Drawing on interviews and reviews of recent research, article paints a grim picture of humanity’s prospects.
No 2632 Posted by fw, June 9, 2020 —
“Australia’s top climate scientist says ‘we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse’ of civilisation, which may now be inevitable because 9 of the 15 known global climate tipping points that regulate the state of the planet have been activated. Australian National University emeritus professor Will Steffen told Voice of Action that there was already a chance we have triggered a ‘global tipping cascade’ that would take us to a less habitable ‘Hothouse Earth’ climate, regardless of whether we reduced emissions. Steffen says it would take 30 years at best (more likely 40-60 years) to transition to net zero emissions, but when it comes to tipping points such as Arctic sea ice we could have already run out of time.” —Asher Moses, Voice of Action
Asher Moses is the editor of Voice of Action, the newspaper for the working classes.
Will Steffen contends that humanity’s three main challenges — climate change, degradation of the biosphere, and growing inequalities between and among countries — are facets of one problem — neoliberal economics. Furthermore, evidence shows that even if the government was committed to renewable energy, “green growth” is just not possible at a global scale.
“Steffen says net zero emissions by 2050 would be “too late” and the only thing that will save us are radical solutions committing to: No new fossil fuel developments of any kind from now; A 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 100% renewable energy; Reaching net zero emissions by 2040.“
Below is my abridged repost of Moses’ very long article, featuring my added subheadings, text highlighting, and added hyperlinks. Don’t have time to read the full article? — Skim the 44 subheadings to get the main ideas.
To read his complete article on the Voice of Action website, click on the following linked title.
We’re headed for collapse and it may already be too late to change course
The world’s most eminent climate scientists and biologists believe we’re headed for the collapse of civilisation, and it may already be too late to change course.
9 of 15 tipping points have already been activated
Australia’s top climate scientist says “we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse” of civilisation, which may now be inevitable because 9 of the 15 known global climate tipping points that regulate the state of the planet have been activated.
Reducing carbon emissions will not save us from a less habitable “Hothouse Earth”
Australian National University emeritus professor Will Steffen told Voice of Action that there was already a chance we have triggered a “global tipping cascade” that would take us to a less habitable “Hothouse Earth” climate, regardless of whether we reduced emissions. Steffen says it would take 30 years at best (more likely 40-60 years) to transition to net zero emissions, but when it comes to tipping points such as Arctic sea ice we could have already run out of time.
We will lose control of key tipping points in less time than it’s going to take us to get to net zero
Evidence shows we will also lose control of the tipping points for the Amazon rainforest, the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the Greenland ice sheet in much less time than it’s going to take us to get to net zero emissions, Steffen says.
“Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the ‘reaction time’ needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the ‘intervention time’ left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system (e.g., melting of Arctic sea ice) and the biosphere (e.g., loss of the Great Barrier Reef), we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse,” said Steffen.
“That is, the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.
“The fact that many of the features of the Earth System that are being damaged or lost constitute ‘tipping points’ that could well link to form a ‘tipping cascade’ raises the ultimate question: Have we already lost control of the system? Is collapse now inevitable?”
New research from Stanford U biologists of increasing species extinction confirms Steffens’ findings
This is not a unique view – leading Stanford University biologists, who were first to reveal that we are already experiencing the sixth mass extinction on Earth, released new research this week showing species extinctions are accelerating in an unprecedented manner, which may be a tipping point for the collapse of human civilisation.
As well, research emerged of more extreme droughts in world’s major food basket regions
Also in the past week research emerged showing the world’s major food baskets will experience more extreme droughts than previously forecast, with southern Australia among the worst hit globally.
Steffen uses Titanic metaphor to make his point that it’s too late to avert the looming iceberg
Steffen used the metaphor of the Titanic in one of his recent talks to describe how we may cross tipping points faster than the time it would take us to react to get our impact on the climate under control.
“If the Titanic realizes that it’s in trouble and it has about 5km that it needs to slow and steer the ship, but it’s only 3km away from the iceberg, it’s already doomed,” he said.
