Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On the Transit of Venus and Human Civilization

by Quincy Saul, June 5, 2012

Today we will witness the transit of Venus. As we observe this seemingly small orb moving monumentally and magnificently across the sun, we may have a moment to reflect on the transit of human civilization as well. When Venus next passes between us and the sun, it will be the year 2133. What civilization will witness its next transit?

Why is Venus particularly significant to Earthlings? Our first close look at Venus came between 1990 and 1994 when the Magellan spacecraft mapped the entire surface from orbit. We found the only other planet in the solar system with a complex, evolving climate. Similar in size and composition, Venus and Earth are more alike than any other two planets in the solar system. About one billion years ago, Venus may have been much more similar to Earth. “Yet they have developed into radically different worlds,” the Scientific American summarized.

The climate of Venus climate is hot – hot enough that rocks glow. The surface temperature is about 460 degrees Celsius, and the air pressure on the surface is nearly 100 times what it is on earth. Scientists speculate that Venus once had oceans that boiled completely into the atmosphere. They extrapolate that the exceptionally hot climate of Venus was caused by a run-away greenhouse effect, pushed over the threshold by volcanic activity.

As we watch Venus crossing the sun today, we may take a moment to consider what implications Venus has for us as we come to grips with our own global warming on Earth. The escalation of global climate change has made the issue of a runaway greenhouse effect perhaps the single most urgent issue in the world today. Many have warned that if something is not done soon to radically reverse the warming, Earth may wind up like Venus.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) categorizes the concept of runaway global climactic change into two types. “Type one thresholds” are caused by “smooth”, linear changes, like the gradual addition of carbon particulate matter to the atmosphere. “Type two thresholds” are non-linear changes brought on by the process of climate change itself; feedback loops that increase climate change regardless of human activity. The IPCC, as Christian Parenti writes, “operates on the basis of consensus, [therefore] its conclusions are quite conservative, and its reports lag years behind the latest scientific developments. [It] represents the lowest common denominator of fully accepted conclusions from the scientific mainstream.” (p5) Consequently, the IPCC does not believe that type 2 thresholds can be caused by human activity. “For instance, a “runaway greenhouse effect”—analogous to Venus-- appears to have virtually no chance of being induced by anthropogenic activities,” a 2004 IPCC report concludes. Many climate scientists agree; John Houghton writes that there “is no possiblity of [Venus's] runaway greenhouse conditions occurring on the Earth.”

But not all share this optimism. Climate scientist James Hansen did his PhD on Venus' atmosphere and climate in 1967. His studies of the climate of Venus led him to become interested in the issue of the greenhouse effect and climate change on Earth, and he has since become one of the foremost educators on the subject. He now advocates for a radical, immediate and global reorganization of all economic activity to prevent the growing threat of a runaway greenhouse gas effect on Earth, which has earned the name “the Venus syndrome.”

In a now-famous lecture at the American Geophysical Union in 2008, Hansen gave a presentation where he said in no uncertain terms:

Now the danger that we face is the Venus syndrome. There is no escape from the Venus Syndrome. Venus will never have oceans again. Given the solar constant that we have today, how large a forcing must be maintained to cause runaway global warming? ...What is different about the human-made forcing is the rapidity at which we are increasing it, on the time scale of a century or a few centuries. It does not provide enough time for negative feedbacks, such as changes in the weathering rate, to be a major factor. There is also a danger that humans could cause the release of methane hydrates, perhaps more rapidly than in some of the cases in the geologic record. In my opinion, if we burn all the coal, there is a good chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse effect. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale (a.k.a. oil shale), I think it is a dead certainty.”

