Cool solutions for a hothouse planet

photo of David Suzuki

SCIENCE MATTERS
by David Suzuki

In the midst of worldwide record heat, devastating wildfires, droughts, refugee crises and torrential rains and flooding, some particular disturbing headlines have hit the news: “Planet at risk of heading towards irreversible ‘hothouse’ conditions” the CBC announced. Similar headlines appeared in other media outlets.

As CBC explained, “Scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the University of Copenhagen, Australian National University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said it is likely that, if a critical threshold is crossed, several tipping points would lead to abrupt change.”

The study, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” confirms global warming has accelerated during the current epoch, when humans have become a driving force in geophysical changes to Earth: “The Anthropocene represents the beginning of a very rapid human-driven trajectory of the Earth System away from the glacial-interglacial limit cycle toward new, hotter climatic conditions and a profoundly different biosphere.”

The most troubling part of the research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is its prediction that, beyond a 2 C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels, “intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks in the Earth System” will kick in, accelerating warming and its consequences at an even greater rate than we’re currently experiencing.

Beyond a 2 C increase, tipping elements could be activated, “raising the temperature further to activate other tipping elements in a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures.” That would pose “severe risks for health, economies, political stability (especially for the most climate vulnerable) and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans.”

A well-known feedback loop occurs when polar and glacial ice melt, exposing dark land and water, which absorb more heat than ice and snow, accelerating warming and melting more ice.

The research is profoundly disturbing. But the media coverage often missed or downplayed a crucial element: the solutions the report outlines toward a “stabilized Earth pathway.” This “would require deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, possibly solar radiation management and adaptation to unavoidable impacts of the warming already occurring.”

Because our current socioeconomic system is “based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use,” the study’s authors argue that “changes in demographics, consumption, behaviour, attitudes, education, institutions and socially embedded technologies are all important.”

They also warn, “if a planetary threshold is crossed toward the Hothouse Earth pathway, accessing the Stabilized Earth pathway would become very difficult no matter what actions human societies might take.”

In other words, we have to act now. The choices we make over the next decade will determine our future. We’ve already locked into substantial warming and are seeing the consequences, but it’s not yet too late to change course.

We must insist that politicians represent the interests of citizens rather than corporations. We must stand up to the fossil fuel industry and climate science deniers.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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