Editor’s note: DGR has always argued that civilizations are inherently destructive and environmental destruction and degradation has been ongoing for millenia. Climate change is only another concequence of this inherently destructive way of life. This is why technical solutions will never work. What we need to do to save the planet is 1. immediately stop destroying it, and 2. restore what we already have destroyed. This logic is easy to understand if your loyalty lies with the planet and all life on it, but it seems very hard to understand if your loyalty lies with this destructive and addictive way of life.
By Brian Tokar
Beyond the headlines: what climate science now shows about Earth’s future. Can we act in time?
The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its latest comprehensive report on the state of the earth’s climate. The much-anticipated report dominated the headlines for a few days in early August, then quickly disappeared amidst the latest news from Afghanistan, the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in the US, and all the latest political rumblings. The report is vast and comprehensive in its scope, and is worthy of more focused attention outside of specialist scientific circles than it has received thus far.
The report affirms much of what we already knew about the state of the global climate, but does so with considerably more clarity and precision than earlier reports. It removes several elements of uncertainty from the climate picture, including some that have wrongly served to reassure powerful interests and the wider public that things may not be as bad as we thought. The IPCC’s latest conclusions reinforce and significantly strengthen all the most urgent warnings that have emerged from the past 30 to 40 years of climate science. It deserves to be understood much more fully than most media outlets have let on, both for what it says, and also what it doesn’t say about the future of the climate and its prospects for the integrity of all life on earth.
Click image to download report. (PDF, 248MB)
First some background. Since 1990, the IPCC has released a series of comprehensive assessments of the state of the earth’s climate, typically every 5–6 years. The reports have hundreds of authors, run for many hundreds of pages (this one has over 3000), and represent the international scientific consensus that has emerged from the period since the prior report. Instead of releasing a comprehensive report in 2019, as originally scheduled, the IPCC followed a mandate from the UN to issue three special reports: on the implications of warming above 1.5 degrees (all temperatures here are in Celsius except where otherwise noted), and on the particular implications of climate change for the earth’s lands and oceans. Thus the sixth comprehensive Assessment Report (dubbed AR6) is being released during 2021–22 instead of two years prior.
Also the report released last week only presents the work of the first IPCC working group (WGI), focused on the physical science of climate change. The other two reports, on climate impacts (including implications for health, agriculture, forests, biodiversity, etc.) and on climate mitigation — including proposed policy measures — are scheduled for release next February and March, respectively. While the basic science report typically receives far more press coverage, the second report on climate impacts and vulnerabilities is often the most revealing, describing in detail how both ecosystems and human communities will experience the impacts of climate changes.
In many respects, the new document represents a qualitative improvement over the previous Assessment Reports, both in terms of the precision and reliability of the data and also the clarity of its presentation. There are countless detailed charts and infographics, each illuminating the latest findings on a particular aspect of current climate science in impressive detail. There is also a new Interactive Atlas (freely available at interactive-atlas.ipcc.ch), which allows any viewer to produce their own maps and charts of various climate phenomena, based on a vast array of data sources and climate models.
If there is a key take-home message, it is that climate science has vastly improved over the past decade in terms of its precision and the degree of confidence in its predictions. Many uncertainties that underlay past reports appear to have been successfully addressed, for example how a once-limited understanding of the behavior and dynamics of clouds were a major source of uncertainty in global climate models. Not only have the mathematical models improved, but we now have more than thirty years of detailed measurements of every aspect of the global climate that enable scientists to test the accuracy of their models, and also to substitute direct observations for several aspects that once relied heavily upon modeling studies. So we have access to better models, and are also less fully reliant upon them.
Second, scientists’ understanding of historic and prehistoric climate trends have also vastly improved. While the IPCC’s third report in 2001 made headlines for featuring the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, showing how average temperatures had been relatively stable for a thousand years before starting to spike rapidly in the past few decades, the current report highlights the relative stability of the climate system over many thousands of years. Decades of detailed studies of the carbon contents of polar ice cores, lake and ocean sediments and other geologically stable features have raised scientists’ confidence in the stark contrast between current climate extremes and a couple of million years of relative climate stability.
The long-term cycle of ice ages, for example, reflects shifts of about 50 to 100 parts per million (ppm) in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, compared to a current concentration (approximately 410 ppm) that is well over 150 ppm higher than the million-year average. We need to look back to the last interglacial era (125,000 years ago) to find an extended period of high average temperatures comparable to what we are experiencing now, and current carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are believed to be higher than any time in at least two million years.
With these overarching issues in mind, it is time to summarize some of the report’s most distinctive findings and then reflect upon their implications.
First, the question of “climate sensitivity” has been one of the more contentious ones in climate science. It is a measure of how much warming would result from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from preindustrial levels, i.e. from 280 ppm to 560 ppm. Early estimates were all over the map, giving policymakers the wiggle room to suggest it is reasonable to reduce emissions more slowly or wait for newer technologies — from better batteries to carbon capture and even nuclear fusion — to come along. This report greatly narrows the scope of that debate, with a “best estimate” that doubling CO2 will produce approximately 3 degrees of warming — far too high to avoid extremely dire consequences for all of life on earth.
Climate sensitivity is very likely (more than 90% confidence) between 2.0–4.5 degrees and likely (2/3 confidence) between 2.5 and 4 degrees. Of the five main future scenarios explored in the report, only those where global greenhouse gas emissions reach their peak before 2050 will avoid that disastrous milestone. If emissions continue increasing at rates comparable to the past few decades, we’ll reach doubled CO2 by 2100; if emissions accelerate, it could happen in just a few decades, vastly compounding the climate disruptions the world is already experiencing.
