Climate breakdown risks leaving “no safe place”

The social contract is an unwritten agreement among all members of a society that they will respect and foster one another’s humanity and provide added safety from chaos and destruction. The Golden Rule is a good measure of how we should honor that implied ethical duty.

In the world we inhabit now, we use industrial systems to improve the human condition, wherever possible, and yet they generate pervasive harm to people powerless to prevent it, with nation states protecting (and funding) that harm. The systems we have created to sustain human wellbeing are devaluing our humanity, and generating chaos and destruction.

This has to change, and fast. 

Unchecked climate pollution is heating the planet, creating dangerous destabilization and impacts that overwhelm not just vulnerable people, but whole towns and regions. As The Economist observes

The most terrible thing about the spectacular scenes of destruction that have played out around the world over the past weeks is that there is no safe place from which to observe them. The ground under the German town of Erftstadt is torn apart like tissue paper by flood waters; Lytton in British Columbia is burned from the map just a day after setting a freakishly high temperature record; cars float like dead fish through the streets-turned-canals in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou. All the world feels at risk, and most of it is.

Right now, Minnesota is living through what the state’s Pollution Control Agency describes as “a long duration and unprecedented significant air quality event”. Smoke from wildfires in Manitoba and Ontario is pushing air quality index (AQI) numbers into the purple (“very unhealthy”) range where even the healthiest person is not safe from potential harm. 

There are now firestorms in the North American west burning an area larger than Rhode Island and which will take weeks to bring under control. 

The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also experiencing prolonged severe drought conditions. One of the most water-fortunate places on Earth is deep in drought, while wildfire smoke blankets the state. This is a hint of what unchecked climate disruption will bring to people everywhere. 

July 29 was Earth Overshoot Day for 2021—the day when human beings across the world have consumed all the Earth can sustainably provide for a year. This day comes earlier each year, because we are exhausting the natural systems that sustain life. There is no technology, no business model, no national strategy in place anywhere, that can replace these planetary systems once they are gone. 

We cannot afford for this to get any worse. 

In an op-ed marking Earth Overshoot Day, Jeremy Coller, Johan Rockström, and Gunhild Stordalen noted the gathering existential threat to food security, human health, and financial systems. The risk of new pandemics is increasing rapidly. They write that: 

We are now so late in correcting course that new investment must shift to climate-smart priorities to maximise return on investment.

Scientific consensus suggests global average surface temperatures have warmed by around 1.2ºC above pre-industrial levels. Hold that number in your mind for a moment. 

In December 2015, 196 nations approved the Paris Agreement—which commits them to work together to limit global heating to “well below 2ºC”, while striving for 1.5ºC. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the report those 196 nations requested, investigating the dangers of global heating above 1.5ºC. The findings were clear. The difference between a 1.5ºC future and a 2ºC future is the difference between a stressed and perilous world (at 1.5ºC) and one that is unaffordably chaotic and dangerous (at 2ºC).

Thousands of people whose job is to negotiate a global strategy for solving climate change sat silent and awe-struck, as they listened to harrowing details of what will happen (what is already happening) to vital ecosystems, watersheds and weather patterns, and to specific regions around the world.

So to meet the mandate of international law, “to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, we must limit global average surface temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. Even if we succeed, dangerous impacts from climate disruption will be worse than they are now. 

Already, climate scientists are seeing warning signs that the Gulf Stream, a key climate-regulating ocean current, could be moving toward collapse. This comes after evidence that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation was already flowing at its weakest level in at least 1,600 years.

Ocean currents act as conveyer belts of warm and cold water, sending heat toward the polar regions and helping tropical areas cool off, thus influencing both weather and climate. Image credit: NOAA.

The Emissions Gap Report, from the UN Environment Programme, finds that the world is on track now to see a human-caused temperature rise of 3ºC—far beyond what is tolerable to human need and resources. The Economist puts the warning this way: 

If temperatures rise by 3°C above pre-industrial levels in the coming decades—as they might even if everyone manages to honour today’s firm pledges—large parts of the tropics risk becoming too hot for outdoor work. Coral reefs and the livelihoods that depend on them will vanish and the Amazon rainforest will become a ghost of itself. Severe harvest failures will be commonplace. Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland will shrink past the point of no return, promising sea rises measured not in millimetres, as today’s are, but in metres.

For reference: it is estimated that 630 million people will be living below flood levels by the end of this century, if emissions continue rising, and 1 billion currently live within 10 meters of today’s high tide levels.

The destruction wrought by climate change will not only affect some marginal species far away from human experience, or remote ecosystems in the polar regions. Stresses on planetary systems are putting the biosphere itself at risk. Extinctions are now happening at one of the fastest rates in the history of life on our planet.

Science, and now direct experience, show climate-related danger is now pervasive.

All value creation is increasingly at risk. In fact, the pool of financial resources for business as usual is shrinking. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero brings more than $70 trillion in financial holdings onto science-based pathways to net-zero emissions. 

There is no serious business case for new climate pollution. Unsustainable food systems are a threat to human health and economic prosperity. The biggest realignment of capital and value creation in history is underway, and will accelerate dramatically. If we are to avoid disaster, everyone needs to identify and mobilize climate-smart, climate-safe ways of working, as soon as possible.

Our always-active implied social contract, given such widespread human-caused disruption of natural systems, requires us to reinvent food systems, energy systems, consumption patterns, our built environment, and the kind of world we dream of living in, so all of them align with the health and wellbeing of people and Nature.

UPDATE, Aug 7, 13:56 CDT

Dixie Fire now largest in California history

The Dixie Fire, named for the road where it started, has exploded in size again and is now the largest in California’s recorded history. The fire has already destroyed historic towns, and CalFire reports more than 13,800 structures are currently in danger. The fire is the largest currently burning in the United States, and is only 21% contained.

The Guardian reports:

California is on track to surpass last year, which had the worst fire season in recent recorded state history.

Since the start of the year, more than 6,000 blazes have destroyed more than 1,260 sq miles, more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020, according to state fire figures.

UPDATE, Aug 9, 16:00 CDT

“Code Red” IPCC report warns increased danger from climate change is baked in

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released the report of Working Group I for the 6th Assessment, detailing the latest consensus scientific findings on dangerous climate disruption. The report, approved by consensus of 195 governments, makes clear: 

  • Human activity is destabilizing Earth’s climate—the scientific evidence is “unequivocal”; 

  • Dangerous global heating of 1.5ºC will arrive by 2040; 

  • Action to end global heating pollution must be swift and pervasive; 

  • Only in the most ambitious climate action scenario can warming be brought back below 1.5ºC, by the end of the century. 


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