or group can succeed in halting climate change, without the cooperation of the majority of other nations, particularly the heavy carbon emitters such as the US and China.
Actions in one location will inevitably have repercussions to varying degrees in all others.

Gradually humans in all countries are realising that only through cooperation on a global scale can they effectively survive the major threats to their survival in the future. In the areas of health, technology, agriculture, trade, environmental management and disaster relief, global partnerships are beginning to make a significant difference to the lives of the disadvantaged.

Global cooperation will also involve strengthening the democratic process in those autocratic states that do not reflect the true will of its population. Those nations that do not wish to cooperate, including free riders, should be excluded from other economic benefits, such as sharing in climate research and trade assistance.

Global warming and its impact on the ecosystems and biodiversity of the planet is one of the most critical areas where cooperative research is essential. With the very survival of the planet at stake, conserving ecosystems and the services they provide such as maintaining clean air and water, is now seen as vital to human self-interest and survival. A number of climate change related cooperative networks have already been established to track impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems, agriculture, and disease spread, using earth orbiting satellites.

Until comparatively recently, managing resources, infrastructure and catastrophes has been largely an ad hoc affair run on a country rather than regional or global basis. This is not surprising considering the evolution of our civilization, which has been based on a largely competitive, winner-take-all model between individuals, organizations, cities and nation-states.

Over the last few decades however a realization has dawned that this is an extremely inefficient and counterproductive approach and totally unsustainable in the modern carbon-induced warming era. Although still operating in largely fragmented mode, humans are beginning to mobilise cooperatively, creating global research consortiums, trade and business alliances and knowledge exchange networks.

In summary- global warming is now perceived as the dominant threat to humans and our present civilisation. This will manifest increasingly in more extreme events such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, blizzards and heat waves, putting at risk the sustainability of the planet’s fresh water, food, air and infrastructure.

In addition, rising sea levels will put at risk two thirds of the world’s major cities and most low lying coastal areas. Loss of biodiversity will put at risk the integrity of fragile ecosystems and dependent food chains. Increases in deadly diseases such as malaria and dengue fever will put at risk human life on a grand scale. In worst case scenarios the risk of escalating chaos and conflict will spread globally, across both developing and developed countries.
The Doha climate change conference, with delegates from 194 countries, is committed to building on the achievements of the previous three conferences, in Copenhagen, Cacun and Durban- by reducing climate change gas emissions, setting up a $100 billion fund to assist developing countries adapt and implementing an emission reduction verification system.

But without an enforceable plan it is highly unlikely that global average temperature rises will be limited to 2 degrees by 2030, as has been documented by the IPCC and World Bank reports.

Fossil fuel useage continues to accelerate, driven largely by the growth imperatives of both developed and developing economies; and according to a recent UN report has increased by 20 percent since 2000.  As a result temperatures are expected to breach the two percent threshold by 2030 and climb beyond four degrees by the end of the century.
In which case it’s game over!

Regardless of the immediate causes of global warming- man made or so-called natural variability, much greater preparation for the coming profound changes to our planet needs to be addressed now, at both the technological and social level.
Tomorrow is far too late.

Over the past 50 years the world’s population has almost doubled to 7 billion, global consumption of food and fresh water has more than tripled, fossil fuel use has quadrupled and vertebrates have declined by over thirty percent. And now we are running at 150% of the planet’s sustainable resource capacity.

It is therefore clear that managing the planet’s capacity to provide life with a future is the paramount goal that must focus all humanity’s skills, creativity and knowledge, from now into the far future. The current methodology of trying to reach a consensus on emission reduction strategies on a country by country basis, boosted by yearly conferences, is far too slow. With a timeframe of 100 years it might have been doable, but time has now run out and the looming cost of failure is incalculable.

To survive, the pieces of this jigsaw now need to be joined into a coherent whole. This is too critical a matter to delay- waiting for politicians, business leaders and bureaucrats to reach consensus. The inertia in the social system has to be cut through, just like the Gordian knot, by a groundswell of grassroots action, starting with a coalition of committed social activist groups.
A new framework, unfettered by the inertia of history is essential.

 Co-opting the Power of the Web

A tipping point is rapidly approaching when all the drivers of global warming will converge and rapidly escalate uncontrollably including- the release of deadly methane from the warming tundra; melting of the polar ice sheets causing drastic ocean current changes and coastal inundation; loss of key animal and plant species triggering the collapse of the fragile ecosystems and the web of life.

