Turning back the clock and forgive and forget are not Gaia's way of reacting to a carbon overdose.
While politicians are just catching up with the science on global warming, the reality is that no matter what we do at this late date, the consequences are going to be damaging.
This might feel disheartening for folks busy screwing in their energy- saving lightbulbs and worrying about their footprint, but there it is. This is true for the simple reason that yesterday's warming has a whole lot of momentum going for it. We are "physically committed," as the scientists cited in Tim Flannery's must-read The Weather Makers put it.
About half the extra heat generated over the last 200 years of industrialism got stored in the ocean, and it will be around, like a hot water bottle in a sleeping bag, for some time. The half of yesterday's heat that went into the atmosphere will likewise be trapping our new and hopefully reduced heat for some time.
The global warming mo' factor means governments that have only done things by halves now have to do two things at once: learn to manage and minimize the damage that is inevitable and shrink future repercussions by eliminating two-thirds of today's emissions.
This is a tall order that will require much more social restructuring than concerned pols or publics are imagining. You can see this most clearly in the case of food production: whatever is done to reduce global warming emissions over the next few decades will not change the fact that our source of nourishment is going to be under the weather for at least 50 years.
Funny that we never stopped to think about that before. Though eating is a close second behind breathing and is as important an arena of government responsibility as the postal service, money supply, highway system, tax cuts and economic development incentives, governments have traditionally left people to fend for themselves when it comes to their base animal needs.
That level of planning absentia will no longer get us through the day in a field like food production, which requires years of preparation before reliable harvests come through.
Experts agree that two major shifts will wreak crop havoc. First, heat stress and drought will ravage the fertility of the world's main breadbaskets in Asia, India and North America, eliminating easy, low-cost access to basic staples such as wheat, corn and rice.
Staple powerhouses such as the North American plains - whose water is now being squandered to clean the filthy tar sands - and India's Punjab are expected to be hard hit by drought and soil degradation. Tomorrow's harvest reductions will come on the heels of the near-emptying of world grain reserves over the last decade, permitted in the name of reduced government intervention and reliance on just-in-time delivery systems. Just in time for global warming, they might have thought.
Much of the world's best food land will also face flooding when sea levels rise thanks to melting glaciers as well as the inevitable expansion of warming water. This will drown a third of the world's croplands, leaving them covered with salt, which is poisonous to agriculture.
This trend is already showing up in Egypt, one of the ancient birthplaces of global agriculture, and is expected to hit food-exporting states such as Florida and Louisiana with a vengeance.
Then there's the assault on the oceans. Our seas have the equivalent of heartburn as a result of acid created when excess carbon dioxide mixes it up with water. Flannery cites experts who say the acid coming onstream over the next 40 years will bleach and kill off three-quarters of the world's already imperilled coral reefs, which have traditionally functioned as nurseries and daycare centres for about a quarter of the world's fish. This acid is also expected to have a deadly impact on shellfish.
What remains of the world's fisheries, according to Mae-Wan Ho's steady tracking for the Institute of Science in Society, will suffer from an ocean food cycle depleted by the swift decline of phytoplankton, also damaged by rising acid levels. Oh, what a web we unweave when first we practise to pollute.
A host of minor factors will compound the challenges created by these two shifts. It's expected, for instance, that higher carbon levels in the atmosphere will distort the mechanics of plant growth, changing harvest levels, nutrient quality and taste.
As pests and fungi get in on the global warming act and start moving to new areas where they face no resistance or predators, a host of new plant-eating bugs and animal diseases can be expected. Who's coming to dinner is anyone's guess.
According to Flannery, expected damage to crop production will be enough to finish off many of the world's great cities and civilizing institutions, both dependent on food surpluses that permit huge numbers of people to eat well while concentrating on matters unrelated to sheer survival.
It is by no means too late to stave off disaster, though it's crucial to remember that the margin for delay and error is low in food production, since fish and goats and wheat all take longer to grow than building insulation, hybrid cars and energy-efficient lightbulbs.
Whatever the specifics of the needed changes, the main challenge is to initiate planning across the ministries of health and the environment in a way no government has had the wherewithal to do in the past.
Still, there are some immediate must-do's. For starters, cancel the use of foodstuffs for fuel. Ethanol and other fuels can all be produced from crop wastes, and do not need to use up prime foods. Then we have to reduce reliance on water-intensive foods such as meat and move toward more reliance on food-bearing trees rather than grasses (think nuts rather than corn), since trees are so much easier on the soil.
And it's long past time to put some public money into a big push for urban agriculture. Not only can city farmers make full use of urban water and compost that are presently wasted, but the technology and transportation system are also low-tech and require little fossil fuel energy. Time, like the planet, is a-burning.