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Tomgram: Michael Klare, Tipping Points and the Question of Civilizational Survival

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In mid-August, TomDispatch's Michael Klare wrote presciently of the oncoming global oil glut, the way it was driving the price of petroleum into the "energy subbasement," and how such a financial "rout," if extended over the next couple of years, might lead toward a new (and better) world of energy. As it happens, the first good news of the sort Klare was imagining has since come in. In a country where the price of gas at the pump now averages $2.29 a gallon (and in some places has dropped under $1.90), Big Oil has begun cutting back on its devastating plans to extract every imaginable drop of fossil fuel from the planet and burn it. Oil companies have also been laying off employees by the tens of thousands and deep-sixing, at least for now, plans to search for and exploit tar sands and other "tough oil" deposits worldwide.

In that context, as September ended, after a disappointing six weeks of drilling, Royal Dutch Shell cancelled "for the foreseeable future" its search for oil and natural gas in the tempestuous but melting waters of the Alaskan Arctic. This was no small thing and a great victory for an environmental movement that had long fought to put obstacles in the way of Shell's exploration plans. Green-lighted by the Obama administration to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, Shell has over the last nine years sunk more than $7 billion into its Arctic drilling project, so the decision to close up shop was no small thing and offers a tiny ray of hope for what activism can do when reality offers a modest helping hand.

As Klare makes clear today, when it comes to the burning of fossil fuels, reality -- if only we bother to notice it -- is threatening to offer something more like the back of its hand to us on this embattled planet of ours. He offers a look at a future in which humanity, like various increasingly endangered ecosystems including the Arctic, may be approaching a "tipping point." Tom

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Welcome to a New Planet
Climate Change "Tipping Points" and the Fate of the Earth
By Michael T. Klare

Not so long ago, it was science fiction. Now, it's hard science -- and that should frighten us all. The latest reports from the prestigious and sober Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make increasingly hair-raising reading, suggesting that the planet is approaching possible moments of irreversible damage in a fashion and at a speed that had not been anticipated.

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Scientists have long worried that climate change will not continue to advance in a "linear" fashion, with the planet getting a little bit hotter most years. Instead, they fear, humanity could someday experience "non-linear" climate shifts (also known as "singularities" or "tipping points") after which there would be sudden and irreversible change of a catastrophic nature. This was the premise of the 2004 climate-disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. In that movie -- most notable for its vivid scenes of a frozen-over New York City -- melting polar ice causes a disruption in the North Atlantic Current, which in turn triggers a series of catastrophic storms and disasters. At the time of its release, many knowledgeable scientists derided the film's premise, insisting that the confluence of events it portrayed was unlikely or simply impossible.

Fast forward 11 years and the prospect of such calamitous tipping points in the North Atlantic or elsewhere no longer looks improbable. In fact, climate scientists have begun to note early indicators of possible catastrophes.

Take the disruption of the North Atlantic Current, the pivotal event in The Day After Tomorrow. Essentially an extension of the Gulf Stream, that deep-sea current carries relatively warm salty water from the South Atlantic and the Caribbean to the northern reaches of the Atlantic. In the process, it helps keep Europe warmer than it would otherwise be. Once its salty water flows into sub-Arctic areas carried by this prolific stream, it gets colder and heavier, sinks to lower depths, and starts a return trip to warmer climes in the south where the whole process begins again.

So long as this "global conveyor belt" -- known to scientists as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC -- keeps functioning, the Gulf Stream will also continue to bring warmer waters to the eastern United States and Europe. Should it be disrupted, however, the whole system might break down, in which case the Euro-Atlantic climate could turn colder and more storm-prone. Such a disruption might occur if the vast Greenland ice sheet melts in a significant way, as indeed is already beginning to happen today, pouring large quantities of salt-free fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean. Because of its lighter weight, this newly introduced water will remain close to the surface, preventing the submergence of salty water from the south and so effectively shutting down the conveyor belt. Indeed, exactly this process now seems to be underway.

By all accounts, 2015 is likely to wind up as the hottest year on record, with large parts of the world suffering from severe heat waves and wildfires. Despite all this, however, a stretch of the North Atlantic below Iceland and Greenland is experiencing all-time cold temperatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What explains this anomaly? According to scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Pennsylvania State University, among other institutions, the most likely explanation is the arrival in the area of cold water from the Greenland ice sheet that is melting ever more rapidly thanks to climate change. Because this meltwater starts out salt-free, it has remained near the surface and so, as predicted, is slowing the northern advance of warmer water from the North Atlantic Current.

So far, the AMOC has not suffered a dramatic shutdown, but it is slowing, and scientists worry that a rapid increase in Greenland ice melt as the Arctic continues to warm will pour ever more meltwater into the North Atlantic, severely disrupting the conveyor system. That would, indeed, constitute a major tipping point, with severe consequences for Europe and eastern North America. Not only would Europe experience colder temperatures on an otherwise warmer planet, but coastal North America could witness higher sea levels than those predicted from climate change alone because the Gulf Stream tends to pull sea water away from the eastern U.S. and push it toward Europe. If it were to fail, rising sea levels could endanger cities like New York and Boston. Indeed, scientists discovered that just such a slowing of the AMOC helped produce a sea-level rise of four inches from New York to Newfoundland in 2009 and 2010.

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In its 2014 report on the status of global warming, the IPCC indicated that the likelihood of the AMOC collapsing before the end of this century remains relatively low. But some studies suggest that the conveyor system is already 15%-20% below normal with Greenland's melting still in an early stage. Once that process switches into high gear, the potential for the sort of breakdown that was once science fiction starts to look all too real.

Tipping Points on the Horizon

In a 2014 report, "Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability," Working Group II of the IPCC identified three other natural systems already showing early-warning signs of catastrophic tipping points: the Arctic, coral reefs, and the Amazonian forest. All three, the report suggested, could experience massive and irreversible changes with profound implications for human societies.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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