This story was originally published by Grist and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A team of international researchers released what looks like a blueprint for catastrophe this week. On our current path, they warned, humanity might push the planet into an entirely new, hellish equilibrium, unseen since before the emergence of our species millions of years ago.

"Building a world that works for everyone is exactly what we should refocus our efforts on doing when we read scientific studies that scare the hell out of us," writes Eric Holthaus via @NatObserver

This doomsday scenario, which they dubbed “hothouse Earth,” could render large swaths of our planet uninhabitable. Their conclusion: “Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia.”

But that message got lost in the breathless media coverage over “hothouse Earth” — even though it’s the most important thing each one of us needs to hear at perhaps the most important turning point in our species’ history.

Yes, the prospect of runaway climate change is terrifying. But this dead world is not our destiny. It’s entirely avoidable. As the authors of the paper have argued in response to the coverage, implying otherwise is the same as giving up just as the fight gets tough.

Take a look at the leading sentences from some of the most widely-shared reports (and note the use of “will”):

CNN:

Scientists are warning that a domino effect will kick in if global temperatures rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, leading to “hothouse” conditions and higher sea levels, making some areas on Earth uninhabitable.

The Guardian:

A domino-like cascade of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests could tilt the Earth into a “hothouse” state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be increasingly futile.

This kind of framing is almost perfectly engineered to foster hopelessness. When coverage hinted at optimism, failure seemed built-in.

BBC:

Others are concerned that the authors’ faith in humanity to grasp the serious nature of the problem is misplaced. “Given the evidence of human history, this would seem a naive hope,” said Professor Chris Rapley, from University College London.

The paper paints a terrifying picture. It does a masterful job of compiling the evidence (some of which we’ve known for a long time) that our worst climate fears could come true and persist for millennia if Earth is just slightly more sensitive to greenhouse gases than we think. But that doesn’t change what we already know: We need a world that’s carbon neutral as quickly as possible.

With every year we wait — and our emissions continue to climb — this challenge becomes more and more difficult.

Seeing this, and seeing the still massive headwinds of state-sanctioned climate denial and the corrupting influence of fossil fuel money, a cynic might say: It’s too hard. Let’s just learn to adapt.

Well, the authors say, it will be existentially difficult to adapt to a world with runaway permafrost melt, global forest die-offs, rapid sea level rise, and supercharged extreme weather. These aren’t just tipping points. The authors call them tipping cascades. That kind of world will make the current version of Earth look like paradise.

But the bottom line is, we have no choice but to press on through this fear. This is our actual planet we’re talking about, the only place in the entire universe capable of supporting life as we know it.

The next decade will almost surely decide our fate. That should empower us. It means every act has meaning; we have the chance to save the world as we know it every single day. In this scenario we now find ourselves in, radical, disruptive climate action is the only course of action that makes sense.

To their credit, climate scientists of all stripes, including the paper’s authors, have been pushing back hard on the media’s framing of this research.

In a tweet, Diana Liverman, a climate scientist and co-author of the paper called out the media directly:

“Clearly people aren’t reading the paper we wrote where our point is exactly that Hothouse Earth is not our destiny and that social system feedbacks are starting to move us to the Stable Earth. But media goes for worst case and makes it sound certain.”

Liverman and the other authors anticipated a defeatist response and published a multi-page document of possible solutions which, when combined with other research on the most important actions people can take, gives a blueprint for hope, not despair.

In the paper, the authors sum this up into a single battle cry. To prevent a hothouse Earth, they say, we need “a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System.”

That sounds a lot like the message of a burgeoning global movement targeting the root causes of climate change. That scientists are increasingly comfortable with using language like this — not mincing words anymore — is nothing if not hopeful.

Building a world that works for everyone is exactly what we should refocus our efforts on doing when we read scientific studies that scare the hell out of us. As the researchers point out, there’s still time that we have to take advantage of. That’s why it’s so damn important to act boldly. Now.

Investigative journalism has never been more important. Will you help?

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Comments

If you finished reading this with forbidding and a feeling of "game over", go to www.drawdown.org to see it is not "game over" and there are effective, financially viable, proven strategies to get his out of this mess. And we can all help by doing more than changing lightbulbs.

What depresses me is not the science but the politics. Our leaders are clearly disconnected from our reality as they blithely talk about cutting emissions over the next 20-30 years. The goals they have set are inadequate to address the concerns raised in the paper. Also they are failing to plan for the disasters and human migration that are and will happen no matter what we do. This threatens the viability of our society and civilization. Its not the heat its the inaction that is the immediate threat.

