Tyrannosaurus Rex Goes to the Mall

T-Rex goes shopping_resized

Fossil Fuelled Musings on Modern Fools for Fuels

No, this is not a scene from “Jurassic Mall” (or, more accurately “Cretaceous Mall”).  I don’t think anyone has decided to make that movie—yet.  This cranky looking Tyrannosaurus Rex is an animatronic model that even roared and thrashed its tail around when its buttons were pushed. (It was an interactive model.) “Cranky Lizzy”, as I decided to name the fearsome looking beast, was on display last summer at a large shopping mall in Burnaby, BC. The mall would often use its two open court areas for educational or cultural displays and exhibits.  Last year, the entire summer was devoted to an exhibit on dinosaurs, complete with some mighty impressive fossils, skeletons, and life sized, animatronic models of both an adult (“Cranky Lizzy”) and junior Tyrannosaurus Rex, on loan from Dinosaurs Unearthed.

After wandering around the exhibit and taking a few photographs, I began to draw some parallels and distinctions between the demise of the dinosaurs as a result of large scale climate changes and the increasingly immanent consequences of recent climate changes for humans and other life forms on our planet.  While there has been some debate as to the cause(s)—ranging from the impact of a large meteor that hit the earth to extensive volcanic eruptions in the Deccan Traps (located in what is now west central India)—of the massive extinctions at the end of Cretaceous period, there does seem to be widespread agreement that a drastic global wide climate change precipitated the mass extinctions. Whether this climate change came about suddenly due to the Earth being impacted by massive asteroids or more slowly through large scale and extended periods of volcanic activity has been the subject of much debate within the paleontology and geology disciplines over the past 30 or so years.  In case you’re interested, the impact theory has officially “won out” as the favoured explanation, based on the unanimous decision of a panel of just over 40 scientists at a conference in March, 2010. (Given what I remember about the sociology of scientific knowledge, I suspect we haven’t yet heard the last of this debate, but that’s another post for another day….)

Cataclysmic Climate Changes—Then, and Coming Soon to a Biosphere near You

According to the asteroid impact hypothesis put forth by Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980, a large asteroid crashed into the sea near Mexico.  According to this model, the earth first cooled as a result of a massive cloud of dust blocking out the sun, and then warmed due to large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The volcanic hypothesis of mass extinction argues that large scale and long lasting volcanic action led to reduced sunlight in addition to increased amounts of toxic and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  In both hypotheses, the triggering events produced dramatic changes in the Earth’s carbon cycles that affected not just the atmosphere but also the oceans and biospheres. According to Dewey McLean’s (1995) explanation of carbon cycle perturbations at this time period, increased CO2 and other greenhouse gases resulted in global wide warming and climate zone shifts. Increased temperatures melted polar ice which resulted in rises in sea levels and sedimentation changes.  The oceans at that point in time also underwent chemical changes that impacted on the abilities of various aquatic life forms to survive.  Climate zone shifts and warmer temperatures resulted in hyperthermia and ecological instability, animal and plant migrations and expanded ranges of tropical diseases. The giant lizards, tyrannical or otherwise, and many other life forms at the time had no say in or control over the disruptions to their environments and their inevitable demise.

Unlike our friend in the photograph, we have not only contributed significantly to climate change over the last century or so through our increasing dependence on fossil fuels and their by-products, we have continued to engage in behaviours that we know full well are damaging our planet and the habitats that we share with so many other life forms.  And also unlike the animals of the late Cretaceous period, we are in a position to slow down and hopefully reverse the damaging effects of climate change on our planet.  But if we don’t start taking some serious steps to reducing our carbon emissions, we are likely to overheat our planet before we run out of fossil fuels.

Global Burnout?

It took 350 million years to form the fossil fuels that have become a mixed blessing for us. Yet, in the space of a mere 150-250 years, we have managed to not only burn through a significant amount of coal deposits and oil, but also pollute our atmosphere, biospheres and oceans in the process.  Yes, I know the climate change detractors and sceptics like to argue that the levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere have always fluctuated and therefore human contributions to the currently increasing CO2 levels are negligible, in the long run.  However, a chart recently produced by NASA (using data from NOAA) in 2009 (see below) and reproduced on the Global Issues website shows the level of atmospheric CO2 had not exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm) for roughly 450,000 years. Using data from NOAA,  the following chart from NASA shows a comparison of atmospheric samples of CO2 contained in ice cores and recent, direct measurements.  I’d say the picture speaks for itself….

