Civilization Is At Risk Absent ‘Urgent And Large-Scale Action’ Warns Planetary Summit

Climate change could fuel a giant ‘compost bomb’ … as decaying vegetation stuck under under the ice or in peat bogs starts to heat up and tips the world into dangerous global warming.

Scientists fear that if temperatures warm up too fast peatland soils will heat up like a compost heap and release billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Scientists fear that if temperatures warm up too fast peatland soils will heat up like a compost heap and release billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.” Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The Planet Under Pressure conference began with an urgent warning of fast-approaching tipping points like the “compost bomb.” It ended with a plea by the conference leaders for urgent and large-scale action.

The conference website reports, “Scientists issue first ‘State of the Planet’ declaration at the world’s largest gathering of experts on global environmental and social issues in advance of the major UN Summit Rio+20 in June.”

The language is unusually blunt for scientists — or it would have been considered unusually blunt before humanity chose to ignore decades of warning by scientists (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization”).

The statement begins:

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale….

The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health….

As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.

While some bloggers have tried to suggest that this statement endorses a do-little, R&D-centric approach, in fact the reverse is true. The statement makes clear, “Society is taking substantial risks by delaying urgent and large-scale action.”

Further, the Conference’s Board of Patrons — 18 leading figures including scientists, CEOs, and major politicians — took the unusual step of endorsing the entire statement and adding their own blunt assessment:

The Board of Patrons welcomes and endorses the Conference statement.

The human species is degrading the environment at all spatial scales, from local to global. Scientific understanding of environmental deterioration has improved and deepened since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but society has failed to address environmental degradation at a scale the problems require. We have to manage the planet as the biophysical system that it is and for all the promise that it holds. The survival of our societies, our civilization and our cultures are dependent on a stable climate, natural resources and ecosystem services. We have become a force of nature, but individually we continue to be vulnerable. Business-as-usual is not an option. The time for action is now.

Our civilization is at stake.

The UK Telegraph reported on one of the openings talks that underscored that point, ” ‘Compost bomb’ is latest climate change ‘tipping point’ “:

Scientists fear that if temperatures warm up too fast it will destabilise these natural cycles and unlock billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Peatlands cover just 3 percent of the world’s land area, but the soil could store up to twice the amount of carbons currently in the atmosphere.

Peter Cox, Professor of Climate System Dynamics at the University of Exeter, explained the process of decomposition kicked off by warmer temperatures.

He said microbes in the soil generate more heat as they break down vegetable matter, releasing a certain amount of gases until the “compost heap” is exhausted or temperatures cool

However if temperatures rise too fast there is a “runaway effect” as the microbes are producing heat so fast it cannot be released and builds up, potentially causing fires. Gases also build up eventually causing a huge ‘burp’ or explosive release of carbon into the atmosphere all at once….

“But if we are warming the planet too fast then theoretically the soils will warm up like a compost heap, making the microbes work faster and generate yet more heat. This causes heat and gases to build up and an abrupt release of carbon into the atmosphere.”

The compost bomb also causes a positive ‘feedback loop’ as the hotter the soil gets the harder the microbes work, causing yet more heat. Also the gases released cause more global warming.

Speaking at the Planet under Pressure conference in London, Prof Will Steffen, a global change expert from the Australian National University, described the ‘compost bomb’ as one of many “tipping points” in danger of pushing global temperatures beyond dangerous levels….

He said that there is evidence of a ‘compost bomb’ around 55 million years ago that caused a huge amount of carbon to be released into the atmosphere all at once.

Scientists are also investigating whether a ‘compost bomb’ caused the peatland fires around Moscow a couple of years ago.

“We know how the compost bomb process works, we think we have seen it in the past, we just do not know what global warming will trigger it or when it will happen, ” he said….

“The further and faster we push temperatures up, the more serious the risks,” he said. “But we simply do not know where these tipping points lie.”

This point was underscored in the final statement:

The past decade has seen the emergence of important areas of new scientific understanding by which to define what we are witnessing:

A1. Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental and social change.

I was also glad to see the statement be as clear as possible that we need to start pricing carbon pollution and valuing ecosystem services:

Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere. These must be properly factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels to ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.

This is one more international conference by leading experts demanding “urgent and large-scale action” to protect civilization. When will policymakers and the media start listening?

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48 Responses to Civilization Is At Risk Absent ‘Urgent And Large-Scale Action’ Warns Planetary Summit

  1. Paolo C. says:

    Have you already talked about this?

