Humans Overwhelm Climate Equilibrium

The energy from an out of equilibrium atmosphere must go somewhereA new study indicates the degree to which humanity has overwhelmed the atmosphere's ancient carbon cycle [ark]. Human activities are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere 14,000 times as fast as historic natural processes. Global change [search] at this rate and scale is utterly unprecedented and devastating. Feedbacks such as mountain weathering [search] that historically removed carbon dioxide are being inundated and are unable to continue maintaining relatively constant atmospheric balances and thus climatic patterns.
As humans have become a force of nature, the Earth system's atmosphere is now entirely out of equilibrium. All this energy must go somewhere. In addition to global warming — increases in average global temperature — more troublingly we are set to experience spiraling chaotic climate changes. The Earth is already, and will continue, experiencing a complete break down in seasonality, extreme weather events and generally unreliable climatic patterns and oscillations. This is why “climate change” is the more accurate, powerful term to describe the forces that have been released and will impact the Earth for the rest of human history.

Deadly climate change is here, yet its magnitude and whether it can be survived is yet to be determined. Everything long predicted is playing out including energy shortages, extreme weather, reduced agricultural production and a breakdown in societal security. For far too long dominant economic and spiritual belief systems have thought humans above and separate from nature. This is the root of our conundrum. Any meaningful, sufficient response will require individuals and social systems to reintegrate with the biosphere and the web of life.
The speed with which economic and political systems begin to use all their resources to end greenhouse gas emissions — including taking hard decisions like ending the use of coal and old-growth forests — will determine whether humanity and her sister species survive. Given acceleration of emissions and no clear trend emerging regarding their urgent reduction, it is quite possible humanity will go extinct, but not before making the Earth uninhabitable for complex life.

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18 Responses

  1. curt says:

    Nothing, considering the topic of global warming/climate changes, is possible to change considerably by the same group of people in charge/power of the world politics and big corporations, who have created this very state of the pollution.

  2. Bill says:

    Thanks Glen…for being honest about the direness of the situation.
    Yep…extinction seems a probably outcome to me. I guess I'll have project my soul into another dimension where only greenies live.

  3. R. Gates says:

    Life will go on, with or without humans. It seems that many people who work to “save the earth”, really mean save humanity.
    The best thing that any of you can do, to both really save the earth, and preserve humanity, is to live as small as possible, consume only that which can be replaced. For example, rather than buying (i.e. consuming) a so called “green” car, try having no car at all and using only mass transit. Downsize your house, move to a small community where you can work, shop, and live without the use of a car at all. It is in only in downsizing (what I call RIGHTSIZING) your life, that humanity will have a chance.
    The earth will do just fine without out us, even though it may take 100,000 years to recover from human exessess, that is but the briefest moment of time to the earth.
    Small is Beautiful.

  4. Dr. Glen Barry says:

    Dear R. Gates,
    I almost always agree with your observations, but need to take issue with the unsubstantiated claim that “Life will go on, with or without humans”. This provides comfort to those like you and me that value other life forms. However, my years of studying global ecological change has led me to conclude this may or may not be the case, and it is certaintly not assured. The concern is that the human impacts upon the biosphere has been so fast, massive and diverse that it is not assured that some critical cumulative threshold may be passed.
    It is true that the Earth system has been self-regulating and maintained conditions that are remarkably stable for billions of years. But it has never faced the toxics, loss of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, changes in atmospheric composition, water and soil crises in essentially a blink of the geological eye.
    It is not outside of the range of possibilities that critical threshold may be crossed in terms of heat, toxicity, loss of species that it is not recoverable. There was no guarantee that life would survive past mass extinctions, and indeed most life was lost. It is quite possible and even probable that humanity may permanently make the Earth uninhabitable as it tries to maintain excessive populations and lifestyles way past the Earth's carrying capacity.
    This probability needs to at least be recognized as a possibility and we should not blindly assume things will be all right for the Earth and other species as there has never been a dominance by one species (except perhaps algae with the advent of an oxygen based atmosphere) of this magnitude.
    Dr. Glen Barry

