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Catastrophes and Global Governance

Lecture to the Bristol Society, Bristol, 9 June 2004.

The definition of catastrophe in the Collins dictionary is "sudden, extensive or notable disaster or misfortune": from the Greek to overturn. The history of the earth and of life on it is full of overturnings, many of them sudden. Today I shall focus on catastrophes from beyond the earth; from within the earth system; those affecting life in general; and those caused by the small animal species which is ourselves. I will then say something at the end about what, if anything, we can do to anticipate, prevent, mitigate or adapt ourselves to them and the sort of governance we need to do this.

I begin with catastrophes from space. The notion seems particularly repellent, but impacts from space have held great importance for the development of life on earth. What are the objects from space that hit the Earth from time to time? They range from the very big to the very small. They include meteorites, asteroids, planetesimals, and comets, many of them dating from the origins of the solar system.

The biggest of all was the object which hit the young Earth more than four billion years ago, and led to the creation of the Moon. Since then there has been an intermittent barrage. Only in the last quarter century have we come to understand the scale of the problem. A vivid illustration in July 1994 was the spectacle of the comet Shoemaker-Levy colliding with the planet Jupiter. As the comet entered Jupiter's gravitational field, it broke up into fragments, resulting in multiple impacts. One fragment alone created a fireball as big as the Earth.

Fortunately for us the atmosphere of the Earth acts as a protective shield for most Near Earth Objects, which burn up or explode at high altitudes. By contrast the larger ones can hit the Earth with devastating effects. The main ones are blast waves, tsunamis (or huge ocean waves), injection of material into the atmosphere, and electro magnetic charges near the surface.

Let us look at some examples. The most famous is the Chicxulub event - or series of events - of 65 million years ago. It changed the history of life on Earth. An object with a diameter of 10 kilometres hit Yucatan, digging out a crater traceable today with a diameter of around 180 kilometres. It threw up a cloud of vaporized and molten rock over north America. The consequent dust in the upper atmosphere darkened and drastically cooled the whole Earth, damaging the process of photosynthesis on the surface. When the dust settled, the temperature swung the other way. Water vapour and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused a runaway green house effect. The surface temperature of the Earth could have risen by as much as 10oC for at least 500,000 years. It is no wonder that all living creatures were affected, and that a high proportion, including the dinosaur family, perished.

Extinctions of this magnitude are a disaster for some, but an opportunity for others. Indeed the rise of the mammals, with humans a very late arrival among them, would not have happened without Chicxulub. Fortunately major impacts are extremely rare. But they have occurred at very roughly 100 million year intervals throughout the history of the Earth, and could, at least in theory, happen at any time.

Then there is the more recent Tunguska event of 1908. An object with a diameter of 60 metres broke up over Siberia, destroying some 2,000 square kilometres of forest. It lit up the night sky across most of the northern hemisphere, and in Belgium was likened to a great red glow after sunset as if from a huge distant fire. Had it struck St Petersburg or London, there would have been little left of either. A witness described the sky as being split in two, with the northern part covered with fire, then a great heat and a mighty crash. Events of this kind are relatively frequent of the order of once every 250 years. We were lucky that an object of more than 300metres in diameter missed the Earth by no more 120,000km early last summer.

There is a fairly constant hail of small objects into the upper atmosphere. In 2000 an object of around five metres in diameter exploded at an altitude of 25 kilometres over Lake Tagish in the Yukon. It caused a long and bright fireball, a loud bang, a shower of fragments, and an electro magnetic pulse which caused a temporary loss of power transmission on the ground below. Small objects include the Mbale impact in August 1992, when a boy was hit by a stone after its deflection by a banana leaf, and the Peeskill object which stove in the back of an old Chevrolet in upstate New York on 9 October 1992.

Then there are the trails of dust left behind by comets through which the Earth passes from time to time. Such dust can provide the nuclei for ice crystals to form at the top of the troposphere some 10 to 15 kilometres above the surface of the Earth. This has the effect of reflecting solar radiation back into space, and could, with other factors, help to trigger variations in the climate below.

We must also reckon with other much neglected influences on the Earth from space. Events outside our galaxy can generate bursts of immensely destructive radiation, but without such explosions life as we know it could not exist. We are literally star dust. Then there are variations in radiation from the sun, our friendly neighbourhood hydrogen bomb. Finally there are the changing relationships in the Earth's orbit - variations in wobble, tilt and spin known as the Milankovitch effect - which profoundly affect the Earth's climate, and its current propensity to dip in and out of ice ages.