Variation in carbon dioxide concentration during the past 400,000 years (historical data from the Vostock ice core).

Source for Chart: Climate Change: How do we know? NASA, 2009

The atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide started increasing about 150 years ago and in a scant 50 or so years—roughly the 1950s onward—the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere has skyrocketed from about 285 ppm to over 380 ppm.  Boden, Marland and Andres (2010) at the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre produced a chart, displayed below, showing how many million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide have been released into the atmosphere as a result of burning various fossil fuels since 1751. When we look at the chart  it is quite clear that the increases in CO2 emissions have been driven by human activity much more so than “natural” causes or cycles.

Carbon Emission Estimates graph

Source: Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres. 2010. Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2010.

Why should we even care about this?  Because the more CO2 and other greenhouse gases we have in the atmosphere, the more it increases the temperatures of both the oceans and the earth’s surface. Unless we literally want to go out the same way as the dinosaurs, we really don’t want the planet warming up much past another 2 °C, ideally.  We also need to get that 380+ ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide back down to a maximum of 350 ppm, or we are going to start making conditions on the planet very difficult, if not impossible, for all life forms—not just humans—to survive.  According to the most recent thinking by climatologists such as James Hansen, an increase of 2 or 3 °C is going to push us past a point of no return.  A map of climate change impacts prepared by the Met Office (the U.K.’s national weather service) in 2009 shows that an increase of 4 °C is going to result in adverse affects ranging from increases in droughts and forest fires, rises in sea levels that put some island nations at risk, crop failures and increases in the number of humans impacted by hunger and starvation, to severe effects on water availability. And this map doesn’t even begin to consider the sociological and political crises that would follow from widespread climate related disasters.

What is even more disturbing is that we have been lulling ourselves into a false sense of security about the rate of global warming, thanks to a phenomenon known as global dimming. While our greenhouse gas emissions have been slowly bumping up the average temperatures, the amount of particulates and aerosols that have spewed out of our factories and vehicles have created cloud formations that reflect the sun’s light back into space.  This has resulted in decreases in the amount of direct light from the sun, thereby creating slightly lower temperatures in the oceans and the earth’s surface which are, in turn, impacting on the hydrological cycles—rain patterns—in certain parts of the world.  So in effect, we are, according to Veerabhadran Ramanathan, altering rain patterns and indirectly causing droughts via the amount of pollution we put into the atmosphere.

Don’t Just Sit there in Despair—Do Something!

I won’t deny that it can feel overwhelming when we constantly hear about how climate change will doom us all if nothing changes, and the temptation is to either retreat into denial with a helpless “Well, what I can personally do about it?” shrug, or pass the buck by leaving it to “someone else” (our elected politicians and large corporations, perhaps?) to deal with.  I have some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that if you’re waiting for “someone else” to suddenly see the light and take responsibility for reversing the course we’re on, you’re going to be waiting a very long time.  The good news is that you are not completely helpless or powerless.  Contrary to what you might have been led to believe, many small actions on the part of numerous individuals add up and make a difference.  Here are five actions you can take to start making a difference.  Make it fun, and bring in a friend or family members as learning and action buddies.

