Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears
Chris Stewart/Associated Press
The average carbon dioxide reading surpassed 400 parts per million at the research facility atop the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii for the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. on Thursday.
By JUSTIN GILLIS
Published: May 10, 2013 The New York Times
The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.
Jonathan Kingston/Aurora Select, for The New York Times
A plaque adorns the building dedicated to Charles David Keeling, who started measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide at the site in 1958.
Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.
The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.
“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that reported the new reading.
Ralph Keeling, who runs another monitoring program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said a continuing rise could be catastrophic. “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds,” he said.
Virtually every automobile ride, every plane trip and, in most places, every flip of a light switch adds carbon dioxide to the air, and relatively little money is being spent to find and deploy alternative technologies.
China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level.
The new measurement came from analyzers atop Mauna Loa, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii that has long been ground zero for monitoring the worldwide trend on carbon dioxide, or CO2. Devices there sample clean, crisp air that has blown thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, producing a record of rising carbon dioxide levels that has been closely tracked for half a century.
Carbon dioxide above 400 parts per million was first seen in the Arctic last year, and had also spiked above that level in hourly readings at Mauna Loa.
But the average reading for an entire day surpassed that level at Mauna Loa for the first time in the 24 hours that ended at 8 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday. The two monitoring programs use slightly different protocols; NOAA reported an average for the period of 400.03 parts per million, while Scripps reported 400.08.
Carbon dioxide rises and falls on a seasonal cycle, and the level will dip below 400 this summer as leaf growth in the Northern Hemisphere pulls about 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air. But experts say that will be a brief reprieve — the moment is approaching when no measurement of the ambient air anywhere on earth, in any season, will produce a reading below 400.
“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.
From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between. The evidence shows that global temperatures and CO2 levels are tightly linked.
For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near that upper bound. But the burning of fossil fuels has caused a 41 percent increase in the heat-trapping gas since the Industrial Revolution, a mere geological instant, and scientists say the climate is beginning to react, though they expect far larger changes in the future.
Indirect measurements suggest that the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene. Geological research shows that the climate then was far warmer than today, the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.
Experts fear that humanity may be precipitating a return to such conditions — except this time, billions of people are in harm’s way.
“It takes a long time to melt ice, but we’re doing it,” Dr. Keeling said. “It’s scary.”
Dr. Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, began carbon dioxide measurements on Mauna Loa and at other locations in the late 1950s. The elder Dr. Keeling found a level in the air then of about 315 parts per million — meaning that if a person had filled a million quart jars with air, about 315 quart jars of carbon dioxide would have been mixed in.
His analysis revealed a relentless, long-term increase superimposed on the seasonal cycle, a trend that was dubbed the Keeling Curve.
Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” Ralph Keeling said.
Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets. Scientists say that unless far greater efforts are made soon, the goal of limiting the warming will become impossible without severe economic disruption.
“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”
Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.
But climate scientists reject that argument, saying it is like claiming that a tiny bit of arsenic or cobra venom cannot have much effect. Research shows that even at such low levels, carbon dioxide is potent at trapping heat near the surface of the earth.
“If you’re looking to stave off climate perturbations that I don’t believe our culture is ready to adapt to, then significant reductions in CO2 emissions have to occur right away,” said Mark Pagani, a Yale geochemist who studies climates of the past. “I feel like the time to do something was yesterday.”
ON 400 PPM, MASS STUPIDITY, AND THE SUICIDAL LANGUAGE OF CLIMATE LEMMINGS
May 7, 2013 by Common Dreams
OK, lemmings don’t commit mass suicide. But they do reproduce chaotically, and periodically consume their way out of sustainable habitats, and into mass migrations that result in most of their population dying.
Sound familiar? We’re cavalierly headed for our own cliff – 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere sometime in the next couple of months, if not sooner.
The lemming has a brain the size of a pea. What’s our excuse?
We used to consider 400 ppm to be our Maginot line; the thing we had to avoid at all costs. But it turns out, 400 is too high. And we’ve known this for some time.
