Sunday, August 08, 2021

All of a sudden: Climate change tipping points appear with a vengeance

Across the world climate change seems to have arrived earlier than expected. There are world-class athletes with bodies trained for endurance and strength breaking down from the extreme heat visited on the Tokyo Olympics by mother nature. There are the continuing wildfires in the American West that take out entire towns. The drought there is so bad that states are thinking about paying farmers NOT to irrigate their crops as a conservation strategy.

One of the other effects of climate change is heavier rains and devastating floods. Recent floods in Germany were caused by rains characterized as once-in-a-millennium, rains which, for example, killed more than 200 people and caused $1.5 billion in damage to the German railway network. But, of course, statements about once-in-a-fill-in-the-blank rains or droughts seem less and less relevant in the age of climate change as what we call extraordinarily destructive weather just morphs into "the weather."

Once-in-a-millennium rains also visited parts of China recently dumping in just three days an entire year's rainfall on one town of 12 million.

The infrastructure we have built and the way we work and live are simply not designed for these extremes. Our systems are breaking down under the pressure of climate-change-induced extreme weather.

But the scariest thing is that all of the incidents I cited above could happen all over again next year and the next year and the next after that in the same places as extreme weather worsens and becomes just "weather." In California, 2020 marked the worst fire season ever in the state. But 2021 is now on pace to be even worse.

We are now reaching tipping points in the direct, destructive and destabilizing effects of climate on humans and their infrastructure. We can no longer simply ignore these effects. We can no longer simply bask obliviously in the sunshine of unseasonably warm winter days without acknowledging their terrible message as many of my fellow Washingtonians did when I first arrived in the city in 2018.

There are hidden tipping points waiting for us to hit them. And, there are ones that are out in the open and well-studied. When most viewers watched the 2004 fictional film "The Day After Tomorrow," they marvelled at the special effects while dismissing the collapsed timeline for a dramatic, sudden and overwhelming freeze in Europe and North America—within a week in the film. The freeze depicted results from the collapse of the Gulf Stream which pumps heat from tropical waters northward, keeping the American and Canadian eastern coasts and much of northern Europe far warmer than they would otherwise be. A cessation of this current is believed to be one of the possible outcomes of climate change.

What scientists now suspect is that this critical river of water and heat in the Atlantic Ocean is not only slowing, but also losing its stability. The fear is that the current could shut down unexpectedly and suddenly and that effects would be felt within months—not as quickly as in a Hollywood movie, but quickly enough to create catastrophic consequences for the food supply, economic activity and human migration even while all those reading this sentence are still alive. And that is just one key tipping point.

Will we humans rally and address this and other looming climate threats? Some will try and even try very hard. But to truly reverse climate change now so late in the game would require draconian measures that few people would tolerate. For those who say that we will adapt, we now have an emerging picture of just what that adaptation involves. For many "adaptation" will simply mean ruin. For the truly unlucky, it will mean death.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


ChemEng said...

David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, is making the same points. (1) Climate scientists are surprised as to how quickly the climate is changing, and (2) we need to move toward an adaptation strategy given that we have reached points of no return.

Anonymous said...

Some of us are not at all surprised. These tipping points have been quite obvious for years, and climate reporting was woefully under-reporting how and when these would affect humanity.

I've been documenting climate science dishonesty and outright lies now for years, and I'm a proponent of anthropogenic climate change, not a denier. The so-called "pre-industrial" is one primary area where the lies start. Warming since then is almost 1.5C right now, and we will blow right past 2C and even 3C without any doubt.

The reality is we cannot fix climate change by any means presently identified (a good place to examine for more lies and endless dishonesty). There is no such thing as "zero carbon" or "carbon free" technology either (more lies).

Nearly all climate assessments and reports are basing their expectations on technology that doesn't even exist. There are gross misrepresentations, massive underestimates, incorrect timelines and predictions, and a overall refusal to be fully forthright constantly polluting the climate science literature and reporting, which in turn has misled the world, government leaders and industry into making staggeringly ill-conceived decisions. And now we are all going to pay for this malfeasance in horrible ways.

It really is "that bad" when you dig it out and identify the misrepresentations. You can pick any climate article and find ridiculous hopium, false expectations, poor timelines and under-reporting and incorrect assessments. This problem is ubiquitous and so pervasive throughout the climate literature that I'm led to believe it is actually deliberate. It's also dead wrong.

Climate science has had to constantly update their findings and expectations, modeling and assessments, which STILL fail to accurately track the unfolding reality outside. They're getting closer with their modeling, but they're still grossly under-representing what this actually means to Earth systems, human civilization and ultimately, human survival. This is a fact that nobody will mention: we cannot replace the missing ice, which has ENORMOUS repercussions for human survival (habitable biosophere).

Climate scince is off by nearly 100 years (already) in their estimates for example, which is a big deal since world governments and industry continue to delay action based on erroneous reporting from the climate industry. The reality is an extinction-level event is unfolding right before our eyes and climate scientist by and large do not even recognize this (still). The suggestions are that we still have "time" to "fix" the global climate, which is factually false, we do not have time, nor the technology or even the political or social will.

All we can actually do is prepare for the worst because it is already happening. We do not have any ability to actually remove existing levels of greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere or oceans, which will be there for at least a thousand years. Even tree planting throughout the Earth has been demonstrating to not be enough to draw down levels to stop deadly climate change. It is in fact, unstoppable now, irrefutable and irresolute, we can only go worse from here.

