Saturday, December 22, 2018

Climate Dominoes

When world leaders periodically muster up enough courage to take on the issue of climate change, they do it with great timidity. They approach it in the context of political numbers only loosely connected to science and then chase those doubtful targets with even more hapless measures that rarely venture beyond gestural tokens of good intent. To put it bluntly, it's hogwash.

Proof positive is blatant in everything they omit which is pretty much everything except man-made greenhouse gas emissions. That's not to say that man-made climate change isn't a huge problem, it definitely is. Forty years ago that might have been enough but not today.

We have brought a new player to the party. Let's call her "nature." This once placidly sleeping giant has been awakened. It brings an array of issues we call "natural feedback loops." Some of them are well known, things such as the loss of Arctic sea ice, the retreat of glaciers and ice caps around the world, the worsening acidification of our oceans, the melting and release of once safely frozen methane from the tundra, Arctic lakes and seabeds.

These feedback loops, we're warned, could massively eclipse the worst that mankind has managed to inflict. They could tip the planet into runaway global warming.

Hard as we've made it for our leaders to tackle man-made climate change, they haven't a clue what to do about these natural impacts, the feedback loops, sometimes called "tipping points." There's your problem. Our political caste is focusing on the grease fire in the kitchen, to the extent they're focusing on climate change at all, but they're ignoring the flames consuming the rest of the house, the tipping points.

Now we learn that these feedback loops may have a "domino effect."
Policymakers have severely underestimated the risks of ecological tipping points, according to a study that shows 45% of all potential environmental collapses are interrelated and could amplify one another. 
The authors said their paper, published in the journal Science, highlights how overstressed and overlapping natural systems are combining to throw up a growing number of unwelcome surprises.
...The study collated existing research on ecosystem transitions that can irreversibly tip to another state, such as coral reefs bleaching and being overrun by algae, forests becoming savannahs and ice sheets melting into oceans. It then cross-referenced the 30 types of shift to examine the impacts they might have on one another and human society. 
Only 19% were entirely isolated. Another 36% shared a common cause, but were not likely to interact. The remaining 45% had the potential to create either a one-way domino effect or mutually reinforcing feedbacks.
Among the latter pairings were Arctic ice sheets and boreal forests. When the former melt, there is less ice to reflect the sun’s heat so the temperature of the planet rises. This increases the risks of forest fires, which discharge carbon into the air that adds to the greenhouse effect, which melts more ice. Although geographically distant, each amplifies the other.
...The deforestation of the Amazon is responsible for multiple “cascading effects” – weakening rain systems, forests becoming savannah, and reduced water supplies for cities like São Paulo and crops in the foothills of the Andes. This, in turn, increases the pressure for more land clearance. 
Until recently, the study of tipping points was controversial, but it is increasingly accepted as an explanation for climate changes that are happening with more speed and ferocity than earlier computer models predicted. The loss of coral reefs and Arctic sea ice may already be past the point of no return. There are signs the Antarctic is heading the same way faster than thought.
Co-author Garry Peterson said the tipping of the west Antarctic ice shelf was not on the radar of many scientists 10 years ago, but now there was overwhelming evidence of the risks – including losses of chunks of ice the size of New York – and some studies now suggest the tipping point may have already been passed by the southern ice sheet, which may now be releasing carbon into the atmosphere. 
“We’re surprised at the rate of change in the Earth system. So much is happening at the same time and at a faster speed than we would have thought 20 years ago. That’s a real concern,” said Peterson. “We’re heading ever faster towards the edge of a cliff.”

Can a climate cascade be stopped or reined in? We'll never know if we don't try but we'll never try unless we acknowledge what's happening and muster the resolve to come to grips with these threats. If we insist on playing the neoliberal game that has blinded us to our predicament for more than 40 years, we're probably done.  Neoliberals place economic growth above all else, perhaps even ahead of the survival of human civilization. Is your country's leader a neoliberal? Mine is.


Toby said...

