Upon reading Clive Hamilton’s ‘Is It Too Late to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change’, a stark and frankly depressing review of recent scientific appraisals of humanity’s ability to avoid catastrophic climate change, I was immediately struck by one thought: ‘something is missing here’.
In his essay, Hamilton relates projected future greenhouse emissions scenarios from the recent work of Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows at the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and soberly notes that even when the researchers used the most optimistic projections of future emissions reductions, they still predict that humanity will far overshoot the mark for stabilising greenhouse gasses at a safe level. In fact, on their projections, the entire concept of stabilising greenhouse gasses at a safe level begins to look somewhat like a pathetic joke.
Yet before we all throw in the towel, accept that our climate is done for and buy as much land and weaponry in Tasmania as we can, we need to ask of these figures: are they really based on the ‘most optimistic’ scenarios?
I believe they are not. I believe that there is something immensely important missing from their calculations.
I’ll try to explain.
Climate science tells of natural ‘slow feedback mechanisms’ at work within the climate system, which act to amplify global warming. An example is the melting ice poles. As they melt, they begin to reflect less light back into space, causing further warming, which causes further melting, and so on in a vicious cycle. Another is the ‘permafrost’. This is frozen soil which, when thawed by warming temperatures, releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, causing further warming, which then thaws more permafrost, and while these are only two of many, by now you should be getting the picture.
These slow feedback mechanisms are bad bad news. In fact, they are probably one of the most frightening things on this planet, because they threaten to create ‘runaway climate change’- a nightmare scenario in which global warming becomes unstoppable, and temperatures continue to rise exponentially until human life as we know it is all but impossible on earth.
This is a fantastic video about climate feedbacks.
Like I said, these feedbacks are scary. But even more scary is the fact that the temperature projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which currently form the basis of government climate policies all around the world, do not take slow feedbacks into account. They are yet to be adequately understood or modelled. This pretty much like assessing the safety of a house built beside a volcano without taking into account lava.
Not ideal. Especially when, metaphorically speaking, we are living in that house- and our leaders are nailing the exits shut.
There is one feedback mechanism in nature, however, that no scientist will ever be able to measure. It exists, however, and has more bearing on future emissions than possibly any other factor.
It is us- the climate movement. A human feedback.
Already, there is an enormous groundswell of humanity, all over the world, crying out for a responsible, science-based political response to climate change, whose ranks are growing every single day. Each failed international negotiation brings more attention to the issue, and each month of government inaction brings more and more people concerned enough to become politically involved.
As this occurs, just as in the feedbacks outlined above, it facilitates the movement to grow even further, and faster. Not only are there more people spreading the word, there is also much less hesitancy about joining something when there are already greater numbers involved.
Another interesting prospect is the likelihood of the climate feedbacks outlined above amplifying this ‘human feedback’. As ice and permafrost continue to melt, scientists are becoming more and more alarmed, and are increasing their efforts to alert the population to the urgency of climate action, and the inadequacy of current political responses. This increases public concern, which increases the numbers of the movement, and further amplifies its growth.
Will this ‘human feedback’ be enough to solve climate change? Can it outrun the nasty feedbacks? I don’t know. But while we have this movement, and this ray of hope for our future,all that we can do is our utmost to push it forwards.
And we must, no matter how pessimistic future projections become, maintain our hope that the goodwill inherent in us all, combined with our deep-seated instincts to protect our young, will triumph, and will make the ‘most optimistic’ future emissions scenarios of our scientists look like unimaginative nonsense.