The Day After Next Week

"Most climate modeling — and it has gotten much better with AI — says that there is a point where natural feedbacks take over warming and mere human mortals no longer have agency."


In May, Apple+ TV began running The Day After Tomorrow in its streaming lineup. I had not watched it since its release twenty years ago, but I spent two hours and 4 minutes going back over that “changed reality.” Those were the words in the dialogue used by the Cheney-like President of the United States to describe his surroundings in Mexico City after half of North America evacuated southward.

“Not only Americans, but people all around the globe are now guests in nations we once called the Third World. In our time of need they have taken us in and sheltered us, and I am deeply grateful for their hospitality.”

I am sitting in quiet contemplation staring at my coffee. The roasted beans, from a small women’s cooperative in Tepotzlan, Mexico, were brought to me three weeks ago by a friend of 30 years. She passed quietly in her sleep a few nights after she left here.

At my age, you become inured to death. It feels like nearly every week another old companion sheds his or her mortal coil. I told my friend (who was only a month older than me) when we parted that I would rather we reunited more often in life than attend the other’s funeral. I have grown weary of funerals.

Those in war zones or scenes of climate catastrophe and migration have these experiences not weekly but daily, or even hourly. We pundits, living in safe havens, do not have to grieve in quite the same way. We can take time to recount lives well lived and honor the departed.

As I consider how best to allocate my own time remaining, I think of autobiographies, scrapbooks, and travel to the sacred and the mundane. Then it comes back to… why?

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In 2004, The Day After Tomorrow was criticized for depicting an imaginary scenario that could never happen in the real world. The closing image, as credits roll, is the satellite view of half of North America covered in ice. It is not that that couldn’t happen — it has been that way many times before — but that a cessation of the Atlantic conveyor would bring it about in a matter of hours.

Hours, no. Centuries, certainly. Years, or even months, possibly. Twenty years after The Day After we can no longer call it impossible.

Most climate modeling — and it has gotten much better with AI — says that there is a point where natural feedbacks take over warming and mere human mortals no longer have agency. We are headed, willy-nilly, to Hothouse Earth, whether on an electric bike or a mule.

I guess what I am contemplating, staring at my coffee, is whether there will be anyone left to read this blog — or any kind of writing — in not that many more years. This is the same kind of ghastly meditation that I fell into 18 years ago when I learned my daughter-in-law was pregnant. That granddaughter graduates from high school this week. What will her life be like? I can barely imagine.

Considering that modeling typically understates risk — almost all real-world indicators are outpacing computer projections by generations to centuries — it is at least plausible that irreversible acceleration has already arrived. Climate monitor Bruce Melton provides this list:

  • Major hurricane intensity, 50 years ahead
  • Gulf Stream reduction, 90 years ahead
  • Amazon flip, 70 years ahead
  • Antarctic collapse, 100 years ahead
  • Arctic sea ice, 70 years ahead
  • Permafrost collapse, 70 years ahead
  • Upper ocean stratification, 6 times faster than projected
  • Ocean acidity, 62 years ahead
  • Ocean temperature, 40 years ahead
  • Winter storms, 80 years ahead in Southern hemisphere
  • Air temperature in the Arctic, up to 80 years ahead
  • Thermokarst lake drainage ahead, 60 to 80 years ahead
  • Average 30-year Houston rainfall, 80 years ahead
  • Sea level rise, 80 percent greater than projected
  • Ocean heat uptake, 50 percent greater than projected
  • Half of known tipping points are up to 100 years ahead of projections

A few other for-instances:

  • The Amazon rainforest, once one of the lungs of the planet exchanging CO2 for oxygen, is now net emitting more than a billion tons of CO2 (1 Gt CO2eq) annually. The flooding in Southern Brazil is only a small part of what will come of that.
  • Melting permafrost adds another 2.3 billion tons of CO2 yearly, which was not true for at least the past million years.
  • In Texas today, actual rainfall is 39 percent greater than it is supposed to be in 2081–2100, or 60 to 80 years ahead of projections
  • The World Meteorological Organization’s 53-page Climate Change Indicators 2023 Report placed 2023 as the warmest year on record, and not by a small amount.

From January through December, we were 1.45 Celsius above the 1850 to 1900 baseline. If you do a sliding average and tack on January and February of this year, we are well over the 1.5°C IPCC warned was a dangerous tipping point with irreversible consequences.