  2. Spike says:

    “While some bloggers have tried to suggest that this statement endorses a do-little, R&D-centric approach”

    Astonishing really, calling for research into parachutes when falling from a great height.

  3. Leif says:

    It’s just not going to get any better unless “We the People” commit to make it better. It’s just NOT!

  4. John Tucker says:

    Now – Coal use AND NG use are both rising. Thats the bottom line here. Even in the US. Its not getting better.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    This is important, but I would like to have seen more cutting edge climate scientists present, such as Thompson, Mann, Schmidt, or Trenberth.

    The presence of politicians and journalists appear to have led to a very general conclusion, including ecosystem collapses and an indictment of the growth model in its current form. This is all very important, but pursuing all of the above and energy quest agendas, people lose this thread:

    Climate change is lethal. We must act now. Certain economic sectors won’t like it, and they must be overruled and punished economically. These sectors include wood products, fossil fuels, and chemically based agriculture.

    These actions must be specific and focused. What we do not need is words of despair that are not accompanied by action items, which must include loss of income from petro states and loss of markets for petro and wood products exporters.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    That would be the Heartland Institute’s favorite delayer from the NYTimes who is running with the summit as a validation of his preferred plan of action (which isn’t much action at all).

  7. Sasparilla says:

    I believe this came from that same summit (although it appears to be falling through the cracks for the most part).

    2C warming target ‘out of reach’ – ex UN climate chief

    Says limiting it to 3C is a 50 / 50 proposition at this point.

  8. John Tucker says:

    Oops jumped the gun – coal use wont start to rise again until after this year in the US. Somehow it looks like we are using more NG than we replaced coal.

  9. Dick Smith says:

    Yes, but…globally.

    “And the high price of oil and gas has prompted emerging economies to power their growth with coal, the dirtiest of the major fossil fuels, driving up atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2).” Source:

  10. It is incorrect to say that 2 degrees C is out of reach. The models used in such assessments persistently underestimate the rate of change that is possible because they embed rigidities in their computer code that do not exist in the real world. For details, see Chapter 4 of my book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate

  11. Sasparilla says:

    One possible explanation is that large scale industry that uses natural gas as a feedstock is bringing industrial production back to the United States (this was discussed on CNBC previously – as its already happening) and bumping up natural gas demand somewhat (because our gas prices are so low compared to the rest of the world).

    Not sure if that accounts for the difference but it might.

  12. John Tucker says:

    Probably what it is. Id rather just say we are using less and have that actually be less. Not some vague concept tied to economic output.

    Considering the ongoing field leakage disaster no one even knows if we are emitting less GG now im assuming.

  13. Sasparilla says:

    Something I’ve seen mentioned several times with regards to the natural gas industry (CNBC again) in the US is that we’re flaring more than we’re using in the US at this point. Now this measurement was said tongue in cheek by several different folks – so I doubt its really the case, but we are probably flaring a massive amount.

    Much of the fracking based drilling has shifted over to oil (which is profitable) versus gas fracking which isn’t profitable at this point. The problem is that natural gas is a biproduct of this drilling and because its of so low value in the U.S. the drillers are just flaring vast amounts of it off at the well head.

    This is also something that is keeping the US price for natural gas depressed even though pure natural gas drilling has been scaled back significantly.

  14. prokaryotes says:

    Also known as the compost bomb instability.

  15. Sasparilla says:

    That’s nice to hear you think that Jonathan and I hope you are right and not these guys.

    All that said, something big has changed here that hasn’t happened before (if memory serves) and it isn’t being covered by media outlets.

    We’re now starting to get folks associated with the IPCC and climate change negotiations at the world level saying “we’ve blown it” for 2C.

    In this case former IPCC head Bob Watson and former executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer both were saying it. Considering we’re accelerating our CO2 emissions its not hard to see how they’d come to this conclusion.

    Frankly I’d like to hear what Joe thinks of what these guys have said.

  16. Paul Magnus says:

    Scientist and patrons need to supplement reports with committees which directly petition and approach policy makers, media and the the public with a more energetic effort.

    Policy makers are just ignoring all these reports…. how are we going to induce action?

  17. M Tucker says:

    Currently we are at about 390ppm of CO2. Just a short 3 million years ago, during the mid-Pliocene, we were at about 400 to 425ppm and experienced between 2 to 3 degrees C of warming. I wonder how quickly we can shut off the relentless rise in atmospheric CO2?