‘THIS IS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO CIVILIZATION’
Steffen and colleagues presented their findings in journal Nature, November 27, 2019 issue
Steffen, along with some of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, laid out our predicament in the starkest possible terms in a piece for the journal Nature at the end of last year.
They found that 9 of the 15 known Earth tipping elements that regulate the state of the planet had been activated, and there was now scientific support for declaring a state of planetary emergency. These tipping points can trigger abrupt carbon release back into the atmosphere, such as the release of carbon dioxide and methane caused by the irreversible thawing of the Arctic permafrost.
“If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization,” they wrote.
“No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach to the climate problem.
“The evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency: both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute.”
In an August 2018 paper, Steffen and colleagues warned we’re on a trajectory towards a “Hothouse Earth”
Steffen is also the lead author of the heavily cited 2018 paper, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, where he found that “even if the Paris Accord target of a 1.5°C to 2°C rise in temperature is met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.”
“Steffen’s concern is we are already at the point of no return”
Steffen is a global authority on the subject of tipping points, which are prone to sudden shifts if they get pushed hard enough by a changing climate, and could take the trajectory of the system out of human control. Further warming would become self-sustaining due to system feedbacks and their mutual interaction.
Steffen describes it like a row of dominoes and his concern is we are already at the point of no return, knocking over the first couple of dominoes which could lead to a cascade knocking over the whole row.
“Some of these we think are vulnerable in the temperature range we’re entering into now,” said Steffen.
“If we get those starting to tip we could get the whole row of dominos tipping and take us to a much hotter climate even if we get our emissions down.”
Even the IPCC agrees that global temperature rise has increased risk of knocking over more tipping point dominoes
Even the notoriously conservative United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that already with the 1.1°C of warming we have had to date, there was a moderate risk of tipping some of these – and the risk increased as the temperatures increased.
Desperate as the situation is, Steffen says “urgent action” could keep us below 2°C
+4°C WORLD WOULD SUPPORT LESS THAN 1 BILLION PEOPLE
Other leading authorities on climate change echo Steffen’s warnings
Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director emeritus and founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, believes if we go much above 2°C we will quickly get to 4°C anyway because of the tipping points and feedbacks, which would spell the end of human civilisation.
“There is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation”: Professor Schellnhuber
Johan Rockström, the head of one of Europe’s leading research institutes, warned in 2019 that in a 4°C-warmer world it would be “difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that … There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles, no doubt, but it will be a turbulent, conflict-ridden world”.
Schellnhuber, one of the world’s leading authorities on climate change, said that if we continue down the present path “there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years.”
Schellnhuber said in a recent interview that the IPCC report stating we could stay below 1.5°C of warming was “slightly dishonest” because it relies on immense negative emissions (pulling CO2 out of the air) which was not viable at global scale. He said 1.5°C was no longer achievable but it was still possible to stay under 2°C with massive changes to society.
The “carbon law” states that to stay below 2°C, emissions would need to be halved between 2020 and 2030
If we don’t bend the emissions curve down substantially before 2030 then keeping temperatures under 2°C becomes unavoidable. The “carbon law” published in the journal Science in 2017 found that, to hold warming below 2°C, emissions would need to be cut in half between 2020 and 2030.
Humanity’s three main challenges are facets of one problem “neoliberal economics”
Steffen told Voice of Action that the three main challenges to humanity were “just different facets of the same fundamental problem”.–
+ climate change,
+ the degradation of the biosphere and
+ the growing inequalities between and among countries –
Neoliberal economics has put humanity on the path to collapse
This problem was the “neoliberal economic system” that spread across the world through globalisation, underpinning “high production high consumption lifestyles” and a “religion built not around eternal life but around eternal growth”.
“It is becoming abundantly clear that —
+ this system is incompatible with a well-functioning Earth System at the planetary level;
+ this system is eroding human- and societal-well being, even in the wealthiest countries, and
+ collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of the current system, as prophetically modelled in 1972 in the Limits to Growth work,” Steffen told Voice of Action.
