There’s this from the co-chair of the Planet Under Pressure conference, Dr. Lidia Brito:
If you like, our presenters today are akin to doctors saying, “Look, you may not feel too sick at the moment but you’ve got high blood pressure, your cholesterol is going up, and your lifestyle is not conducive to good health.”
[Planet Under Pressure 2012]
The conference in London, a preparation for the United Nations Rio+20 Summit on climate change, will involve around 2,500 scientists and representatives from government, industry and the media. The message, as you probably gleaned, isn’t the analogy to high blood pressure but the situation of the planet as climate changes through global warming. The message from the climatologists is mostly like this:
At a planetary level, humanity is altering the global carbon cycle, water cycle and nitrogen cycle, says Professor Steffen [Australian National University]. Indeed, humans now produce more reactive nitrogen artificially than all natural processes on land.
“Where on Earth are we going?” he asks, underlining several potentially dangerous environmental “tipping points” foreseen, among them the melting of the polar ice sheets and the thawing of perennially frozen northern permafrost soils.
Current research estimates the permafrost alone stores the equivalent of roughly twice the carbon in the atmosphere, he says. Under a “high warming scenario,” projected releases of greenhouse gas emissions from melting Arctic permafrost are the equivalent of 30-63 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide by 2040, 232-380 Gt by 2100, and 549-865 Gt by 2300. By comparison, fossil fuel emissions today are roughly 10 Gt per year.
“The key point is: Either we turn around a lot of these trends – the carbon dioxide trend, deforestation and so on – or we allow them to continue and push beyond critical thresholds.”
The conference is not about people reading tea leaves, but climate scientists looking at data and drawing conclusions.
Lurking behind the give and take of the conference – not all of the participants foresee dire endings to the global warming trend – is the sense of the unknown impact of reaching certain tipping points. For example, if the vast reaches of permafrost in Russia, Alaska and Canada do begin to melt and release quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere – how fast does that accelerate global warming? This release is not good, in any case, but there is a possibility that it could be catastrophic. That possibility is where the analogy to a personal heart attack comes in – you push the limits and at some point the result could be out of your control.
As the use of the heart attack analogy indicates, one of the points of this conference is communication with the public. How do you get across what thousands of scientists in thousands of studies have concluded over decades of observation and debate? It would be difficult enough given the essential inertia of human beings when not confronted with an immediate and obvious emergency; but in this case there is an active and well funded global warming denial effort. No doubt the people at this conference know that while they talk about ‘tipping points’ with no return, most people will never hear of them and of those that do, many will hear it through the denial echo-chamber.
Climate scientists will continue what they do, study and interpret the data. They are paid to do this by business and governments (even the military) that know monitoring what is really happening must be done, but feel largely powerless to do other than prepare for the worst.