    This time period has been, and still is, studied by the USGS PRISM (Pliocene Research Interpretation and Synoptic Mapping) project. They use their research to verify GCM’s.

  18. Joe Romm says:

    Seriously. It’s called confirmation bias.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I should be posting this on the article about GM defunding Heartland but I can’t find the comment box. It sort of fits here.

    Re ‘believing’ in global warming, the GM execs said “You don’t say that in public” – that really tells you the magnitude of the problem you have, when presumably well educated managers can say that in the land of the free and the brave, free speech, etc etc.

    As the climatologists get blunter and more active, it seems that a new strategy is required to encourage more explicit public debate to overcome this manufactured wall of self-imposed censorship.

    We know that people get anxious when they think they are out of step with the majority view so it needs to be advertized widely that the majority do accept the evidence, that it is OK to talk about it. I’m sure a smart marketer could do something with that, ME

  20. Peter says:

    actually we are at 394.79ppm-last week.
    compared to a year ago at 392.48- and 10 years ago 374.26- a rise of 20ppm in 10 years is horrible.

    Pliocene readings- most estimates between 385-400ppm.

  21. prokaryotes says:

    The first paragraph seems a bit odd/typo laden.

    “Decaying vegetation stuck under the ice or in peat bogs around the world, could start to heat up and tips world into a dangerous global warming – runaway episode.”

  22. prokaryotes says:

    Soil respiration

    Soil respiration is a key ecosystem process that releases carbon from the soil in the form of CO2. CO2 is acquired from the atmosphere and converted into organic compounds in the process of photosynthesis. Plants use these organic compounds to build structural components or respire them to release energy. When plant respiration occurs below-ground in the roots, it adds to soil respiration. Over time, plant structural components are consumed by heterotrophs. This heterotrophic consumption releases CO2 and when this CO2 is released by below-ground organisms, it is considered soil respiration.

    Soil respiration rates can be largely effected by human activity. This is because humans have the ability to and have been changing the various controlling factors of soil respiration for numerous years. Global climate change is composed of numerous changing factors including rising atmospheric CO2, increasing temperature and shifting precipitation patterns. All of these factors can effect the rate of global soil respiration. Increased nitrogen fertilization by humans also has the potential to effect rates over the entire Earth.

    Soil respiration and its rate across ecosystems is extremely important to understand. This is because soil respiration plays a large role in global carbon cycling as well as other nutrient cycles. The respiration of plant structures releases not only CO2 but also other nutrients in those structures, such as nitrogen. Soil respiration is also associated with positive feedbacks with global climate change. Positive feedbacks are when a change in a system produces response in the same direction of the change. Therefore, soil respiration rates can be effected by climate change and then respond by enhancing climate change.

    Oceanographer: Nitrous Oxide Emitting Aquatic ‘Dead Zones’ Contributing To Climate Change “When suboxic waters (oxygen essentially absent) occur at depths of less than 300 feet, the combination of high respiration rates, and the peculiarities of a process called denitrification can cause N2O production rates to be 10,000 times higher than the average for the open ocean.”

  23. prokaryotes says:

    Reposted with some edits/additions:

    Notice from the related section the link “Welcome to the anthropocene” a 3 minute video from said conference.

  24. RaulM. says:

    maritime reports of the 1800’s cargo ships that sailed coal reported of ships that would just start smoking with an impossible fire to put out. The ship holds were not very large, but once the coal caught fire the ship would go down. Could be, it was a recurring lesson to the different grades of coal.
    Heard of the car heading for the wreak that just turning the car off probably won’t save but might be better than not.

  25. John Tucker says:

    Flaring has gotten a lot better. Still they seem to waste a lot. Even on that NG rig out in the North Sea they are still flaruing gas for some reason.

    In North Dakota as of last year they were wasting 100 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. ( )

    Worldwide I imagine its still in or close to the billions of cubic feet per day.

    The World Bank has a program and site on it mostly implemented by industry partners quoting about 400 tons of GG emissions per year:

    (,,contentMDK:20297378~menuPK:6296802~pagePK:64168427~piPK:64168435~theSitePK:578069,00.html )

  26. RaulM. says:

    There is plenty of action, but still think that the storm shelter is the logical move for building more lasting structures. Old swimming pools remade with a domed roof might work well. Nature will show the change that has built up. Lotto bankers could probably afford better than the old pool though.
    Still don’t think that they have figured out how to provide for the multitude of servants though.
    The underground mansion won’t do well without good food.

  27. Joan Savage says:

    “Compost bomb” is like hearing a doctor or car mechanic give me news that things are even worse than what they’d told me before.

