“There are no more than two or three crimes to commit in the world,’ said Curval. ‘Once those are done there is no more to be said – what remains is inferior and one no longer feels a thing. How many times, good God, have I not wished it were possible to attack the sun, to deprive the universe of it, or to use it to set the world ablaze – those would be crimes indeed, and not the little excesses in which we indulge, which do no more than metamorphose, in the course of a year, a dozen creatures into clods of earth.”The Marquis de Sade
The depraved and misanthropic protagonists of 120 Days of Sodom spend their time inflicting evils which they know are of a vanishing significance relative to the whole of nature. Their whole lives are essentially pointless, and try as they might to conceal this through “libertinage”, they cannot help but be gripped by bouts of rage and despair at their own inadequacy. What they couldn’t imagine was that human beings could ever become powerful enough to pose a threat to non-human nature, but look at us now. Still, that we have entered the Anthropocene, the age in which humanity has become the dominant influence on the Earth system, does not necessarily imply that we are also about to enter the age of the Neoleviathans.
Really, though, it’s quite simple. You take an exhausted and crumbling international order and subject it to unbearable stress. The resulting chaos produces, by necessity, the Neoleviathans. It’s hardly rocket science, and yet, I might expect a hint of scepticism from many of my readers, hinging on the following question: ‘Why, exactly, are we heading for collapse? What reason is there to expect one? Is this not so much tinfoil hat-wearing, conspiracy theorising fearmongering?’
It’s a reasonable question. The answer is ‘No.’
Here’s what I can’t do. I can’t prove to you that we are, objectively, heading towards a violent civilisational collapse which will lead either to the rise of the Neoleviathans or to the total disappearance of civilised life. Nor can I prove to you that the industrial system, enthralled to the demands of capital, won’t suddenly change course and implement worldwide infrastructural changes that will restore the biosphere and prevent disaster. What I can do is give you a relatively brief survey of some of the relevant literature and walk you through my reasoning, approaching asymptotically towards the limit at which it becomes as obvious to you as it is to me which way the winds are blowing.1You are welcome, at whatever point I’ve convinced you, to skip the remainder of the chapter. If, by the end, you still aren’t convinced, I don’t know what to tell you.
2019 was either the second or third warmest year on record depending on the dataset used,2‘State of the Climate in 2019’, ed. by J Blunden and D S Arndt, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 101.8 (2020), S1–429 (p. S17) <https://doi.org/10.1175/2020BAMSStateoftheClimate.1>. with either the most warm days on record (dating back to 1950) or close behind 2016.3Blunden and Arndt, p. S28. In the same year, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg all set national temperature records over 40C, and the WMO declared July tied for the hottest month on record globally.4Blunden and Arndt, p. S29. This is all likely attributable to a combination of natural variability and the upward trend in temperatures.5Blunden and Arndt, p. S25. 84% of the ocean surface experienced a marine heatwave.6Blunden and Arndt, p. S30. “[L]ake and permafrost temperatures have increased; glaciers have continued to lose mass, becoming thinner for the 32nd consecutive year, with the majority also becoming shorter during 2019. The period during which Northern Hemisphere (NH) lakes were covered in ice was seven days shorter than the 1981–2010 long-term average, based on in situ phenological records. There were fewer cool extremes and more warm extremes on land; regions including Europe, Japan, Pakistan, and India all experienced heat waves.”7Blunden and Arndt, p. S17.
By identifying distinctive responses by the Earth system to astronomical forcing8The changes to climate driven by the shape of the Earth’s orbit, the position of the Earth on that orbit, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis. See: Lucas J. Lourens, ‘The Variation of the Earth’s Movements (Orbital, Tilt and Precession)’, in Climate Change (Elsevier, 2016), pp. 399–418 <https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-444-63524-2.00025-7>. depending on greenhouse gas concentrations and polar ice sheet volume, four distinct climate states can be defined: Hothouse, Warmhouse, Coolhouse, and Icehouse.9Thomas Westerhold and others, ‘An Astronomically Dated Record of Earth’s Climate and Its Predictability over the Last 66 Million Years’, Science, 369.6509 (2020), 1383–87 <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aba6853>. Within each distinct state, climate variability due to astronomical forcing is relatively small compared with the huge changes associated with transitions from one state to another, where the climate becomes unstable. Current atmospheric CO2 concentrations suggest the Earth system is comparable to the Miocene Coolhouse, but the researchers claim that if CO2 emissions continue “unmitigated” until 2100, “Earth’s climate system will be moved abruptly from the Icehouse into the Warmhouse or even Hothouse climate state,” characterised by temperatures at least 5°C warmer than they are today.
