Learning How to Say Goodbye to Our Broken Planet

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center / CC BY-NC 2.0

"To put this in perspective: just a two degree rise will leave dozens of the world’s coastal mega-cities flooded"

Truthdig! January 16, 2019

For example, a study published in Nature magazine, also released in October, showed that over the last quarter-century, the oceans have absorbed 60% more heat annually than estimated in the 2014 IPCC report. The study underscored that the globe’s oceans have, in fact, already absorbed 93% of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere, that the climate system’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is far higher than thought and that planetary warming is far more advanced than had previously been grasped.

To give you an idea of how much heat the oceans have absorbed: if that heat had instead gone into the atmosphere, the global temperature would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is today. For those who think that there are still 12 years left to change things, the question posed by Wanless seems painfully apt: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans?

Two weeks after that Nature article came out, a study in Scientific Reports warned that the extinction of animal and plant species thanks to climate change could lead to a “domino effect” that might, in the end, annihilate life on the planet. It suggested that organisms will die out at increasingly rapid rates because they depend on other species that are also on their way out. It’s a process the study calls “co-extinction.” According to its authors, a five to six degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures might be enough to annihilate most of Earth’s living creatures.

To put this in perspective: just a two degree rise will leave dozens of the world’s coastal mega-cities flooded, thanks primarily to melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm. There will be 32 times as many heat waves in India and nearly half a billion more people will suffer water scarcity. At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought and the area burned annually by wildfires in the U.S. will sextuple. These impacts, it’s worth noting, may already be baked into the system, even if every country that signed the Paris climate accord were to fully honor its commitments, which most of them are not currently doing.

At four degrees, global grain yields could drop by half, most likely resulting in annual worldwide food crises (along with far more war, general conflict, and migration than at present).

The International Energy Agency has already shown that maintaining our current fossil-fueled economic system would virtually guarantee a six-degree rise in the Earth’s temperature before 2050. To add insult to injury, a 2017 analysis from oil giants BP and Shell indicated that they expected the planet to be five degrees warmer by mid-century.

In late 2013, I wrote a piece for TomDispatch titled “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?” Even then, it was already clear enough that we were indeed heading off that cliff. More than five years later, a sober reading of the latest climate change science indicates that we are now genuinely in free fall.

The question is no longer whether or not we are going to fail, but how are we going to comport ourselves in the era of failure?

Listening While Saying Goodbye

It’s been estimated that between 150 and 200 plant, insect, bird, and mammal species are already going extinct every day. In other words, during the two and a half years I worked on my book 136,800 species may have gone extinct.

We have a finite amount of time left to coexist with significant parts of the biosphere, including glaciers, coral, and thousands of species of plants, animals, and insects. We’re going to have to learn how to say goodbye to them, part of which should involve doing everything we humanly can to save whatever is left, even knowing that the odds are stacked against us. ...
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