A second key question is, how fast do temperatures rise with increasing emissions? Is it a direct, linear relationship, or might temperature rises begin to level off any time in the foreseeable future? The report demonstrates that the effect remains linear, at least up to the level of 2 degrees warming, and quantifies the effect with high confidence. Of course there are important deviations from this number (1.65 degrees per thousand gigatons of carbon): the poles heat up substantially more quickly than other regions, the air over continental land masses heats up faster than over the oceans, and temperatures are warming almost twice as fast during cold seasons than warm seasons, accelerating the loss of arctic ice and other problems.
Of course more extreme events remain far less predictable, except that their frequency will continue to increase with rising temperatures. For example the triple digit (Fahrenheit) temperatures that swept the Pacific Northwest of the US and southwestern Canada this summer have been described as a once in 50,000 years event in “normal” times and no one excludes the possibility that they will happen again in the near future. So-called “compound” events, for example the combination of high temperatures and dry, windy conditions that favor the spread of wildfires, are the least predictable events of all.
The central conclusion from the overall linear increase in temperatures relative to emissions is that nothing short of a complete cessation of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions will significantly stabilize the climate, and there is also a time delay of at least several decades after emissions cease before the climate can begin to stabilize.
Third, estimates of likely sea level rise, in both the near- and longer-terms, are far more reliable than they were a few years ago. Global sea levels rose an average of 20 centimeters during the 20th century, and will continue to rise throughout this century under all possible climate scenarios — about a foot higher than today if emissions begin to fall rapidly, nearly 2 feet if emissions continue rising at present rates, and 2.5 feet if emissions rise faster. These, of course, are the most cautious scientific estimates. By 2150 the estimated range is 2–4.5 feet, and more extreme scenarios where sea levels rise from 6 to 15 feet “cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes.”
With glacial melting expected to continue for decades or centuries under all scenarios, sea levels will “remain elevated for thousands of years,” potentially reaching a height of between 8 and 60 feet above present levels. The last time global temperatures were comparable to today’s for several centuries (125,000 years ago), sea levels were probably 15 to 30 feet higher than they are today. When they were last 2.5 to 4 degrees higher than preindustrial temperatures — roughly 3 million years ago — sea levels may have been up to 60 feet higher than today. Again these are all cautious estimates, based on the available data and subject to stringent statistical validation. For residents of vulnerable coastal regions around the world, and especially Pacific Island dwellers who are already forced to abandon their drinking water wells due to high infiltrations of sea water, it is far from just a theoretical problem.
Also, for the first time, the new report contains detailed projections for the unfolding of various climate-related phenomena in every region of the world. There is an entire chapter devoted to regionally-specific effects, and much attention to the ways in which climate disruptions play out differently in different locations. “Current climate in all regions is already distinct from the climate of the early or mid-20th century,” the report states, and many regional differences are expected to become more pronounced over time. While every place on earth is getting hotter, there are charts showing how different regions will become consistently wetter or dryer, or various combinations of both, with many regions, including eastern North America, anticipated to experience increasingly extreme precipitation events.
There are also more specific discussions of potential changes in monsoon patterns, as well as particular impacts on biodiversity hotspots, cities, deserts, tropical forests, and other places with distinctive characteristics in common. Various drought-related phenomena are addressed in more specific terms, with separate projections for meteorological drought (lack of rainfall), hydrological drought (declining water tables) and agricultural/ecological drought (loss of soil moisture). It can be expected that all these impacts will be discussed in greater detail in the upcoming report on climate impacts that is due in February.
There are numerous other important observations, many of which directly counter past attempts to minimize the consequences of future climate impacts. For those who want to see the world focus more fully on emissions unrelated to fossil fuel use, the report points out that between 64 and 86 percent of carbon emissions are directly related to fossil fuel combustion, with estimates approaching 100 percent lying well within the statistical margin of error. Thus there is no way to begin to reverse climate disruptions without an end to burning fossil fuels. There are also more detailed projections of the impacts of shorter-lived climate forcers, such as methane (highly potent, but short-lived compared to CO2), sulfur dioxide (which counteracts climate warming) and black carbon (now seen as a substantially less significant factor than before).
To those who assume the vast majority of emissions will continue to be absorbed by the world’s land masses and oceans, buffering the effects on the future atmosphere, the report explains how with rising emissions, a steadily higher proportion of the CO2 remains in the atmosphere, rising from only 30 to 35 percent under low emissions scenarios, up to 56 percent with emissions continuing to increase at present rates and doubling to 62 percent if emissions begin to rise more rapidly. So we will likely see a declining capacity for the land and oceans to absorb a large share of excess carbon dioxide.
The report is also more skeptical than in the past toward geoengineering schemes based on various proposed technological interventions to absorb more solar radiation. The report anticipates a high likelihood of “substantial residual or overcompensating climate change at the regional scales and seasonal time scales” resulting from any interventions designed to shield us from climate warming without reducing emissions, as well as the certainty that ocean acidification and other non-climate consequences of excess carbon dioxide would inevitably continue. There will likely be substantially more discussion of these scenarios in the third report of this IPCC cycle, which is due in March.
In advance of the upcoming international climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland this November, several countries have pledged to increase their voluntary climate commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, with some countries now aiming to achieve a peak in climate-altering emissions by mid-century. However this only approaches the middle range of the IPCC’s latest projections. The scenario based on a 2050 emissions peak is right in the middle of the report’s range of predictions, and shows the world surpassing the important threshold of 1.5 degrees of average warming in the early 2030s, exceeding 2 degrees by mid-century, and reaching an average temperature increase between 2.1 and 3.5 degrees (approximately 4–6 degrees Fahrenheit) between 2080 and 2100, nearly two and a half times the current global average temperature rise of 1.1 degrees since preindustrial times.
We will learn much more about the impacts of this scenario in the upcoming February report, but the dire consequences of future warming have been described in numerous published reports in recent years, including an especially disturbing very recent paper reporting signs that the Atlantic circulation (AMOC), which is the main source of warm air for all of northern Europe, is already showing signs of collapse. If carbon emissions continue to increase at current rates, we are looking at a best estimate of a 3.6 degree rise before the end of this century, with a likely range reaching well above 4 degrees — often viewed as a rough threshold for a complete collapse of the climate system.