There are still uncertainties in the complex modelling of hundreds of climate related variables, but the critical benchmarks and limits are now agreed by all countries.

Adaptation is the critical word. But while the Governments of developed countries are bickering over emission levels, individuals, NGOs, communities, enterprises, cities and regions are acting. They are establishing renewable energy projects on a massive scale- using solar, wind and biofuels to power homes and the Grid; harvesting run-off water in urban areas; switching to crops better suited to hotter, drier and saltier conditions; adopting strategies to adapt to coastal inundation; changing to public and alternate transport; building more energy-efficient buildings and infrastructure.

A massive mind shift is occurring across the planet, triggered by this global crisis. A more intelligent, cooperative and creative process is evolving.

There is now an urgent need to harness   and amplify this process, applying the full data resources and intelligence of the Web to coordinate and manage major programs relating to global warming and survival of the planet and human civilization.

A global clearing-house of climate information needs to be urgently established to keep communities informed on the local ramifications as well as global impacts to their environment as well as the optimal basis to proceed. This will involve applying the best science, intelligence and adaptive technologies to each problem area.

The global science, technological and engineering databases are available to achieve this- right now. They just need to be effectively linked; not too hard one would have thought when the lives of 7 billion people and the welfare of the planet and life itself are at stake.

Local specialists in each region and country, coordinated by UN global teams such as the IPCC would gather and feed all relevant climate change data into the web on a continuous basis, much of it autonomously from satellite and sensor sources; harnessing its enormous computational intelligence to deliver a constantly updated series of forecasts and mitigating options. These could then be authorised and acted upon at the relevant community level, eventually also autonomously, bypassing inefficient modes of hierarchical decision-making with inherent conflicts of interest. This is no time for the niceties of perfect consensus – it is survival at its rawest as in any war.

There is also a vital need to better understand the global social interrelationships enmeshing the society in which we live and the effect that these have on the planet as a whole. We also need to know how to leverage the benefits of global social systems, while at the same time limiting any downsides they may generate.

Both the environmental and social analysis will include deploying sophisticated predictive models of unprecedented scope and complexity as projected by the European FuturICT project. Labelled- 'Reality Mining', the plan is to gather information about every aspect of the living planet including its life-forms and use it to simulate the behaviour and evolution of entire ecosystems and economies; helping predict and prevent future potential crises. The Living Earth Simulator is expected to predict for example, potential economic bubbles, impacts of global warming, pandemics and conflicts and how to best mitigate them.

The focus is on preparing for a smarter future for planet earth- creating solutions for managing more efficiently and reliably the world’s infrastructure, energy, food, water and health. This will be achieved through harnessing the immense power of advanced artificial intelligence, mathematical, computational, information and communication, control and modelling techniques.

The FuturICT project has the potential to nucleate and accelerate this process, operating as an essential catalyst and mobiliser for managing our future. But there are many other advanced projects with the potential to complement this grand design and working in parallel to help complete the big picture; in essence coordinating and focusing the entire knowledge base and mind-power of our civilisation as a global organism- a superorganism.

This must implemented as a world- wide public project, in the same manner as the Internet and Web; with each component of the planet’s intellectual mosaic- individuals, research groups, corporations and governments, contributing and mining their knowledge resources- each according to their creative capacity and expertise.

Such a global vision is too fundamentally vital and complex to be funnelled through private organisations, politicians or states. It must instead function as a self-organising supra-national entity- evolving eventually as a largely autonomous system.

Managing the planet therefore will involve the massive task of coordinating thousands of techniques, technologies, systems and initiatives to gain the maximum leverage within the timescale available.

Copenhagen demonstrated the difficulty in gaining consensus even for the essential task of implementing a global carbon trading system - but now we must go much further and coordinate all our intellectual capacity.

But time is precious. The Doha climate talks must mark the beginning of the end of further procrastination.

So is this a feasible proposition? Yes, but only by applying adaptive, autonomic system technology, capable of responding dynamically to changes in the physical and social environment. Such a system will need to include the ability to self-organise and self-optimise its planning and operations – to discover, innovate, simulate, create, predict, apply, learn and continuously gain intelligence- to ensure optimal outcomes.

