Speed of Climate Change An Unseen Danger

The total amount of global warming we allow has dire consequences for our planet. But so too does the speed of that climate change. According to the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), this focus has not yet appeared in either science or policy.

CICERO highlights some ecological studies focusing on the rate of climate change, most of which leave no doubt that the expected rate of change during this century will exceed the ability of many animals and plants to migrate or adapt. One such study found that five percent of all ecosystems cannot adapt more quickly than 0.1°C per decade over time:

Forests will be among the ecosystems to experience problems first because their ability to migrate to stay within the climate zone they are adapted to is limited. If the rate is 0.3 °C per decade, 15 percent of ecosystems will not be able to adapt. If the rate should exceed 0.4 °C per decade, all ecosystems will be quickly destroyed, opportunistic species will dominate, and the breakdown of biological material will lead to even greater emissions of CO2. This will in turn increase the rate of warming.

There is also a risk that rapid climate change will increase the likelihood of the really big and scary changes, i.e., the irreversible ones, such as a weakening of the Gulf Stream, and/or the melting of the Greenland ice sheets. Rapid change increases the risk of triggering positive feedback mechanisms that will increase the rate and level of temperature change still more. Read more about these in MoJo’s The Thirteenth Tipping Point.

According to CICERO, to focus on the speed of climate change we need to concentrate more on the short-lived greenhouse gases (methane and tropospheric ozone), as well as particles with a warming effect, such as soot (black carbon). They also suggest a greater focus on the medium-term—the next few decades—since the fastest changes will likely occur around that time.

Of course, that requires that we speed up the grindingly-slow gears of public policy and determination. First step in that process: Stop fighting the naysayers. It’s a waste of time and energy and we’ve already lost a decade doing it. We need to step around, over, or through their obstinate refusal to face the truth. Luckily, we have a model for doing this, since we hopscotched over the “science” of the tobacco industry long ago.

On that cheery note, I’m off to the wilderness for a week or three, close to the comforts of nature, far from the madding consumers. JULIA WHITTY

  • Julia Whitty is the environmental correspondent for Mother Jones. Her latest book is Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. For more of her stories, click here.

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