There are two lower-emissions scenarios in the report, the lowest of which keeps the temperature rise by the century’s end under 1.5 degrees (after exceeding it briefly), but a quick analysis from MIT’s Technology Review points out that this scenario relies mainly on highly speculative “negative emissions” technologies, especially carbon capture and storage, and a shift toward the massive-scale use of biomass (i.e. crops and trees) for energy. We know that a more widespread use of “energy crops” would consume vast areas of the earth’s landmass, and that the regrowing of trees that are cut down to burn for energy would take many decades to absorb the initial carbon release– a scenario the earth clearly cannot afford.
The lower-emissions scenarios also accept the prevailing rhetoric of “net-zero,” assuming that more widespread carbon-sequestering methods like protecting forests can serve to compensate for still-rising emissions. We know that many if not most carbon offset schemes to date have been an absolute failure, with Indigenous peoples often driven from their traditional lands in the name of “forest protection,” only to see rates of commercial logging increase rapidly in immediately surrounding areas.
It is increasingly doubtful that genuine long-term climate solutions can be found without a thorough transformation of social and economic systems. It is true that the cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically in the past decade, which is a good thing, and that leading auto manufacturers are aiming to switch to electric vehicle production over the coming decade. But commercial investments in renewable energy have leveled off over the same time period, especially in the richer countries, and continue to favor only the largest-scale projects that begin to meet capitalist standards of profitability. Fossil fuel production has, of course, led to exaggerated standards of profitability in the energy sector over more than 150 years, and most renewable projects fall far short.
We will likely see more solar and wind power, a faster tightening of fuel efficiency standards for the auto industry and subsidies for electric charging stations in the US, but nothing like the massive reinvestment in community-scaled renewables and public transportation that is needed. Not even the landmark Biden-Sanders budget reconciliation plan that is under consideration in in the US Congress, with all its necessary and helpful climate measures, addresses the full magnitude of changes that are needed to halt emissions by midcentury. While some obstructionists in Congress appear to be stepping back from the overt climate denial that has increasingly driven Republican politics in recent years, they have not backed away from claims that it is economically unacceptable to end climate-altering pollution.
Internationally, the current debate over reducing carbon pollution (so called “climate mitigation”) also falls far short of addressing the full magnitude of the problem, and generally evades the question of who is mainly responsible. While the US and other wealthy countries have produced an overwhelming share of historic carbon pollution since the dawn of the industrial era, there is an added dimension to the problem that is most often overlooked, and which I reviewed in some detail in my Introduction to a recent book (co-edited with Tamar Gilbertson), Climate Justice and Community Renewal (Routledge 2020). A 2015 study from Thomas Piketty’s research group in Paris revealed that inequalities within countries have risen to account for half of the global distribution of greenhouse gas emissions, and several other studies confirm this.
Researchers at Oxfam have been studying this issue for some years, and their most recent report concluded that the wealthiest ten percent of the global population are responsible for 49 percent of individual emissions. The richest one percent emits 175 times more carbon per person on average than the poorest ten percent. Another pair of independent research groups have released periodic Carbon Majors Reports and interactive graphics profiling around a hundred global companies that are specifically responsible for almost two-thirds of all greenhouse gases since the mid-19th century, including just fifty companies — both private and state-owned ones — that are responsible for half of all today’s industrial emissions (See climateaccountability.org). So while the world’s most vulnerable peoples are disproportionately impacted by droughts, floods, violent storms and rising sea levels, the responsibility falls squarely upon the world’s wealthiest.
When the current IPCC report was first released, the UN Secretary General described it as a “code red for humanity,” and called for decisive action. Greta Thunberg described it as a “wake-up call,” and urged listeners to hold the people in power accountable. Whether that can happen quickly enough to stave off some of the worst consequences will be a function of the strength of our social movements, and also our willingness to address the full scope of social transformations that are now essential for humanity and all of life on earth to continue to thrive.
This article, originally posted by the Woods Hole Research Centre on August 3rd 2020, states that the “Worst case” for CO2 emissions scenario is actually the best match for assessing the climate risk, impact by 2050.
The RCP 8.5 CO2 emissions pathway, long considered a “worst case scenario” by the international science community, is the most appropriate for conducting assessments of climate change impacts by 2050, according to a new article published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was authored by Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) Risk Program Director Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Dr. Spencer Glendon, a Senior Fellow at WHRC and founder of Probable Futures, and by WHRC President Dr. Philip Duffy.
Long dismissed as alarmist or misleading, the paper argues that is actually the closest approximation of both historical emissions and anticipated outcomes of current global climate policies, tracking within 1% of actual emissions. “Not only are the emissions consistent with RCP 8.5 in close agreement with historical total cumulative CO2 emissions (within 1%), but RCP8.5 is also the best match out to mid-century under current and stated policies with still highly plausible levels of CO2 emissions in 2100,” the authors wrote. “…Not using RCP8.5 to describe the previous 15 years assumes a level of mitigation that did not occur, thereby skewing subsequent assessments by lessening the severity of warming and associated physical climate risk.”
Four scenarios known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) were developed in 2005 for the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report (AR5). The RCP scenarios are used in global climate models, and include historical greenhouse gas emissions until 2005, and projected emissions subsequently. RCP 8.5 assumes the greatest fossil fuel use, and a resulting additional 8.5 watts per square meter of radiative forcing by 2100. The commentary also emphasizes that while there are signs of progress on bending the global emissions curve and that our emissions picture may change significantly by 2100, focusing on the unknowable, distant future may distort the current debate on these issues. “For purposes of informing societal decisions, shorter time horizons are highly relevant, and it is important to have scenarios which are useful on those horizons. Looking at mid-century and sooner, RCP8.5 is clearly the most useful choice,” they wrote.The article also notes that RCP 8.5 would not be significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that “we note that the usefulness of RCP 8.5 is not changed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming pandemic restrictions remain in place until the end of 2020 would entail a reduction in emissions of -4.7 Gt CO2. This represents less than 1% of total cumulative CO2 emissions since 2005 for all RCPs and observations.”
