We’ve passed climate tipping point—now what?
The United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, brought together representatives from 115 countries for four days this month. They reviewed reams of research—notably, Global Environment Outlook 6, compiled by 250 scientists, and Global Linkages: A graphic look at the changing Arctic—and issued an array of statements.
One drew international headlines.
“Even if the world were to cut emissions in line with the existing Paris Agreement commitments, winter temperatures over the Arctic Ocean would rise 3-5°C by mid-century…. Meanwhile, rapidly thawing permafrost could even accelerate climate change further and derail efforts to meet the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to 2°C.”
This March 13 announcement, made at the conference and in a news release, declared the warming as “locked into the climate system” because of greenhouse gas emissions from the past and near-term, plus heat that’s stored in the ocean.
Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of the UN Environment Programme, stated: “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. We have the science; now more urgent climate action is needed to steer away from tipping points that could be even worse for our planet than we first thought.”
That’s one way to take the news—how eco-minded folks have. Groups such as Chico 350 and local members of Citizens Climate Lobby see this as a rallying cry for action and spread the word via social media. Kristina Schierenbeck, a Chico State biology professor whose research has illustrated how climate change triggers species’ migration, told the CN&R in an email that “yes, we may have reached the tipping point, which is exactly why we need to stop fossil fuel use NOW if we are going to be able to reduce the pending impacts.”
But what about the cynical interpretation? That is, if we’re past the point of rescue—the tipping point, the point of no return—then what’s the point of doing anything?
The proposition of “urgent climate action” demands change, which entails new habits and lifestyle—sometimes with more cost and less comfort. To quote the Grateful Dead: “I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” Why sacrifice if our fate is sealed?
The simple answer is we’re not doomed yet. Arctic conditions are critical, true, and have a ripple effect; however, other thresholds remain uncrossed.
“If we’re past one particular tipping point, which is what’s going to happen to the global ice sheets, that’s just one thing that we might be worried about,” said David Hassenzahl, dean of Chico State’s College of Natural Sciences. His research spans a spectrum of environmental science fields, such as climate, ecology, biodiversity, energy and water.
Antarctica, for instance, has a geologic composition distinct from the Arctic. Scientists such as Guy McPherson, who’s returning to Chico to speak April 28-29, forecast the Southern Hemisphere lagging behind the Northern Hemisphere for cataclysmic climate events like an ice age.
“So, why should we keep worrying?” Hassenzahl continued. “Well, because people are going to keep suffering. For some people, the plants and animals that are going to go extinct are also important. That’s not unimportant, but human suffering is the most important to me.”
Hassenzahl cited John Holdren, science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama administration, in regards to suffering. Holdren said we have three choices in the face of climate change: mitigate, adapt or suffer—“The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”
Mitigation refers to reducing activities that negatively impact the climate; predominantly, burning fossil fuels. Adaptation, Hassenzahl continued, means altering our lives and landscape “so we’re not as vulnerable to a changing climate.” That includes reconsidering where farmers grow specific crops and how builders construct shelter.
Hassenzahl sees actions having impacts both individual and widespread.
“The changes we can make to improve the climate can also improve our lives,” he said. “I’ve lived here five years, and I’ve driven to work about nine times, and four of those were during the [Camp] Fire. The rest of the time, I’ve bicycled to work. My life is better and has a lower climate footprint.
“There’s a lot of things that are already happening and a lot of things we can do,” Hassenzahl added, noting alternative energy as an example. “I think there are lots of places for optimism, and big places for optimism, to cause change on a [generational] scale.”
Meanwhile, he expressed skepticism about spurring action by shock, saying: “I think environmentalists do a disservice when they focus on the negative—we know from research that when you talk about the bad things that climate change is going to do, people shut off or [give up].”
Natalie Carter, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, told the CN&R by phone that she sees the U.N. statement as “more of a wake-up call than a doomsday announcement, and what’s needed is action to avoid this problem getting any worse.”
Like Hassenzahl, she pointed to positive developments, such as Chico’s Climate Action Plan to reduce fossil-fuel dependence and emissions.
“Yeah, some of this [climatic shift] is already happening, and there’s nothing that can be done about the damage that’s been done,” Carter said. “But more damage can be avoided … and small changes add up.”