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The Climate Change Threat in a Small Nutshell (2)

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One very important, if only very infrequently enunciated, reason for the failure of many to take the threat of climate change seriously, is the assumption that when things really start to get nasty, we'll be able to do something about it.

We'll ramp up our efforts in several fields simultaneously--alternative energy sources, emissions-free transportation solutions, land-use initiatives. Often comparisons to the effort made by the US in WWII are invoked. We'll get our scientists and engineers working overtime. Maybe we'll finally crack that fusion nut.

In any case, somehow, it is hoped, we'll muddle through. As George Monbiot puts it, "...I have somehow also entertained a chiliastic belief in salvation [from climate change]. At the back of my mind, at the back, I think, of the mind of everyone who has considered these matters, is the notion that, however real our predicament and the difficulties of escaping from it seem, they cannot possibly be true. Someone or something will save us. A faith in miracles grades seamlessly into excuses for inaction." (Heat, p. 206)

Unfortunately, we are not faced merely with monotonic climate change simpliciter. We are also faced with a number of positive feedback loops, aka tipping points. Think slippery slopes becoming increasingly slippier, bearing us inexorably toward and then off a cliff. A very high cliff.

The nature of many of these tipping points has been explained with admirable clarity and in horrific detail by Fred Pearce in With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. The single most fearsome tipping point may be that associated with frozen methane, many millions of tons of which lie on ocean floors, in tundra, at the bottoms of high-latitude lakes, and so on, and which is beginning to melt and bubble up into the atmosphere. The methane thus released is a very powerful greenhouse gas which itself causes more warming, in a positive feedback loop to accelerate the process.

Estimates of the amount of frozen methane vary, but are generally larger, in terms of their effect on climate, than all the greenhouse gases mankind has emitted thus far.

The whole point, then, is simply this: tipping points are like tripwires which can set off slow-acting but nonetheless fatal bombs.

We may well pass a tipping point without knowing it. Indeed, conceivably we already have.

In any event, it is likely (how likely, cannot be said with any precision) that we will not be warned when we approach a climate tripwire.

We will have to be smarter than that. We will have to act before we have a climate-induced catastrophe sufficiently dramatic to convince anyone still needing convincing.



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