ETERNAL GROWTH IS NOT POSSIBLE
Famous 1972 “Limits to Growth” research study concluded “you can’t grow the system indefinitely”
The Limits to Growth model released by the Club of Rome in 1972 looked at the interplay between food production, industry, population, non-renewable resources and pollution. The basic findings were that you can’t grow the system indefinitely as you will cause environmental and resource issues that will ultimately cause the whole global system to collapse (ABC [Australian Broadcast Corporation] program “This Day Tonight” covered the story on Nov. 9, 1973). At the time of the model’s release it accurately reproduced the historical data from 1900 to 1970.
2008 study concluded Limits to Growth research findings were “coming to pass”
A 2008 study by Graham Turner [now retired], then a senior CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia] research scientist, used three decades of real-world historical data to conclude that the Limits to Growth model’s predictions were coming to pass: “30 years of historical data compare favourably with key features of a business-as-usual [BAU] scenario called the ‘standard run’ scenario, which results in collapse of the global system midway through the 21st century.”
+ “Data from the forty years or so since the LTG study was completed indicates that the world is closely tracking the BAU [business-as-usual] scenario,” Turner concluded in the 2014 paper.
+ “It is notable that there does not appear to be other economy-environment models that have demonstrated such comprehensive and long-term data agreement.”
+ Turner told Voice of Action that under his modelling the business as usual scenario “ends up resulting in a global collapse from about now through the next decade or so”.
+ It was difficult to predict a timeline but Turner said he believed “there’s an extremely strong case that we may be in the early stages of a collapse right at the moment”.
+ “Vested interests and corrupt politicians combined with a population happy to deny problems overwhelm those that are trying to promulgate truth and facts,” said Turner.
Fossil fuel emissions continue to rise
‘By 2030 WE’LL KNOW WHAT PATH WE’VE TAKEN’
Steffen — By 2030 we’ll know whether we’re headed for ‘sustainability’ or for ‘collapse’
Steffen told Voice of Action that it’s “highly likely that by 2030 we’ll know what pathway we’ve taken”, “the pathway towards sustainability or the current pathway towards likely collapse”.
“I think the ‘fork in the road’ will come in this decade, probably not a single point in time but as a series of events,” said Steffen.
Steffen told Voice of Action he believes collapse “will likely not come as a dramatic global collapse, but rather as overall deterioration in many features of life, with regional collapses occurring here and there”.
The US is entering a long period of decline with more rapid collapse in 2030 decade
“For example, it appears that the USA is entering a long period of decline in many aspect of its society, with a potential for a more rapid collapse in the coming decade,” said Steffen.
Steffen believes the current US mass uprisings are not a sign of collapse but one of “growing instability”.
Another Australian academic believes “the future will likely arrive in part by design and in part by disaster”
Samuel Alexander, a lecturer with the University of Melbourne and research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, told Voice of Action that the coming collapse would not be a single black or white event.
“With respect to civilizations, what is more likely is that we have entered a stage of what John Michael Greer calls ‘catabolic collapse’  – where we face decades of ongoing crises, as the existing mode of civilisation deteriorates, but then recovers as governments and civil society tries to respond, and fix things, and keep things going for a bit longer,” said Alexander.
“Capitalism is quite good at dodging bullets and escaping temporary challenges to its legitimacy and viability. But its condition, I feel is terminal.”
Alexander, who studies the economic, political and cultural challenges of living on a full planet in an age of limits, believes the future will be “post-growth / post capitalist / post-industrial in some form”.
“The future will like arrive in part by design and in part by disaster. Our challenge is to try to constitute the future through planning and community action, not have the future constitute us,” said Alexander.
Alexander said that it would never be “too late” to act sensibly as whether we’re trying to avoid or manage collapse there is lots of work to be done (“a 3 degree future is better than a 4 degree future”).
Alexander said it was a sign of “steam building up within a closed system”. Without bold grassroots and political action we were “likely to see explosions of civil unrest increasingly as things continue to deteriorate”.
“As economies deteriorate and as inequalities deepen, more people get disenfranchised, incentivizing resistance and sadly sometimes making people look for scapegoats to blame for new or intensifying hardships (e.g. the so-called alt-right),” said Alexander.
