Tipping point
Is it too late to stave off the catastrophic consequences of global climate change?

Tipping point

Evidence is mounting that the solar panels and climate treaties don’t matter: we might be passing beyond the point of avoiding social collapse, civilization demise, and species extinction

ATHENS — March Madness was not simply about the NCAA basketball tournament this year. It was also about the revelations that February was the hottest month on record, that the oceans are rising faster than had previously been thought, and that our nation is leaking methane into the atmosphere in massive quantities as a result of the fracking boom.

It also included the research that showed that the West Antarctic ice sheet that is larger than Mexico and thought to be vulnerable to disintegration from a relatively small amount of global warming - and therefore capable of raising the sea level by 12 feet or more - is much closer to this disaster scenario than had been previously thought.

And that the carbon sinks that have already stored trillions of tons of carbon over the eons have been so compromised by global warming that most of the scientific models haven't matched the observable geologic record, and hence have grossly understated the difficulty of mitigating climate change.

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While all of these developments might be especially alarming to the uninformed, none is particularly surprising to anyone who has been paying attention and connecting the dots between all the scientific evidence that has appeared in the professional, peer-reviewed journals over the years, not to mention the real events in the real world.

It was only further evidence that we might be passing beyond the point of avoiding social collapse and species extinction.

In fact, a small but increasing number of scientists believe that, as a species, we are in near-term extinction and that we have reached the point where our demise as a civilization will occur no matter how many solar panels and wind turbines we erect from sea to shining sea, how many coal plants we shut down, and how many politicians congratulate themselves about the nonbinding, non-verifiable climate treaty they signed last December in Paris that doesn't go into effect until 2020.

Guy McPherson, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, is one of these scientists. As part of a list of more than 50 examples of self-reinforcing feedback loops and tipping points, he cites the following as evidence of our situation:

• The Arctic sea ice has already passed its tipping point, and the Greenland ice sheet is not far behind. As a consequence, exposed methane clathrates (ice) from beneath the sea and melting permafrost on land are releasing massive amounts of methane that are probably unstoppable.

• According to McPherson, “Global average temperature is expected to rise by more than 4 degrees C by 2030 and 10 degrees C by 2040 based solely on methane release from the Arctic Ocean.”

• As Malcolm Light, an independent geoscientist researching atmospheric methane, put it, “We have passed the methane hydrate tipping point and now are accelerating into extinction.”

• All this evidence, of course, is undoubtedly compounded by the massive methane leaks caused by fracking that Bill McKibben recently wrote about in The Nation and the 97,000 metric tons that escaped from a damaged well in the California suburb of Porter Ranch.

• Acidification of our oceans from their absorption of carbon dioxide is proceeding at a pace unparalleled during the last 300 million years. Plankton, which serves as the foundation of the marine food web, is on the verge of extinction. Jellyfish are rapidly assuming a primary role in the oceans. The collapse of the oceans, alone, could doom our species.

• Climate lag is the 40-year delay between the time that greenhouse gas is emitted into the atmosphere and the resulting effect of increased temperatures.

Climate scientist Wallace Broecker, the Newberry professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, observed, “Today we are operating on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from the 1970s. In the last 29 years we have emitted as many greenhouse gases as we emitted in the previous 236 years.”

“Because of the great cooling effect of the oceans, we have not begun to see the warming that this recent doubling of greenhouse gases will bring” when the oceans release this gas, Broecker continued.

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Scientists generally agree that the planet has entered its sixth mass-extinction event. As a recent study in Science Advances stated, species are being killed off at rates much faster (currently 150 to 200 per day) than they were during the previous five extinction events.

Rather than staying under the politically correct temperature of 2 degrees C (which is an absurd goal when you consider all that has taken place in the world over this century at a temperature of slightly under 1 degree C), there is a growing belief that we're heading for a 4-degree-C world.

“I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that,” stated Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at University College in London. If we do reach 4 degrees C, we will not be able to grow food or secure potable water.

There's so much more - lethal heat waves, killer storms, long-term droughts, and apocalyptic fires - that are already occurring and will be much worse in the years ahead.

Are we in near-term extinction? Obviously, no one knows for certain, despite the compelling evidence that would suggest we are.

The fact that an increasing number of scientists, who as a breed are characteristically cautious and seldom talk publicly about the social and political implications of their findings, are now speaking out about the unthinkable is cause for concern.

But don't expect a politician (even Bernie Sanders) to announce this dire news, at least if they have any hope of being elected to office. And, of course, the fossil-fuel industry is full of inveterate liars.

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What I'm much more interested in, however, and what I would recommend to others, is to increasingly focus on how we can learn to live proactively with an awareness of near-term extinction.

This is something that I have been devoting considerable thought to in recent times. I will share with you in a subsequent piece some initial thoughts I have about this work-in-progress that, surprisingly, is positive and life-affirming.

Most interestingly, what I'm discovering is that as much as certain practices might be helpful with dealing with the collapse of our civilization, they are also the very practices we need to engage in order to survive, if this is still possible, and to move on to a sustainable and sane world.

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