Why large-scale climate change (probably) cannot be stopped (& we must, thus, increase our adaptability)

by Alder Stone Fuller

Preface : Fear, despair, and denial are indulgences we cannot afford

This essay is not about good news. In fact, it is about some of the worst news our species has ever faced. Period. As I explain in detail below, climatologically-speaking, the future looks like a very rough ride. And I don’t even address other big issues like peak oil and global economic meltdown because I think climate change is going to have a much greater impact on humans (and other species) than the other issues.

I am willing to be wrong. There’s a big part of me that wants to be wrong; it sucks telling people bad news. However, since 2005, when I gained enough courage to go public with this argument, thousands have now read this essay (or an earlier version of it), seen/heard my public lectures about it, and/or studied it with me in seminars and courses. I always invite counter-arguments; show me where I’m wrong, I say.

Yet to date, no credible counterarguments based in published data and principles of systems science have been offered. The large majority of readers, audience members and seminar students – including some who were “fence-sitters” previously – have understood and agreed with my thesis.

However, rational understanding comes with emotional costs. I have often watched the facial expressions of audience members in my lectures turn increasingly sullen. More than one has said after wards that they felt like they had been “gut punched”. Students in my seminars and courses often express deep grief and fear – especially for their children – during emotional check-ins. I have even seen tears.

As a result, many others understandably do not want to read this essay, let alone act on it. This has made earning a living by teaching this topic very difficult, even though I think I am an excellent teacher – as do my students – and most of my curriculum involves far lighter and awe-inspiring ideas about how nature and life work at scales from cells to Gaia, all very relevant to everyday life. It is part of why, in spring, 2010, my board of directors and I closed the academy that I founded (in Eugene, Oregon, in 2001), and part of why I continue to live below the poverty line today: bad news doesn’t sell.

Yet, I am still attempting to spread this knowledge, independently now, in upper New England. Why? Because as Dianne Dumanoski asserts in her excellent book about climate change, The End of the Long Summer – that I strongly recommend to everyone, and use as the basis of my introductory seminar about climate changewe cannot afford fear, despair and denial. We must inform ourselves about what we face, and do the work that must be done to prepare for it.

This is especially important for people with children in their lives, because it is the children that are going to deal with the brunt of large-scale climate change by mid-century, even though the changes are already well underway and will have huge impacts even in my lifetime. It is simply irresponsible for us to allow our fears to force us to ignore this issue and the work that must be done to help the next generation(s) meet that future. (My next blog post will address that work.) As quickly as possible, we must stop business as usual and focus on understanding this crisis, and prepare for what’s next.

I feel it is my responsibility to help inform communities about what we face so that we can begin the long and challenging task of increasing our adaptability (* see final section for an explanation of “adaptability”), our resiliency to the daunting times ahead. I have explained my motivation in greater detail in this comment on my FAQ page.

So, I write essays like this and distribute them for free. I have developed a new seminar – offering both live (in New England) and online - that will help people understand this more deeply. I teach multiple classes about climate change from a systems sciences and geophysiological perspective, and about adaptability. Please see my seminars and courses. I, also, seek support for my efforts, both financial and organizational, as well as collaboration with other groups on this issue. If you would like to help, or discuss collaboration, please contact me.

Below is the final paragraph in Dumanoski’s chapter 1, after she asserts clearly that – as I explain in this essay, and as she does in her chapter 4 – climate change not only threatens to collapse civilization as we know it, but also threatens the existence of our species.

Indeed, she argues that industrial civilization is the root of the problem, hence the subtitle of her book: Why We Must Remake Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth. Others – like Derrick Jensen, Dismantle Civilization, and The Dark Mountain Project – argue that civilization should be dismantled entirely. But as I explain here in, if James Lovelock is correct, climate change will soon dismantle civilization as we know it.

In either case, what’s next? Here is Dumanoski’s advice.

