How imminent and dangerous is runaway climate breakdown?

Written by Philip Kingston – Philip Kingston is a founder member of Grandparents for a Safe Earth and Christian Climate Action.

Three years ago Professor Jem Bendell’s article, Deep adaptation: a Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy (1), challenged my belief that global warming could be contained. I now have no doubt that major earth ecosystems are already on path to temperatures which will, in due course, not sustain human life. This disturbing realisation triggers huge concern for my four grandchildren and their generation across the world.

I will refer to six areas of evidence which demonstrate that runaway warming is already happening and is irreversible:

  • Record Rainfall and flooding in Pakistan (2). UNICEF has reported that the waters will take two to six months to recede with rapidly increasing numbers dying of malaria, dengue fever and acute diarrhoea. Tragically, children are more prone to these water-borne diseases.
  • 19 of the 20 hottest years in the Arctic have occurred since 2000. It is three million years since the Arctic was as warm as it is now (3). The Arctic is the fastest warming part of the planet, mainly because its sea ice is no longer there to reflect back the sun’s rays.
  • In June 2020, Research by Carbon Brief gave a comprehensive outline of world-wide tipping points which have occurred or were in process.(4)
  • In April 2021, scientists at Reading University concluded that over a third of the Antarctic ice shelf is disintegrating to a point where it will collapse into the sea, significantly raising global sea levels (5).
  • CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere are now at levels which were last reached three million years ago. (6). At that time, the temperature was 2-3 degrees higher than in the pre-industrial era and sea level 15-25 metres higher than today. Atmospheric CO2, far from reducing, is continuing to rise each year.
  • About 90% of CO2 emissions contribute to heating the oceans. In the tropical North Atlantic Ocean, where hurricanes generate and develop, the ocean heating supercharges these storms and exacerbates the risk of major flooding and associated damage.

Each of the 6 concerns demonstrate that the greenhouse gases which have been emitted in the last 300 years have set in motion forces which have their own momentum. The climate eco-systems which had kept global temperatures within parameters conducive to human development are now out of our control. Runaway climate breakdown is beyond any loss which human beings have previously faced so it is no surprise that the vast majority of us recoil from facing this, especially if we have children and grandchildren.

The comment at the ending of COP27 which most spoke to me was by the leader of the European Parliament’s delegation, Bas Eickart. ‘‘I can only conclude that 2022 has been a lost climate year’’.

More than 30,000 IPCC documents which had been leaked to Unearthed Greenpeace were published these by them in the week before COP 27 as being in the public interest. (8)

It is essential to acknowledge that the current global economy is a direct cause of the ongoing increase in GHG emissions. In the 30 years since the first COP, there has been only one year when emissions fell and that was due to the 2008 global recession. In all other years there was an increase; and 2020 and 2021 saw record increases. The priority during this period has been profit rather than care of the earth and I imagine that the fetish of economic growth ensured that de-growth was not raised at COP 27. I regard Pope Francis as the most outspoken world states-person when it comes to critiquing the global economy. E.g. ‘‘Just as the commandment ‘‘Thou shalt not kill’’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘‘thou shalt not’’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.’’ (Joy of the Gospel).

The sooner we adults face the truth about runaway climate breakdown, the sooner we can be alongside our descendants, supporting them in developing resilience and systems of cooperation.. A worldwide study 0f 10,000 young people’s concerns about their future showed that 84% are worried about the climate. They report feeling anxious, afraid and powerless, and not trusting politicians to speak the truth. They expressed their longing for adults to be with them in their fears. This study challenges adults to examine whether it is our fears rather than theirs which hinder our engagement with them.

With world temperatures now on track to at least 2.4 degrees C, the predicted reality is the eventual cessation of human life on earth. I regularly need to turn to God for courage and support. When I acknowledge my helplessness, Jesus’ oft-repeated ‘‘Do not be afraid’’ comes to mind and ease and calm replace my turmoil.

When I share my distress and helplessness with others who listen, I feel relief. I realise that I am neither mad nor alone. Something miraculous occurs: hope returns and what had seemed an inescapable pit becomes an opportunity for growth, integration and positive action, often with others. Sharing my belief in runaway climate breakdown with my children and grandchildren continues to develop and it is now as likely for them to bring new information to me as it is for me to them. At the same time I acknowledge what a hugely difficult subject this is for them to face and I therefore do my best to be ready to respond with love, truth and support.

This period of reflection has been a renewal of my faith. I believe that it is only with God’s help that we will find the strength to face the enormity of what runaway means for our descendants and ourselves. For them it means acknowledging the reality of a developing climate catastrophe. For us it means facing our regrets, guilt and grief. I am currently studying Daniel Berrigan’s Whereon to Stand: The Acts of the Apostles and Ourselves. It has much to offer with regard to what I raise here. When the first Christians experienced the Holy Spirit, they were transformed into a community of deep faith. Facing runaway climate breakdown with its devastating social, political and economic consequences needs a similar trust in the Spirit. Such trust calls for the non-violent protest of Jesus as was shown by Martin Luther King and his associates. The British NGO Christian Climate Action, many of whose members are Catholic, expresses the same principles, as is shown by the numbers who are willing to go to prison to protect climate and environmental ecosystems.

Meanwhile to a large extent the British Catholic Church continues its centuries-old association with Christendom. It has a long way to go if it is to become a Church of meaningful service to our descendants under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. When last year, Pope Francis was asked which book he would most recommend to Catholics, his response was ‘‘The Acts of The Apostles’’. There is scarcely a page in Acts which doesn’t include the guidance of the Holy Spirit. My impression is that Francis’ call to read Acts has largely fallen on deaf ears here.

1. Jem Bendell, Deep adaptation: a Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy (the original article)