    Let’s have a pro-active response program that begins with adaptive emergency management (face the floods/fire/drought/tornadoes/sudden migration) along with concurrent measures to diversify agriculture and forests. With all that comes the continued shift towards a robust suite of sustainable energy sources for production, HVAC and transport. I don’t want just a rear view mirror of what we are fleeing.
    I want to see a more vivid image of where we prefer to go.

  28. Sasparilla says:

    Thank you for the proper terminology Joe, although I must admit – the term sounds too mild compared to the damage being done.

  29. prokaryotes says:

    First thing is to immediately phase out all fossil fuel subsidies! Opponents need to be questioned about their motives. Particular they pose a threat to national security with these kind of political moves, bringing us all into peril and threaten entire generations – hence Ecocide crimes.

    We have to do this “now”, we have to classify these people who keep on threaten the progress of climate action. Who threaten the progress to combat lasting, irreversible climate change!

    The science is rock solid, we had the debate now for 30 years.


  30. prokaryotes says:

    Identifying eminent emergencies on a global scale:

    Coral links ice to ancient ‘mega flood’
    Coral off Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets 14,600 years ago to a dramatic and rapid rise in global sea-levels of around 14 metres.

    Previous research could not accurately date the sea-level rise but now an Aix-Marseille University-led team, including Oxford University scientists Alex Thomas and Gideon Henderson, has confirmed that the event occurred 14,650-14,310 years ago at the same time as a period of rapid climate change known as the Bølling warming.

    The finding will help scientists currently modelling future climate change scenarios to factor in the dynamic behaviour of major ice sheets. A report of the research is published in this week’s Nature.

    Heck, we even wrote a book about this flood, the greatest epos of mankind – the Gilgamesh epos.

  31. prokaryotes says:

    Identifying eminent emergencies on a global scale:
    Coral links ice to ancient ‘mega flood’
    Coral off Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets 14,600 years ago to a dramatic and rapid rise in global sea-levels of around 14 metres.

  32. a face in the clouds says:

    An early warning from Jeff Beck. Twenty-two years later much is still being said.
    But nothing is being done.

  33. Joan Savage says:

    And how would that be completely understandable to the public in the US? We have a long history of saving individuals at the expense of natural resources. It shows up in both domestic and military policy. Ending fossil fuel subsidies is not going to have any momentum unless the inconveniences it involves ‘pay’ for a very visible human benefit.

    We must fund emergency management and other adaptive measures promptly. The funds for those purposes are running dry.
    Ending fossil fuel subsidies makes sense if it gives tax income to allocate to obviously needed public purposes.

    Over and over we’ve seen unnecessary conflicts like unemployed pipefitters played off against Nebraska ranchers. Pushing an end of fuel subsidies without a link to an immediate benefit would be a weak move.

    At climate change scale, emergency preparedness includes several features that are beyond handling local emergencies, it would involve preventive measures like developing more resilient housing that can handle high heat, drought, and grid energy outages, and preparing whole cities to handle refugees. We are likely to see some drought refugees this summer, though maybe not at the scale of Katrina refugees. More to come.

  34. prokaryotes says:

    Yes, you are right but to combat climate disaster we have to adopt a wide range of actions, involving phase out of fossil fuels – up high on this list. These funds should be re-directed to help spur the clean economy – where everybody could participate, even the oil firms. But i guess they want to go down with history.

  35. climatehawk1 says:

    Thanks for the insight, Jon. Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rates considered feasible for deployment of renewable energy are too low.

  36. SteveEl says:

    Its hard to imagine that pulse of sea level rise as being the result of a steady increase, instead of an exponential one. It reminds me of Hansen’s position that we are looking at much more than 2m in my 3 year old daughter’s own lifetime.

    Here (if I do this right) is an awesome summary of the linear vs nonlinear sea level rise debate, in plain English>

  37. Bill Walker says:

    I’m surprised nobody else has commented on a very important turnaround embodied in this story: it was reported, straight up, in the Telegraph! As in, the home of James Delingpole! Is this an indicator of a change in editorial policy at the Telegraph, or am I just unaware that they occasionally post unbiased science reporting?

  38. It should be clear to all that this is a political issue where most of the problem is in the United States. Maybe we need to redefine the term “American Exceptionalism” to mean that we are exceptionally capable of self delusion.

    Some obvious examples:
    On Mar. 28, Charlie Rose show, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson expounded on all of the problems that face America.. Defense, Debt, Budget, Medical Care and climate change was never part of the litany.

