No matter where you live in Canada - north/south, east/west - you've experienced climate change impacts this summer, just like most people in the rest of the world.
We've had our share of severe weather events - heatwaves, drought, wildfires, and, for some, flash flooding. It's our new normal and we're becoming adept at "creeping normalcy," the ability to forget what the climate was like in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Once you get the past out of your mind, what's happening today can seem much less alarming, even a bit mundane. Only it is alarming and there's nothing remotely mundane about it.
This week saw a report published in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences that, however briefly, upped the ante. The paper introduced us to a new image of our planet, "Hothouse Earth." The researchers concluded that, even if we somehow were to meet our political target of confining man-made global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, natural processes may kick in causing much greater greenhouse gas emissions and heating.
We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be. If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.
The good news is in the second part of the introduction. If we want to, we can still stabilize the climate "in a habitable interglacial-like state." The operative word, of course, is "habitable."
The hitch (there's always a hitch) is in the prescription. That begins with "collective human action." We need revolutionary change on a scale never experienced in human history. A collective that takes control of the "entire Earth System" including the biosphere, the climate and human civilization itself. That extends to "behavioral changes," "new governance arrangements, and transformed social values."
Governance of the Westphalian model has to end. It has, after all, contributed to the very predicament in which we find ourselves today. It means an end to unrestrained free market capitalism that has already exceeded the Earth's resource carrying capacity by a factor of 1.7. Transformed social values seems to mean equity, the equitable distribution of burdens and benefits. Something akin, I suppose, to "steady state" theory.
To give you an idea of what this means, we would have to shrink the global economy by more than a third. That would bring the economy back within the finite limits of the planet's ecology. The "have" economies would have to yield some of their access to the Earth's finite resources to the "have not" nations. That would be part of the grand bargain for the overpopulated countries sharply curbing their numbers to a figure the world can actually support, now estimated at around two billion. Simultaneously we would all have to decarbonize, rapidly ending the fossil fuel era by what Hans Joachim Schellnhuber termed an "induced implosion."
Can we do this? Yes we can. The more critical question is would we do this? It does not seem, to me at least, to be within the bounds of human nature to embrace this degree of change. We may be the most sentient of Earth's creatures but understanding the risks and the solution is much easier than finding the universal altruism to support such change.