Anonymous said...

Remember that we are experiencing the effects of PAST emissions. We've yet to experience the full effects of total cumulative emissions and it's pretty bad already. And we have no means by which we can actually remove (or even stop) emissions to scale or with any real effect. Should we magically "end all emissions" today, it would still not stop deadly climate change from getting worse, and then worse still as the Earth continues to heat up and lose ice, along with all of the other negative effects well documented.

Civilization is going to collapse as a result. There is no doubt about this now. We cannot survive on a world with these kinds of excessive energy imbalances, our food supply will perish first. Heat stress will also kill wildlife, plants, animals, fish, oceans, coral and extinguish most forms of life on the planet. Drought and excessive flooding will wipe out most of civilization throughout the planet. Billions will seek habitat, food, shelter, water and safety, but where can they actually go? The resulting chaos, competition and conflict will be unlike anything humanity has ever tried to endure.

I am now of the informed opinion, through decades of study that climate science as a field of scientific study is quite poorly suited to alerting the world to an extinction level event. They lack the breadth, awareness and discipline, and are encumbered with scientific reticence and refusal to understand how the cascading and collapsing Earth systems will impact human civilization. Oh, they've tried, but still fail to grasp the true significance, and have always rejected dissenting voices and study that point out their repeated flaws.

They're wrong (obviously) and are still wrong, proving themselves unwilling to accept their own failures and omissions. Eventually they'll probably catch on, but this will of course be far too late.

Don19 said...

Here in the UK if you post a comment in rightwing Newspapers in support of climate change you'll get deluged with aggressive replies.

Often these replies just say that we're just going through one of Earth's natural cycles.

I point out the rate of change make the current conditions unlikely to be a cycle but they just trot out the same reply that CO2 is good for the planet.

I don't think the general population will accept climate change is real until food and fresh drinking water run out.

SomeoneInAsia said...

Such is the state of affairs to which Western civilization has led us all. Shouldn't Western man be proud of his world-changing achievements? :)

Now that it's become plain there's not much we can do anymore, let's enjoy what little time we have left before the Titanic finally sinks out of sight. The one bit of consolation I get from all this is that the global elite who led us all down this path since the Industrial Revolution will all finally get their entirely well-deserved comeuppance. If this sentiment of mine makes me sound viciously vindictive, so be it.

Hopefully small pockets of humanity around the world will emerge through the other side and learn from the folly of the past, and Mother Nature will be merciful enough that they will be allowed to start over. As for the rest of us, hey, cheer up, we're all going down together, in the best of company. :D

sv koho said...

Another excellent post Kurt and very excellent comments as well. The sad fact is that from the political side all we have are setting goals and promises to bring key participants to the table. To do what? The Biden administration climate change plans are just goals and promises with a lot of sound and fury and signifying nothing.No talk of the simplest measures such as increasing carbon costs like taxing transport fuels. Current taxes in the US are minuscule. Instead we are moving to electric cars and charging stations powered by fossil fuels largely.Short life wind farms, increases in appliance efficiency which are already quite efficient, suggesting insulation of buildings but not mandating... The list goes on and on and Kurt is of course right that real changes in energy use involve using less and growing less. Emissions are up over 2% so we are on track to scenarios of doom which could come gradually or in the blink of an eyelash with uncharted unexpected tipping points.

Anonymous said...

the rate of impacts' intensification being now clearly non-linear, unlike the planned-but-30-yr-late US emissions reduction from its 1990 level, I hope you may be reconsidering your opposition to the research of technologies for Planetary Albedo Restoration.

There's a good article on 'Climate Repair' by Professor Sir David King (ex UK govt Science Advisor) at which I hope may be of interest. It raises a number of new options that expand the debate somewhat.

All the best,
Lewis Cleverdon

Postkey said...

'It' may be sooner than later?

'We' have 5 years? " . . . destabilization of subsea methane hydrates. This subsea Arctic methane hydrate destabilization will go out of control in 2024 and lead to a catastrophic heatwave by 2026."

Radu Diaconu said...

Hello Kurt. I am from Romania. Climate change is NOT really present here except press and academic. This year spring was a non stop rainy season, pretty cold, after an inexistent winter except for the high country. Then summer came with a vengeance. A massive heatwave gripped us for 75 days or so, every day temperatures soaring above 33 degrees Celsius and beating record after record, both in day and NIGHT temperatures.
Drought was only the beginning, it was amplified by waves of sahara dust; the winds of N Africa picked up this year HUGE quantities of the Sahara desert sand and dust, sometimes leading to a visible haze during daylight hours and depositing on everything a fine dust coat AND...AMPLFYING the effects of the heat wave.
Then come August 25 and the heat wave stopped. No transition. We are now living an early cold the astronomical summer( autumn really comes at the autumn equinox, at least in theory). Drought however has not abated and vegetation fires still rage, although small.
Agriculture has taken a massive hit. Water usage is restricted. During the heatwave trucks were not allowed to circulate during the day; it was too much for the road infrastructure. Trains had to slow down for fear of derailment.
electricity and natural gas prices soared and, instead of going down, are still soaring. in fact, all prices are going up. There is a scarcity of certain commodities. House prices are still going up and construction materials and costs are following the trend.
Covid fourth wave is here and vaccination rates are abysmall...thousands will die because of antivaxxers agitprop or because of their own stupidity.
The curent economic arrangement of the world is buckling and collapse is not very far. We have created a perfect storm of our own making and Covid is just an accelerator...