“Given the agreement of 2005-2020 historical and RCP8.5 total CO2 emissions and the congruence between current policies and RCP8.5 emission levels to mid-century, RCP8.5 has continued utility, both as an instrument to explore mean outcomes as well as risk,” they concluded. “Indeed, if RCP8.5 did not exist, we’d have to create it.”
Sea-levels are rising 60 per cent faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) central projections, new research suggests.
While temperature rises appear to be consistent with the projections made in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report (AR4), satellite measurements show that sea-levels are actually rising at a rate of 3.2 mm a year compared to the best estimate of 2 mm a year in the report.
These findings, which have been published today, 28 November, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, are timely as delegates from 190 countries descend on Doha, Qatar, for the United Nation’s 18th Climate Change Conference this week.
The researchers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Tempo Analytics and Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales, state that the findings are important for keeping track of how well past projections match the accumulating observational data, especially as projections made by the IPCC are increasingly being used in decision making.
The study involved an analysis of global temperatures and sea-level data over the past two decades, comparing them both to projections made in the IPCC’s third and fourth assessment reports.
Results were obtained by taking averages from the five available global land and ocean temperature series.
After removing the three known phenomena that cause short-term variability in global temperatures – solar variations, volcanic aerosols and El Nino/Southern Oscillation – the researchers found that the overall warming trend at the moment is 0.16°C per decade, which closely follows the IPCC’s projections.
Satellite measurements of sea-levels showed a different picture, however, with current rates of increase being 60 per cent faster than the IPCC’s AR4 projections.
Satellites measure sea-level rise by bouncing radar waves back off the sea surface and are much more accurate than tide gauges as they have near-global coverage; tide gauges only sample along the coast. Tide gauges also include variability that has nothing to do with changes in global sea level, but rather with how the water moves around in the oceans, such as under the influence of wind.
The study also shows that it is very unlikely that the increased rate is down to internal variability in our climate system and also shows that non-climatic components of sea-level rise, such as water storage in reservoirs and groundwater extraction, do not have an effect on the comparisons made.
Lead author of the study, Stefan Rahmstorf, said: “This study shows once again that the IPCC is far from alarmist, but in fact has under-estimated the problem of climate change. That applies not just for sea-level rise, but also to extreme events and the Arctic sea-ice loss.”
Editor’s Note: The following piece is an argument for deep green environmentalism and attempts to answer the questions: What is deep green environmentalism? How have other forms of environmentalism (particularly bright green and technological) failed to save nature? Why do we need deep green environmentalism?
In recent years the media has noticed that the incessant calls of “climate emergency” followed by no action that is making any material difference to the climate change crisis has lead to people feeling depressed about the future. Of course, being the media, they report on this as if it’s a simple story of a world split into three categories of people: climate activists, climate deniers, and climate doomers. But this is too simple a story, as we will see.
This essay was prompted by a March 24, 2023 Washington Post article about “climate doomers”. The article describes these doomers as a group of people who “believe that the climate problem cannot, or will not, be solved in time to prevent all-out societal collapse.”
This article comes shortly after the IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis report Summary for Policymakers was published mid-March. The report states that global warming has reached 1.1C above the 1850–1900 baseline, that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase despite thirty-plus years of warnings about climate change and global conferences to address the issue, and that global warming has contributed to “widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.” It goes on to say that despite these thirty years of meetings and reports and hand-wringing, it is “likely that warming will exceed 1.5C” and that “every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards.”
Is it any wonder that many reading this report and the news stories about it might believe climate change will not be solved? We can see with our own eyes that at 1.1C warming, already extreme weather events linked to climate change are connected with conflict, food and water shortages, natural disasters, and even war. Is it any wonder that we might think “likely” warming of 1.5C — 2.0C might cause societal collapse? Especially when one looks at the graph of primary energy consumption, which shows a relentless upward climb of the world’s consumption of coal, oil, and gas (with recent minor dips correlating only with the massive recession in 2008 and with a global shutdown for Covid in 2020).
It is obvious to anyone who has eyes that energy use increases with economic growth. It is obvious to anyone who understands the rudimentary basics of how the global economy works that the only time energy use dips is when recession or pandemics hit and cause a whole lot of economic pain for people without sustained government bailouts. While the energy share of so-called renewables increases in minuscule amounts each year, its share is tiny in comparison to that of fossil fuels, and with the timelines outlined in recent IPCC reports, it’s obvious to most observers that, even if renewables worked as promised, there is no way fossil fuels will be replaced anytime soon. Thus, the conclusion that “the climate problem cannot, or will not, be solved in time to prevent all-out societal collapse” starts to look a bit like a realistic outlook. Do these realists deserve to be called “doomers”?
The Washington Post article goes on to talk about the worry that “doom” can cause paralysis, and admonishes us that we must maintain hope if we are to be effective climate change activists. The main protagonist of the story is a young activist worried about human extinction. The story ends on a hopeful note with the same young activist focused instead on engaging in his community by “showing there is support for the solutions.” Unfortunately, the article doesn’t discuss what those solutions are.
The world the mainstream media seems to see when it’s reporting on climate change is one focused almost entirely on carbon: burning too much of it, the people who deny that burning it is bad, the people who are trying to get the world to burn less of it, and the people who are categorized as doomers because they realistically assess the situation and begin to lose hope.
