Global Cooling: The Chilling Effect

Do you find the weather forcing itself into your awareness more lately? Winter is making the news -- "record cold" in Texas, "killer blizzards" in Chicago, "arctic conditions" in Great Britain [not to mention record heating bills, and raw red hands in the lands of sunshine]!

Less noticeable locally, and less widely known, are other signs of climatic turmoil -- increasing Arctic snow cover; more tornadoes, often in unaccustomed places; increasing incidences of flooding, heat waves, and drought. Some of these phenomena appear contradictory. Heat waves and drought seem "warm", in contrast to indications of cooling. Surprisingly, evidence suggests the interlinkage of all these phenomena in a single, consistent pattern of causation. What follows is an "in depth" weather report, describing a new hypothesis which links climatic deterioration to larger events in the history of the biosphere.

The Causes of Global Cooling

Our best paleo-anthropological evidence indicates that the last Ice Age was the cradle of humanity. The biosphere was in a very bad way then. Homo sapiens was born into an ecosystem in decline, a dying world. Earth, mostly tropical through its history, even in today's temperate latitudes, and iceless even at its poles, lay largely entombed in glacier. The once majestic intercontinental forests were broken, vanquished by blades of ice, beaten back to a narrow equatorial perimeter held under siege by new deserts or mile-high juggernauts of unmelted snow. The luxuriant frondescence of the Carboniferous Age [300 million years ago] and of the Cretaceous [about 100 million years age] were no more. The balding of the biosphere had begun.

Any violence that humanity has ever done to any other part of this planet's Nature is utterly dwarfed by the violence that this Nature did to itself in that onslaught of ice. Both the standing biomass and the primary self-productivity of the Earth's biosphere dropped drastically. The planetary ecosystem has never yet recovered from the colossal damage. In fact, the Ice Age is not over. We live in a lull in this great war of White versus Green. The present geological period has seen a cooling trend which, stretching back into the late Cretaceous, may be the critical factor in the demise of the vast dinosaur ecology that covered the planet for so many millions of years.

Recently the Milankovitch hypothesis, explaining ice ages in terms of cyclical variations in Earth's orbit with the sun, achieved strong empirical successes. The problem is that the Milankovitch cycles, of periods of around 100,000 years and less, extend throughout Earth's history. Glaciations do not. The two synchronize only for the last ~450,000 years. Before the recent evidence of cooling came out, a spate of science journal articles warned that
CO2 release by fossil fuel burning might overwarm the climate. But overlooked all along was the degree to which photosynthetic activity may have depleted its atmospheric CO2 resources in the very process which laid down the fossil fuels in the first place. The photosynthetic metabolism of the biosphere itself may have precipitated the ice ages, by taking globally-tropical-climate-maintaining atmospheric CO2 concentrations below a threshold where the Milankovitch cycle could trigger, not just minor moderations of that global tropical climate, but cooling to the point where continental ice accumulation could begin its high-albedo-amplified self-acceleration.

Much evidence points to a marked scarcity of
CO2 in today's atmosphere relative to that of past ages, and a resulting fall in the general rate of photosynthesis. Many plant varieties grow more rapidly and luxuriantly in an artificial atmosphere enriched with five to ten times the present ambient CO2 concentration. In terms of the Earth's photosynthesis-based biomass primary self-productivity, the biosphere has been in decline since the Cretaceous, possibly since the Carboniferous.

Climatologists tell us that the 55-year period from 1885 to 1940 [when the present cooling set in] was one of unusually warm and agriculturally favorable climate for the current, generally glacieral epoch. In the past, the biosphere had relied on fermentation by its bacterial decomposer stratum to return organic carbon to the atmosphere as CO2. Many climatologists believe that the great "human ferment" of the industrial revolution, with its tremendous releases of heat and
CO2 from fuel burning, caused this climatic improvement. But since circa 1940, the gathering Milankovitch momentum for cooling may have overtaken the warming effects of even rising rates of anthropogenic CO2 enrichment.

