415 ppm of carbon dioxide and 1892 ppb of methane in the air, yet in the eyes of a common reader all these values translate as soap bubbles, numbers without any meaning, after all why should we be afraid of the exponential increase of these gases in the air? They have always been there after all, and the Earth has seen such values before. In my opinion, it is essential to take a look at the past to better understand the severity of the climate and ecological crisis.
In this article we will take a step back in time in order to put the current crises affecting humans into perspective and we will better understand the role that greenhouse gases play in regulating the global climate.
Well, are you ready? Let’s start with a jump of 12,000 years, that is, when the last Ice Age ended and the human being gradually began to select edible plants, developed agriculture, built cities, cultures began to multiply, in short, everything we call “civilization” was blossoming.
This period of time, which goes from the last glaciation to today, is called the Holocene and is characterized by a mainly stable and predictable global climate. These two factors have allowed our species to thrive, grow in numbers and expand across much of the Earth.
But the climate of our planet has not always been mild, in fact, periods such as glaciations were brutal enough for life on Earth, including humans, and one of these Ice Ages put our backs to the wall, pushing us to the brink of extinction.
The approximate age of Homo Sapiens (our species) is 250,000 years. That period of time is called the Quaternary period: a time when our planet oscillated between ice ages and more lenient interglacial periods (of which the Holocene was the last).
Well! Now we will go a little further back in time, a little over 3 million years, when the Earth was in the so-called Piacenzian (name derived from the city of Piacenza, Italy), during the late Pliocene, the planet was very different from what we see every day. Temperatures were 3 ° C higher and the sea level was 20 meters higher.
From the new research conducted by the scientific journal Nature and from the various paleoclimatology studies made by taking ice cores, samples of ancient lagoon bottoms, etc. it emerged that CO2 concentrations in the Piacenzian atmosphere were “only” 360 ppm.
When I was born, in 1994 the levels of carbon dioxide in the air were 358.24.
On the exact day I am writing this article, the ppm of carbon dioxide is 418.91.
In less than 30 years we have added 60 ppm of CO2 and the pre-industrial values (just under 300 years ago) were just 280 ppm.
It is important to understand that this is not just a distant past that our species has never known: it is also a future that we and our children will live in. Because the Earth’s clock is moving backwards, in a very distant and unknown past and we are changing our climate with a speed never experienced before on Earth.
Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the first place, methane etc have always been the regulators of the climate, the factors that determine the increase or decrease in temperatures, regulate rain patterns etc. Now the question remains why we should be afraid of the current exponential increase in the levels of these greenhouse gases and why we are not already observing the planet as it appeared in the Pliocene.
A recent Nature article explained this as follows: “The reason we don’t see Pliocene-like temperatures and sea levels today is because it takes some time for the Earth’s climate to fully rebalance to higher CO2 levels. and, due to human emissions, CO2 levels are still rising ”.
To give an even more practical example, if you turn on the oven at 200 ° C, the temperature inside will not instantly jump to that temperature but it will take some time, this is a very crude, yet understandable explanation of climate sensitivity.
In short, it takes some time to see the full effects of current emissions, a few years for temperatures and a few centuries for sea levels, but the situation is getting worse every year, not only have we left the clement and sweet period called Holocene but emissions continue to rise and we have no evidence that the agriculture and society we depend on can survive these imbalances.
In the study published by Nature it is estimated that if business as usual is given free pass, in 2025 emissions will reach even more critical levels never seen in the last 15 million years. “Having surpassed Pliocene CO2 levels by 2025, future CO2 levels are unlikely to have been experienced on Earth in the past 15 million years since the Miocene, an even greater heat period than in the Pliocene.” Says Dr. de Vega, author of the study. In a nutshell, we are sailing in uncharted waters, no human being has lived in such a climate before, and it is getting worse. Greenhouse gas levels are rising so rapidly that there is no time for animal (including humans) and plant species to adapt, consequently the ecosystems and crops on which we depend are destroyed by extreme weather events such as heat waves, perennial droughts, flash floods, sudden hails, etc…
What actions should we take to ensure a liveable future?
It is important first and foremost to understand that the crises we are going through are profound, devastating and terrible but we are still in the position of being able to avoid the most dire impacts. The loss of life will be gruesome and unprecedented. There is no possibility that ecosystems and living things can adapt to millions of years of climate change within a few decades. Business as usual has already catapulted us into the sixth mass extinction, destroying millions of years of evolution of living beings, not counting the billions of damage done and the life toll of the climate crisis.
The situation is particularly dire for those who are the least to blame, those who live in the global south and the middle/poor class in general. It is important to specify that not everyone is complicit in climate change and mass extinction, very often, basically all the time, decisions are imposed on us by governments and politicians without consulting experts or citizens, and the vast majority of the population finds itself stuck in a toxic system that will lead to a not so distant future of devastation and conflict.
The answer to inaction is nonviolent rebellion!
The very fact that we are in the sixth mass extinction and climate crisis, coupled with decades of COPs and summits on climate and biodiversity, handshakes, greenwash and empty promises have proved one thing: governments have no real intention of taking action to ensure their citizens a livable future. Years of climate strikes, demonstrations and signed petitions have been of little use.
Extinction Rebellion aims to learn from past mistakes and adopts a strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience that has its roots in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and other champions of history who with their achievements have changed the course of time for the better. Studies show that nonviolence is more likely to succeed than a bloody revolution and that it is enough to mobilize 3.5% of the population to unleash a cascading effect capable of triggering real change.
It is clear that now all that remains is to rebel against the inaction and complicity of the Governments, with so much anger, in a peaceful, nonviolent and inclusive way, conscious of the fact that we are ever closer to the 3.5% which a few years ago seemed an insurmountable obstacle.
The author, Domenico Barbato, is a 26 years old italian Extinction Rebellion activist, writer and founder of XR Naples with a passion for science communication.
Cover illustration by Charl: https://www.instagram.com/charl.art/