It is increasingly evident that there is only one practical mechanism to ensure the ultimate success of such a gargantuan endeavour- harnessing the intelligence of the Web itself. It must be nurtured and engineered to become self-organising and self-adaptive partner in this process, in order to reach the goal of managing a sustainable future- essential for us and our planet.

The computational and engineering technologies are available and feasible today, but the willpower and capacity to subvert nationalistic rivalries is in short supply.

But the stark truth is that without such determination, humanity is doomed. 

 Implementing Mega- Energy Projects

The solar energy absorbed by the earth’s oceans, atmosphere and land in less than two hours is more than the total energy the world uses in a year.
Solar technology is therefore a contender- ready and waiting to displace a large chunk of fossil fuel dependency. Just as it seemed that the mega fossil fuel producers of coal, natural gas and oil would drive Planet Earth over the carbon cliff, major advances in the efficiency and cost of solar power along with wind and biofuels is ramping up, particularly in countries such as China and Germany.  .

A massive surge in research and innovation has pushed solar energy to the point where crossover from fossil to renewable energy is feasible, for most domestic, transport and light industrial applications, within the next few years. And the technology is also now available for building base load industrial power plants within the next decade.
There’s no choice about making the switch if humans are to survive. The latest news from Doha tells us that unequivocally. The US has just experienced one of the most extreme droughts and heat waves in its history leading to grain shortages globally, as well, one of the most violent hurricanes in US history wiping out the low lying areas of Manhattan with a massive storm surge.

And this is just the beginning of a world that we won’t recognise by 2050 if we don’t adapt. But on the bright side a number of industrial base load energy projects are already under development including-
In Africa-

Desertec –part of the Great African Grid- a proof of concept project based in Morocco, aiming to supply 15% of Europe’s energy from the solar power of the Saharan desert- and

Medgrid- another North African project linking solar and wind farms, with 20GW of generating capacity of which 5GW would be exported to Europe.
In Europe-

These and other renewable energy projects will in turn become components of a future European SuperGrid, channelling renewable energy across North Africa, the Middle East and Europe; serving as the backbone of a larger European SuperSmart Grid.

Countries such as Germany are now leading the charge in solar technology manufacturing, as well as other renewables such as wind which is becoming widely used across Europe. Germany already generates 4% of its energy from solar power. On a sunny day this can increase to over 35%, including energy from a million solar panels on houses, buildings and the sides of highways: more solar panels than rest of world combined. It is expected to be 100% renewable energy dependent by 2050.
Spain took the lead in Europe as one of the most advanced countries in the development of solar energy, with a major solar thermal project up and running with a capacity of 3.5GW and by 2020 expects to have an installed generating capacity of 10,000MW.

In the Middle East-
In Saudi Arabia, which is the largest exporter of crude oil, and like Abu Dhabi and Qatar uses a lot of its fossil fuels to power desalination plants, the tide is turning. It has announced a $109 billion plan to create a solar industry based on thermal concentrated solar power- CSP, to generate a third of the nation’s electricity by 2032, focussing the sun with mirrors to drive turbines and storing the energy in molten salts. With this technology the Saudis could export solar energy for next twenty centuries.

Along with 16 other industrialised emerging economies Qatar has signed the agreement on establishment of the Global Green Growth Institute and announced at Doha that it will invest $20 billion in a 1,800 megawatt solar energy plant.

In Asia-
China leads the world market in the manufacture of green economy products in solar and wind, with a huge push to reduce carbon intensity, recently achieving a reduction in fossil based electricity generating emissions of 9%.

Other Asian countries including India are likely to follow China’s lead.

But as well as breakthroughs in technology, a major driver for adoption of renewables is the shift towards sustainable architectures for urban living. The recent advances in solar technologies referred to below, are ideally placed to support this evolution.  
Within ten years the impact of global warming will dominate city planning and architecture. Buildings will be designed to conserve energy, with surfaces utilising flexible thin film and organic solar panels and most surfaces will be utilised to collect runoff water to support sustainable horticulture. 

Efficiency and recycling savings of the order of 30% of today’s levels will be available from the application of smart adaptive technologies in power grids, communication, distribution and transport networks, manufacturing plants and consumer households. Garbage will be totally recycled, with organic waste generating significant levels of methane energy for local heating, lighting and food production. Excess capacity will be fed to the major power grids, providing a constant re-balancing of energy supply across the world.

