What do we need to do to avoid hothouse Earth?

June 13, 2019

The latest report from Melbourne-based independent think-tank Breakthrough — National Centre for Climate Restoration, Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, provides graphic descriptions of what lies ahead if we do not immediately take action.

It is endorsed by retired admiral and former chief of the Australian Defence Force Chris Barrie who said in its forward, “A doomsday future is not inevitable! But without immediate drastic action our prospects are poor. We must act collectively.”

According to Barrie, “Our intelligence and security services have a vital role to play, and a fiduciary responsibility, in accepting this existential climate threat, and the need for a fundamentally different approach to its risk management, as central to their considerations and their advice to government. The implications far outweigh conventional geopolitical threats.”

David Spratt, author of Climate Code Red, and former fossil fuel executive Ian Dunlop, then describe the phenomenon of scientific reticence and how climate scientists’ “erring on the side of least drama” has meant that “scientific predictions in the climate-change arena [have] consistently underestimated the severity of what actually transpired”.

The report then presents a “risk matrix of warming”, something like a safe work method statement for a high risk workplace, to map the likelihood of reaching a certain amount of warming under existing policy settings (in particular, the Paris agreement) against the type of impacts that can be expected with each degree of warming.

The take-home message is that the risk of reaching “catastrophic” outcomes rises exponentially beyond 1.5°C of warming.

The centrepiece of the report, however, is the “scenario approach”, which outlines what is likely to happen in 2050 if we do not take immediate and drastic action to mitigate climate change now.

Warming of 1.6°C

This is how the report puts it: “2020–2030: Policy-makers fail to act on evidence that the current Paris Agreement path — in which global human-caused greenhouse emissions do not peak until 2030 — will lock in at least 3°C of warming … As projected by Xu and Ramanathan by 2030 carbon dioxide levels have reached 437 parts per million — which is unprecedented in the last 20 million years — and warming reaches 1.6°C.

“While sea levels have risen 0.5 metres by 2050, the increase may be 2–3 metres by 2100, and it is understood from historical analogues that seas may eventually rise by more than 25 metres. Thirty-five per cent of the global land area, and 55 per cent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability.

“Some poorer nations and regions, which lack capacity to provide artificially-cooled environments for their populations, become unviable. Deadly heat conditions persist for more than 100 days per year in West Africa, tropical South America, the Middle East and South-East Asia, contributing to more than a billion people being displaced from the tropical zone. Water availability decreases sharply in the most affected regions at lower latitudes (dry tropics and subtropics), affecting about two billion people worldwide. Agriculture becomes nonviable in the dry subtropics.

“The summer monsoons in China have failed, and water flows into the great rivers of Asia are severely reduced by the loss of more than one-third of the Himalayan ice sheet. Glacial loss reaches 70 per cent in the Andes, and rainfall in Mexico and Central America falls by half. Semi-permanent El Nino conditions prevail. Aridification emerges over more than 30 per cent of the world’s land surface. Desertification is severe in southern Africa, the southern Mediterranean, west Asia, the Middle East, inland Australia and across the south-western United States.”

Pliocene and Eocene analogy

The report also quotes KD Burke who, with five other authors, released a report in December, Pliocene and Eocene provide best analogs for near-future climates, in which they warn that “only a drastic, economy-wide makeover within the next decade, consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, would avoid the transition of the Earth System to the Pliocene-like conditions that prevailed 3–3.3 million years ago, when temperatures were ~3°C hotter and sea levels 25 metres higher.”

The Pliocene and Eocene report projects that, by the year 2200, a “hothouse Earth” warming trajectory would take the Earth’s climate back to conditions most closely resembling the Early Eocene, around 50 million years ago.

They argue that by taking vast amounts of carbon deposits, which were formed tens or hundreds of millions of years ago, and putting them back into the atmosphere, the climate is, in a sense, being “rewound” in time back to similar conditions.

Thus, descriptions of these earlier versions of the blue planet that palaeontologists have been able to reconstruct can tell us where we are headed if we blow our last roll of the dice to stop the “hothouse Earth” scenario. Sea levels during the Eocene were 100–150 metres higher than today.

Global emergency mobilisation

Breakthrough’s report concludes that “a massive global mobilisation of resources is needed in the coming decade to build a zero-emissions industrial system and set in train the restoration of a safe climate. This would be akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilisation”.

It suggests “the national security sector has unrivalled experience and capacity in such mobilisation, and can play a unique role in its development and implementation, as well as educating policymakers of the existential security risks in failing to do so.”

Sections of the climate movement who are critical of the “climate emergency” idea and the need to harness resources akin to wartime mobilisation would likely be made uncomfortable by the report’s endorsement of the involvement of the national security sector.  

Right now, though, the authoritarianism we are confronted with is coming from those in power who are determined to preserve the status quo for the fossil fuel corporations. They are the same people who have been steadily undermining our civil liberties and media independence and whose political leanings are to the right and far-right.

The report’s inclusion of the national security sector is both political and practical. To seriously challenge the powerful fossil fuel corporations’ “right” to cook the planet for cash it will be necessary to form alliances including, possibly, with the armed forces. Defending governments which are taking radical measures to cut emissions against a fascist counterrevolution will be vital.

It is in everyone’s interest — including those in the military who don’t want conflict for conflict’s sake — to avoid the hothouse Earth scenario described in the report.

This concise 10-page report paints a picture of the consequences, 30 years from now, of not taking radical action to cut emissions over the next decade. This represents a fresh and useful way to frame the climate change debate. Rather than get bogged down in graphs and figures, Breakthrough focus primarily on cause and effect, and show why it is not possible to “kick the can down the road” any longer.

Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach is essential reading for everyone who wants a safe climate.

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