Extreme Temperature Diary- Monday September 25th, 2023/Main Topic: Finding Climate History Lessons from ‘Our Fragile Moment’

The main purpose of this ongoing blog will be to track planetary extreme, or record temperatures related to climate change. Any reports I see of ETs will be listed below the main topic of the day. I’ll refer to record temperatures as ETs (not extraterrestrials).😉

Main Topic: Finding Climate History Lessons from ‘Our Fragile Moment’

Dear Diary. Dr. Michael Mann’s new book, Our Fragile Moment, will be available for sale on September 26th. In light of all the hot, bad climate news this year, never was a more positive book been needed to state that it’s not too late to save our climate if we as individuals and a society act fast to reign in carbon emissions. Yes, our best science indicates that we still have just a bit more carbon budget to avert total disaster and annihilation of civilization as we know it.

The book reviews I’m seeing indicate that there are many valuable climate lessons contained within Our Fragile Moment. Here is one review from Science News:

‘Our Fragile Moment’ finds modern lessons in Earth’s history of climate (sciencenews.org)

‘Our Fragile Moment’ finds modern lessons in Earth’s history of climate

While some might find the book dense, it offers illuminating insights into our current crisis

Human-caused global warming threatens one of Earth’s natural climate regulators — glaciers (the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina is shown). CAVAN IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

By Luis Melecio-Zambrano


Our Fragile Moment
Michael Mann
PublicAffairs, $30

Over four millennia ago, in the final days of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, a drought swept over the region, afflicting lands as far away as Greece and what’s now Pakistan. Probably driven by the eruption of a distant volcano, the drying climate devastated local agriculture. A contemporary text, The Curse of Akkad, noted that “the large arable tracts yielded no grain … the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, thick clouds did not rain.”

As once-prosperous farmlands collapsed in the northern part of the empire, people fled to the south. The southern Akkadians’ response? Build a more than 150-kilometer-long wall between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, barring entry to any migrants. Soon after, history’s first empire crumbled, dying of thirst in the cradle of civilization.

Climate systems and civilizations are stable only up to a point. In Our Fragile Moment, climate scientist Michael Mann reminds us that today we are pushing the limits of both.

In the book, Mann looks back at episodes of global climate change over the last 4.5 billion years, from eras of deadly heat to wastelands of widespread ice. With each instance, he draws out lessons about what happens to Earth in periods of changing climate. Sometimes, the result is dramatic mass extinctions or geologic upheavals (SN: 8/28/15). Other times, as with the Akkadians, it’s societal collapse.

Earth’s climate system includes regulating forces that tend to buffer against small shifts in climate; ice caps and low clouds reflect sunlight and help cool the planet, for instance. But pushed too far, regulating forces can be overwhelmed, causing the climate to spiral out of control.

This was the case 55 million years ago. As a steady set of volcanic eruptions spewed carbon dioxide into the air, Earth warmed. The heat may have contributed to thinner and less reflective clouds. This in turn would have made the planet even hotter. Eventually, the low-lying clouds disappeared, and average global temperatures soared to 32° Celsius (90° Fahrenheit) in what is referred to as a Hothouse Earth (SN: 11/3/15).

Today, with unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, we may face a similar, though less sweltering, spiral with the disappearance of our reflective ice caps (SN: 11/9/22).

But what makes current climate change different is its source — humankind — and our ability to stop it. This is a benefit that is unique to our changing climate. It comes with blame, but it also comes with agency.

That agency is an important source of hope for Mann. Melting ice caps could raise sea levels and displace some 40 percent of the global population. Rising heat could make swaths of the planet uninhabitable (SN: 5/8/20). But if we act, we can preserve a world that looks much like ours. The limit is not geologic or even technological, Mann argues; it is political.

Despite the far-reaching themes Mann weaves throughout the book, it may not be for everyone. There is a strong academic bend to the writing, which leans heavily on jargon. The book also features a dizzying parade of researchers, and Mann often emphasizes his connection to climate researchers and events, at one point reminiscing about how he “was known as a bit of a statistics guru.” The technical terms, acronyms, initialisms and self-referential tangents can distract from the book’s broader arguments and message.

