Will all of our climate change action be undone by squirrels?


For the first time in forever people might be forgiven for feeling just a bit optimistic about stopping climate change. Although the deal is certainly not perfect and has many critics, an agreement was reached by a large number of countries in Lima, Peru a few days ago. It doesn't do much but there is general agreement that it might do something positive. 

Shortly before the conference in Lima, the United States and China announced a historic deal to reduce greenhouse gasses and the United States and India are expected to make an announcement on a new deal in January. Even all of this doesn't amount to enough to 'fix' the problem but it's the first step that has been taken in the right direction in many years. 

Unfortunately, it's possible that all of this may amount to a vote to install more lifeboats on the Titanic just as the water reaches people's knees. 

As usually happens there is suddenly bad news to go with the good. 

Today a report by the NOAA stated that temperatures are warming in the arctic twice as fast as anywhere else in the world. That's bad but it may be much worse than it sounds.

There are an estimated 50 billion tons of methane trapped in the arctic permafrost. In total the arctic ground holds enough greenhouse gasses to double the amount produced by humans since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

There is considerable debate over when and how quickly that gas might be released. Some researchers believe that as the arctic melts all of it could be released, making climate change pretty unstable. Others argue that the arctic appears to have retained most of its greenhouse gasses during previous warm periods and will likely do so this time as well.

Regardless of which side is right, the fact that the arctic is warming faster than expected is not good news for the climate. On top of that, however, there is more news. A new report suggests that arctic wildlife, specifically the arctic ground squirrel, is increasing the rate at which the arctic is releasing greenhouse gasses.

All of this is, probably, nothing to worry about. Chances are that arctic ground squirrels are not going to speed up climate change by a measurable amount. On the other hand, wouldn't it be the ultimate irony if they did?

Over the last few decades we've seen climate change marches, rallies and petitions. We've seen public education efforts, pushes for recycling, alternative fuels, solar power, electric cars, tree planting, carbon footprint monitoring, LED lightbulbs etc. What if just as we're beginning to take the whole thing seriously and make an actual effort, we're undone and our civilization is destroyed by squirrels.

The scenario is so utterly ironic that, given the way nature seems to operate, it becomes almost likely.





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