Climate change is humanity’s biggest own goal ever

It started raining so hard the other week that animals began lining up two-by-two to board a boat owned by my neighbours.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

I am only being slightly hyperbolic with that statement. Topsy-turvy weather seems to be the name of the game at the moment, not just in my neighbourhood but right around the world as far as I can tell.

It’s a direct outcome of the obvious issue – climate change, in which humanity’s own industrial wastes – notably carbon dioxide build-up over the past 250-odd years, particularly – have been the triggering factor. It’s an own goal of the largest dimension, and the immediate outcome is chaotic weather patterns in which the weather systems are, literally, being pushed out of place. Later on that will be joined by rising sea levels, along with more chaotic weather as the northern ice cap continues to dwindle.

Steps to try and limit the carbon dioxide buildup are steps in the right direction – but I can’t help thinking it’s too little and too late. The die is cast; these things gain momentum, and the point about world climate is that it’s a meta-stable entity. This means it can lurch, relatively quickly, from one point of stability to another.

Right now, we seem to be in the middle of just such a lurch. And the end point won’t be convenient to the civilisation we’ve built, not least because a lot of it is on the coastline.

The fact that our own endeavours are also leading to – at the very least – our own inconvenience is clear enough. Of course climate change happens naturally too – the climate was changing in various ways well before humans appeared on the scene in quantity enough to also have an impact.

All kinds of factors have been identified behind those shifts, all of them working together in various ways to create specific outcomes. These include thermohaline circulation (for example, the Gulf Stream). There’s also insolation – the intensity of the Sun, which varies in part because of minor variations in Earth’s orbital distance, in part because the Sun itself varies slightly. Relationships have been postulated between cloud cover and climate, and that’s also been put down in part to the effects of cosmic ray saturation. Vulcanism also has its effects.  Into that mix also goes very long-term and esoteric issues such as continental drift and the geographic arrangement of the oceans and land.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

All of these factors have changed the climate in combination. Sometimes one factor has been dominant in the shift, sometimes another. During the Pleistocene the world oscillated between long ice ages and short inter-glacials, all with their own mix of triggers. The most recent such shift was the ‘Little Ice Age’ which began around the mid-fifteenth century and continued to the mid-nineteenth. And it was characterised by (wait for it) chaotic weather. This has been held responsible for many human events ranging from crop failures in Early Modern Europe, through to the ending of Polynesian over-ocean voyaging.

All these factors also still apply, but on top of them has come our self-made issue, which is the primary factor driving the change today. The point is that in a meta-stable system, it doesn’t take much to kick off a change, after which momentum builds as the change progresses. This is what our industrial effluvium seems to have done.

Is there a way out of it? Limiting carbon emissions is a great first step – but we need to do a lot more, and it appears that change has already gained momentum. Could natural climate change step in and reverse things? Maybe. The Sun appears to be about to enter an unprecedented period of calm, lacking solar storms; and in the past – such as the eighteenth century, when it last happened – that has also been associated with reduced insolation. Or it’s possible that the Gulf Stream will shut down. This is, in effect, an energy conveyor belt that makes Britain warmer than it might otherwise be.

Personally I doubt nature will step in with a deus ex machina to save us, at our convenience. And even if that happens, it’ll still bring chaotic weather. Which is also what we’ll be facing if human-driven climate change continues – as, alas, it will, because it has gained too much momentum to be stopped quickly.

My answer? I suspect building some sort of boat is in order, I think.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018