Ocean currents in the North Atlantic, with temperature represented by color.

A visualization of ocean currents in the North Atlantic, with orange and yellow representing warmer sea surface temperatures and green and blue colder ones.

(Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center}

Threat of AMOC Collapse Begs Question: If Not Now, Then When? If Not Us, Then Who?

We must use this as a catalyst for massive behavior change and mass forms of protests to force our corrupt officials to rapidly decarbonize the economy by 2030—not 2050.

If the searing heat and record flooding aren’t enough to get us moving toward a net-zero carbon world, then surely waking up to the news that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) could potentially collapse within three years is just the ticket.

So far this summer, extreme heat has killed hundreds of people in Mexico, Greece, Cyprus, Algeria, Spain, Italy, and China. Greece is once again on fire, Nova Scotia is under water, and the hottest day ever recorded on Earth was broken not once, not twice, but three days in a row.

Then on July 26, 2023, people around the world woke up to the worst possible news imaginable: The AMOC is likely to collapse by the middle of the century, with a timescale for collapse between 2025 and 2095. Some people will perhaps not understand the magnitude of what this means, so let’s start at the beginning.

“This study is yet another warning that we should be doing everything in our power to accelerate action to decarbonize the economy and get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”

What is the AMOC? It is a complex system of currents responsible for keeping our climate relatively stable and transporting carbon and nutrients. As warm water near the ocean surface gets pushed northwards, it warms Europe on its way to the North Pole, where it forms sea ice. The salt gets left in the ocean, and, due to its salinity, it becomes dense and then drops to the ocean floor, where it moves south before being pulled back up to the surface to warm up again. This cycle can take around 1,000 years to complete, yet research in 2021 warned that the AMOC “could be close to a critical transition to its weak circulation mode,” where it will slow even further. Fast forward just two years, and the new study is alarming climate scientists even further. So, we know what it is, but what will happen if it collapses?

In short, climate systems all around the world will be altered irreversibly. Research in Nature Climate Change found that surface cooling will begin over the North Atlantic and expand Arctic sea ice before moving into the North Pacific and spreading south toward the tropics. This would result in the Pacific Ocean entering into a permanent La Niña phase, which could cause disastrous monsoons and flooding in the South Pacific and increased drought and heat in North America.

The last time the AMOC came to a near stop was at the end of the last ice age 14,500 years ago, when the Northern Hemisphere was hurled back into a 3,000-year freeze. Europe is projected to witness more frequent winter storms and see more summer heat brought up from the south, with Southern Europe becoming even drier—meaning more wildfires and intense heat waves. As Southern Europe bakes, Northern Europe will see increased precipitation, although it has been found that much of the U.K.’s arable land will rapidly become unproductive. South Asia will experience a weakening of monsoon circulation, and rainfall in Asia and Africa will be affected.

The collapse of the AMOC will impact every continent, and Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, said “This study is yet another warning that we should be doing everything in our power to accelerate action to decarbonize the economy and get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” Does anyone care to imagine what such a combination of climatic changes will do to the world’s agricultural yields, making the world hungrier, poorer, and more politically unstable?

So, we know what the AMOC is and the impact its collapse will have on us, so now what? There will be those who say it’s too late, there will be those who say it’s fake news, and there will be those who are terrified. I fit in to the last group. For the first time in my activist life, I found myself with tears rolling down my cheeks silently this morning. While producing a 520-page book that paints an extremely alarming picture of our future, I remained stoical throughout the research and writing, only to finally succumb to tears a year after its publication.

This is not the time to give up though. Whether the AMOC collapses in 2025 or 2095, we must use this as a catalyst for massive behavior change and mass forms of protests to force our corrupt officials to rapidly decarbonize the economy by 2030—not 2050. A simple change we can all make is to our diets. Research from Oxford University last week found that plant-based diets reduce land use by 75%, so by leaving animals off our plates, we can free up three-quarters of the land we currently use for farming. This will sequester between one third and two thirds of our current emissions every year. It will also provide habitat for wild animals that are becoming extinct largely due to our carnivorous habit. In addition, plant-based diets reduce biodiversity impact by 66%. As a bonus, agricultural water use—currently 70% of total freshwater use—will be halved, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions will be slashed by 75%, and, with agriculture being the second largest greenhouse gas contributor at around 30%, individuals can reduce their emissions by 22.5% just by switching a knife for a fork. As the cherry on the cake, eutrophication will be reduced by 73%, and the pain and suffering of trillions of sentient beings every year will be ended and our oceans will once again flourish.

Those of us who can afford to pay slightly more for our energy can also switch suppliers to a renewable electricity provider. This can reduce your emissions by another 20%, almost getting us to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goal of 45% cuts by 2030. This cannot be the target anymore. We must aim for carbon neutrality by 2030.

This is where people power has to take center stage. We cannot allow the billionaire class and their paid for representatives to destroy our ecosystems for record profits without a fight. We must act like we have three years to save ourselves, because potentially we do. Regardless of the date of collapse of the AMOC, our children deserve better. Their parents and grandparents have failed them. Their teachers have failed them. Their politicians have failed them. We must ask ourselves “If not now, then when? if not us, then who?”

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