  5. R. Gates says:

    Your point is well made regarding the extremity and rapidity to which humanity has impacted the Earth's ecosystems– it is akin to a sudden onset of a nasty virus or case of food poisoning that the human body might try to fight off.
    I highly respect your knowledge in this area, as it is far greater than my own. Also, I do not place any comfort or complacency in the notion that the Earth (sans human civilzation) would be able to eventually recover. I do think Gaia is headed for another Great Dying, not unlike the Permian of 250 Million Years ago. 90% of species may go extinct, and one of those may indeed be homo sapiens. Indeed, it seems the age of mammals is at an end.
    What might survive? Very hard to say, as we can't predict the chaotic climate– but I still suspect some species will. Insects, for example, have survived far better than any other and of course account for the largest biomass on the planet.
    Having said all this– I am rapidly trying to practice what I preach and attempting to “right-size” my life and create a sustainable lifestyle for myself and my family. It is difficult, to say the least, and it is here that politicians can be of an assistance to creat POLICIES that STRONGLY ENCOURAGE people to downsize their lives and reduce consumption. These kind of policies unfortunately go against the Consumerist Economy that is the heartbeat of modern civilization, and that, more than anything, is the greatest hurdle we face. How will people give up working in factories all over the world and become organic farmers, living simple lifestyles?

  6. Dear R. Gates and Glen Barry,
    Do you think the time will ever come when government officials stop employing every ruse under the sun to protect the selfish interests of over-consumers and hoarders, and start by choosing to do the right thing?
    Life and human institutions like national economies are utterly dependent upon the Earth for existence; but too many of our leaders view the Earth as some kind of thing to be manipulated, dissipated, and ravaged secondary to their adamant practice of a religion called Endless Economic Growth. This clear and obvious object of their idolatry is the soon to become unsustainable expansion of the leviathan-like, global political economy. What a colossal sham. What a shame. What a shambles for our children to confront.
    Always, with thanks to both of you,

  7. ewoc says:

    Sorry, I must disagree with you on this point.
    Life persists, though not necessarily in an entirely predictable manner. Life forms fill ecological niches, regardless of the specifics. There is no evidence from the geological record (and here I do mean no evidence!) that conditions existed at any time in the past that meant the end of life on this planet, and there are no reasons to assume that would be the case now or in the future, short of nuclear war, which would create conditions that have not been seen in the geological record and hence cannot be predicted with any degree of accuracy.
    There have been multiple instances of the sudden release of methane from ocean sediments in the past, releases that have resulted in rapid increases in global temperatures that have caused massive loss of species over a relatively short period of time. And the accumulation of toxic substances in the environment from human activities is not unprecedented on a geological time scale, given the evidence we have now.
    I am not entirely sure why this is relevant in any case, since the loss of a habitable biosphere from a human perspective would be tragedy enough. More to the point, we might create conditions that would doom half of all species to extinction, while still continuing to exist as a species over millennia. Would that not be tragedy enough for all time?

  8. Dr. Glen Barry says:

    Ewoc, No reason to apologize since none of us know the future with certainty. My point is really quite simple. The fact that life has persisted does not mean it necessary must. And the speed, extent and intensity of numerous, unprecedented changes in environmental parameters — including but not limited to climate — have never been seen before. There are indications some of the past mass extinctions came remarkably close to wiping out all life. Yet the Earth system is being shocked like never before and it can break. While life is resilient, it is not guaranteed and there are tipping points. My concern is particularly with cumulative impacts of toxics, climate, forests, water, oceans — all being hit and then having an impact on the biosphere greater even than the sum of the parts. A world devoid of an ozone layer, either super heated or super frozen, with most ecosystems gone, and pervasive toxics could reasonably be imagined to slip into lifelessness. I think we are talking about the same thing but to different degrees — a world of dandelions and cockroaches is alive, but barely. And a world of humans cloistered in machines to replicate a biosphere (if this is even possible) while the rest of life has been trashed is an equal tragedy. And the remote possibility that the Earth's life is simply wiped out is simple madness.

  9. ewoc says:

    Oops. I meant to say that the release of toxic substances (regardless of the human presence on our planet) is certainly not unprecedented in geological time, and such releases did not result in the extinction of all life. Evolution is a force, again irrespective of our presence on this planet, and it will continue to be so. So I would worry less about some worst case scenario of total extinction and more about likely scenarios that cause massive suffering of both human and non-human life forms on this still-lovely planet.