Even though Mann’s dedication to precise academic language comes at the expense of some clarity, climate buffs will appreciate the deep dives into the scientific process. Many of the dense sections reward the reader with a satisfying tidbit of fascinating information or an illuminating insight. On occasion, I laughed out loud at Mann’s puns, jokes and barbs. (A reference to The Princess Bride’s ROUSs — Rodents of Unusual Size — landed particularly well.)

After journeying through the past, Mann brings us to the present and looks toward the future. Though past climates may offer lessons, those lessons only go so far. We are unlikely to bring about another Hothouse Earth, but the climate is warming faster than it has in millennia, thanks to human actions. If current climate policy holds, the best scientific predictions show things will be painful, but civilization won’t end. But climate scientists are not oracles. They can’t be sure.

That uncertainty, rather than being a cause for complacency, should spur us to action, Mann argues. “The impacts of climate change, no doubt, constitute an existential threat if we fail to act,” Mann concludes. “But we can act. Our fragile moment can still be preserved.”

Buy Our Fragile Moment from Bookshop.org. Science News is a Bookshop.org affiliate and will earn a commission on purchases made from links in this article.

Questions or comments on this article? E-mail us at feedback@sciencenews.org | Reprints FAQ

A version of this article appears in the September 23, 2023 issue of Science News.

image of Luis Melecio-Zambrano

About Luis Melecio-Zambrano

Luis Melecio-Zambrano was the summer 2023 science writing intern at Science News. They are finishing their master’s degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where they have reported on issues of environmental justice and agriculture.

Here is another review of Our Fragile Moment from August:

Review of Michael Mann’s ‘Our Fragile Moment: how lessons from the Earth’s past can help us survive the climate crisis’ – Climate Thoughts with Brian (climatewithbrian.com)

Review of Michael Mann’s ‘Our Fragile Moment: how lessons from the Earth’s past can help us survive the climate crisis’

By Brian McHugh

26th Aug 2023

‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.’

Rutger Hauer’s character from ‘Blade Runner’, Roy Batty, closes the film with a philosophical reflection on humanity and the precious power of memory and moments. For Distinguished Professor Michael Mann, the last words of this quotation are problematic. He is known for serious, cautious, evidence led work, rather than sensational ‘doomer’ tactics, so ‘Our Fragile Moment’ is not a dirge or eulogy. Instead, this is an accessible, engaging book, which details how we have arrived at this ‘absolute fragility of this moment in time’;compares our present time with extinction events in the past; and explores what solutions we have currently at our disposal.

Lessons from the past

The lesson from the past that Mann opens with is that every species and civilisation has its moment, but that ‘Thanks to the efforts of those [fossil fuel] corporations, we’re now coming up against the boundary of habitable life for us humans.’ Mann describes the present as ‘the absolute fragility of this moment in time’, but emphasises that although climate change is a crisis, it remains a ‘solvable crisis’. Mann is known for scientific rigour and he is clear that scientific uncertainty, by itself, is no bad thing, as it is part of the process that leads to greater understanding- as indeed, scientific exploration always has. He states,

‘We must embrace scientific uncertainty. The scientific process builds on itself. New data come to light that help us refine our understanding.’

Is it then ‘Time to die’, from the earlier ‘Blade Runner’ quotation? Mann acknowledges that this is the ‘big question on everybody’s mind: Are we doomed?’ Although a fatalistic reader may expect a clear answer that our civilisations are doomed, as global temperatures continue to rise and climate events become more noticeable as we inch towards 1.5°C above the pre-industrial levels, Mann makes it emphatically clear that ‘it is entirely up to us.’

He makes the repeated and clear point that the challenge in implementing climate action is down to political will, rather than not knowing the solutions. ‘We have sophisticated technology today that we can employ in an effort to adapt to climate change…

Most importantly, we have the technological know-how to decarbonize the global economy, moving away from the harmful burning of fossil fuels toward clean energy and climate-friendly agricultural and land use policies. The obstacles here aren’t technological. They are political.’

