And now, the really bad news…
55 million years ago, something happened that heated Earth for the following 80,000 years by, probably, about 10° F average or more. The best guess remains some kind of activity that returned massive amounts of methane to the atmosphere, quite possibly very rapidly. That it took the earth 80,000 years or so to digest that carbon and restore things to the way they were should inspire fear and awe–that is longer than civilization, maybe even language.
There are signs that that same something is happening today. Lots of methane is stored in ices in permafrost and the ocean bottom; these ices are near the edge of stability in many places.
Recently there were several craters created in the Russian Arctic; it appears that these were created as methane ices destabilized (some craters from near 55 million years ago seen in the seafloor off Norway have been proposed as evidence of a similar release of methane by exploding ice). Previously there were measurements of large emissions of methane from arctic waters near Russia. Again, there is a lot of methane in these areas, arguably more (in terms of the overall greenhouse effect) than everything humanity has burned. Ever. (There is a blog post that outlines a lot of this with some more formal scientific background)
Kick the climate system hard enough and equilibrium moves to a new spot–and usually not one near where you were. If we have kicked things hard enough to release all the carbon locked in methane ices, then you’ve reproduced the 55 Ma Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, more or less, but in a far more vulnerable climate state. 55 million years ago, there was no ice cap, so melting ice did not produce any feedbacks that would amplify warming. Today, though, there is a lot of ice, and if it melts, the earth is darker and warms up accordingly. That 10°F from 55 million years ago might well be a lower bound on what we are doing.
So this is BIG NEWS, but it is buried by our daily concerns of wars and depressions and such not, but those are child’s play next to this. We seem to have this illusion that we can choose just how much to allow the climate to warm or cool. This is wrong. We can maybe choose which gear Mother Nature gets to drive climate, but it isn’t our foot on the accelerator anymore. We like to think we can adapt, and maybe we can, but as of right now, we cannot predict regional climate with anything like the kind of certainty necessary to really do a cost-benefit analysis. Could much of the breadbasket of America become desert? There are some really big stabilized dune fields in Colorado and Nebraska that could become unstable soon. Would droughts and floods be the new normal? Maybe. We don’t know, and rolling the dice with civilization seems a rather cavalier way of dealing with things.
As we are on the cusp of losing any control over future global temperatures, we need to act now. It is often said that it is hard to convince somebody of something if their paycheck depends on them not understanding that something. A lot of folks whose paychecks come from carbon-based industries are going to oppose action; they need to see something bigger than their paycheck or be swept aside. So pick your poison: advocate for a carbon tax, invest in renewable energy, explore means of pulling carbon from the atmosphere, encourage geoengineering if you must. Write your Congressperson, vote. Time is short; use it wisely.