Sunday, January 20, 2019

What can you do to prepare when you can’t?

"A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does."

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.” —
Revelation 16:10
 
Suppose for a moment that you lived in, say, Syria in 2001, and through some special gift of clairvoyance, you knew what lay ahead in the coming decades. 

Most of those around you seem utterly clueless. Your country has been ruled by Hafez al-Assad, who declared himself President following a bloodless coup d’etat in 1971. Over most of your life, Assad had led what was called the Corrective Movement. Assad’s program was economic socialism, strengthening the private sector’s role in the economy, drawing a sharp line between church and state, and encouraging multiculturalism. While
 Hafez al-Assad
Assad was minority Alawite, he had reached out to bring ethnic Sunnis into senior positions in his government, the military, and the Ba’ath party. He attended Sunni Mosque to show his ecumenical spirit. By 2000, the gradual progress of Syrian economic and social development was plain to see. And now, after the old man’s death in November, his son Bashar al-Assad is popularly elected President. Bashar’s wife Asma is Sunni Muslim, born and educated in Great Britain. This is a progressive, up-and-coming country. 

You would have to be extraordinarily gifted to see what your world will look like 20 years later. Perhaps you are. You may, for instance, grasp the significance the attack of 911 holds for your nation because within the Sunni branch of Islam, Saudi Arabia is strenuously ultraconservative Wahhabi. They are so fanatical they might even imagine being able to attack the Great Satan and get away with it.
Asma and Bashar
Or you might know that having a foreign policy calling for the dissolution of Israel and the return of Palestine might be bad for your own relations with the Great Satan. It will not escape your notice when the Ba’ath party is banned in neighboring Iraq in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Alawites, such as the Assad family, are a separate ethnoreligious group from Sunni Muslim. In Syria, they are mostly a coastal population, about 11% at the inception of the Corrective Movement and about 17% today. The Qur’an is only one of their holy books and texts, and their interpretation has very little in common with the Sunni interpretation and goes much farther back. Genetic studies trace the Alawites to the Arameans, Canaanites, Hittites, and Mardaites. They were massacred by the Crusaders but later became allies when they realized the Crusaders were not a rival Islamic faction and shared many Alawite beliefs and practices. Alawites drink wine in communion (Ali’s transubstantiated essence) and allow alcohol socially, in moderation. They believe in a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. To Alawites, these aspects, or emanations, appear cyclically in human form throughout history. Alawites also believe in reincarnation.

These beliefs and practices, along with separation of church and state, made the Assad regime one of the most Western-oriented in the Middle East but raised animosity among other branches of Islam. Bashar’s succession of power from his father and push towards free market trade brought about more income inequality, high youth unemployment, and also coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in the Middle East, the driest 15-year period of the last 900 years, and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. An influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War and occupied territories in Israel didn’t help, either.

As part of the wider wave of the Arab Spring protests, discontent with Bashar Assad escalated to armed conflict in 2011. Many long-simmering scores vied to get settled. Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) smelled opportunity and perhaps a shot at a Caliphate. A loose alliance among opposition rebel groups, including the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, White Helmets and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, came together ostensibly to root out ISIL and that worried Turkey, who was not all that keen on arming the Kurds. Kurdish separatism extended well across the Turkish border.

Struck on three sides and losing ground, Ba’athist Syria and the Syrian Armed Forces, back peddling, sought help from Iran and Russia. Russia, after initial hesitance, decided Syria would be a good laboratory to try out some of its newest battlefield tech in terrain somewhat less challenging than Afghanistan. In short order, it managed to eradicate most of the opposition forces who did not have US cover and, by staying in contact with forward US command could avoid accidental overkill while surgically removing ISIL, which may or may not have been a US objective. By 2016, Syrian Armed Forces began to retake the country formerly held by jihadists.

But then President Trump made the mistake of sending ground troops and, following the downing of a Russian Su-25 warplane by a US-made SAM, Russia may have rescinded its promise to keep US soldiers and airmen safe. For the US, the war has now reverted to drones and airstrikes, while Russia continues to lend air support and training to the Syrian Armed Forces. According to the Washington Post on January 14, 2019:
Government forces backed by Russia and Iran are pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas. Turkey has reinforced troops on its border to battle both Kurdish fighters and remaining jihadists, who are trying to defend the shrinking territory they hold.
Both Assad and the Syrian Kurds plan to resume negotiations over autonomy arrangements for Kurdish-majority areas, which displeases the US, who wants Assad out and an alliance with the Kurds, and NATO-ally Turkey, who wants the Kurds out and an alliance with Assad. Just to keep it interesting, since the conflict began Israel has frequently attacked targets there — “thousands” of them, according to IDF General Gadi Eisenkot. Were Saudi Arabia not busy in Yemen they would probably be there too. It is everyone’s free fire zone. US airstrikes alone increased 50% in 2018 and civilian casualties by 215%. Over the past 8 years, hundreds of thousands of Syrian noncombatants have been bombed, starved, or assassinated for their beliefs or ethnicity.

