A cavity 1000 feet tall (1600 metres), and as large as two thirds of Manhattan has been found inside the Antarctic Thwaites glacier (Sarah Sloat, “An Enormous Cavity Inside an Antarctic Glacier Harbors a Dangerous Threat », Inverse Daily, February 1, 2019).
It has been created in three year by inside warming and melting. This shows the acceleration of the process, as well as the destabilization of the entire glacier and of its neighbours (Sloat, ibid).
The sole melting of the Thwaites glacier could add two feet to the global rise of the ocean.
Meanwhile and in parallel, we discover that previous scientific models were underestimating the rate of Antarctic ice melting (Alexandra Witze, “East Antarctica is losing ice faster than anyone thought”, Nature, 10 December 2018). Similarly, a new study establishes that, in ten years, the rhythm of melting of the Greenland glacier has tripled (John Schwartz, “Greenland’s Melting Ice nearing a “Tipping Point”, Scientists Say”, The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2019).
In the meantime, the NASA identifies 2018 as the fourth hottest year in a row since the start of measurements 138 years ago (“2018 Fourth Warmest Year in Continued Warming Trend, According to NASA, NOAA”, NASA, February 6, 2019). It also appears that oceans are warming and acidifying much faster than scientists were anticipating (Chelsea Harvey, “Oceans are warming faster than predicted”, Scientific American, January 11, 2019). As these results are published, Australia is baking under a multi-weeks heat wave at 50 degrees, i.e. the very limit of heat lethality (Charlotte Wills and AAP, “Roads melt as heat wave escalates in Australia”, News.com.au, January 18, 2019).
These are spectacular examples of the current geophysical planetary process that transforms the very parameters of the Earth system.
Transforming the Planet, Endangering (Human) Life
These disruptions and their signals also mean that the rhythm and scale of climate change needs to be understood, not as a crisis, but as a planetary transformation. Thus, we must define what “planetary change” means for the current political state of affairs on our planet (jean-Michel Valantin, “Understanding (or not) the nature of climate change as a planetary threat”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, December 10, 2018.
In other words, our planet is going through a deep transformation that defies the very sustainability of modern societies, at least under their current form. Thus, the planetary transformation endangers the very complex process that allows human life to strive. Therefore, it means that the current forms of governance have to integrate this rapidly emerging new geophysical reality (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules part 1 and 2”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, January 25, 2016). This necessity stems from the fact that adapting or not to the new conditions of our planet is going to determine who will live, and who will die. And this is the most basic political issue that could be raised.
The Earth as our life support system
From a geophysical point of view, the Earth system is the set of dynamic parameters from which the current populations of the different kinds of living beings have evolved. And Humanity is turning the different dimensions of the planet into the resources it needs to reach its current level and forms of development. Thus, from a human and social point of view, the Earth is our life support system. However, the acceleration of the current resources and energy intensive economic system is altering the planetary parameters (J.R McNeil, Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration, An Environmental History of The Anthropocene since 1945, Belknap Press, 2016). Yet, these parameters determine our most basic life conditions.
In this regard, the report: “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”, led by Johann Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center (Ecology and Society, 2009) was a conceptual breakthrough.
Firstly, the research team defines nine “planetary boundaries”. These must not be crossed, because crossing them would fundamentally alter the collective life conditions of humanity. Secondly, the researchers demonstrate that, if crossed, these thresholds would be nothing but “tipping points” towards deeply changed life conditions on Earth.
The nine boundaries are: “climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading” (Ibid).
The report warns that three of these thresholds are already crossed: i.e. climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the interferences with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles.
Since this research has been published, the world faces the multiplication of extreme environmental events. Those events are impacting immense regions, from the Arctic to the economic development of the weakest through the strongest economies on Earth, while endangering hundred of millions of people (Harry Pettit, ‘The ocean is suffocating’: Fish-killing dead zone is found growing in the Arabian Sea – and it is already bigger than SCOTLAND”, Mail on Line, 27 April 2017 and Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016).
From the changing Earth System to the weakening human life support system
As we just saw, the planetary boundaries are the parameters of life, and especially of human life, on Earth. Certainly, it also means that their alteration turns them into parameters of death. And this is already happening, at a systemic level. The term “systemic” is of strategic importance here. Because, nowadays, our societies can live only thanks to the way they use these parameters as resources.
The soils case
For example, agriculture and the agro-industrial complex, urban and land transportation infrastructures and industries, are using the surface, as well as mineral and biological state of soils. However, these artificialization practices of the environment are currently turning arable soils into chemical deposits. As an unintended result, they destroy their biological dimension. They also degrade their mineral qualities. Consequently, they diminish the way soils support vegetal and animal life, their hydric treatment functions, etc.
Furthermore, soils are also interfaces. Hence, they interact with the regional effects of climate change, depending on the geography (Paul McMahon, Feeding Frenzy, The New Politics of Food, Profile Books, 2013).
As a result, soils can suffer from aridification or from flood. Consequently, this means that agricultural systems must not face only one kind of problem, such as climate, “or” loss of topsoils, “or” phosphorus shortages ,etc. Actually, agricultural systems are at the intersection of the different geophysical and biological conditions upon which their development depends, while they interact with the alterations of these natural cycles (McMahon, ibid).