“The door to the comfortable and familiar world we depend on has already slammed shut behind us. It is already too late to ‘prevent’ global warming or to ‘solve’ the climate crisis, too late to prevent powerful forces from altering the trajectory of human history. That we have already crossed some ominous thresholds, however, does not mean that it is too late to do anything at all. We humans are at a critical juncture – an historical moment that requires courage and sober realism. We cannot bank on the end of the world or deliverance from the trials of existence, whether through blind faith or technological salvation. Fear, despair, and denial are indulgences we cannot afford. It is time to turn and face the future head on.

Introduction : A questionable assumption

The large majority of people addressing the issue of climate change – at least those not still in denial about it, including scientists, activists and policy makers – still assert that we can stop global heating – and thus, large-scale climate change – by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Bill McKibben’s organization 350.org is a notable example.

But is that a fact supported by science or an unsupported assumption? To my knowledge, no one has justified that assertion with any argument based in science, especially the systems sciences, with any data or any model. It appears to be an assumption, an article of faith.

Why is it reasonable to assume that we can still stop global heating and large-scale climate change even with a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, let alone 50% or 80% by 2050?

I explain in this essay why we probably cannot. Like a small but increasingly vocal minority of scientists addressing climate change – most notably James Lovelock – I argue that climate change can no longer be stopped. Like them, I use well-established principles from systems sciences backed by credible, published evidence.

Furthermore, like Lovelock, I think that this will very likely be Earth’s largest climate change event in 55 million years with the capacity to collapse civilization as we know it and lead to a huge reduction in human population by century’s end.

Type I v type  II climate change : Not a smooth escalator ride

Furthermore, those scientists recognize that large climate changes are not type I – gradual, smooth escalator rides of increasing heat over a century or more as projected by the IPCC – but type II : abrupt, rapid, chaotic, extreme and violent, the type of change seen more typically during ice ages than the atypically stable climate that has characterized the last 11,700 years, during which civilization has evolved. During the ice ages, climate commonly changes as much from decade to decade – and sometimes within a single decade – as it has in the last 11,700 years.

What if the assumption is wrong? Mitigation AND adaptability

This is not to argue that we should end efforts to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Quite the contrary, we should get as close as possible to zero carbon emissions immediately – not by 2050 or even 2020, but now – even if we cannot stop a large climate change event. (I emphasize “should” to acknowledge that political and economic realities will almost certainly prevent us from reaching that immediate goal.)

Why? Because even if we can’t stop it, we might slow it, and we may decrease the time for recovery of the system to a more “normal” climate. However, if we continue to emit greenhouse gases when climate is already destabilizing and changing rapidly, we will cause much greater damage.

But if the assumption that we can stop global heating and large-scale climate change is not supportable by science, then the way we are addressing this issue needs to change. Specifically, we need to spend at least as much time, money and energy planning for adaptability* to a climate shift as we spend trying to slow it.

Further, to prepare effectively, we need to understand that changes will be type II, because preparation for type I change will not adequately prepare us for type II. (This is why I use the term “adaptability” rather than “adaptation”; see last section.)

Evaluating the assumption : 11 factors that must be considered

Here are the facts – based on peer-reviewed data published in reputable scientific journals, and well-established principles from the systems sciences – that must be addressed to evaluate the assumption that we can stop global heating and climate destabilization even with 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

I have divided this information into 11 topics, and added links to pages where more information can be learned about each. These topics will also help elucidate the distinction between type I and type II changes.

Importantly, one must not focus on any single piece of evidence, but on the whole set of interrelated factors. A system-level understanding is imperative. Work toward both a rational understand and an intuitive grasp of this with multiple readings and study. I offer multiple introductory and advanced seminars and short courses designed to help anyone with any background understand our climate system and climate change more deeply via systems sciences and geophysiology, which we must do if we are to increase our adaptability and survive as a species. I am especially eager to teach these concepts to educators, students, policy makers and food growers.

1 – Climate states : We are not in control of Earth’s thermostat

Complex systems – including Earth’s climate system – exist stably in a limited number of states, called attractors (a metaphor for the fact that systems act as if they are “attracted” to a particular behavior like a nail to a magnet). The reasons for this are complex, and are determined by feedback relationships among the parts of the system.

