Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas

SixDegreesCover150wAs a global community, we have until 2015 to cap carbon dioxide emissions at 400 ppm, and 2 degrees Celsius average warming, or reach a tipping point leading to an unstoppable, runaway overheating of the planet.

That’s pretty much the bottom line from this extremely well-researched and well-written book by journalist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Mark Lynas. In Six Degrees, Lynas paints six scenarios of how the planet will be different – one for each degree Celsius of average global temperature increase. I’ve read the summaries for policymakers published by the Nobel Award-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as clear as they are, they simply don’t give you the same gut-level grasp for just how much our current way of business – and of life – will be overturned.

National Geographic thought so, too, and used Mark’s work as the basis for their television special: Six Degrees Could Change the World. I suggest that you click on the Video tab, and work all the way through the various video clips. Consider, for instance, this chilling SFX shot of a New York subway car abandoned in a tunnel flooded by rising sea levels. Many of us reading this blog will easily live long enough to experience this possible future. And many of us will not want to look. Heck, I had trouble completing my research for this article because I felt overwhelmed by the scale and immediacy of the problem. But look, we must.

SubwayFlood250wThe situation is on top of us, and not nearly enough people appear to be paying attention.

In strategy, structure and systems, we are always on the lookout for feedback loops. Well, our planet has some enormous temperature-triggered positive feedback loops – tipping points or points of no return – just waiting for some species to trip them.

The first threshold, for carbon-cycle feedback, is around 3 degree Celsius of warming – 450 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of Carbon Dioxide are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, among them the burning forests of the Amazon and Malaysia, and the thawing Arctic icecaps and tundra.

The second threshold, for Siberian methane feedback, is around 4 degrees Celsius of warming – 550 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of methane (23 times as potent as the same amount of Carbon Dioxide) are predicted to be released from “reservoirs”, such as those in Siberia, and methane hydrate in deep sea deposits.

So where are we now? In 2007, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was at 382 ppm (parts per million), and we currently increase about 2 ppm per year.

Lynas concludes, based upon his review of the available research, that in order to have even a 75 percent certainty of keeping temperatures below the magic 2-degree threshold, we have seven years to reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases globally and hit a safety target of around 400 ppm of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions must peak by or before 2015, and decline by 85 percent by 2050. If we let it get to 3 degrees (as early as 2050), feedback cycles kick in, and we risk a one-way ticket to 6 degrees of global warming and mass extinction on a scale not seen since the End-Permian age.

The numbers ought to chill us all to the bone, and then fire us into immediate re-thinking of all parts of our business and lifestyle, and the prospects for our descendants.

As Lynas put it:

“We humans, one species of animal among millions, have now become de facto guardians of the planet’s climate stability – a service that used to be provided free (given a few ups and downs) by nature. Without realizing it, we have appointed ourselves janitors, our sweaty ape hands resting heavily on the climatic thermostat. A more awesome responsibility can scarcely be imagined.”

Immediate Business Implications:

Business Carbon Emissions WILL be regulated: We all know that business has had a free ride, not having to account for the global cost of releasing Greenhouse Gases. In the following decades, financial statements and regulatory reports will also account for credits and debits of these gases. If your supply chain is carbon intensive, your costs will climb.

TCClogo_smallConsumers and regulators are demanding that business be accountable for the Total Lifecycle of products and services: Large business is already having to do this. Smaller businesses should be scrambling to figure out how to manage the cost of policing their entire supply chains, and extend their financial models to include liability for disposal. Learn more at sites such as The Climate Conservancy, a non-profit created by scientists from Stanford University.

There will be a social backlash against conspicuous consumption and the disposable economy, fueled by the climate crisis: As with so many of us, our parents grew up during the depression, when recycling went by another name – survival. In my case, our family began formally recycling about the time man first landed on the moon, and has never stopped. Fast forward 40 years. In my home town of Vancouver, BC, Canada, recycling is required, and garbage is spot-checked for infractions. Yet here in Central Ohio, Ann and I must pay for the privilege of recycling. Only two families do so on our street.

StoryOfStuffToday, US consumers have trashed ninety-nine percent of all goods they buy within six months of the date of purchase. Only one percent is still in use. The US – five percent of the world’s population – consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources and creates 30 percent of the world’s garbage. It is horrifying to think that much of the world’s population would be clamoring to emulate the US. Visit this website – – for a brilliant animated presentation sponsored by the Tides Foundation, and others.

Bottom line – if your business model depends on rampant consumerism, planned and perceived obsolescence and depends upon externalized costs, your free ride may run out, really soon. Which brings us to the next issue…

Public companies will be at even worse odds with the people leading them: As a system, the stock markets (i.e. Wall Street, stockholders, 24-year-old analysts in cubicles, news media, etc.) wants public corporations to focus short-term to produce unending growth of revenue and profit. As humans, the presidents and CEO’s go home to their families – children and grandchildren – whom they care about very much. It is natural that they would want to use all their supposed influence to give them a better future – say, reversing global warming. But to do so, they must go back to work and focus long-term – whereupon they are promptly fired for not keeping their eyes on quarterly profit performance.

In the end, we as a global community must institute a new definition of success for public companies. We must create markets that value planetary stewardship in addition to ROI in setting the share prices on the daily exchange.

There will be no silver bullet: There is no single thing that will reverse global warming, nor two, nor three. There will likely be seven to fifteen major initiatives, and thousands of minor ones. Of these options, conservation – using less in the first place – should be at the top of the list. This is great news for business, both large and small, because it means that no one will have a monopoly on the business opportunities presented by this crisis / opportunity. In the next decade, there will be a flow of funding and resources to this megaproject that will be measured in percentages of our planetary GDP.

A suggestion for how to build momentum to change:

Ann and I are acutely aware of our own immense discomfort in relating to this issue. Yet, we want to know reality even more, and that lets us take one more step. Here’s what you might consider:

  1. Go watch the video footage at National Geographic’s  Six Degrees Could Change the World site, then read the summary for policymakers at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change site.
  2. Watch The Story of Stuff.
  3. At the very least, read the last chapter – Choosing our Future – of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas.
  4. Browse The Climate Conservancy site.
  5. For your business, schedule reviews of business strategy and process. Research what your suppliers are doing. Evaluate your liability for disposal of your products. Re-think how you generate wealth, and realign your strategy to mitigate, and even profit from reversing global warming.
  6. WE_Logo_TM_RGB-1In your personal life, take inventory on your progress toward reducing your environmental footprint. There are thousands of sites to help. We Can Solve the Climate Crisis, a project of the Alliance for Climate Protection, founded by Nobel Laureate, Al Gore, is a great site recommended by our colleagues. National Geographic launched The Green Guide, where I found this excellent article on switching to green power through our existing public utility. Google “Carbon Footprint” for many more options.

The biggest change in the business and social climate in our time will be the change from a society of consumption and competition to a society of sustainability and cooperation. Plan to be part of leading this change. And if it wouldn’t be too much bother, please start today. Seven years will pass in a blink of an eye.

© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders – all rights reserved


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