FUNDING DRIED UP AFTER INCONVENIENT TRUTHS
Challenging neoliberalism can result in loss of research funding
Turner’s findings went against the neoliberal orthodoxies as they challenged the notion of infinite growth on a finite planet. He said he and others pursuing similar research in “stocks and flows” models of the economy “found it harder and harder to get work funded”.
Steffen said he hadn’t received any political pressure over his work “but I probably haven’t attacked the growth/capitalism paradigm as directly as Graham [Turner] has”. He says he has not hesitated to note the incompatibility of the neoliberal economic system with a stable Earth system in his talks.
Immense changes required to deliver a sustainable future are too hard for most people to contemplate
“It seems obvious that very fundamental changes are required, all the way down to core values – what do we really value in life?,” said Steffen.
Turner said the “absolutely immense changes” required to deliver a sustainable future were just “too hard for the vast majority of people to contemplate”.
“You’d have to halve the birth rate, you’d have to have net zero immigration, you’d have to go totally renewable energy and double efficiencies in every sector of the economy, and the really key thing is you’d have to reduce the working week over time so that it would become half of what it is,” said Turner.
“But that would also mean that people wouldn’t have the same level of income and it goes hand in hand with reducing household consumption by half. And unless you do all of those things, you don’t achieve a steady state, sustainable future, and if you leave some things out you’ve got to go even harder at the others.”
Turner believes it would be possible to provide for everyone’s needs in a sustainable way but we would have to live a 1950s or 1960s-style lifestyle with limits such as one car and TV per household. We wouldn’t be living in caves and we’d still have technology but the rate of change would be a lot slower.
“I think if we all manage to live a simpler and arguably more fulfilling life then it would be possible still with some technological advances to have a sustainable future, but it would seem that it’s more likely … that we are headed towards or perhaps on the cusp of a sort of global collapse,” Turner told Voice of Action.
Turner said he fears that the public at large won’t take the problem seriously enough and demand change until they’re “actually losing their jobs or losing their life or seeing their children directly suffer”.
‘POTENTIALLY INFINITE COSTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE’
In midst of this pandemic there is a push to get back to a growth economy underpinned by subsidized fossil fuels
The political discourse is about getting back to growth, supported by taxpayer-subsidised fossil fuels.
And evidence shows that “green growth” is not possible on a global scale
Worse still, IMF study notes rising risk of disaster, infinite costs, unmitigated climate change, and human extinction
A 2019 IMF Working Paper notes a growing agreement between economists and scientists “that risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction”.
The Australian-based Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration has spent years publishing reports warning that the science shows we are headed for civilizational collapse. They stress there is no further carbon budget today for a realistic chance of staying below 2°C, so there can be no further fossil fuel expansion.
The Breakthrough reports have been critical of the scientific community – including the IPCC – for underplaying the full risks of climate change particularly the tipping points and existential risk. Its latest report, Fatal Calculations, takes aim at economists for failing to adequately account for costs of inaction in their models, which in turn has been used by politicians to delay action.
“Despite the escalating climate disasters globally, not least our bushfires, this preoccupation with the cost of action — and a blind eye turned to overwhelming future damage — remains the dominant thinking within politics, business and finance,” the Breakthrough report found.
“Because climate change is now an existential threat to human society, risk management and the calculation of potential future damages must pay disproportionate attention to the high-end, extreme possibilities, rather than focus on middle-of-the-spectrum probabilities.”
In a discussion paper released in May, titled COVID-19 Climate Lessons, Breakthrough draws parallels between climate change and the lack of preparedness for the pandemic.
“The world is sleepwalking towards disaster. The UN climate science and policymaking institutions are not fit-for-purpose and have never examined or reported on the existential risks,” the paper reads.
“There are no national or global processes to ensure that such risk assessments are undertaken and are efficacious. The World Economic Forum reports on high-end global risks, including climate disruption, once a year and then everybody goes back to ignoring the real risks.”
“Human activity is causing temperature rises beyond the envelope of natural variability”
Human activity is causing temperature rises beyond the envelope of natural variability that the biosphere is built to support.
