In July of this year, during record-smashing heat waves and forest fires, a group of scientists published “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” exploring the risk that climate feedbacks could lead to runaway heating and a “Hothouse Earth.” Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, and Katherine Richardson — from the Universities of Stockholm, Australia, and Copenhagen, with colleagues from Stanford, Cambridge, Potsdam, The Netherlands, and elsewhere — published the paper in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Eiffel Tower Climate Banner © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

Message on the Eiffel Tower as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assembles in Paris, 2007

Earth has not experienced such a hothouse state — characterized by the absence of continental glaciers and sea-level over 100-meters higher — since the Cretaceous period, 100-million years ago. At that time, atmospheric CO2 had reached 2000 parts-per-million (ppm) and average temperatures had reached 11°C warmer than the 20th century average. We’re now at about 410 ppm CO2, and 1°C warmer than the 20th century average. Meanwhile, in spite of good intentions, we have not slowed our carbon emissions.

The Hothouse Earth paper documents how “a psychology of denial” has biased IPCC climate reports, research summaries, policy decisions, and public discourse. As a result, the authors claim, we have failed to act responsibly, and have underestimated the extreme risks of that failure.

Breaking the wrong records

This is a La Niña year — normally the cool phase of the global temperature cycle — but 2018 has broken heat records around the world, the hottest La Niña year in history, on track to be the fourth hottest year ever recorded, following the last three: 2015, 2016, and 2017.

This July, meteorologists recorded 51.3°C (124.3°F) in Ouargla, Algeria, the highest temperature ever reliably recorded in Africa. Quriyat, Oman, recorded an overnight “low” of 42.6°C, the highest “low” temperature ever recorded in the world. Denver, Colorado, tied its all-time high-temperature 40.5°C, and in Quebec, Canada, a prolonged heat wave left 54 people dead. Heat records were set in Tbilisi, Georgia (40.5°C), Shannon, Ireland (32°C), and Motherwell, Scotland (33.2 °C).

“It’s not just the magnitude in any one location,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “What’s unusual is the hemispheric scale of the heatwave.”

All-time record highs in Britain melted roofs and buckled train rails. During the World Cup in June and July, the heat grew so intense in Russia that the Football Federation granted hydration breaks to keep players from fainting. This summer, wildfires burned a record 1.3 million acres of British Columbia, Canada. In the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia, daily temperature anomalies reached 7°C above average. In Siberia wildfires accelerated the permafrost melt, causing record methane releases, which adds to global heating, an example of the climate feedbacks that concern the Hothouse Earth authors.

We’ll always have Paris

In 2015, many politicians and environmentalists praised the Paris Climate Accord, intended to hold Earth’s warming under 2°C with national “pledges” to reduce carbon emissions. However, the Hothouse Earth report notes that the Paris Accord “is almost devoid of substantive language,” is not binding, and that “national interests and lowest-common-denominator politics,” have undermined the promises.

“Few are willing to contemplate that we have set in motion an irreversible process that poses an existential threat to so-called civilization,” wrote William Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology at the University of British Columbia, to fellow researchers. “Even if implemented, the Paris Accord has us on course for a catastrophic 3°C warming — and — it is not being implemented!”

Since the Paris pledges are not being kept, we appear on course for 4°C or more. Kevin Anderson, professor at the University of Manchester and deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research writes that “avoiding even a 4°C rise demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda and the economic characterisation of contemporary society.”

In 1979, the World Meteorological Organization, with full knowledge of the carbon dioxide risk, convened the first international climate conference in Geneva. At that time, annual carbon emissions of about 5 gigatonnes per year (GtC/yr) were increasing atmospheric CO2 content by about 0.5 ppm per year. Now 30 years later, after 29 international climate meetings, and with over 800 international climate laws on the books, carbon emissions have grown to over 10 GtC/yr, and — since carbon sinks have become saturated — we are now increasing atmospheric CO2 content by about 3.5 ppm per year, seven times faster.