Together these factors point to one central conclusion which I shall return to many times. We and all living creatures live dangerously on Earth. It is only the shortness of our lives which shields us from understanding how vulnerable the Earth really is.

This brings me to catastrophes from within the Earth. The slow movement of the tectonic plates usually gives time for ecosystems and the species which compose them to move or adapt to change. But passing over thresholds can sometimes have dramatic effects on the behaviour of winds and ocean currents, and of course the living organisms adapted to them. A good example is the joining of north and south America some four million years ago, which led to drastic changes in the direction of ocean currents.

Associated with tectonic plate movements are volcanoes and earthquakes. We are unused to major volcanic eruptions. The eruptions of the Siberian Traps some 250 million years ago, and the Deccan Traps 65 million years ago, both possibly associated with extra terrestrial impacts, changed the surface conditions of the planet. The eruption of Mount Toba in Indonesia some 75,000 years ago, which put enormous quantities of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, may have helped trigger a renewal of glacial conditions within the last ice age. By comparison the eruption of Tambora in 1815, which led to the famous "year without a summer", that of Krakatoa in 1883, that of Mount St Helens in 1980, and that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, each with its specific global effects, were relatively minor.

Earthquakes are part of the same pattern. Mostly their effects, however destructive, are local. During the last century, each year, there were an average of 20 earthquakes measuring 7.0 or more on the Richter scale. Some 10,000 people a year are killed by earthquakes, usually by buildings falling in on them. But sometimes they can combine with tsunamis to cause much greater damage. Underwater landslides can be precipitated by many factors, including Earth tremors. One such off Norway caused a wave to hit Scotland reaching far up the Firth of Forth some 9,000 years ago. Recently there has been concern about the possibility that part of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canaries might collapse into the sea, creating a tsunami with a height of up to 40 metres, which could hit the east coast of the United States.

Again we live dangerously. Also mysteriously. Something went disastrously wrong around 536 AD. The evidence comes from all over the world, from China to Europe, from Siberia to Peru. So far we can find no incriminating volcano, nor extra-terrestrial impact crater. Perhaps it was the break-up of a comet in the upper atmosphere. Whatever it was, there was sudden cold, drought, and even a plague. We do indeed live dangerously.

I come to the overturnings in the living world. Such overturnings can be disastrous for those ecosystems and species around at the time, but they are usually the opportunity for others. If the extinctions at the Permian/Triassic boundary 250 million years ago, and those of the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary 65 million years ago, had not taken place, nothing like the world we know today, and the human species within it, could have existed. The history of living organisms, so far as we know it from the fossil evidence, shows a pattern of stability, punctuated by relatively sudden departures of some species and arrivals of others.

Thus extinctions are an essential element in evolution. Few ecosystems or species last more than a few million years. But if extinctions happen all at once, they gravely impoverish life in all its interconnectedness. The time needed to recover can be millions of years. Thus mammals did not evolve to occupy all the niches left by the dinosaurs until the end of the Palaeocene epoch 10 million years later.

One point is worth adding, the product of recent and continuing research. To a considerable extent, and operating on Darwinian principles, organisms tend to create and maintain the living environment most favourable to them. Thus they can offset and mitigate the consequences of catastrophes through complex systems of feedback. The Earth system behaves as a single, self regulating system, comprised of physical, chemical, biological and even human components. In a word this is Gaia theory. I spent three days last week discussing the science behind it, its implications for policy, and its moral, ethical and even religious implications. At present we are pressing Gaia hard without fully understanding the possible consequences.

This brings me to the role of our own little animal species, and our sometimes catastrophic influence on the condition, living and otherwise, of the Earth's surface. A periodical visitor from outer space would find more change in the preceding 200 years than in the preceding 2000, and more change in the last 20 years than in the last 200. The association between humans and their environment, including the micro-world in and around them, has changed at every stage of human evolution: from hunter gatherers to farmers, from country to city dwellers, and from tribal groups to complex hierarchical societies. But the most radical divide was the beginning of the industrial revolution in Britain some 250 years ago. Before then the effects of human activity were local, or at worse regional, rather than global. All the civilizations of the past cleared land for cultivation, introduced plants and animals from elsewhere, and caused a variety of changes.

This ability to influence other species has given us a profound conceit of ourselves. Yet our use of other species is coupled with an amazing ignorance of how natural systems work, their awe inspiring interconnectedness, and our total reliance on natural services. There have been some 30 urban civilizations before our own. All eventually crashed. Why? The reasons range from damage to the environmental base on which they rested to the mounting costs in human, economic and organizational terms of maintaining them.