However, this perspective is missing the bigger picture. Occasionally, the media will report on other crises — the pollution crisis (plastic pollution is popular in the media, and “forever chemicals” have recently made the news a few times) and the biodiversity crisis (although the UN meetings about biodiversity bring far fewer participants, and far less press coverage) have made the mainstream news a few times in the past year.
How often do you hear about “ecological overshoot” in the mainstream media? If you say “never” then you’d be right. How often do you see any mainstream media articles about a serious plan for reducing human consumption, for changing the global economic system, or (shudder) addressing overpopulation? If you think that any journalist attempting to write about these topics might be fired, I’d agree.
Most people have never heard of “The Great Acceleration” or the “Planetary Boundaries Project” outside certain activist circles. These projects aim to show how human impact is increasing exponentially across many domains, and that the planet has thresholds beyond which the Earth systems that support us begin to fail.
Fewer still have engaged with the idea of “ecological overshoot”, a concept familiar to ecologists studying species, but not so to the general public. One of my favorite resources for understanding ecological overshoot is a 1977 video of Donnella Meadows explaining overshoot and collapse at Dartmouth College. Meadows is one of the authors of the 1972 report Limits to Growth, which used a computer simulation to illustrate the consequences of unchecked human growth (population, consumption, pollution) on the ecosystems that support us, and the loss of carrying capacity that overshoot creates. Another excellent resource about ecological overshoot is William Catton’s 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Needless to say, if the world had more seriously contemplated the concept of ecological overshoot back when Meadow’s Limits to Growth and Catton’s Overshoot were published, we might not be in the predicament we find ourselves in today.
The 80’s almost entirely erased whatever concern these books might have created. The decade of “greed is good” accelerated economic growth around the world, and cemented society’s trajectory of hyper consumption and its attendant destruction of the natural world.
Just because most people ignored ecological overshoot doesn’t mean it went away; in fact the overshoot worsened considerably and exponentially in the subsequent decades, and continues to do so today. Indeed, due to 3% average growth (as measured by GWP, gross world product), we’ve burned half of all the fossil fuels ever burned by humans and used as many extracted materials in the past 35 years as we did in the prior 10,000 years. This is the power of exponential growth. Along with exponential growth and destruction comes accelerating loss of carrying capacity, as outlined by Limits to Growth in 1972.
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” — Albert Bartlett.
Ecological overshoot of the carrying capacity of one’s environment can have many causes. In her 1977 video, Donnella Meadows describes how removing the predators of a deer population causes a huge spike in deer numbers, which causes the larger numbers of deer to eat all the food available to them, which creates a loss of carrying capacity as the ecosystem is over-grazed and degraded, which then causes a collapse in the deer population below its original level. This is standard behavior for a species in ecological overshoot.
We humans are a species in ecological overshoot. That means we are currently consuming more than the ecosystems we rely on for life can support, and polluting our environment with more waste and toxics than it can absorb. Why hasn’t human population collapsed yet? Because we are still on the upside of the spike.
This spike can’t last for long; as with all species in overshoot, our population will collapse too. Just as the deer ate too much food and lowered the carrying capacity of their environment, we are consuming too much and polluting too much, and as a result we too are lowering the carrying capacity of our environment — which in our case, is most of the planet.
The big picture that mainstream media, like the Washington Post, is missing is that climate change is just one of many symptoms of our species in ecological overshoot. When you step back and look at the big picture, what you see is this:
As a species, we rely on flourishing ecosystems all over the globe to support us and provide the basics for human life on planet Earth: food, water, shelter, and community.
If the ice melts in the Arctic, that affects weather systems the world over. If the Amazon rainforest is cut down, that, too, affects weather systems the world over. More extreme weather impacts our ability to grow food; it causes floods in some areas and droughts in others, affects the availability of clean water, and damages ecosystems.
If we degrade the soil with industrial agriculture, we cause top soil loss, which means we can grow less food, and we have to use a lot more fertilizer (which is made from fossil fuels and causes pollution) to get the same food output.
If we pollute the land with toxic chemicals, we pollute our own food, either directly by polluting crops, or by polluting the animals we eat for food.
If we pollute the fresh water, we reduce the availability of water to drink and contaminate and harm the other species we depend on for life. If we pollute the oceans, we contaminate and harm marine life, contaminate and harm ourselves when eat marine animals, and degrade the carrying capacity of the oceans.
Like the deer in Donnella Meadows’ lecture, our numbers have grown too large; we are consuming too much of everything in our ecosystems (food, trees, soil, wildlife, metals, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) and degrading the carrying capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems to support us. Our population will crash, and badly. Whatever number of humans was sustainable before the invention of agriculture, before the industrial revolution — before we began degrading topsoils, before we began using fossil fuels to exponentially speed up extraction from and destruction of the natural world — that number will no longer be possible because the carrying capacity of the Earth will be much lower.
This is true not just for humans. Our species’ loss of carrying capacity affects other species too. There are the many species we are driving extinct (at 1000 times the natural extinction rate). We have caused almost total pollution and degradation of natural habitats, meaning far fewer and less healthy and diverse flora and fauna can live in what’s left of these habitats. We are destroying the carrying capacity of the planet for everyone, not just ourselves.
The relentless focus on climate change in the past few years — by governments, by the media, and now by corporations that take advantage of our climate concerns to sell us a whole new assortment of products — has blinded many of us to the bigger picture of ecological overshoot.
Why the focus on climate change, out of all the possible symptoms of ecological overshoot? Because corporations could see how to monetize climate change, and they’ve done so, quite effectively. Of the many symptoms of ecological overshoot, climate change is the only one that can be solved (or so we are told) by new technologies. “Innovations” as corporate PR firms, the World Economic Forum, and government policy makers like to call them. Technologies that will generate “carbon free” electricity (if you ignore all the fossil fuels used to mine the materials to make these technologies, and manufacture the components, and the carbon released from the ground when it’s destroyed to install these technologies); technologies that provide the illusion we can keep living like we’re living, with electric cars, hydrogen fueled planes, and plastic made with carbon from plants instead of carbon from fossil fuels (never mind the thousands of toxic chemicals required to mix with the carbon to actually make the plastic).