  10. Dr. Glen Barry says:

    Good final point in your last post — the more likely scenarios are horrific enough. My scientific concern is that these perfectly imaginable more extreme scenarios are routinely edited out of the range of possibility. We have known of the possibility of abrupt climate change, non-linear responses, tipping points, feedbacks for quite some time; yet in the political climate processes these are routinely left out to reach consensus. As such even the IPCC's findings are very, very conservative.
    Oceans have lost huge amounts of biomass, water ecosystems have been hit the hardest, 80% of intact forests gone, most of the planet given over to agriculture, thousands of toxics (for which we do not know their effects singly, much less cumulatively), a billion people added every 15 years, climate change that continues to outpace expectations.
    This discussion is happening in a thread about scientific findings that the world's co2 output is 14,000 times what is normal! 14,000! Despite the obvious discomfort and possible gloating of skeptics, shouldn't the possibility that this is too much for life to handle at least be examined? This is some serious stuff, and we had better try to get our heads around the big picture and all the possibilities re: impacts and scale of solutions. Not considering these issues will not make them less likely, and does a grave disservice to humanity's future if they are even remotely possible.
    I do believe that if the degree to which the biosphere is being destroyed were more known and understood, it would lead to a tidal wave of action. I may be naive. However, I do think this site's examination of the wider range of possible implications of rapid global ecological decline and what would truly be necessary to reverse these trends fills an important niche. There are thousands of sites telling you to change your light bulbs… but few taking on population, consumption, abrupt climate change, deforestation, etc. and just what this may mean cumulatively.
    This said, your point is taken, and I think we can work on both the probable and improbable outcomes of global ecological decline here.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ewoc said:
    There is no evidence from the geological record (and here I do mean no evidence!) that conditions existed at any time in the past that meant the end of life on this planet…
    Ewoc, this is not right. During past mass extinctions as much as 90% of all species were lost. Does this not come close to end all life? During any one of these events there was no guarantee life persist.

  12. Tommy Twotone says:

    I would keep going as you are Glen. You and Eco Internet are integrating a full picture of what ecology tells us of many different environmental issues, showing how serious they are and could be if left unanswered, and proposing realistic solutions that would be truly adequate. I do not see alot of other efforts out there that put truth before profit as you have been. Keep it up!

  13. R. Gates says:

    Without question, this site is one of the most important on the entire web for an accurate discussion and analysis of the broader issues. Truly, whether all life, or 90% is wiped out, the point is that humans are the change agent here, and it is only by the very same intelligence that created the problems, that we can find solutions. My point before is that these solutions must be, simultaneously:
    1) Political
    2) Economic
    3) Social
    4) Personal
    To move forward, rapidily, now, before many more tipping points are reached will require nothing short of a revolution in everyone of these areas.
    The task is large and most will not be willing to change until nudged (strongly nudged even), and nature, as loving as she is, is glad to give us that strong nudge.

  14. ewoc says:

    Dear Anon-E-Mouse,
    We're here, even after mass extinction events. That should be enough proof that life is tenacious, fills niches, and that in the worst case scenario, some life forms will survive, and later evolve into other life forms. But the debate is largely a waste of time, as I indicated earlier.

  15. Dr. Glen Barry says:

    I agree the conversation has gotten a bit silly. Ewoc made a reasonable suggestion that perhaps we should focus more on the serious consequences we know are likely, and less on those that are possible. We always welcome feedback and this is a good suggestion, and within our mandate of looking at abrupt climate change and sufficient biocentric responses, we will work to shift the balance (without making it an either or proposition).
    As a last comment, I would note however that half a dozen mass extinctions are not much of a trial size to say that life necessarily will always be able to recover from environmental perturbations that are out of the norm. This was the original thread of conversation between R. Gates and myself — life could end. But perhaps we are talking about how many angels fit on the head of a pin and should be worrying about the droughts, crop failures, rising seas, extreme weather happening right before our eyes. I get your point ewoc, and thank you for making it. Indeed there is much beauty and truth to the Earth, and it is for this we work.