In the last 100 million years, only twice has there been a spike in temperature like this
Steffen said there’s only been two times in the last 100 million years that we have seen a spike in temperature like this, the first was when the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago and the second was another mass extinction event 56 million years ago.
And the last time CO2 emission levels were this high was 3-4 million years ago
The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions were at the current level was during the early-to-mid Pliocene 3–4 million years ago, when temperatures were around 3°C warmer than the late 19th century, and sea levels were around 25 metres higher.
AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT FAILING TO MEET THE CHALLENGE
Despite recent devastating bushfires, Australia’s government refuses to commit to modest emission cuts
Despite recent bushfires which burnt 35 million hectares, caused 445 excess deaths from smoke and incinerated 1 billion animals – doubling Australia’s annual CO2 emissions in the process – the government is refusing to commit to even modest emissions reduction targets and is pushing a “gas-fired recovery”. It has emerged this week that the government was warned about the likelihood of severe bushfires but failed to do enough to prepare. Fire chiefs were also gagged from talking about climate change. And [Australia’s] Great Barrier Reef this year was hit with its third mass bleaching event in 5 years.
The Australian government, beholden to the fossil fuel industry and with no corruption watchdog to keep it in check, continues to resist pressure to increase its climate change commitment. Australia will not even be able to meet its Paris targets without an accounting loophole – targets which themselves are inadequate to prevent collapse.
Global decline of the natural world is also leading us to collapse
It’s not just climate change that is leading us to collapse but also the fact that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. As Steffen notes, the web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed.
Vertebrate wildlife now accounts for less than 3% of all terrestrial biomass
Humans thoroughly dominate the land biosphere making up 32% of all terrestrial biomass followed by around 65% in domesticated animals, leaving less than 3% of vertebrate wildlife.
We are witnessing a “Great Acceleration” in our use of resources like water and energy
There has also been what’s called “The Great Acceleration”, whereby human population and economic growth is accelerating leading to accelerating use of resources like water and energy. This has also led to exponential growth in: greenhouse gas emissions, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, surface temperatures, marine fish capture, terrestrial biosphere degradation, tropical forest lost and domesticated land. Many countries, including parts of Australia, are running out of water and having to truck in bottled water. It is predicted that 1.8 billion people will be living in water-scarce regions by 2025.
The only thing that will save us is a three-point radical global solution —
Steffen says net zero emissions by 2050 would be “too late” and the only thing that will save us are radical solutions committing to:
+ No new fossil fuel developments of any kind from now
+ A 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 100% renewable energy
+ Reaching net zero emissions by 2040
Carbon capture and storage technologies are a more expensive solution than leaving the oil in the soil
Steffen says it’s much, much cheaper not to use fossil fuels in the first place than to try to capture the CO2 after the fact, as you’re “fighting the second law of thermodynamics when you’re trying to recapture CO2”.
ANITRA NELSON: ‘WE’RE POSSISBLY GONE ALREADY’
Associate Professor Anitra Nelson, honorary principal fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, advocates for “de-growth” policies which would reduce global consumption and production to sustainable levels. She says we’re currently consuming resources as if there were four Earths and if we don’t change fast we will face conditions that we can’t survive under.
“On the current trajectory we’re possibly gone already, and if we’re not, unless we act very quickly and in very serious ways we just can’t get back into a kind of balance with nature,” Nelson told Voice of Action.
“I do actually think we’re already into the collapse and it’s just likely to get worse and more quickly worse as we go.”
We need to talk about population control and maximum income limits
Nelson said we have to wholesale change how we live on this planet and that includes discussions about population control (such as restrictions on the number of kids people have) and even maximum income limits.
Get rid of capitalism
Nelson said we also need to get rid of capitalism as fundamentally that economic system could not survive without growth.
And while we’re at it, how about localized economies, autonomous communities, direct democracy, consensus decision making
Instead of firms competing in a global market we need to be “localising economies” so that “basically people are producing locally for local needs and only basic needs”. This would involve having “autonomous communities” with “substantive and direct democracy” and consensus decision making.
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