All of a sudden: Climate change tipping points appear with a vengeance

August 8, 2021

Across the world climate change seems to have arrived earlier than expected. There are world-class athletes with bodies trained for endurance and strength breaking down from the extreme heat visited on the Tokyo Olympics by mother nature. There are the continuing wildfires in the American West that take out entire towns. The drought there is so bad that states are thinking about paying farmers NOT to irrigate their crops as a conservation strategy.

One of the other effects of climate change is heavier rains and devastating floods. Recent floods in Germany were caused by rains characterized as once-in-a-millennium, rains which, for example, killed more than 200 people and caused $1.5 billion in damage to the German railway network. But, of course, statements about once-in-a-fill-in-the-blank rains or droughts seem less and less relevant in the age of climate change as what we call extraordinarily destructive weather just morphs into “the weather.”

Once-in-a-millennium rains also visited parts of China recently dumping in just three days an entire year’s rainfall on one town of 12 million.

The infrastructure we have built and the way we work and live are simply not designed for these extremes. Our systems are breaking down under the pressure of climate-change-induced extreme weather.

But the scariest thing is that all of the incidents I cited above could happen all over again next year and the next year and the next after that in the same places as extreme weather worsens and becomes just “weather.” In California, 2020 marked the worst fire season ever in the state. But 2021 is now on pace to be even worse.

We are now reaching tipping points in the direct, destructive and destabilizing effects of climate on humans and their infrastructure. We can no longer simply ignore these effects. We can no longer simply bask obliviously in the sunshine of unseasonably warm winter days without acknowledging their terrible message as many of my fellow Washingtonians did when I first arrived in the city in 2018.

There are hidden tipping points waiting for us to hit them. And, there are ones that are out in the open and well-studied. When most viewers watched the 2004 fictional film “The Day After Tomorrow,” they marvelled at the special effects while dismissing the collapsed timeline for a dramatic, sudden and overwhelming freeze in Europe and North America—within a week in the film. The freeze depicted results from the collapse of the Gulf Stream which pumps heat from tropical waters northward, keeping the American and Canadian eastern coasts and much of northern Europe far warmer than they would otherwise be. A cessation of this current is believed to be one of the possible outcomes of climate change.

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What scientists now suspect is that this critical river of water and heat in the Atlantic Ocean is not only slowing, but also losing its stability. The fear is that the current could shut down unexpectedly and suddenly and that effects would be felt within months—not as quickly as in a Hollywood movie, but quickly enough to create catastrophic consequences for the food supply, economic activity and human migration even while all those reading this sentence are still alive. And that is just one key tipping point.

Will we humans rally and address this and other looming climate threats? Some will try and even try very hard. But to truly reverse climate change now so late in the game would require draconian measures that few people would tolerate. For those who say that we will adapt, we now have an emerging picture of just what that adaptation involves. For many “adaptation” will simply mean ruin. For the truly unlucky, it will mean death.

This image demonstrates the rising temperatures in Earth’s atmosphere.
Date 3 April 2020. NASA via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:This_image_demonstrates_the_rising_temperatures_in_Earth%27s_atmosphere.jpg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: climate change