The Anthropocentric mindset is the root of so many faultlines in our linguistic approach to Earth Crisis/es. One of the latest buzz phrases is “climate breakdown”. I think it was meant to put the fear of God in everyone, to urge everyone to act. What would we all be with a broken climate? Dust!
It’s not very accurate, however, because the climate is not breaking down by the basic laws of thermodynamics. What is happening is an Earthly systemic response to broken ethics and general overreach.
Conditions for survival are becoming unfavourable to many forms of LIFE, especially in places where the parameters are already tight, like the equator and the poles, or where the seasons are rapidly changing: on the edges such as coastal regions, shifting deserts, high mountains, and downstream of melting glaciers, river flood plains, or if the Atlantic Ocean Conveyor (AMOC) stops in its tracks, most of Western Europe. We as a species may survive, or we may not, and this will depend on whether all humans stop emitting greenhouse gases (equitably, at least), and, critically, begin to heal all exquisite flows of LIFE. I’ve already written about climate as an exploited meme because it cannot be split away from LIFE.
“Breakdown”, in common parlance, usually describes a failure of something to work or be successful, like extreme mental suffering that renders us powerless, or a mechanical fault, where energy is lost and a functioning whole becomes mere parts. Earth’s system is gaining energy, climate gaining “power”. It is true that a climate can be successful or unsuccessful depending on what kind of LIFE we are talking about. But there will always be winners and losers. Some (spectacular) oxygenating species, like ocean algae, are critical biological “pumps” and are literally going to explode in a CO2 rich atmosphere if given free rein. We, humans, are being a little biased towards ourselves, yet again, when we speak and write of “climate breakdown”.
The last extinction event we call the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was largely corrected by a tiny aquatic fern that still exists today called Azolla. In sultry carbon dioxide atmospheric conditions around 56 million years ago, and in the nutrient-rich run-off from huge rivers into what is now the Arctic ocean, Azolla grew as thick, floating mats in freshwater that circulated on top of saltwater. For a period of a million years, constantly trapping carbon, dying and sinking to the bottom, it all eventually turned into rock, trapping the carbon for the long-term in the geosphere. As I’ve written before, climate is dependent upon LIFE – what life is another matter ~ there are boundless forms of symbiotic LIFE (holobionts and bionts) and processes and relationships between them. The quantitative life we know today may not be what survives the Sixth Extinction event.
A few friends I have spoken to who aren’t in the ‘trade’ have explained their ideas of what climate breakdown could be ~ our atmosphere is conking out like a car, and will eventually putt-putt to a complete stop. The Sun’s raw heat will then find its way through the atmosphere and parch everything to a crisp. Who can blame them? Breakdowns mostly happen in cars! Or just before admission into mental health units!
On the basis of scientific fact, Earth is already a system of exquisite disequilibrium, and this is the thing that distinguishes “us” as a planet from all other planets we know about so far (Lovelock).
For the past few thousand years since the last Ice Age, more or less, we have neither lost nor hoarded too much of the energy jettisoned towards us in a relatively continuous flow by the bright process that is the Sun. Despite the bias towards pure physics in most energy transfer models, it is LIFE that traps energy in our Earth systems just long enough to sustain LIFE (Gaia theory). But the rate of loss is now decreasing, as the atmosphere traps more energy before it is released back into Space. This happens in three main ways.
- The energy *buzz* of LIFE (exergy) is dissipating into the atmosphere due to a fall in abundance and diversity (think dying soils), including the basic ecological production processes of photosynthesis, with an increase in CO2 and methane release overall. .
- Fossil fuels ~ humans extracting carbon from the deep geosphere and burning it to release CO2 as waste, which captures the Sun’s heat in the atmosphere and holds it for longer.
- The loss of albedo effect (reflective ice depletion revealing dark ocean, tundra), though increased cloud cover and increased carbon-rich vegetation in these areas may offset to some extent.
All are bound to one another, including via ocean organic and non-organic CO2 absorption (now saturation) from the atmosphere and from river out-fall, and by human mind-body-spirit flaws in our sense of who we are, who has the power, and what we then do as a result of that power. Negative feedback loops are also happening now, such as huge quantities of methane being released from warming tundra.
I’ll say it again; the climate is by no means breaking down. Thermodynamically, it is ramping up, trapping, radiating, and circulating more energy in Earth’s global system. This is why storms are increasing in both magnitude and intensity, whilst at the same time speeding and stalling in longer and more intense cycles. There is nothing ‘down’ about rising sea levels either. Everything is on the up ~ except LIFE.
Heads up. “Climate” will still exist even if we no longer do, as long as some life survives, so different perhaps as to exclude the kinds of life-forms familiar to us now. LIFE, though certainly reduced in diversity, is highly unlikely to disappear even under these most intense conditions, especially single-celled organisms like bacteria and, especially, their viruses. Five previous extinction events have shown us that new life forms will eventually emerge from these mega-disturbances, even if over tremendously long periods of time.
The real breakdown right now is in human identity as symlings among symlings. Industrialised humans have broken what it is to be properly and ecologically human, putting all at risk, yes, threatening (and it is already happening), to kill off fellow humans and many other species too, perhaps even LIFE as we know it.
Healing our sense of ecological communal identity with each other and all LIFE is the priority ~ mending that which is truly broken. Climate breakdowns? Perhaps we can talk about LIFE MENDUPS instead and, what’s more, these will always be symbiotically beautiful.