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Climate Chaos, Tipping Points and The Final Buzzer

By On
• In Bellingham,

[The following is a reprint of an article by me recently published in the Whatcom Watch and reproduced on NWCitizen with permission. The original can be found at this link]

The final buzzer indicating our last chance on climate change has likely already sounded, albeit muffled by ignorance, greed and downright stupidity.

Cristiana Pasca Palmer, biodiversity chief at the United Nations, says we probably have two years to come up with global targets before it is too late to stop the inevitable: our own extinction. Meanwhile, in the U.S. House of Representatives, “progressive” elements are asking for a 10-year plan. At this point, one must ask if a plan that long overdue can come together at all under the fractured and sclerotic Democrats as they form their usual circular firing squad. We need not even talk about Republicans doing something in Congress unless they think they can make money off the cataclysm.

Noam Chomsky stated recently, “The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the international group of scientists monitoring climate change, came out with a very ominous report warning that the world has maybe a decade or two to basically end its reliance on fossil fuels if we’re to have any hope of controlling global warming below the level of utter disaster.”

George Monbiot laments in a recent Guardian article titled, “The Earth is in a death spiral”:

“Public figures talk and act as if environmental change will be linear and gradual. But the Earth’s systems are highly complex, and complex systems do not respond to pressure in linear ways. When these systems interact (because the world’s atmosphere, oceans, land surface and lifeforms do not sit placidly within the boxes that make study more convenient), their reactions to change become highly unpredictable. Small perturbations can ramify wildly. Tipping points are likely to remain invisible until we have passed them. We could see changes of state so abrupt and profound that no continuity can be safely assumed.”

How Long Do We Have?

So how long do we have? Two years? A decade? Two decades? We are confused. Counter-intuitively, all of what’s been reported over the years has been explainable by chaos theory, popularized by James Gleick in his book “Chaos” of 30 years ago. Although I have never seen a report on our changing climate that mentioned the theory by name, the article from which the quote above is taken accurately describes critical aspects of chaos. For those not familiar with chaos theory, here is a primer.

“Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. ‘Chaos’ is an interdisciplinary theory stating that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organization, and reliance on programming at the initial point known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The butterfly effect describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state, e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Texas.

“Small differences in initial conditions, such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation, yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction of their behavior impossible in general.”

Thus, when an essential part of a complex system deviates, the system begins, over time, to alter other essential parts. The sequence of these changes is not known, nor is the rate of acceleration of observable effects. So, although we know this disintegration will occur, the rate of its acceleration is unpredictable. This explains the endless reports we have all read which begin with sentences such as: “Climatologists were surprised to find that the new measurement of conditions showed things were much worse this year than they predicted based on last year’s data….”

In other words, the admirable George Monbiot is not talking through his hat. He is telling readers what they must accept and strive mightily to stop. Keep in mind that scientists believe the present condition of Earth’s climate will continue to deteriorate, at an unpredictable rate, and will be magnified from Earth’s current state.

Without a doubt, conditions will get worse. We do not, and cannot, know how quickly the acceleration will occur. But we do know it will accelerate at a faster and faster rate. The “tipping point” mentioned by Monbiot, and presented to us popularly almost 20 years ago by Malcom Gladwell in his book by the same name, may have already occurred without our knowledge. That would mean we are already facing a runaway system such as occurred on Mars or Venus at tipping points eons ago when Mars, for all intents and purposes, lost its atmosphere and Venus turned into a hothouse.

Can anyone say, with any level of certainty whatsoever, that those 10- and 20-year windows have not already shut ominously behind us? Is it realistic to think that, given the current state of our government, anything can be done in the next several years? The question then becomes: For what should we be preparing?

About Dick Conoboy

Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

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