Physicist presents stark vision of climate change future at CMC Breckenridge

By Summit Daily writer Deepan Dutta (ddutta@summitdaily.com)

Physicist Robert Davies speaks on climate change at Colorado Mountain College's Breckenridge campus on Friday, Jan. 24. Deepan Dutta / ddutta@summitdaily.com


BRECKENRIDGE — “Failure is not an option!”Those famous words were barked out by Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris in the film “Apollo 13,” and became the classic space docudrama’s tagline when it was released in 1995. The words were part of a mantra at NASA at the time — in the midst of emergency, when seconds count and the only resource in abundance is the unknown, you must refuse to surrender to the odds and put all of your efforts to finding a solution.

A clip of that Mission Control scene from “Apollo 13” (which cut just short of Kranz’s famous line) was used at the end of a presentation on climate change by physicist Robert Davies, Ph.D, an associate professor of physics at Utah State University, to a packed auditorium at Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge on Friday, Jan. 24, evening. 

Davies has become a popular figure on the science talk circuit, with his physics credentials include acting as technical liaison for the International Space Station between NASA and Moscow, Russia.

The scene of NASA assisting marooned astronauts illustrated a point that Davies had repeatedly tried to nail home during the hour and a half presentation: that humans need to act as if they are in the midst of an all-hands-on-deck emergency that endangers civilization.

That, he said, was because the physical reality of greenhouse gas emission loads in the atmosphere had long gone past the point where people could make small, incremental changes to human behavior which was rapidly accelerating climate change. If this were a roller coaster, it’s too late to simply slow down — it’s time to pull the emergency brake.

Davies’ presentation was sponsored by the High Country Conservation Center and attended by county officials, business owners and other community members who sat engrossed throughout the presentation. The presentation was wide-ranging and, by Davies’ own admission, particularly depressing.

“I’m giving you some pretty difficult information, and telling you that we are on the very edge,” Davies said. “It does not feel like that to you guys. You can just walk out of here into your regular lives … but that is the insidious nature of the problem. On the very edge of doom, everything looks great.”

Davies presented a parade of evidence for his case that the current climate change event humans are living in is creating incredible stress on the planet’s life forms, and that it was driven by human behavior. He presented with the repeated qualification that the facts he presented were driven by physics, not politics or emotions.

Davies said that the primary evidence that it was human activity driving climate change, not nature, was how so many different things started going wrong when humans started burning fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution. Use accelerated rapidly in the mid-20th century with the rise of globalization, until civilization reached the point that its at today, with 407 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that’s a CO2 level “higher than at any point in the last 800,000 years,” which was during the last ice age. 

Davies said that tremendous spike in carbon dioxide concentration has had enormous, far-reaching effects on innumerable planetary systems. Not just climate and weather patterns, but for everything from ocean acidification killing sea life, to migratory patterns of birds, to the creeping of entire ecosystems up mountainsides as average temperatures get warmer at lower elevations. An endless gorge of natural resources is also causing mass devastation to other life forms.

To the point of how mass resource extraction is affecting other life forms, Davies presented these facts: 60% of Earth’s wildlife has disappeared in the past 40 years, with the extinction rate going up by a factor of 100 to 1000 times normal, a rate that has 150 species going extinct every day.

He also said 99% of Earth’s coral reefs will likely be gone by 2040 due to ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide absorption. The population of both seabirds and elephants have declined by 70% over the past 70 years, and African lion population is down by 90%. Large fish, including sharks, are also seeing population decline of 90%. In Germany, flying insect populations have declined by 75% just over the past 27 years.

Davies’ point was that the same systems that drive that mass resource extraction are also driving climate change, combining for devastating effects.

Davies said that at some point, something’s got to give — that physics dictate that the planet will reach a tipping point by the end of this current century where human civilization will be unsustainable due to rapid heating, especially in the arctic, which will see temperatures rising 25% faster than normal. Sea levels will engulf entire coastal cities while snowpack and water will disappear from the American West. He said that estimates have 300 million people becoming displaced.

Davies’ admitted that he did not really have any hope to offer, aside from the fact that due to the unsustainability of consumption, the current human systems driving the situation must disappear, as the hard numbers show humans will run out of resources to consume.

That got back to Davies’ main point — that humans need to start acting like they are in the midst of a global emergency. He said the idea that people can rapidly “decarbonize” society isn’t at all radical, but rational. He brought up examples of how Americans decided to completely cease production of passenger vehicles during World War II in favor of tanks and other war equipment, and how all flights across the nation were grounded on 9/11 as examples of things that can be done, if the will exists. 

If there is any good news, Davies said, it’s that humans haven’t even really begun to try to fix the problem. There is still time to try — even if the measures are more drastic than most people would currently agree is reasonable.

That is when Davies played the clip from “Apollo 13,” where Kranz is approached by a young aeronautical engineer who tells him that the three astronauts in the lunar module would have to shut almost every single electronic system off in order to have enough power to loop around the moon and get back to Earth. If the batteries died, so would the astronauts.

After verifying that turning everything off was the only option available to get the men back, Kranz ends the debate on whether to act. “That’s the deal,” he said.

In his concluding remarks, Davies channeled that mantra, and said that systemic changes — not just individual — need to be made to save humanity as we know it.

“They said, ‘We got to turn everything off, power is everything,” Davies said. “For us, it’s emissions. We have to turn all emissions off. That’s the deal.”


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