It is not only that global temperature has increased, the rate of increase has doubled since 2010. It is not just the change that is alarming, but the accelerating rate of change. Last year the rate of change of atmospheric CO2 went up by 81%.

The monthly average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere measured at NOAA’s Mauna Kea Observatory in March 2024 was 4.7 parts per million (ppm) higher than March 2022. Most years the annual rise is around 2 parts per million. The previous El Niño year, 2016, set a record of 2.6 ppm January to January. That was 8 years ago. The new record is 4.7.

Rising Tide

Since 2010, global sea level rise has ticked up 4.77 millimeters per year, but that is a global average. Along the American Atlantic seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico, the rise has been 12 to 14.5 mm/y or 7 to 8 inches (177.8–203.2 mm) total since 2010.

In a letter to Nature March 19, 2024, “Climate models can’t explain 2023’s huge heat anomaly — we could be in uncharted territory,” NASA GISS Director Gavin Schmidt warned:

For the past nine months, mean land and sea surface temperatures have overshot previous records each month by up to 0.2 °C — a huge margin at the planetary scale. A general warming trend is expected because of rising greenhouse-gas emissions, but this sudden heat spike greatly exceeds predictions made by statistical climate models that rely on past observations. Many reasons for this discrepancy have been proposed but, as yet, no combination of them has been able to reconcile our theories with what has happened.
***
In general, the 2023 temperature anomaly has come out of the blue, revealing an unprecedented knowledge gap perhaps for the first time since about 40 years ago, when satellite data began offering modellers an unparalleled, real-time view of Earth’s climate system. If the anomaly does not stabilize by August — a reasonable expectation based on previous El Niño events — then the world will be in uncharted territory. It could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates, much sooner than scientists had anticipated.

The tropics and sub-tropics are highly susceptible to extreme drought. Currently, 40 percent of the world’s population lives there. It had been commonly projected that by 2050, half of the world would reside in those regions, but now, given the increasing instability of the Equatorial region, those projections seem less likely. Rather, out-migration by more than 2 billion people seems credible. But, migration to where?

AMOC runs amok

Another of the concerns is the rate of slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), or what the late climate science pioneer Wallace Broeker called the Atlantic Conveyor. This global ocean current is a major driver of weather systems and the reason why Havana can be pleasant in the summer and it rains so much in London. The Atlantic Conveyor moves ocean heat from the equator to Ireland and Great Britain, passing the Atlantic Seaboard and Maritime Provinces along the way. Polar downwelling sends it deeper and returns cold water to the tropics.

In The Biochar Solution (New Society Publishers 2009), I described evidence that the Little Ice Age may have been at least partially caused by South and Central American genocide during the 16th and 17th centuries. Historic climate records show an anomalously cold period in Europe from ~1400 to 1620 CE, unique in the context of the past ~3 millennia. Before this abrupt temperature decline, Europe had experienced a double warm peak in the 14th century, which drove the Moors out of Africa into Spain, bringing about the creation of Toledo steel, gunpowder weapons, and the Andalusian war horse, among other military innovations, leading to the conquest of the Americas by numerically inferior armies with advanced technology. The loss of upwards of 99% of the population of Amazonian Americans due to diseases, war, and enslavement rapidly reforested the tropics, thanks in no small measure to the man-made terra preta soils. This caused the withdrawal of 7 to 10 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and concurrently, c.1600 the AMOC declined to its lowest rate of heat transfer in 1500 years (from a high in the 1320–1389 period). Sea surface temperature in the Labrador Sea remained anomalously low until 1720. Sweden’s horse-drawn cannon crossed the frozen Baltic Sea to invade Denmark.

Three Degrees of Separation

Once a collapse begins in any system, it does not self-repair unless the perturbation to the system that caused the collapse is removed. A recent Guardian survey of the world’s leading climate experts (the lead authors of IPCC reports) found that 77% of respondents believe global temperatures will reach at least 2.5C above preindustrial levels, and almost half — 42% — think it will be more than 3C.

On May 8th, the paper reported:

From experts in the atmosphere and oceans, energy and agriculture, economics and politics, the mood of almost all those the Guardian heard from was grim. And the future many painted was harrowing: famines, mass migration, conflict. “I find it infuriating, distressing, overwhelming,” said one expert, who chose not to be named. “I’m relieved that I do not have children, knowing what the future holds,” said another.

