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On The Brink (Pt. 1 of 2); Accelerating Heat and Sulfuric Mirrors

On The Brink (Pt. 1 of 2); Accelerating Heat and Sulfuric Mirrors

By the time this gets posted, the second GOP debate will have already been forgotten, we will hopefully all still be laughing that McCarthy was thrown out as House Speaker, and we will hopefully not yet be cursing that Jim Jordan is the new Speaker. But this isn't a politics or fascist letter, today. I am unable to stop thinking about the climate collapse, and so that's what we're going to discuss again this week and the next.

Before that, I want to give my heartfelt thanks to everyone that became a paid subscriber over this last week. A bunch of y'all did and I really appreciate it. I will buy and fill a food-grade bucket in your honor. But, onward–

While I am firmly situated in camp doomer, I find myself thinking that action–even political action–can be vitally important right now, though we are already past the start of collapse. The reason for that is because there is a wild difference between the slow (and thus less volatile) collapse of our ecosystems and ways of life, and the sudden departure of all we know should enough tipping points fall. It's not that these tipping points won't fall, eventually–it's that any delay in that could save millions of lives because it gives us time to ready for worsening collapse.

Trouble is, we've essentially closed the window on political action–see my super long doomtastic series on that window–and the issue is only getting more complex, more dangerous, and more time-sensitive. At every turn the situation seems to become more precarious, and quicker than all but the most pessimistic of us could have guessed.

Accelerating Heat

It sounds a bit redundant to be discussing heat when global warming is kinda what we're always talking about, but this year has been extraordinarily hot–hotter in ways that are shocking when you look at years past. The amount of heat in Earth's systems, as evidenced by the alarming heat across the world's oceans and the numerous heatwaves–even in countries currently closing out winter–is simply unprecedented. And while El Niño does contribute to this, meaning that some of the heat was already here and has just been moved around, it does not account for everything. This has been a very, very worrying few months.

Frustratingly and paradoxically, this sudden increase in heat can in part be attributed to the decrease in sulfur-based aerosols, which have been drastically reduced in recent years in an effort to reduce pollution and global warming. Created mostly from giant cargo ships, these aerosols are actually quite reflective, meaning that though they were polluting the atmosphere, they were also reducing the amount of solar radiation the planet absorbed by bouncing it back into space. Without that sulfuric mirror, the rate at which the planet has absorbed solar radiation has increased considerably since those aerosols were diminished.

The immediate effects of this accelerating heat are apparent in our weather patterns, but what is more alarming is that there is no accounting for this acceleration in the long-term. Answering for the sudden loss of sulfur aerosols begs for geoengineering, which is an absolute nightmare of an idea and one humanity is just not smart enough to entertain right now, lest we pull an actual The Matrix and turn the sky white for millennia.

A Most Nefarious Dessert

Where we are, potentially, is perched on the razor's edge of every further emission sealing our fate, and any effort to decrease emissions actually doing the same. Carbon emissions continue to insulate the planet, and any decrease in those emissions is a good thing, but any decrease in sulfur emissions causes a sudden forcing of solar radiation, reversing any gains we may make. Our cake is both radioactive–so we can't have it–and conventionally poisoned–so we can't eat it, either. Shitty metaphor, horrific situation.

This conundrum, that we can't make any moves on emissions, is what drives a lot of doomer talk. So much CO2 has already been released into the atmosphere that if left alone, it would continue to heat the planet, nudge us well over 1.5C, and then the collapse of systems would accelerate as various tipping points were reached. Any change in this incredibly complex system risks those tipping points. Our well-intentioned move to decrease shipping emissions has only sharpened the teeth of global warming, and let's not forget that we are still pouring CO2 into the mix at a record pace. It's not to say that we can't carefully draw down on CO2 while, funnily enough, still spewing some sulfur–I think we can probably convince BP and Shell to get to work on that issue–it's that so much of our fate is already sealed that we have to work extremely carefully and extremely quickly to succeed.

I started writing this piece intending it to urge some moves toward a reduction in CO2, to, optimistically, even do some political work in that direction, like calling senators or light protests. But ultimately I have doured myself back into thinking that what makes the most sense is what I've been saying all along–preparing ourselves and our communities for collapse so that we can continue on. Even in the midst of writing this, fresh data is coming to light about just how hot it has been, and how much hotter than previous years:

A tweet showing a graph of monthly average temperature anomalies for over the last half-century. 2023 shows a marked, dramatic increase in heat beginning in May and soundly beats any other timeframe for June-September.

Crossing 1.5C on average, for the year, is a big, big deal. Crushing predictions and soaring over 1.5 for a month to 1.8C for September is simply mind-numbing. It can't be overstated how troubling such a figure is. Despite this, it's not the ballgame. I do believe in a future for people. I don't think this is the absolute end of humanity. What I do–what we do–in preparedness is to provide as sturdy a life raft as possible for as many folks as possible amid the rising seas. Postponing tipping points, or rapidly preparing for them, is vital. And, yeah, I'm not ruling out some scientific breakthrough that helps–some magic carbon sequestration or cold fusion or what have you. These are possibilities, but they're not panacea. The world requires a massive shift in the behavior of humanity, and that will happen by our own hands or a paucity of alternatives.

Next week: other apocalyptic dangers! Trees stop being green, submerged gas supercharges global warming! I beg you once again to reach out to friends and neighbors about the coming collapse!