Tipping Points Raise the Cost of Climate Change

Posted on June 17, 2010


I was talking about Arctic tipping points yesterday.  I wanted to show that messing with ecosystems has a cost beyond just undoing what we have done; we have to address what we’ve set in motion as well.

The Arctic permafrost I was talking about, I should make clear, hasn’t defrosted yet, and because it’s in the ground, it will take a lot of warming to make it defrost.  But it’s beginning to.  Methane is already coming out of the ground.  If the Arctic permafrost does start defrosting in a big way, I suspect the cost of putting that mad genie back in the bottle might be more than humanity can afford.

In which case, move north and stay on high ground.

Our best and only reasonable alternative is to prevent the permafrost from thawing out in the first place.

We can’t undo what we have done.  Not now anyway.  And not soon.  We can’t refreeze the Arctic seas, or replace the vast ice floe cover which so conveniently used to reflect the sun’s energy back into space.

That means that the extra energy which the changing of the Earth’s albedo brings in, we just have to eat it.  We have to compensate for it in our actions as a species fighting climate change.  And we have to accept that the world is going to be hotter from now on, and we have to decide how much hotter we can accept it to be.

And we also have to realize that not all the decisions are ours to make.

Get this.  Nobody counted on the changing albedo of the Arctic seas making so much difference.  That unknown factor upped the cost to humanity in fighting back.

What other unknown factors are there?  How much are they going to cost us?  Will we as a species be able to pay that cost?

I can’t answer these questions, and neither can anyone else.

There is only one thing I know for sure.  Acting now is our best protection from unpleasant surprises which might come up later.  The more decisively we act now, the fewer the unpleasant surprises we will encounter in the future.

And it works the other way too.  The longer we wait, the higher the costs.

We already have to pay for that Arctic albedo bill, and we didn’t even know it was on the menu.