In a follow-up article, the paper looked at what a 3-degree world might be like. Two billion people would be pushed outside humanity’s “climate niche,” ie: “the benighted conditions in which the whole of civilization arose over the past 10,000 years.” It will not just be Porto Alegre, Nairobi, or Kabul disappearing under water, but Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Miami and The Hague. Food prices will spike, drinking water will be scarce, and refugees will stream out of disaster areas by the millions.


Were the AMOC to continue its present deceleration, another Little Ice Age could strike Ireland, Wales and Scotland by mid-century or sooner. While the Baltic Sea countries would also be affected, Southern and Central Europe might become far hotter and dryer (as we are seeing now) as would the Caribbean Basin, Gulf of Mexico, and lower Atlantic Seaboard.

Whether I will live to see these changes is anyone’s guess. Most likely, my granddaughter will witness those, and many more.

“I think we are headed for major societal disruption within the next five years,” said Gretta Pecl, at the University of Tasmania. “[Authorities] will be overwhelmed by extreme event after extreme event, food production will be disrupted. I could not feel greater despair over the future.”

Strangely enough, I don’t feel despair. Perhaps I am just accustomed to the horror in the same way I am inured to the deaths of so many old friends, but I don’t think so. I think it gives me a chance to do something heroic in my life, which gets me out of bed in the morning. There is a great change underway. It will transform everything. We will not continue to destroy everything we touch. We will be forced into finding harmony with nature. Our economic systems will become biophysically sustainable and regenerative. We will, perforce, take carbon from the atmosphere and ocean, make energy, and then bury that carbon in the ground. We will honor the sun and respect it. We will return to the original instructions.

I only pray we do it in time.

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References

Armstrong McKay DI, Staal A, Abrams JF, Winkelmann R, Sakschewski B, Loriani S, Fetzer I, Cornell SE, Rockström J, Lenton TM. Exceeding 1.5 C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points. Science. 2022 Sep 9;377(6611):eabn7950.

Carrington, D., World’s top climate scientists expect global heating to blast past 1.5C target, The Guardian, May 8, 2024.

Caesar L, McCarthy GD, Thornalley DJ, Cahill N, Rahmstorf S. Current Atlantic meridional overturning circulation weakest in last millennium. Nature Geoscience. 2021 Mar;14(3):118–20.

Chen X, Tung KK. Evidence lacking for a pending collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. Nature Climate Change. 2024 Jan;14(1):40–2.

Couplet V, Kleinen T, Lear CH, Lohmann J. Climate tipping point interactions and cascades: a review. Earth System Dynamics. 2024 Jan 26;15(1):41–74.

Hansen JE, Sato M, Simons L, Nazarenko LS, Sangha I, Kharecha P, Zachos JC, von Schuckmann K, Loeb NG, Osman MB, Jin Q. Global warming in the pipeline. Oxford Open Climate Change. 2023 Jan 1;3(1):kgad008.

Lenton TM, Buxton JE, Armstrong McKay DI, Abrams JF, Boulton CA, Lees K, Powell TW, Boers N, Cunliffe AM, Dakos V. A resilience sensing system for the biosphere. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 2022

Lenton TM, Benson S, Smith T, Ewer T, Lanel V, Petykowski E, Powell TW, Abrams JF, Blomsma F, Sharpe S. Operationalising positive tipping points towards global sustainability. Global Sustainability. 2022 Jan;5:e1.

Matthews HD, Wynes S. Current global efforts are insufficient to limit warming to 1.5 C. Science. 2022 Jun 24;376(6600):1404–9.

Rockström J, Kotzé L, Milutinović S, Biermann F, Brovkin V, Donges J, Ebbesson J, French D, Gupta J, Kim R, Lenton T. The planetary commons: A new paradigm for safeguarding Earth-regulating systems in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2024 Jan 30;121(5):e2301531121.

Schellnhuber HJ. Tipping elements in the Earth System. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2009 Dec 8;106(49):20561–3.

Smith W, Bartels M, Boers J, Rice C. On thin ice: Solar geoengineering to manage tipping element risks in the cryosphere by 2040. Authorea Preprints. 2024 Apr 18.

van Westen, René M., Michael Kliphuis, and Henk A. Dijkstra. “Physics-based early warning signal shows that AMOC is on tipping course.” Science advances 10, no. 6 (2024): eadk1189.

Wunderling N, Winkelmann R, Rockström J, Loriani S, Armstrong McKay DI, Ritchie PD, Sakschewski B, Donges JF. Global warming overshoots increase risks of climate tipping cascades in a network model. Nature Climate Change. 2023 Jan;13(1):75–82

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