One simple fact is constantly ignored by the climate change skepticism that dominates official thinking in America. The climate and the environment are complex, dynamic systems, and no one claims our interventions are responsible for the totality of climate change.
Nonetheless, this is the straw man attacked constantly by the skeptics, who also constantly use the phrase ‘global warming’, not climate change. Of course, an overall warming of the planet will still cause localised cooling – like here in the UK when the Deep Ocean Conveyer switches off.
We should probably also note that they overlap to a large degree with people who subscribe to the notion of intelligent design, and who therefore probably don’t believe in scientific method. Anyway, both groups are highly selective in the scientific arguments they deem credible.
But our interventions do increase instability, and bring closer the time in which this dynamic system will find a new equilibrium. And it’s highly unlikely that new equilibrium will be as friendly to humans and cute furry mammals as that in which our civilisations have developed and flourished, in which our very species has developed and flourished.
This is a classic example:
Plants around the world are using water much more efficiently, thanks to increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The effect is so pronounced, says a new study, that it is massively increasing river flows and raising the risks of flooding. “We think it has added about 2000 cubic kilometres to annual global runoff, which is a pretty big deal” says Nicola Gedney of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter, UK, who led the study.
The climate and environment are a complex feedback system; major changes trigger adaptations, which will in turn feed back into climate change. It just doesn’t seem that tough an idea to get your head round.
If you want a real scare, check out methyl hydrates:
Then there are the two jokers in the pack. One is represented by the possibility of weakening of the Atlantic conveyor, which could bring renewed glaciation to Western Europe and eventually elsewhere as during the Younger Dryas 12,000 years ago.
The other is represented by the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect, as at earlier times in the Earth’s history, such as at the Palaeocene / Eocene boundary 55 million years ago. Recent studies of ocean sediments have shown that 55 million years ago the Arctic sea had an average temperature of 20ºC. There was massive die back of marine creatures as carbon dioxide levels soared to between 2,000 and 3,000 parts per million. In each case vast releases of methane, from melting tundra and the release of methyl hydrates from the ocean floor, may have been the cause.
But I suspect those who lead this particular battle of the propaganda and culture wars don’t care – leaving aside the millennialists among them, they represent wealth allied with military power, and may not be unhappy to see a much reduced human population living in fortress-like enclosures (not unlike J.G. Ballard’s Wind from Nowhere) under military and corporatist rule.
And as you probably know, Greenland’s ice sheet is melting twice as fast as we thought three years ago.
Systems, equilibrium, rest states, phase change, feedback. However you describe them, they’re simple concepts.