Caveat: This assumes the RCP8.5 scenario will prevail—a scenario which was not originally intended to become the definitive “business-as-usual” scenario.10‘Explainer: The High-Emissions “RCP8.5” Global Warming Scenario’ <https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-the-high-emissions-rcp8-5-global-warming-scenario> [accessed 13 September 2020]. In other words, if CO2 emissions continue unmitigated, it is not necessarily the case that we will end up with the RCP8.5 scenario in 2100. However, there is good reason to take the RCP8.5 scenario seriously and to treat it as a reasonable possibility. Cumulative emissions since 2005 have thus far tracked the RCP8.5 scenario—its projections have been agreed with the actual emissions to within 1% accuracy. Projecting into the mid-century shows that the emissions expected from both a business-as-usual and a business-as-expected scenario sit between that expected in the RCP8.5 scenario and the RCP4.5 scenario—why, then, should we use RCP8.5 as our preferred near-term modelling tool? “[T]he issue of missing carbon cycle climate feedbacks is critical. These missing biotic feedbacks include permafrost thaw, changes in soil carbon dynamics, changes to forest fire frequency and severity, and spread of pests. . . . This strongly suggests that while RCP8.5 and the IEA scenarios will not—indeed, cannot—be exact analogs, choosing RCP4.5 would be a definitive underestimate of physical climate risk.”11Christopher R. Schwalm, Spencer Glendon, and Philip B. Duffy, ‘RCP8.5 Tracks Cumulative CO 2 Emissions’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117.33 (2020), 19656–57 (p. 2) <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2007117117>.
Moving out to the end-of-century, the overlap between the warming outcomes expected in RCP8.5 and the warming outcomes expected under policies in place is “modest”, but there is at least a 35% chance—a considerable possibility—that emissions concentrations will exceed those assumed in the RCP8.5 scenario.12P. Christensen, K. Gillingham, and W. Nordhaus, ‘Uncertainty in Forecasts of Long-Run Economic Growth’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115.21 (2018), 5409–14 <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1713628115>. “Indeed, if RCP8.5 did not exist, we’d have to create it.”13Schwalm, Glendon, and Duffy, p. 2.
Let’s talk about Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs). These are a set of five scenarios describing different socioeconomic developments, exploring how broad societal trends (inequality, regional rivalry, fossil-fuel policies, etc.) affect greenhouse gas emissions and, consequently, the state of the climate system. By bringing socioeconomic narratives into the analysis of emissions, researchers hope to be able to describe plausible scenarios under which climate change could be mitigated or adapted to.14Keywan Riahi and others, ‘The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and Their Energy, Land Use, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Implications: An Overview’, Global Environmental Change, 42 (2017), 153–68 (p. 153) <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.05.009>. The five narratives reflect the uncertainty in what we can expect from the globally-integrated economic system, where different rates of population growth, technological progress, and economic growth can all lead to vastly different emissions and warming outcomes.
- SSP1: “Sustainability – Taking the Green Road”—The whole world commits to a profound economic and socio-political shift, investing in education and health, reducing inequality intra- and internationally, embracing low-growth and low-resource intensity consumption, and collectively committing to preservation of the global commons and sustainable development goals.
- SSP2: “Middle of the Road”—Socioeconomically speaking, things don’t get worse, but they don’t get better either. The world carries on as it has done historically. Inequality persists, and perfunctory efforts by global and national institutions produce slow progress towards sustainable development goals. Environmental systems are degraded but overall intensity of resource and energy use declines. Global population growth is moderate, and challenges to mitigation and adaptation remain.
- SSP3: “Regional Rivalry – A Rocky Road”—Nationalist atavism, domestic concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional rivalries and conflicts leviathanise the situation. Countries focus on their own national and regional security, looking to achieve their own energy and food security goals at the expense of everyone else. Educational and technological development declines, consumption is resource intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen. Populations boom in developing countries.
- SSP4: “Inequality – A Road Divided”—Huge inequality and social stratification emerges within and between countries as unequal investments in different sectors of the economy and disparities in opportunity and political power increase in lock-step with the ever-intensifying ecological crisis. On one hand, you have an internationally-connected society maintaining the knowledge and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and on the other, fragmented patchworks of immiserated and poorly educated states which act as labour pools for the low-tech economy. Social conflict and civil unrest escalate as social cohesion degrades. The middle and high income areas are served well with token environmental gestures, as the rest of the world is exploited or left to rot.
