Is this what climate breakdown looks like? Flames towering tens of metres into the air over Turkish villages. Commuters neck-deep in floodwater in Chinese subways. Canadian towns subjected to blowtorch heatwaves.
I’ve watched the events of 2021 both as a concerned bystander and with professional interest. I spent much of last year writing a book – Fire, Storm, & Flood: The Violence of Climate Change – about climate change over the Earth’s entire history, from its formation 4.6 billion years ago up to the changes we are seeing today, and exploring possible future climates. The idea came from being asked the following question many times: the Earth’s climate has always changed, so why should be worried about the climate change we are seeing today?
The Earth has had wild changes to its climate. But what isn’t typically appreciated is that they have caused absolute havoc to life on the planet. One example is a period of rapid global warming 252 million years ago: the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction. It’s more commonly referred to as the “Great Dying”, because most of life was wiped out over perhaps as little as a million years.
The trigger for the catastrophe was a vast outpouring of lava from a region that today is known as the Siberian Traps, in northern Russia. This would have released billions of tons of carbon dioxide and rapidly increased temperatures. Most land animals and plants were unable to adapt quickly enough and perished.
When surveying the fossil record we discover that over 70 per cent of all land species suddenly vanish. The situation in the oceans was even more dire. Carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water to produce carbonic acid, and we can see that the acidity of the oceans spiked. This would have dissolved corals and the shells of tiny planktonic organisms that form the base of marine food ecosystems. More than 90 per cent of marine species went extinct.
Climate change has often been presented as a distant slow moving threat. As we continued to burn coal, oil, and gas and so pump up concentrations of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet would slowly rise.
The assumption was that we would have plenty of time to phase out fossil fuels. That now seems recklessly optimistic. Climate change is here, no one is safe, and the situation is going to get worse before it gets any better.
The good news is that there are no prospects of us being able to produce climate change impacts that rival the Great Dying. The bad news is that looming risks are not only the result of our burning through deposits of fossil fuels.
We’ve destroyed forests, mangroves, peat bogs and other ecosystems while annihilating biodiversity with hunting and fishing. We are changing how the Earth system works. Earth’s history shows us that when that happens, life on the planet will suffer. It has always recovered eventually – we wouldn’t be here to marvel at its resilience if it hadn’t. But such recovery is often measured in millions of years.
Our globalised, industrialised civilisation is much more vulnerable to climate change than the biosphere. We are more than capable of destroying ourselves with continued burning of fossil fuels. Where the climate goes next is now up to us. The current dysfunctional state of politics can make that sound like a terrifying prospect.
But it only through a deeper understanding of how intimately entwined the fates of climate and civilisation are that we will find
James Dyke is a senior lecturer in global systems at Exeter University. His book ‘Fire, Storm and Flood: the Violence of Climate Change’ is published today (Head of Zeus, £25)
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