As the former head of the IPCC, Dr. Rajendra Pauchuri said in 2009, “What is happening, and what is likely to happen, convinces me that the world must be really ambitious and very determined at moving toward a 350 target …”
One of the nation’s foremost climate scientists, James Hansen, has been saying the same for some time. And the bulk of empirical evidence supports this position.
Yet the world is blithely blitzing past 400 ppm, on our way to the “politically acceptable” level of 450 ppm.
Basing our target on what is “politically acceptable” rather than what is scientifically necessary makes about as much sense as trying to jump the Grand Canyon in ten-foot increments. Even the most conservative of scientists say that setting the carbon dioxide ceiling at 450 ppm only gives us a 50/50 chance of avoiding the most dire results of climate change.
A 50/50 chance of avoiding an environmental Armageddon? Oh, yeah, gimmee those odds. Here’s a question: would you invest all your money in a stock that had a fifty percent chance of tanking? Of course not.
But hey, why not risk destroying the climate we evolved in – you know, the one we depend upon to survive — as long as we can drill, frack, mine, and dig up carbon laden fossil fuels so we and continue to make money.
Yeah, maybe if we have enough money we can purchase a new climate, down at the climate boutique shop … I hear they’re having a special, sometime in the next century.
We’re making lemmings look smart. We’re hurtling off the ledge toward sharp, craggy rocks, and yelling for the remaining few people who exhibit signs of sanity to join us.
The lemming does what it does witlessly. We do it with knowledge – and malice — aforethought.
For example, Obama is still backing an “all of the above” energy policy. And Republicans? Hell, they’re busy setting up dioramas featuring dinosaurs and humans as contemporaries while they pocket record amounts of campaign funds from the fossil fuel special interests in exchange for trying to discredit science and scientists and otherwise do their best to repeal the Enlightenment.
Perhaps the scariest thing about all this is a sizable majority of Republicans aren’t doing it for the money. They actually believe this shit. Here’s a few of the loonier pronouncements coming from their leading … er … luminaries:
Rick Santorum: Wasting energy makes a nation great.
Oh, hell yeah. Spending more than we have to, to foul the Earth is always a good strategy.
Sarah Palin: “And I believe that it’s [climate change] just God huggin’ us closer.”
Yes, of course. That must be it.
Mitt Romney in June of 2011: “…And so I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you’re seeing.”
Mitt Romney in October of 2011: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”
OK, you got that? Humans cause climate change, except when they don’t. Where’s a good lemming when you need one?
Congressman Joe Barton: “It’s [carbon dioxide] in your Coca-Cola, your Dr. Pepper and your Perrier water. It’s necessary for human life … It’s odorless, colorless, tasteless, doesn’t cause cancer, doesn’t cause asthma.”
Nope. Just mass extinctions; billions of dead people; and pestilence, famine, and starvation at a cost of trillions …
Congressman James Inhoffe: “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
This was Inhoffe’s response when–after citing Genesis 8:22 as “proof” that humans couldn’t be responsible for climate change — a Christian radio host pointed out that the passage didn’t really address the issue. It’s stupid enough to use the bible to refute a scientific point, but geez, at least get the quotes right.
Bobby Jindal: “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party.”
Sorry, Bobby. That ship’s sailed.
Yet it’s not as if Democrats are really any different. Their rhetoric is less stupid, but their actions – or inaction – is all too often indistinguishable.
Nope, lemmings don’t commit mass suicide. But people apparently do.
John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.
And here’s a link to an analysis by Tom Englehardt of the precipitous decline of the entire planet — so precipitous that by 2030 the concept of “empire” may be irrelevant.
Meteorite crater reveals future of a globally warmed world
Lake sediments recorded the climate of the Arctic during the last period when CO2 levels were as high as today
The future of a globally warmed world has been revealed in a remote meteorite crater in Siberia, where lake sediments recorded the strikingly balmy climate of the Arctic during the last period when greenhouse gas levels were as high as today.