The Milankovitch theory clearly implies that we are moving toward a return of full ice age conditions. This process, of course, spreads over many centuries. But, indications are, that, though glaciations last for millennia, they come on with great suddenness.

In 1974, Dr. George Kukla of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory noted a doubling of arctic snow cover during the years 1968-1972. He also noted that average snow cover increased by four million square kilometers during the bad winter of 1971. He estimated that just seven consecutive winters of similar severity could establish ice cover equal in area, if not in depth, to that of the last ice age.

Climatic cooling involves feedbacks by which that cooling accelerates itself. As ocean surface waters cool, they absorb more airborne
CO2. Colder surface waters also mean less water evaporation, hence less later water re-precipitation over land, causing drought and desertification, changing land surface reflectivity ["albedo"] in ways which further cooling. The resulting drought, and lowered photosynthesis rates due to drought, plus heightened oceanic CO2 depletion, also lead to lowered evapo-transpiration rates by plants. The resulting drop in atmospheric water vapor levels furthers drought and desertification, and also adds to cooling in another way, because water vapor too has a strong greenhouse effect, in some ways stronger than that of CO2. Moreover, increasing land snow cover means maximally increased "albedo" -- increased reflection of sunlight back into outer space, exacerbating the climatic cooling in a self-amplifying fashion.

Side Effects of Global Cooling

There are other, less obvious, consequences of global cooling. Expanding arctic ice cover means that the anti-cyclonic arctic "air mass", the" circumpolar vortex", whose flowing outer/southern edge has been named "the jet stream", bulges outward, further southward, closer to the equator. The buffer zone separating it from tropical air masses shrinks. When these meteorological opposites -- arctic air masses and tropical air masses -- meet, violent, often tornadic thunderstorms ensue. Tornadoes occur more frequently, with greater intensity, and in places where they formerly occurred never or rarely. This is but one example of the many ways in which cooling leads to increasing climatic variability. The amplitude of climatic fluctuations, and the extremity of climatic extremes, grows. The massive weight of expanding ice cover may also cause increased earthquake and volcanic activity through it effects on "isostasy", the changing balance of forces depressing versus elevating the Earth's crust.

Global cooling means shrinking growing seasons, as well as drought. The long winter of 1977-78 cut four to six weeks from the agricultural season in the northern hemisphere. Many are concerned that the cooling will drastically curtail food production even before its other effects become alarming. The agricultural regions of the industrialized temperate zone global latitudinal band will probably be harder hit, at first, than the unindustrialized equatorial zone global latitudinal band of the Earth's noosphere.

Reversing Global Cooling

Production of a capability to reverse this global cooling trend may require a future very different than many today envision. An all-out "Marshall Plan" mobilization to industrialize the Third World might be designed to, among other benefits, bring fossil fuel
CO2 production up to levels sufficient to preclude renewed Milankovitch-cycles-sired global glaciation. A more rapid depletion of fossil fuels would require accelerated development of higher sources of energy, nuclear fusion being the presently most promising candidate.

Biospheric Succession

The photosynthetic biosphere emerges as the cause of its own, ice-age-mediated demise. By the phrase "the photosynthetic biosphere" we mean especially its most vigorous, zenith forms in the Carboniferous and the Cretaceous. Via the ice ages' intensifying "selective pressure" for accelerated cognitive and cultural development, this biosphere may have caused the rise of homo sapiens as well. Not external causes, but causes internal to the Earth's ecosystem, produced the present relatively denuded and declining state of that ecosystem. The great glaciers and the Milankovitch processes may look like exclusively external causes. But these external processes merely mediated a biospheric self-activity; this reflection of biospheric activity back upon itself, the activity of global photosynthesis depleting its own primary resource, atmospheric and oceanic
CO2, converting that CO2 into the vast, carboniferous accumulations of deceased organic matter that became the fossil fuels.

