Crossing the River Styx: The Endgame

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

- Bob Dylan

Some years ago I had the good fortune to take a four day backpacking trip on the Kennicott glacier in Alaska. Glaciers are truly wondrous geophysical structures and we came upon many amazing features on the trip, crawling into a translucent blue ice cave, crossing cravasses, rock moraines, and skirting small lakes carved into the ice. It is an otherworldly landscape of dazzling scenes and strange unfamiliar forms but I found the moulins particularly beautiful and interesting. A moulin is a circular hole on the surface of the glacier into which melt water flows. It forms a funnel as it drains into a subsurface river or tunnel. On the face of the glacier a moulin can appear as a beautiful blue inwardly curving hole, that one is tempted to peer into, drawn to get a closer look at the center where the color deepens. But it’s a slippery slope that you would approach at your own peril. Crampons and an ice axe could help to keep you safe but beyond a point of no return an unroped observer would slide down the hole and be lost forever.

Kennicott Glacier moulin. Credit: Carol Sepkoski.

I was reminded of glaciers and moulins as I read the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “The Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” In this paper, the starkest warning yet on the perils of global warming, the authors use a three-dimensional graph, referred to as a stability landscape, to illustrate the past and possible future trajectories of conditions on the planet Earth. It shows the pathway that the Earth System—biosphere, ocean, climate and societies—has taken out of the interglacial period of the Holocene epoch and into the hotter climate of today’s Anthropocene, represented by a little Earth rolling over an undulating landscape that turns from blue (cold) to red (hot). The present position of the Earth is pictured on the edge of a deepening red hole. It then shows the divergent paths of future trajectories with a stabilized climate as one possibility, where the Earth sits nestled in a little purple valley, and another where the planet rolls down a steep red moulin into what the authors call “Hothouse Earth.”

Stability Landscape. Credit: PNAS.

Hothouse Earth is likely to be uncontrollable and dangerous to many, particularly if we transition into it in only a century or two, and it poses severe risks for health, economies, political stability and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans.1

To get an idea of what a potential Hothouse Earth would be like, we need only look to the geological record, to past eons when rapid global warming events have occurred, such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and similar warming spikes in the Cretaceous. The last time the average temperature of the Earth was four degrees warmer there were tropical forests at the poles and the sea level was 260 feet higher than today. While lizards and birds may survive under such conditions, complex advanced human civilization would have long since collapsed.

Much of the information presented in the PNAS paper has been accepted knowledge for decades and will be familiar to anyone well versed in the global warming issue. If you are not well versed, shame on you. It’s time to get to work. We are heading down the moulin and if we don’t apply the brakes now, dig in our crampons, lay down on the ice ax and stop the skid the human race will slide down into the hellhole of Hothouse Earth, never to be heard of again.

Everyone should read the paper and become familiar with the concepts it presents.

The authors, Will Steffen and fifteen other leading climate scientists, show how the Earth has passed between a range of temperatures as it moved from glaciation to interglacial periods over the last 130,000 years. We are now experiencing an average global temperature warmer than anytime in that epoch. Steffen et al. remind us that although global warming is often presented as a linear process in which the human production of greenhouse gases causes a direct rise in global temperatures, the Earth System actually functions as as a non-linear complex process involving feedback loops that can amplify the increase in the overall temperature, activating other tipping points in a domino-like cascade leading to changes of state that cannot be reversed on a timescale that is in any way meaningful for contemporary societies.

What Steffen et al. make clear is that once we cross over a certain threshold, the human race will no longer have the ability to reverse the changes that have been set in motion. Crossing that threshold will propel the Earth System into a new, hotter state, with average global temperatures much higher than any seen in the last 1.2 million years and sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. It will take hundreds of thousands of years at least before long-term geophysical processes are able to return the planet to a more livable state.