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Mann charts the climate impacts that have shaped the paleoclimate past of our planet and the devastating impact that some of them had on the life-forms present at the time from the Permian- Triassic extinction- ‘estimated ninety percent of all Permian species disappeared from the face of the planet’- to the impact of 65 million years ago. ‘From sixty-six million years ago, when our distant rodent-like ancestors crawled out from the shadows of the dinosaurs, to five million years ago, when our less-distant primate ancestors came down from the trees to hunt on ancient African savannas, climate has shaped us.’

He focuses on the impact of human ancestors migration and settlement. ‘Our species, Homo sapiens, had finally made the transition from nomadic to sedentary existence. We had learned to cultivate food crops and raise livestock.’ Mann investigates various cultures and civilisations such as the Sumerians, Romans and Anasazi and cautions against naming one factor as the deciding factor in the decline of empires. ‘Now, we must be wary of climate determinism: the notion that every significant historical event, every societal origin or collapse, can be interpreted entirely through the lens of climate change. We must always appreciate the complexities of human behavior and sociopolitical dynamics that effect societal changes.’

He cautions that humans ‘delved too greedily and too deep’ and as a result, awakened the ‘Balrog’ of the fossil fuel industry. ‘We helped create our fragile moment, a stable global climate upon which to build the infrastructure of human civilization. We should have stopped while we were ahead. But we went further. We constructed an industrial civilization that was entirely dependent on fossil fuels.’ 

He optimistically suggests that ‘We also have distinct advantages over the past civilizations… because, unlike them, we have the ability to anticipate the future.’ and that we should see the collapse of other civilisations as cautionary tales in how to manage the inevitable mass migration that will follow. Mann quotes Andrew Harper, an adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, [who] argued that “climate change is reinforcing underlying vulnerabilities and grievances that may have existed for decades, but which are now leading to people having no other choice but to move.”

The ‘known unknowns’

Mann switches the focus to exploring the ‘known unknowns’ of climate stability, as he evaluates the twins of climate resilience and climate fragility. He makes the argument that knowing how far away climate ‘tipping points’ are can be difficult to predict. ‘As we continue to burn fossil fuels and generate atmospheric carbon pollution, we’re pushing the planet harder and harder. The question is, how long before we’ve pushed too hard?’ 

He comments that this ‘unknown’ should give humanity pause: ‘That fact should give us pause as we continue to recklessly warm our planet with carbon pollution.’

Mann warns that pressing the ‘reset’ button on the climate after our damage, will not restore what has been lost. The ice sheets, once lost, will remain lost in human timelines. Likewise, the ocean conveyor belt won’t suddenly come back after a collapse.

‘Even if we warm the planet up enough to melt the ice sheets, there’s a chance we could cool the climate back down over the next century… But it’s not as if the ice sheets will return. They’re done. It would take millions of years to bring them back…

 A similar thing holds with the great ocean conveyor. If that circulation pattern collapses due to warming and we cool the climate back down, that circulation pattern doesn’t come back.’

How risk tolerant can we be with this one Earth?

Mann opens up a fascinating point when exploring the comparisons with our carbon pollution behaviour nowadays with ‘the Great Dying’ of the Permian-Triassic extinction. He argues that as our focus is usually on the catastrophic extinction levels, we sometimes forget that ‘life finds a way’ and that some species both survived and thrived in their own ‘fragile moment’ ‘The question on your mind won’t be, “Why did ninety-six percent of ocean life die off?” It will instead be, “How did four percent actually survive?”

Mann highlights that there were multiple factors that were involved in the Great Dying which we are not witnessing in today’s world and therefore it is not time to give up hope. ‘The Great Dying is often pointed to as a potential analog for the consequences of current-day human-caused climate change. But it’s an imperfect one…The message here is that there is cause for concern, and a strong reason to act. But it’s certainly not a reason to give up hope for our species.’

