Anyone who has been following climate science or has read the terrifying scenarios foretold in Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars knows that we’re standing on the threshold of an ominous age. The Arctic caps are melting and sea levels are rising at a much faster rate than predicted, and now new research has uncovered that a number of planetary feedback mechanisms are amplifying the effects of our greenhouse gas emissions in frightening ways.
Scientists have long known that any melting of the permafrost – the permanently frozen soil under and around the Arctic ocean – will cause high levels of carbon dioxide and methane to be released. There are about one million square kilometers of permafrost, and new studies have shown that it contains much more carbon dioxide and methane than we thought: three trillion tons in fact – more than all the CO2 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere over the last 100 years. If even a tiny fraction of that were to be released, the planet would be sent hurtling into a catastrophic warming cycle.
Other studies show that as the Earth warms, the oceans are actually able to hold less carbon dioxide. It’s the same principle that causes warm beer to go flat. The oceans, which have always absorbed about one third of the CO2 that humans pump into the atmosphere, are increasingly unable able to do so; and our carbonated oceans are slowly going flat with every ton of carbon we emit.
The concern is that we don’t really know where the tipping points are … scientists tell us that two degrees warmer will probably not trigger runaway scenarios, but they admit that’s just a guess … we have no idea how many degrees warmer is enough to get the permafrost bubbling and the oceans fizzing in unstoppable ways. Even two degrees could do it … and once that scenario is triggered, we would suddenly find ourselves on an escalator that would carry us all the way up to five or six or even 12 or 15 degrees hotter, with no way to get off.
How come we’re not furiously debating this? The mainstream media largely ignores the issue of unknown tipping points; it’s relegated instead to the distant fringe of scientific journals. There is a number – somewhere out there – that once hit, will send the Earth into a planetary tailspin that it will be impossible to recover from. Wouldn’t you like to know what that number is? Until we do, nothing on this planet – or in Copenhagen – will make much sense.