It is not nice to be told that you have been diagnosed with a terminal condition. It is even worse to be given false hope that if you did this or that you could mitigate the problem or turn it around when it cannot. If a medical practitioner does this, they lose their job. But climate scientists do this frequently, and probably to keep their job. It is virtue-signalling to agree with national and international climate agreements which propose that we can fix this by reducing (mitigating) our carbon footprint and carbon emissions… and so continue ‘business as usual’ and live happily ever after.
My response to this is in three sections:
- Anthropogenic (human-induced) warming from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be understood in the context of the natural carbon cycle, which until about 150 years ago was in equilibrium.
- The mitigation myth is that we can reduce the effects of worsening climate change by reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions e.g., net-zero by 2050, or earlier.
- The big problem is not climate change. It is global ecological overshoot: when our ecological footprint exceeds biocapacity or sustainability. Global warming is a result. Overshoot leads to collapse and eventual extinction. The planet is now in irreversible collapse.
1. The Carbon Cycle is out of Equilibrium
Greenhouse gases (GHG) are necessary in the atmosphere to keep the planet warm at an average of 15°C surface temperature. The level of natural GHGs in the atmosphere has been in equilibrium for millennia because the earth has both emitted and absorbed natural GHGs in mostly equal measure (the natural carbon cycle). This all changed with the industrial revolution, about 1750. Since then, anthropogenic or human-caused greenhouse gases have almost doubled the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, and this has been the main driver of global warming. The problem has been compounded by the destruction of carbon absorbing plants and forests.
There is a direct correlation between CO2 concentration and global average temperature over the last 300,000 years. During that time, and until recently, CO2 concentrations have not exceeded 300 parts per million. The level is now 414 ppm and rising.
The total Global Greenhouse Gas emissions, as described above, comprise:
- Natural systems, including forest fires and decomposition, oceans, wetlands, etc.
- Anthropogenic (human caused) greenhouse gas emissions, largely from burning fossil fuels and agriculture.
A scientific paper from 2018 indicated that the global annual GHG emissions were approximately 54 – 75 Gt CO2-eq. Of this, natural emissions accounted for 18.13 – 39.30 Gt CO2-eq, and anthropogenic emissions accounted for approximately 55.46% of the total global GHGs emissions (2016 value). The anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions have now escalated beyond the capacity of natural systems to capture carbon and keep the ecosystem in equilibrium, resulting in global warming. This warming has in turn amplified GHG emissions from natural systems. So, natural GHG emissions are now rising at such a rate that reducing (or mitigating) anthropogenic emissions to reduce global surface temperature (or slow the increase of temperature) is a lost cause.
The oceans are both a carbon sink and a carbon source. Cold oceans are a carbon sink, and warm oceans become a carbon source. This will be amplified during the next El Niño. Wetlands are a major source of natural CH4 emissions, and more so as temperatures rise. Perhaps the most dramatic change in the last few years has been the massive and ever-increasing GHS emissions from the warming arctic… thawing permafrost, burning forests, etc. Of particular concern is the melting of permafrost in the shallow waters off the East Siberian Sea, and the probability of a 50 gigaton burst of methane. That is almost as much as the current total GHG annual emissions! But even if we ignore this (as does the IPCC), the increase of methane from thawing permafrost on land in the arctic is accelerating at an alarming rate.
One indication that natural GHG emissions have exceeded human GHG emissions in 2020 is that during the last year of COVID-19 lockdowns and industrial slowdowns, the total atmospheric CO2 levels have not dropped but continue to increase.
2. The Mitigation Myth
So, let’s get real about mitigation…
- The inertia of the climate system and global warming delays the emergence of any discernible response even to strong sustained mitigation. Even net-zero emissions by 2050, if that were possible, would not see measurable effects for at least a decade or two later. In the meantime, the planet continues to warm from emissions from the last 20 to 40 years, plus the emissions in the present.
- The GHS emissions from nature itself continue to increase, as I have already mentioned, thus more than offsetting any human mitigation. We have left mitigation way too late. Effective mitigation needed to start last century, and before anthropogenic GHG emissions and consequential global warming triggered increased natural GHG emissions.
- Multiple self-amplifying climate feedback loops. These include the following:
Permafrost melting, and release of GHGs.
Forests – deforestation, fires, etc.
Loss of ice and the albedo effect.
