The eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, and the resulting ash cloud over Europe, is obviously not related to global warming. But as we mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the massive disruptions caused by the volcanic ash do, I think, provide lessons about what may lie ahead as the earth's climate continues to change.
When planes can't fly for extended periods in one of the world's most critical population and financial hubs, the consequences for an interdependent, intricately linked global economy are far-reaching. Thousands of stranded air travelers, of course, got most of the press coverage. But the volcanic disruption also affected pineapple farmers in Ghana and flower growers in Kenya who couldn't ship their products to Europe, Nissan auto workers in Japan who couldn't get parts from Ireland, and a myriad of other enterprises around the world. You wouldn't expect a volcano in Iceland to cause a rental-car shortage in San Francisco, but it happened; European visitors had to extend their rentals, depleting rental inventories. But that hardly made up for the lost revenue from visitors who couldn't fly to the U.S. The American travel industry lost $130 million a day, according to the U.S. Travel Association. And airlines, of course, got hosed, with industry losses approaching $2 billion.
As I said, climate change doesn't cause volcanic eruptions. But if current climate forecasts are correct, we can expect a marked increase in both the frequency and severity of disruptive weather events in the coming years. Record-setting hurricanes, typhoons, rainstorms, droughts, and blizzards (ask the residents of Washington, D.C. about the latter) will continue to make headlines and disrupt life for thousands, if not millions - with considerably more damage to life and property than that caused by Eyjafjallajokull.
Few envisioned this type of scenario for the planet when Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Denis Hayes and others organized the first Earth Day in 1970. "Think Globally, Act Locally" was the mantra back then, because we didn't yet grasp that human activities could affect the ecosystem of the entire planet. "We have fundamentally altered Earth," wrote Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina in the April issue. In 2010, Think Globally is a given, and Act Globally is an imperative.
As daunting a challenge as reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions is, we have other challenges at a scale every bit as large. Such as starting to rethink assumptions about how to live and create wealth on this new planet that the venerable Bill McKibben, in his new book, calls EAARTH. And looking at unprecedented ways to mitigate climate change in the emerging science of geoengineering -- such as causing "global dimming" with space-based mirrors or atmospheric sulfates -- as outlined in the new book How to Cool the Planet by Big Coal author Jeff Goodell. Some of these schemes give a whole new meaning to "pie in the sky," and none of them should ever be used as a convenient excuse to stop efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and move to a clean-energy economy. But a growing number of scientists and environmentalists believe they need to be considered and researched -- before we have no choice.
The world is a very different place than it was in 1970. We have a global economy, a global, instantaneous communications network, and a globe-sized environmental challenge that affects every ecosystem on Earth. And the changes that Earth has undergone since the first Earth Day will appear minuscule compared to what is likely to happen in the next 40 years. The good news is that we have unprecedented technology tools for global collaboration and awareness, as we try to deal with a global climate challenge. Eyjafjallajokull reminds us that nature's inevitable future cataclysms will have immediate global impacts, and the spirit of Earth Day should inspire everyone in our global village to face them -- and work to transform the conditions that help cause them -- together.