What of our civilization? Some of you may have heard of some remarkably gloomy predictions about the future from the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees. In his new book Our Final Century (the publishers removed the question mark after the title), he explores the dangers arising from human inventiveness, folly, wickedness and sheer inadvertence. The ramifications of information technology, nano-technology and nuclear experimentation and the rest have still to be understood and explored. His conclusion is to give our civilization only a 50% chance of survival beyond the end of this century.

For the moment there are six main things for us to think about: human population increase; degradation of land and accumulation of wastes; water pollution and supply; climate change; energy production and use, and destruction of biodiversity. Of these factors population issues are often ignored as somehow too embarrassing or mixed up with religion and the ideology of development; most people are broadly aware of land and waste problems, although far from accepting the remedies necessary; water issues have had a lot of publicity, and already affect most people on this planet; climate change with its many uncertainties is also broadly understood, apart from by those who do not want to hear about it; how we generate energy while fossil fuel resources diminish and demand increases is another conundrum; but damage to the diversity of life has somehow escaped most public attention. All these issues are linked and all concern the future of humanity.

You may think I am exaggerating. But the Earth has never been in this situation before. These points were well brought out in a remarkable Declaration published by some 1500 scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. They stated squarely that:

  • "Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth's System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life… the Earth's System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth's system, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state".
  • "The accelerating human transformation of the Earth's environment is not sustainable. Therefore the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's System is not an option. It has to be replaced - as soon as possible - by deliberate strategies of management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives".

At least we can agree with Crutzen and Stroemer who have named the current epoch the Anthropocene in succession to the Holocene.

It would be tedious to enumerate the consequences of this combination of factors for human society. Most are pretty obvious. The pressure points of human proliferation, land degradation, water shortages, climate change with sea level rise, and damage to the biosphere as a whole cannot be seen in isolation. They suggest a dysfunctional world of increasing risks to the wellbeing of our society. Such risks include greater possibilities for conflict over resources, with use of dangerously destructive weapons, wider division between rich and sophisticated and poor and uneducated, larger flows of refugees both within and between countries, evolution of new and the return of old diseases, extinction of key ecosystems, and social and economic breakdown of a kind that can already be seen in parts of Africa.

I do not want to leave you expecting doom. There is something that we can do about all the categories of catastrophe I have described. But there has be a common theme to any response. These are global problems which will require concerted global solutions.

Let us look first at the kind of catastrophe which looks furthest from human control: impacts from outer space.

What then can we do? Let us suppose that with the help of a greatly improved telescope network, we could with reasonable accuracy predict the next range of extra terrestrial events. The range would of course be wide. We would have to reckon not only with the size and composition of an incoming object, but also with the possibility that it might enter into ever diminishing orbit round the Earth before colliding with it. Our response would fall into two categories.

The first would comprise conventional measures of civil defence. Depending on the length of notice and the size and composition of the incoming object, people could move out of target areas to relatively safer areas elsewhere. Such countries as Britain and Japan would be particularly vulnerable to tsunamis arising from oceanic impacts. Both have suffered from tsunamis in the long past. The response of neighbouring countries to millions refugees is difficult to gauge. But some form of international understanding would have to be reached if chaos were not to occur. A big problem would be how to feed a displaced population. A big hit could lead to a darkened Earth which could affect growing seasons for food the world over.

The second is the more exotic prospect of planetary defence, either through destruction or through deflection of incoming objects. Destruction of an object by high yield nuclear devices might be technically feasible, but would carry enormous risks of its own. Incomplete destruction of an object could subject the Earth to multiple impacts from pieces of the original body. We saw for ourselves what happened to Jupiter when Shoemaker-Levy broke into 21 pieces with 21 impacts.

More promising are the possibilities of deflection through modification of the object's orbit. The amount of modification required is inversely proportional to the time available before impact. So early warning would be vital. Methods considered include detonation of nuclear or chemical devices close to the body to change its orbit. But such devices would have to be used with care. There is a danger that they could deliver a huge amount of energy with very little momentum, whereas to deflect a massive object effectively, it is momentum that is needed: a steady gentle push, not an explosive jolt.

Other possible methods include the mounting of sails on the object to harness the Sun's radiation pressure to push it from its course. Another would be the use of mass drivers whose source of power would again be the Sun. A number of major engineering problems would have to be solved, but with adequate warning time this should not be impossible. Let us remember the astonishing feat of the Americans in landing a satellite on the asteroid Eros.