Unchecked burning of fossil fuels has driven carbon dioxide to levels not seen for 3m years when, the sediments show, temperatures were 8C higher than today, lush forests covered the tundra and sea levels were up to 40m higher than today.
“It’s like deja vu,” said Prof Julie Brigham-Grette, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who led the new research analysing a core of sediment to see what temperatures in the region were between 3.6 and 2.2m years ago. “We have seen these warm periods before. Many people now agree this is where we are heading.”
“It shows a huge warming – unprecedented in human history,” said Prof Scott Elias, at Royal Holloway University of London, and not involved in the work. “It is a frightening experiment we are conducting with our climate.”
The sediments have been slowly settling in Lake El’gygytgyn since it was formed 3.6m years ago, when a kilometre-wide meteorite blasted a crater 100km north of the Arctic circle. Unlike most places so far north, the region was never eroded by glaciers so a continuous record of the climate has lain undisturbed ever since. “It’s a phenomenal record,” said Prof Peter Sammonds, at University College London. “It is also an incredible achievement [the study’s work], given the remoteness of the lake.” Sixteen shipping containers of equipment had to be hauled 90km over snow by bulldozers from the nearest ice road, used by gold miners.
Previous research on land had revealed glimpses of the Arctic climate and ocean sediments had recorded the marine climate, but the disparate data are not consistent with one another. “Lake El’gygytgyn may be the only place in the world that has this incredible unbroken record of sediments going back millions of years,” said Elias. “When you have a very long record it is very different to argue with.”
The new research, published in the journal SCIENCE, also sheds light on a crucial question for climate scientists: how sensitive is the Earth’s climate to increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The relative slowing of global temperature rises over the past 15 years has led some researchers to suggest the climate is less sensitive to CO2 rises than current climate models suggest. But the record from Lake El’gygytgyn of a very warm Arctic when atmospheric CO2 levels were last at about 400 parts per million (ppm) indicates the opposite, according to Brigham-Grette. “My feeling is we have underestimated the sensitivity, unless there are some feedbacks we don’t yet understand or we don’t get right in the models.”
Prof Robert Spicer, at the Open University and not part of the new study, agreed: “This is another piece of evidence showing that climate models have a systematic problem with polar amplification,” ie the fact that global warming has its greatest effects at the poles. “This has enormous implications and suggests model are likely to underestimate the degree of future change.”
Brigham-Grette said it would take time for today’s CO2 levels to translate into the warming seen in the lake records: “The Earth’s climate system is a sluggish beast.” Most scientists predict it will take centuries to melt the great ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica to the shrunken levels seen 3m years ago, and so push up sea level far above the world’s coastal cities. But CO2 is increasing with unprecedented speed and the Arctic plays a key role in the global climate.
“I think we will feel the effects of climate change quickly – in years or decades – because changes in the Arctic sea ice bring changes in the circulation of the atmosphere and the oceans,” says Elias. ” Arctic sea ice keeps that entire region cool and when it melts, the dark ocean revealed absorbs even more heat.”
Recent wet and cold summer weather in Europe, for example, has been linked to changes in the high level jet stream winds, which in turn have been linked to melting Arctic ice, which shrank to its lowest recorded level in September. Climate change has also already increased the likelihood of extreme heatwaves and flooding.
“Clearly the Arctic is warming very, very rapidly at the moment,” said Sammonds. “And if all the sea ice goes, there is no good reason why it might come back again.”
The Environment’s New Math: How to Look at Earth Day, by the Numbers
The story of the environment can largely be told in data, various numbers that detail how the Earth is warming and how much pollution you’re inhaling. Math is newly central to environmental considerations. Last summer, writer and activist Bill McKibben wrote an essay for Rolling Stone in which he outlined the mathematical argument for taking action on climate change. In short: To prevent a global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, we need to hold our carbon dioxide emissions to 565 gigatons of by 2050.
Perhaps ironically cold in their matter-of-factness, those numbers tells the story of the state of the climate in a way that is tangible. It allows us to create a thermometer of sorts, like those used for fundraising at suburban middle schools — the goal being not to reach the line at its top. Earth Day is a similar sort of benchmark, a string tied around the finger of the country to remember to look at how we’re doing. Here are the tools you need to make an assessment of the state of the Earth.
Data resources: The NOAA’s monthly reports on climate
Last month, the temperature of the world’s land and oceans was .58 degrees Celsius higher than the 20th century average. That alone seems innocuous. Here’s another number: 337. For 337 straight months, the world has seen temperatures above the 20th century average. Meaning, as has been pointed out before, that anyone born after March 1985 — anyone 28 or younger — has never experienced a month during which global temperatures were below average for the century.
Map via NOAA.
That data comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s monthly “State of the Climate” recaps, which it does for the United States and the world at large. Each month, the reports outline the raw data: the XXth hottest month, YY degrees above the 20th century average. While the report includes broader trends in the warming, they tend to be a bit buried.
Which is why a report from The Economist last month made a bit of a splash: it suggested that global warming was actually happening more slowly than scientists expected. It didn’t take long for reason to be offered. It wasn’t because humans were producing less greenhouse gasses. Instead, blame volcanoes, eruptions of which emitted particles that helped diffuse sunlight in the stratosphere.
Global temperatures are never uniformly distributed, as the map above shows. If it’s hot in Australia, that doesn’t mean it will be here. According to the NOAA, March 2013 was tied for the tenth-hottest March in recorded history globally, matching March 2006. But after seeing its hottest year on record in 2012, temperatures during March in the United States were below the 20th century average for the month.
Report: Last 3 Decades of 20th Century Hotter Than Anytime in 1,400 Years
New research confirms dramatic shift in long-term cooling trend “correlates directly” with human induced carbon emissions
Lauren McCauley, staff writer
April 22, 2013 by Common Dreams
A groundbreaking new report published Sunday by Nature Geoscience found that average worldwide temperatures over the past thirty years were “higher than any other time in nearly 1,400 years.”
A British photographer marks a 110 degree day, “the hottest of my life.”) Researchers behind the report, “Continental-Scale Temperature Variability During the Past Two Millennia,” reconstructed past temperatures for continental regions over the past one to two millennia. Over that time, the analysis shows a long term cooling trend that lasted through to the middle of last century. Then, as the climate advocacy group Tck Tck Tck writes, the cooling “halted with a sharp reversal” in the late nineteenth century, “correlat[ing] directly with an increase in carbon emissions from human activity.”
“Prior to the 20th century natural drivers were dominant, such as change in solar output and volcanic eruption, however what happened during the 20th century is that human influences and predominantly greenhouse gases become dominant,” says co-author and paleoclimatologist Dr Steven Phipps of the University of New South Wales.
The reversal culminates during the period between 1971-2000 during which the researchers found the “average reconstructed temperature was higher than any other time in nearly 1,400 years.”
The report also refutes the popular belief that previous warming and cooling trends spanned the globe, finding instead that they only occurred regionally.
“What we thought of in the past as being globally uniform phenomena, such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, didn’t happen at the same time—for example, the medieval warming happened earlier in the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere,” Phipps says.
The implication of this is that the current widespread global warming phenomena is unique and cannot be explained by historic causes of temperature variability, such as volcanic eruptions and changes in solar irradiance.
Gathering data from corals, ice cores, tree rings, lake and marine sediments, historical records, cave deposits and climate archives to help establish the temperature trends, the study is the most comprehensive reconstruction of global temperatures to date.
The consortium of 78 authors from 24 countries are affiliated with the 2K Network of the International Geosphere Biosphere Program’s Past Global Changes (PAGES) project.
Do the Math’: 350.org Launches Grassroots Sequel to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’
A thorough, important, perhaps game-changing assessment of the Climate Change Movement.