These observations ground the hypothesis of macro-ecological succession, or macro-ecosystem succession, involving a concept of ecological succession at the level of the whole biosphere. At that level, the concept of equilibrium as final term of ecological- succession, the "climax hypothesis", breaks down. According to this macro-succession hypothesis, the biosphere is not already in, or increasingly attracted to, a "stationary state", or a "limit-cycle", characterized by at most cyclical change. The biosphere is, instead, an internally self-developing ongoing-event-entity. It is a succession of qualitatively different biospheres, each one bounded-off from its successor by a self-induced ecological crisis.

The photosynthetic biosphere was itself the solution to the crisis of the previous form of the biosphere. According to the Oparin Hypothesis, that predecessor biosphere rested on a fermentative metabolism. Organic molecules synthesized in the early atmosphere self-organized into cellular forms in the primitive seas. They then, by fermentation, fed upon other such molecules, and thereby fueled their growth and reproduction. Their numbers eventually outstripped and depleted the food supply from primitive 'atmosynthesis'. The waste products of their fermentative conversion of this molecular food into metabolic energy for their cellular bodies accumulated in the early oceans, some of these waste products acting as lethal pollutants relative to their cellular organization. The innovation of photosynthesis, a cellular interiorization of 'atmosynthesis', a process that was, originally, external to the first, fermentative cellular organisms, not only prevented the absolute death of the fermentative biosphere, but qualitatively expanded both its contents and its limits to growth, in its self-creation of its own successor, fermentative plus
CO2-based photosynthetic/O2-based respirative biosphere.

The moral of all this is that no natural formation can continue indefinitely as-is, in the same qualitative status or condition. An inescapable new-materials-accumulative ['pollutive'] as well as old-materials dis-accumulative ['depletive'] dimension renders equilibrium, stationary state zero growth, or even limit-cyclic, zero growth impossible. Instead, there is a natural pattern of self-transcendence. The alternative to "dissipative" -- 'depletive' and/or 'pollutive' -- collapse is not zero growth, but qualitative growth; not change in the quantity of growth, but change in the kind of growth. The way Nature continues itself, extending its space and time, is to go on creating itself, continually pregnant with new qualities, continually growing new layers.

A Definition of Human[ized] Nature's Role as a "Natural" Part of Nature as a Whole

The hypothesis of macro-ecological succession suggests a re-assessment of humanity's place in Nature. Much discussion about humanity's alienation from nature itself exhibits a much deeper alienation which goes unnoticed in those discussions. The human species is seen in them as an invader in the biosphere, as if it arrived here, somehow, from outside the universe. It is not realized in such discussions that we are Nature, a self-continuation of Nature; that Nature acts through us, as us. Rather than seeing ourselves as invaders of Nature, from outside of Nature, it would be more apt to say, metaphorically, that the biosphere invented us, innovated us within itself, to solve its latest ecological crisis. For homo sapiens sapiens alone has the potential to intelligently, and with sufficient speediness, monitor and regulate the otherwise self-destructive tendencies inherently arising in a blind-running, consciousness-less ecosystem, and to guide its further evolution -- if it can master its own.

Now perhaps Nature's solution has gotten out of hand again. The solution has become a new problem. But, as we've seen, that's been par for the course. Human evolution, being a willful, potentially conscious and deliberate phenomenon, potentially partakes in the potential for aberration as well as the advantages unique to that level of evolution.

As human beings, our charge -- our opportunity, challenge, and privilege -- is to master these aberrations and advantages, not to flee back into the darkness of pre-mental and vegetative existence. To meet the challenge of the climatic chilling effect, not to mention other natural crises, we may have to overcome a different "chilling effect": the recent deterioration in the psychic climate of human culture which is having a paralyzing impact on our ability to mobilize as a species. I refer to the misanthropic tendency which declares that technology is evil, and can only damage the ecosystem; that people are pollution for the biosphere, and that all post-feudal human social-evolution should be undone. Ironically, not only our survival, but also that of the rest of Earth's ecosystem may depend upon our dispelling this gloom.

distributed by
Capitalist Crisis Studies

March 1979

formatted for release to the web by
Adventures in Dialectics
17 February 2006