Forget war, forget politics, and forget the latest celebrity scandal. For, by far, the most important issue facing humanity at this time is accelerating climate change. Without dramatic action now, we are doomed. In fact it may already be too late. (1) Being an optimist, I hope not. However, failing to take effective action now, ensures that very soon, it will irrevocably be too late for humanity.
The Earth's climate constitutes a complex adaptive system. Any change anywhere in such a system feeds back ("feedback") throughout the entire system. Such feedbacks can be either positive, or negative. Positive feedback amplifies the change propagating throughout the system. Negative feedback stabilizes such change.
The sum of all such interactions determines the parameters, the "shape" of the system. These can be described as representing a type of "landscape", often referred to as a fitness landscape. Below is one such. (2)
Figure 1. Model fitness Landscape.
Though vastly more complex, the fitness landscape for Earth's climate, conceptually, behaves identically. In looking at such landscapes, it is essential to recall that the landscape is not fixed. As the values of the various climate system variables change, so too does the landscape change also. In plain English, the "shape" of Earth's climate is not fixed. It morphs according to changes in the positive and negative feedbacks rippling throughout the climate system.
One way to predict future shapes for our climate system is to look at our planet's past. When we do this, things become very alarming. Consider that right now we are emitting greenhouse gasses such as CO2 and methane at tremendous rates. CO2 levels have remained within a range of about 250 to 300 parts per million (ppm) for the past several million years. Now, they are PERMANENTLY above 400 and rising fast. (3) Counting other greenhouse gasses, such as methane, gives us a CO2 equivalency of 485 ppm.
A very similar systemic configuration occurred 252 million years ago: The Permian Extinction. This was the greatest mass extinction of life in Earth's multi-billion year history. The vast majority of all life perished:
"There is evidence for between one to three distinct pulses, or phases, of extinction. There are several proposed mechanisms for the extinctions; the earlier phase was probably due to gradual environmental change, while the latter phase has been argued to be due to a catastrophic event. Suggested mechanisms for the latter include one or more large bolide impact events, massive volcanism, coal or gas fires and explosions from the Siberian Traps,  and a runaway greenhouse effect triggered by sudden release of methane from the sea floor due to methane clathrate dissociation or methane-producing microbes known as methanogens; possible contributing gradual changes include sea-level change, increasing anoxia, increasing aridity, and a shift in ocean circulation driven by climate change." (4)
A period of intense and sustained volcanism erupted and increased global CO2 levels dramatically. This in turn sublimated (transitioned from ice directly to gas) large amounts of previously frozen methane hydrates and clathrates. This in turn caused average global temperatures to shoot up by at least 14 degrees F. As ocean life died, the seas became anoxic--depleted of oxygen. Such an ocean is termed a Canfield ocean. (5) Hydrogen sulfide emitting plankton, which flourish only in the absence of oxygen, flourished in the nearly lifeless oceans. The air filled with toxic hydrogen sulfide. Almost all large lifeforms swimming in the sea, flying through the air, and crawling upon the land perished. If humans had existed at that distant time, they too would have suffered a fast extinction.
That landscape is very similar to the one we are rapidly creating. Our rapid combustion of fossil fuels is recreating the rapid CO2 rise caused at the end of the Permian era, and far more rapidly. What comes next is sudden sublimation of trillions of tons of frozen methane ices in shallow Arctic Ocean waters such as the Lapetev Sea. Methane releases from rapidly melting Arctic permafrost will accelerate this world ending process. This could occur at any moment! (6) (7)
Several years ago a group of alarmed climate scientists declared a planetary emergency and formed the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. (8) This group regularly published articles relating to this emergency at their Arctic News blog. (9)
Cutting to the chase: We are in deep, deep trouble. We are facing, not somewhat warmer weather sometime in the future, but rather swift and merciless self-caused extinction. The question of whether or not it is too late to avert this is, I believe unanswerable right now. In any complex system positive feedbacks which seek to drive the system away from a stable state towards a differing stable state, are always opposed by negative feedbacks which seek to preserve the existing stable state. My case for optimism lies here. Just maybe, we will have enough time, if we make a rapid and total shift away from fossil fuels immediately, to avoid triggering our species extinction.
The problem lies in the reality that fossil fuel corporations possess vast wealth, while the political systems of nations such as the US are oligarchic. The rich determine our energy policies. A rapid shift from fossil fuels would be financially devastating to them. And so, the political system, left to itself, CANNOT and WILL NOT respond to our emergency rationally. If business as usual (BAU) continues, we certainly perish--in THIS century!
Revolutionary change is all that remains. In the US, the election of Bernie Sanders (10) represents our final opportunity for such change within the political system. Beyond that, please carefully investigate the Arctic methane issue for yourselves so that you understand for yourself how very precarious our tenure on this Earth is. A sudden, spontaneous, self-organizing, global Green Revolution is required immediately. Nature does not bargain!
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