In popular films about climate disasters, there’s typically a frenzied scenario in which a group of scientific experts with furrowed brows monitor changes in Earth’s activities just before rushing to warn the entire world of impending upheaval by way of an unprecedented cataclysmic weather event. In the background, everyday citizens go on about their daily duties in complete oblivion—that is, until a tsunami of melted ice cap water sweeps through the populated area, engulfing everything in sight and permanently altering life on Earth as we know it.
In real life, scientists, environmental experts and climate change organizations continue doing the tireless work of making sure that these terrifying “cli-fi” apocalyptic movie plots remain onscreen and don’t actually unfold outside of big-budget movie sets, where they stand to obliterate far more than their box office competitors. The latest collective attempt at hoisting up a proverbial red flag is a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, titled “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” The review posits an overall increase of two degrees Celsius in the planet’s temperature is all that stands between us and critical climate changes that could produce what the study’s authors refer to as “Hothouse Earth” conditions. Lead scientist William Steffen collaborated with 15 other experts on the paper, which takes into account multiple other studies that explore climate-related trends over the past hundreds of thousands of years.
By combing through the planet’s climate chronicles, the study suggests that life on Earth could become increasingly precarious for humans should global warming venture two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Specifically, the temperature change could lead to substantial climate warming and a rise in sea levels, hence the catchy hothouse description. The study also outlines an alternate outcome—labeled Stabilized Earth—in which the climate remains comparable to its current state.
Some experts like Richard Betts—who provided his expertise for the hothouse review—caution us against pressing the panic button in response to the study. The odds of this frightening prediction developing beyond the literary-based speculation, Betts writes in EcoWatch, is highly unlikely, plus if it were to actually occur, we’re looking at a timeline of about one million years down the line, where humans may or may not have mined the cosmos and successfully settled on another planet altogether.
Our proximity to that temperature threshold of no-return may be closer than we have anticipated, at only two degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial climates.
On the contrary, study co-author Katharine Richardson told Earther that the findings offered plenty cause for concern.
“That raised alarm bells because all of our assumptions regarding the Paris Agreement and controlling climate change are based on the idea that if we ‘just’ stop emitting CO2 to the atmosphere, the processes causing climate change will stop and the climate will remain stable,” Richardson said.
Speculation aside, there are valuable facts presented by the study, one of which is that we still have time to establish climate change policies to thwart catastrophic events, says UNLV geoscience professor and climate change expert Matthew Lachniet.
“The most important takeaway from this study is that there are many processes in the Earth system that can push the climate into hotter climates, with higher sea levels flooding coastal areas worldwide, and higher temperatures stressing water resources,” Lachniet tells Playboy. “Our proximity to that temperature threshold of no-return may be closer than we have anticipated, at only two degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial climates. If the authors are correct—and we have to hope that they are wrong while faced with compelling evidence—then time is short to enact policies to stabilize Earth's climate by lowering atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and to prevent runaway warming processes.”
The potential for humans to combat climate issues is ripe, however various obstacles stand in the way of progress, namely people in positions of power who insist on denying the fact that climate issues exist in the first place. Then, there’s the ongoing debate over who’s responsible for holding big polluters accountable, and we find ourselves entangled in yet another frustrating conundrum. Nevertheless, bestselling author and consultant for green and social entrepreneurship businesses Shel Horowitz believes that proactive measures are available to help us avoid a future that finds humanity paying a karmic debt to the planet.
Proactive measures are available to help us avoid a future that finds humanity paying a karmic debt to the planet.
Horowitz proposes multiple solutions, among them waste reduction efforts via recycling streams and replacing disposable items with reusable options. “Switch as many things as possible to local and organic, thus eliminating the carbon effects of both transportation and "chemiculture,” he adds. “This includes not just food businesses but every business that has a cafeteria, a break room, a lawn maintenance contractor.” Horowitz also promotes adopting green design plans that incorporate “net-energy-positive, earth-friendly concrete” and other materials that will drastically reduce the use of non-biodegradable products. And finally, Horowitz suggests focusing on a more holistic approach where “components that perform different functions are interrelated and provide synergy, or even better, where one component can handle many functions.”
Critics of the Hothouse study have chided it as another piece of information that doesn’t present any new findings and only serves to incite hysteria. The former may be accurate, however that doesn’t negate its role in keeping the spotlight on climate change and the potential fallout from ignoring our responsibility to maintain the only home we have (for the time being, at least).
“Over the next 50 to 100 years the warming is still reversible, but if society continues on its current trajectory then irreversible changes are likely to start appearing in coming centuries,” Lachniet adds. “The dilemma that society faces is that decisions have to be made now to avoid hothouse earth conditions hundreds of years from now. If we wait, hothouse climates become more irreversible and more likely.”
After all, Mars—or wherever the next intergalactic frontier for humanity lies—is still too far from our grasp for us to be this complacent with the fact that our conscious choices are actively destroying what’s intended to sustain us.