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.