After a year of reflection, in his 2009 book, “The Storms of My Grandchildren,” he continues on this theme, now more explicitly:

"The paleoclimate record does not provide a case with a climate forcing of the magnitude and speed that will occur if fossil fuels are all burned. Models are nowhere near the stage at which they can predict reliably when major ice sheet disintegration will begin. Nor can we say how close we are to methane hydrate instability. But these are questions of when, not if. If we burn all the fossil fuels, the ice sheets almost surely will melt entirely, with the final sea level rise about 75 meters (250 feet), with most of that possibly occurring within a time scale of centuries. Methane hydrates are likely to be more extensive and vulnerable now than they were in the early Cenozoic. It is difficult to imagine how the methane clathrates could survive, once the ocean has had time to warm. In that event a PETM-like warming [Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum] could be added on top of the fossil fuel warming. After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While that is difficult to say based on present information, I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty."

We are faced today with a world-systemic enemy which challenges us all on an existential level. Volcanoes pushed Venus over the threshold of runaway climate change. Our equivalent on Earth is a global economic system built on the design of the cancer cell -- endless and infinite growth. Despite the global economic downturn in 2010, the figures are now in that it was the most carbon-intensive year in human history. There is no longer any secret that this world-system is ecocidal, that it will not rest, that if given the chance it will burn all the oil, gas, coal, tar sands and tar shale in what Michael Klare calls a “race for what's left.” The system will either be buried forever or it will bury us forever. Where will we be in 2133 when Venus again crosses between the earth and the sun? What transit will human civilization have made between now and then?

Astronomers are currently looking for the transits of planets on far-away stars. In the same way that we observe the transit of Venus, they are looking for blips on the surface of these distant stars, and in a short time they have cataloged hundreds of foreign planets. We are told over and over about this amazing search for life on other planets, the search for a planet like Earth. But we must ask, why are we looking for other planets like Earth while we destroy the one that we are a part of? What mass psychological condition does this express? As we stare into the transit, it stares back at us.

Where will our planet be in 2133? If an alien species today found the Earth by observing its transit across our sun, and began to travel a hundred years to investigate, what would they find here when they arrive? A blue-green biosphere, or two Venuses, one with the ruins of an intelligent civilization that destroyed its home planet?

In most mythology, Venus is the woman, the goddess, associated with love, beauty and fertility. So here is a final thing to think about while we watch the transit of Venus today. Representing the cosmic feminine, Venus will be silhouetted against the face of the mythically male sun god. Perhaps what we need most of all in the transit of human civilization which is upon us, is a return to the wisdom of women. 


Perhaps Venus can save us from the Venus syndrome. In the face of the greatest imaginable catastrophe, we may heed the wisdom of Grace Paley: “women are not so afraid to be afraid, therefore they are better suited to confront the system.”

And as ecofeminist Leigh Brownhill wrote to me,

as for the astrological significance, i can only guess that love will show it's power, silhouetted against that fiery ball of light known as our sun, and bring us a reminder that love persists and will continue to orbit our universe despite its seeming insignificance in the face of the everyday fires of life.”

As we observe Venus today, we should feel a profound and thrilling connection to the cosmos and its immense majestic splendor. And we should also feel a deep existential commitment to our own planet, still alive and beautiful, but in desperate and in deadly danger.


Global Climate Change on Venus; March 1999; Scientific American Magazine; by Bullock, Grinspoon

IPCC Expert Meeting on the Science to Address UNFCCC Article 2 including Key Vulnerabilities, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 18-20 May 2004

Houghton, J. (May 4, 2005). "Global Warming". Rep. Prog. Phys. 68 (6): 1343–1403. Bibcode 2005RPPh...68.1343H. doi:10.1088/0034-4885/68/6/R02. Retrieved August 26, 2009.

Jim Hansen : Climate Threat to the Planet: Implications for Energy Policy and Intergenerational Justice, December 17, 2008 , Bjerknes Lecture, American Geophysical Union , San Francisco, California 
Storms of my Grandchildren, by James Hansen, Bloomsbury USA, December 2009

Tropic of Chaos, Climate change and the new geography of violence, by Christian Parenti, Nation Books, New York, 2011

The Race For What's Left, The global scramble for the world's last resources, by Michael Klare, Metropolitan Books, NY, 2012