Is it already over? A new study says that Earth is already uninhabitable and that human are already going extinct! When most of us think about global warming, we think of the potential disasters associated with the sea level rising, but scientists argue that focusing in on our seas is distracting us from recognizing other threats—many of which are just around the corner. We forget that parts of the Earth will become close to uninhabitable, and likely within this century.
This winter, a series of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal hit the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault—a global food bank designed to ensure our agriculture survives any catastrophe. It was flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built. Today, the vault is fine—the structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But permafrost was not even a major concern of climate scientists until the event occurred.
1.8 trillion tons of carbon
Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon—more than twice as much as is currently suspended in our atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon will likely evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas. And all of it is scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting bumped up.
Stories like this are popping up in the news every day, and still when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers—our vision for the future is limited. One reason for this is that the speed of climate change is slow—we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades ago. The numbers are abstract. And the scale of the problem is somewhat incomprehensible. All of that amounts to fear and denial.
Consider this: two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe, leaving tens of millions of climate refugees in its wake. Today, per the Paris climate accords, two degrees is our goal—and experts are skeptical that we will be able to hit it. The most recent research projects us to hit four degrees by the beginning of the next century if we stay on our present course. And the upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees. That’s not even taking permafrost melt into account.
Five Mass Extinctions
That’s a daunting prediction given the Earth has already experienced five mass extinctions. Each “slate-wiping” essentially reset the “planetary clock.” These are the best references for the future we are diving into.
Here’s what New York Magazine had to say about those extinctions:
The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I.
But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.
Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.
Do you think we can survive the “war machine”?