  16. Japan Times
    Is growth driving us to oblivion?
    By STEPHEN HESSE | Apr 22, 2008 | 1491 words, 0 images
    Last month, when I wrote a column headlined 'Apocalypse when? Can three experts all be wrong on looming disaster?,' I expected that readers would harangue me for taking up ranks with the pessimists. After all, for every doomster, there seems to be a Pangloss reassuring us that all will be well. Recently in The Japan Times, for example, Ray Kurzweil argued that exponential progress in technology will offer solutions to all our problems before they get the better of us ('Making the world a billion times better'; April 17). Nice to think so, certainly, though at least one scientist I'll introduce later believes that the exponential function, and our failure to understand it, is precisely why we have so many problems. In any case, I was wrong. No one wrote to accuse me of being a prophet of doom; just the opposite happened. Everyone who wrote said the experts Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, British scientist James Lovelock, and Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York are not critical enough in their assessments. Several readers in particular, from different corners of the globe, were adamant in their criticism. Each sent me Web site links to check out, and they also stressed that planetary survival hinges on the issue of population. This column will share some of their comments and some of the people and resources they introduced, so thanks to you all, worldwide, in advance. Prof. Eric R. Pianka, a biologist at the University of Texas in Austin, didn't waste any words setting me straight: Hi Steve, You, like almost everybody, miss the point. Treating the symptoms of overpopulation while denying the cause is like driving into a brick wall at top speed. We must get out of this state of total denial and face reality. We must confront the source of ALL our problems: Too Many People. Above all, face reality and THINK. Best wishes, Eric If you're interested in knowing more about Pianka's opinions, research and solutions, see his thought-provoking Web site at: Another reader, from Switzerland, sent along his Web site address and some pointed criticisms of all three experts. Dear Mr. Hesse, Yes. All three 'learned experts' are wrong. Mr. Sachs is wrong because he still believes in economic growth and progress on a planet that has finite space and resources. Hardly any economist gets that point right! Mr. Brown is wrong because he believes we can at least maintain our present level of exuberant consumption. One has to sound vaguely optimistic to be taken seriously. Optimism and hope and belief in technology are today's civic duties. And Mr. Lovelock has lost his logic. He is right in saying that many solutions are a scam and a waste of time and effort. But his nuclear solution is tremendously off. Humanity's problem is not that we don't have enough energy, but that we have too much. The vast amounts of cheap, easy fossil energy have allowed humanity to reach the enormous overshoot of the Earth's carrying capacity, in numbers and in consumption per capita. The world's population under business-as-usual scenarios is expected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2050 (it is 6.7 billion now), and nobody knows how all those people can live in terms of either space or resources. Kind regards, Helmut Lubbers I asked Lubbers in a followup e-mail what he thought we should be doing to get humans and the planet back in balance. He replied: Relocalization, elimination of motorized transportation, but for emergency services, slowing down in general, using power when nature provides it, i.e., when the wind blows and the rivers carry water, and elimination of all destructive and useless activities, demechanization, and a return to a very frugal lifestyle. All this will only make sense if people realize that we have far overshot the Earth's carrying capacity, that economic growth means increasing the speed of resource depletion, and that as a logical consequence we have to consciously and democratically contract economic activities and population sizes. So in sum I think we are lost as long as the BAU (business-as-usual) scenario reigns in this world, Lubbers wrote. You can visit Lubbers' Web site, an eclectic compendium, at: Meanwhile, a third reader, Peter Salonius, provided the most comprehensive comments and links. Salonius is a soil scientist in Canada and he, too, argues that population is overshooting the planet's carrying capacity, resulting in the degradation of ecosystems that already cannot support present population levels. I have taken the liberty of synthesizing parts of his e-mail with other comments he sent. Hello Stephen Hesse, I do hope you have time to run through the material I present below; it is as far as I have gotten after starting to broaden my attention away from the reductionist soil science that occupied me for about 40 years toward more holistic/systems deliberations. Many keen thinkers have understood that the driver that has enabled our numbers to shoot so far over long-term carrying capacity is the planet's one-time gift of fossil fuels, and this overshoot has resulted in our rampant destruction of the biosphere. The global human population before the start of the Fossil-Fuel Revolution was about 1 billion, while it is now about 6.6 billion and rising. These holistic thinkers suggest that without oil, the Earth will only support about 2-3 billion. The other major factor that has enabled our numbers to shoot so far over long-term carrying capacity is the one-time gift of erodible soils and the vast store of plant nutrients they contained. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel have developed the Ecological Footprint Analysis and believe that humanity overshot global carrying capacity sometime in the 20th century, while it is more likely that the human family has been in overshoot for the last 10,000 years, and has been sidestepping this overshoot by further forest destruction for agriculture, migration to new areas, global trade, and the fossil-fuel-dependent motive power, fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that make modern agriculture possible, Salonius wrote. Salonius also included two interesting links, one an easy-to-understand slide show on food production and population, and the other an engaging talk by Dr. Albert Bartlett explaining the so-called exponential function. The slide show, titled 'World Food and Human Population Growth,' explains how increasing food production to feed a growing population spurs even further population growth. An important corollary is that industrial agriculture, which we have embraced to feed the hungry masses, is rapidly degrading soils and destroying forest, marine and freshwater ecosystems. The slide show is the work of Dr. Russell Hopfenberg, a consulting associate at Duke University in North Carolina. You can find it at The talk by Bartlett, an emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, explains the so-called exponential function in simple terms. This may not be the sexiest topic, but Bartlett makes a clear and convincing case for why we all need to have a better understanding of exponentiation. His talk is titled 'Arithmetic, Population and Energy.' 'Some of these problems are local, some are national, some are global. They're all tied together. They're tied together by arithmetic, and the arithmetic isn't very difficult,' begins Bartlett. He goes on to explain that we need to understand the function better, because our society's addiction to exponential growth is both untenable and undesirable. Population growth, another exponential threat, is 'the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises,' he warns. Bartlett makes his point convincingly, with humor and pithy quotes such as this one from Isaac Asimov: 'Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world,
    the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters,' said Asimov. Clearly, across the globe, from America to Switzerland to Canada, the fate of our planet and the population threat are very real concerns for Japan Times readers. The consensus is that we need to reverse exponential growth of both the numbers of new people and resource consumption, and we need to start now. As Bartlett notes, this will require educating policy-makers worldwide to the lessons of simple math. 'The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand this very simple arithmetic,' he chides good-naturedly. Bartlett ends with a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King on overpopulation: 'What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.' So, while corporations and politicians continue to reassure us that we can squeeze more energy, more food, and more resources from the planet's shrinking reserves, perhaps the best, real solution is to give women and families worldwide the education and support they need to raise just one or two children well rather than three or more willy-nilly, at the planet's and all children's peril. A video of Dr Bartlett's talk can be seen at Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at A video of Dr Bartlett's talk can be seen at Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  17. Bleak future may await our children
    Humankind inhabits a tiny celestial orb that is miraculously set among of sea of stars. As far as we know, life as we know it exists nowhere else in the universe. Perhaps we of the human family have the responsibility of assuring the security for the future of life in our planetary home.
    April 22 was Earth Day. Our many Earth Day celebrations focus attention on the pressing need for human beings to protect and preserve the finite resources of Earth and its frangible ecosystems. If we fail to achieve this goal, then an unimaginably bleak future awaits our children.
    If 6-plus billion human beings live on Earth now and 9-plus billion are expected to populate our small planet by 2050, then we simply cannot keep doing what we are doing now because the Earth has limited resources. Without adequate resources and ecosystem system services of Earth, life as we know it and human institutions would collapse.
    Some portion of the world's human population conspicuously over-consumes the resources of our planetary home. Other people, in charge of huge multinational conglomerations, are doing business in a way that recklessly dissipates natural resources. Still others in the human family are overpopulating the planet. The leviathan-like scale and rapid growth of global human consumption, production and propagation activities are putting the Earth, life as we know it, and the human community in grave, clear and present danger.
    Since Chapel Hillians live in the overdeveloped world, we are among the people who are ravenously over-consuming Earth's resources. We could choose to consume less. People in the developing could choose to limit overproduction of unnecessary things and contain industrial pollution. People in the underdeveloped world could limit their number of offspring. Perhaps these are ways the family of humanity begins to respond ably to the human-induced global challenges that loom so ominously.
    -; Steven Earl Salmony, Chapel Hill

  18. melissa len says:

    The conditions under which a runaway climate warming might occur undergo beforehand been investigated using simpler models. For sufficiently strong forcing, the greenhouse affect of increasing water vapour in a warmer atmosphere is expected to overwhelm the terrible feedback of the longwave cooling to space as temperature increases. This is not, however, the reason for the climate instability have had to deal with in the GCM. Instead, the model experiences a "cloud feedback" warming whereby the decrease in cloudiness that crops up when temperature increases past a critical value results in an increased absorption of solar radiation by the system, leading to the runaway warming. Find the best, fastest and easiest way to a payday loan –

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