Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Elizabeth Kolbert 2021
The topic of climate change tends to bring on two responses- denialism that's little more than wishful thinking, and despair that we're all doomed to bake and starve. Our planet's climate is clearly changing and warming up, and the cause is well documented- carbon emitted into the atmosphere by growing numbers of humans dependent on fossil fuels. The problem with this slow moving disaster is that it's hard to find intelligent, productive discussion of what our options might be to make things better. Can we sequester carbon and pull it back out of the atmosphere? Can we find less destructive ways to build our economies? And can we actually block out the sun?
Earlier, I read a book called Don't Even Think About It, that shows how this existential event has paralyzed our thinking as we try to figure out how to have it all- stable climates and growing economies. The idea of climate change is too big for our brains to even try to deal with, so we ignore it or accept it as inevitable. This book, Under a White Sky, takes that discussion further and provides some eye-opening looks at things that are being done right now to make peace with Mother Nature. Elizabeth Kolbert is a writer for the New Yorker magazine and has written another best-seller on the topic of climate change- The Sixth Extinction.
Kolbert travels to Greenland where amazing data was discovered through deep ice cores, showing the history of Earth's climate over many centuries. The ice cores show that for the last 10,000 years, we've experienced a fairly stable and predictable climate all around the world, but before that there were wild temperature swings in short periods of time that brought about ice ages and floods. No one seems to know what caused those swings, though volcanic activity is one suspect. Our environment, crops, water supplies, and very survival depend on knowing what the climate will do and figuring out how best to take any actions that would make a difference.
This book isn't entirely about climate change, but it does cover some fascinating stories about how humanity is currently struggling with Mother Nature and dealing with unforeseen consequences of its actions. There are nine basic chapters, each dealing with the story of a problem with the atmosphere, waters, or wildlife that we share here on Earth. Here is a quick summary:
1- I've always wondered about how the Chicago River runs backwards away from Lake Michigan instead of into it. That has to do with the fact that Chicago gets its drinking water from the lake, while its sewage goes into the river. For decades the river has been engineered to run backwards into a canal that was dug to join with other rivers flowing south from the city. This marvel of engineering has introduced a thorny problem, however. The Chicago River now bridges two enormous drainage basins- one for the Great Lakes, and one for the Mississippi River. Unwanted species from one can make their way into another, with the most fascinating one being the invasive Asian Carp that is the focus of many elaborate schemes to prevent contamination.
2- Louisiana is sinking faster than any other state in the country. Over 2,000 square miles have disappeared in the last century, and man's attempts to tame the Mississippi River at its delta have resulted in a number of unintended consequences. The delta is sinking without the replenishment of floods, and New Orleans will likely become an island in the next century, surrounded by an increasingly expensive system of pumps and levees.
3- There is a little known species out West called the pupfish that only lives in caves and sinkholes, and it's endangered with the water problems increasing. Kolbert looks at the biodiversity problem as more and more habitats are challenged while well-meaning biologists step in to save even a tiny population of a dying species.
4- The Great Barrier Reef off of Australia is dying, mostly due to bleaching events from higher heat levels that's been killing the tiny corals that built it. Coral reefs are a miracle of nature and contribute greatly to the diversity that inhabits them, as nearly 25% of all sea creatures depend on them to survive. Scientists in Australia are trying to engineer new, more heat resistant species of coral that can be used to re-grow the dying reefs. If they succeed it will show the way forward to saving many more species as the planet warms up.
5- Australia also has a problem with large, ugly toads that were introduced in the 19th century that have become a pest capable of killing other animals with their poisonous secretions. The toads have survived many attempts to eradicate them, but biologists are experimenting with genetics that could remove their ability to produce the poison or even to reproduce. The brave new world of genetic engineering offers intriguing solutions and even more concerns about unintended consequences.
6- The last three chapters are all about climate change and the attempts to mitigate it. The one that gives this book its title is geoengineering, an untested attempt of last resort that uses the evidence of volcanic eruptions to cool things down. Knowing that some of the largest volcanic eruptions were accompanied by several years of cooler climate, scientists propose deliberately spraying reflective materials in the upper atmosphere that would capture some of the sunlight that's causing global warming.
Some think that geoengineering would turn the color of the sky from blue to white, but no one exactly knows if this would work or how long it would last. The particles in the upper atmosphere would have to be replenished regularly or climates would rapidly warm up again, and the unintended consequences to wildlife, plants, and the ocean are unknowable. But given how little progress is being made on the carbon pollution front, this could end up being mankind's last big gamble.
I was oddly encouraged by this book, if only because it shows that things are happening that could make a difference. Not everyone is stuck in denial or in fatalism. We owe it to the future to at least try to figure this thing out, and hopefully more books like this will light the way to the innovators of tomorrow.