From food production to the production of food shocks
Indeed, a new study shows that modern food production systems are increasingly susceptible to the new planetary climate conditions. The research is grounded in a 53 years survey. Between 1961 and 2013, the researchers have identified more than 226 “food shocks” (Richard S. Cottrell, “Food production shocks across land and sea”, Nature Sustainability, 28 January, 2019). Those shocks combine geopolitics, especially wars, and climate related events. They impact crops (e.g. the droughts of 2006 and 2007 reduced rice crops in China in 2006 and 2007), livestock (as in Syria between 2006 and 2011), fisheries and aquaculture (“Droughts in China in 2006 and 2007”, Facts and Details, and Valantin, “Collapse war in the Middle East?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, April 7, 2015).
The Coming Food Shocks
However, it must be clearly understood that the planetary parameters of these “food shocks” are already changing. In effect, and for example, since 2013, the quantity of greenhouse gas keeps growing (“Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”, NOAA). It follows that the ocean increasingly acidifies, because CO2 dilutes itself in water and thus acidifies it.
Also, the ocean is rising more and more rapidly, while the biodiversity collapse is speeding up.
From this reality, we can foresee that there is a significant risk that the number, the scale and pace of the coming food shocks will increase. Furthermore, the planetary transformation is fuelling the very factors that trigger these food shocks. Thus, the degree of risk may well rapidly increase too (James Hansen, Storms of my Grand children, the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, 2009).
Determinism returns to modernity
Within this framework, it is important to note that the development of modern societies remains based on, and oriented by, the principles of the “great acceleration”, i.e. the accelerating urbanization and industrialization of the world. It is also the case of economic growth. This whole growth acceleration is based on the massive use of carbon and nuclear energy (Michael Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, 2008).
The Race to sustainable development ?
This whole process is rapidly degrading the “planetary life support system” through its massive impacts. However, it could be said that there are numerous initiatives in the field of sustainable development, energy transition and ecologic policy. Yet, their effects are not, for now, powerful enough et the international level, nor do they happen at a significant scale. This is why the United Nations have launched the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, in order to promote an international “race” for sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda is aimed at restoring dynamic equilibriums between the environment, social development and economics.
The Case of Greenhouse Gas
For example, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions keeps growing since 2015 and the signature of the climate Paris accord. Meanwhile, the number of climate extreme events also grows. It follows from this that the cascades of human, economic, social and infrastructural impacts also rise. This means that the strange collective dream of emancipation from the geophysical reality that permeates the politics and economics of “infinite growth” and its ideological environment of “post modernity” is now hitting the deterministic wall of the geophysical reality (Mathieu Auzanneau, Oil, Power and War, a Dark History, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018).
The Politics of Living or Dying
Over the last 6000 years, human societies have been developing by turning some aspects of the mineral and of the biological spheres into resources. In the same time, they also “optimized”, among others, the water and phosphorus cycles (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel – The fate of Human Societies, W.W. Norton and Company, 1999). These processes took place within the framework of a very favorable climate dynamic. Yet, this social-ecological combination has had multiple results. Chief among them, there has been a prodigious growth in population. While the human population may have reached 200 million in AD1, it reached one billion in 1800, at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Then, it grew to 2,5 billion in 1950, 4 billion in 1975, and 7,3 billion in 2015 (“World Population”, Wikipedia).
Danger is Coming
In other terms, during the last century, the politics of the “great acceleration” were the politics of the development of living people. Societies harnessed the planetary life support system to make it happen. However, this very dynamic is now triggering a growth of the number of shocks’ production system. Thus, it could be said that the “infinite growth” economic paradigm is transferring itself from the economic system to the Earth system. Thus, this has the potential to turn the politics of the “great acceleration” into the politics of collective death risks.
Life or Death Support System?
Furthermore, this tragic evolution may emerge at an ever more accelerating pace. For example, there have been “only” 60 typhoons in Bangladesh between 1582 and 2017. However, 30 out of these 60 have taken place between 1947 and 2015. And the most violent and deadly of these extreme weather events are some of the most recent ones (“List of Bangladesh Tropical Cyclones”, Wikipedia).
In other words, Bangladesh experiences the turning of the planetary life support system into a danger support system. Consequently, the multiplication and intensification of extreme episodes express the emergence, at the regional scale, of a “death support system”. The same trend imposes itself all around the world. As such, it signals the rapidly growing discrepancy between the social and economic development on the one hand, and the Earth transformation, on the other.
The reorientation of this trend must become a major political imperative, in order to maintain politics as the politics of living. Because, as Syrio Forel, the weapon teacher of Arya Stark in Game of Thrones explains to her: “What is the only thing you tell Death? You tell it: “Not today”.”
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental and artificial intelligence geostrategy.
Featured image: Standing by a Greenlandic melt water stream. Persistent melt in 2008 lifted the snow cover from a low-lying area of Greenland’s ice sheet, revealing a rough terrain crossed by melt water streams.CREDIT: Thomas Neumann, NASA GSFC