[Excerpt] At least since Noah, and likely long before, we've stared in horror at catastrophe and tried to suss out deeper meaning – it was but weeks ago that the Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, declared that the earthquake/tsunami/ reactor tripleheader was "divine punishment" for excess consumerism. This line of reasoning usually fails to persuade these days (why are Las Vegas and Dubai unscathed by anything except the housing meltdown?) but it's persistent. We need some explanation for why our stable world is suddenly cracked in half or under water. Still, over time we've become less superstitious, since science can explain these cataclysms. Angry gods or plate tectonics? We're definitely moving towards natural explanation of crises.
Which is odd, because the physical world is moving in the other direction.
The Holocene – the 10,000 years through which we have just come – was by all accounts a period of calm and stability on Earth. Temperatures and sea levels were relatively stable. Hence it was an excellent time to build a civilisation, especially the modern kind that comes with lots of stuff: roads, buildings, container ports, nuclear reactors. Yes, we had disasters throughout those millennia, some of them (Krakatoa
, say) simply enormous. Hurricanes blew, earthquakes rocked. But they were, by definition, rare, taking us by surprise – freaks, outliers, traumas that persisted in our collective history precisely because they were so unusual.
We're now moving into a new geological epoch, one scientists are calling the Anthropocene
– a world remade by man, most obvious in his emissions of carbon dioxide. That CO2
traps heat near the planet that would otherwise have radiated back to space – there is, simply, more energy in our atmosphere than there used to be. And that energy expresses itself in many ways: ice melts, water heats, clouds gather. 2010 was the warmest year on record, and according to insurers – the people we task with totting up disasters – it demonstrated the unprecedented mayhem this new heat causes. Global warming was "the only plausible explanation", the giant reinsurer Munich Re
explained in December, of 2010's catastrophes, the drought, heatwave and fires across Russia
, and the mega-floods in Pakistan
and elsewhere were at least plausibly connected to the general heating. They were, that is to say, not precisely "natural disasters", but something more complex; the human thumb was on the scale...
Originally posted April 2, 2011 at The Guardian