Atmosphere, water vapour, polar vortex, etc.
These feedback loops have been triggered by our carbon emissions. But they are not a part of the feedback loops. It is therefore fallacious and misleading to suggest that by reducing or eliminating human GHG emissions that the accelerating feedback loop could be slowed down or even reversed!
The rate of change in these feedback loops begin slowly then accelerate exponentially and not in a linear fashion. That is the very nature of a feedback loop.
The oceans are warming (as reported by the IPCC), causing atmospheric warming and ‘irreversible’ climate change. It is just not possible to mitigate this. There is also the aerosol masking effect. The pollution particles in the atmosphere shield the planet from the sun. When those particles are removed or pollution emissions are reduced, the earth warms up. This means that reducing anthropogenic GHGs also often means a reduction in aerosol particles, and the latter has a warming effect almost immediately. This, along with the rise in natural GHG emissions, is an explanation for why the planet has continued to warm during the COVID lockdowns and industrial slowdowns in 2020, despite a 25% drop in anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2020. There has been reduced aerosol particle pollution (shielding from the sun), thus warming the planet.
The planet is warming. This warming is accelerating. It is irreversible. It is nothing short of cognitive dissonance (when you know these facts) to believe that reductions in human generated GHGs can mitigate this.
Following the Failures of Others
There are three main international policies that guide most mitigation proposals, including here in New Zealand. These are:
- The United Nations Framework Convention and Climate Change (UNFCCC)
- The Kyoto Protocol (1997)
- The Paris Agreement (2016)
However, these agreements have been ineffective in reducing carbon emissions. That is because (1) “Global problems require global solutions” (António Guterres, UN Secretary General), and countries have been unable to agree on common solutions, thus allowing different mitigation goals for different countries, and even some countries withdrawing from agreements e.g. the USA. (2) There is a disconnect between what governments pledge in terms of reductions in carbon emissions and their plans to increase fossil fuel production 50% by 2030. Between 2020 and 2024, the oil and gas industry plans to spend US$1.4 trillion on new extraction projects. (3) UN Climate Change Conferences, like COP25 (2019), now block the science, including reports from the IPCC.
The facts about climate change are too inconvenient for maintaining economic growth and the ongoing exploitation of finite resources. “Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist,” says Sir David Attenborough. Also, carbon emissions must be understood in terms of biocapacity and ecological footprint (see following section), and not in isolation from that. Also, “climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”
3. Collapse & Adaptation / Resilience
Climate change must be understood as resulting from overshoot, and in the context of the broader collapse of the biosphere. This poses an existential threat to all life on the planet.
We cannot talk about a climate crisis without talking about an environmental crisis. And we cannot talk about a climate crisis without talking about the global environmental and climate crises. It is then better to consider our ecological footprint rather than just a carbon footprint (which does not consider biocapacity). An ecological deficit occurs when the ‘ecological footprint’ of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the area available to that population. A national ecological deficit (overshoot) means that a nation is importing biocapacity through trade, liquidating national ecological assets or emitting carbon dioxide waste into the atmosphere. An ecological reserve exists when the biocapacity of a region exceeds its population’s ecological footprint. In New Zealand our biocapacity exceeds our ecological footprint by 112%. In China the ecological footprint exceeds biocapacity (i.e. overshoot) by 302%, and in the USA by 133%. Globally we are in overshoot by about 60%, needing 1.6 earths to sustain current global population and consumption levels. The climate crisis is a consequence of this overshoot.
We must also add to this the ongoing destruction, degradation, and polluting of habitat for animal and plant life. The planet is broken, and the natural world, including its climate, is collapsing.
There is a climate emergency, and 2020 has been a year of weather and climate breaking records:
- The hottest year on record for Europe and the Arctic. New records include 38°C in the Arctic, 54.4°C in Death Valley in the Mojave Desert, California. All this during a La Niña and solar minimum. It will get a lot warmer during the next El Niño, especially in the Pacific Ocean region!
- Thirty major Atlantic storms. Typhoon Goni in the Philippines, with winds up to 313 kmph.
- Record atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (414 ppm) despite record ‘human’ carbon emission reduction from COVID-19 lockdowns.
- Net greenhouse gas emissions from nature itself (CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide) further surpassing direct human related emissions (e.g. from industry, agriculture, etc.).
