The Overshoot Dilemma

Image by Kelly Sikkema.

Climate change and global warming, which is the largest part of the ‘change’ aspect, is suddenly getting the kind of special treatment that’s reserved for national tragedies. A special commission has been established to investigate a way out of the biggest human-caused failure of all time.

It wouldn’t be quite so disturbing if it were not for the fact that the truth about the widespread danger from fossil fuels has been in the public domain for decades now.

People in the highest positions academically, politically, and the business community have known for decades that CO2 emissions will eventually overheat the planet. But, none of them had the balls to stand up to the fossil fuel companies and rightwing hacks and the despicable denier core of charlatans. They are as guilty as the denier hacks.

Whenever society at large is under extraordinary threat, aka existential threat, special commissions composed of prominent members of the establishment pop up to study the situation and make recommendations. Only recently the 911 Commission (2002) and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (2009) are two prime examples. These special commissions have a common genesis of responding to a threat to the established way of life.

Hooray (maybe, maybe not, but at any rate sorrowfully) climate change has now joined the ranks. It’s officially designated an extraordinary threat to society. As of May 2022 the Climate Overshoot Commission has been established. Its first meeting is June 2022 at Lake Como, Italy.

The commission is composed of a wide swath of pristine leadership personalities, including past presidents, prime ministers, ministers of foreign affairs, professors, former heads of international organizations like the WTO. Indeed, they are a shiny brass group with credentials up the wazoo.

The commission will consider the risks attendant to overshooting 1.5°C and the range of response options for addressing overshoot. Based upon their mission statement, 1.5°C overshoot is preordained.

But honestly, isn’t this commission comparable to creating a commission to study what to do after the dam breaks?

Why study an overshoot of 1.5C? Ecosystems throughout the planet are already nearly overshooting or maybe actually overshooting in some cases at only 1.2C above baseline. By the time 1.5C hits there may not be enough pieces left to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The commission may have the wrong idea and wrong target. If the commission is going to tackle the manifold risks of climate change, they should focus on the root cause, not the after effects. Why should a commission spend time and energy trying to figure out how to handle a totally unprecedented blowup of the climate system, when they should focus on the root cause of global heat and try to stop it before exceeding 1.5C?

Maybe the answer is to pivot to the Special Commission on Removing Fossil Fuel Infrastructure.

Several ecosystems (the Great Barrier Reef) are already in trouble. In that sense the commission may be needlessly spinning its wheels. Moreover, the signs of irreversible collapse is discussed in several key situations described in a recent landmark study: Dana M Bergstrom, et al, Combating Ecosystem Collapse from the Tropics to the Antarctic, Global Change Biology, Vol. 27, issue 9, February 25, 2021.

The Bergstrom study examined 20 ecosystems from Australia’s coral reefs to terrestrial Antarctica and discovered forces of ecosystem collapse driven by global climate change and regional human impacts. Nineteen (19) of the twenty (20) ecosystems are already bordering on irreversible damage.

According to the study group, an estimated 30% of global land area is already degraded, directly affecting nearly one-half of the world’s population. Ecosystems are deteriorating globally. “The endpoint of disruption and degradation of ecosystems is potentially or actually irreversible collapse.” The study found destructive processes at an advanced stage.

“We assessed evidence of collapse in 19 ecosystems (both terrestrial and marine) … extending from northern Australia to coastal Antarctica, from deserts to mountains to rainforests, to freshwater and marine biomes, all of which have equivalents elsewhere in the world,” Ibid.

In other words, their domain of study is a facsimile for what’s happening throughout the planet. In their words: “We assessed evidence of collapse.” The evidence was ubiquitous, wherever they looked. “Our analysis clearly demonstrates the widespread and rapid collapse, and in some cases the irreversible transition rather than gradual change at a regional scale.” (Bergstrom)

Here’s a summation of the Bergstrom study findings: “The 19 ecosystems presented have collapsed or are collapsing according to our four criteria (see Table S1 for details). None has collapsed across the entire distribution, but for all there is evidence of local collapse. Rapid change (months to years) has occurred in several cases (Figure 2c, Table S1). We identified 17 pressure types affecting the 19 ecosystems (Figure 1). The key global climate change presses are changes in temperature (18 ecosystems) and precipitation (15 ecosystems), and key pulses are heatwaves (14 ecosystems), storms (13 ecosystems) and fires (12 ecosystems). In addition, each ecosystem experienced up to 10 (median 6) regional human impact pressures (presses and/or pulses) (see Figure 1). Habitat modification or destruction has occurred in 18 ecosystems, often at substantial levels, but over a relatively small spatial scale in the Antarctic ecosystem. Run-off with associated pollutants was the most common single human impact pulse (6 ecosystems).”

Note that “the key global climate change presses” are all directly or indirectly a result of global warming. Hence, the primary target for any commission should be how to prevent global warming in the first instance, not what to do once it’s exceeded a flash point of 1.5C above baseline. Then, it may be too late.

More to the point, we as a society know much more about how to control greenhouse gas emissions at the source than we know about mitigation of ecosystem damage once 1.5C is breached or metaphorically after the dam bursts.

Where’s the commission to get off fossil fuels?

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at