As long as we have inept leaders like Justin Trudeau who is willing to see tar sands expansion and more pipelines we really are screwed.
We also have other issues that are out of control namely militarism and refugees are going to be a major challenge. There are millions in camps who will never leave them. As climate change progresses there will be millions more forced off their homelands.
We are approaching societal collapse and global political leadership fails to recognize the urgency of the crisis.

Even more concerning is the climate deniers panicking and trying to make up for their inaction in the last 30 years in 1 year.
Shell knew we were headed in this direction in the 70's but kept the scientific evidence hidden. Big business would rather come up with solutions to capture
the carbon later, and I'm sure it will be money in the their pockets. Something like carbon capture and storage or send it to outer space..?? There will be lots of ideas and scare tactics, plus lots of cost involved.

So let's get on with transitioning.

Relying on our leaders....or joining groups that are still into raising awareness about what most people already know isn't going to cut it. As a recent song put it, "It's going to take more than love, to save your neck."
There is lots each of us can do. I'm going to list just a few:
1. Send financial support to groups fighting fossil fuel mega projects....on the ground
2. Kill you lawn and put in drought resistent plants....preferably edible
3. Build a garden and capture all your rainwater for it.
4. Solarize
5. Support political parties that are supporting renewable sustainable energy....get smart about which leaders are trying to change business as usual
6. Stop jetting to foreign beaches...help clean up your own.
7. Buy local
8. Retrofit where you can to improve the envelop of your home.
9. Consider making your next vehicle electric or a plug in hybrid
10. Fight plastic
11. Learn about water, who is getting it for free, who is wasting it, and how fracked gas is anything but natural. Boycott Nestle; fight for moratoriams on fracking in your area.
I'm sure others can add other ideas..........the point is......we can all begin to learn about sustainability, put our money and energy there, and begin living a less consumptive life style.

Yes, yes and yes!!!

Totally use the products you purchase: --cut off bottom of empty toothpaste tube when finished. You will be surprised how much paste is still inside. If you roll bottom over and close with clothes pin, you can get up to a week more brushing in a tube. Don't buy those tubes that stick together like cement-very hard to stick brush into tube.
--turn hot water heater breaker off when you get up and turn on after 7pm (cheap rates). There will still be enough hot water in tank for washing and getting ready for the day.
--buy LED bulbs. Even if you can afford 1 every few months. (put it where you use the most hydro)
--do you really need to peel those carrots? Scrub and eat! (if you buy organic you won't have to worry about toxic sprays.

Excellent, well-researched list; thank you. Our household needs to get moving on solarizing and retrofitting.

A number of commentators below speak of the feeble actions of politicians as the major obstacle to fixing Climate Change, for example, Trudeau. Such observations fail to point out that politicians are only the mouthpieces of the powers that control their parties through exclusive social networks, donations, financing and intense lobbying. For example, the Toronto Dominion Bank, and the Royal Bank are both major contributors of investment capital to the Tar Sands and the Kinder Morgan pipeline project, as well as being major supporters of the Federal Liberals. Hence, it should be no surprise to find normally indecisive Liberals suddenly galvanised into sticking out their necks and 4.5 Billion of our tax dollars to buy an unsustainable pipeline. I think we need to really "out" major players in the unsustainable economy such as these and many others, as the real obstacles to political action and the movement of private sector investment funds from the oil patch to sustainable investment. This can be achieved by first shedding light on their commitments to the unsustainable segments of our economy. These organisations are like vampires; they feed on our economy, and absolutely hate the light of day. They will change quite quickly when exposed, if they conclude that change is the only way to get back to the comforting darkness of anonymity. We need to do more to shine light on their dark secrets.

People read newspapers for headlines, and sensation is what sells. I hear your clarion call for hope and action, but people like Doug Ford are not going to read your paper - it reminds me of the theological books I'm catching up on now that I've retired; dreadfully technical. The point in each book is good, needs to be said, but oh my . . .yawn! I'm tired, I freely admit, but I will do what I can as a Christian to promote justice and equality and compassion and connection, and I will do what I can to to help future earth be habitable for your grandchildren and mine. I'm tired, but I'm not floundering in despair, and I suspect a lot of people my age us are like that. We've lived long enough to understand the verb, "too be" is not passive.

If it bleeds, it leads. We need to make 'good new stories of solutions' make the headlines

Thank you for this, Eric. Those of us "worker bees" in the struggle deeply need this kind of true and careful analysis to pass on to those who are faltering. Very well said.

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