The Cascading Global Climate Catastrophe

‘The gap between public perception and scientific reality is now enormous.’  James Hansen

Environmental scientists are describing our current era as the sixth mass extinction event in the history of planet Earth. Already we are losing over 200 species per day. About half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change. This escalating extinction event will, if it continues, increasingly impact and eventually include homo sapiens.

97% of scientists concur that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. But what has only become clear in the last year or so is that previous predictions for the impacts of climate change have seriously underestimated the rapidity of change and the urgency of the situation. Things that scientists have been saying would happen further in the future are happening now, such as the rapidly melting Artic sea ice and the extreme weather events of recent years.

Precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger a tipping point, defined as a threshold for abrupt and irreversible change, remain uncertain, but studies indicate that we may have already passed several of these.

Research now suggests that even at current levels of Co2 in the atmosphere human societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – primarily in the third world but also affecting affluent nations. Beyond that 10 year horizon what we have left to hope for, in terms of ongoing human civilisation and the health of the Earth’s life-support systems, is becoming less and less appealing with each passing day. And yet with each passing day more greenhouse gasses fill the skies.

Brief Outline of Global Climate Breakdown:

Rise in Global Temperatures

  • Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001.
  • Global temperatures have increased by around 1.2 degrees since pre-industrial times.
  • The consequences of 1.5 degrees warming are grave. Those of 2 degrees are terrible. Beyond that we enter the realm of planetary catastrophe.
  • Predictions such as the recent report on fuel efficiency published by the US government and the IPCC, which indicate that 4 degrees warming is likely by the end of this century, are generally conservative and based on a linear model. They fail to take into account the non-linear effects of multiple positive feedback loops now effecting climate change and which will only worsen as more and more planetary systems destabilise and collapse. At the current rate of collapse these effects could easily go exponential in as little as a decade, causing abrupt global warming of up to or even beyond 5 degrees in as little as a couple of decades.

Arctic Warming

  • The most surprising warming is in the Arctic, where the 2016 land surface temperature was 2.0°C above the 1981-2010 average, breaking the previous records of 2007, 2011, and 2015 by 0.8°C, representing a 3.5°C increase since the record began in 1900 (Aaron-Morrison et al, 2017).
  • At one point in early 2018, temperature recordings from the Arctic were 20 degrees Celsius above the average for that date. 
  • The warming Arctic has led to dramatic loss in sea ice, the average September extent of which has been decreasing at a rate of 13.2% per decade since 1980, so that over two thirds of the ice cover has gone.
  • This data is made more concerning by changes in sea ice volume, which is an indicator of resilience of the ice sheet to future warming and storms. It was at the lowest it has ever been in 2017, continuing a consistent downward trend.
  • Given a reduction in the reflection of the Sun’s rays from the surface of white ice, an ice-free Arctic is predicted to increase warming globally by a substantial degree.
  • When the sea ice melts entirely the ocean will begin to warm rapidly as the cooling effect of the ice is removed and as the sun’s energy which is now going into melting the ice is instead absorbed by the sea.
  • One of the most eminent climate scientists in the world, Peter Wadhams, believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and that it will likely increase by 50% the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity.

Ocean Warming and Acidification

  • About half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years, mainly though higher water temperatures and acidification due to higher CO2 concentrations in ocean water (Phys.org, 2018). 
  • In ten years prior to 2016 the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the previous decade, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean (Woosely et al, 2016). 
  • The consequent acidification degrades the base of the marine food web, thereby reducing the ability of fish populations to reproduce themselves across the globe. (Britten et al, 2015)

The Great Barrier Reef Die-Off

  • The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia has seen two massive bleaching events in the last two years, which had led to a widespread die-off of the corals.
  • Either of the catastrophic back-to-back bleaching events would have been the worst ever seen in the Barrier Reef.
  • The die-off has caused the collapse of the ecosystem for 29 percent of the 3,863 reefs in the giant coral reef system.
  • “We expect this sort of damage to keep occurring on coral reefs around the world,” says Mark Eakin of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch.
  • The bleaching has changed the whole community of coral living on the reefs, killing many of the more temperature-sensitive corals and just leaving a community that’s been sort of flattened or homogenised.