It is stunning how delegates can go to well publicized international conferences and emote over the climate problem and come to a consensus of something or other. Our Environment Minister positively gushed over meeting with delegates from 200 other countries and how they had such a wonderful conference. Then they come home and . . . nothing.

The Mound of Sound said...

The words certainly don't match the gravity of the threat, Toby. We're still flogging the idea of a minuscule carbon tax. Sort of like fighting a house fire with a Super Soaker. Then there's the mega-billion dollar effort needed for adaptation, i.e. bolstering our essential infrastructure. Some have pegged that cost at something approaching a trillion dollars. The engineers who ran the numbers warn we'll pay far more in losses if we fail.

Toby said...

Compounding the problem is that neoliberals don't like paying for infrastructure upkeep. Consequently, we have lots of essential stuff like bridges, levees, breakwaters (and maybe Nanaimo's electrical grid) that is not ready to handle the coming stresses.

the salamander said...

.. Canada either commits to being an Environmental leader and exemplar or we lean the other way. We become 'exploiters' (the Stephen Harper rip n strip & export model) and here cometh Justin Trudeau with his Tom Thompson signature paddle in a buckskin fringed jacket. We (and I use that term 'we' loosely) plod along, in harness, trusting 'the news' will let us know we are ploughing.. in straight furrows. We have 'honorable' MP's a la Tony Clement, we are snapping up bargain old pipelines, fracking the living daylights out of NE British Columbia and certainly leaving our mark on spaceship earth.. hell, our mark is visible from outer space.. its called the tar sands tailings ponds.

A certain deranged cretin to the south, elected as the top 'public servant' of the US of A is hard at work to emulate Harper and attack the Environment - 'with vigour' - we can now 'frack the earth' till we run out of readily available free freshwater. Methane Escape ? Build walls.. Who cares? Certainly not mainstream media or public servants.. the word Methane will never 'escape' their lips.. and if a little fresh water and species and the so called 'habitat' takes a few hits, so what ? There's lots everywhere and it makes 'Things Great Again' & its 'Nation Building' to boot.. eh & growing the beanstalk for Jack and Economy uber alles..evermore

Mainstream media needs a chokechain Mound & we need to let them lunge on a leash against smug, fat public servants and partisan parasites. Forget the exalted status once elected. We hired you, we can fire you and your political party too. You work for us, not the other way around. Tony Clement, sad to say is the perfect whipping boy to make the point for me.. so is Trump. These are sloppy losers.. failures, experiments gone wrong.. ready for the public service scrap heap.. like now eh ! Earth to Media ? Are you out there ? Hello, hello ?

The Mound of Sound said...

Sal, you touch a nerve. Having regressed into a truly corporate media our journalists have largely gone from the watchdogs of government to government lapdogs, at least so long as the politicians in question are of a similar ideology to the boys in the boardroom.

Notice how the mainstream media so often attacks Trudeau as an unpleasing gadfly while ignoring legitimate criticism of his flawed policies, perhaps because they're so closely aligned with Conservative leanings.

Anyway, let's put outrage and rebuke aside for the next few days as a restorative.

Sal, Toby - a merry Christmas to you and yours.

Toby said...

Thanks, Mound. A merry Christmas to you.

Purple library guy said...

"Neoliberals place economic growth above all else, perhaps even ahead of the survival of human civilization."
They don't, you know. They place financial gain for elites above all else. Economic growth is a far, far distant second, almost more a propaganda point than a real aspiration. Indeed, I would say that it's more a percentage, positional game than a raw numbers game--if they could have slightly less wealth in total due to lower economic growth, but it represented a bigger proportion of the total with the rest of us getting less (less money, less power, less control), or slightly more wealth in total due to the pie growing but it representing a smaller percentage of the wealth, power and control--they would go for more of a smaller pie rather than less of a bigger one.
Also, while they like efficiency, unfortunately they're absolutely indifferent to any notion of efficiency that isn't measured in financial terms--paying wages is inefficient, but despoiling the natural world isn't, nor is anything else they can rewrite laws to externalize, such as their products killing people. So they're perfectly capable of creating a smaller economy in terms of doing anything useful that still manages to screw things up even more.