A new generation of  solar technologies is now positioned to mesh with this revolution and includes advances in solar photovoltaics, nano-materials, advanced thermal power generation, thin film surface coatings and artificial photosynthesis- to name a few.
These advances portend economies of scale, efficiency and cost that will soon begin to challenge the economics of fossil fuels, and be capable of supporting commercial applications- quite apart from the small issue of saving humanity from a Venusian future.

Solar and wind alone have the potential to support the world’s domestic and industrial energy requirements. Deserts and heat radiation will continue to increase in a world of global warming and should be seen as assets rather than liabilities.

With sufficient clean energy and the requisite technological, engineering and scientific knowledge, together with a funding and carbon pricing mechanism equivalent to 1% of global GDP, civilisation and the planet’s biosphere can survive. Already a Robin Hood Tax has been mooted at Doha to boost the Climate Change Fund- a tax on financial transactions to help those countries most vulnerable to climate change. Such measures have set the precedent for a future Climate Change survival levy on all nations.

As mentioned, base load power plants capable of supporting industry and the needs of major cities are already being established on each major continent in desert areas, supplemented if necessary by wind on both coastal and inland high airflow areas and biofuels generated from waste products and bacteria.

These could be fully operational within the next decade and linked to major grid infrastructure if a global cooperative focus could be achieved.

The availability of fresh water would follow. Storms and heavy flooding will be an increasingly common phenomena in our future world.  In cities much of this water can be collected from rooftop and street surfaces and recycled. In country areas it can be more efficiently damned and channelled into giant wetland reservoirs and existing river catchment systems without further destructive damning, where it can also replenish natural ancient aquifers.

For populations near the coast, vast quantities of sea water including in flooded river deltas, can be purified using the latest low energy reverse osmosis desalination technology. If energy is cheap and inexhaustible, water from ocean desalination can also be piped inland for major irrigation projects.

With sufficient energy and water, many horticultural crops can adapted and farmed intensively along with chickens and pigs near cities- even fish, if the oceans are too acidic.

The world’s resources are now running on empty, mainly because we continue to use fossil instead of renewable fuels. We are slow learners, with the problems of pollution and the economics of greed tied to an obsolete economic model of never ending growth and waste.

Most ancient civilisations collapsed because of prolonged droughts despite ingenious catchment, storage and irrigation systems. The limitations of those first civilisations can now be overcome despite huge population increases if the inexhaustible energy of the sun can be efficiently harnessed and our greed curtailed.

It appears that the inertia and resistance from existing fossil fuel industries- big oil, coal and gas and their acolytes, is a greater impediment to change than technological barriers and is sufficient to stymy such initiatives, even when society is on life support.
The stakes are so high in fact that it’s really no contest, especially when early prototype megaprojects are already up and running with proven sustainable energy technology.

What’s more important- limiting the power of an industry or nation – even powerful ones such as big oil or the US- or losing the planet and our children forever?
If the human race and its civilisation is to survive it has to make this choice and switch to a sustainable future immediately- without further hesitation.

It will mean putting aside a number of cherished but now irrelevant and in the present crisis, dangerous myths- primarily that any one industry, group or nation is more important than any other.
Europe despite the Eurozone crisis has shown that it’s possible for different nations to live in peace and harmony after thousands of years of conflict. If Europe can do it and has done it for over 50 years, then why not the world?

The US is a major impediment because of its insane and arrogant notion that it is still the pre-eminent alpha nation.  In a future cooperative multipolar world it will have to give up the idea that its goals or citizen’s aspirations are more important than those of Denmark or Latvia or New Zealand.
Big War will have to go as well. Major conflicts have been gradually winding down as democracy has increased. This evolution will just have to speed up.  Once global warming starts, there will be no more budgets for wars or fighting.  As the real carnage of global warming kicks in, countries such as China and the US will have to become allies, allocating all their wealth to maintaining critical infrastructure, food and civil security for the wellbeing of their populations. In such a world cooperation will be far more effective than competition for survival.

And so, as in Steinbeck’s fable ‘Of Mice and Men’, human society will always need to be humbled by the realisation that no matter how advanced its future becomes technologically, there will always be limits to its hubris, which if not heeded, may quickly turn dreams into nightmares.  

1 comment:

  1. Although we must, it's not easy to be optimistic about the future of the planet.