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Is it too late to prevent ‘civilization-threatening climate disruption’?

As noted elsewhere on truthalyzer.com, Sir James Lovelock, perhaps best known for his Gaia Theory of Earth as a living system, was one of the first to say, in his books, lectures, and interviews, that Earth’s climate is past the point of no return and destined for runaway “global heating,” as he prefers to call it. (“Warming is cozy and comfortable…. Heating is something you want to get away from.”) But at age 92, he does not expect to be around to experience the worst of it himself. In his book, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (2006), he warns, “Civilization is in grave danger…. Earth is now returning to the hot state it was in before, millions of years ago, and as it warms, most living things will die. Once started, the move to a hot state is irreversible…. Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” His worst case scenario forsees civilization reduced to “broken rabble led by brutal war lords.” In an ideal world, or rather an ideal civilization, mankind would “overcome the self-generated threat of deadly climate change, caused by our massive destruction of ecosystems and global pollution,” and would “ensure that our numbers are always commensurate with our and Gaia’s capacity to nourish them…. a stabilized population of about half to one billion.” This we have failed to do, so “in the end, as always, Gaia will do the culling and eliminate those that break her rules.”

“The brutal logic of climate change” is the title of a recent (December, 2011) article in Grist by David Roberts. The following excerpts trace the “logic” that leads Roberts to the same catastrophic conclusion reached by Lovelock years ago:

“The consensus in American politics today is that there’s nothing to be gained from talking about climate change. It’s divisive … and very little can be accomplished anyway…. This cannot work … if we hope to avoid terrible consequences … civilization-threatening climate disruption…. How much can global average temperature rise before we risk ‘dangerous’ changes in climate? … The 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees F] number has been around for over a decade…. But there’s a hitch: Climate science has not stood still for the last decade. According to the latest research, the level of damages once expected at 2 degrees C is now expected at … 1 degree C [1.8 degrees F]…. At this point, however, stopping at 1 degree C is physically impossible (we can thank our past inaction for that). Indeed, as we’ll see, stopping at 2 degrees C is getting close to impossible as well. There is no longer any reasonable chance of avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change, so 1 degree C vs. 2 degrees C is a somewhat academic debate.

At this point we’re just shooting to avoid super-duper-dangerous…. Global emissions are rising, faster and faster. Between 2000 and 2007, they rose at around 3.5 percent a year; by 2009 it was up to 5.6 percent. In 2010, we hit 5.9 percent growth, a record. We aren’t just going in the wrong direction — we’re accelerating in the wrong direction…. The only thing that’s ever pushed emissions reductions above 1 percent a year is … recession or upheaval. The total collapse of the USSR knocked 5 percent off its emissions. So 10 percent a year is … not like anything in the history of human civilization. This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance…. If 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says [UK climate scientist Kevin] Anderson, ‘a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond adaptation, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.’

Yeeeah. You’ll want to read that sentence again. Then you’ll probably want to pour yourself a stiff drink. Obviously, ‘incompatible with an organized global community’ is what jumps out, but the last bit, ‘high probability of not being stable,’ is equally if not more important…. For instance, heat can melt the Arctic permafrost, which releases methane, which accelerates climate change, which melts more permafrost, etc…. At some level of temperature rise, some of those positive feedbacks are likely to become self-reinforcing and effectively unstoppable, no matter how much emissions are cut. These are the ‘tipping points’ you hear so much about…. [NASA climate scientist] James Hansen thinks 2 degrees C will do it. Others disagree…. But the situation becomes considerably clearer around 4 degrees C. At that level, there’s good reason to believe that some positive feedbacks will become self-reinforcing … on the road to much higher temperatures. That makes the notion of ‘adapting’ to 4 degrees C a bit of a farce. Infrastructure decisions involve big money and long time horizons. By the time we’ve built (or rebuilt) infrastructure suited to 4 degrees C, it will be 5 degrees C [9 degrees F]. And so on. A climate in which conditions are changing that fast just isn’t suitable for stable human civilization (or for the continued existence of a majority of the planet’s species). Oh, and by the way: According to the International Energy Agency, we’re currently on course for 6 degrees C [10.8 degrees F]. That is, beyond any reasonable doubt, game over. So this is where we’re at: stuck between temperatures we can’t possibly accommodate and carbon reduction pathways we can’t possibly achieve. A rock and a hard place. Scylla and Charybdis.”

Skeptics of global warming say there’s no scientific consensus that the climate is warming in the first place, citing cold weather records at various locations around the world in recent years and drops in average temperatures from one given year to another. They add that the Earth’s climate has changed many times before, alternating between periods of warmth and cold, and that all the fuss about the supposed increase in average temperature is silly, because such an increase could actually be beneficial to inhabitants of previously colder climes. In any case, there’s nothing humans can do about changing temperatures, they say. We can’t affect the cycles of the Sun, to which they attribute changes in the Earth’s climate.

Websites like Skeptical Science (“Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism”), Climate Progress, and NASA’s Global Climate Change, offer factual responses to the myths, misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and outright lies propagated by global warming skeptics. In summary, the great majority of climate scientists (97 percent or more), confirm that the Earth’s climate is trending warmer and has been since temperature records began in the 19th century. In the short term, there are cold weather events and declines in temperature, but the long term trend is clearly toward a warmer Earth. It is true, of course, that our planet has cycled between periods of cold and warmth in the past, and the Sun is a factor in Earth’s climate, but in recent centuries humans have overwhelmed natural cycles of climate change by adding vast quantities of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. If humans do not rapidly reverse this trend, and there is little evidence of their will to do so, and growing evidence that it is too late to do so, the Earth will experience runaway global warming, which will not only lead to crop failures, food shortages, pandemics, ocean acidification, scarcity of fresh water, and economic and social collapse, but will complete the 6th mass extinction of species currently underway, drastically reducing the numbers of Homo sapiens or eliminating the species altogether.

UPDATE: In April, 2012, Lovelock revised his timeframe for the worst effects of climate change, saying “We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit.” This is the only real controversy among the great majority of climate scientists. As Katherine Bagley puts it, “Climate change is a matter of how bad and by when — not whether.”


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