COP 27: Sleepwalking to global armageddon

Nov 17, 2022
Icebergs floating on the east coast of Greenland in summer.

An article in the prestigious journal Nature shows a dramatic increase in the likelihood of tipping points causing a runway disruption to the globe’s environment. Australia and other governments participating in COP 27 are nevertheless sleepwalking along a path which wrongly assumes a predictable manageable rise in temperatures.

Conspicuously not surfacing in the rush of COP 27 publicity are deeply worrying studies indicating that the triggering of climate change tipping points (TPs) is now very real – and already under way. A recent article in the prestigious journal Nature shows how the likelihood of a fundamental runaway process of change to the globe’s environment has dramatically increased. The authors note that in 2008 it was assessed that key tipping points (TPs) which would produce self sustaining uncontrollable increase in CO2 would be triggered if the increase in global temperatures reached 3-5°C. Now they say the trigger point is 1.1-1.2°C. Having already achieved an increase of one degree warming the panic button is staring us in the face. Reputable scientists now point out we have no hope of restricting temperature changes to 1.5 degrees. Under current government commitments it is projected that by 2030 we will be 2.3 degrees warmer – a level which would radically accelerate the initiation and self-sustaining mechanisms of TPs.

We may therefore wonder why the Secretary General António Guterres in his opening remarks referred to an impending “climate change hell” but drew no linkage to TP progenitors. That TP’s are apparently not to be the headline issue at COP27 is not hard to figure out. Climate change even in its benign ‘linear’ form has always been a poisoned chalice for politicians – it demands systemic change, huge resources and the almost impossible task of getting support for an issue which has been over the horizon and indirect in its effect – a playground for well funded sceptics and hostile commercial interests. TPs once again push the horizon further down the track and are even more complexly indirect. Adding in the incomprehensibly large risk factor has tended to make TPs a no-go zone for politicians and a heinously difficult vehicle to generate global consensus.

This aversion is all the more serious once the magnitude of TPs’ future role in the rate of change and severity of climate change is spelt out. The scientific community is now pointing to five key TPs (and up to a total of 16 overall). Of the five the first (not necessarily in order of likely severity) is the unseating of the Greenland ice sheet and the second the puncturing of the world’s lungs – the Amazon rain forest. The third is the emerging change in Atlantic ocean currents (the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) – and which is linked to the first two TPs. Fourth is the unleashing of methane from the globally massive permafrost regions and fifth, the unseating of major Antarctic ice sheets.

Scientists now estimate Greenland’s ice sheet has already locked in a minimum 27cm global sea rise, with other estimates putting current melting trends producing a future 1-2 metre rise. Recent modelling shows The Antarctic’s newly and increasingly unstable Thwaites ice sheet had sufficient volume to raise global oceans by around 65cm.

But of more immediate concern is the sudden, recent and very large rise in methane emissions – the source of some one third of total global emissions and rising. Worryingly there is as yet no scientific certainty over the source. Preliminary studies are suggesting a natural source and therefore pointing to the world’s permafrost regions where rising temperatures have produced further permafrost melting and a self-sustaining increase in methane. That is backed up by an Alaskan study showing a 70% rise in permafrost derived methane over a 40 year period.

If not more worrying is the prospect of fundamental changes to the Amazon’s self created climate. Deforestation, and the effects of climate change risk wholesale ‘savannaisation’ of the Amazon and a fundamental reduction in its capacity to store carbon. To what extent this process – and that of the Greenland icesheet’s displacement – accelerates, will also depend in turn on the rate at which the AMOC destabilises. This oceanic current has the capacity to effect substantial changes to climatic conditions in its bordering continents and therefore the recorded 15% slowing (and warming) of the AMOC over the past 50 years is of real concern given past modelling has been based on its stability. These trends are deeply concerning since, once started, TP’s are well nigh irreversible and cannot, under any acceptable time frame, be held back by even a globally adopted plan of action.

For governments -no less the Australian – all this becomes indigestible now that we have only just now been dragged kicking a screaming to albeit wholly inadequate 2030 and 2050 carbon neutral timelines. Witness our Prime Minister’s absence at COP27. Climate change’s existential threat has been deftly placed below the more immediate concerns over China’s regional ascension and global dislocation from the war in Ukraine.

For those attending COP27 the focus is clearly on the more palatable finite metrics of holding to 1.5 degrees warming with the albeit now highly dubious assumption that under such a target, change will be reasonably linear and mitigable. This attachment to measurable effects and outcomes is reflected in what seems to be the meeting’s chief goal of measuring the future costs and apportioning the costs between developed and developing countries. Here the West’s reticence to take responsibility is inexcusable. In 2020 The US and the EU ‘owned’ around 42% of post industrial cumulative C02 emissions from fossil fuels and industry (land use excluded) -China a mere 14%. Per capita, Australia and the US are roughly on par with around 16 tonnes of CO2, China around 7 tonnes, India around 2. This is not the whole story given the West relies so heavily on other countries burning CO2 on their behalf. Some 40% of the EU’s collective carbon footprint is calculated to be in the form of goods imported from outside. The west’s outsized CO2 rich consumption pattern is underlined by Oxfam which calculates that the globe’s richest 1% are set to have per capita consumption emissions in 2030 30 times higher than the global per capita level compatible with the 1.5⁰C goal of the Paris Agreement. The footprints of the poorest half of the world population will likely remain several times below that level.

Thus, we of the Western world are not only responsible for a large chunk of the climate change damage to the third world but will equally be largely responsible for a calamitous slide into a TP induced Armageddon.

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