Wild Fires in Amur Region, Russia © Maria Vasilieva / Greenpeace

Wild fires in Amur region, Russia. This year the area affected by fire, including all categories of land in the region, is 1.69 million hectares.

In August, so disgusted with the pace of climate action by his own government, French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot resigned. “I don’t want to lie any longer,” Hulot said. “I don’t want to maintain the illusion that my presence in government means that we are meeting these environmental challenges. France is doing more than a lot of other countries [but] it is not doing enough. Europe is not doing enough. The world is not doing enough.”

What is enough?

The Hothouse Earth study warns that with a heating of 3 or 4°C, Earth’s “self-reinforcing feedbacks” — wildfires, methane release, forest dieback, and so forth — can drive the temperature even higher, toward runaway heating, a “nonlinear process” that no amount of human intervention can control.

Kevin Anderson describes “an endemic bias” among those building emission scenarios, and warns that “the modelling community is actually self-censoring its research focus to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm.”

Steffen and colleagues document a “scholarly reticence” at the research level, that avoids articulating the full risk of climate change. This reticence is magnified by politically-biased climate conference delegations, who understate climate risk in IPCC reports. This downplayed risk is then translated through “executive myopia” within government and business to produce “a policy failure of epic proportions.”

“We’re moving so slowly,” says financial analyst and former Royal Dutch Shell economist Jeremy Grantham, “that by the time we’ve fully decarbonized our economy, the world will have heated up by 2.5ºC to 3ºC, and a great deal of damage will have been done … capitalism and mainstream economics simply cannot deal with these problems.”

In spite of all our efforts — decades of environmental action, legislation, investment in renewable energy, electric cars, and those 29 climate conferences — total global carbon emissions continue to rise. Since the year 2000, solar and wind have added the equivalent of about 300 million tons of oil (MTOE) to annual energy consumption, a hopeful sign. However, during that same period, fossil fuel consumption increased ten times faster, by over 3000 MTOE, which explains why carbon emissions continue to rise.

In a series of papers from 2011 to 2015, T. J. Garrett, from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Utah, explains why: The growth of human economy “cannot be decoupled” from energy consumption. The data shows that for every 1US$ of economic growth, worldwide, human enterprise requires about 9.7 milliwatts (mW) of energy (± 0.3 mW). Contrary to visions about “decoupling” growth from energy, there is no evidence that this decoupling is occurring or could occur. Garrett and others point out that windmills and solar panels also require fossil fuels to build, that more energy stimulates the economy to grow, and that this growth is fed by even more fossil energy.

In the 1950s, anthropologist/ecologist Gregory Bateson and colleagues coined the term “Double Bind” to describe just such a dilemma: Contradictory demands that are inherently impossible to fulfill. According to Garrett, “seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change” puts human enterprise in just such a “double-bind.”

To slow climate change we must actually reduce carbon emissions, and to achieve this, the Hothouse Earth authors claim, we have to address global “consumption patterns,” and make “rapid progress toward slowing or reversing population growth.” To escape the double bind, human enterprise has to contract, not grow. “The Business-as-Usual approach of industry and their hand-puppet governments,” says Dr. William Rees, “is a prime illustration of one of the few things on Earth that is unlimited: The human capacity for self-delusion.”

Young activists respond

“My generation, the millennials, will never know a time when climate change wasn’t a grave threat,” writes young meteorologist Eric Holthaus in Grist. In response, Holthaus believe the youth are “radically remaking climate activism.” In 2016 at the Canada-US border, for example, Emily Johnston closed the emergency shut-off valve on the Enbridge tar-sands pipeline. At her trial she claimed that her action was a “necessity” in response to a climate emergency.

Twenty-one US students have filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, the president, and federal agencies for violating their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. By failing to act on climate change, the youth plaintiffs argued that the government had discriminated against youth as a class.