- SSP5: “Fossil-fueled Development – Taking the Highway”—The accelerationist option. The world leans into the anarchy of the capitalist market, exploiting huge amounts of fossil fuels and investing in health, education, and technological progress, enabling intensive consumption and integrating the global economic system further, betting on the innovation unleashed thereby to develop technologies which will manage the social and ecological crises. Technocratic cybernetics and scientifically-enabled godplaying makes use of advanced control techniques and geoengineering to ensure the long-term stability of these new societies.
It is certainly interesting to think about future emissions and warming scenarios in terms of narratives and the interaction between civilisation and the environment. Let’s be blunt and assume that SSPs 1 and 2 are out of the question. We are obviously not going to see the entire world take the green road, and SSP2, which relies on trends not shifting “markedly” from historical patterns (meaning, presumably, from the well-integrated neoliberal order) requires SSP3 to not already be happening for it to be a plausible scenario. But SSP3 is already happening. Despite quiet hopes that 2019’s 33 gigatonnes of CO2 released marks the peak of CO2 emissions, countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, the USA, China, Japan have all adopted climate “targets” which aim for a 4°C (or hotter) world—despite the “historic” Paris Agreement.
There is something fundamentally ridiculous about the eco-optimists who insist on the “possibility” of serious mitigation or international collaboration, as if we don’t live in a world wherein the slightest attempt to seriously discuss climate change mitigation engenders a populist backlash: “Climate denialism on the part of the Trump presidency, which has led to the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, has been accompanied by a heated debate on the Amazon’s fires and by the unexpected rise of France’s “yellow vests” movement, the rise of which was triggered by an increase in diesel fuel taxation. There is thus a deal of resistance to sustainability, at least to the part of it that is associated with mitigation policies.”15Manuel Arias-Maldonado, ‘Sustainability in the Anthropocene: Between Extinction and Populism’, Sustainability, 12.6 (2020), 2538 (p. 4) <https://doi.org/10.3390/su12062538>. With grifters like Trump and Bolsonaro able to command huge amounts of public support as they deny and dismiss warnings about the climate, and with the general sense of grievance that the masses feel when they are lectured by these bleeding heart, cosmopolitan elites who care more about the polar bears than the average, salt of the earth, working class person, etc. etc., you do have to wonder—why exactly do these eggheads think that the average person would ever be willing to make profound sacrifices to their living standards for the sake of some abstract, far away-seeming climate “issue”?
‘Well, they’ll have to realise eventually when things get really bad that they have to make the necessary sacrifices!’—Will they now? Will it happen everywhere it needs to? Will it be sustained? Will climate change-denying populists fail to take control and reverse the gains? There is no room for failure here, no room to trip up or lose time, and yet this sustained altruistic self-sacrifice requires a historic and never-before-seen change in the behaviour of civilisations across the world, which have seen all sorts of disasters and been unable to act sensibly in the face of them. Hell, in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, millions don’t believe it exists at all, and many of those who do cannot be bothered to wear a mask. Indeed, the COVID-19 experience is giving us a taste of just how easy it is to go “off-course”, with the 2020 UN climate summit suspended until late 2021, as major economies prop up their aviation, automotive, and oil and gas industries with huge amounts of stimulus spending.16‘Coronavirus: Tracking How the World’s “Green Recovery” Plans Aim to Cut Emissions’ <https://www.carbonbrief.org/coronavirus-tracking-how-the-worlds-green-recovery-plans-aim-to-cut-emissions> [accessed 14 September 2020]. To the optimist I say, simply, what right do you have to think that anybody will give a shit about the climate, regardless of how bad things get?
Sure, there are eco-nationalists and right-wing green populists who will argue for the conservation and protection of local and national wildlife (see: SSPs 3 and 4) but the idea that you can persuade millions of emotionally calcified westerners to give up their 4×4 and steaks, their air conditioning and smartphones and international flights and their entire way of life for the sake of some poor person they’ll never meet, scraping by on the other side of the planet, is laughable. A 2019 study by adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank, showed that with right-wing populism on the rise in Europe, seven out of 21 parties analysed denied climate change completely.17Stella Schaller and Alexander Carius, Convenient Truths: Mapping Climate Agendas of Right-Wing Populist Parties in Europe (Berlin, 2019). The media has largely been bought by reactionary interests, and Cambridge Analytica showed us just how easy it is with modern technology to manipulate the minds and beliefs of the population via Facebook and other social media websites.
