Yesterday I saw the end of the world.
More specifically at Tomrrow's Company I saw a repeat of this presentation (originally given to a cross party working group on climate change in the UK parliament), plus a presentation by a Cambridge professor of theoretical physics on 2006/07 data on the arctic sheet, where exactly this sort of first and second order feedback and acceleration are now starting to be seen. In scientific terms this is paradigm-shifting new knowledge discovery work of the first order. If it wasnt so terrifying it would almost be exciting. If you read one thing on the environment this year, I would recommend you read this report.
The result in the case of the arctic is that ice melting has reached a level which the linear models behind IPCC, Stern Report and so on didnt predict until the 2080s.
The potential result for the planet overall is a catastrophe beyond anything that's been considered so far; a potential mass extinction event which would take out according to the speakers "5/6 of the world's biota".
the non-linear effects are basically the acceleration which comes about when a set of processes have a tendency to reinforce themselves individually (first order) or each other (second order). A couple of examples:
- as atmospheric CO2 increases the sea gets hotter which means it absorbs less CO2, which increases atmospheric CO2 which leads to further heating
- as permofrost in Siberia melts it releases trapped methane, which is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, which leads to further heating... (apparently this was observed this year, to the extent of huge "flumes" of escaping methane)
There are many positive feedback loops (acceleration) and no known naturally occuring major negative ones (damping). It still needs us forcing it along at this stage though. If it was just a one off event like a supervolcano eruption, radiation from a hotter atmosphere would cool the world down.
Think of it as like us pushing at a tree trunk which we have also been whittling away at - at some point the thing is simply going to fall over whether you keep pushing and whittling or not. That is the critical threshhold talked about in this paper. I studied the physics of non linear change at college, so I find it quite intuitive and easy to take on board, you might need to read this paper a couple of times although maybe not? - I think it does a masterful job.
This is not a new fringe theory. It is seen as the new central thrust of climate change science. It is the main thing which Al Gore now talks about. But it is new news compared to all the models driving current policy.
The important chart is the last one.
Think of our learning process in recent years as a sliding scale of worse and worse worst cases:
1. the loss of biodiversity, continuing the process of people ruining nature by chopping it down, desertifying it etc.
2. a shift in average temperature affecting global agriculture, especially in the hard to feed poor regions with rapid population growth such as sub saharan africa; a continuation of the 1980s recognition of humanitarian disaster
3. a shift in average temperature producing extremes of weather, a rate of Hurricane Katrina style global disasters which could bankrupt the global economy within 60 years according to one source
4. a raised sea level due to melting greenland icesheet, peak oil, cities and infrastructure in meltdown, a global emergency and significant social, economic and ecological collapse
5. global pandemics hit an environmentally stressed and overpopulated world (this is what is driving many amphibian species to extinction and a new theory says may be what actually did for the dinosaurs)
6. world war three fought over water; eg drought struck China invades Russia for Siberian water
7. non-linear effects, the critical threshold point, a potential new hot planet steady state, mass extinction
The difference between 1-6 and 7 is the recovery time. It jumps from a few thousand years, to NEVER.
There is a view that the disasters in 1-6 are actually going to be the negative feedback systems needed to stop all of this at the brink. A catastrophic collapse in human societies would stop the global forcing of climate change. But firstly we dont even know that's true (if it's enough at this stage). And secondly to go into those scenarios 1-6. knowingly would be an act of inhumanity unprecedented in the history of the most evil dictators and religious wars.
The implications for action are the same only more so. The Kyoto scenario takes us straight over the edge, because it was based on climate change models that took no account of feedback and acceleration. The survival pathway in these new models requires not just slamming on the brakes, but driving into reverse to back away from an oncoming threat.
I know many reading this will want to assume its not true, that there must be a catch. If it's that bad already, why was it possible to go around our daily routines as usual today? Why doesnt it LOOK like the end of days? Well if you watch the news, it is starting to look a bit like it. If it rained frogs in London tomorrow due to some freak weather event, would you really be as surprised as you should be?
One further point to bear in mind which I hadnt realised until yesterday although its pretty obvious when you think about it is that there is a 40-50 year lag between warming events and the planet actually getting hotter. It takes a long time to heat up oceans and landmasses. The global instability in weather and so on we are experiencing now is only the result of emissions and events in the 1950s-70s. Its clearly already extreme and has proved catastrophic in places, but everything has already accelerated greatly since that point and actually in terms of changes we are heading into under the business as usual scenario, this is actually very mild change.
The implications for culture are immense. This is THE apocalypse. Actually its even worse than that, in the apocalypse there is some sort of continuity of human culture in an afterlife, even if via a great battle etc. etc. This is ERADICATION - a 'we might as well never have existed' event. Legacy is all we have as any hedge against mortality, individually and collectively.
There have been times when individual civilisations have faced eradication and the destruction of their entire system of meaning, of any notion of legacy. It's a fate worse than individual or collective death, the prospect of discontinuity. The end. And faced with this prospect there have been some remarkble returns from the brink, for instance the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century (under Dioclitian/Constantine). Human societies do have an extraordinary ability to respond to catastrophic emergency. One speaker yesterday compared it to the ability of a shoal to respond in unison to threats.
I'm now working on a the beginnings of a scheme to help people 'get' on a mass scale what I heard yesterday. We dont have another decade for this to sink in. It's the only response I can think of where I can personally do something constructive beyond my current activities. Updates to follow when it's properly thought through. If anyone wants to help do drop me a line.
If you want to get the full briefing on all this there is a collection of papers prepared as a briefing for the Bali conference which you can order here
Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. My own view is that I'd rather know now than find out later when i could have done more. In fact I am slightly peeved that politicians have known all this for 7 months before we got to see this.