30/07/2013 07:02 BST | Updated 24/09/2013 06:12 BST

Can We Stop the Clock on an Economic Time Bomb?

We've all done it. Putting something off because it doesn't seem like a priority is human nature. In the daily avalanche of to do lists, e-mails, and task juggling, it can take something drastic to grab our attention before we to decide to prioritise a problem.

All too often climate change falls down people's list of priorities because the threats seem abstract, something that can wait until tomorrow. But you don't have to look very hard for examples which show that the threat is becoming increasingly clear and increasingly immediate.

This week a paper published in Nature suggests the amount of methane released from the sea bed as the Arctic warms could cost the global economy as much as $60 trillion - that's the size of the entire global economy in 2012. The researchers say that the release of a 50 Gigatonne methane pulse from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf's (ESAS) could happen slowly over 50 years, or faster, perhaps even over the course of a decade. The implications of this would be an acceleration of climate change and its effects. Whilst the theory itself isn't new, this research attempts to quantify the impact on the global economy for the first time.

Not all scientists agree with the arguments outlined in the paper, and the authors themselves modelled different emissions scenarios. But in all of the cases there is a steep global price tag attached to changes in the Arctic. The research suggests that whilst economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies like Africa, Asia and South America. The additional methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms. The researchers say that they want to encourage world leaders to 'consider the economic time bomb beyond short-term gains from shipping and extraction.'

The costs aren't just economic. Almost every week there are studies like this one about the Iberian lynx, yet another species that could be lost forever as biodiversity is irreparably damaged. And there are other impacts such as changes in ocean acidification and circulation.

We are still only scratching the surface on the complexities of our climate system. We don't know precisely what we're playing with as we continue to extract fossil fuels in increasingly extreme ways and pump greenhouse gases into the system. But science is revealing more every day about the threats we face. If they are right, we are facing a deeply challenging time. We need to take action to stop the clock, or at the very least slow it down, right now.

We keep hearing about how measures to address climate change are too costly. That the transition to a low carbon future is too expensive and that especially in times of economic downturn, we can't afford to act. Today's research suggests that we can't afford to not to.