Complex systems have properties not shared with linear systems, in which events add up chronologically in a mathematical progression. The Earth System, being a complex system, consists of interacting entities within a unified whole. Humanity has often been portrayed as existing outside the natural system of the planet and affecting it as an external force, that is, as part of the environment. The concept of the Anthropocene, however, acknowledges that human society is not only a part of the system but a directing force capable of shifting the system out of its present state. Complex systems exhibit features such as cascading feedback loops leading to thresholds that can force the entire system into a new and radically different state. The Earth System is now approaching such a threshold as feedback loops like melting ice caps, deforestation, permafrost melting and increased emission of CO2 from the warming ocean cascade, amplifying the overall rise in temperature. Fearful scenarios involving a cascade of tipping points that have been hypothesized by environmentalists for a decade or more are now being confirmed.

The academic terminology and prosaic tone of the paper can seem at times to understate the magnitude of the consequences we on the planet are facing. For instance the authors write that “the social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several million of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.” A look at what those conditions actually were in past eras of significantly higher temperatures makes the term “inhospitable” seem a gross understatement.

But while scientific inquiry and reporting require the investigators to acknowledge a certain degree of uncertainty as regards the exact timetables involved in triggering tipping points and crossing the critical threshold, the evidence that we are on the verge of such a threshold is overwhelming. The pathway to avoiding this, they warn, is not likely to exist without human stewardship to create it, and would require a fundamental change in the role of humans on the planet: to one of coordinated, conscious action on the part of humanity as a whole.

The monumental significance of this paper is that leading climate scientists are acknowledging that the action needed to prevent cascading tipping points and irreversible catastrophic global warming will entail radical changes that must be initiated within the next decade or two at the latest. They argue that the threshold of catastrophe could exist at a temperature rise as low as 2°C above the pre-industrial temperature. The goals of the Paris Accords thus represent a limit that would be exceedingly dangerous to breach.

“The door to the Stabilized Earth pathway may be rapidly closing.”2

The response of most people when confronted with the indisputable truth of the climate disaster is naturally to view it from the perspective of their individual life: How can I best protect myself and my family from the natural disasters of the future? Global warming is conceived of as an incremental raising of temperatures, causing unpleasant effects such as increased droughts, wildfires, rising sea level etc. that can be combated (sometime in the future) by reduced carbon emissions through mild policy initiatives like a carbon tax, switching to electric vehicles, and conversion to solar energy, which will ratchet down the global temperature and return the climate to normal. In the meantime sea walls and survival skills will see us through. We will need survival skills, alright, but more important than individual skills will be collective survival skills—social skills for constructing a world-wide society capable of survival in the Anthropocene.

When the concept of the Anthropocene was first popularized around the year 2000, it was seen as a radical nomenclature that merely brought attention to human-caused interference with the climate through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By 2018, however, the severity of human-caused changes to processes in the Earth System of ocean and atmospheric circulation has made the term an accepted description of present reality. There is now no going back to a planet where human activity is not a determining force. Like it or not, we are responsible for the direction of the geophysical and biophysical processes on the planet. As Steffen et al. state in their conclusion: “Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth.”

The divide between the “natural” world and the “human” world has been erased. Collective human knowledge has penetrated the mysteries of deep space and deep time and located our existence as a species and our conscious minds on the continuum that reaches back to the origin of the universe. We now know what we are: the only species able to consciously comprehend its place in the universe and the effect our activity has on life on the planet. We are individually and collectively the consciousness of the universe itself. The stewardship that climate science requires of us is nothing more than the application of that consciousness to the task of regulating our own role in the processes of the Earth System. The question then becomes, can the human race take conscious control of the Earth System or will we let the unconscious processes that regulate world-wide human society today continue to lead us to the hell on Earth we are heading into?

The present dominant socio-economic system…is based on high carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use. Attempts to modify this system have met with some success locally but little success globally in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or building more effective stewardship of the biosphere. Incremental linear changes to the present socio-economic system are not enough to stabilize the Earth System. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold and locking in the Hothouse Earth pathway; these include changes in behavior, technology and innovation, governance and values.3

Steffen et al. call for input from the humanities in addition to the sciences, concluding that avoiding the pathway leading to Hothouse Earth will take “a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System, recognizing that humanity is an integral interacting component of the System… [A] deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economics, and technologies is required.” This transformation must take place in the immediate future because, while the catastrophic conditions of Hothouse Earth may take centuries or more to come to pass, the threshold beyond which there is no chance of preventing them may be just years away.

