Report Shows Earth Risks Entering Irreversible "Hothouse" Conditions

Mindy Sparks
August 7, 2018

The analysis, conducted by researchers at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center, among other institutions, outlines the potential for a "threshold" that, if crossed, would lead to runaway warming patterns and the advent of a "Hothouse Earth".

The report notes that a 2 C temperature gain for the Earth could activate "important tipping elements" that would raise the temperature of the planet even higher creating a domino effect that could take the Earth to even higher temperatures.

"Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System - biosphere, climate, and societies - and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values", the study says.

They said that "Hothouse Earth" is likely to be unsafe to many and uncontrollable.

"A Hothouse Earth trajectory would nearly certainly flood deltaic environments, increase the risk of damage from coastal storms, and eliminate coral the end of this century or earlier", the study says.

Melting polar ice caps would lead to dramatically higher sea levels, flooding coastal land that is home to hundreds of millions of people. At this point, the global temperatures are already one degree higher than pre-industrial times. "We show how industrial-age greenhouse gas emissions force our climate, and ultimately the Earth system, out of balance", said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

The scientists also examined conditions the Earth has seen in the distant past, such as the Pliocene period five million years ago, when Carbon dioxide was at 400 ppm like today.

"It's rather selective, but not outlandish". He added that putting 2ºC as the no-return threshold "is new" and the authors "collated previously published ideas and theories to present a narrative on how the threshold change would work".

The research explains that it's not clear if this deal will affect climate change.

"Even if the Paris Accord [Agreement] target of a 1.5C to 2C rise in temperature is met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth system irreversibly onto a "hothouse Earth" pathway", the study says.

For example, improved forest, agricultural and soil management; biodiversity conservation and technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground are needed.

However, it is not clear whether the world's climate can be safely "parked" near 2°C above pre-industrial levels or whether this might trigger other processes which drive further warming even if the world stops emitting greenhouse gases, the research said.

Some of the processes also included permafrost thaw, Amazon rainforest dieback, a reduction of northern hemisphere snow cover, a loss of Arctic summer sea ice, and a reduction of Antarctic sea ice and polar ice sheets.

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