Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” Brain has written several posts recently about the threat of climate change. His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays.
RALEIGH – You may have heard the idea that climate change will, in the worst-case scenario, cause the collapse of human civilization as we know it today. How could this happen? If you have been watching recent headlines, then you know that humanity has now received the worst climate news possible, where we can see a direct path to utter catastrophe from climate change.
Planet Earth is standing on a precipice, where irreversible climate change tipping points are about to trigger. If they trigger, the topic of climate change will shift from “problematic” to “completely catastrophic for all life on Eart.” Things will change from “maybe with a concerted effort humanity can solve the climate crisis” into “there is nothing we can do to put the genie back into the bottle, and humanity is doomed.” Here are four articles that tell the tale:
And then PBS issued this explanatory video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBKZWKeKYqE
I know that it sounds hyperbolic to talk about the collapse of human civilization. I know it seems impossible that climate change could get so awful that it destroys the Earth’s biosphere. Nonetheless, this is the reality that these tipping points represent.
Putting it all together, the message is clear – it’s now or never when it comes to climate change solutions. Once irreversibility enters the picture, there is no turning back.
What is an irreversible tipping point, and why are they so catastrophic?
What does the term “irreversible tipping point” or “irreversible feedback loop” actually mean?
Here is the simplest possible example. In a previous article we talked about the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, also known as the “Doomsday Glacier”. The problem with this particular glacier is first that it is utterly gigantic (about the size of Florida), and second that it is in a very precarious position, where it could let go and slide into the ocean with remarkable speed (for a glacier). Recent headlines have painted a dire picture, for example:
‘Doomsday glacier’ hanging on ‘by its fingernails’: scientists
“’Thwaites is really holding on today by its fingernails,’ said Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist who co-authored the study. ‘And we should expect to see big changes over small timescales in the future — even from one year to the next…’ The Thwaites Glacier is roughly the size of Florida and could potentially raise the sea level by nearly 16 feet should it fall into the ocean… According to scientists, the glacier could potentially fall into the sea within three years.”
It is easy to understand why the collapse of the Thwaites glacier is irreversible. If it collapses, it will raise sea levels by many feet, inundating and destroying coastal cities and beaches. Trillions of dollars in damage will occur. Once the damage is done, there is no possible way to undo it: There is no way that humanity will ever be able to put the glacier back and lower sea levels again.
In other words, either humanity MUST save the Thwaites glacier now, or there will be trillions of dollars in irreversible damage that occurs to all of our coastal cities. In addition, there will be millions of climate refugees from these cities who will have to go somewhere. Take Miami as one example city. Miami will disappear when the Thwaites Glacier collapses. This means that 6 million Miami residents will need to move somewhere else. See this video for details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY3mXFXd3GU
And this is just one of the tipping points that humanity now faces. The articles above are talking about half a dozen tipping points, all on the brink of triggering, all with catastrophic and irreversible effects.
What Won’t Humanity Act? Why is humanity so incompetent when it comes to climate change?
The threat of the Thwaites Glacier to all of humanity is so clear and so obvious that the lack of response to this threat feels completely mystifying. And then all of the other tipping points stack on top of it.
Therefore we might ask:
- Why haven’t the world’s leaders collected together, allocated a trillion dollars, assembled a million of the world’s best and brightest engineers and scientists, and done a World War II style war effort to conquer climate change? Why didn’t they do it 30 years ago? Why are they not doing it now?
- If the world’s leaders won’t do it together, why hasn’t the United States or the European Union or China unilaterally done it, given that these are the places that will be hit hardest economically by climate change? They have the most to lose.
- More to the point: Why hasn’t the United States acted alone with a gigantic investment of money and talent, given that America has the wealth, the technology, the military might, and the history to create real solutions? The United States certainly could act unilaterally, plus the United States has several examples of success in this realm including the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon missions.
- Could a prominent billionaire take action to get the ball rolling? Or a team of several billionaires? Imagine a billionaire team engaging 10,000 scientists and engineers to tackle the most pressing aspects of the climate change problem. Imagine this billionaire effort getting so much publicity that they drag the world’s leadership into the effort?
