There’s been much talk in recent years of climate feedback loops and runaway climate change, whereby the warming of our climate through man-made greenhouse gas emissions triggers further warming in the form of natural responses — such as the release of methane and carbon dioxide by melting permafrost or the huge emissions caused by out-of-control wildfires.

Respected NASA scientist and vocal advocate for climate action James Hansen has even claimed a runaway climate change scenario could destroy all life on Earth, leaving the globe looking more like the waterless, lifeless Venus than the blue planet we call home. 

Until now, most climate scientists have thought the extreme ends of this scenario unlikely, but new research published in Nature suggests that an “end of days” runaway climate scenario is much easier to trigger than previously thought.

National Geographic reports on this new research, holding a Q&A with lead researcher Colin Goldblatt on the true likelihood of catastrophic runaway climate change. His responses are a mixed bag for those seeking reassurance that it’s all going to be OK. He still sees the “Venus scenario” as extremely unlikely, and believes that man-made emissions alone won’t tip us over the edge, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried:

“What my results show is that if you put about 10 times as much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as you would get from burning all the coal, oil, and gas — about 30,000 parts per million — then you could cause a runaway greenhouse today. So burning all the fossil fuels won't give us a runaway greenhouse. However, the consequences will still be dire. It won't sterilize the planet, but it might topple Western civilization. There are no theoretical obstacles to that.”

Head on over to National Geographic for the full story.

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