Is This the Beginning of Runaway Global Warming?
It’s Beginning to Feel Like We’ve Finally Pushed the Planet Past its Final Tipping Point
Jul 16 · 8 min read
Image Credit: Norah Bell
Something is going very, very wrong. Haywire. It’s hotter in Washington, DC and New York than it is in Lahore, Pakistan. London got more than a month’s worth of rain in a few minutes. Entire regions of Germany are flooded. California’s burning — again. Parts of Canada rivalled the hottest places on earth — and went up like tinder.
Something is very wrong. Not just wrong in a usual way, but wrong in a weird, off-the-charts way. These are “extreme events” which scientists have long feared. But they’ve even shocked scientists with how suddenly extreme and frequent they are.
Don’t take it from me.
“The far north of Europe also sweltered in record-breaking June heat, and cities in India, Pakistan and Libya have endured unusually high temperatures in recent weeks. Suburbs of Tokyo have been drenched in the heaviest rainfall since measurements began and a usual month’s worth of July rain fell on London in a day. Events that were once in 100 years are becoming commonplace. Freak weather is increasingly normal.”
Then Daniel Swain, a climate scientists, says something that sounds particularly ominous. “This is not a localised freak event, it is definitely part of a coherent global pattern.” Think about that for a moment. He’s right. None of these weird, devastating “extreme events” are unconnected. London and Germany flooded and California baked and Canada burned and Washington, DC got hotter than Lahore at exactly the same time.
They’re part of a pattern.
So what pattern is it?
It’s not just what even scientists expected from “climate change,” better called global overheating. You can find tons of evidence of scientists being literally shocked. “This is such an exceptional event that we can’t rule out the possibility that we’re experiencing heat extremes today that we only expected to come at higher levels of global warming.” “The obvious acceleration of the breakdown of our stable climate simply confirms that — when it comes to the climate emergency — we are in deep, deep shit.”
The pattern we’re seeing now is something new, something that exceeds even the worst expectations of science, something that’s genuinely shocking and disturbing in fresh ways.
I’d put it like this, in the form of a question.
What if this is the beginning of runaway global warming? It seems worth asking.
Again, don’t take it from me. “Some experts fear the recent jolts indicate the climate system may have crossed a dangerous threshold. Instead of smoothly rising temperatures and steadily increasing extremes, they are examining whether the trend may be increasingly ‘nonlinear.’”
Let me translate that. It appears as if we’ve broken something. Something really, really fundamental. And without that something, as a limiting factor, the planet is now beginning to heat much, much faster than expected, in severe, ominous, and devastating ways.
You can think about that another way, if you like. A tipping point was hit. Earlier than expected. A point at which the system races to an entirely different equilbrium, a new place of balance. Hence, the vicious speed and sudden fury with which the climate appears to be transforming. Positive feedback sets in — system changes reinforce themselves — and bang! Game over.
What might some of those tipping points and broken systems be? There are plenty of candidates. The ocean currents which circulate cool water and disperse the heat of water warmed by the sun — there’s plenty of evidence already they’re being affected badly. The melting of the polar ice caps — which again is obvious to see, and has a double hit, because ice reflects heat, but earth absorbs it. The monsoon which much of the world relies on for water and coolness. The permafrost, which traps methane and other greenhouse gases. The boreal zones — like in Canada — essentially dying off as forests. The lungs of the earth, the Amazon.
Those are just some of the planet’s major ecosystems. And the really alarming thing is that many of them have just hit tipping points, or are getting awfully close to them.
The Amazon’s the first one to hit a tipping point which we know of and can call one: it emits more carbon than it takes in, crippled, battered, left for dead. Bang. That’s one crucial planetary ecosystem dead. Did anyone much notice or even care? Did you? Are you just clueless, the way our institutions want you?
Then there’s the melting of ice sheets, whether in the Arctic, Antarctic, Greenland. Their disintegration has been swift and severe — faster, again, than predicted. Have they already hit a tipping point?
How about the ocean currents? There’s plenty of evidence, too, they’re slowing down, changing in strange ways unseen for millions of years. Tipping point?
I could go on.
The problem is this. Science can only really confirm these tipping points after they happen.
That’s not to say science isn’t valuable. It’s invaluable, because it lets us predict that these systems are fragile and shouldn’t be messed with at all.
If you don’t know when you’re going to push a system past a tipping point — a nonlinear feedback point beyond which it races to a new equilibrium, but that one might, well, destroy your civilisation and life…then you should probably stop doing what you’re doing immediately, and try to preserve the system from any further perturbation.
