Until now, most of the discussion about global warming has been about its destructive impact on the climate, about melting sea ice, about the potential for massive crop failure, and about the millions of refugees who will have to flee from rising sea levels. And, while these things are terrifying in their own right, no one, except for a small group of people in the scientific community, has been recently talking much about the E-word: Extinction.
Well it’s time we started talking about extinction, because if we continue on the path we’ re on, if we continue pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere, it won’t just mean the end to the Arctic sea ice, or the end miles of shoreland. It could mean the end of most large complex life forms on Earth. That would include us. The possibility that global warming could lead to a mass extinction, like our planet has seen five times in the deep geologic past, is the subject of our new documentary: Last Hours, which we’re proud to present in it’s entirety, tonight, right here on the Big Picture.
A mass extinction is, in essence, just the greatest crisis that life on Earth is has ever suffered.
Consider this: Nearly all life on Earth could go extinct because of man-made climate change. LAST HOURS It’s hard to imagine Earth without life. We take life for granted but life has not always flourished here. The Earth has experienced dramatic loss of life, or what we call mass extinctions, five times over the course of geologic history. Each one of these events, has resulted in the loss of more than half of all life on Earth. And the largest and most devastating of all was the Permian mass extinction. Almost all life on Earth disapeared. A mass extinction is, in essence, just the greatest crisis that life on Earth is has ever suffered. By the end of the Permian mass extinction, ninety-five percent of all life on the planet was dead. And why is this important today? Because today a sixth extinction is underway. One that will test the survival of, not just human civilization, but possibly of the human species itself. And it bears a horrifying resembelence to several previous global warming driven events, like the Permian mass extinction.
I think it is certainly extremely significant that a lot of the main crises in the past are associated with global warming, and so, with obvious implications for the present-day. When we think of extinctions, we think of the dinosaur killing K-T mass extinction, which was triggered by a sudden catastrophic collision with a meteorite. But the most deadly force behind all extinctions isn’t from outer space. It’s from underground, underwater and under the ice, where trillions of tons of carbon lies in wait, in the form of frozen methane. If this methane melts and is released into the atmosphere, it will produce a sudden and massive global warming. During the Permian mass extinction, greenhouse gases were released by volcanic eruptions in an area, that is today called the Siberian traps. These, along with the heat from the lava flow itself, warmed the atmosphere of the Earth, by at least 6º Celsius.
As you warm the environment, that causes the release of more carbon, which is either methane or carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.
That much global warming took a huge toll on land, animals and plants. But, far worse, it warmed the oceans enough that methane, frozen deep under the sea, melted and was released into the atmosphere. That enormous realese of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, pretty much doubled the level of global warming, and killed off over 95% of all life, both on earth and in the seas. It’s a kind of a scary thought but… maybe one of the best geological analogues for this kind of rapid changes in climate and CO2 in the atmosphere, that we’re going to witness now, and for the next few centuries potentially, is this End Permian time when ahm… as you know, that culminated in one of the the largest mass extinctions that we know of. And of course, looking at these ancient events shows us times of global warming. And the atmosphere doesn’t care whether the carbon dioxide comes from a human activity or from a volcano. It has the same end effects.
The numbers have a similar from some of the giant lava flows in Siberia. The amount of carbon dioxide released is very similar to those of… from fossil fuel burning, carbon dioxide released, like we’re doing, decade after decade, today. Today, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is above 400 parts per million, a level not seen any time in the history of human life on Earth. We are increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, at rates far greater than any of the most rapid events that happened in the deep geological past. There is no precedent, for what we are doing to the atmosphere. It is an uncontrolled experiment. As you warm the environment, that causes the release of more carbon, which is either methane or carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. That, in turn, increases the rate of warming, which releases even more carbon and you can see how this begins to cause a so-called positive feedback, or just uhn… ever-increasing amount of heating. At the end of 2012, the World Bank issued a report warning governments around the world that a 5 degree temperature increase is likely, unless drastic action is taken to curb carbon emissions.
