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Speed Is As Important As Scale

July 10, 2024

Heat records are falling almost daily. 1 in 1,000 year floods are becoming seasonal. The collapse of Antarctic sea ice, predicted to happen later this century, is now occurring in “real-time”. If you feel like climate breakdown has suddenly accelerated, then you are not alone.

Many climate-induced tipping points —sudden, irreversible changes in climate and ecology — are emerging far sooner than scientists had expected. Margaret Klein Salmon, a climate psychologist and veteran activist, recently said:

“What people don’t understand is that even people like me are surprised at how badly this is going. I thought we had more time.”

Alongside this, there is currently a debate as to whether or not warming is not just increasing, but accelerating. Though many believe previous models remain consistent, the influential climate scientist James Hansen claims to have found a post-2010 acceleration of the warming trend.

It is well understood how dramatic changes in climate cause breakdown — we have a vast record of mass extinctions to remind us. But less well understood is how the speed of the changes impacts overall outcomes. The mass extinction events of the past all occurred over differing time spans, whilst other significant changes in paleo-climates led to no obvious extinction event. Previous models have assumed it is only the scale of atmospheric changes that determines the progression of climate breakdown. Modern research suggests the speed of change may be as, if not more, consequential than scale.

Collision Speed

Research by Ritchie et al (2023) explains the phenomenon of ‘rate-induced tipping points’ and its relation to climate breakdown. Rate-induced tipping is when the rapidity of change within an open system is enough to cause it to lose stability, prior to the reaching of a scale-based critical threshold. Worse, the drop in stability is exacerbated by how quickly you reach its critical threshold. The new equilibrium state reached (a chaotic realignment) will also diverge more strongly from the original state, the faster the tipping point is approached.

Regarding climate change, take for example an ice shelf predicted to collapse at 3°C of warming. If the speed of warming crossed some critical threshold, then the ice shelf could collapse before reaching the 3°C tipping point, because of the instability induced by rapid change. Furthermore, the level of climate instability ultimately reached will be more extreme the faster the change. This could mean the difference between the disappearance of seasonal sea ice, or the complete collapse of polar glaciers.

The paper goes on to point out that while easy to model in broad strokes, in a system as complex as the climate, ‘rate-induced tipping points’ are almost impossible to predict exactly. If we do not know what exact rate of warming crosses the critical threshold, we risk crossing it blindly.

Putting The Brakes On

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator”United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres

If some degree of warming is inevitable, then it is incredibly important we reach it later, rather than sooner. If we cannot yet fully avoid them, then we must decelerate our climate impacts. Not just to avoid the risk of prematurely triggering tipping points, but to ensure that if they do arrive, they are less damaging. It’s like the difference between crashing your car at 50 mph, or at 100. The end result is directly related to how fast you get there.

Triggering any of the major tipping points — melting permafrost, sea-ice loss, or gulf stream breakdown — is an irreversible, worst-case scenario. But there is a long way between a hot, unstable future and one in which complex civilization is impossible. Some worst-case scenario’s are worse than others.

So what can we do to decelerate? It might be tempting to suggest radical solutions to slow warming down, at least for the short term. For example, solar dimming is proposed as a way to slow warming whilst we wean off fossil fuels. But solar dimming is at least 200-year prospect, and stopping it sooner could lead to a sudden jump in temperatures. Thus leading to exactly the situation we need to avoid: change happening too fast.

Other geoengineering, especially softer varieties, might be more appropriate. Sir David King has proposed seeding arctic clouds, which would reflect sunlight and help arctic sea ice persist longer — or at least disappear more slowly. Pleistocene Park in Siberia is using the action of reintroduced megafauna to slow permafrost thawing, and this example could be expanded across Russia, Canada, and northern Scandinavia. Even if both these methods only slowed down their respective tipping points, it would make the new state they ‘flip’ to less divergent from the present.

In our societies too we can slow down, even if we can’t yet stop. The 4-day work week campaign, whilst not fundamentally altering our economy, might slow down the rate of its emissions. Campaigners also play an important role here, even when they fail. If their actions delay climate destruction, then they lessen the risk of triggering rate-induced tipping points — even if they only delay the arrival of scale-induced tipping points.

These might seem like uncontentious, easy-to-implement processes. After all, slowing down often doesn’t require anything radically new, just putting the brakes on existing modes of operation. But this approach poses a quandary. Even if the overall goal is to slow down, certain aspects of the modern world, the carbon-based energy system for example, must be rapidly scaled down to avoid unlivable climate breakdown.

Replacing this infrastructure with ‘green’ energy is still likely to have a heavy carbon cost, especially if we do it rapidly and with contemporary construction methods. Slowing down the replacement and doing more of it with low-energy, low-carbon methods will take much more time, leaving a shortfall between removed carbon power and replacement green power.

This is only a problem if we subscribe to the cult that everything must expand, faster and forever. Maybe this lag period will give us time to reevaluate our priorities. Do all energy demands even need to be replaced? Can we live better with less? Even if you conclude an emphatic ‘no’, a cornucopia future — or any livable future for that matter — must take the slow road to get there.

Ben Shread-Hewitt

Ben is a Polycrisis researcher who studies the feedback loops between change in ecological, political, and economic systems. He currently works at the Climate Bonds Initiative, where he is building financial networks to drive forward climate action and combat fossil fuel proliferation.

He has an MSc in Sustainability, Planning, and Environmental Policy. Find him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Medium.