Meanwhile, the US elected an insane, kleptocratic gang to the White House and Senate, is exploding its national debt, and for the first time since WWI, has seen its life expectancy decline for the third year in a row. More USAnians will die in 2019 from opioids than died from the entire Vietnam war. This is what the terminal phase of empire looks like, and it would not be untoward for the US to defund its puppets and proxies and start pulling back from the 70 countries its 800 military bases occupy, while it still can. Alternatively, it could stand back and nuke the planet from space.

So you are a young Syrian in 2001. Do you see all this coming? Probably not. But suppose you did. What would you do?

The smart move could be to get out of Dodge. Take your whole family. Quick as you can, like the cleverest Jews and Gypsies in Germany in the 1930s, you should scrape up enough to leave. Don’t wait around longer than you have to.

Now consider what we all can see happening around us in 20 years. We don’t need much imagination, because the best scientists in the world have already told us what will happen with a fine degree of precision.

We are now at 1 degree Celsius above 1900. The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking. Antarctica is calving large sheets of ice into the Southern Ocean. It is not cooling the ocean as much as the ocean is heating from a futile attempt to keep the atmosphere in equilibrium. Sea level rise is accelerating, more from the thermal expansion of water than from added meltwater. On April 17, 2016 residents of Waller County Texas were walloped by 16.8 inches of rain before noon. That is what a warmer ocean does. Hurricane Harvey dropped 51 inches on the Houston region in 3 days in August 2017.
People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

To see a headline like Polar Vortex Splits In Three (January 16, 2019) might have been shocking once but is now accepted. A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does.

According to the National Research Council, each degree C of global temperature increase can be expected to produce:
  • 5-10% changes in precipitation across many regions
  • 3-10% increases in the amount of rain falling during the heaviest precipitation events
  • 5-10% changes in streamflow across many river basins
  • 15% decreases in the annually averaged extent of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, with 25% decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September
  • 5-15% reductions in the yields of crops as currently grown
  • 200-400% increases in the area burned by wildfire in parts of the western United States
But that is one degree. We are past that now. On current trendline, we will be somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees warmer by the end of the century. That assumes the trend holds, which is by no means certain because many countries are still building more coal electric plants, and the Saudis have a lot more oil.

At two degrees, the NRC says, millions of more people living on coasts will be flooded out. Corals reefs will be gone and toxic plankton blooms will spread, ending much of the commercial seafood industry. Nine out of 10 summer seasons will be as hot as the hottest summer between 1980 and 2000. Crop production will decline drastically. Water shortages will be endemic as stream flows are reduced by 20 to 30%. Nuclear plants will be unable to cool themselves from rivers or coastal water and will close.

Half a degree over 2? More severe winter freezes. More heat waves, more crop losses, more water shortages, more inundated coastal cities, more disease and conflict, millions more suffering. At 3 to 5 degrees, all else being equal, sea levels will rise about 4 to 7.5 meters (13-24 feet). Deglaciation of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the ocean 5 meters more. These changes will unfold slowly and even halting emissions after 2020 won’t prevent what is already in the pipeline. The climate will continue to warm for several more centuries until it reaches its new equilibrium temperature based upon the changed chemistry. That could be at 7 degrees, 9 degrees, 12 degrees, we really don’t know. We just know it is a lot hotter than mammals like homo can tolerate. Bees gone, butterflies gone, birds gone, whales and dolphins gone, and then we’re gone too.

So here you are now, young Syrian. You can see what lies ahead. Where do you go to hide? What do you do to prepare?

We are all Syrians now.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas, 1947

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4 comments:

Stop Fossil Fuels said...

As you hint, there's nowhere to hide. Though at this point there's no way to prevent catastrophic climate change and ecological collapse, we can still mitigate the damage by shutting down the flows of fossil fuels. This will simultaneously reduce immediate harm to our environment, reduce the carbon load added to the atmosphere, and push people to prepare sooner rather than later for inevitable societal collapse.

James R. Martin said...

"These changes will unfold slowly and even halting emissions after 2020 won’t prevent what is already in the pipeline. The climate will continue to warm for several more centuries until it reaches its new equilibrium temperature based upon the changed chemistry. That could be at 7 degrees, 9 degrees, 12 degrees, we really don’t know. We just know it is a lot hotter than mammals like homo can tolerate. Bees gone, butterflies gone, birds gone, whales and dolphins gone, and then we’re gone too."

7, 9 and 12 degrees hotter, any of them, seems to me to mean most of the biotic community of Earth will probably go extinct. Any of these numbers will have that result, it seems to me. Am I wrong? Are you saying what's already in the pipeline will likely lead to at least a 7C increase?

If that that 7C+ is unavoidable at current atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the improbable but necessary radical shift in culture and economy I'm trying to serve (and point the way to) would, if it arrived, would have arrived too late. Is there no hope at all?

John D. Wheeler said...

Have you seen the website that projects the US population in 2025 will be 99 million?

James R. Martin said...

My question was not rhetorical.

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