For the last 2 – 3 million years, Earth’s climate has oscillated in a quasi-periodic fashion between two states: ice ages – the most common state – and interglacials between them, like the last 11,700 years. Interglacials have occurred approximately every 100,000 years – triggered by orbital changes – and lasted 10,000 to 20,000 years. The trigger for these transitions are slight changes in Earth’s orbit that modify the amount of solar energy hitting the surface, which are then amplified by positive feedbacks (explained below) that cause a shift. (Note: the shift is not “caused” by orbital changes, only triggered by them; the “cause” is the feedbacks in the system.)

But hotter system states have existed in the more distant past. The last very hot spike similar to what we are likely to experience now was the PETM 55 million years ago, which lasted 200,000 years.

Policy makers and activists – like Mr. McKibben at 350.org – urgently need to understand the following. The climate system will not stabilize between states any more than a brick will stabilize between standing upright and laying flat, or a human can remain for long in a state between waking and sleeping. Bricks fall over rapidly when they reach a “tipping point”. Humans are generally either awake or asleep, not half way between for more than a few minutes. (Exceptions exist in stressed people, but those are not a healthy state that is stable for long periods.)

Likewise, we cannot adjust the thermostat of Earth by somehow adjusting atmospheric CO2 levels to a desired state. That is, there is no scientific reason to believe that CO2 levels would remain stable at 350 ppm (parts per million), even if we could reduce concentrations to that value from their current level of 390 ppm, which we cannot do for reasons explained below.

We know unequivocally from empirical data (ice core studies) that CO2 levels during the ice ages are most stable at 180 ppm, and interglacials at 280 ppm, but that they will not stabilize between or above those values. We do not know – yet – what the upper level of CO2 (the attractor) will be for the hotter, PETM-like state toward which we are rapidly accelerating.

2 – Climate changes abruptly at tipping points

A hugely important point missed by most is the abruptness and speed with which climate can – and usually does – change, especially at large transitions. The assumption is often that change will be gradual, what Dumanoski describes as a long, slow, smooth escalator ride to a hotter state over a century or more. This expectation is based on, 1) an erroneous assumption that underpinned modern sciences for centuries – natura non facit saltus : “nature does not make leaps”; and 2) the fact that the last 11,700 years – our interglacial – has been an exceptionally and abnormally stable period relative to other interglacials, so humans have come to believe that is climate’s normal state.

However, complex systems do not make large changes slowly, but shift abruptly from one state to another via positive feedback processes at “tipping points”. (Technically, such shifts are called phase transitions at critical thresholds.) That is one of the most important ideas that we have learned via systems sciences: nature does make leaps, and sometimes, very big ones. 

Again, because this is important: transitions in climate are often abrupt and rapid - especially when going to a warmer state (from an ice age to interglacial, or an interglacial to a hotter state). They are also usually chaotic. Climatologists refer to the chaotic behavior as “squealing” or “squelching”.

Data from ice core studies have unequivocally shown that, contrary to the belief in the 1950s – 1970s that ice age/interglacial transitions required hundred or thousands of years, climate typically shifts from ice age conditions to temperate, interglacial conditions in only a few decades, and in some cases in less than a decade. (Heating events happen fast; cooling takes longer.) This does not mean that the massive ice sheets of the ice ages melted that quickly, but that climatic conditions facilitating their loss changed fast.

Why so fast? Because positive feedbacks amplify small changes in a system, preventing negative feedbacks from stabilizing it in its current state, pushing it rapidly toward a tipping point. That is, if temperature is increasing, positive feedbacks will cause temperature to increase faster, which in turn, increase greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which further increase temperature, etc, in an accelerating fashion until a new state is reached.