- Polar ice melting. Arctic sea ice extent the second lowest on record. The current trend of ice loss leads to an ice-free arctic in 2025 – 2030. As the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, said in 2017, “If we lose the Arctic, we lose the whole world.”
- Ocean warming and acidification. Warming oceans evaporate more water, and a warming atmosphere holds about 7 percent more moisture per 1°C of warming. Upper ocean temperatures hit a record high in 2020.
- Magnified disruption of the polar jet-streams, dragging warm air into polar regions, and cold air into outside-polar regions, causing extreme and out-of-season weather events..
- Record bush and forest fires around the globe, including the arctic. Destruction of forests and increased desertification. The Amazon rainforest has reached the tipping-point towards irreversible destruction.
Problems may be solved. Predicaments usually cannot. Back in 2009, Richard Lazarus described this as a “super wicked problem.” Because…
- Time is running out.
- There is no central authority.
- Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.
- Policies discount the future irrationally.
Now in 2021 it is evident that…
- Time has already run out to solve this problem and evert collapse. Hence the predicament.
- There is no central authority (even the United Nations) that has the power to address this problem.
- We are the problem.
- It is irrational not to recognize that we are now on an irreversible path of biosphere collapse, which involves escalating climate catastrophes, and eventual extinction.
Greta Thurnberg said “the house is on fire,” and Sir David Attenborough recently asked her “are you an optimist or a pessimist?” She answered, “neither, I’m a realist.” There is no place here for hopium, nor the popular ‘Bob the Builder’ dictum, “Can we fix it? Yes we can!”
Short Reading List
Andrew Glikson, The Event Horizon: Homo Prometheus and the Climate Catastrophe (Springer Nature, 2020)
William R. Catton, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (University of Illinois Press, 1982)
Pablo Servigne, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times (2015)
& Raphaël Stevens [English translation 2020, Polity Press]
Peter Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic (Penguin Press, 2017)
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, 2019). The opening paragraph begins… “It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: ….”
Dahr Jamail, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction (The New Press, New York, 2019)
Guy R. McPherson, Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction (Woodthrush Publications, 2019). ‘The Myth of Sustainability’ Earth & Environmental Science Research & Reviews, Volume 3, Issue 3, 8 July 2020. https://opastonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/the-myth-of-sustainability-eesrr-20.pdf
‘Earth is in the Midst of Abrupt, Irreversible Climate Change’ Journal of Earth and Environmental Sciences Research, Volume 2 (2), 25 May 2020. https://www.onlinescientificresearch.com/articles/earth-is-in-the-midst-of-abrupt-irreversible-climate-change.pdf
Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them (Springer Nature, 2016)
George Tsakraklides , The Age of Separateness and the climate change within (2019), Disposable Earth: How and why we gave our planet an expiration date (2020)
William Ophuls, Apologies to the Grandchildren: Reflections on Our Ecological Predicament, Its Deeper Causes, and Its Political Consequences (2018)
William Ophuls, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (2012)
Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization (2015)
Roy Scranton, We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change (2018)
Michael Huesemann, Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment (New Society Publishers, 2011)
Videos / Websites
Arthur Keller ‘Collapse: The Only Realistic Scenario’ This, in my opinion, is the best explanation of what happens when the ecological footprint exceeds biocapacity. https://youtu.be/qPb_0JZ6-Rc
Kevin Hester https://kevinhester.live/ Kevin Hester lives on Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand.
Guy McPherson Nature Bats Last https://guymcpherson.com/
Paul Beckwith See Paul’s YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/user/PaulHBeckwith
In addition to the articles cited in the footnotes, there are these recent alarming scientific papers…
‘Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future’ by Bradshaw Corey J. A., Ehrlich Paul R., Beattie Andrew, Ceballos Gerardo, Crist Eileen, Diamond Joan, Dirzo Rodolfo, Ehrlich Anne H., Harte John, Harte Mary Ellen, Pyke Graham, Raven Peter H., Ripple William J., Saltré Frédérik, Turnbull Christine, Wackernagel Mathis, Blumstein Daniel T. Frontiers in Conservation Science Journal, Volume 1, 2021 (Published 13 January 2021). https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419
‘Upper Ocean Temperatures Hit Record High in 2020’, Cheng, L., Abraham, J., Trenberth, K.E. et al. Advances in Atmospheric Sciences (12 January 2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00376-021-0447-x
‘Insect decline in the Anthropocene: Death by a thousand cuts’ by David Wagner, Eliza Grames, Matthew Forister, May Berenbaum, and David Stopak PNAS, 12 January 2021, 118 (2)
‘How close are we to the temperature tipping point of the terrestrial biosphere?’ by Katharyn Duffy, Christopher Schwalm, Vickery Arcus, George Koch, Liyin Liang, and Louis Schipper, Science Advances, Vol. 7, No.3 (13 January 2021) https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/3/eaay1052/tab-pdf
‘Net Zero and Other Climate Delusions’ by Elisabeth Robson, 9 January 2021
‘What if we stopped Pretending? – The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.’ by Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker (8 September 2019)
 The main greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere are water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3).