Psychographics, the study of qualitative personal characteristics, is deployed as a political warfare tactic, violently escalating the Schmittian balkanisation of the Political, as the liberal believers in democracy struggle to keep up. In a situation like this, any appeals to the deep rationality or empathy of the average person, unlockable by just the right tenor of communication from the scientifically-minded sectors, can only appear as a pathetic joke.
Tropical forests, where 40% of the world’s vegetation carbon resides,18Karl-Heinz Erb and others, ‘Unexpectedly Large Impact of Forest Management and Grazing on Global Vegetation Biomass.’, Nature., 553.7686 (2018), 73–76. store about as much carbon as has been emitted as a result of fossil fuel use over the last 30 years.19Elizabeth Pennisi, ‘Tropical Forests Store Carbon despite Warming’, Science, 368.6493 (2020), 813–813 <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.368.6493.813>. It’s a shame, then, that they’re on their way out. Peak carbon uptake into intact, undisturbed tropical forests peaked in the 1990s, and by the 2010s, the average tropical forest’s ability to absorb carbon had dropped by a third, as the negative effects of higher temperatures and droughts killed off trees and slowed down growth. “The lost sink capacity in the 2010s compared to the 1990s is 21 billion tonnes carbon dioxide, equivalent to a decade of fossil fuel emissions from the UK, Germany, France and Canada combined. Overall, intact tropical forests removed 17% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions in the 1990s, reduced to just 6% in the 2010s.”20‘Tropical Forests’ Carbon Sink Is Already Rapidly Weakening’ <https://phys.org/news/2020-03-tropical-forests-carbon-rapidly-weakening.html> [accessed 11 September 2020]. Suffice it to say this has troubling “implications”, especially since models haven’t predicted that net carbon uptake into intact tropical forests has already peaked.21Wannes Hubau and others, ‘Asynchronous Carbon Sink Saturation in African and Amazonian Tropical Forests’, Nature, 579.7797 (2020), 80–87 (p. 84) <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2035-0>. “Given that the intact tropical forest carbon sink is set to end sooner than even the most pessimistic climate driven vegetation models predict, our analyses suggest that climate change impacts in the tropics may become more severe than predicted. Furthermore, the carbon balance of intact tropical forests will only stabilize once CO2 concentrations and the climate stabilizes . . . At the international level, given that tropical forests are likely to sequester less carbon in the future than Earth System Models predict, an earlier date by which to reach net zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will be required to meet any given commitment to limit the global heating of Earth.”22Hubau and others, p. 85.
Let’s be clear, though. Only about 20% of tropical forests are intact.23Peter Potapov and others, ‘The Last Frontiers of Wilderness: Tracking Loss of Intact Forest Landscapes from 2000 to 2013’, Science Advances, 3.1 (2017), e1600821 <https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1600821>. Generally, forest covers 30.8% of total land area, down from 32.5% in 1990, representing a net loss the size of Libya.24The State of the World’s Forests 2020 (FAO and UNEP, 2020), p. 10 <https://doi.org/10.4060/ca8642en>. And as bad as deforestation is, simply avoiding further deforestation is not sufficient to mitigate climate change. Forest degradation, which has been historically difficult to detect, can cause forests to become carbon sources rather than carbon sinks—that is, the carbon emitted from the decomposition and burning of trees can outweight the carbon taken in through new tree growth. Deforestation in the Amazon gets a fair bit of attention, but research shows during the 1992-2014 period, in which 308,331 km2 of forest was deforested, 337,427 km2 was degraded.25Eraldo Aparecido Trondoli Matricardi and others, ‘Long-Term Forest Degradation Surpasses Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon’, Science, 369.6509 (2020), 1378–82 (p. 2) <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abb3021>. The Amazon is rapidly headed towards the tipping point at which the whole system flips over irreversibly to a savannah state,26Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, ‘Amazon Tipping Point: Last Chance for Action’, Science Advances (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019), eaba2949 <https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba2949>. leading to huge carbon and biodiversity losses as the forest dries out: “The forest plays a major part in keeping itself alive, by recycling water through trees to generate rainfall. A water molecule travelling across the Amazon can fall as rain up to six times. If drought, fire or deforestation damage too many trees, reduced rainfall leads to less vegetation, and so on in a shrinking cycle.”27Ignacio Amigo, ‘When Will the Amazon Hit a Tipping Point?’, Nature (NLM (Medline), 2020), 505–7 <https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00508-4>. Meanwhile, Brazilian researchers publish their findings anonymously, afraid of retaliation from the Bolsonaro government, which has overseen a sharp increase in deforestation of the Amazon.28‘“Landscape of Fear” Forces Brazilian Rainforest Researchers into Anonymity | Nature Index’ <https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/landscape-of-fear-forces-brazilian-forest-researchers-into-anonymity> [accessed 12 September 2020].
