Al Gore on coming to a political tipping point and what is “too late”

Excerpt from the Atlantic, Jan 2019

…Al Gore: I think that we are extremely close to a political tipping point. We may actually be crossing it right about now. The much-vaunted tribalism in American politics has contributed to an odd anomaly, in that the core of one of our political parties is uniquely—in all of the world—still rejecting not just the science, but also the messages from Mother Nature that have pushed toward, and perhaps are pushing across, this political tipping point right now.

More and more people on the conservative side of the spectrum are really changing their positions now. This election, in 2020, is almost certainly going to be different from any previous presidential election in that a number of candidates will be placing climate at or near the top of their agenda. And I think that by the time the first primary and caucus votes are cast a year from now, you’re going to see a very different political dialogue in the U.S.

The climate-related extreme-weather events are causing millions of people who had successfully pushed this issue into the background and into the projected distant future to now be finding ways to talk about it and to express their deep concern.

Dovere: When you were in politics and talking about climate change, you were made fun of for it. Is that weird to think about now?

Gore: Forty years ago, it was not easy to get people’s sustained attention for this looming crisis. It’s much easier now.

Dovere: What do you make of the Democratic presidential contenders talking about climate change now?

Gore: Leaders who advocate solutions to the climate crisis should all run. There are several who have indicated they want to make this the No. 1 issue, who are in the midst of deciding whether to run or not. And I think it’s good for the country and good for the world to have this issue elevated into the top tier during this upcoming campaign.

Dovere: Every time there’s a new report on climate change, activists say, “We’ve got to get going before it’s too late.” And every time there’s a new report, climate-change deniers say, “Well, you said the world was ending the last time.” Do you think there’s actually a point when it will be too late?

Gore: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “There is such a thing as too late.” [Editor’s Note: King’s words are often remembered this way, but the actual quote is,“We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words Too Late.”] And indeed there is. But where the climate crisis is concerned, we have actually already done some significant damage, some of which, regrettably, is not recoverable. Many people are hesitant to acknowledge that, because it creates a risk of despair. I know that from my long political involvement in this issue. In my first movie, I made this statement: “There are people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step, to actually solving the crisis.” That is the case.

But let me be clear: Even though some low-lying coastal communities are already going to face devastating sea-level rise no matter what we do, it is also undeniably true that we still have the ability to prevent the absolutely catastrophic results that would pose an existential threat to human civilization’s survival. And we must act, even while acknowledging that some damage has already been done.

Dovere: Where is it too late?

Gore: We heard the discouraging news a couple of years ago that a major component of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has now crossed a negative tipping point, and will almost certainly collapse no matter what we do. So for those who were hoping that we could have a comprehensive global response in time to prevent any of these damages, that was an emotional blow. But the scientists who have deep expertise on that part of the issue tell us quickly, “Okay, wait. We still have the ability to affect the rate of that collapse, and more importantly, we still have the ability almost certainly to forestall the collapse of the other large ice sheets, behind that one. And we still have the ability to prevent the collapse of ice sheets in East Antarctica that could take the sea-level rise unimaginably higher.”

So how do we respond emotionally and, then, politically? We just have to be clear-eyed about it—and we have to be brave about it—in acknowledging that for some of these consequences, it’s already too late, but for the most serious of them, it is not too late.

From The Conversation, Jan 3, 2019  How climate change caused the world’s first ever empire to collapse 

By Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, Northumbria University, Newcastle.  Vasile Ersek receives funding from Leverhulme Trust, Royal Geographical Society, British Cave Research Association.

Gol-e-Zard Cave lies in the shadow of Mount Damavand, which at more than 5,000 metres dominates the landscape of northern Iran. In this cave, stalagmites and stalactites are growing slowly over millennia and preserve in them clues about past climate events. Changes in stalagmite chemistry from this cave have now linked the collapse of the Akkadian Empire to climate changes more than 4,000 years ago.

Akkadia was the world’s first empire. It was established in Mesopotamia around 4,300 years ago after its ruler, Sargon of Akkad, united a series of independent city states. Akkadian influence spanned along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from what is now southern Iraq, through to Syria and Turkey. The north-south extent of the empire meant that it covered regions with different climates, ranging from fertile lands in the north which were highly dependent on rainfall (one of Asia’s “bread baskets”), to the irrigation-fed alluvial plains to the south.

The Akkad empire during the reign of Narâm-Sîn (2254-2218 BC). Mount Damavand is labelled in blue. Zunkir / Semhir / wikiCC BY-SA

It appears that the empire became increasingly dependent on the productivity of the northern lands and used the grains sourced from this region to feed the army and redistribute the food supplies to key supporters. Then, about a century after its formation, the Akkadian Empire suddenly collapsed, followed by mass migration and conflicts. The anguish of the era is perfectly captured in the ancient Curse of Akkad text, which describes a period of turmoil with water and food shortages:

… the large arable tracts yielded no grain, the inundated fields yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds did not rain.

Drought and dust

The reason for this collapse is still debated by historians, archaeologists and scientists. One of the most prominent views, championed by Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss (who built on earlier ideas by Ellsworth Huntington), is that it was caused by an abrupt onset of drought conditions which severely affected the productive northern regions of the empire.

Sargon of Akkad – or maybe his son, Naram-Sin. Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities / wiki

Weiss and his colleagues discovered evidence in northern Syria that this once prosperous region was suddenly abandoned around 4,200 years ago, as indicated by a lack of pottery and other archaeological remains. Instead, the rich soils of earlier periods were replaced by large amounts of wind-blown dust and sand, suggesting the onset of drought conditions. Subsequently, marine cores from the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea which linked the input of dust into the sea to distant sources in Mesopotamia, provided further evidence of a regional drought at the time.

Many other researchers viewed Weiss’s interpretation with scepticism, however. Some argued, for example, that the archaeological and marine evidence was not accurate enough to demonstrate a robust correlation between drought and societal change in Mesopotamia.

A new detailed climate record

Now, stalagmite data from Iran sheds new light on the controversy. In a study published in the journal PNAS, led by Oxford palaeoclimatologist Stacy Carolin, colleagues and I provide a very well dated and high resolution record of dust activity between 5,200 and 3,700 years ago. And cave dust from Iran can tell us a surprising amount about climate history elsewhere.

Gol-e-Zard Cave might be several hundred miles to the east of the former Akkadian Empire, but it is directly downwind. As a result, around 90% of the region’s dust originates in the deserts of Syria and Iraq.

That desert dust has a higher concentration of magnesium than the local limestone which forms most of Gol-e-Zard’s stalagmites (the ones which grow upwards from the cave floor). Therefore, the amount of magnesium in the Gol-e-Zard stalagmites can be used as an indicator of dustiness at the surface, with higher magnesium concentrations indicating dustier periods, and by extension drier conditions.

The stalagmites have the additional advantage that they can be dated very precisely using uranium-thorium chronology. Combining these methods, our new study provides a detailed history of dustiness in the area, and identifies two major drought periods which started 4,510 and 4,260 years ago, and lasted 110 and 290 years respectively. The latter event occurs precisely at the time of the Akkadian Empire’s collapse and provides a strong argument that climate change was at least in part responsible.

The collapse was followed by mass migration from north to south which was met with resistance by the local populations. A 180km wall – the “Repeller of the Amorites” – was even built between the Tigris and Euphrates in an effort to control immigration, not unlike some strategies proposed today. The stories of abrupt climate change in the Middle East therefore echo over millennia to the present day.