What if it’s too late to reverse climate change?

In this Nov. 11, 2012 file photo, several people float in flooded St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. High tides flooded Venice, leading Venetians and tourists to don high boots and use wooden walkways to cross St. Mark’s Square and other areas under water. (AP Photo/Luigi Costantini, File)

It’s getting increasingly hard for an old man, such as myself, to listen to the latest status reports on the state of the climate on terra firma and not think, “what do you want me to do about it?”, because there appears to be nothing I can do about it.

The idea that the countries of the planet can somehow get together to stop what clearly is happening seems quaint, or, perhaps, a piece of science fiction. The countries of the planet are not going to get together anytime soon; the people in this country aren’t even going to get together on the issue anytime soon. That much surely must be obvious to people casually following the ongoing debate.

Those same thoughts were racing through what’s left of my mind today while listening to Kerri Miller’s conversation on the Daily Circuit with scientists who specialize in mammals of the Arctic. One was describing the thinning ice there, and its impact, setting off a cycle of melting that — it seemed to me — cannot possibly be reversed.

That’s when one of them — I couldn’t tell if it was University of Washington marine mammal ecologist Kristin Laidre or Kate Stafford — said it out loud.

“It may be too late,” she said. “We’ve probably reached the tipping point.”

“What does that mean for the mammals?” Kerri asked.

She probably didn’t mean the only mammal I was particularly concerned about. It seems relatively obvious what’s going to happen to the mammals who depend on a habitat that needs ice.

As of yesterday, here’s the status of Arctic ice. The orange denotes the median ice pack for the last quarter of the 20th century.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center assessment of Arctic sea ice as of June 3, 2013.

This Snow and Ice Data Center graph — updated yesterday — showed the rapid reduction in ice in 2012, and so far 2013 looks to be about the same.

Graph courtesy of the Snow and Ice Data Center

On his Updraft blog, meteorologist Paul Huttner notes that Minnesota is literally “the coolest place on earth.” But the rest of the planet is anything but. “Globally, 2013 is the 8th warmest year on record so far,” he says.

We have spent so many decades listening to the debate over whether climate change is occurring, that we seem to have finally reached the point where the conversation must transition to something more. Do we move inland? Do we begin to abandon the coastal cities? Do we shovel sand against the tide? Do we just open the champagne and toast a planet on which we had a great run, while we listen to the band play Nearer, My God to Thee?

When a scientist says “it may be too late,” it’s time to have a different conversation.

  • BReynolds33

    Well… that’s not depressing at all.

  • Britt Robson

    I absolutely agree that it is time to move to the next stage of this now-easily truncated debate. Because the comeback from the deniers is always, “well, China and India aren’t doing anything about it,” meaning it is a doomed enterprise anyway.

    So let’s talk about responses to the doom.

  • andy

    Sigh, human nature is to put issues like this off until something horrible happens. When a super-storm or flood or hurricane, etc. takes out hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, then and probably only then will the remaining populous start to take notice. As Britt said, we’ll have to talk about the responses to disasters, not how to prevent them. That’s just my glass-half-empty opinion though.

  • I think one reason the conversation hasn’t changed is that people who are most active in the effort to reverse climate change view that as “giving up” and worry that if the conversation does go there, people will decide there’s no longer any reason to change their habits or policies or whatever because it’s “too late” to make a difference.

    • MrE85

      What Mark said.

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the very definition of a “tipping point?”

      • raflw

        There has been an anti-tipping point in the Republican party in the past 10 years. They went from supporting cap and trade or other market mechanisms to full, outright denialism. We may simply have to write off the GOP when it comes to this issue. The time for debate has passed, and if Republicans (I’m speaking here of officials) simply refuse to deal with reality as it stares them in the face, then they’ve forfeited their place at the table. I see nothing in the stampede towards extinction that counts as ‘conservative.’
        I’m sure we’d all like to be polite and bi-partisan here at MPR, but I’m calling it as I see it: one of the two major parties refuses to even admit there’s a problem. As those in recovery know, sometimes you have to take a seriously tough-love position and not take any guff anymore. Deal with that life is handing you, or get out of the way.

      • noen

        There are several tipping points. A 2 degree C rise in global temps for this century is probably unavoidable. A 4 or 6 degree rise is not. Not yet anyway. We can mitigate the former and prevent the latter. Hand wringing will guarantee we do neither.

  • KTN

    Too late for what. Is reversal what we are hoping to achieve, or are we looking at ways to mitigate the input.
    Mammals will go extinct even if we go back to 250ppm co2. New mammals will be discovered even now with atmospheric carbon exceeding 400ppm.

    If you look at the whole idea of climate change as an individual, it’s pretty depressing. Taken in aggregate, the changes being implemented currently by our country and others will make a difference in limiting carbon from entering the atmosphere. So, no, putting ethanol in your tank, or riding to work once a week, will not themselves make a difference, but taking the long view, they will.

  • There’s nothing about this post that’s about deniers. but it illustrates a point. We’ve gotten so accustomed to framing the climate change discussion in terms of believers v. non-believers, that we’re utterly incapable of having the more important discussion at this point. We just default back to the same, tired one we’ve been having for decades.

    • tboom

      How true. I replied to MrE85 in the traditional “what can we do to reduce CO2” response,completely missing your “let’s talk about getting to higher ground” point.

      Hopefully, if we can get a “higher ground” discussion going, the “measures we can take to reduce the problem” discussion will move forward (which I think you already pointed out).

      As an aside, I’m not sure I understand the new NEWS CUT. Do I hit the “reply” to post or do I use the “leave a message” box?

      • the “reply” will thread the message to the COMMENT. It’s actually kind of a cool feature compared to the old days when there was just a big long list of comments. The “leave a message” box is to comment on the post itself. So “leave a message” for a comment on the post, “reply” to respond to a particular comment.

  • By the way, there are folks talking about climate adaptation in Minnesota. Here’s a report currently out for public comment (comments due today): http://www.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/view-document.html?gid=15414

    • Kat S.

      Thanks, Mark, that’s fascinating reading, especially the agriculture pieces. I’m dismayed by so much of the change already occuring to a climate and home that I love, but I admit one thing gives me some comfort: the possibility of fresh peaches in Minnesota.
      We’ve planted some peach trees. We’ll see how they do. Yes, it’s a miniscule and private step forward, but it’s somewhere to start. I find I have an easier time thinking about larger societal actions and changes that need to be made if I can keep the peaches in mind.

  • Jeff00

    In the debate over climate change, and the potential use of executive order to reduce coal plant CO2 emissions, it seems that you are either for major regulation, or a “climate change denier”. As far as scientific facts go it seems the most certain that by analyzing ice cores and stalagmites we can determine that earth has gone through abrupt climate change long before humans and our coal plants. Some studies show that earth experienced drastic climate changes in as short as 50 years, the symptoms of our human irresponsibility diagnosing a problem long ago. Looking at a historical pattern we are in a change like so many others in the past. Our V8 engines and energy producers perhaps no such a large percentage of the cause for such a change. If people are expecting heavy regulation to prevent the rising ocean than many us of are in for a surprise when deserts start blowing and the ocean rising over our coal-free, bankrupted shores.

  • Mary Warner

    Hi, Bob – Good to meet you at the Citizens League event a couple weeks ago. I posted the Implications Wheel I was inspired to create from your blog post on climate change. You can see it on my blog here: http://woowooteacup.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/climate-change-implications-wheel/

    Thanks for sparking a thought-provoking topic.