Too Much Heat, Past and Present

The ultimate consequences of global warming are difficult to truly understand by the public, policymakers and by pretty much everybody. In their hearts, they do not want to believe it’ll cause an extinction event. That’s simply too hard to believe, going too far. People cannot wrap their minds around the idea that civilization, poof, is gone. After all, extinctions are not features of human civilization. Or are they?

Archeologists tell us otherwise. Climate change and natural disasters have led advanced civilizations into utter ruin, extinction events. The Mayan Civilization, population 7-10 million, skilled as advanced astronomers that built elaborate cities without the use of modern-day machinery around 1500 BC went extinct. Archeologists believe the causes were: (1) environmental degradation (2) deforestation (3) soil erosion and (4) climate change altered rain patterns to bring devastating drought and famine.

And one of the greatest civilizations of all time, the Indus Valley Civilization (2500-to-1700 BC) more than five million people with some of the world’s best architecture and amazing technology, cities of 50,000 with roads and advanced sewage systems, homes with private bathrooms, 3,500 years ago went extinct. Researchers studied isotopic concentrations of stalagmites, and other archeological evidence, analyzing 5,700 years of rainfall patterns for the region, discovering evidence of severe drought at the time the civilization ended.

A fascinating historical study of collapsed civilizations was published by the BBC: Are We on the Road to Civilization Collapse: February 18, 2019. Excerpts to follow:

The great historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975, London School of Economics and King’s College London) in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History analyzed the rise and fall of 28 different civilizations. He concluded: “Great civilizations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.”

Our deep past is marked by recurring failure: “Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity, and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence. Virtually all past civilizations have faced this fate.”

“Collapse may be a normal phenomenon for civilizations, regardless of their size and technological stage. We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix. And while our scale may now be global, collapse appears to happen to both sprawling empires (the Roman Empire for example) and fledgling kingdoms alike. There is no reason to believe that greater size is armour against societal dissolution. Our tightly coupled, globalized economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.”

Archeologists claim the following categories mostly influence collapse: (1) climatic change (2) environmental degradation (3) inequality and oligarchy (4) complexity, meaning how society functions; e.g., too heavy of a bureaucracy (5) external shocks like famine and plagues. Hmm.

As of today, whether an extinction event is in the cards or not, and science has clearly shown us that extinctions do happen with well-developed civilizations, the most pressing concern is rapidly rising fossil fuel emissions and global temperature that disrupts, dislodges, and upends life. Alas, many signals indicate it’ll get worse.

James Hansen, Earth Institute/Columbia University, predicts much higher global temperatures much sooner than the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the UN body politic of climate change.

For decades now, Hansen’s prescience has effectively been global warming’s equivalence of Yoda-speak. As the lead NASA scientist in 1988 Hansen testified to the US Senate that the greenhouse effect had been detected, indicating that the climate was changing. Human activity, specifically burning fossil fuels, was changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and not for the better.

Thirty-five years later, November 2023, Hansen has issued yet another warning but with much greater gravity and resonance than his 1988 warning. His landmark 1988 speech about changing the atmosphere’s chemistry has now become reality: it’s immediately before us. That warning has turned real through imagery, in real time, of massive wildfires, massive atmospheric rivers, massive droughts, extraordinarily floods, as unprecedented climate events regularly appear on nightly TV news programs.

Now Hansen is warning that scientists are underestimating how fast the planet is warming. In fact, he’s concerned enough that he believes the impending crisis necessitates geoengineering the planet’s atmosphere. For many scientists this is not acceptable, unproven, and unnecessary.

A recent Time magazine article “We Need Geoengineering to Stop Out of Control Warming Warns Climate Scientist James Hansen”, Time, November 2, 2023, claims few scientists share his belief that geoengineering will be necessary. Researchers challenge its efficacy and safety profile, expecting deleterious unintended consequences.

But, as Hansen readily states, we’ve been inadvertently geoengineering the atmosphere for as long as we’ve spewed greenhouse gases, like CO2. As a society, we’re effective at changing the atmosphere’s chemistry, even though it’s not intentional. Therefore, why not re-geoengineer in the opposite direction?

Seriously, cars, trains, planes, and industry have been geoengineering the atmosphere with CO2 for over 100 years.

According to Hansen, something must be done soon. He believes we’ll surpass 1.5C next decade and 2C by mid-century. These are global temperature markers above pre-industrial levels that manifest big challenging issues, and far ahead of what mainstream science expects.