In other words, we should have tried to attain much, much more ambitious targets, decades ago. Not just a reduction in carbon emissions, but zero carbon. Instead of idiot billionaires going to Mars, that should have been our generation’s moonshot. Or even finding ways to restore the ice sheets. Or revivify the great forests, like the Amazon. We think of building apps as an engineering challenge. It’s not. Revivifying ecosystems, protecting ice sheets, hitting no carbon at all — those are today’s real engineering challenges.
They’re so vast nobody knows how to do them — nobody even has a clue. If I say to you, hey, how do we bring an ice sheet back to life? You’ll give me a blank stare. Elon Musk can’t tell me. Jeff Bezos can’t tell me. So why do we worship these fools as geniuses, at least plenty of us? We have literally no idea how to fix these problems — and that is what we have to try to do, because science can only confirm the worst for us, after it happens.
We need to concentrate what dwindling resources we have left as a civilization, as societies, on fixing problems we have no idea how to fix yet. Anyone know how to stop, say, Germany from flooding? Not just deal with the damage of the floods — but prevent the flood? Anyone know how to reverse a planetary tipping point?
Nobody does. And we had better try to find out, fast. We need to invest trillions upon trillions in this stuff, in the most radical way imaginable — think what “zero carbon” really means. Or else.
Or else? Well, take a look around. We’re being boiled alive. We’re being drowned. Burned. Our civilisation is literally beginning to go up in flames, flood, drought, and plague. And it looks a whole lot like this is just the beginning.
If I think back, even in my own life, it didn’t used to be like this. Washington DC and New York City weren’t remotely as hot as Lahore or New Delhi. And Lahore and New Delhi, in turn, weren’t nearly as hot as they are now. Canada wasn’t going up in flames. Europe wasn’t flooding.
That’s not “anecdotal evidence,” that’s reality. The climate really was vastly different, on a level you can now notice every day. The seasons were different. The days and nights were different. The storms were different. The rain and wind was different. It didn’t used to be like this — and it got “like this” way too fast, way faster than anyone much expected, except those once dismissed as “pessimists” and “alarmists.” But it looks like they were right. The planet appears to be overheating faster and harder than anyone much thought possible. So fast that you and I can literally now feel it over the tiny, infinitesimal geological scale of one human lifetime. Shudder.
Let me say it again, because I think this point really matters. The planet appears to be overheating so fast, so rapidly, so suddenly, that you and I can feel it in our own lifetimes. That’s incredibly fast. It’s why climate scientists are shocked. Usually, the climate changes in relatively slow ways — maybe fast for it, but compared to a human lifetimes, eons. Thousands of years, even millions.
The climate does not change within decades unless something fundamental is broken. It doesn’t change so swiftly and severely that you and I can talk about how different the seasons were just a decade or two ago — or even a few years ago — unless something has gone deeply wrong, in the most basic planetary systems. We should not be able to feel climate change as rapidly and severely as we are — within the span of a single human lifetime — unless something truly mega-catastrophic is happening.
Think about today’s young people. Even they’ll talk about the summers being cooler. About storms and floods being less frequent. About winters being colder. The extremes of weather being way, way less extreme. They’re kids. They’re not just innocent and cute and nice — they’ve only been alive for twenty or thirty years or less. That’s how fast our planet appears to be overheating. That’s incredibly, shockingly, ominously fast.
We should be incredibly worried. It is not normal. Even within the pretty catastrophic range of “normal” for climate scenarios. We’re beyond even that abnormal normal. We’re rapidly, severely outpacing our very own worst predictions for planetary climate catastrophe. So fast, so hard, that you can feel it in your memory. That you remember: it didn’t used to be like this. Just a few short years ago. Within the mayfly span of a single human lifetime. And it seems to be accelerating every year, overheating, warming, how searingly hot it is, even in what used to be some of the coldest places or times on earth, in your life, in our world.
That’s really, really bad. It shouldn’t be happening like this, “climate change.” It’s too fast, too severe, too weird, too sudden, accelerating too hard, spinning out of control. It’s way beyond us now, shocking us every season, hitting us much, much harder than most of us ever thought it could or would, catastrophic discontinuity exploding off the axes of the graphs we used to confidently show each other to prove how intelligent we were. I can barely go outside today. You?
So let me ask you again: is this now the beginning of runaway planetary overheating?