The Great Use-It-or-Lose-It Intelligence Test





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Published on Dec 31, 2011

A televised lecture on the climate crisis by William H. Calvin, given in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 2007.

Thanks to upsetting our climate with a series of low-tech practices such as cutting down forests, tilling the soil, and—worst of all—burning fossil fuels, we are rapidly approaching a use-it-or-lose-it intelligence test.

The outlook is for a higher fever, with droughts that just won't quit. Extreme weather will keep trashing the place. Tipping points will lead to demolition derbies, as when the Amazon or Borneo rain forest burns, or a major city is inundated.

Absent effective treatment of climate disease, the students of today will face an unpleasant, chaotic future—not merely hotter summers. Unless we get our act together very quickly—the next ten years—and on a global scale, our legacy could be genocidal downsizing.

Yet all we hear about is a low-carbon energy diet over the decades: conserve energy, emphasize renewable energy, fill the car's tank less often, and substitute clean solar, wind, nuclear, and geothermal electricity for the fossil fuel uses.

Are such measures quick enough? No. Reliable enough? No. Can they head off the developing world from repeating our mistakes? No.

Even a zero-carbon diet, while good generic advice for prevention—it might have sufficed, back before our forty wandering years of denial and delay—is now going to be too little, too late.

To keep CO2 from rising, sources and sinks must be in balance and there are no longer enough leaves and algae to do the removal job. Only an equivalent of kidney dialysis now stands a chance of reversing climate disease in time.

We must create new CO2 sinks to offset the remain-ing sources and the lost sinks, then—as in dialysis— restore our climate by removing the CO2 accumulation. In short, negative emissions. Since most new forests will be plagued by drought and fire, we will have to encourage the ocean's algae to remove more CO2 in ways that sink it to the ocean depths.

Though we cannot bring back the species that are going extinct—and we could easily lose half—we should be able to reverse much of climate change. The problem is political inertia, not technology or science, and our window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The only good analogy is arming for a great war, doing what must be done regardless of cost and convenience.


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