With both China and India having just announced major plans to curb their carbon emissions, the sound you hear is a tipping point tipping. Heading into the United Nations climate summit meeting in Paris in December, all the world’s largest industrial economies are now taking climate change more seriously. This includes the United States — except for some of the knuckleheads running to be our next president, which is not a small problem.
When, at CNN’s GOP presidential debate, the moderator Jake Tapper read statements from Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz (who drives an electric car powered by solar panels on his home’s roof) about how Reagan urged industry to proactively address ozone depletion, and why Shultz believes we should be just as proactive today in dealing with climate change, he got the usual know-nothing responses.
Sen. Marco Rubio said, “We’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” while Gov. Chris Christie opined of Shultz, “Listen, everybody makes a mistake every once in a while.” They sure do, and it’s not Shultz, who has been wisely and courageously telling Republicans that the — conservative — thing to do now is to take out some insurance against climate change, because if it really gets rocking the results could be “catastrophic.” Hurricane Sandy — likely amplified by warmer ocean waters — caused over $36 billion in damage to Christie’s own state, New Jersey, in 2012.
But hey, “stuff happens.” There was time when we could tolerate this kind of dumb-as-we-wanna-be thinking. But it’s over. The next eight years will be critical for the world’s climate and ecosystems, and if you vote for a climate skeptic for president, you’d better talk to your kids first, because you will have to answer to them later.
If you have time to read one book on this subject, I highly recommend the new “Big World, Small Planet,” by Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, and Mattias Klum, whose stunning photographs of ecosystem disruptions reinforce the urgency of the moment.
Rockstrom begins his argument with a reminder that for most of the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history its climate was not very hospitable to human beings, as it oscillated between “punishing ice ages and lush warm periods” that locked humanity into seminomadic lifestyles.
It’s only been in the last 10,000 years that we have enjoyed the stable climate conditions allowing civilizations to develop based on agriculture that could support towns and cities. This period, known as the Holocene, was an “almost miraculously stable and warm interglacial equilibrium, which is the only state of the planet we know for sure can support the modern world as we know it.” It finally gave us “a stable equilibrium of forests, savannahs, coral reefs, grasslands, fish, mammals, bacteria, air quality, ice cover, temperature, fresh water availability and productive soils.” It “is our Eden,” Rockstrom added, and now “we are threatening to push Earth out of this sweet spot,” starting in the mid-1950s, when the Industrial Revolution reached most of the rest of the globe and populations and middle classes exploded.
That triggered “the great acceleration” of industrial and farming growth, which has put all of Earth’s ecosystems under stress. The impacts now are obvious: “climate change, chemical pollution, air pollution, land and water degradation ... and the massive loss of species and habitats.” The good news is that in this period many more of the world’s have-nots have escaped from poverty. They’ve joined the party. The bad news, says Rockstrom, is that “the old party” cannot go on as it did. The Earth is very good at finding ways to adapt to stress: oceans and forest absorb the extra CO²; ecosystems like the Amazon adapt to deforestation and still provide rain and fresh water; the Arctic ice shrinks but does not disappear. But eventually we can exhaust the planet’s adaptive capacities.
We’re sitting on these planetary boundaries right now, argues Rockstrom, and if these systems flip from one stable state to another — if the Amazon tips into a savannah, if the Arctic loses its ice cover and instead of reflecting the sun’s rays starts absorbing them in water, if the glaciers all melt and cannot feed the rivers — nature will be fine, but we will not be.
“The planet has demonstrated an impressive capacity to maintain its balance, using every trick in its bag to stay in the current state,” explains Rockstrom. But there are more and more signs that we may have reached a saturation point. Forests show the first signs of absorbing less carbon. The oceans are rapidly acidifying as they absorb more CO², harming fish and coral. Global average temperatures keep rising.
This is what will greet the next president — a resilient planet that could once absorb our excesses at seemingly no cost to us, suddenly tipping into a saturated planet, sending us “daily invoices” that will get bigger each year. When nature goes against you, watch out.
“For the first time, we need to be clever,” says Rockstrom, “and rise to a crisis before it happens,” before we cross nature’s tipping points. Later will be too late. We elect a president who ignores this science at our peril.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.