- What if 30 million people in the developed world (roughly 3% of the people in the developed world) could be inspired to donate $250 annually each to an effort to immediately solve the climate crisis? It would be the classic pitch along the lines of, “just $5 per week, the cost of one cup of coffee per week, could fund 30,000 scientists and engineers focused on saving our planet.” This group of people could have more impact than the billionaires.
- What if 3% of the people in the United States – approximately ten million people – could bond together as protestors and cause enough noise and disruption to get our nation’s leaders to pay attention to and solve the climate change crisis?
It all comes down to leadership and real action:
- Who will make the decision to start planetary geoengineering and then do it?
- Who will make the decision to eliminate human activity from the Amazon rainforest and then do it, before we lose the whole thing and the rainforest becomes a desert?
- Who will make the decision to spend billions dollars to stabilize the Thwaites glacier and then do it?
This video shows the kind of thing scientists and engineers would be thinking about if they had significant resources to do research and take action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcQ4BzHGaS8
None of these things are happening right now at any significant level, even in the face of impending destruction of the entire ecosystem of the planet. It seems impossible that we have come to this point, yet here we are standing on the brink of catastrophe.
What is at stake? Everything.
Somehow humanity must make a concrete and highly-funded decision to take significant, real action with thousands upon thousands of scientists and engineers dedicated to researching + implementing real solutions.
Humanity stands on the brink of disaster
The climate change disasters in the month of August gave humanity a taste of what is coming. Once the irreversible tipping points kick in, things will become far worse. This article describes the tipping points that are imminent:
World on brink of five ‘disastrous’ climate tipping points, study finds
“The nine global tipping points identified are: the collapse of the Greenland, west Antarctic and two parts of the east Antarctic ice sheets, the partial and total collapse of Amoc, Amazon dieback, permafrost collapse and winter sea ice loss in the Arctic.”
What does this paragraph actually mean?
- When it says, “Greenland”, it is talking about the accelerated melting we now see in the Greenland ice sheet as discussed here.
- When it says, “west Antarctic”, this is a synonym for the Thwaites Glacier discussed above.
- When it says, “two parts of the east Antarctic ice sheets”, think of Antarctica as two separate areas (east and west) divided by a mountain range. For decades the conventional wisdom has felt that east Antarctica was safely in deep freeze for the foreseeable future. However, recent heating events have proven the conventional wisdom incorrect.
- When it says, “AMOC”, it is talking about “Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation”. Think about the Gulf Stream. It is an ocean current that is like a vast river of water flowing from the Gulf of Mexico up toward England, bringing warmer water and nutrients. The Gulf Stream is one part of AMOC. If AMOC collapses, it will have a significant impact on weather patterns and ocean health with global repercussions.
- When it says, “Amazon dieback”, it is talking about the collapse of the Amazon Rainforest ecosystem, which will dump hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, kill off a million species, and turn the rainforest into a savannah or a desert.
- When it says, “permafrost collapse”, it is talking about the feedback loop where melting permafrost releases vast quantities of trapped methane and carbon, which causes more global heating, which melts more permafrost, and so on. Once this feedback loop gets rolling in any significant way, the permafrost emissions negate any human attempts to cut back on human carbon emissions.
- When it says, “winter sea ice loss in the Arctic”, it is talking about a feedback loop where melting sea ice, which is white and reflective, exposes more open ocean water, which is darker and more absorbent to the sun’s energy. Therefore, the Arctic region heats faster and melts more ice, until all the ice is gone. As the ice disappears, it creates new weather patterns that will be quite destructive. See this article for one potential solution.
Any one of these events is terrible. All of them together is how we get to the point of discussing the collapse of human civilization and the destruction of the planetary ecosystem. Sea levels rise so much, there is so much carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, and there is so much heating, drought and flooding that things we take for granted today (like food production) catastrophically fail. This video talks about this future:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17aE91SBMoY
It all comes down to this simple question: Will humanity be able to take any kind of real, concrete, highly-funded action to avert disaster? Or will we sleepwalk into catastrophe and witness the collapse of human civilization? These impending tipping points hold the key to our future. If we do nothing to prevent the tipping points from triggering, all will be lost. This is not hyperbole or doomerism. This is reality for our planet and our future. Humanity must take highly-funded action now in order to avert catastrophe.
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