For fifty years, corporations have been perfecting their public relations and greenwashing savvy. They’ve stolen from us an environmental movement that cared about life on planet Earth, and replaced it with an environmental movement that cares only about carbon and technology. Young people marching for “climate justice” demand solar panels and wind turbines; calls to protect the rainforest are nowhere to be heard these days.
Mainstream media and certain climate scientists refer to those of us who prefer to see the whole picture of ecological overshoot as “doomers” too. They lump us in with those concerned about climate change who really have given up hope, whether by realistic assessment of the situation we’re in or because they get sucked in by charismatic people who peddle conspiracy theories, as the Washington Post article describes.
Why do we get lumped in with the “climate doomers”? Because we don’t believe that so-called renewable technologies are a solution to climate change, and because we don’t agree with the now-mainstream view that continued extraction of non-renewable materials to keep this hyper consuming, hyper polluting way of life going is a good idea.
If the media was willing to delve deeper, and understand the bigger picture, they might see the climate-centric view of the world is too simplistic a view. There are many of us out here who do not fall into the “climate doomer” category, despite our push back on the relentless drive for renewables in the media. There are many of us out here who are concerned with the health and flourishing of Earth’s ecosystems, who are desperately concerned with all the symptoms of ecological overshoot, who see more extraction in the name of “technology” as worsening the situation, not improving it, and most importantly, who are working hard to protect the natural world.
We are the deep green environmentalists — the ones who understand that the natural world is primary, for without it, human animals will not have food, water, shelter, and community. We are the ones who don’t want to live in a world paved over with concrete and poisoned with chemicals and with no old growth forests left and no tall grass prairies left, with no Northern Right whales in the oceans, and no sage-grouse booming in the sagebrush steppe.
We see climate change as just one of many problems we face, and see solutions in understanding that we are human animals, rather than in more technology. We see ourselves not at the top of some imagined hierarchy but as part of a web of life; not as separate from or more important than the connected natural communities of the world, but completely dependent on these communities and their flourishing.
Remember the title of William Catton’s book? Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. “Revolutionary” means “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.” We deep greens are the ones who are fighting for revolutionary change. We are fighting to save the planet — really save it, not just pretend we can save it with technology to reduce carbon. Does that sound “doomer” to you? Granted there are some who likely have given up, and I included a circle for them too — the “deep green doomers”. But I’ve never met one. Never. Every deep green environmentalist I know is an activist working for revolutionary change. Every single one.
The mainstream media never talks about us deep green environmentalists. With corporate masters to serve, thousands of young people marching in the streets demanding solar panels and wind turbines is what writes the headlines. Extremes sell, so reporting on “climate doomers” grabs the eyeballs.
What doesn’t work is reporting on the slow, painstaking work of saving a species of tiny frog from a geothermal development, or the tedious late nights it takes to file lawsuits to protect sage-grouse habitat and organize people to prevent timber sales or stand in front of bulldozers. But this is what it takes to actually save the planet. Not greenwash it, not replace overconsumption of one non-renewable material extracted from the Earth with overconsumption of another in a desperate attempt to keep this way of life going when it’s obvious to anyone who is paying attention that’s impossible.
What really doesn’t work is suggesting, even the tiniest little bit, that the dominant paradigm of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is a recipe for failure, as illustrated in the graph of ecological overshoot. The editors at mainstream media outlets in the pockets of corporate masters and government policy makers would never let an article like that get published, would they?
Editor’s Note; The fossil fuel industry is largely responsible for the climate crisis we are in today. The following article highlights the current state of the climate crisis.
While we believe that the fossil fuel industry needs to be stopped, DGR does not believe that “green” energy is going to save the planet. We believe that the green energy industry is just an extension of the ‘traditional” energy industry, running with the same disregard for the natural world.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
You may remember the 2004 disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which large parts of Europe and the American East Coast suddenly freeze up?
The plot device is that the Great Conveyor Belt—also known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—which brings heat from the south Pacific around the southern tip of Africa and up the east coast of the Americas (we call it the Gulf Stream) into the North Atlantic and Europe shuts down.
The AMOC and the heat it brings to the North Atlantic ocean is the main reason why London (at the same latitude as Calgary) has a relatively temperate climate year-round, instead of being snowbound six months out of the year.
It’s why Europe can grow enough food to feed its 740+ million people; if the AMOC was to stop transporting all that heat to the North Atlantic, the continent could be plunged into famine in a matter of years or decades (the movie was heavily dramatized).
The IPCC has warned of this possibility but had placed the danger zone for the failure of the AMOC in the early 22nd century, well past the lifetimes of most people living today. That proclamation moved it off most of our immediate-attention screens.
This adds to a growing body of alarming climate science, like the one published last year in the Journal of Climatetitled “Sixfold Increase in Historical Northern Hemisphere Concurrent Large Heatwaves Driven by Warming and Changing Atmospheric Circulations,” which indicates we’re much farther down the path of dangerous climate change than even most scientists realized.
That study essentially predicted this year’s shocking Northern Hemisphere heat waves (with more and worse to come); the lead researcher’s first name is Cassandra, no doubt an unintentional choice in the paper’s authors’ pecking order, but still.
It brings up the topic of the “Clathrate Gun Hypothesis,” which is the absolute worst case scenario for humanity’s future.
All across the planet there are an estimated 1.4 trillion tons of methane gas frozen into a snowcone-like slurry called clathrates or methane hydrates laying on the sea floor off the various continental shelves.
When they suddenly melt, that’s the “firing of the gun.” An explosion (in the context of geologic time) of atmospheric gas that’s over 70 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. The Clathrate Gun.
