There are no bailouts

By juni 27, 2023 Algemeen

Multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly and irreversibly degrade humanity’s prospects. These interacting crises produce greater harm than they would have individually, if their host systems were not so profoundly interconnected. Humanity is in the midst of this interdependent, complex, dynamic world in a constant flux of change.

The Earth System crisis is particularly pressing. The present excess of economic hubris in plundering and colonizing the earth, an anthropocentric colonization, is leading to a very different state of the Earth System, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies. It is well-known that today’s ecosystems such as lakes and coral reefs, can undergo regime shifts. These large, abrupt, persistent changes are often the result of a range of slower processes like escalating rates of harvesting, global warming, and increased nutrient pollution that undermine resilience and push the systems closer to a tipping point. What is especially worrying is that -by example- climate extremes could hit already stressed ecosystems, which in turn transfer new or heightened stresses to some other ecosystem, and so on. This means one collapsing ecosystem could have a knock-on effect on neighboring ecosystems through successive feedback loops: an ecological doom-loop scenario, with catastrophic consequences.

Tipping points exist in social, economic and geobiophysical systems and those systems are increasingly causally intertwined in the Anthropocene. Slow changes in underlying state variables can lead to tipping points, rapid transitions between alternative states -regime shifts- in a wide range of complex systems. Tipping points exist in a whole range of complex systems that can exhibit nonlinear dynamics, across a range of scales, including individual humans, societies, ecosystems, the climate system and the Earth system. They occur when there is strongly self-amplifying (mathematically positive) feedback within a system such that a small perturbation can trigger a large response from the system, sending it into a qualitatively different future state. Climate change and biosphere degradation have advanced to the point where we are already triggering damaging environmental tipping points, and to avoid worse ones ahead will require finding and triggering positive tipping points towards sustainability in coupled social, ecological and technological systems.

The Earth system comprises a number of large-scale subsystems and thresholds related to a strong nonlinear response in system state at a critical level of an internal or external driver. Tipping elements mark the onset of self-sustained responses that lead to strong changes in ecosystem state. Tipping elements, that can undergo large and possibly irreversible changes in response to environmental or anthropogenic perturbations once a certain critical threshold in forcing is exceeded. Once triggered, the actual tipping process might take several years up to millennia depending on the respective response times of the system. Among the tipping elements are cryosphere components such as the continental ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica; biosphere components such as the Amazon rainforest, boreal forests and coral reefs; biodiversity loss, biochemical flows, ocean acidification, large-scale atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns such as monsoon, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and novel entities entering our environment.

Ocean warming may well turn out to be the greatest hidden challenge of our generation.             Whilst some may be aware of the challenges a warming ocean presents to coral reefs, few know about the other consequences this holds for the ocean. Until very recently, the debate on climate change has focused on specific themes such as land surface temperatures, melting ice caps in Greenland and Polar Regions, and shrinking glaciers in mountain ranges. It has only occasionally mentioned the ocean. Thermodynamic feedback processes in the atmosphere and ocean are critical to understanding the overall stability of the Earth’s climate and climate change. Water and its phase changes make the thermodynamics of the atmosphere and ocean uniquely interesting and challenging. Interactions between the atmosphere and ocean play a fundamental role in determining the state and variability of Earth’s climate on all timescales. The atmosphere responds rapidly to regional and global changes in the energy balance, and transmits their influences over large distances. In this way, the atmosphere serves as a bridge, connecting different ocean basins. The ocean has a tremendous capacity to store and release heat (more than 1000 times that of the atmosphere!), which has a remarkable influence on regional climate. Ocean currents act much like a conveyor belt, transporting warm water and precipitation from the equator toward the poles and cold water from the poles back to the tropics. Thus, ocean currents regulate global climate, helping to counteract the uneven distribution of solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface. Without currents in the ocean, regional temperatures would be more extreme — super hot at the equator and frigid toward the poles — and much less of Earth’s land would be habitable. Thus, ocean currents regulate global climate, helping to counteract the uneven distribution of solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface.

The temperature, density or salinity of our oceans are changing, hence the thermodynamics of the Earth System.

The tipping elements in the Earth system are not isolated systems; they interact on a global scale. These interactions could have stabilizing or destabilizing effects, increasing or decreasing the probability of emerging tipping cascades, and it remains an important problem to understand how the interactions between the tipping elements affect the overall stability of the Earth system.

Changes in society, ecosystems, climate, Earth systems in general are increasingly interconnected, and large-scale shifts in one can become a driver of another. Such escalating connections, or connectivity, is a critical issue for planetary resilience because of its potential to increase the likelihood local regime shifts to larger scales. In ecology, connectivity between habitats is often perceived as a good thing, promoting resilience and recovery, e.g. local populations receiving a recruitment or immigration subsidy from elsewhere.

Humanity is not dealing with only a single-incident, non-interconnected local or regional crisis. Humanity is heading into a deteriorating and undeclared globalized emergency involving the collapse of its critical global survival and stability systems, such as the forementioned trespassed geobiophysical boundaries of the Earth System, increasingly social inequality, unequal distribution of health, income and wealth in a continuously globalizing world, as well as financial upheavals and recurring economic recessions to name a few.

Incorporating the dynamics of tipping points and alternate states into governance is a huge challenge and the future can appear frightening at present. This is partly because many things are going in an undesirable direction, but also due to a lack of credible alternatives to the threat scenarios. Societies only remain vibrant as long as they retain the ability to imagine a desirable future.

We are now witnessing the cumulative effects of globalization without forward-looking governance. This includes a slew of new, growing risks that are particularly difficult to manage, including those which are existential and systemic in nature. And there is no easy fix because we cannot go back to our pre-polycrisis world.

Right now, there is a pressing need to imagine other, inspiring futures. Unfortunately their is a crisis of political imagination, a lack of inspiring views of the future that drive society forward.

Imagining alternative futures is necessary for making informed and considered choices in the present.

If humanity descends into blame and desperate efforts to maintain a status quo that by its very nature cannot persist, the future looks dark indeed. Our longer-term message to society, business should be aligned with the principles of anti-fragility, transformation and long-term value creation instead of short-term risk-return profiles.

We are going to organize debate sessions, produce a long-term outlook, dive into the nature of the global polycrisis, resilience, transformation and regeneration. Creating a more anti fragile society to make the necessary transformation towards regeneration is now more critical than ever. It is time to make a giant leap forward.

If we work together now to build a truly sustainable way of life, maybe future generations will have at least some reasons to thank us.


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