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Global Warming and the Planetary Boundary

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Climate change is on a fast track, a surprisingly fast, very fast track. As such, it’s entirely possible that humanity may be facing the shock of a lifetime, caught off-guard, blindsided by a crumbling ecosystem, spawning tens of thousands of ISIS-like fighters formed into competing gangs struggling for survival.

Furthermore, what if the biosphere is already under stress by “planetary boundary” or the capacity of the planet to support life? Then what?

As for global warming, a non-consensus school of scientific thought, consisting of a small minority of scientists, believes the ecosystem is at risk of collapse within current lifetime. These scientists do not pull punches. Rather, they tell it like it is, as they see it.

Whereas, most leading climate scientists are not willing to honestly expose their greatest fears, as discovered by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! while at COP21 in Paris this past December, interviewing one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson of Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, who said: “So far we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.”

Straightaway, we know from one of the world’s leading authorities that climate scientists are censoring their own research. They are low-balling. Consider this; imagine trying to get a “research grant or private funding” for work that exposes the dastardly truth. That’s the quickest way forward to an unemployment line of sour-faced scientists.

At Paris COP21 just a few months ago, it was agreed by almost every nation on the planet to take defensive action, on a voluntary basis, to limit global warming to under 2C post industrialization, preferably under 1.5C. Mainstream thinking says anything over that level will cause all sorts of problems in the biosphere from flooding of major cities to massive droughts, starvation, leading to a splintering of society into tribal warfare, similar to what’s now evolving along the southern Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East.

However, what if the climate is not onside with the mathematical models of the consensus? Maybe 2C is already cooked into the books yet only a blip on the way to 3C, 4C much sooner than the consensus believes. Already, the Arctic is in ultra rapid turbo-charged meltdown phase, which could fry humanity to a crisp, burned alive, as gigatons of methane are released from under the ice. However, this occurrence is controversial within the scientific community. Nobody knows what’ll happen when!

Still, if true, then COP21 should be ringing big resounding alarm bells all across the land and pressing siren buttons, all hands on deck, but that would scare the public, possibly causing panic, maybe triggering a nasty revolt by the populace against fossil fuel interests and neoliberal interests that sacrifice a sustainable ecosystem for profits, only profits. Who knows? It could get bloody.

“Temperatures look set to soar over the coming months over the Northern Hemisphere at large and over the Arctic in particular,” Record Arctic Warming, Arctic News, April 5, 2016.

And, very disconcertingly “from January 13, 2016, to April 11, 2016, most of the Arctic Ocean was more than 6°C (10.8°F) warmer than 1981-2011.” As goes the Arctic sea ice, so goes an out-of-control bonkers climate that is deathly dangerous.

“The Arctic is in crisis,” claims Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Arctic Sea Ice Sets Wintertime Record Low Thanks to Global Warming, USA Today, March 26, 2016.

If the Arctic is “in crisis,” then, by definition, the planet is in crisis. Maybe the ole clarion bell in the public square should be ringing like crazy.

Skyrocketing Land-Only Temperatures

“The temperature rise is even higher when looking at measurements from Land-only stations. The image … compares the March 2016 temperature with the period from 1890-1910 (250 km smoothing), showing a Land-only anomaly of 2.42°C or 4.36°F,” Monthly Mean Global Surface Temperature, Arctic News, April 16, 2016.

Forget COP21, it may already be passé.

According to Arctic News, April 16th: By 2026, temperatures will be 3.9°C on the low side or 10.4°C on the high side warmer “on land” since the start of the industrial revolution. Which adds up to a disaster on the low end. On the high end, a gigantic worse disaster, or total ecosystem collapse hits hard, as tribes of fearful humans huddle around the North and South Poles, scaling coconut trees to obtain sustenance.

Global Warming & Planetary Boundary Collision Dead Ahead

Not only is global warming contributing to the prospect of ecological collapse, a study by 22 biologists and ecologists claims the world is close to a “state shift” that will trigger ecological collapse. Here’s the issue: Already >43% of ice-free land has been converted for crops, livestock, and cities. But, the study shows that when more than 50% of landscape is lost, i.e., the Planetary Boundary, the ecological web can collapse.

“We summarize evidence that such planetary-scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” Anthony D. Barnosky, et al, Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere, Nature 486, 52-58 June 2012.

According to James H. Brown, a microecologist at the University of New Mexico and co-author of the study, this “scares the hell out of me. We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy… it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to bust,” Justin Gillis, Are We Nearing a Planetary Boundary? NY Times, June 6, 2012.

For example, the average person in an industrialized country requires the equivalent of 2-5 hectares (5-12 acres) of productive land to sustain material consumption. This is derived via resource flows of goods and services. However, there are only 1.5 hectares per capita of ecologically productive land on the planet (World Resources Institute).

Ipso facto, there is a sustainability gap, which helps to explain why natural capital depletion is ongoing rather than a sustainable flow of natural capital. In fact, rough calculations “suggest the ecological footprint of all industrial nations, representing less than 20% of the world population, is larger than the available ecologically productive land on Earth (Mathis Wackernagel and William E. Rees, Perceptual and Structural Barriers to Investing in Natural Capital: Economics from an Ecological Footprint Perspective, Ecological Economics 20, May 28, 1996).

In other words, 20% of the world’s population consumes 100% of the ecological productive capital of the planet, beyond which natural capital goes into deficit, helping to clarify why 2.7 billion people live on $2 per day (World Bank) and will stay that way.

“It is simply not possible… for everybody in the world to consume at current industrial levels without risking irreversible resource depletion and ecosphere collapse” (Wackernagel).

In consequence, an impending clash of global warming and the planetary boundary, as it exceeds 50%, may very well trigger unimaginable colossal ecological collapse similar to an asteroid collision, loss of food resources, massive drought, brutal global warfare on a scale beyond imagination. Humankind reverts to Neanderthal survival techniques, which were able to adapt to and survive in some of the harshest environments known to humans 28,000-300,000 years ago.

All of which is a poke in the eye at political rhetoric that mesmerizes audiences with assurances of anything other than the brutal truth that the prevailing tenure of political, economic neoliberalism, which revolves around profits, is screwing things up. Maybe there’s a better way. 

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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