It is the driest place on earth, but it also has the world’s second-largest rainforest and the second-most expensive capital, Antananarivo. So why does this A.D. 839 island constantly roll the dice on its weather and, in doing so, seem to be fooling itself?
To answer that question, the Global Carbon Project released the second of three “sequestration” studies on Madagascar last week, proving that the cyclical precipitation patterns that make it one of the driest places on earth contribute to a hotspot for carbon that is damaging the planet. The study is the first time the Global Carbon Project has tried to integrate the long-term effects of climate change on tropical rainforest carbon in the Greenhouse Gas and Sea Surface Warming Index, or GHGOSW. Previously, the project’s individual studies on Madagascar had found that its climate was changing not only rapidly, but also increasingly for the worse, contrary to earlier predictions.
That’s just one example of how the entire process of climate change is affected by human activity, and it underscores the complexity of our emerging evidence about climate change. This could lead to an even more overused phrase than the old catchphrase: “It’s complicated.” We’ve learned more and more about the world today, but much of it remains uncharted and hard to comprehend, outside of our natural comfort zone. What was once an issue of economics, politics and security now approaches one of biology, physics and chemistry. Which might be why it takes one as simple as a comparison between vegetation and rainforest to become so engrossing.
This is not to say there are no scientists who think that climate change is a simple fixable problem. Indeed, a leading advocate of the whole idea of climate change as a potential global disaster is Theodore Beale, a British physicist who believes that modern life is simply not sustainable. Just as previous woes have been attributed to bad paper stock, bad farming practices, or bad management, Beale’s conventional thinking says, in similar fashion, that the climate has gotten bad in part because human civilization has gone haywire.
Gabe Feldman, an engineer-turned-philosopher who is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at New York University, has a different view. He and his colleagues are among those who believe that we have much to gain from good old-fashioned cheap science and engineering, and that technology will be the key to bringing down carbon emissions if we ever want to see a truly bright and not-so-distant future. The idea is that since nothing is entirely 100 percent out of our control, the cure can ultimately lie with science, and not the weather.
One of Beale’s early contributions to the debate was publishing a widely acclaimed study on the electric power sector, which showed that it was the biggest problem in the overall production of carbon dioxide, with consumption in 2012 accounting for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Even that a pretty small figure, however, when set beside the world’s 36% share of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is that aggregate, and perhaps more importantly, the range of degrees of temperature that can’t be controlled, that worries Beale. We have essentially locked in our projected temperatures for the next century, or even for the next 10 or 100, using our collective nuclear weapons. In comparison, with solar technology, demand is very variable and maybe as low as the Earth’s orbit.
Maybe the slow drive toward understanding things this way and seeing the complexity of climate as a problem to be explored and dealt with have helped at least a little bit. But there are still many lessons for this radical climate change adaptation process to learn.
To begin with, it’s never too early to reverse that simple correlation between greenness and prosperity — and to stabilize these structures if we really do want to see anything other than disaster come our way. At the end of the day, no one individual can dictate the future of humanity. Nor can any one nation — with the United States having the world’s highest per capita emissions — or any one country’s leaders stand as a barrier to progress.
In Madagascar, the growing research on the climate change implications of the island’s sprawling natural resources are a useful reminder of what we can learn from history. The Caribbean coast here is growing steadily more overcrowded. It looks like our grandparents’ mountain villages are becoming our future. And with them, perhaps, humanity itself.