The fluctuation of Earth’s systems is a clear signal: take action immediately or risk losing our already deteriorating paradise.
Can you perceive it now? The Earth’s threshold for systemic changes – the moment when our planetary systems shift into a new balance, inhospitable to many forms of life? I believe we can. The rapid escalation of environmental disasters witnessed this year, combined with the ineffectiveness of influential governments, propels us towards a critical juncture with no chance of turning back.
It is often stated that we are currently experiencing the sixth major extinction event. However, this term is actually a euphemism. The reason these events are labeled as mass extinctions is due to the fact that the most notable consequence of the five previous disasters in the Phanerozoic era (when animals with hard body parts emerged) is the absence of fossils in rock formations. Yet, the root cause of this disappearance is something much larger – the collapse of Earth’s systems.
During the Permo-Triassic event, which occurred 252 million years ago, there was a significant increase in planetary temperatures and a disruption in global water circulation. This resulted in the stripping of soil from land, the expansion of deserts, and a dramatic decrease in oxygen and increase in acidity in the oceans. As a result, Earth’s systems shifted into a new state that was unable to sustain the majority of species.
If we do not take immediate and significant measures, what we are currently experiencing will result in the sixth major collapse of Earth’s systems, caused by us and our governments.
Many Earth systems are showing signs of instability, which is referred to as “flickering” by systems theorists. A recently published paper suggests that the Arctic will likely lose all of its late-summer sea ice by the 2030s, causing further severe weather events in the northern hemisphere due to the weakening of the jet stream.
In the Antarctic, the melting of sea ice has accelerated drastically across the southern summer this year, after which it strangely failed to recover during the southern winter. This suggests an accelerating change of state, which could lead to the cascading collapse of the freshwater ice shelves perched above the sea ice, with catastrophic results for rises in global sea levels.
The thawing process is causing changes in the flow of currents in the Southern Ocean, resulting in a decrease of approximately 30% since the 1990s. This hinders the exchange of hot and cold temperatures and decreases oxygen levels. The northern hemisphere is also experiencing similar effects, as melting Arctic ice has caused a decrease in the flow of the Atlantic.
Recent studies in the Amazon have discovered what experts refer to as “early warning signs” of an impending “significant change”. The combination of deforestation and climate change could disrupt the flow of rainfall in the region, leading to a swift transformation from rainforest to savannah.
The large reserves of carbon found in tropical wetlands and permafrost peatlands in the Arctic appear to be reaching a critical threshold. This is indicated by sudden increases in methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide levels. These areas are crucial for storing carbon, but due to a self-perpetuating feedback loop, some are now emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases.
In July of this year, the temperature reached an all-time high. September surpassed the previous record for that month by a significant 0.5°C. A recently published study from last year details how this change in climate could lead to the collapse of society. Within the next 50 years, approximately one-third of the global population could be residing in areas with similar temperatures to the hottest parts of the Sahara, many of which are already facing political instability. However, this is not the most severe consequence. One potential result of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the sudden disappearance of stratocumulus clouds, resulting in an additional 8°C of heat at the Earth’s surface.
Similar to past instances of major collapses in Earth systems, we are witnessing the consequences through the decline of various species. According to a recent study, 48% of species worldwide are experiencing a decrease in population size, while only 3% are increasing. This suggests that a larger number of wildlife may be facing extinction than previously thought. If the loss of species is a sign of systemic collapse, it is possible that our time may be limited.
The certainty of this situation is uncertain unless we take action. However, instead of tackling the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced, our governments are moving towards it. For example, Rishi Sunak, who previously had a minor role in UK politics, now seems to have a new purpose: destroying the planet for the benefit of corporate power. According to government sources, he will use next week’s king’s speech to intensify his attack on green policies. On Monday, his government announced 27 new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. On the same day, a study published in Nature Climate Change revealed that humanity only has six years of business as usual before the remaining carbon budget – the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted while still having a 50% chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C – is exhausted. Only an immediate decision to stop using fossil fuels will prevent this temperature threshold from being surpassed.
Each passing hour presents an opportunity to prevent collapse, making it a critical “if only” moment. Despite the bleakness of our current existence, future generations will view it as a time of prosperity and stability, with abundant wildlife and pleasant weather. However, this is only possible if we take action now. Our current world is a mere shadow of its former self, but it will seem like a paradise compared to what it could become. That is, unless we act.
and author who focuses on environmental and political issues.
George Monbiot is an environmental and political writer for The Guardian newspaper. He also has written books on these topics.