  1. Educate yourself.  Start by reading the information available through the sites I’ve linked to in this article.  It can be confusing knowing what to believe when you hear a lot of contradictory messages in the media, so it’s also important to learn to ask questions and think critically.  A good site to learn how to ask some incisive questions about the source of the information is desmogblog .  Another approach to educating yourself about climate change is to start a learning circle with a group of friends.  If you think it might be easier to organize something like that using a structured curriculum, you might want to check out the Northwest Earth Institute’s materials or consider forming an action circle through Be the Change Earth Alliance. (Personal disclaimer: I do volunteer with the Be the Change Earth Alliance, so it is an organization that’s near and dear to my heart.)
  2. Enlist your friends, family or neighbours to join you in going on a low carbon diet for a month. See if you can find a copy of David Gershon’s book Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 pounds (2007) in your local library and start acting on the suggestions for reducing your household’s carbon emissions.  This is a fun book to work through—it’s informative and practical without getting “preachy”. (No, I don’t get any bonuses or advantages for mentioning the book or the program on my site.)
  3. Speak up and speak out. Learn how to write effective letters to politicians and newspaper editors that get their attention and prompt them to respond or publish your letters, respectively. If you want politicians to start showing accountability around the issue of climate change, then you need to let them know which of their policies are acceptable or not and speak up about your concerns.
  4. Quit idling or, better yet, park the car and walk or cycle more. If you’re stuck in traffic, waiting at railroad crossings, or have otherwise come to a temporary halt, turn the motor off, rather than letting the engine idle.  According to the idle free zone web site, “If every driver of a light duty vehicle avoided idling by three minutes a day, collectively over the year, we would save 630 million litres of fuel, over 1.4 million tonnes of GHG emissions, and $630 million annually in fuel costs (assuming fuel costs are $1.00/L).”  For local errands or outings, consider walking or cycling instead—you’ll reduce carbon emissions and you’ll burn off some carbohydrates, at the same time!
  5. Consider buying more food that is locally produced and in season. The less distance your food has to travel from where it is grown or produced to your kitchen, the less carbon emissions are attached to your dinner!  The added bonus is that locally produced food is generally much fresher and more nutrient dense than foods that have been transported thousands of miles or kilometres to your local supermarket.

I’ve offered up a few ways to reduce carbon emissions and walk more gently on the earth. What resources and strategies have you, the reader, thought of? I’d love to hear your ideas and strategies.  I’ll leave you with a quote to reinforce the importance of taking some small actions on climate change, no matter how insignificant an impact you think they might have: “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.” (Mohandas K. Gandhi)

© Susan Chambers, 2010

Photo of “Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Mall”: Taken by Susan Chambers, June 2009

June 27, 2010 · Susan · 4 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Environment

4 Responses

  1. Jackie - July 8, 2010

    Wow! Well said. A very thought provoking piece of writing with lots of informative links. I have to admit I struggled for a moment (Okay, a few moments… a LOT of moments) trying to think of a valuable contribution to make to this blog. The only ‘environment friendly’ tip I could think of was something my daughter enforces around the house and that is to turn off all lights and electrical (computers, t.v.’s) when not using them! This blog has inspired me to learn more ways that I can make my contribution. I have to say my dark humor had me visualizing a couple of very large cockroaches in the distant future digging up fossilized human bones and saying “Perhaps we could burn this for fuel and energy… nah, they just look like trouble. Leave ’em there”.

  2. Susan - July 8, 2010

    Hi Jackie,

    Thanks, for your comment. I’m glad you found it so informative. You’d be surprised how much just turning off the lights and electrical appliances contributes to decreasing your household’s CO2 emissions. One the best books I’ve come across for learning about how much CO2 your household is producing is the Low Carbon Diet by David Gershon that I mentioned in the post. I’m glad to hear your daughter is so conscientious about turning out the lights and switching off the appliances. I had to laugh at your dark humour. Let’s hope that we as a species get it together and decide we love our planet enough to prevent a melt down.

  3. Rajiv - July 9, 2010

    Maybe we will end up as dinosaurs, perhaps because of our own making. Hopefully it does not come to that, or that humans don’t have a trip back to Oldupai gorge and a post industrial stone-age (olduvai theory)

  4. Susan - July 9, 2010

    Hi Rajiv,

    Thanks for your comment. Let’s we hope don’t end up back in a stone age, but I think if we don’t get a grip on the fact that our fascination (or our economic system’s fascination) with unlimited growth and expansion, we may well end up where we began–with primitive tools and means–if the negative impacts of climate change don’t trigger a collapse first. I’ve put in a link to the olduvai theory so other readers can learn about it if they’ve not heard of it before.

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