    I have yet to hear any questioning of the Republican candidates on the issue of climate but a lot of questioning on energy (gasoline) prices. It almost seems as if the candidates have a pact to not participate in any debate where a serious question on climate is presented. When the final Obama vs. Romney debates take place, moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer I would be very surprised if the topic made it on to his list is “issues”.

    When will we see one national reporter challenge Romney or Santorum or Gingrich as to what they are going to do about the fact that our climate has already changed? As long as the issue stays on the blogs, Romm’s, Revkin’s anyone’s, it will never be given serious consideration by a public that is overwhelmed with other problems anyway.

    It is up to us to get things out of the blogs and into mainstream discussion.

  39. wili says:

    Has there been a discussion of the recent _Atlantic_ article?

    The comments are really poor. I tried to respond with this:

    “Recent studies have concluded that we are likely to reach 3 degrees C by mid-century, 6 by the end of the century. Yet these, like most studies, (and as this piece accurately reports) overlook the fact that methane and CO2 are already emerging from permafrost (now perma-melt) and probably from seabed clathrates. These will increase these numbers considerably, probably doubling them and extending the effects of GW for millennia.

    So it is quite likely that we will see temperature beyond what the human body can tolerate within the lifetimes of many alive today.

    But even as masses of people are expiring in the street from unlivable temperatures, I am sure we will have people making comments on stories saying “I’m sure we can handle it” “Plants love it” “It’s cyclical” “This is alarmist” “It is not related to climate change” ” CO2 is not a climate driver”… and other inanities.”

    But it wouldn’t allow me to log in. If anyone else who can get logged in there wants to post this or something similar, be my guest.

  40. wili says:

    Oops, here’s the link to the Atlantic piece:

    “Will the Human Body Be Able to Adapt to Rising Temperatures?”

  41. wili says:

    Sorry, JK, but given the choice of believing you or believing the former head of the IPCC (Bob Watson) and former head of the UNFCCC (Yvo de Boer), I’ll just have to believe the latter two. The head of IEA (Fatih Birol) is talking in terms of 10 degrees.

    I can’t speak to whether they are too rigid on estimating how rapidly we could change if we chose to. I do know that they are NOT including carbon feedbacks into their estimations, and these are huge and now kicking in.

  42. Joan Savage says:

    I don’t know the ‘flavours’ of British journalism at that well, but your comment prompted a visit to the journalist Louise Gray’s list of recent reports.

    Among her topics are drought in Yorkshire, water use (hosepipe) restrictions, “Hotter than the Sahara,” asparagus ripening four weeks ahead of schedule, and snow predicted on the heels of a hot spell.

  43. fj says:

    scary times indeed.

    we’ll need lots of action heroes.

    and, fast.

    probably — at least — to the end of this century with no let up.

  44. Ben Lieberman says:

    Hard to believe that Dot earth is describing the same conference.

  45. Spike says:

    2010, our warmest year, was associated with human mortality of course

  46. Spike says:

    A review of this in 2009 states:

    The heat transfer between the human body and the environment depends on climate and clothing. If air temperatures exceed 35°C, the human body can only maintain normal core body temperature by the heat-reducing mechanism of sweat evaporation. This mechanism is strongly influenced by air humidity, wind speed and clothing. In certain climatic conditions, even if very light clothing is worn, sweat evaporation is not sufficient to maintain core body temperature and a health-threatening increase in core body temperature will occur. Internal heat production in the body also greatly influences the need for sweat evaporation cooling. At rest, this heat production is low, but for people working or engaging in heavy physical activities in hot environments, the internal heat production becomes a major challenge for the maintenance of body heat balance.

    Thus, one can easily imagine the situation for workers carrying out heavy labour in tropical countries where both air temperature and humidity are high, particularly during the hottest seasons. Heavy labour is common in agriculture, construction and manufacturing industries without air-conditioning, and is also a feature of the daily chores of poor people, e.g. during subsistence agricultural work, crowded cottage industry work and collection of drinking water or fire-wood. This aspect of climate change and health has not been fully analysed, even though the physiological mechanisms have been known for decades and the relevance of climate change for workers’ health was highlighted 10 years ago in a conference paper by Kjellstrom. Examples of how heat exposure during work currently affects people in low and middle-income countries show how serious the health impacts may be and how worker productivity is reduced among those who manage to avoid serious heat stroke. Climate change will require additional interventions to avoid heat stroke and to compensate for reduced productivity.”