Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

"Yes, the prospect of runaway climate change is terrifying. But this dead world is not our destiny. It’s entirely avoidable." (Photo: Getty)

"Yes, the prospect of runaway climate change is terrifying. But this dead world is not our destiny. It’s entirely avoidable." (Photo: Getty)

Terrified By ‘Hothouse Earth’? Don’t Despair — Do Something

This is our actual planet we’re talking about, the only place in the entire universe capable of supporting life as we know it

Eric Holthaus

 by Grist

A team of international researchers released what looks like a blueprint for catastrophe last week. On our current path, they warned, humanity might push the planet into an entirely new, hellish equilibrium, unseen since before the emergence of our species millions of years ago.

This doomsday scenario, which they dubbed “hothouse Earth,” could render large swaths of our planet uninhabitable. Their conclusion: “Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia.”

“Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia.”

But that message got lost in the breathless media coverage over “hothouse Earth” — even though it’s the most important thing each one of us needs to hear at perhaps the most important turning point in our species’ history.

Yes, the prospect of runaway climate change is terrifying. But this dead world is not our destiny. It’s entirely avoidable. As the authors of the paper have argued in response to the coverage, implying otherwise is the same as giving up just as the fight gets tough.

Take a look at the leading sentences from some of the most widely-shared reports (and note the use of “will”):

CNN:

Scientists are warning that a domino effect will kick in if global temperatures rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, leading to “hothouse” conditions and higher sea levels, making some areas on Earth uninhabitable.

The Guardian:

A domino-like cascade of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests could tilt the Earth into a “hothouse” state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be increasingly futile.

This kind of framing is almost perfectly engineered to foster hopelessness. When coverage hinted at optimism, failure seemed built-in.

BBC:

Others are concerned that the authors’ faith in humanity to grasp the serious nature of the problem is misplaced. “Given the evidence of human history, this would seem a naive hope,” said Professor Chris Rapley, from University College London.

The paper paints a terrifying picture. It does a masterful job of compiling the evidence (some of which we’ve known for a long time) that our worst climate fears could come true and persist for millennia if Earth is just slightly more sensitive to greenhouse gases than we think. But that doesn’t change what we already know: We need a world that’s carbon neutral as quickly as possible.

We need a world that’s carbon neutral as quickly as possible.

With every year we wait — and our emissions continue to climb — this challenge becomes more and more difficult.

Seeing this, and seeing the still massive headwinds of state-sanctioned climate denial and the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money, a cynic might say: It’s too hard. Let’s just learn to adapt.

Well, the authors say, it will be existentially difficult to adapt to a world with runaway permafrost melt, global forest die-offs, rapid sea level rise, and supercharged extreme weather. These aren’t just tipping points. The authors call them tipping cascades. That kind of world will make the current version of Earth look like paradise.

But the bottom line is, we have no choice but to press on through this fear. This is our actual planet we’re talking about, the only place in the entire universe capable of supporting life as we know it.

The next decade will almost surely decide our fate. That should empower us. It means every act has meaning; we have the chance to save the world as we know it every single day. In this scenario we now find ourselves in, radical, disruptive climate action is the only course of action that makes sense.

To their credit, climate scientists of all stripes, including the paper’s authors, have been pushing back hard on the media’s framing of this research.

In a tweet, Diana Liverman, a climate scientist and co-author of the paper called out the media directly:

“Clearly people aren’t reading the paper we wrote where our point is exactly that Hothouse Earth is not our destiny and that social system feedbacks are starting to move us to the Stable Earth. But media goes for worst case and makes it sound certain.”

Liverman and the other authors anticipated a defeatist response and published a multi-page document of possible solutions which, when combined with other research on the most important actions people can take, gives a blueprint for hope, not despair.

We need “a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System.”

In the paper, the authors sum this up into a single battle cry. To prevent a hothouse Earth, they say, we need “a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System.”

That sounds a lot like the message of a burgeoning global movement targeting the root causes of climate change. That scientists are increasingly comfortable with using language like this — not mincing words anymore — is nothing if not hopeful.

Building a world that works for everyone is exactly what we should refocus our efforts on doing when we read scientific studies that scare the hell out of us. As the researchers point out, there’s still time that we have to take advantage of. That’s why it’s so damn important to act boldly. Now.


© 2021 Grist.org
Eric Holthaus

Eric Holthaus

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist and staff writer for Grist, covering climate science, policy, and solutions. He has previously written for the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and a variety of other publications.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Greenhouse Gases Trapped Nearly 50% More Heat Last Year Than in 1990: NOAA

"Getting hot in here," said one climate campaigner. "Gotta get congressmen and senators to do more midday outdoor events in their dark suits."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Perverse' Supreme Court Ruling 'Effectively Ensures That Innocent People Will Remain Imprisoned'

"This is radical. This is horrifying. This is extremely scary," said one public defender.

Jessica Corbett ·


Arizona, West Virginia Residents Risk Arrest to Demand End to Filibuster

"Our democracy is on life support," said campaigners. "There's no time to ask nicely."

Julia Conley ·


Campaign Launches 'Summer of Action' to Protect Medicare From Stealth Privatization

Medicare "is under threat today from the constant efforts of private insurance companies and for-profit investors who want to privatize it and turn it into yet another shameful opportunity to make money," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Kenny Stancil ·


Florida Student's Graduation Speech About Curly Hair Highlights Cruelty of 'Don't Say Gay' Law

Having to use a euphemism to discuss his identity "was a really dehumanizing decision," said Zander Moricz. "I just had to be clever about it—but I shouldn't have had to be."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo