The large majority of people from scientists to policy makers addressing the issue of climate change still assert that we can stop global heating by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. But is this a fact or an unsupported assumption?
Why is it reasonable to assume that we can still stop global heating & the resultant climate changes, which some estimate could be the largest climate change event in 50 million years, and will end civilization as we’ve known it even with a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, let alone 50% by 2050?
To my knowledge, no one has justified that assumption with any argument based in science. It appears to be an article of faith, grounded, perhaps in the view that humans are “in control of the environment”. I doubt that very much, it’s pretty clear we are not in control at all.
There is a small, but increasingly vocal minority of scientists addressing the climate issue using very solid scientific models backed by credible evidence that climate change can no longer be stopped.
If you have not see this yet, you should, it’s buried in the comments here. Peter Wadhams lays it all out quite well. We are facing changes literally beyond our comprehension – and nothing is being done about it.
Here are my comments on this video and why it is so important:
This is a good video. Good presentation. Definitely recommended everyone watch it.
“What do you think our chances are to avert to the worst case disaster” – “Our chances are not good”.
“If everyone reduced their own carbon footprint by 20%, then the nation would produce 20% less carbon”. Not true. Individuals produce far less carbon then industry. There would be small drop in industry, but nowhere near 20%. And we need 189.99% carbon reduction (negative emissions, carbon capture from air, water, soil).
“You can’t disagree with climate change when it hits your personal reality”. Sure you can. People do it all the time.
“Even if all humanity stopped ALL carbon emissions, we are still going to get 50% feedbacks which are coming out by themselves”. Yep. We are in unstoppable, runaway climate change already. Nothing will stop this.
“How close do you believe we are to runaway global warming on this planet?” “This 50% is an underestimate. Every feedback in the Arctic is now positive. It might not be humans being who will be able to live on the planet. The feedbacks are all getting worse and happening more rapidly. With sea level rise, we’re doing away with our cities and lots of habitable places.”
“The Arctic is having enormous consequences on food production, just at a time when population is rising rapidly, so there will come a time when a collision between food production and population, that time is not that far off”.
“The collision and feedback effects between climate change that are acceleration, the very least it will produce is a lot of famine, more likely it will produce a lot of warfare, the causes of the war will not be ideological, but survival, land, water, resources, those are climate change related. That’s where we will wipe ourselves out.”
“We’re talking about the fall of civilization itself”.
“Greenland is going doing 300 cubic kilometers per year, Antarctica is going down about 80 cubic kilometers per year”. “I’m quite worried about Antarctica”. Antarctica will contribute much more to sea level rise then Greenland will, so there is much, much more to come.
“It’s a massive abuse of the planet. We have done a very, very frightening thing. There are so many ways that we have may have made it uninhabitable, that we don’t understand yet. Everything we understand looks bad, but there might be more. That’s why I desperately feel why we still have a settled, civilized industrial society, that can make things, do things, the things we must make them do are are devices to get rid of carbon dioxide, it is the enemy of humanity, it is the enemy of the future of the planet. We’re not at the moment doing anything about it. I really feel that is what we must be doing before we do anything else, before any more research. We should be doing research on getting rid of CO₂.”
It is humans that are digging it up and burning it, dumping it into the atmosphere (and we still with with ‘renewables’). Nature has always had a way to deal with it (over immense spans of time). But he’s got a point. We know we have to get rid of it. We know enough now to know we are in serious, serious trouble, an extinction level event.
You read all of this here on this blog before.
This post is NOT to argue that we should end efforts to minimize greenhouse emissions. Quite the contrary, we should minimize carbon emissions immediately, not by 2050, but now even if we cannot stop a large climate change event. Why? Even if we can’t stop it, we might slow it, and we may decrease the time for recovery to a more “normal” climate. However, if we continue to emit gases when climate is already destabilizing, we will surely do more damage.
But if the assumption is not supportable by science, then the way we are addressing this issue needs to change. Specifically, we need to spend at least as much time, money and energy planning for adaptability to a climate shift as trying to slow it.
Some may think this is foolish. Why adapt if we cannot survive? The answer is simple. We will all pass through a period of increasing difficulty (survival). If you do not prepare for this period, then you are going to suffer enormously. Needlessly. And so will your family.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what some defeatist advocate. Don’t even bother yourselves with adaption, or trying. Since we are all going to die anyway, then there is simply no point. This position is worse then foolish. It defies human behavior, which is to say we will try to survive. It is what humans do. We know this period is coming. It makes more sense to prepare now then to wait until you can’t and then belatedly “try”.
Billions will probably choose this path of delay and denial. They’re making it worse for everyone because they will be the very people who will require, nay, demand help. It’s one reason why I truly despise climate denialist. They’re abdicating all sense of responsibility and dumping it on everyone else. Worse, they’re proud of what they’re doing. This makes them worse then useless, they’re freeloaders, lazy, apathetic and indifferent. Bad times ahead mean these people will be pounding on your door and requiring all kinds of help, having failed to help themselves when they could have (now). It will be a bad time for all.
Here are the facts that must be addressed to evaluate the assumption that we can stop global heating and climate destabilization even with 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. One must not focus on any single piece of evidence, but on the whole. What follows is the simplified version of the essay found here (recommended reading, it’s better).
My apologies, I can’t find the original link as I wrote this article over a month ago and didn’t publish this article. But with the new Wadhams interview above, I think I should.
1. Complex systems including climate exist stably in only a limited number of states (e.g., ice ages or interglacial between ice ages, like now, and a hotter state that last existed 55 million years ago called the PETM). However, the climate system will not stabilize between states any more than a brick will stabilize between upright and laying flat, or a human can exist for long between waking and sleeping. You are either awake or asleep, not half way in between.
Systems transition rapidly from one state to another via positive feedback processes at critical thresholds or “tipping points”. Research in recent years has verified that climate can shift from ice age conditions to temperate, interglacial conditions in as little time as a decade. (Heating events happen fast.) Positive feedbacks can amplify even small changes in the system, preventing normal negative feedbacks from stabilizing the system in the current state, causing acceleration of change towards a tipping point. That is, if temperature is increasing, positive feedback will cause temperature to increase faster.
2. CO2 levels are already significantly higher now than in the last 650,000 years. (Normal interglacial levels: 280 ppm; previous high: 300 ppm). Further, CO2 increase is accelerating. Past increases never exceeded 0.03 ppm/year. It is now increasing at 2+ ppm/year. It is increasing now 100X faster than in the past.
3. Excess CO2 in the atmosphere now and any added in the future will remain there for at least a century, potentially much longer. This is referred to as residence time. This is because CO2 must be actively “pumped down” by biological processes notably marine algae which transform CO2 into calcium carbonate shells, which become limestone on their death, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans. Due to ocean heating and acidification, that natural pump down healthiest in an ice age is now extremely stressed. By adding more CO2, we are overwhelming the pump.
4. There is a 50-year lag between stabilization of atmospheric gases & cessation of heating because water heats more slowly than air. That means that even after we stop emissions, we will continue to heat for another 50 years.
5. The poles Arctic and Antarctic have heated more & faster than any other places on Earth. Summer Arctic ice has decreased more than 30% in less than 3 decades. A recent study demonstrates that the extent of sea ice at the end of the summer season 2010 was lower than at any time in the last few thousand years. Further, the winter ice is thinner, allowing faster melting the following year, and break up by storms. Greenland’s ice sheet melting is also accelerating. Loss of ice accelerates warming. Why? Because whereas ice reflects more than 80% of solar radiation, cooling a region, dark ocean water absorbs more than 80% of solar radiation, accelerating ice loss, a positive feedback.
6. Most of the heat trapped during the last few centuries is in the oceans, causing a decrease & poleward redistribution of marine algae (because they don’t like warm water). This is a HUGE problem because they play a MAJOR role in CO2 pump down and sequestration ““ far greater than terrestrial plants ““ and the production of clouds that reflect sunlight which cools the oceans by reflecting sunlight. Thus, loss of phytoplankton is another positive feedback.
7. Methane an important greenhouse gas that threatens to become more important than CO2 is also at a record levels: 2.5 times higher than “normal” interglacial levels. Vast regions of permafrost near the Arctic 20% of Earth’s land area are thawing, releasing huge quantities of methane, some of which has been stored there since the last ice age, some of which is now being produced by anaerobic bacteria that are decomposing organic matter previously frozen. This phenomenon has been called a “sleeping giant”. Vast quantities of methane are also stored on the ocean floor, but will destabilize and be released as gas as oceans warm. We are already seeing significant methane bubbling in the Arctic ocean. Increasing methane will cause more heating, which will produce more methane: another positive feedback.
8. Forest ecosystems especially rain forests in the Amazon that have previously been carbon sinks are now becoming carbon sources as drought and heat waves cause forest die-off, releasing carbon via decomposition and burning. The sizes of forest fires across the Earth have increased notably in size in recent decades. For example, summer, 2010 saw massive wild land fires in Russia. As heating continues, this, too, will become a positive feedback.
9. There are no known negative feedback processes operating to stop these positive feedbacks from slinging Earth’s climate into a new, hotter state.
10. In reality, we are already hotter than we think we are. Why? We are being cooled by sulfur aerosols in the atmosphere, mostly resulting from burning fuels. Under proper conditions ““ an economic decline or ““ paradoxically ““ a reduction of fossil fuel use ““ aerosols would wash out of the atmosphere in weeks, increasing the global average temperature by as much as we heated in the entire 20th century.
In summary, because: 1) climate shifts rapidly from one state to another; 2) CO2 residence time in the atmosphere insures that we will continue to heat for at least a century, probably much longer; and 3) multiple positive feedbacks are accelerating heating towards a new state of the climate, so that, even if humans entirely stop producing CO2 today, a highly unlikely event given economic and political realities, Earths’ climate system will transition to a new hotter state, reminiscent of the state that existed 55 million years ago.
The argument supports the assertion that it is too late to stop global heating. We might be able to slow it by huge reductions in gas emissions, but we can’t stop it. Heating can only be stopped by stopping the multiple, global scale positive feedback processes described above, but no one has yet explained how that can occur.
The scale, speed and severity of this climate change will threaten civilization as we know it by turning most continents into deserts, preventing agriculture as we know it. Therefore, we should spend equal time, money and effort planning how to adapt to a hotter state with a radically different climate regime that hasn’t existed on Earth for 55 million years that will likely turn oceans and continents outside of the polar regions into deserts.
Why? Simple physics: once ocean surfaces exceed 10C, they stratify, preventing upwelling of nutrients to feed algae. This has already occurred in tropical zones, which is why tropical oceans are so clear. Once soil temperatures exceed 79F, they require daily rainfall (or irrigation) for any but desert-adapted plants.)
Our preparations to increase adaptability should include personal & community planning to facilitate a transition to a new kind of civilization that promotes planetary healing (but not geoengineering) as well as planning for water, food, shelter, health care, energy, transportation and security in a world with a climate that humans have never experienced in our million year history characterized by the words extreme, chaotic, unpredictable and violent.
It should be obvious that geo-engineering will be tried as the hope of last resort. I am not at all hopeful about this working. It will be the “planetary strategy”, but there is need for a personal strategy too. It would be absolutely foolish to put all your eggs into one basket and “hope” that the scientist will fix this. They probably won’t, because we already know it’s going to heat up a lot more and we can make very good estimates now on what happens to civilization when it does.
This blog has covered this topic extensively, so I won’t try once again to tell you what to do – only to point out that you WILL have to do quite a lot. We all will. Nobody is going to escape this. There won’t be any magical rescue or rapture. We are all going through this, together and it is already a certainty that the death rate is going to go up very, very fast, precisely because of delay, denial and disbelief that I’ve railed on so often. But there is more to it then that.
We have also been seriously let down by scientist, policy makers, government agencies and industry. They’ve all known about what is coming but have refused to take meaningful voice and meaningful action. We are in a global emergency and it’s still yet to be declared by these groups. It would be foolish to expect them to save us after this past and still-present experience; when they had the chance, they chose not to, so why expect anything any different going forward? What efforts will we really see? Nobody really knows, but it is sure to be worse now under a climate denial President and Cabinet. So it falls on you to do what you can to help yourself. It always has.
Oh, happy New Year.