Are We “Past the Tipping Point”? Don’t Panic!

Icy rain was hitting my window as I read through my Twitter feed. November’s gray gloom made the afternoon feel like an endless evening, and a recent report published in Nature titled “An earth system model shows self-sustained melting of permafrost even if all man-made GHG emissions stop in 2020,” getting lots of attention, added to the creepiness.

Two Norwegian business school professors, Jorgen Randers and Ulrich Goluke, had run two climate modeling scenarios, and come up with this terrifying conclusion: “…the world is already past a point-of-no-return for global warming.” They based their conclusion on 3 factors: declining levels of Arctic ice and snow leading to a lessening of the albedo effect; increasing amounts of water vapor (steam) in the atmosphere; and methane and carbon dioxide emissions from the melting—they should have called it “thawing”—of permafrost.

(Thawing permafrost is not good, but by far the most methane emissions come from the oil and gas sector of the economy. Here is one example of that from a natural gas (methane) blowout in Ohio.)

The pushback was furious, in essence: “You don’t get to do nothing now and use this as an excuse!” especially from youth climate activists.

Alexandria Villaseñor, who started the Fridays for Future Climate Strike in New York City tweeted:

"actually we're past the point of no return...on recruiting new people to become climate activists who won't accept this horrible take" -- @AlexandriaV2005

Calm down, says staff writer for Earther Dharna Noor, in her article summarizing climate scientists’ critiques to the business professors’ report. Scientists point out that the modeling is simplistic, exaggerates the concentrations of atmospheric water vapor and the impacts of methane, and, as NASA scientist Kate Marvel points out, leaves out “large-scale movement of air and water in the atmosphere and ocean.” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and energy systems analyst, was harsh in his judgment: “…the paper is crap that should not have passed any competent peer review.”

Any report or news item can be used as a drum to beat out an alarm, often with an accompanying “solution.” Carbon capture and storage, which Randers and Goluke support. Geo-engineering. Colonizing Mars. Somebody, probably a Somebody with big bucks and a bigger communications platform, is going to use this report to promote a self-serving solution. Others will use this report’s conclusion as evidence that it’s too late, so let’s all continue as we have been doing.

But Alexandria Villaseñor is exactly right: the latest report cannot be the latest excuse to enjoy a heaping serving of inertia, with apathy and hopelessness on the side.

I want us adults not to panic and to play off of Greta Thunberg’s famous statement at the World Economic Forum in 2019. Panicking often leads to distraction, false and easy “solutions,” and unproductive guilt.

Extinction Rebellion has a slogan I haven’t heard in a while: “We’re the fire alarm, not the fire department.” Meaning that XR’s role is to sound the alarm, not to pretend that there is a single “solution,” but to call for truth telling and citizens’ assemblies where plans for climate crisis response can be democratically generated.

“Ring the bells that still can ring.”

Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Defending Democracy

Support City fees on big carbon polluters!