For example, warming in-excess of 2C could unleash collapse of West Antarctica ice sheets, which are already compromised. The Antarctic continent is a standout feature of the planet containing 95% of the planet’s fresh water trapped in ice melted equal to 200 feet higher sea levels. Nothing more needs to be said about that.

In fact, forget the 200 feet, which would take centuries, just the first several feet will turn the world upside down, flooding the world’s major coastal cities. High tide will become high water flood levels in the streets of America’s coastal cities. Some of this is already starting to happen; e.g., Portland’s high tide broke all-time records, reaching 14 feet at the same time as record-breaking floods hit the US East Coast, January 14th, 2024. NOAA expects sea levels along US coasts to rise as much over the next 10 years as they did over past 100 years.

Recent flooding events are setting new all-time records. These are not run of the mill normal flooding events, not normal at all. An extreme example of the climate system’s new rambunctiousness is Pakistan’s 2022 massive flood covering one-third of the country with water, 33 million people impacted, 8 million displaced, 2 million homes destroyed, 1,700 killed, 12,867 injured, and a year later 1.5 million still displaced.

What would be the aftermath if 2 million US homes were destroyed by flooding?

In a recent webinar, Hansen cautioned: “The 2°C warming limit is dead, unless we take purposeful actions to alter the earth’s energy imbalance.” It’s a strong statement that few, if any, climate scientists have the guts to make.

However, breathing the word “geoengineering” raises the hackles of many climate scientists. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University calls Hansen’s arguments for the necessity of solar geoengineering “a misguided policy advocacy.” (Time, November 2, 2023.) According to Mann, the climate situation is extremely dire. But it can be handled by concerted efforts to decarbonize our economy, without resorting to geoengineering.

Whereas Hansen claims: “Emissions cuts alone will not be enough to ensure a safe climate in future years, according to Hansen and his collaborators. governments will have to impose carbon fees to help rapidly draw down emissions, they argue, adding it will also be necessary to research and deploy techniques to reduce incoming solar radiation, also known as solar geoengineering.” (Time, November 2, 2023.)

Looking ahead, how should society approach a very spooky climate system that blindsides humanity with surprise after surprise? For example, according to The Weather Network: “Atmospheric rivers are becoming so intense that we need to rank them like hurricanes.” That’s a first as atmospheric rivers are a normal feature of the climate system but like all normal features these days, human activity, goosing up global warming, has intensified normal features by a factor of 10-to-100 times. Multiply 10 times anything… it’s a lot, or how about 100 times?

There’s paleoclimate evidence that today’s rate of CO2 emissions at over 2.0 ppm/year with resultant global warming “matching the results” of 1,000 years at 0.02 ppm/year occurring millions of years ago when only nature was involved. 2.0 ppm is 100 times faster than 0.02 ppm. That’s 100 times faster than nature, which  is the crux of the global warming problem.

Nowadays, massive atmospheric rivers are competing with melting glaciers with flooding that can spur serious damage that major insurance companies never anticipated, as rates go up and up with some insurance coverage dropped in select states. And it’ll get worse unless and until human activity works to mitigate the interrelationship between fossil fuel emissions and global warming. James Hansen is saying we must enhance the planet’s albedo to reflect solar radiation back to outer space. There are ways to do this, maybe successful, maybe not.

According to Hansen, Earth’s energy imbalance is completely out of whack with more energy than ever before coming into the planet as absorbed sunlight rather than going out as heat radiated to outer space. This imbalance has doubled within only one decade, according to a study by NASA and the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.  Doubling over only 14 years is downright alarming: “A positive energy imbalance – which is what we have – means the earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up.” This is no small problem; it’s big; it’s new; it threatens life-supporting ecosystems.

Going forward, a very big question is whether a world consensus will be reached about whether, or not, geoengineering will be officially endorsed. Meanwhile, several tenuous ecosystems; e.g., Greenland’s northern-most glaciers recently discovered as “surprisingly tipsy,” implies an outlook of hesitatingly “keeping one’s fingers crossed.” According to climate scientists, there are multitudes of ecosystems bordering on dangerous tipping points.

Yet, fortunately for all concerned, at least the planet is good at snapping back from adversity, surviving five extinction events, but what of human civilization in the face of similar adversity? According to Toynbee, the track record is lousy.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.