SOURCE: Voice of Action
DATE: December 4, 2020
SNIP: Australia’s top climate scientist says “we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse” of civilisation, which may now be inevitable because 9 of the 15 known global climate tipping points that regulate the state of the planet have been activated.
Australian National University emeritus professor Will Steffen (pictured) told Voice of Action that there was already a chance we have triggered a “global tipping cascade” that would take us to a less habitable “Hothouse Earth” climate, regardless of whether we reduced emissions.
Steffen says it would take 30 years at best (more likely 40-60 years) to transition to net zero emissions, but when it comes to tipping points such as Arctic sea ice we could have already run out of time.
Evidence shows we will also lose control of the tipping points for the Amazon rainforest, the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the Greenland ice sheet in much less time than it’s going to take us to get to net zero emissions, Steffen says.
“Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the ‘reaction time’ needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the ‘intervention time’ left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system (e.g., melting of Arctic sea ice) and the biosphere (e.g., loss of the Great Barrier Reef), we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse,” said Steffen.
“That is, the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.
“The fact that many of the features of the Earth System that are being damaged or lost constitute ‘tipping points’ that could well link to form a ‘tipping cascade’ raises the ultimate question: Have we already lost control of the system? Is collapse now inevitable?”
This is not a unique view – leading Stanford University biologists, who were first to reveal that we are already experiencing the sixth mass extinction on Earth, released new research this week showing species extinctions are accelerating in an unprecedented manner, which may be a tipping point for the collapse of human civilisation.
Also in the past week research emerged showing the world’s major food baskets will experience more extreme droughts than previously forecast, with southern Australia among the worst hit globally.
Steffen used the metaphor of the Titanic in one of his recent talks to describe how we may cross tipping points faster than the time it would take us to react to get our impact on the climate under control.
“If the Titanic realises that it’s in trouble and it has about 5km that it needs to slow and steer the ship, but it’s only 3km away from the iceberg, it’s already doomed,” he said.
Steffen is a global authority on the subject of tipping points, which are prone to sudden shifts if they get pushed hard enough by a changing climate, and could take the trajectory of the system out of human control. Further warming would become self-sustaining due to system feedbacks and their mutual interaction.
Steffen describes it like a row of dominos and his concern is we are already at the point of no return, knocking over the first couple of dominos which could lead to a cascade knocking over the whole row.
Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus and founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, believes if we go much above 2°C we will quickly get to 4°C anyway because of the tipping points and feedbacks, which would spell the end of human civilisation.
Johan Rockström, the head of one of Europe’s leading research institutes, warned in 2019 that in a 4°C-warmer world it would be “difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that … There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world”.
Schellnhuber said in a recent interview that the IPCC report stating we could stay below 1.5°C of warming was “slightly dishonest” because it relies on immense negative emissions (pulling CO2 out of the air) which was not viable at global scale.
“It is becoming abundantly clear that (i) this system is incompatible with a well-functioning Earth System at the planetary level; (ii) this system is eroding human- and societal-well being, even in the wealthiest countries, and (iii) collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of the current system, as prophetically modelled in 1972 in the Limits to Growth work,” Steffen told Voice of Action.
Steffen told Voice of Action that it’s “highly likely that by 2030 we’ll know what pathway we’ve taken”, “the pathway towards sustainability or the current pathway towards likely collapse”.
“I think the ‘fork in the road’ will come in this decade, probably not a single point in time but as a series of events,” said Steffen.
Steffen told Voice of Action he believes collapse “will likely not come as a dramatic global collapse, but rather as overall deterioration in many features of life, with regional collapses occurring here and there”.
“For example, it appears that the USA is entering a long period of decline in many aspect of its society, with a potential for a more rapid collapse in the coming decade,” said Steffen.
Samuel Alexander, a lecturer with the University of Melbourne and research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, told Voice of Action that the coming collapse would not be a single black or white event.
“With respect to civilisations, what is more likely is that we have entered a stage of what JM Greer calls ‘catabolic collapse’ – where we face decades of ongoing crises, as the existing mode of civilisation deteriorates, but then recovers as governments and civil society tries to respond, and fix things, and keep things going for a bit longer,” said Alexander.
A 2019 IMF Working Paper notes a growing agreement between economists and scientists “that risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction”.
It’s not just climate change that is leading us to collapse but also the fact that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.
Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. As Steffen notes, the web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed.
Humans thoroughly dominate the land biosphere making up 32% of all terrestrial biomass followed by around 65% in domesticated animals, leaving less than 3% of vertebrate wildlife.