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Climate change that happened gradually is accelerating suddenly

AP Photo/Felipe Dana

In his 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway’s character Mike Campbell is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” Mike replies, “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.  

Just like Hemmingway’s trenchant observation, climate change disaster follows the same destructive dynamic. And yet, again and again, too many (most?) of us just look the other way and think climate change is slow and linear when it is not. It is slow, on a daily basis imperceptible even, but also relentless and remorseless as temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions rise and we approach a series of collective disasters. Then change is sudden, shocking, disjunctive and destructive.   

A staggering recent example should drive this home.  

In March, temperatures in East Antarctica spiked by an incredible 40 degrees Celsius above average, as weather systems (impacted by climate change) caused a rare ‘atmospheric river’ of warm air and a massive temperature jump. This caused the Glenzer and Conger glaciers’ ice shelf in East Antarctica, an area the size of New York City, to disintegrate within two days. This shelf was long thought to be stable. Clearly, conservative linear scientific assumptions failed to catch this fat tail — even though scientists know such events are possible they cannot say when they will occur.  

This is just the latest warning that our planet is sending to us as we stumble on, failing to implement green policies incentives and disincentives that can speed the green transition and make the necessary changes to our societies and economies, securing net zero before it is too late.    

Many other ice shelves and masses are melting, warming and being destabilized by our collective stupidity. The Doomsday Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is being undermined by warning water, wearing away at its grounding point. Were this shelf to collapse, sea levels across the world would rise by 65 centimeters and the ice released behind it could raise levels by another 3 meters, inundating all the world’s coastal cities, impacting billions and causing trillions in damages. We do not know when this will happen, but we know a collapse is a possibility if we fail to act, and we know change happens slowly until it does not.  

The same dangerous slow then fast dynamic can be seen in Amazon forest dieback, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, the melting of the boreal permafrost and the threat to the operation of the Gulf Stream. We comfort ourselves in the lack of a specific date and respond as MAD Magazine’s Alfred E Neumann, retorting, “What me? Worry?” When we look the other way and put off action, we pull interconnected tipping points closer to us, increasing the risks humanity faces because of our unwillingness to do that which is essential for our common survival.  

Too many of us act like isolated shortsighted owners of condos in a deteriorating building. The board, advised by engineers and scientists, tells us major repairs are necessary and urgent. We talk and talk, we put off action, because we complain it is just too expensive. Until suddenly a structural breakpoint is reached and the building collapses with terrible tragic consequences.

After the disaster, are such actions still too expensive? The answer should be surely not. 

Prevention is better than disintegration. Yet in Florida, which is slowly sinking below the waves of a rising sea, condo board lobbyists just succeeded in killing a bill that would have required repairs to old buildings to ensure residents’ safety.  

The dangers ahead are mounting, causing severe life-threatening disasters across the globe. Whether is in the floods in New South Wales, Australia, the historic drought in America’s west, the flooding in Germany or the fires in California. Yet again, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us to act or put up to 1 billion people at risk of death from severe heat events in the decades (not centuries) ahead — i.e. in the lifetime of our children.   

We can make the necessary changes to preserve lives — human and non-human. Costa Rica for instance generates 99 percent of its energy from renewables. It is conserving fully 10 percent of the world’s species by regrowing and protecting 25 percent of its forests, where vast numbers of species rely on its beautiful, fecund tropical landscapes. Costa Rica is one of the most stable democratic countries in Central America. The country is helping to save our planet while also providing education, healthcare and jobs for its people. If it can deliver a prosperous sustainable net-zero future, so can other states.  

Voters across the globe must raise their gazes from their tablets and phones and demand immediate action on climate change now. Look up and understand what is actually happening here now — not in Zuckerberg’s metaverse.   

If we don’t, when asked in our old age how planetary disaster destroyed our civilizations, we will reply: “Gradually and then suddenly.”  

Stuart P.M. Mackintosh is executive director of the Group of Thirty and author of “Climate Crisis Economics”. 

Tags Antarctica Climate change Climate variability and change Earth Ernest Hemingway Greenland ice sheet Natural Disaster Physical geography

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