After digesting this material and assimilating just what it is going to take to avoid total disaster, it seems as if the outlook isn’t brilliant. What hope can there be for the radical changes that the authors call for in the next decade or two, when even the most ineffectual measures fail? As Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at the University of California at Irvine, says in a review of the paper, the deep transformations that Steffen et al. point to as the only way to avoid disaster,

would seem a naive hope at the best of times (b)ut at a time of the widespread rise of Right Wing Populism, with its associated rejection of the messages of those perceived as “cosmopolitan elites” and specific denial of climate change as an issue, the likelihood…must surely be close to zero…The future habitability of the planet thus appears to rest on the chance that the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gas emissions and other disruptions is fortuitously very low—or that some other global-scale social calamity dramatically reduces human emissions before any runaway planetary threshold is breached. The latter offers cold comfort.4

So is all that is left to hope for a lucky break? Is this to be the most likely course of action for those who see clearly the disaster awaiting us in the future—accepting of the hopelessness of the situation and hoping for miracles?

What will a future without hope for climate stabilization look like? The age of leisure and civilized living will be over for all but an elite few. Air travel, cars, air conditioning, and other creature comforts will become luxury items for almost all of the world’s people as they are today for the billions of poor people throughout the world. Floods, famines, and fires will drive populations from their homes, exacerbating the immigration crisis, ethnic and nationalist conflicts and wars, and political and social turmoil that in a geopolitical landscape includes thousands of nuclear missiles may well end in a nuclear holocaust. That is a very cold comfort indeed. 

Past human history, littered as it is with the ruins of collapsed civilizations is not an accurate gauge for what is befalling us now. No other past civilization has had the knowledge to understand what is happening to them the way our present society does. The problem is not that we as a society don’t have an understanding of the disaster that awaits us or of the action necessary to deal with it so as to avoid the visiting of extreme misery upon our children and descendents. Our choices have been laid out clearly by these scientists and many others. The problem is what they call technological lock-in and socio-economic inertia. They are pointing out that the social system that is responsible for causing the problem is not responsive to the need of society to correct it in the interest of its own continued existence. The social system itself seems to have suicidal tendencies. It is in the interest of every human being on the planet to avoid the trajectory that leads to Hothouse Earth but those who are living high off the hog from the very technological lock-in and social inertia of which the scientists speak are slaves to the short-term profit the system feeds on. It is in their own short-sighted interest to protect their position and the institutions that support them by denying the truth of climate change, the severity of the situation, and the radical change that is needed to avoid the ultimate disaster.

What is called for is a massive effort by all of the world’s people to come together to work and sacrifice in order to rescue ourselves, our offspring, and the other species on the planet from the worst calamity that can be imagined. Humans have demonstrated our ability to act collectively for the common good throughout history, and we demonstrate it time and again when a natural disaster hits a community. Paul Gilding called for a World War II-like effort to combat climate change in his 2011 book The Great Disruption, but the effort of the “the greatest generation” to combat fascism was made within the bounds of existing institutions, political, social, and economic—the very ones that need to be transformed in order to save us now.

And here is the rub: those institutions are predicated on growth fueled by massive energy consumption within an economic system governed by the unconscious demands of the commodity market system. The classes that most benefit from the system, that compete for dominance in the halls of power, are totally dedicated to maintaining their positions, which entail the continuance of the present system. Continuing this “business as usual” will take precedence over any professed ideals of democracy or human rights, as the Republican Party of the USA and the revival of right-wing nationalism throughout the world are demonstrating today.

We are now living in the twenty-first century and, as the climate crisis makes clear, there are new and previously unknown forces at work. The old international relationships of the twentieth century are losing their relevance. The present time calls for a radical new vision, a world-wide international movement to do away with the old nationalist, capitalist, and religious systems that prevent the world’s people, the human race, from recognizing our shared species being. It is this, our commonality, that we can wield with conscious communal effort to overcome the obstacles preventing us from doing what comes naturally to any community of people when they are threatened with calamity.

  1. Will Steffen, et al., “The Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” Edited by William C. Clark, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved July 6, 2018 (received for review June 19, 2018). Published on August 6, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Chris Rapley, published on Science Media Centre, August 6, 2018.

Contributor

Peter St. Clair

PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.

ADVERTISEMENTS