melting glacier
Credit: iStock

When most politicians talk about climate change, they may mention a few worsening conditions in the short-term–but mostly action is phrased in terms of leaving a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren. Few give credence to the notion that civilization collapse-level climate change could actually happen within a span of years or a few decades.

They’re wrong.

Serious disruption to the Gulf Stream ocean currents that are crucial in controlling global climate must be avoided “at all costs”, senior scientists have warned. The alert follows the revelation this week that the system is at its weakest ever recorded.

Past collapses of the giant network have seen some of the most extreme impacts in climate history, with western Europe particularly vulnerable to a descent into freezing winters. A significantly weakened system is also likely to cause more severe storms in Europe, faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa.

The collapse of the Gulf Stream is the ultimate climate change nightmare, the disaster that has inspired movies like The Day After Tomorrow. The notion that the Gulf Stream currents might stop entirely, creating an Ice Age in Europe, horrific droughts in Africa and monsoons in New York gained traction in popular consciousness many years back, but the situation seemed to have mostly stabilized for a while and turned into a medium- or long-term concern.

But the latest data shows that the threat of a system collapse, precipitated by polar ice melting at rates far faster even than most models predicted, is far more urgent than previously anticipated.

In context, the fact that we have a president who is for entirely racist and jingoistic reasons trying to revive the world’s dirtiest energy industries while kiboshing efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions is more than appalling. It will be seen in retrospect as a crime against humanity and all the species living on the planet.

But even more than that, it demonstrates once again that few mainstream politicians seem to understand the gravity of the situation, and the fierce urgency of now that the moment requires. It would cost a mere fraction of cost to transition the entire fossil fuel industry to renewable resources and give an equivalent substitute wage to its workers for a decade, than to try to pay for the consequences of even just a Gulf Stream collapse–to say nothing of all the other implications of climate change. In context, promoting natural gas fracking over renewable or even nuclear power as a way of geopolitically targeting some other nation state borders on shortsighted policy madness.

Climate change is one of those issues where incremental policy is actually the radical option, and what most people would consider “radicalism” is the safest, most responsible approach.

One can only hope we find the political will to do what is necessary before it’s too late. If it’s not already too late.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.