The PNAS paper mentioned above concludes that 126,000 years ago there was an event that caused a small amount of these clathrates to warm enough to turn to gas and bubble up out of the seas. The resulting spike in greenhouse gas (methane) led to a major warming event worldwide:
“Our results identify an exceptionally large warming of the equatorial Atlantic intermediate waters and strong evidence of methane release and oxidation almost certainly due to massive methane hydrate destabilization during the early part of the penultimate warm episode (126,000 to 125,000 y ago). This major warming was caused by … a brief episode of meltwater-induced weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and amplified by a warm mean climate.”
The researchers warn we may be looking at a similar event in our time:
“Our results highlight climatic feedback processes associated with the penultimate climate warming that can serve as a paleoanalog for modern ongoing warming.”
As glaciers melt and the oceans warm, they note:
“[M]eltwater-induced AMOC weakening significantly amplifies the warming of intermediate waters and, in turn, destabilizes shallow subsurface methane hydrate deposits.”
In other words, the recent extreme warming of our oceans increases the chances the AMOC Great Conveyor Belt will shut down, throwing Europe into an existential crisis and wilding the rest of the world’s weather. And, most ominously, the AMOC shutting down will speed up the melting of more methane clathrates on the sea floors around the world.
The process is driven by warming of the oceans, which absorb more than 90 percent of the additional global warming heat we’re forcing by burning fossil fuels. As the BBC noted, the past month and first weeks of July “were hotter than any in recorded history” and:
“This week, sea surface temperatures along the coasts of Southern Spain and North Africa were 2-4C (3.6-7.2F) higher than they would normally be at this time of year, with some spots 5C (9F) above the long-term average.”
Ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida this week were in the range that Jacuzzi recommends for their hot tubs: 101 degrees. This has never happened before in human history.
The least likely but most dangerous outcome scenario is that the warming ocean might begin a massive melting of those methane hydrate slurries into gas, producing a “burp” of that greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, further adding to global warming, which would then melt even more of the clathrates.
It would be a deadly “positive feedback system,” with each phase of warming setting up the next and worse one. The Clathrate Gun.
At the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago, this runaway process is apparently what happened when a spike in methane led to such a violent warming of the planet that it killed over 90 percent of all life in the oceans and 70 percent of all life on land, paving the way for the rise of the dinosaurs, as cold-blooded lizards were among the few survivors.
That period is referred to as the Permian Mass Extinction, or, simply, “The Great Dying.” It was the most destructive mass extinction event in the history of our planet.
The “clathrate gun hypothesis” is controversial, but there’s a large body of evidence for it having done the damage at the end of the Permian, as we note in that video.
While it’s the least likely but most dramatic outcome of today’s global warming, it’s worth heeding the warning: by pouring over thirty billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year we have stirred a beast that could—if we don’t take serious action soon—spell the doom of human civilization, if not humanity itself.
“The key findings of our study add to a growing body of observational findings strongly supporting the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis.’ … Importantly, the interval we have studied is marked by a mean climate state comparable to future projections of transient global climate warming of 1.3 °C to 3.0 °C.” [emphasis mine]
We just this year passed 1.3 degrees Celsius of planetary warming: we are now in the territory of the Clathrate Gun Hypothesis if these researchers are right (although the risks are still small).
This is the first study I’ve seen to make such a claim, and it’s not from crackpots or alarmists; these are solid, credible scientists with a lifetime of learning and work behind them.
And, they argue, if the AMOC weakens or shuts down, all bets are off:
“Simulation studies have suggested warming of intermediate waters has been limited to ∼1.5 °C to 3 °C, and that such warmings were insufficient to significantly affect the stability of shallow subsurface methane hydrates. However, the magnitude of intermediate water warming can be significantly amplified by meltwater-induced weakening of atmospheric and ocean circulation, an amplification not considered in the simulations that examined potential gas hydrate destabilization.”
In other words, if the AMOC fails, the clathrate gun hypothesis becomes significantly more viable.
For much of the past four decades, climate activists have been warning us that we’re approaching tipping points and thresholds that will alter how Americans live, cost us a fortune, and kill millions of humans every year.
Now we’re there. Our “normal” climate is dead; the weather has gone insane, and it is annually killing thousands of Americans and millions of people all around the globe. And the numbers are increasing almost exponentially, year to year.
This is how quickly it has hit us: when I published the first edition of my book warning of climate change, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, in 1996 (it’s been updated twice since then) there was still a vigorous debate here in the United States—funded in large part by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in rightwing media—over whether climate change was even a real thing.
They knew that their product was poisoning our atmosphere, but they were making hundreds of billions of dollars in profits. Nothing was more important to these morbidly rich people than that money.
They and their bought-off politicians began to believe their own lies, or at least some did, and thought this wouldn’t happen until they were all dead anyway, even if it was true.
But then it happened. The climate emergency we were worried about arrived. It is here, now.
Looking at statistical information about major heatwaves—particularly ones that hit multiple continents at the same time—the authors of the Journal of Climate paper referenced above found:
“Such simultaneous heatwaves are 7 times more likely now than 40 years ago. They are also hotter and affect a larger area.”
In the 1980s the Northern Hemisphere averaged around 73 heatwaves during the summer months from May to September. By the 2010s that number had grown to 152 heatwaves per summer.
And those heat waves are also almost 20 percent hotter than they were the year Reagan won the presidency (and denied climate change throughout his 8 fossil-fuel-funded years in office).
One of the most startling understandings of what’s happening has only become apparent in the past decade or so: that the atmospheric Polar Jet Stream is acting weird and thus making our weather extremes more severe.
Over the course of multiple conversations with a few of the world’s top climate scientists I’ve learned that the Polar Jet Stream—the fast-moving river of high-altitude (30,000+ feet) air that circulates around the North Pole—has slowed down, weakened, and is beginning to “drool” down over parts of North America, going as far south as Texas.
