The way climate change works might surprise you
Weather is around us all the time. We talk about it. We watch it on TV. We feel it every moment that we are outside. But most people don’t actually understand what it is. Why is it that weather changes with the seasons? Why do weather patterns shift gradually over time? Why are we now seeing increasingly extreme weather events and what does this mean for the future?
We often think of weather as something “out there” – a physical phenomenon related to the fact that we live on a planet with a tilt that rotates around the sun. During winter, the further we are from the equator, the colder it gets. Of course this is true, but it misses something fundamental. Weather is also inextricably linked to the biological processes happening on the planet. As humans begin to consciously manage the planet’s climate, our understanding shifts and we see that weather is also inside of us – connected to our thoughts, behaviours and actions. Our ideas and decisions now will determine our future climate.
The act of breathing connects our internal organs to the atmosphere. We breathe in air rich in oxygen emitted from plants and we breathe out air rich in carbon dioxide (CO2) which forms an insulating layer around the planet, warming it up. Overall, more human activity normally relates to a warmer planet – but not always. What started as an idea in Christopher Columbus’s brain culminated with extremely cold winters and fairs on the frozen River Thames in London. After years of lobbying, Columbus got the backing of the Catholic Church and made his initial journey to the Americas and Caribbean in 1492. This adventure was to turn into one of the most vicious bouts of colonization, subjugation and ultimately extermination in human history. Ninety percent of the indigenous population died. Their agricultural land, an area the size of France, was left to rewild and this regrowth sucked enough CO2 out of the atmosphere to cause a mini ice age.
Dead planets – ones without life on them – behave differently to Earth. They are barren places, their climates far harsher and more predictable over long periods. For example, the ambient near-surface temperature of Mars has most likely been below 0°C for the last four billion years. Mars is also subject to extreme temperature changes – on summer days it can be around 20°C, then plummet to -90°C at night. The reason Earth behaves differently is because the living layer of life on the surface creates, regulates and sustains the conditions life needs to survive.
Buckminster Fuller, one of the 20th Century’s great polymaths, wrote The Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1968. This seminal work was decades ahead of its time and underpinned key concepts of the environmental movement that was to follow, not least the idea that resources on a finite planet are limited, and so as the population increases, sustainability depends on learning how to do more with less physical material – what he called ephemeralization. His ideas are hugely powerful in helping us to understand global environmental issues, many of which, like climate change, cannot be addressed effectively without a planetary perspective.
A decent spaceship that will keep its human crew alive in space indefinitely needs to do many things. Space is a freezing, radioactive vacuum full of lethal objects hurtling at millions of miles per second and deadly, cancer-causing solar events. The spaceship must regeneratively provide an atmosphere and food, while also protecting us from the void. Obviously, it is also a bonus if it provides beauty, stimulation and extraordinary other beings to share the adventure with. Earth does all of this and more.
The biosphere (all of Earth’s life considered together) is a giant life-support system. Working together, living processes determine the composition of, and regulate, the atmosphere, oceans and therefore the planet’s temperature and climate. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protect life from solar radiation and smallish meteorites. The Gaia Hypothesis describes how the planet can maintain conditions that support life over astrological timescales using homeostatic processes analogous to how an individual cell stays alive.
If you have ever wondered “why is it that given all the possible temperatures in the universe, conditions on my planet seem perfectly suited to my needs”, you are asking the question the wrong way around. We didn’t randomly get dropped onto this planet with a great climate – warm tropical beaches to surf from, extraordinary alpine slopes on which to snowboard… we emerged out of it.
For four billions years life has been enveloping the rock we call Earth in increasing complexity. As the tree of life has grown and its branches spread, natural history has brought forth the great magnificence that is the diversity of life on Earth. Our planet is currently home to the biggest living creatures that have ever existed, as well as the most advanced brains now pondering the weirdness. The crucial point though, is that every part of the biosphere is dependent on every other part. “We are all astronauts” says Fuller, and we need our spaceship to be kept in full working order if we are to survive.
Currently humans are driving two planetary processes that could lead to our extinction. The first is that our industrial systems (subsidized by governments the world over) dig up fossil fuels and burn them, loading the atmosphere with carbon that was stored by plants eons ago. At the same time humans have been removing the world’s forests and wild spaces, largely to make room for cruel intensive agricultural processes to mass produce “cheap” animal protein. We are forcing the climate to get hotter and we are removing our planet’s ability to regulate itself.
Currently, Europe and North America are covered in snow. These kinds of weather events do not mean that climate change isn’t happening. Climate change happens over a longer time period. Anomalies and extreme weather events are signs that our climate is destabilizing. Billions of tonnes of ice held at the poles act as vast stores of coolness. Once the ice is gone, we won’t just lose land and cities under the rising water, the planet will begin to warm up much faster. Other positive feedback loops also threaten to overwhelm Gaian processes that have kept life diversifying for millenia – not least methane burps in thawing Alaska.
Extreme weather events are happening everywhere and are harbingers of the devastation that could end civilisation as we know it. It is wake up time. Humanity is no longer a passive recipient of the weather – we make it. However, we also have the power to return our precious spaceship to full working order. To make this happen we need to be doing two things. We must immediately turn off the industrial processes evaporating coal and oil – achievable by taxing carbon. Next up, we need to rewild half of the planet. This means global cooperation and a coordinated effort much greater than all the work of a world war to rehabilitate ecological systems, plant trees and clean the oceans. As the vast frozen regions of our planets melt we must meet the flowing water with great armies of tree planting heroes. New forests much greater than the size of France can counter warming and help to maintain the conditions we have evolved to find optimum.
If we spring into action now we may just save some snowy peaks. If we delay any longer our planet could end up like Mars – rigid and lifeless. Each of us is both culpable and empowered: we need to force our politicians to take the necessary legislative steps, and we must adapt our personal lifestyles to help regenerate nature. Evolution is no longer dependent on random mutations in DNA, it depends on each of us understanding the weather and upon what each of us does with that knowledge.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth.
I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth.
I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
– Neil Armstrong, Astronaut,
First Human to Walk on the Moon
“I thought at one point, if you could be up in heaven,
this is how you would see the planet.
And then I dwelled on that and said, no, it’s more beautiful than that.
This is what heaven must look like. I think of our planet as a paradise.
We are very lucky to be here.”
– Mike Massimino,
“In the future, I would like to be more of an advocate for animal conservation. Every single part of the Earth reacts with every other part. It’s one thing. Every little animal is important in that ecosystem.
[Seeing the planet from above] makes you realize that, and makes you want to be a little more proactive in keeping it that way.
If I could get every Earthling to do one circle of the Earth, I think things would run a little differently.”
– Karen Nyberg
NASA astronaut and the 50th woman in space
“Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there.”
— Mike Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut
“As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine.
That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.”
– James B. Irwin,
Astronaut, Apollo Program
“The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic.
The Earth was absolutely round.
I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space. ”
– Aleksei Leonov, Cosmonaut,
First Human to Conduct Extra-Vehicular Activity