In the bottom of the sea floor, large parts of the ocean margins have methane in the solid-phase
And the six degree increase was, according to some scientists, all it took to pass a tipping point, during the Permian mass extinction. There’s a virtual scientific consensus that 6 degrees was all it took to initiate the PETM. In both cases, it involved massive releases of methane. We know that in the bottom of the sea floor, large parts of the ocean margins have methane in the solid-phase and what happens is… that ahn when you change the temperature, it can dissociate or even, think of it as, melting this this frozen methane phase. And so the idea is that, during some these events, we have some triggering, or inicial cause, that forces the ocean temperatures to warm, especially in deep parts the ocean. And, then, that associates or melts this solid methane phase, which then goes into gas, which can get into the ocean and into the atmosphere. Methane is way worse than carbon dioxide. It’s innert right now, in the soil.
It’s not affecting anybody in any way. When you warm it, it becomes a gas. Then it starts acting immediately as a greenhouse gas. So this is an immediat and very short term threat to planetary civilization. The risk is, so called, runaway greenhouse, which is the self-correcting mechanism cease to kick in, and you heat by little bits, then you release methane that then causes excess heating, and you realese more methane, and so it goes on. That’s… probably the biggest issue that we face. Sea level changes, the big one, too, a very expensive one to manage, but that methane the release from the tundra… once that gets under way, we reach a point where we lose the option of having an effective mitigation strategy. We can always abandons coastlines but if we activate enough of the carbon reservoir in the terrestrial biosphere, that becomes unmanageable. That’s kind of a no.
.. unfortunately kind of a doomsday scenario, that our trajectory is pointed to. Most disconcerting, the Arctic ice sheet, that keeps the carbon stable, is melting rapidly. In July 2013, the Arctic lost 41 000 square miles, an area half the size of Kansas, every single day. And scientists have witnessed kilometer wide columns of methane gas bubling up from the ocean floor, suggesting the tipping point to runaway climate change is dangerously close. While it appears we’ve already passed the tipping point for a ice-free Arctic in the summer other tipping points could be centuries, generations, or just years down the road. The big danger about tipping points is that you can only recognize them when it’s too late to do anything about it.
Last Hours explains how we got here and what will happen if we don’t work together to stop it
So why should we risk these catastrophic events? In the case of climate change, our planet’s life support system is at stake. So it is our obligation to take every precaution to stop it. We must begin to reduce carbon emissions dramatically. Yet, at this moment, we’re facing a crisis of world leadership. Powerful fossil fuel corporations are fighting to monetize trillions of tons of carbon they own, that are still underground. The world community, global citizens, governments, leaders, NGOs and corporations must come together step forward and take decisive action. Let’s continue the research but let’s not wait until we pass more tipping points. This is the most urgent of times and a most urgent message. Please forward this to as many people as can.
A number of people have endorsed this film, including former Vice President Al Gore, who said that carbon pollution, from burning fossil fuels, is changing our climate and transforming our world, from more destructive and more frequent climate-related extreme weather events and rise in sea levels, to climate refugees, crop failure and water scarcity, the consequences are profound. Al Gore said Last Hours expertly explains how we got here and what will happen if we don’t work together to stop it. It is a needed and urgent call to action. Kumi Naidoo, the international director of Greenpeace International, said that Last Hours is a captivating, extremely compelling, appeal meant to awaken politicians and business leaders to take climate change action and stop runaway catastrophic climate change.
Few films have managed to capture the sense of urgency as well as Last Hours. In the context of science telling us that emissions need to peak by 2015 and then come down and with politicians doing little to reflect this urgency this is a much needed asset for the climate movement. And Maggie Fox, president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project praise Last Hours saing that, in the 18th century, Edmund Burke wrote: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Many years later, Last Hours makes clear how much we have to learn from our planet’s history to truly understand the potent threat of trapped methane.