Sun 19 Aug 2018 01.00 EDT
Continued emissions could reach a tipping point that will drive the planet into an irreversible, self-reinforcing hothouse state
Achieving “cut through” is a nightmare for climate change science. It’s notoriously hard to get the mainstream engaged by changes in the concentration of an atmospheric gas, even if they’re life-or-death matters. So hats off to the crack team of Earth scientists, led by climate change professor Will Steffen, whose peer-reviewed report on how emissions are driving the Earth into an irreversible hothouse state has been downloaded more than 270,000 times to date.
Wow. Academics are on holiday, so this means that people are probably reading this stuff on the beach. At this rate, the report could make the Altmetric Top 100. This is the list of the most discussed journal articles of the year and is usually dominated by research on grabby subjects such as the possibility of life on other planets, but definitely not emissions-generated feedback loops. Until now.
In a nutshell, the findings suggest that emissions drive climate changes that trigger abrupt changes to Earth systems when they cross certain thresholds. Ten of these feedback loops are identified in the report, including the release of methane trapped in Siberian permafrost and the impact of melting ice in Greenland on the Antarctic. They essentially switch from “friends” that store carbon to “foes” that belch more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and raise the temperature. The researchers describe these “tipping elements” as falling dominoes, a chaotic cascade that flips the Earth into a new way of operating that is not predictable.
Not only is this complex science, but it’s scary as hell. And it goes against received wisdom about climate change communication – that you must dress up like a clown to talk about it or put stuff into animations and make everything super-relatable and friendly to attract people.
Apparently, we can handle a frightening degree of complexity. So why not go the whole hog? Let’s talk about the real title of the report (barely mentioned) – Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. OK, on first reading, it’s a little dry, but what we’re talking here is the fact that we’ve exerted such an impact on planetary processes that we humans have become a geological force in our own right. We’ve propelled ourselves out of the Holocene, where we experienced friendly conditions for 12,000 years, and have dumped ourselves in a new geological era, the Anthropocene, where conditions are likely to be bad news.
We. Shifted. Geological. Epoch. Subjected day after day to internecine wrangling over Brexit (a smaller, human-caused transition), surely this very hard exit merits some attention?
Be the first to comment