Forest Fires

  • The Mendocino Complex Fire was the largest wildfire in California’s history, with nearly 500 square miles burned. Even some of the “smaller” fires in California this year would have once made history.
  • Previously, 2017 was the California’s costliest, most destructive wildfire season, while six of the 10 largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred in the past decade, and all but one of them happening this century.
  • The Canadian province of British Columbia declared a state of emergency as 566 wildfires burned this August, marking the second year in a row that the province has declared wildfires a state of emergency; 2017 saw a record-setting 1.2m hectares (2,965,264 acres) scorched by fires raging in the province.
  • This years’ wildfires in Europe expanded into regions not normally affected by seasonal fires. Fires even raged within the artic circle as a result of unprecedented dryness.
  • According to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, the wildfires of 2018 were the most serious in the country in modern history.
  • As the climate shifts, summers are becoming longer and drier. Sometimes the winter rains are meagre for years, creating tinder-dry conditions. Sometimes, like last year, the rains are torrential, producing explosive plant growth that, several months later, following extreme hot and dry conditions, desiccates into prime accelerant. The worst fire years tend to appear amid these kinds of seasonal extremes, when a wet season that fuels exuberant plant growth is followed by an extremely dry season that sucks the water out of the plants and the soil, making it easily combustible. This is exactly the kind of extreme weather we can expect as the climate continues to destabilise in the years to come. The number of wildfires is therefore projected to further increase as the climate warms. 
  • Wildfires are now part of a harmful positive feedback loop in which fires caused by climate change themselves add to the problem by releasing large amounts of stored Co2 into the atmosphere which in turn helps to push temperatures up further thereby creating more likelihood of future fires. This is less of a problem if the subsequent regrowth then quickly soaks up Co2, but the trend we are seeing is that either wildfires are frequently returning to burn up the newly grown vegetation or burned areas are subsequently changing from forest eco-systems to more sparsely covered scrub, reducing the amount of Co2 taken up.
  • The amazon rainforest is currently at a tipping point, caused by a combination of deforestation and climate change, beyond which it will cease to produce its own rainfall and quickly dry out, becoming increasingly susceptible to wildfire. It was previously thought that at 4 degrees the amazon would start to burn, but his could happen much sooner if the tipping point is reached.

Co2 Levels

  • In 2017 global carbon dioxide emissions were 426 million metric tons higher than in 2016. This was 1.6% higher than carbon dioxide emissions in 2016, and was higher than the 10-year average growth rate of 1.3%.
  • We are currently at around 405-410 ppm (parts per million) CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Pre-industrial levels of CO2 hovered around 280 ppm.
  • We need to get back down to 350 ppm to keep warming to ‘safe’ levels under 2 degrees.
  • Even conservative estimates state that we can afford to burn around 565 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050 to keep warming below 2 degrees. The fossil fuel companies combined have pledged to burn 2795 gigatons.

Methane Levels

  • I quote in full Jem Bendell’s summery of the issue of rising Methane levels in the atmosphere, from his paper ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’, because it is such a huge issue that has previously received such little attention: “[Methane] is a gas that enables far more trapping of heat from the sun’s rays than CO2 but was ignored in most of the climate models over the past decades. The authors of the 2016 Global Methane Budget report found that in the early years of this century, concentrations of methane rose by only about 0.5ppb each year, compared with 10ppb in 2014 and 2015. Various sources were identified, from fossil fuels, to agriculture to melting permafrost (Saunois et al, 2016).  Given the contentiousness of this topic in the scientific community, it may even be contentious for me to say that there is no scientific consensus on the sources of current methane emissions or the potential risk and timing of significant methane releases from either surface and subsea permafrost. A recent attempt at consensus on methane risk from melting surface permafrost concluded methane release would happen over centuries or millennia, not this decade (Schuur et al. 2015). Yet within three years that consensus was broken by one of the most detailed experiments which found that if the melting permafrost remains waterlogged, which is likely, then it produces significant amounts of methane within just a few years (Knoblauch et al, 2018). The debate is now likely to be about whether other microorganisms might thrive in that environment to eat up the methane – and whether or not in time to reduce the climate impact. The debate about methane release from clathrate forms, or frozen methane hydrates, on the Arctic sea floor is even more contentious. In 2010 a group of scientists published a study that warned how the warming of the Arctic could lead to a speed and scale of methane release that would be catastrophic to life on earth through atmospheric heating of over 5 degrees within just a few years of such a release (Shakhova et al, 2010). The study triggered a fierce debate, much of which was ill considered, perhaps understandably given the shocking implications of this information (Ahmed, 2013). Since then, key questions at the heart of this scientific debate (about what would amount to the probable extinction of the human race) include the amount of time it will take for ocean warming to destabilise hydrates on the sea floor, and how much methane will be consumed by aerobic and anaerobic microbes before it reaches the surface and escapes to the atmosphere. In a global review of this contentious topic, scientists concluded that there is not the evidence to predict a sudden release of catastrophic levels of methane in the near-term (Ruppel and Kessler, 2017). However, a key reason for their conclusion was the lack of data showing actual increases in atmospheric methane at the surface of the Arctic, which is partly the result of a lack of sensors collecting such information. Most ground-level methane measuring systems are on land. Could that be why the unusual increases in atmospheric methane concentrations cannot be fully explained by existing data sets from around the world (Saunois et al, 2016)? One way of calculating how much methane is probably coming from our oceans is to compare data from ground level measurements, which are mostly but not entirely on land, with upper atmosphere measurements, which indicate an averaging out of total sources. Data published by scientists from the Arctic News (2018) website indicates that in March 2018 at mid altitudes, methane was around 1865 parts per billion (ppb), which represents a 1.8 percent increase of 35 ppb from the same time in 2017, while surface measurements of methane increased by about 15 ppb in that time. Both figures are consistent with a non-linear increase – potentially exponential – in atmospheric levels since 2007. That is worrying data in itself, but the more significant matter is the difference between the increase measured at ground and mid altitudes. That is consistent with this added methane coming from our oceans, which could in turn be from methane hydrates. This closer look at the latest data on methane is worthwhile given the critical risks to which it relates. It suggests that the recent attempt at a consensus that it is highly unlikely we will see near-term massive release of methane from the Arctic Ocean is sadly inconclusive. In 2017 scientists working on the Eastern Siberian sea shelf, reported that the permafrost layer has thinned enough to risk destabilising hydrates (The Arctic, 2017). That report of subsea permafrost destabilisation in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the data in non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets in the chamber. Nothing is certain. But it is sobering that humanity has arrived at a situation of our own making where we now debate the strength of analyses of our near-term extinction.”

