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'Faster Than We Thought': An Epitaph for Planet Earth

John Atcheson

Sometime later this Century, a writer will sit down and attempt to document how his or her grandparents’ generation could have all but ignored the greatest disaster humanity has ever faced.

It won’t be a pleasant world she lives in. Cities and countries will be locked in an expensive battle with rapidly rising seas; but after spending trillions of dollars, most of the world’s ports will have been abandoned anyway.

Up to seventy percent of the planet’s species will be wiped out.  Gone. Vanished. Kaput. Songbirds will no longer serenade us.  Butterflies will no longer dazzle us.  The boreal forests – the largest belt of green in the world – will be gone. 

Brutal heat waves will be the norm. Off-the-chart hurricanes and storms will be the rule.  Deserts will have expanded.  Haboobs, giant black blizzards of dust will sweep across vast portions of the US’s high plains and the southwest. The Amazon rainforest will be a shrunken, wizened remnant of a once vast source of life. 

The once bountiful seas will be acidic crypts in which jellyfish and other primitive forms spread in vast sheets across the surface, covering the rotting hulks of the fish we used to eat. 

Agricultural productivity will collapse, famine will be widespread. 

Money for anything other than preventing catastrophe will be scarce.

By 2050, as many as a billion climate refugees will roam the Earth, spreading unrest, poverty, disease and misery. By the century’s end?  Who knows?

As she pieces together this saga, she’ll encounter the usual suspects.

The army of paid politicians who carried the water of the fossil fuel plutocrats.  

A press that, for the most part, failed to cover the most important story in history, and put “balance” above accuracy, context, facts, and reality when they did. 

Economists, who used bizarre abstractions like discounting the future to make it seem like saving the world wasn’t cost-effective.

Environmentalists, who were loath to speak the truth because they didn’t want to be accused of spreading “doom and gloom.” 

Scientists who mumbled warnings under their breath until it was too late because they thought warnings were somehow unseemly.

The IPCC and their infrequent and out-of-date on date-of-issue reports, an organization that, by design, was intended to slow-walk the science and muddle it with misguided neoclassical economic incantations.

But the one thing that will stand out as she attempts to figure out how our generation allowed the entire world to sleep walk into Armageddon will be the annual cavalcade of research and headlines saying “XXX is happening far faster than predicted.”

XXX could be anything related to global warming: the melting of ice sheets or the speed of sea level rise or the rate of warming or the extinction of species or the shift of seasons or the expansion of deserts and the advent of climate refugees and the increase in famine, or the frequency and intensity of draughts and storms – you name it, and there is nearly an annual updating of the rate and pace at which climate-related catastrophe stalks us. 

For example, consider sea level rise.  In the 2007 IPCC report, projections called for oceans to increase by about 18 millimeters by the end of the century, mostly from thermal expansion. Papers coming out in 2007 showed this projection to be obsolete before the ink dried on the report. This year, there is growing consensus that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting much faster than expected, and projections for future sea level increases of 3 meters or more seem to be a plausible forecast – 166 times as great as the IPCC projections made just 5 years ago.

Back to our future historian.  She may well ask how it was we didn’t just step back, spot this trend, and recalibrate how we forecasted future effects of climate change.

Good question. 

One answer may be found in our DNA. Growing evidence suggesting our brains aren't wired  to handle future threats.  We may be hardwired to deal with the present proximate, not the future probable.

If she’s diligent, she’ll also stumble on the effect of positive feedback  mechanisms – what scientists refer to as amplifying feedbacks. 

I wrote about the granddaddy of all these – methane releases from the Arctic -- in 2004, in the Baltimore Sun, in an article entitled Ticking Time Bomb

A little more than a year later, the feedback had begun, as I outlined in another article, Hotter, Faster, Worser

Fast forward to today. Scientists  now believe that a sudden 50Gt methane release from the Arctic is possible – even probable.  This would be equivalent to 40 times the amount of all GHGs released in 2009.

Again, the phrase faster than we thought rings out.

There are at least 12 other major feedbacks which could accelerate global warming beyond even our faster than we thought forecasts. 

Our intrepid future historian may discover one other disturbing fact explaining our inaction.  All our models assumed we’d reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.  Even our worst case scenarios estimated peak atmospheric concentrations of about 750 parts per million based on the conviction that we’d act.  But we are now on course for over 900 ppm by century’s end, and we are approaching a tipping point in which our actions may not matter.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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