The problem with tipping points is you can only see them in retrospect. Looking back on the past few years of continent-spanning forest fires, temperatures in Siberia hotter than Death Valley, and parched earth because of unprecedented droughts, we can clearly see that the point where the Earth’s climate tipped over into a new normal — one that threatens the existence of the human species — has already happened and now is in our rear view mirror.
David Wallace-Wells, writing in New York Magazine, says we are witnessing a new paradigm for humans — living in a never ending climate emergency. One where people who live in forest-fire-prone areas create “clean rooms” inside their homes to escape the smoke and fumes that come from the fires raging around them.
One where cities and towns that are used to providing emergency shelter from cold now also need to provide air conditioned spaces where hundreds if not thousands can escape outside temperatures hot enough to melt asphalt and the insulation on electrical transmission lines. Alaska native and climate writer Eric Holthaus says that “calving glaciers are producing ‘ice quakes’ as powerful as small earthquakes as they crumble into the sea.”
The Cassandra Effect
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was blessed with the power to predict the future but cursed because no one would believe her prophesies. For decades, climate scientists have become modern day Cassandras, fearful that if they really tell it like it is about global heating, they will scare people and governments into doing nothing. That is changing, however.
A draft of the next IPCC climate report due out later this year has been leaked to Agence France-Presse. In it, the scientists have decided to stop pulling their punches and instead deliver their message straight from the shoulder. AFP has summarized the content of the leaked document this way:
“Climate change will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades, even if humans can tame planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Species extinction, more widespread disease, unliveable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas — these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30.
“The choices societies make now will determine whether our species thrives or simply survives as the 21st century unfolds … But dangerous thresholds are closer than once thought, and dire consequences stemming from decades of unbridled carbon pollution are unavoidable in the short term.”
The actual draft says, “The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own. We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments. We must redefine our way of life and consumption.” The authors go on to say, “current levels of adaptation will be inadequate. Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans cannot.” (Emphasis added.)
At two degrees of warming, the draft suggests, 420 million more people will be exposed to extreme, potentially lethal heat waves, and 410 million more will suffer from water scarcity. By 2050, tens of millions more will suffer chronic hunger and 130 million more extreme poverty.
David Wallace-Wells says the IPCC scientists are Cassandras for our times — visionaries whose predictions will be widely ignored. “Beyond the four corners of the climate world,” he says, “it barely registered a peep, perhaps a sign that, as much as alarmism has achieved in recent years in activating genuine climate action, it has also acquainted us so well with apocalyptic premonitions that new ones glide by and the old ones, when fulfilled, manage to hold attention only briefly before the world snaps back into deadening complacency and a growing tolerance for the pains of warming.”
An Indictment Of Climate Deniers
The IPCC draft report also takes careful aim at the think tanks, foundations, trade associations and other third-party groups that represent fossil fuel companies for promoting “contrarian” science that misleads the public and disrupts efforts to implement climate policies needed to address the rising threats,
“Rhetoric on climate change and the undermining of science have contributed to misperceptions of the scientific consensus, uncertainty, unduly discounted risk and urgency, dissent, and, most importantly, polarized public support delaying mitigation and adaptation action, particularly in the US,” the draft report says. This ties in nicely with the revelation last week by an Exxon lobbyist that the company often supports “shadow groups” that spread disinformation about the connection between fossil fuels and a warming planet.
According to Politico, Channel 4 in the UK broadcast a video last Wednesday of Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy telling Greenpeace UK activists who were posing as headhunters that the oil giant would “aggressively fight against some of the science.” That effort is paying off in the halls of Congress today. McCoy claimed his lobbying efforts helped to strip climate provisions from President Biden’s proposed infrastructure package.
There are questions about why the draft IPCC report was leaked. Robert Brulle, an environmental politics professor at Brown University who submitted comments to the IPCC urging inclusion of the disinformation section, tells Politico he wonders whether that section will make it to the final version because governments ultimately have to approve it.
He says the perversion of science and discourse by fossil fuel interests could be anathema to countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are dependent on oil and gas revenue. “That’s really not a scientific decision, that’s a political decision to ignore that,” he says. And so the leak may have been a tactic used by the scientists to prevent those countries from sweeping the report’s findings under the rug.
Climate denial is not restricted to the United States, of course, as this latest video from Juice Media makes clear. [Warning: Juice Media frequently uses coarse language in order to drive home its points. This video is not family or work friendly. If you are more offended by the “f” word and the “s” word than you are about giant corporations destroying the environment for profit, please do not watch it!]
The Age Of Adaptation
David Wallace-Wells says that headlines for years have warned about the disasters of a warming planet that await us. The events of this year suggest the time for such warnings may have passed and a new age of adaptation has begun, a time of “climate realism,” as described by climate and energy researcher Juan Moreno-Cruz.
Alarmism has been “useless,” and even efforts to decarbonize have served as a kind of distraction. “Stop dreaming up climate solutions,” Moreno-Cruz says. “Think of climate managing strategies. Talking about climate solutions has left us unprepared for actual climate change. We keep running models and fighting over which ‘solution’ is the best, but we have done nothing to address the impacts of climate change.”
Managing climate change is not as sexy as solving climate change but it’s what we need, Wallace-Wells says. “Yes, we need real action to achieve deep decarbonization in our economy. There is no amount of adaptation we can do if we don‘t get emissions under control. But we already baked in so much warming we need to deal with it now. We painted ourselves into this corner, and we need to navigate our way out of it.”
“Perhaps the great awakening on warming has already happened or keeps happening and keeps being forgotten,” he says, “so that we can continue to believe we stand just at the threshold of climate suffering rather than well beyond it. But the great awakening on adaptation probably still lies ahead of us. Or maybe that ‘permanent emergency’ is beginning right now.”
Armageddon At The Gates
I don’t know about you, but it feels to me, as someone who writes about global heating on a regular basis, that things have taken a big step toward getting completely out of hand. According to one calculation, the heat wave across the western US and Canada last week was five standard deviations above expectations, meaning it was an event that should arrive, in the absence of climate change, once every 5,000 years. That’s once since the age of Ancient Egypt.
As we watch the Gulf of Mexico burn, the sense I have is that our climate will now begin to unravel right before our very eyes as tipping point after tipping point is crossed. There is no going back to normal no matter how fast the renewable energy and EV revolutions progress. We have left it too late and now it will be impossible to avoid the oncoming apocalypse.
Humans won’t disappear from the face of the Earth right away, but disappear they will, taking all those massive global corporations with them. The flaw in modern economic theory, which posits that growth in perpetuity is possible, is this: a business cannot survive if all its customers are dead. To paraphrase Dirty Harry, an economic theory has got to know its limitations.
RIP, homo sapiens. No one in the universe will mourn our passing or miss us when we are gone. Perhaps the aliens we think are out there are having a good laugh as they watch us poison the very world that sustains us in pursuit of profits. They will write our epitaph. “Greed,” is all it will say.