I took the weekend off last week, so naturally a paper landed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that generated a considerable response. So, though it’s now a whole week old, I’m bouncing back to this article from an international team … with appropriately global impact.
We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene.
One of the first things that deniers of anthropic global warming throw out there is that “climate is always changing” and “Earth used to be warmer.” Both of these things are true. Neither of them has a bit to do with climate change caused by human activities. After all, if you find someone standing next to a clear-cut acre with a chainsaw in hand, you can infer what happened without invoking “trees fall in the forest.” It has been warmer in the past. At least two times in the last 100 million years, it’s been considerably warmer, and life on Earth has survived.
But we weren’t here. If it happens again, we won’t survive. Not as a culture, and likely not as a species. A temperature change even approaching those past levels would utterly shatter the ability of Earth to provide for billions of humans. An ecosystem completely dominated by people and a handful of species used for feeding people, where other animals and plants have already been forced into the margins, is already fragile. Under such a hammer blow, it would take millions of years to recover its diversity if such a change takes place. This isn’t the disaster we usually think of when we contemplate climate change. This is an apocalyptic take, the end of humanity through heath death, a very near worst case scenario.
So … where do we stand versus this dark possibility? There’s a significant risk that we’re not already on the path to this cataclysmic result, but further down the road than we believe.
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