Governmental Response

According to George Monbiot, “with the exception of Costa Rica’s, no government has the policies required to prevent more than 2°C of global warming, let alone 1.5°.” In a recent article he listed the following governmental failures to respond to the climate crisis:

  • “[T]he UK’s energy secretary, Claire Perry, announced that she has asked her advisers to produce a roadmap to a zero carbon economy. On the same day, fracking commenced at Preston New Road in Lancashire, enabled by the permission Perry sneaked through parliament on the last day before the summer recess. … She has justified fracking on the grounds that it helps the country affect a “transition to a lower-carbon economy”. But fracked gas has net emissions similar to or worse than those released by burning coal. As we are already emerging from the coal era in the UK without its help, this is in reality a transition away from renewables and back into fossil fuels. The government has promoted the transition by effectively banning onshore wind farms, while overriding local decisions to impose fracking by central dictat. Now, to prevent people from taking back control, it intends to grant blanket planning permission for frackers to operate.”
  • “In Germany, the government that claimed to be undergoing a great green energy transition instead pours public money into the coal industry, and deploys an army of police to evict protesters from an ancient forest to clear it for a lignite mine. On behalf of both polluting power companies and the car industry, it has sabotaged the EU’s attempt to improve its carbon emissions target.”
  • “Other governments shamelessly flaunt their service to private interests, as they evade censure by owning their corruption. A report on fuel efficiency published by the US government in July concedes, unusually, that global temperatures are likely to rise by 4°C this century. It then uses this forecast to argue that there is no point in producing cleaner cars, because the disaster will happen anyway. Elsewhere, all talk of climate breakdown within government is censored. Any agency seeking to avert it is captured and redirected.”
  • “In Australia, the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has turned coal burning into a sacred doctrine.”
  • “In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro “claims that climate breakdown is a fable invented by a “globalist conspiracy”, and seeks to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, abolish the environment ministry, put the congressional beef caucus (representing the murderous and destructive ranching industry) in charge of agriculture, open the Amazon Basin for clearance and dismantle almost all environmental and indigenous protections.”

Can this really be happening?

It seems clear that we are no longer in a period of anthropogenic climate change—we are now in the era of anthropogenic climate collapse. The cumulative effects of 150 years of unbridled industrial activity have reached such critical levels of environmental impact as to have now triggered a breakdown of the basic life-support system of planet Earth. Human activity has literally jeopardised the existence of most living species in the biosphere, including our own. 

The next few decades are likely to see not only social collapse but climate catastrophe. Reported impacts today pass beyond the very worst of climate predictions being made in the early 1990s, and continue to increase. Even without the other ecological drivers of mass species extinction, natural resource exhaustion and growing human population pressure, anthropogenic climate breakdown alone is, at current rates of change, enough to wipe out the human species by the end of this century.

Governments need to begin immediately to reverse their extractivism and ‘growth’-based economic policies in order to limit the catastrophe. And yet there is no sign that either governments or corporations are making any serious efforts even to slow carbon emissions, let alone reduce them to zero as is needed. On the contrary, emissions continue to rise at increasing rates, with global emissions unsurprisingly set to reach record high in 2018.

The latest climate data, emissions data and data on the spread of carbon-intensive lifestyles point only towards deepening crisis. Predictions for the next 20 years suggest that the Earth is about to enter a period of climate catastrophe.

Yes, this is horribly alarming information. More horribly alarming is how few people are aware of this situation and how little is being done to address it. Our planet may be dying as a direct consequence of human activity, but the indirect and more relevant cause is ignorance, denial and inertia.

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This is the first draught of a working document which will be regularly revised and updated. It takes an extreme view of the risks of anthropocentric climate change, listing reports which back up such a view. There is of course a chance that such a view is misguided and the reports which seem to justify it are decontextualised. I don’t, however, believe this is the case. As one reporter put it recently (October 2018): “Nearly every day, peer-reviewed studies on global warming warn that deadly impacts will come sooner and hit harder than once thought. Virtually none, however, suggest that previous predictions of future heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods or rising seas were overblown.”

[A PDF of this article including references is available here]