This was, in fact, what caused the severe winter weather that shut down Texas’ privatized power grid a few years back, along with causing the “bomb cyclone” freezing storms hitting the Midwest and Northeast every winter, and the extended periods of 100+ degree weather all across America, Europe, Russia, and China this summer.
Historically, the Polar Jet Stream was held in place—mostly in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere—by the temperature differential between the Arctic and the middle latitudes, where most Americans (outside of northern Alaska) live.
The cold arctic air defined the northernmost margin of the Polar Jet Stream while the warmer middle latitude air defined its southernmost margin. While it pushed weather patterns across North America for much of my life, it rarely dipped below the Mason-Dixon line and, even when it did, generally just brought the hot/cold, or wet/drought weather behind it for only a day or two.
But the Arctic has been warming at least three times faster than the middle latitudes where most of us live, which means the difference in temperature between the Arctic air to the north of the Jet Stream and our air to its south has diminished.
The North Pole/Arctic, once a solid cap of ice where Santa Claus was supposed to live, is now an open sea every summer.
As that temperature differential has declined, so has the strength and velocity of the Jet Stream. Now, instead of whipping across the Northern Hemisphere, it often spills down as far south as Mexico and then stays in place for days at a time.
What would have been a one-day cold-snap or heat wave becomes multiple days, long enough to wreak billions in damage to a state’s residential and energy infrastructure.
What would have been a rainstorm lasting a few hours becomes an unrelenting downpour lasting for days, creating massive flooding.
These changes in the Jet Stream, combined with the warming of our oceans (whose temperatures also drive weather), have also caused what were once routine weather patterns to change.
Regions that were only dry during the summer are now experiencing drought year-round; parts of the country where flooding was occasional but rare are now regularly experiencing massive, days-long storms that tear up houses and flood entire regions.
Flights are bumpier and being canceled with increasing frequency because of weather, as we’re just now sliding into this unknowable new era of severe weather weirding.
This is our new normal, and it’s costing us lives and billions of dollars every year, all to preserve the profits of a fossil fuel industry that knew in the 1960s that their product was poisoning the world and would lead to this outcome.
But don’t think that just because this is the new normal that this “normal” will last. The last time our planet saw CO2 levels at their current 422 parts-per-million, sea levels were 60 feet higher and trees were growing in Antarctica.
In other words, we’re on a path, not at a destination. The planet will catch up with all that CO2, and as it does our weather will continue to become more and more severe until we figure out a way to get CO2 levels back down to the 1950s count of just over 300 ppm.
Meanwhile, we’re pouring more CO2 into the atmosphere right now than at any time in human history, despite efforts among the world’s developed nations to reduce their carbon footprints.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a major kick-in-the-pants to Europe to get off their dependence on fossil fuels and go green, as have high oil and gas prices around the world.
But here in America, Republicans on the Supreme Court (with 6 justices put on the bench with money from fossil-fuel billionaires) kneecapped the Biden administration’s ability to regulate CO2 and promote green energy.
In 2010, five Republicans on the Court legalized political bribery with their Citizens United decision. And, of course, Republicans deeply in the pocket of Big Oil, Gas, and Coal continue to deny climate change is even happening. Just last week, Congressman Scott Perry called climate change a massive “grift.”
And now the Heritage Foundation has, according to Raw Story, a plan for the next Republican administration to gut the EPA; end the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations; end “grid expansion for the benefit of renewable resources or supporting low/carbon generation”; ban EPA workers from using certain types of science; and prevent other states from copying California’s strict environmental standards for greenhouse gasses.
The fossil fuel industry has almost unlimited money to buy politicians, per Citizens United. The ten top recipients of fossil fuel money in Congress last year were:
Manchin, Joe (D-WV) $724,270
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA) $396,284
Lankford, James (R-OK) $275,148
Pfluger, August (R-TX) $268,011
Kennedy, John (R-LA) $264,788
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK) $249,808
Sinema, Kyrsten (D-AZ) $230,160
Fletcher, Lizzie (D-TX) $191,765
Cuellar, Henry (D-TX) $191,450
Scott, Tim (R-SC) $181,291
Scalise, Steve (R-LA) $181,263
Gonzales, Tony (R-TX) $174,461
Rubio, Marco (R-FL) $165,636
Amazing how little it costs to buy a member of Congress to keep your multi-billion-dollar-a-year profits flowing, isn’t it?
Romney, Mitt (R-UT) $8,291,262
Cornyn, John (R-TX) $4,678,062
Cruz, Ted (R-TX) $4,138,421
McConnell, Mitch (R-KY) $2,852,107
McCarthy, Kevin (R-CA) $2,581,832
Hutchison, Kay Bailey (R-TX) $2,332,021
Inhofe, James M (R-OK) $2,320,139
Pearce, Steve (R-NM) $2,236,714
Barton, Joe (R-TX) $2,211,987
Brady, Kevin (R-TX) $2,087,396
Scalise, Steve (R-LA) $1,847,013
Murkowski, Lisa (R-AK) $1,792,602
Americans are dying because these paid-off shills have either failed to act or actively blocked any meaningful change in our nation’s climate policy. They have blood on their hands, with more to come as every year brings more severe floods, storms, and drought.
We can no longer tolerate this morally criminal level of political malpractice, particularly since there is still time to act. And we must move quickly.
If America is to reclaim its position as a leader and role model for the world and stop the disastrous new climate “normal” we’re now entering from becoming radically more severe, we must get our use of fossil fuels under control.
That means ostracizing elected officials in the pocket of the industry, rolling back Citizens United so Big Oil and Big Coal can’t continue to bribe members of Congress, and throwing significant subsidies into greening our energy and transportation systems.
The climate emergency is here. We can’t wait any longer for major and dramatic worldwide action.