Overall, research suggests that the tropics are actually a net carbon source already, thanks in large part to “reductions in carbon density within standing forests (degradation or disturbance), with the latter accounting for 68.9% of overall losses.”29A. Baccini and others, ‘Tropical Forests Are a Net Carbon Source Based on Aboveground Measurements of Gain and Loss’, Science, 358.6360 (2017), 230–34 <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aam5962>. The ability of tropical forests to store carbon is set to decline further as maximum daytime temperatures rise, especially at the 32.2°C thermal threshold.30Martin J P Sullivan and others, Long-Term Thermal Sensitivity of Earth’s Tropical Forests, pp. 3, 4 <http://science.sciencemag.org/>. Dr. Martin Sullivan: “[I]f we limit global average temperatures to a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels this pushes nearly three-quarters of tropical forests above the heat threshold we identified. Any further increases in temperature will lead to rapid losses of forest carbon.” Professor Beatriz Marimon: “Each degree increase above this 32 degree threshold releases four-times as much carbon dioxide as would have been released below the threshold.”31‘Tropical Forests Can Handle the Heat, up to a Point’ <https://phys.org/news/2020-05-tropical-forests.html> [accessed 12 September 2020].
Global vegetation biomass currently stores just under less than half of the carbon it otherwise would if we were not (ab)-using the land,32Erb and others, p. 4. “At the global scale, the biomass stocks of the currently prevailing vegetation amount to a mean of 450 PgC . . . In contrast, biomass stocks of potential vegetation amount to a mean of 920 PgC . . .” and 42-47% of that difference is attributable to forest management and grazing practices.33Erb and others, p. 4. What this suggests is that “pre-industrial land-use impacts on biomass stocks were considerable,” and not that, as seems to be the common assumption, it was only industrial society that ushered in a time of disharmony between human and non-human nature. Consider, as well, what the difference between actual and potential biomass stocks means for climate-change mitigation: “The difference between actual and potential biomass stocks can be interpreted as the upper boundary of the carbon-sequestration potential of terrestrial vegetation . . . Managing vegetation carbon so that it reaches its current potential would store the equivalent of 50 years of carbon emissions at the current rate of 9 PgC per year, but that is not feasible, because it would mean taking all agricultural land out of production. More plausible potentials are much lower; for example, restoring used forests to 90% of their potential biomass would absorb fossil-fuel emissions for 7–12 years. However, such strategies would entail severe reductions in annual wood harvest volumes, because optimizing forest harvest reduces forest biomass compared to potential biomass stocks. By contrast, widely supported plans to substantially raise the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply, for example, in the context of the so-called bioeconomy, imply a need for increased harvests. From the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions, the challenge for land managers is to maintain or increase biomass productivity while at the same time maintaining or even enhancing biomass stocks.”34Erb and others, pp. 4–5.
Allow me to translate that for you: we’re fucked.
Take a deep breath, because we’re not finished. Far from it. There is far more to discuss than just tropical forests, and one thing you find when you dive down the ecological rabbit hole is that it goes deep, deeper than any one person can cover, such that any choice to move to a different aspect of the topic always involves an arbitrary cut-off. The question is not one of insufficient data, but of total institutional inertia deriving from the very nature of Darwinian life, short-sighted, adapted to ignore and vacillate at the expense of the future—why shouldn’t it be? If you’re a creature who stops to think about burning peatlands, there’s another creature who isn’t bothered about peatlands and is more than happy to tear your throat out while you stand, wide-eyed, like a deer in headlights, as the gravity of the existent glues you to the floor.
Extend this analogy to the political sphere and you’ll begin to get an idea of the problem we’re facing.