Demonstration against Industrial Exploitation of the Great Northern Forest in Finland © Jonne Sippola / Greenpeace

The Indigenous Sámi youth organisation Suoma Sámi Nuorat, Suohpanterror artivist collective and Greenpeace activists join in a demonstration against industrial exploitation of the Great Northern Forest in the Sámi territory in northern Finland early September 2018.

This fall, fifteen-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg refused to go to school and instead staged a climate protest at the Swedish parliament. “Facts don’t matter any more,” Thunberg said. “Politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?” Her protest has attracted support throughout Sweden after a summer of record heat and wildfires.

In Spain this summer, a young activist wrote on a wall: “Ese incómodo momento en que hay que explicar a Galileo que el mundo no gira alrededor del Sol, sino del dinero.” (“That uncomfortable moment, in which one must explain to Galileo that the world does not rotate around the sun, but around the money.”)

“Gradual or incremental change, with a focus on economic efficiency is not adequate” write the Hothouse Earth authors. The necessary changes require a “fundamental reorientation of human values.”


References and Links

“Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” PNAS, Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, et al., July , 2018

Canadian follow up to the Hothouse Earth report: The Conversation, August 22, 2018.

“Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions,” Michael R. Raupach, Gregg Marland, Philippe Ciais, Corinne Le Quéré, Josep Canadell, Gernot Klepper, and Christopher Field; PNAS, 2007

J. Garrett on economic growth and carbon emissions: “Coupled evolution of economy and atmosphere,” Earth System Dynamics, 2012; “Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?,” Climate Change, 2011. Springer and pdf; “Long-run evolution of the global economy,” Earth System Dynamics.

What Lies Beneath: The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risk, David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, Breakthrough, Melbourne, Australia, 2017.

“Carbon Dioxide Emission-Intensity in Climate Projections: Comparing the Observational Record to Socio-Economic Scenarios.” Felix Pretis, Max Roser, Oxford University Dept. of Economics.

“Heatwave sees record high temperatures around world this week,” Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, July, 2018

“2018 is on pace to be the 4th-hottest year on record,” Eric Levenson, Brandon Miller, CNN, July 28, 2018

All-time heat records have been set all over the world,” Jason Samenow, Independent, UK, 5 July 2018

Four hottest years on Record: 2015-18, CNN, based on difference from 20th century average

Fires: “Climate Change sets the world on Fire,” DW News, Aug. 2018

French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot resigns over slow climate progress: Reuters, DW News, Aug. 27, 2018

“Why we’re losing the battle to keep global warming below 2C,” The Guardian.

Renewable energy growth vs. fossil fuel growth: “The power of Fossil Fuels” Rune Likvern, with data from British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy 2018,; and Biophysical Economics Policy Centre; “Fossil fuel expansion crushes renewables,” Barry Saxifrage, with data from J. David Hughes, September 2017, National Observer.

“The Energy Sustainability Dilemma,” J. David Hughes, 2012, Global Sustainability Research Inc., lecture for Cornell University.

Jeremy Grantham: “Race for our Lives,” Morningstar video and file of graphics used: pdf.

“Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise,” Nafeez Ahmed, Aug 27 2018, Motherboard

“Report Outlines Climate Change Risks Faced by Insurance Sector,”

Insurance Journal, August 2018

Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention, Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, April 26, 2018.

“Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? J. Hansen, M. Sato, P. Kharecha, et. al. (NASA, Columbia Univ., Univ. Sheffield, Yale Univ., LSCE/IPSL, Boston Univ., Wesleyan Univ., UC Santa Cruz): Cornell University Library

Daily CO2 readings: CO2 Earth

Climate Sensitivity to doubling CO2 = 2.2 – 4.8°C: Nature; summary in The Guardian

The 1.5 Generation: radically remaking climate activism, Grist, Eric Holthaus, Aug. 22, 2018.

Youth sue federal US government over climate change liability, Grist, 2018.

Greta Thunberg: “The Swedish 15-year-old who’s cutting class to fight the climate crisis,” The Guardian, Sept. 1, 2018.