Note 1: The terms “positive” and “negative” relating to feedback have nothing to do with direction or value (as in “good” or “bad”). The terms relate to stabilization v destabilization. Where negative feedback stabilizes a system by reversing trends, positive feedback accelerates changes, increasing or decreasing, pushing a system out of a stable state.

Note 2: Acknowledgment by climate scientists of the existence and extreme importance of positive feedbacks in the climate system has been slow to develop. Positive feedbacks are not adequately represented in any current climate models, including those that the IPCC uses to make its projections about future climate change. As a result, real world climate changes consistently occur much faster than climate models have predicted. I read stories on a daily basis that contain statements by scientists like, “We did not expect that X would  happen so quickly.” The reason for this is that the current generations of climate scientists were not adequately trained in the systems sciences, and are insufficiently aware of non-linear dynamics.

Note 3: It does not matter which increases first, temperature or greenhouse gases. Either will trigger positive feedback towards a phase transition because all are linked together in feedback loops.

3 – CO2 levels are far higher than normal & accelerating

CO2 levels are already much higher now – 390 ppmthan in the last 650,000 years, and probably the last 2 million, and increasing much faster. Again, normal interglacial levels are 280 ppm; the previous high in the last 650,000 years was 300 ppm during the last interglacial. Thus, we are already very far from a stable interglacial state and it is unlikely that we can get back to one.

Why? There are multiple factors explained in the following topics.

First, just like a car must stop going forward before it can reverse, CO2 levels must stop increasing before they can decrease. Yet, CO2 increase is not slowing, but accelerating; that is, the rate of increase is increasing. Past increases never exceeded 0.03 ppm/year, and was typically much slower. It is now increasing at 2 ppm/year, 100X faster than past averages.

Furthermore, because of CO2 residence time in the atmosphere and positive feedbacks – discussed next – a reversal of CO2 levels now is highly unlikely and probably impossible.

4 – CO2 residence time : Even with zero emissions now, we will still heat

Another factor making it unlikely that we can get back to a stable, cooler interglacial state is that excess CO2 in the atmosphere will not simply drop out of the atmosphere immediately even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow. Instead, it will remain there for at least a century, potentially many centuries (or at this point, likely millennia), continuing to heat us, continuing to drive other positive feedbacks.

The time that CO2 remains in the atmosphere is called its residence time. It is measured in centuries because it must be actively “pumped down” by biological processes – notably marine phytoplankton or algae, like Ehux, which sequester CO2 in their tiny calcium carbonate shells (the “carbonate” is mineralized CO2). Those shells sink to the ocean floor upon death of the algae where they compact over long periods of time into limestone, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans for periods measured in hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

This process removes far more CO2 from the atmosphere (and oceans) than terrestrial plants, which decompose and/or burn upon death, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere. (Forests are nonetheless important carbon sinks, and more importantly, play a role in cooling the Earth through cloud production, especially the equatorial regions.)

Pump down has prevented Earth from overheating for hundreds of millions of years as our sun has heated and CO2 entered the atmosphere and oceans via volcanoes (the major source before we began burning fossil fuels). However, due to ocean heating and acidification, our phytoplankton pump – which is healthiest during ice ages because of cooler oceans and, thus, far larger populations of marine algae – is now extremely stressed. Effectively, by adding more CO2 via burning fossil fuels, we are overwhelming the pump and greatly increasing CO2 residence time. A recent study demonstrated that the oceans are now absorbing less CO2, and the rate of decrease is accelerating.

Reductions in pump efficiency due to heating oceans and acidification is a positive feedback: the hotter and more acidic the oceans, the less efficient the pump, which allows more CO2 to build up, which heats the oceans more, etc.

5 – Methane : A sleeping giant is waking up

Methane (CH4) threatens to become more important than CO2. Why? Molecule for molecule, methane is 20-25X more powerful as a heating agent than CO2. Fortunately, it is present in far less quantities in the atmosphere than CO2; it is measured in parts per billion (ppb) rather than parts per million (ppm).

But unfortunately, it is also at record levels: 1765 ppb, 2.5 times higher than the normal interglacial levels of 650 ppb.

