Climate Change: An Urgent Case for Altering our Practices

Climate Change: An Urgent Case for Altering our Practices

Many of the current and future effects of climate change are being reported in our media, and we are all developing a deeper understanding of what is at stake.  Most reporting portrays serious but gradual changes in our environment, although there are occasional references to "tipping points leading to catastrophe."  Typically, these tipping points or catastrophes are not explained, so they seem academic and somewhat remote.  

As the planet heats up, we are learning that a number of significant changes are occurring.  From animals perishing by being unable to adapt quickly enough, to melting ice sheets, to forests and oceans becoming uninhabitable for micro- and macro-organisms, we appear to be on the verge of several major tipping points, ecologically speaking.

With this first article, I aim to clarify how studying the past can inform the future, particularly in terms of global climate change.  If we continue to release greenhouse gases at our current pace, we may see a massive disruption, far worse that those outlined above, which paleontologists are revealing from analysis of past extinctions.  One hopes that as more people become aware of this threat, we will shift to emergency measures in the very near term for cutting carbon emissions to zero.

The work of paleontologists -- as interesting as it may be -- hardly seems relevant to how we lead our lives.  But the recent work of some paleontologists proves just the opposite. The relevance of this knowledge couldn't be more important to our current living patterns and our future.

Since the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon 545 million years ago, there have been five major extinctions and a number of smaller ones.  Phanerozoic means "visible life" in Greek. This fossil record, along with other physical traces, allows the paleontologists to recreate past events.

About 250 million years ago, the largest extinction by far occurred between the Permian and Triassic Periods, called the Permian Triassic Boundary Extinction, or P-T Extinction. The paleontologists estimate that 95 percent of animal and plant species in the biosphere died off.  

Scientists have investigated the causes of the different extinctions for some time. For example, the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction, which killed the dinosaurs, is now largely believed to have been caused by an asteroid hitting the earth. But what was the cause of the catastrophic P-T Extinction?  

Scientists have found that at the beginning of the P-T extinction period, a breach in the earth's crust in Siberia allowed a massive outpouring of magma -- called the Siberian Traps -- over hundreds of square kilometers, and with it a huge release of carbon dioxide and methane.  While this release significantly warmed the oceans and the atmosphere, some scientists believe that the warmer oceans triggered the release of an additional, much larger quantity of frozen methane hydrates from the continental margins under ocean waters.  This led to very different conditions everywhere on the planet and a huge die off of flora and fauna.

Methane is a byproduct of the decomposition of biomass. It is estimated that 99 percent of all methane hydrate -- methane frozen in ice crystals -- is at the bottom of the oceans, and one percent is in frozen tundra.  Most of the focus in public discussion has been on the release of land-based methane hydrates ("the tundra is melting and out-gassing").  While this source of methane is problematic, the oceans pose a far, far more serious potential release of methane.

If the release of methane in the ocean is "slow" enough, then anaerobic bacteria will consume it. If the release is too "fast," then much of the methane goes into the atmosphere, where it is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.

During the P-T extinction, heat and acid rain killed most of what grew, ran, or flew on land. It took 10 million years in the Triassic Period for the biodiversity to begin its return, and another 10 million years to fully restore it.  

Scientists have determined that we have been releasing carbon dioxide faster now than at any time in the Phanerozoic Eon. If we continue at this level (or greater) of carbon emissions, it seems more a question of when, not if, we will create conditions where huge quantities of oceanic methane hydrates will be released.  Rather than taking thousands of years, they speculate that a methane release could take place over a much shorter period, given the high rate of carbon emissions in which we now indulge.  

Our civilization is generally unaware of the real possibility of a catastrophic disruption like the P-T Extinction happening in a "human time scale."  Awareness of this threat should motivate us to take emergency measures now to cut our carbon emissions to zero in the next few years.

In my next column, I will provide guidelines for using a tool known as the Greenhouse Gas Calculator which will enable business owners to calculate their current baseline of carbon emissions and set reduction goals.  In the meantime, you can calculate your own carbon footprint and set personal reduction goals by visiting the following websites: Similarly, if you want to learn more about this issue, I suggest reading "The Methane Catastrophe" by Dan Dorritie, and "Climate Code Red: The Case for a Sustainability Emergency," by David Spratt and Philip Sutton. For now, the Dorritie book is only available online at http://www.killerinourmidst.com.  Expecting to publish the book in 2009, Dorritie explains in very interesting detail the largest known planetary extinction and offers additional information on how the earth works, how the oceans and land and atmosphere all interact, in a very accessible read. Information in this book may forever change your perspective on the urgency on reducing the drivers of climate change.

In "Climate Code Red," Spratt and Sutton report a very compelling case as to why we're beyond the phase when we can "think about this." They show that global 2007 emissions exceed the worst case scenarios of climate models and why drastic actions are needed to reduce our CO2 emissions footprint.

Christopher (Kit) Ratcliff, FAIA, NCARB, LEED, is the third-generation leader of Ratcliff, the century-old, award-winning architectural firm in Emeryville, California. He has pledged the firm's resources toward sustainable practice in concert with the AIA's 2030 Challenge and is committed to bringing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change to the attention of clients and colleagues.  Visit www.ratcliffarch.com to learn more.