Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Hot Worse Than Hot

Pick a moment in history.  1880, say.  And then increase the 1880 temperatures by one degree Celsius.  (Or one degree Kelvin.  With its nonarbitrary zero, Kelvin provides the only sensible scale.)  A single thin degree brings us to 2015, or nearly so.  The hottest year on record.  Arctic sea ice battered.  A monster storm hitting Mexico.  And a November where my elephant ear taro was still happy in its outdoor pot.  One degree brings obvious challenges to the world. Glacial melt. Wicked storms. Prolonged droughts. And even if the impossible happens and we hold the thermostat exactly where it is today, these challenges are not going to end.

People like to talk about two degrees. "Oh, if we don't go past that arbitrary point, we'll be just swell!" But to me, two degrees looks like a bumper-sticker on a Humvee, a fancy ad during the Super Bowl, and a political wet dream.  First of all, we've already crossed half of that recognized danger zone. Secondly, individuals and institutions don't seem to care enough to do the necessary work. And finally, without black swan technologies, I think it's deeply unlikely that we'll even slow down the warming before we hit two degrees.

I’m 59. With clean living and the acceleration of greenhouse effects, I might live to see two degrees. But not four and six and twelve degrees.  Various scenarios consider those maximums. When they arrive, our Earth vanishes inside a new, much hotter planet.  Of course some colonists will make it to the new planet.  Some species will prosper.  Jellyfish and turtledoves, to name two projected champions.  And if climate change is the only challenge, then several billion humans will also make the grade.  Or at least several million of us.  But twelve degrees looks like a pretty wicked world, and at day's end, our jellyfish overlords might not want many human slaves.

But no trend is the only trend.

The Beatles weren’t just the Beatles.  They lived beside Vietnam and the Cold War and the moon landing too.

I have a list.

What can put an end to the human species?

Some rather significant thought went into drawing up this membership list.  And several mighty fine candidates didn’t make the cut.

Global warming is fifth on my list.

Being fifth means that another four villains are worse.  At least from my point of view, sitting at home, contemplating human nature and our approach to great muddy problems.

And my fourth critical threat to humankind?

The hot worse than hot.



Fort Calhoun and Brownville.  These are Nebraska’s two nuclear reactors.  Each stands about eighty minutes from my front door, but in rather different directions and different power companies holding the keys.  Each company owns exactly one water-cooled nuke, which might make a nervous man worry more.  How good is any organization when they have the absolute minimum of experience with something so large and complicated, and so very old?

As a citizen of Nebraska, I hear shit.  These reactors are elderly.  They have sketchy safety records, and the facility north of Omaha had to change management.  After a lot of years of mounting expenses and safety violations, OPPD finally brought in outsiders who know shit.

Good for them.

But even badly run and falling apart, those reactors are nonthreats to me.  The worst imaginable meltdown might cause me to become a refugee.  But death is almost impossible, save for getting run over by other refugees driving 100 miles an hour towards Denver.

The genuine nightmare stands between the reactors.  The Strategic Air Command used to defend the Western World, and it did its noble work from Bellevue, Nebraska.  Global politics and Air Force hierarchies have dramatically changed the role of that old air base.  But through most of my life, as a child and as a man, I lived with the much larger odds of being killed by superheated slurries of deuterium and tritium.

Global warming is a testable beast, slow in its effects but relentless.  Our climate has been changing slowly and sometimes very stubbornly.  It’s even possible that in the future, with shifting winds over the Pacific or cold meltwater in the North Atlantic, parts of the Earth will suddenly grow colder for a decade or two.  In some sense, global warming is that disease that your doctor names two seconds before he tells you, “But with care, you can live a long and productive life.”

Nukes are an entirely different hazard.

Picture a set of basement stairs. These are stairs you climb every day, and they happen to be steep and sometimes badly lit.  Humans say “climb” because the effort makes the stairs memorable.  But the downward journeys are more dangerous, statistically speaking.  Up and down you go. Up and down.  And then one day, you're carrying an overloaded sack of groceries when one foot hits the sleeping cat, and the surprise as well as the canned goods pull you over, leading to a series of rapid impacts that transform your life.

That is the drama of nukes.  The promise of an instantaneous nightmare. Hiroshima and Nagasaki might remain outliers.  Mabye Chernobyl won’t ever be duplicated.  But each day brings the possibility, however small, that you will never finish reading this blog.

I grew up a few miles north of SAC.  I remember one day when my grade school practiced for “tornadoes” by packing everybody into a tiny basement, and because I remember being a very small boy at the time, I suspect this puts us during JFK’s 1000 days.

Granted, that Cold War feels like history.  American and Russian stockpiles have been trimmed and modernized.  The world-killing confrontation of my youth has been deflated, and one of the nation-states transformed.  Our world still has two nuclear juggernauts, but as a storyteller, I can’t find an obvious plot where one of them intentionally fires everything because of a misunderstanding on a radar screen.

But there is hope for catastrophe:  Right now, ill-tempered souls stand inside important rooms, and bad mistakes can be made by countless players, including the elaborate software operating at light-speed.  And now imagine Putin and Trump standing at the top of the stairs together.  Two boys who like excitement, flinging elbows and insults.

Miami drowns in the next fifty years, and that novel reads as a slow multi-generational saga.

But hit Miami with a homemade uranium bomb...well, that’s a piece of ugly that calls for easy drama.

And what are the odds of disaster?

Ask me, and you’ll see an authoritative shrug of the shoulders.

I do have a few ideas about which nuclear scenarios are most likely.  But this isn’t the place.  Not yet.  I’ve decided to list my five humanity killers, and this is my Number Four, and I promise to get back to you shortly with the rest.

But first, I need to go downstairs.