Reversing global warming requires nothing short of a 'total reorientation'

This article is drawn from the VERGE Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Wednesdays.

Headlines are heated this week in response to Monday’s publication of a new report from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, suggesting that we are perilously close to the tipping point for a "Hothouse Earth," in which natural feedback loops crank up the warming of the planet to disastrous levels.

What’s new, in both a terrifying and galvanizing way, is the warning that it’s highly unlikely the Paris Agreement’s goal — to keep warming at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — is sufficient to "park" the planet’s climate at a stable temperature.

Let’s geek out on science and systems for a minute to unpack what this really means. Every year, about 4.5 billion tons of carbon are absorbed by the Earth’s forests, ocean and land — carbon that otherwise would thicken the heat-trapping "blanket" accumulating in our upper atmosphere. Right now, these carbon sinks help balance Earth’s intricately interconnected systems — what scientists refer to as "feedback processes" — and ultimately help mitigate the worst potential effects of emissions and temperature rise.

But the concept of a domino effect is not fun and games. Consider the permafrost in northern latitudes, which holds millions of tons of warming gases, or our Antarctic ice sheets, or the Amazon rainforest. The fear is that the closer we get to 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the greater the likelihood that these sinks will not only stop absorbing but start releasing more carbon than they currently take in. In other words, our natural allies will turn to foes — and if just one of these systems tips, the rest could follow like dominoes. That’s Hothouse Earth.

"What we are saying is that when we reach 2 degrees of warming, we may be at a point where we hand over the control mechanism to Planet Earth herself," co-author Johan Rockström, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told BBC News for their coverage of the report.

The glimmer of hope implicit in this statement is that there’s still time to determine a different trajectory, even if just barely.

I was especially struck by this piece of the authors’ urgent call to action, suggesting that "a total reorientation of human values, equity, behavior and technologies is required." Particularly when it comes to our roles as industry and government leaders, and the extent to which the human systems we design affect the natural systems governing our planet, what does a "total reorientation" even look like, and how do we go about actualizing one?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately recently about the power of collective action — that is, the potential inherent in what we can do together that we can’t do alone — and the massive opportunities awaiting the proactive and progressive corporations and governments that embrace this operating principle.

Take, for example, this week’s announcement that Apple, Akamai, Etsy and Swiss Re are collaborating to accelerate renewable energy development in Illinois and Virginia. Collaborations such as this are changing the way new renewable energy capacity is built and brought online. And they demonstrate the kind of reorientation and new approach that’s needed.