From where is the excess methane coming? Cattle and other ruminants contribute significant quantities, as does anaerobic decomposition of organic matter in rice paddies and reservoirs on rivers (impoundments).

An even larger source is that vast regions of permafrost near the Arctic – about 20% of Earth’s land area – are thawing, releasing huge quantities of methane. Some of it has been stored there since the last ice age. Some is being produced now by anaerobic bacteria – called methanogens - that are decomposing organic matter previously frozen. This phenomenon has been called “a sleeping giant”.

In addition, vast quantities of methane are also stored on the ocean floor as methane hydrates or clathrates, some of which will likely destabilize and be released as gas as oceans warm. Such events in the past – called “methane farts”, sometimes driven by submarine volcanic activity – have contributed significantly to global heating. There is evidence that clathrates are already destabilizing in shallow seas, especially in the Arctic Ocean.

Methane release is another positive feedback. Increasing atmospheric methane will cause more heating, which will further thaw permafrost and destabilize clathrates, which will lead to increased atmospheric methane, etc. Methane oxidizes relatively quickly – in about a decade – but the oxidation produces more CO2.

6 – Lag time : Even after the gases stabilize, we will continue to heat

There is a 25- to 50-year lag between stabilization of atmospheric gases and cessation of heating because the massive oceans heat more slowly than the atmosphere. That means that even after we stop emissions from burning fossil fuels, and after natural gas emissions coming from non-human sources stabilize, Earth will continue to heat for another 25-50 years.

7 : Melting ice : Why the poles are heating 2 – 3X faster than elsewhere

The poles – Arctic and Antarctic – have heated 2-3X more and faster than other places on Earth, and rates of heating are accelerating. Summer Arctic ice has decreased more than 30% in less than 3 decades. New data shows that the extent of sea ice at the end of the 2010 summer season was lower than at any time in the last few thousand years. Further, the winter ice is thinner than normal, facilitating faster melting in summer and more rapid break up during storms.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, CO, said in a recent interview about declining summer ice in the Arctic Ocean, “The Arctic sea ice has reached its four lowest summer extents (area covered) in the last four years … I stand by my previous statements that Arctic summer sea ice cover is in a death spiral. It’s not going to recover.”

Melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and the ice sheets of western Antarctic peninsula are also accelerating much faster than predicted by current climate models. This is being caused by two factors. First, warming oceans are melting the ice shelves over the ocean that normally serve as “dams” that prevent land-based glaciers from sliding into the ocean. The catastrophic disintegration of the Wilkins ice shelf in February, 2008 was a spectacular example.

Second, cracks in the ice sheets called moulins allow huge quantities of melt water – millions and billions of gallons – to rapidly (in a matter of hours) flow down through the ice to the bedrock where it lubricates the movement of the glacier. Such events can literally lift the glacier several feet and allow it to slide toward the sea. As glaciologist Richard Alley says, “Cracks change everything.”

(I strongly recommend watching the PBS Nova program Extreme Ice (free on line) produced by photographer James Balog. It tells the story of the melting ice with video far better than words alone. It is a breathtaking story with stunning visuals.)

Loss of ice is a positive feedback that accelerates warming. Why? Because whereas ice reflects more than 80% of solar radiation, cooling a region, dark ocean water absorbs more than 80% of solar radiation, heating the region, accelerating ice loss, etc.

Paradoxically, heating in the Arctic is related to extreme winters in North America and Europe. Specifically, heating in the Arctic is causing “abnormal” (until now) high pressure ridges over the pole that are shifting the jet streams out of their normal smooth, “laminar” west-east tracks into into chaotic, “turbulent” south-north flow patterns, pushing colder wet air southward causing major changes in winter weather patterns. Here is an excellent, short (1-page pdf) explanation of this phenomenon by Thomas Homer-Dixon. A longer article with graphics is here. This is a great (if unfortunate) example of a rapid phase transition from order to chaos in a fluid dynamical system, in this case, atmosphere.

