Are we all going over the climate cliff?
As the term "climate cliff " is not in common use, let me begin here, as one who is not a climate
scientist,by conveying my understanding of the term:
Assume that one is bicycling in an unfamiliar area, coasting down a slight slope, and suddenly notices a cliff ahead. One now begins to brake, but is unable prevent oneself from going over the cliff. THE rate of movement then begins to accelerate due to gravity, and one soon crashes on the rocks below and is killed.
In the case of the global warming that is occurring now. The starting point here is to recognize that the
direct cause of that warming are the "greenhouse" gasses present in the atmosphere. Carbon
dioxide [CO2 ] is a notable example.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution (the period between 1780 and 1840, roughly) the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 ppm [parts per million]. During the last 800,000 years, CO2 has fluctuated between
about 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during interglacial warm periods. The current rate of
increase is more than 100 times faster than the rate that occurred when the last ice age ended.
As of July of this year the CO2 level was 414.38 ppm. The question, then, is: Is this a dangerous level? Does it mean that we have gone over the 'climate cliff'—or, at least, are close to that 'cliff'i ?
Here’s a statement relevant for that question:
Global warming is accelerating beyond the worst nightmares of earlier reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC). We are fast approaching many feedback loops or tipping points where nature starts to emit more greenhouse
gases than all the carbon us humans have added. Our car is now rolling down the hill all by itself! Has it already gone over the cliff?
Also, there’s this development from about two years ago:
A paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has received a
lot of media attention. The attention is justified because the paper paints a very grim picture of the
climate and what humans may be doing to it. In particular, the authors of this study tried to determine
the trajectory that the Earth is in so we can predict what the future climate will be.
There are many really important insights from this paper. The authors wanted to know how feedbacks in the climate will play a role in shaping the climate in the future. By feedbacks, we mean a change in one part of the climate that then causes another change, which in turn may
cause another change, and so on, potentially setting up chain reactions. Sometimes, the the changes can feed back on themselves and
cause an accelleration -- an increase the rate of change. For example, the rapid increase in temperature in the Arctic is melting ice.
This exposes more water to the sun, which warms up the ocean. This in turn heats the air... and the cycle repeats.
Feedbacks are really important because they are changes that the natural system makes without being caused directly by humans.
Here is why that last sentence is important:
The global warming that’s been occurring since the Industrial Revolution has been human-caused (i.e., of an anthropogenic nature); our burning of fossil fuels and deforestation activities, especially.
- At some point in time our impacts on the atmosphere begin to activate “feedback loops,” i.e., “tipping points” are reached, and crossed.
- When that occurs, global warming begins to “feed on itself.”
- To restate what I quoted above: “Feedbacks are really important because they are changes that the natural system makes without being caused directly by humans.”
The "changes that the natural system makes” can be thought of as similar to our bicycle going over a cliff to which reference was made at the beginning of this essay.
That is, our “pushing” activities, relative to the atmosphere, are likely, at some point, to result in Earth System “taking over” that “pushing” (via feedbacks) and “pulling” us over the “cliff”!
If we see that possibility soon enough, and then begin “applying the brakes,” we may be able to prevent this from occurring. Attention, however, needs to be given to the “we” in the last sentence!
Climate scientists are aware of the threat to our species posed by global warming. For example, there’s this report from about a year ago (signed by 13, 658 scientists); it’s been said of this “Second Notice:”
In November 2019, a group of more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries named climate change an "emergency" that would lead to "untold human suffering" if no big shifts in action takes place:
We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.
Those scientists declared that unless we "change how we live," our species will experience "untold human suffering." Which leads one to ask at least two questions:
- Will those scientists be listened to?
- Will significant changes be made in "how we live?"
My answers to those questions:
- Scientists themselves are not “in the business” making policies, and then forcing actions on those policies. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci’s relationship to Pres. Donald J. Trump proves that point! Scientists are not in a position to make consequential decisions; they can offer advice, but do not have the authority to act on that advice.
- What enables our society to function, reasonably smoothly, is the presence of diversions, such as sports. What diversions do (obviously!) is divert one’s attention away from, e. g., how our activities are impacting Earth System. Scientists may become aware of this (and have been!); but if the findings of scientists are ignored by a society’s political and corporate decision-makers, scientific findings won’t get acted on.
And if what’s needed is to “change how we live,” it’s virtually certain that a society’s decision-makers will not engage in any efforts that will result in sufficient societal change to prevent our species from “going over the cliff”! I believe that this conclusion applies not only to the decision-makers in my society, the U.S., but in most other “advanced” societies as well!
Therefore, I can think of no reason to have hope for our species; what seems highly probable to me is that our species will soon join the 1,000,000 other species “slated” to go extinct in the near future! And the fact that global warming is now accelerating makes me believe that our species has already gone over the cliff!
Had I known this 60 years ago, I would not have married! However, I did marry in early 1966, and my wife and I have three wonderful children and five wonderful grandchildren. (I hope that they can forgive me!)