We are more used to catastrophes within the Earth system. There the remedies are less exotic. It is well within our capabilities to improve prediction and take measures to mitigate catastrophes. Disasters such as the earthquakes in Turkey in 1999 and those which rocked Iran in 2002 and 2003 seem to pull people in communities together as never before, while those in other countries are often willing to send relief to those they have never seen or are never likely to meet. Larger scale catastrophes would require international effort and administrative skills which are at present lacking. Obviously human ability to cope would depend on the resilience and good health of society in general. A world riven by war and degradation could easily be overwhelmed. Much would depend on the abilities of individual governments to manage at least within the areas of their responsibility.

Now I turn to human damage to the current life system of the planet. This is not inevitable, but faced with self-induced disaster we tend to attitudes, and even policies, of denial. Just look at the attitude of the Bush Administration in the United States towards climate change. As the environmental crisis grows, so, according to various United Nations Human Development Reports, does the division between rich and poor. Most of the solutions to the problems we have caused are well known.

Take human population increase. The overall rate is still rising, but in several parts of the world it is levelling off. The main factors are improvement in the status of women, better provision for old age, wider availability of contraceptive devices, lower child mortality, and better education, especially for girls and young women.

Take degradation of land and water. We know how to look after them both if we try. We do not have to exhaust top soils, watch them erode into the sea, rely upon artificial aids to nature, eliminate the forests with their natural wealth of species, or poison the waters, fresh and salt. Take the atmosphere. We do not have to rely on systems of energy generation which will affect climate and weather in such a fashion that change could put an overcrowded world at risk. Take the way in which we conduct most scientific enquiry. We do not have to break down issues into water tight compartments, and so miss the dynamics of the life system as a comprehensive whole.

In short we have to learn to think differently. Our ability to respond to the overturnings of life depend on two main factors : our knowledge of the behaviour of ecosystems, at present sadly lacking, and our own value system. We can certainly improve our knowledge, and devote more resources to it. Hence the importance of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which is due to be published late this year or early 2005, and, in the next ten years, the Tree of Life project to demonstrate relationships between organisms by descent.

But change in a value system that gives primacy to market forces, exploitation of resources and ever rising consumption will be uncommonly difficult. At present we seem to want to attach monetary value to almost everything. Of course some rule-of-thumb method of assessing and comparing values would indeed be useful, not least in giving comfort to economists and more plausibility to their models. But somehow we have to bring in the factor of environmental costs. As has been well said, markets are superb at setting prices but incapable of recognizing costs.

Definition of costs requires a new approach towards economics and, towards measuring things, and this has to be brought back into pricing. In addition to the traditional costs of research, process, production and so on, prices should reflect the costs involved in replacing a resource or substituting for it; and the costs of the associated environmental problems.

In looking for some form of global institutional framework for the common good, there is much that needs to change. The one world superpower is not leading us where we need or want to go. Global institutions are still feeble by comparison. The United Nations is fundamentally an association of sovereign states, even if real sovereignty is leaking away from them all the time. We seem to have an exaggerated expectation of what the United Nations can achieve, especially when we are loath to give the UN support that it needs. Its inability to push states into tackling pressing global issues was amply demonstrated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The result was rightly described as "many trees but very little wood."

Change in our current crop of international institutions is vital if we are improve our understanding of natural ecosystems and rethink our value system. On the one hand there are the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which are all institutions with real mechanisms for influencing government policy. They are much stronger on trade than the environment, and tend to be driven by vested interests looking for short-term profitability. By contrast the 200 or more environmental agreements are dispersed and poorly coordinated, with different hierarchies of reference and accountability, and look principally to the long term. I have long argued for the creation of a World Environment Organization to balance - and be a partner of - the World Trade Organization. The outgoing Director of the World Trade Organization took the same view.

We have much to do, but there is at least one thing we can say for ourselves. We are the only animal species which could conceivably hope to do anything about the problems I have discussed. Our long term prospects for survival cannot be assured. I sometimes wonder how long it would take for the Earth to recover from the human impact. How soon would our cities fall apart, soils regenerate, the animals and plants we have favoured find a more normal place in the natural environment, the waters and seas become clearer, the chemistry of the air return to what it was before we polluted it? Life itself, from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom of the seas, and even below that, is so robust that the human experience could become no more than an episode.

Above all let us remember how small and vulnerable we are. We are like microbes on the surface of an apple, on an insignificant tree, in an insignificant orchard, among billions of other insignificant orchards stretching over horizons beyond our sight or even our imagining.

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