“The Arctic is burning like never before—and that’s bad news for climate change.” It’s a strange headline, isn’t it? Read enough of these and you’ll become quite tired of the editors’ attempts to sound neither “alarmist” nor indifferent, resulting in these ghoulishly hesitant headlines. As wildfires rage across the Siberian tundra, the thawing, carbon-rich peatlands catch fire and permanently lose vast amounts of ancient carbon into the atmosphere, fuelling the fires further through positive feedbacks to temperatures—this, in a region which is already warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world.35‘Fire on Ice: Arctic Wildfires Are the New Symptom of a Warming Planet – Science in the News’ <http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/fire-on-ice-arctic-wildfires-are-the-new-symptom-of-a-warming-planet/> [accessed 12 September 2020]. By the end of August 2020, the fires in the Arctic Circle had seen 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.36Alexandra Witze, ‘The Arctic Is Burning like Never before — and That’s Bad News for Climate Change’, Nature, 2020 <https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02568-y>. For comparison, Egypt’s emissions for the entire year of 2017 came to about 259 megatonnes.
As with the tropical forests, further warming can take permafrost peatlands from a net sink to a net source of warming as thaw (and, of course, blazing wildfires) release carbon and nitrogen, accumulated over thousands of years, into the atmosphere—in the 2°C warming scenario, half of preindustrial permafrost peatlands is lost, with radiative forcing37The energy imbalance between energy absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back into space. See: ‘Climate Forcing | NOAA Climate.Gov’ <https://www.climate.gov/maps-data/primer/climate-forcing> [accessed 12 September 2020]. due to the thaw peaking at 2% of that caused by human emissions next century.38Gustaf Hugelius and others, ‘Large Stocks of Peatland Carbon and Nitrogen Are Vulnerable to Permafrost Thaw’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117.34 (2020), 20438–46 <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916387117>.
The Arctic wildfires, which have set emissions records two years in a row now, have been described by Dr Thomas Smith, Assistant Professor of Environmental Geography at LSE as “alarming”, which is quite serious language when it comes to the climate. In an interview with France 24, he had this to say: “The climate is warming in the High Arctic three times faster than the rest of the planet. And what we’ve seen in this year and in 2019 as well are very unusually warm temperatures. So unusually warm that in some places the temperatures have been twenty degrees higher than the long-term average. There’s been a heatwave in Eastern Siberia that started in the late winter and continued through the spring and the summer, and what we’ve seen is unprecedented levels of fire activity in the satellite record. The carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 and 2020 put together were longer than the previous 16 years on record. . . . If the fires are becoming more frequent and more intense, and that is what the evidence suggests, it might be that the forests are not able to regenerate to their full size, or even not to a forest—it may be replaced by a grassland or a shrubland, and if that’s the case, that is a problem because the carbon dioxide released from the fires will stay in the atmosphere.” When asked if there is a regional will to help with reforesting the region, Dr Smith answers that the scale of the problem is difficult to comprehend, and that it is unfeasible for a single nation-state to be able to meaningfully mitigate the factors (that is, the destabilisation of the Earth system) driving the Arctic fires. “What we need to look at is how we can do something about the future fires in this region which can only get worse with the climate change that is locked in for the next few decades. . . . But, ultimately, to avoid larger scales in this region, especially in the forests and the tundra regions to the north, we need to be thinking about mitigating greenhouse gases now and as soon as possible, but the effects of that will only be felt by the middle of this century or even later.”39‘Arctic Wildfires Are “Only Going to Get Worse” – Perspective’ <https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20200910-arctic-wildfires-are-only-going-to-get-worse?ref=tw> [accessed 12 September 2020].
You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions on how likely it is that a global agreement on serious mitigation will be reached. We haven’t seen anything yet.
According to the SWIPA 2017 report, Arctic sea ice could have largely disappeared by the late 2030s. Most of the sea ice in the Arctic is “first year” ice, meaning that it grows in the autumn and winter and melts in the spring and summer. Very little multi-year ice remains. The almost total loss of Arctic sea ice by the late 2030s is not predicted by most climate models.40AMAP, Snow, Water, Ice, Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA), 2017. The SWIPA report concludes: “[T]he Arctic will not return to previous conditions this century under the scenarios considered in the SWIPA 2017 assessment. The near-future Arctic will be a substantially different environment from that of today, and by the end of this century Arctic warming may exceed thresholds for the stability of sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly boreal forests.” In the case of the Greenland ice sheet, there is no longer a question of “may”. More than three decades of satellite data shows that, starting from 2000, glacier retreat has switched the ice sheet over to a new dynamic state of constant, sustained mass loss, with around 500 gigatonnes lost in 2017 and 2018.41Michalea D King and others, ‘Dynamic Ice Loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet Driven by Sustained Glacier Retreat’, Communications Earth & Environment, 1.1 (2020), 1 (p. 2) <https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-020-0001-2>. This new state of sustained loss will persist even if global warming stops today—even, in fact, if the climate gets a bit colder.42King and others, pp. 3, 5.