8 – Heating oceans & unhappy algae

Most of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases during the last few centuries is in the oceans. This is simply because, 1) the oceans are far more massive than the atmosphere, and 2) water holds roughly 20X more heat on a per volume basis. (The fact that water heats more slowly than air is related to heating lag time, discussed in topic 6.)

Heating oceans contribute to melting polar ice, as explained in topic 7. Perhaps even more important, ocean heating is causing a decrease and poleward redistribution of marine phytoplankton or algae, because they don’t survive well in warm water (see below). This is a huge problem because those algae play a major role in CO2 pump down and the production of clouds that cool the oceans by reflecting sunlight. Thus, loss of phytoplankton is another positive feedback.

Here is the latest about what is happening to phytoplankton in the Arctic: they are “blooming” (reaching their population peak) up to 50 days early, with unknown impacts on marine food chain and carbon cycling.

9 – Forests are switching from sinks to sources

Forest ecosystems – especially rain forests in the Amazon – that have previously been carbon sinks are now becoming carbon sources as drought and heat waves cause forest die-offs, releasing carbon via decomposition and burning. Here are two stories about that. One. Two.

The number and size of forest fires across the Earth have increased notably in size in recent decades. They are often now called “mega-fires”. For example, summer, 2010 saw massive wild land fires in Russia driven by record heat waves. The size of tundra fires in Alaska is increasing. Peat fires in Asia are adding large quantities of carbon to the atmosphere.

This is another positive feedback.

10 – Too few negative feedback processes to offset positive feedbacks

There are no known natural negative feedback processes sufficient to stop and reverse these positive feedbacks from pushing Earth’s climate into a new, hotter state. This is why advocates of geo-engineering are becoming more vocal. I will address the dangers of geo-engineering below.

11 – Aerosols & global dimming : Are we already hotter than we think?

In a sense, we are already hotter than we think we are. This is because we are being cooled by sulfur aerosols in the atmosphere from burning fuels, a phenomenon called global dimming.

Under certain conditions – such as severe economic decline or, paradoxically, an intentional reduction of fossil fuel use – aerosols will wash out of the lower atmosphere – called the troposphere, where weather happens – in weeks, significantly increasing global average temperatures nearly immediately.

Here is the latest on aerosols; new data suggests that they decrease heating by just over 10%.

Some have argued that we should continue to inject sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere – even into the stratosphere – to cool us a bit. But such a strategy would only postpone the inevitable heating that future generations must deal with, which seems unethical.

Summary

Even if humans stop producing CO2 today – highly unlikely given current economic and political realities – Earths’ climate system will still shift to a new hotter state, reminiscent of the state that existed 55 million years ago because:

  1. Earth’s thermostat cannot be set anywhere we desire because the climate system is characterized by a limited number of discrete (attractor) states, and the climate will not stabilize between them; once a critical threshold (tipping point) for the system has been passed, the system will shift to a new state.
  2. CO2 residence time in the atmosphere insure continued global heating for at least a century, probably longer, which will continue to drive positive feedback processes that will further heat Earth, pushing the climate system to a new state;
  3. Ocean heating lag times insure that we will continue to heat even after greenhouse gases stabilize;
  4. Multiple positive feedbacks are accelerating our shift towards a new hotter state of the climate system.

This supports my argument – based on the views of Lovelock and others – that it is too late to stop global heating and large-scale climate change. We might be able to slow it by huge reductions in gas emissions, but we can’t stop it. Heating can only be stopped by stopping the multiple, global scale positive feedback processes described above, but there are no known natural negative feedback processes sufficient to counter them.

Solar variability is (now) a minor factor influencing climate change

A reader recently criticized my original essay because I did not address the potential influence of variations in solar output on climate change. Climate change deniers contend that heating is entirely due to “solar cycles”, and that at the end of the current heating cycle, Earth will cool again.

This is over-simplistic thinking typical of denier arguments. As I explained above, there is never a single factor involved in an explanation of climate change, but many factors linked together in complex ways that lead to feedbacks and non-linearities.

