If climate scientists are terrified, how should the rest of us react?
Well, there you have it.
Using scientific theories, toy ecosystem modeling and paleontological evidence as a crystal ball, 18 scientists, including an SFU professor, predict the Earth’s ecosystems are careering towards an imminent, irreversible collapse.
In “Approaching a state-shift in Earth’s biosphere,” a paper just published in Nature, the authors examine the Earth’s accelerating loss of biodiversity, increasingly extreme climate fluctuations, its ecosystems’ growing connectedness and its radically changing total energy budget. They suggest these are all precursors to reaching a planetary state threshold or tipping point. Once that happens, which the authors predict could be this century, the planet’s ecosystems, as we know them, could quickly and irreversibly collapse.
“The last tipping point in Earth’s history occurred about 12,000 years ago when the planet went from being in the age of glaciers, which previously lasted 100,000 years, to being in its current interglacial state,” says Arne Mooers, SFU professor of biodiversity. “Once that tipping point was reached, the most extreme biological changes leading to our current state occurred within only 1,000 years. That’s like going from a baby to an adult state in less than a year. Importantly, the planet is changing even faster now.”
Mooers is one of the paper’s authors. He stresses, “The odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations. Remember, we went from being hunter-gatherers to being moon-walkers during one of the most stable and benign periods in all of Earth’s history. “Once a threshold-induced planetary state-shift occurs, there’s no going back. So, if a system switches to a new state because you’ve added lots of energy, even if you take out the new energy, it won’t revert back to the old system. The planet doesn’t have any memory of the old state.”
— “Study predicts imminent irreversible planetary collapse,” SFU News Online (Simon Fraser University), June 8, 2012
The Nature study was of course reported elsewhere, with some exceptionally detailed information about it appearing in an article from Wired (“Is Humanity Pushing Earth Past a Tipping Point?“). But the SFU article wins the prize for most hair-raising title.
It also contains this admirably Armageddon-inflected and horror-filled final paragraph:
“In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there,” says Mooers. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.”
In the dark light of such things, we might do well to recall that James Lovelock, the father or grandfather of climate science, who made waves a few years ago by issuing some starkly doom-laden statements about the civilization-ending effects of climate change that he expected to play out over the course of this century and last for a millennium, reversed his position earlier this year and said that he and other scientists had been caught up in an attitude of undue alarmism.
So, who to believe? Given the manifest increase in wild and terribly destructive (and deadly) weather around the world, as seen on an epic scale most recently in the United States with the monster that was Hurricane Sandy — whose problematic aftermath is still unfolding and will continue to do so for a very long time — one can’t help thinking that at this point, on a practical level, it’s prudent to bracket out the scientific side of the question, bet on the negative outcome, and batten down the hatches.