Since it is generally considered a faux pas to deliver a pessimistic prediction with no silver lining, lead study author Michalea King, when interviewed about these findings, said: “It’s always a positive thing to learn more about glacier environments, because we can only improve our predictions for how rapidly things will change in the future. And that can only help us with adaptation and mitigation strategies. The more we know, the better we can prepare.”43‘Warming Greenland Ice Sheet Passes Point of No Return: Even If the Climate Cools, Study Finds, Glaciers Will Continue to Shrink — ScienceDaily’ <https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200813123550.htm> [accessed 13 September 2020].
The more we know, the better we can prepare.
This is, of course, an utterly empty banality.
We could say more about the Arctic, not least that with the Arctic’s frozen soils thawing, “by the middle to end of the century the permafrost-carbon feedback should be about equivalent to the second strongest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases, which is land use change.”44‘Unexpected Future Boost of Methane Possible from Arctic Permafrost – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet’ <https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2785/unexpected-future-boost-of-methane-possible-from-arctic-permafrost/> [accessed 12 September 2020].—but I am, frankly, tired of talking about ice. In the interests of finishing this chapter this year, I‘ll summarise a few other points of interest:
- Sea-level rises driven by ice sheet melt are currently tracking the worst-case scenario predicted by the IPCC.45Thomas Slater, Anna E. Hogg, and Ruth Mottram, ‘Ice-Sheet Losses Track High-End Sea-Level Rise Projections’, Nature Climate Change, 2020 <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0893-y>. By 2050, these rises could push chronic floods to hit the homes of 300 million people in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, and by the end of the century the homes of 190 million people could be permanently submerged beneath the high tide line—that is, be made uninhabitable.46Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss, ‘New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding’, Nature Communications, 10.1 (2019), 4844 (p. 3) <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z>. By 2030, the annual cost of riverine and coastal flooding is expected to reach $535 billion and $177 billion, respectively, while overexploitation of groundwater causes coastal cities to subside, that is, sink, putting an additional 2 million people at risk of flooding.47‘The Number of People Affected by Floods Will Double Between 2010 and 2030’ <https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/04/aqueduct-floods-investment-green-gray-infrastructure> [accessed 13 September 2020].
- The animal population has declined by more than two-thirds (on average) in 50 years thanks to habitat destruction, agriculture, civilisational expansion and illegal wildlife trade. Wildlife populations in freshwater habitats have declined by 84%.48Living Planet Report 2020: Bending The Curve Of Biodiversity Loss – Summary, 2020. An extensive meta-analysis in April 2020 found terrestrial insect numbers declining by 9% per decade on average,49Roel van Klink and others, ‘Meta-Analysis Reveals Declines in Terrestrial but Increases in Freshwater Insect Abundances’, Science, 368.6489 (2020), 417 LP – 420 <https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aax9931>. with disturbing and obvious implications for our own continued existence on the planet, thanks largely to land-use intensification and destruction of natural habitats. The same analysis found freshwater insect numbers had increased by 15% on average, however, as lead author Dr Roel Van Klink said to the BBC, “They are just a fraction of land based insects, not more than 10%. The area of freshwater we have on earth is just a small percentage of the total land mass, so the numbers of freshwater insects will never be able to compensate for the terrestrial insects.”50‘Nature Crisis: “Insect Apocalypse” More Complicated than Thought – BBC News’ <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52399373> [accessed 14 September 2020]. Thanks to the domestication of livestock, agriculture, and the industrial revolution, human beings and their livestock now account for 96% of mammalian biomass, outweighing all vertebrates combined with the exception of fish.51Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, ‘The Biomass Distribution on Earth’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115.25 (2018), 6506–11 (p. 6508) <https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1711842115>. Indeed, mirabile dictu, as the total biomass of wild mammals has decreased by a factor of 6, the total mass of mammals has increased by a factor of 4!