 Xi-Liu Yue and Qing-Xian Gao ‘Contributions of natural systems and human activity to greenhouse gas emissions’ Advances in Climate Change Research, Volume 9, Issue 4 (December 2018), pages 243-252. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.accre.2018.12.003
 New Zealand contributes 0.17% of global emissions.
 Dr. Peter Wadham, Professor Emeritus University of Cambridge. See Robert Hunziker ‘Menacing Methane – An Analysis’ Counterpunch (15 December 2020).
 Samset, B.H., Fuglestvedt, J.S. & Lund, M.T. ‘Delayed emergence of a global temperature response after emission mitigation’, Nature Communications Journal 11, 3261 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17001-1
 A self-reinforcing feedback is an accelerating process that occurs in a feedback loop which exacerbates the effects of a small disturbance. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. (Wikipedia).
 See the recent short documentary series at https://feedbackloopsclimate.com This is an excellent series of short documentaries. But they each end with the ludicrous suggestion that it is possible to reverse these feedback loops. As I explain shortly, that is impossible.
 ‘Atmosphere – Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops’ https://youtu.be/mmHlAzZ7qKw Warming causes more moisture in the atmosphere (a GHG), disruption of the Jetstream, and warmer oceans…. another feedback-loop.
 “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” (Albert A. Bartlett)
 New Zealand ‘The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019’… “reduce net emissions of all greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) to zero by 2050.”
 “The ecologically necessary is politically infeasible, but the politically feasible is ecologically irrelevant” – Professor Emeritus William Rees, University of British Columbia. Originator of ecological footprint concept.
 Oil, Gas and The Climate: An Analysis of Oil and Gas Industry Plans for Expansion and Compatibility with Global Emission Limits (Global Gas and Oil Network, December 2019) http://ggon.org/oilgasclimate2019/
 Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein, ‘Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions’ PNAS, February 10, 2009 106 (6) 1704-1709.
 This crisis can be expressed as the direct result of over-population + over-consumption.
 Other ‘effects’ include crop failures and food shortages, civil unrest and political instability, migration, etc. Many recent reports from multiple sources predict this e.g., from Central Banks, Insurance companies, etc.
 The ‘State of the Planet’ address by António Guterres, UN Secretary General, on 2 December 2020. See also the 2020 UN Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report, and the dismal failure to halt biosphere collapse. Setting new goals for the next five years to halt biodiversity collapse are ridiculous and not achievable given the almost total failure to meet the goals for the last five years.
 To date, 1,859 jurisdictions in 33 countries have issuedclimate emergency declarations covering more than 820 million people.
 The reduction is about 25%. See the UN Emissions Gap Report 2020 (December 2020).
 Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times (2015, English Translation 2020).
 Guy R. McPherson, Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction (2019).
 Planetary warming of 4°C will result in mass extinction for almost all species (including humans). See Giovanni Strona and Cory Bradshaw, ‘Co-extinctions annihilate planetary life during extreme environmental change. Scientific Reports, 8, 16724 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-35068-1
 Richard Lazarus, ‘Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future’ Cornell Law Review. 94 (5, 2009): 1153–1233.
 See the following ‘Reading List’ on collapse. To use an analogy, the planet is in hospice.
 Besides, politics at a national level (if not all levels) seems to be more about popularity than policy.
 We are Homo Narcissus. “Around two thirds of global emissions are linked to private household activities according to consumption-based accounting.” UN Emissions Gap Report 2020 (December 2020), page xxiv, and chapter 6. Add to this the observation that “the emissions of the richest 1 per cent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent.”