Climate chaos is upon us, becoming more chaotic and more destructive every month. Far too many good people I’ve spoken with think that one person’s actions won’t make a difference. But consider if an eighth of the human population adjusts lifestyle decisions, that comes to a billion people. That would matter big time. But it can only happen one person at a time.
I’ve put together a list of some reasons why change now may avoid thresholds – tipping points, which, once reached, continue to make matters worse no matter what we do. I’ve also listed a few phenomena that will persist even if we stop adding more CO2. Every one of these that we avoid softens the harshness of climate chaos and gives our grandchildren and great grandchildren a better chance for a good life.
1. Most of the Earth’s surface is water. Oceans influence climate immensely.
Water has high thermal mass — the capacity to absorb a large amount of energy with small increase in temperature — relative to other common substances such as soil and rock. At first, that might seem like a good thing under current circumstances. But the immense, vastly deep oceans that cover almost three-quarters of our planet are like a giant heat battery, storing solar energy. Because water is a liquid, under some circumstances it mixes warm surface water with cold deep water, storing energy at great depths. If we stop causing global warming today, that warm water acts as a heat battery, releasing heat back to the atmosphere.
2. Climatologists tell us that at a certain point, warming may cause at least some major ocean currents to stall. I doubt that anyone knows all the consequences of such a major change in global systems, but experts seem reasonably certain that one consequence will be increased warming and drying in Africa — making areas where people now live uninhabitable, literally. Once land is desertified, recovery is very slow, even when the cause of desertification has been eliminated. The new normal resists reversion.
3. Warm water, salt and fresh, evaporates faster than cooling water. Water vapor is one of the three major greenhouse gasses. This is called a positive feedback, where a phenomenon, unnaturally warm water, increases greenhouse gasses, further warming the seas and lakes, evaporating more water. There are a number of potential positive climate feedback possibilities, tipping points, likely more than scientists have been able to anticipate.
4. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the largest contributor to global warming, will persist in the atmosphere for many years, continuing to contribute to climate chaos long after we cease adding more CO2 to the atmosphere than natural processes remove.
5. Oceans have dissolved much of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released when fossil fuels are burned. Warm water cannot hold as much dissolved gas as cooler water. If the oceans become too warm, they will start to send CO2 back into the atmosphere, just as warm soda bubbles when opened. More atmospheric CO2 begets more warming, which will force even more CO2 into the air, on and on, until a new equilibrium is reached.
6. Methane (CH4), an extremely potent greenhouse gas, combines with atmospheric oxygen after several decades. So its warming effect persists only a generation or two. But one CH4 breakdown results in two water molecules and one CO2 molecule, extending effective warming a bit.
7. Forests, our best hope for restoring atmospheric conditions close to those for which we are evolved, are being burned and cut. The taiga, northern hemisphere high-latitude forests, have been burning at rates that will only stop increasing when they are mostly gone. Tropical rainforests have been cut for agriculture, mining, etc. The Amazon rainforest is in the process of becoming dry thorn scrub. Cutting that forest first close to the Atlantic Ocean, where colonists first lived and cities developed, reduces rain inland, destroying remaining uncut forests.
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8. Climate migrants will likely prefer cool well-watered areas such as Vermont. The increased need for housing will result in forest clearing and growing demand for wood. Those effects will reduce forests as carbon storage areas.
9. Climate refugees will probably increase exponentially as conditions worsen. Diminished resources and reduced habitable land will likely aggravate warfare over reduced resources and attempts to migrate. Burning cities and exploding bombs must certainly contribute to warming from the energy directly released, the incidental destruction of trees, and the greenhouse gasses released from munitions.
10. Eight countries are said to have nuclear weapons. As Earth’s climate deteriorates, global strife may greatly increase the likelihood that those bombs will be used. That is especially likely where unstable leaders rule, as in Korea or Russia, or if a small country, such as Israel, is attacked by multiple enemies, overwhelming conventional defenses. The possible release of nuclear weapons might well trigger global nuclear war. Climate chaos beyond calculation would ensue.
Everything we consume results in carbon emissions. I doubt that as many as 1% of the most careful among us can claim otherwise. By doing our best to reduce consumption, especially combustion, we can shorten the duration of a chaotic global climate.
For a detailed examination of the current climate destabilization, I recommend “Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis” by Michael Mann, 2023, Hachette Book Group, New York. It takes readers through our planet’s past from its consolidation following planetary conditions through hothouse and icebox episodes to the present, explaining the forces and interactions that triggered both transitions to warmer or colder conditions planet-wide and how they apply to climate changes today. Some background in science, such as high school physics and chemistry, is helpful in following Mann’s explanations.
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