- Global average atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2019 was 409.8 parts per million (ppm), having shot up from around 280 ppm at the start of the Industrial Revolution,52‘Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide | NOAA Climate.Gov’ <https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide> [accessed 14 September 2020]. and having been around 250 ppm throughout human evolution. With global average CO2 concentrations set to hit the high-600s or even over 900 ppm by the end of the century, it would be quite concerning if our bodies hadn’t evolved to deal with such high concentrations, wouldn’t it? CO2 concentrations in classrooms have peak median values of over 1,000 ppm, and often 2,000 ppm, which can cause inflammation of the lungs, brain, and muscles; bone demineralisation, kidney calcification; physiological stress promoting carcinogenic effects, cellular death and accelerated aging; cognitive effects—headaches, reduced ability to problem-solve and make decisions, disrupted sleep.53Tyler A. Jacobson and others, ‘Direct Human Health Risks of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide’, Nature Sustainability, 2.8 (2019), 691–701 <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0323-1>. We are regularly exposed to such concentrations: Bedrooms can exceed 2,500 ppm when doors and windows are closed and ventilation rates are low, and personal CO2 bubbles in normal office environments can average 1,200 ppm. Domes of CO2 accumulate over cities and urban centres, where atmospheric concentrations can reach 600 ppm now,54The CO2 by a busy London road already regularly exceeds 750 ppm. ‘Indoor Carbon Dioxide Levels Could Be a Health Hazard, Scientists Warn’ <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/08/indoor-carbon-dioxide-levels-could-be-a-health-hazard-scientists-warn> [accessed 14 September 2020]. 700ppm by the mid-century, and over 1,000 ppm in the RCP8.5 scenario. In other words, for much of your life, you are breathing air which is literally poisoning you, and this is only getting worse.
One could say more, about the irreversible decline of coral reefs, with most coral reefs in existence today due to disappear under a 1.5°C scenario,55J.E.N. Veron and others, ‘The Coral Reef Crisis: The Critical Importance Of<350ppm CO2’, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58.10 (2009), 1428–36 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2009.09.009>; Hoegh-Guldberg and others, Impacts of 1.5°C Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Special Report, 2018. about groundwater depletion worsening droughts and harming ecosystems,56Marc F P Bierkens and Yoshihide Wada, ‘Non-Renewable Groundwater Use and Groundwater Depletion: A Review’, Environmental Research Letters, 14.6 (2019), 63002 <https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab1a5f>. with serious contamination, salinisation, and water scarcity challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa, China, India, the US and Australia,57Michael N. Fienen and Muhammad Arshad, ‘The International Scale of the Groundwater Issue’, in Integrated Groundwater Management (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016), pp. 21–48 <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23576-9_2>. dramatically threatening food security,58Mark W. Rosegrant, Claudia Ringler, and Tingju Zhu, ‘Water for Agriculture: Maintaining Food Security under Growing Scarcity’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34.1 (2009), 205–22 <https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.environ.030308.090351>. or about temperatures so hot you sweat to death in the shade, already happening in regions across the globe, decades sooner than models predicted,59Colin Raymond, Tom Matthews, and Radley M. Horton, ‘The Emergence of Heat and Humidity Too Severe for Human Tolerance’, Science Advances, 6.19 (2020), eaaw1838 <https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aaw1838>. and I really could continue for much longer, about the way our system of industrial livestock production acts a breeding ground for infectious diseases (such as COVID-19)60Madhur S. Dhingra and others, ‘Geographical and Historical Patterns in the Emergences of Novel Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5 and H7 Viruses in Poultry’, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5 (2018) <https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2018.00084>; Is the next Pandemic on Our Plate? Our Food System, through the Lens of COVID-19, 2020 <https://www.ciwf.org.uk/news/2020/05/is-the-next-pandemic-on-our-plate>. or how the large-scale deployment of carbon sequestration technologies requires “reliable institutions that incentivise good governance and practice across the globe” but which need to be deployed “in regions with weak institutions”, and/or technologies that are in “an earlier stage of the innovation process” and show “substantially higher costs”,61Wim Carton and others, ‘Negative Emissions and the Long History of Carbon Removal’, WIREs Climate Change, 2020 <https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.671>. about how every mitigation measure is subject to cancellation or obstruction or simple, honest failure, about the locusts or the crop-related greenhouse gas emissions or the coming impacts on crop yields, but I think I’ve made my point.
In the end, something presses on us with an aching sense of morbid amusement. When the eco-optimist says, ‘Oh, it probably won’t be as bad as RCP8.5! We’ll likely end up with only three degrees of warming!’, they make the implicit assumption that a three-degree warmer world is one that anyone wants to live in. But look around you—really look—and tell me, with temperatures not even at 1.5°C, is this a world you want to live in? But of course, you don’t know how to die.
Phew. Well, congratulations if you made it through the whole thing. In the next chapters, we’ll finally be looking at how the ecological meltdown described in this chapter produces the Neoleviathans, and how they may behave.
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