Mann also draws on the unquantified amount of carbon which has been released owing to the numerous wildfires which we have seen around the globe in 2023 and comments that this new information and evidence needs to be factored into discussions about increased carbon emissions. The rate of the carbon that we are adding to the atmosphere, Mann argues is seriously problematic. ‘[W]e’re adding carbon to the atmosphere a hundred times faster than the natural episode that caused the greatest extinction in planetary history.’

It is no longer a philosophical question that can be asked at this moment in humanity’s existence, but rather a practical one, which reminds us of what is at stake. Mann asks, ‘How risk-tolerant are we willing to be with our one and only planetary home?’

Earth is our once and future home, and despite our searching of the stars for new habitable planets, we cannot discard the beauty and splendour of this fragile marble in space, nor push the equilibrium past a point of no return, without consequences for our species.

There is urgency and there is agency

Mann makes the emphatic point though that, unlike the dinosaurs, humans now have both urgency and agency in which to act and that this creates optimism about extending our fragile moment in the sun.  ‘A better reason for optimism is this essential distinction: there was nothing the dinosaurs could have done about their plight. They had no means to deflect the asteroid. They lacked agency. We do not. We are threatened with a catastrophe of our own making. And the primary challenge we face isn’t the immutable laws of astrophysics. It’s political will.’

He convincingly demonstrates that, ‘Our fragile moment can still be preserved.’ but that this is reliant on what we choose to create, ‘We cannot say what our future will be. But we can talk about what futures we are still able to create.’

The future is grey, not black and white

As this is a carefully nuanced book, which celebrates the non-absolute states of black and white, I can understand why it might not be universally applauded and welcomed, especially by those who want simple, sensationalistic summary points to generate social media engagement. Mann encourages us to welcome and celebrate the complex incremental moves forwards in climate science knowledge, rather than to respond to every new climate report as if it was ‘the end of the world as we know it.’

 Mann himself warns against the new breed of hypersensitive social media users, for whom engagement is more important than scientific uncertainty and informed debate. ‘Such nuanced views struggle to gain currency in a political economy where hot takes, hyperbole, and polarizing commentary best generate clicks, shares, and retweets.’

Mann is clear that there is no need for this hyperbolic approach which divides. ‘There is no need to exaggerate the threat. The facts alone justify immediate and dramatic action.’

Some readers seem to want the authors of newly released climate books to provide simple answers and become frustrated when they are met with complexity and uncertainty.

Climate projections of possible futures perhaps lack the inclusion of one factor- that of human endeavour and unity. Our science fiction stories normally have the same common factor- they portray events happening to us. Humans are the common factor and we are capable of greatness. This is our moment. Mann indicates that in the historical record, there are always species which take advantage of changing climates and adapt faster than others and therefore survive. ‘There are always winners and losers…If we extinguish ourselves, other creatures will undoubtedly exploit the niche we had filled. They’ll be the winners. And we’ll be the losers. Yes, the planet itself will continue on just fine. But without us. Our fragile moment will be over.’

It is perhaps fitting that the final words do not go to Dr Mann, but rather to his idol and great scientific thinker of the late twentieth century, Carl Sagan. Mann opens ‘Our Fragile Moment’ with this quotation from Sagan, but perhaps using it as the clarion call for the times yet to come is more fitting.

‘We are at a crossroads in human history. Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising. We are the first species to have taken evolution into our own hands.’ —CARL SAGAN

Here are some other “ET’s” recorded from around the planet the last couple of days, their consequences, and some extreme temperature outlooks, as well as any extreme precipitation reports:

Here is more climate and weather news from Monday:

(As usual, this will be a fluid post in which more information gets added during the day as it crosses my radar, crediting all who have put it on-line. Items will be archived on this site for posterity. In most instances click on the pictures of each tweet to see each article. The most noteworthy items will be listed first.)

Today’s News on Sustainable, Traditional Polluting Energy from Fossil Fuel, and the Green Revolution:

More from the Weather Department:

More on the Environment:

More on other science and the beauty of Earth and this universe:

If you like these posts and my work on record temperature ratios, please contribute via my PayPal widget on this site. Thanks in advance for any support. 

Guy Walton… “The Climate Guy”

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