Obviously, solar input plays a huge role in climate; the sun’s energy drives the climate system. And indeed, from the late 1800s through about 1980, there was a correlation between sun’s output cycles and our atmosphere’s heating/cooling trends that was superimposed on the heating caused by CO2 increases that began in the 19th century.

But since the 1980s, that correlation has disappeared, masked by the stronger signal caused by the heating due to greenhouse gas levels. Here is a very short summary with a useful graph and video about the lack of correlation. Here is a more thorough essay on the topic with references cited.

Geo-engineering : Just say no

Multiple proposals have been advanced for instigating planetary-scale geo-engineering, such as putting mirrors in space between Earth and Sun to deflect sunlight; fertilizing the oceans to stimulate carbon-pumping phytoplankton (algae); or injecting sulfur into the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) to produce clouds that could cool Earth.

However, as James Lovelock argues, geo-engineering is very risky given the non-linearity of our climate system that makes it very sensitive to small changes, thus as unpredictable and uncontrollable as a high-speed vehicle that has spun out of control and is bouncing off of other objects. As he points out, we know about as much now about geo-physiology (planetary physiology) as we did about human physiology (the basis of western medicine) in the early 19th century when patients often died from medical experiments conducted with too little knowledge of physiology. Given that we have only one planet, and cannot afford a single mistake, large-scale geo-engineering experiments are ill-advised.

Scale, speed & severity

Lovelock argues convincingly in his book The Revenge of Gaia that the scale, speed and severity of this climate change will dismantle civilization as we know it by turning most continents south of the Arctic Circle to deserts, preventing agriculture as we know it in those regions, and severely disrupting marine ecosystems, marine fisheries and CO2 pump down.

Why will most continents in equatorial and mid-latitudes become deserts? Lovelock: once soil temperatures exceed 26C (79F), they require daily rainfall (or irrigation) for any but desert-adapted plants.

Why will oceans become “deserts”, that is, absent of most life, especially marine phytoplankton, the base of marine food webs? Simple physics, says Lovelock: once ocean surfaces exceed 10C (50F), they stratify, preventing upwelling of nutrients from the depths to feed algae which must live on the surface where sunlight is available for photosynthesis. This has already occurred in tropical zones, which is why tropical oceans are so clear.

Therefore, we should spend equal time, money and effort planning how to increase our adaptability* to a hotter, chaotic, more violent climate state that hasn’t existed for 55 million years, that will trigger massive ecosystem transitions, severely impact terrestrial and marine food supplies, and effect fresh water availability.

Preparations to increase adaptability

I am drafting an entire essay about this topic. However, for now, a few thoughts.

Like Dumanoski, I use the word “adaptability” – meaning being adaptable to rapidly changing conditions – rather than “adapt” or “adaptation”, because – as she correctly points out – even though we know that climate is shifting, and the shift will be abrupt and rapid, and likely the biggest that our species has ever faced, we do not know exactly what conditions will occur in any particular region. Even though we can predict large-scale shifts, our ability to make predictions about specific details is not possible. Therefore, we must maximize our adaptability – our ability to “roll with the punches” – to deal to abrupt, extreme, chaotic and violent conditions.

Our preparations to increase adaptability should include personal, neighborhood, community and regional planning to facilitate a transition to a new kind of social structure that promotes planetary healing (without geoengineering) in addition to planning for water, food, shelter, health care, energy, transportation and security in a world with a climate that humans have never experienced in our million year history characterized by the words chaotic, unpredictable and violent.

As Dumanoski asserts, our preparations  must also include grokking – knowing both rationally and intuitively – our planetary-scale metabolism and homeostasis that James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis call “Gaia”. Dumanoski and others have called Gaia the most important idea that humans can learn about now, both scientifically and metaphorically, using it as a basis for a new set of cultural maps to guide us in this era of massive planetary and cultural changes.

I have included some quotes from Dumanoski at the end of my Overview page.

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