Victory at Hand for the Climate Movement?
by Paul Gilding
Published on Saturday, March 23, 2013 by Post Carbon Institute Blog
There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory. If we read the current context correctly, and if the movement can adjust its strategy to capture the opportunity presented, it could usher in the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history. This would include the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.
To understand this incredible potential we first have to step back and understand the unique structure of this social change movement, which may rank among the most influential in history. It is simplistic to characterise it as an alliance of grass roots organisations and activists pitched against a rich and well connected adversary. While that is part of the story, it is more accurately understood as an idea whose tentacles reach into every tier of government, the world’s largest companies and financial institutions, and throughout the academic and science communities.
Because of this, it is winning the battle from within: Its core arguments and ideas are clearly right; being endorsed by the world’s top science bodies and any significant organisation that has examined them.
Far from being at society’s margins it has the support, to various degrees, of virtually all governments, and many of the world’s most powerful political leaders, including the heads of state of the USA, China and other leading economies. It counts the CEO’s of many global companies and many of the world’s wealthiest people as active supporters – who between them direct hundreds of billions of dollars of capital every year towards practical climate action. And of course, this comes on top of one of the most global, best funded, broadly based and bottom up community campaigns we have ever seen.
That is the reality of the climate movement – it is massive, global, powerful, and on the right side of history.
So why, many ask, has it so far not succeeded in its objective of reducing CO2 emissions? Much has been written on this topic but most of it is wrong. It is simply an incredibly big job to turn on its head the global economy’s underpinning energy system. And so it has taken a while. Considering how long other great social movements took to have an impact – such as equality for women or the end of slavery and civil rights movements – then what’s surprising is not that the climate movement hasn’t yet succeeded. What’s surprising is how far its come and how deeply it has become embedded in such a short time.
And now is the moment when it’s greatest success might be about to be realised – and just in time.
We are at the most important moment in this movement’s history – in the midst of two simultaneous tipping points that create the opportunity, if we respond correctly, to win – eliminating net CO2 emissions from the economy and securing a stable climate, though still a changed one.
I have come to this conclusion after reflecting on a year when an avalanche of new knowledge and indicators made both tipping points clear. The first and perhaps the best understood is the rapid acceleration in climate impacts, reinforcing the view many hold that the scientific consensus on climate has badly underestimated the timing and scale of climate impacts. The melting of the Arctic Sea Ice, decades before expected, was the poster child of this but extreme weather and temperature records across the world, notably in the USA, suggested this Arctic melting is a symptom of accelerating system change.
It also became clear that this was literally just the “warm up” act – that we are currently heading for a global temperature increase of 4°C or more, double the agreed target.
In response came a series of increasingly dire warnings from conservative bodies like the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps most colourfully, the IMF chief and former conservative French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, said that without strong action “future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”. The World Bank was similarly blunt about the economic consequences of our current path: “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”
These and other reports laid out the evidence that the only option was transformational economic change because the alternative was simply unmanageable. Action was no longer a preferred outcome but an essential one. As the World Bank said “the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur”. Even the IEA, historically a kind of advocate in chief for the fossil fuel industry, came on board, pointing out that a stable climate and economy requires the majority of the global reserves of fossil fuels to never be burnt.
It is an extraordinary turn around when key mainstream economic institutions lay out the case for dismantling what is arguably the world’s most powerful business sector.
Of particular note in all this, observing both the message and the messengers, is that what was predominantly an ecological question is now primarily an economic one. This is a profoundly important shift, as economic risk is something society’s elites take very seriously. It also unleashes another major potential tipping point which we have seen signs of, but is not yet in full flight. When non-fossil fuel companies understand the broad economic risk posed by the lack of climate action, they will become genuine and strong advocates demanding climate action – in their own self-interest. This is one to watch carefully as it will see a major shift in the politics when it comes.
The second tipping point in 2012 was the clear evidence that a disruptive economic shift is already underway in the global energy market. There are two indicators of this, with the first being the much noted acceleration in the size of the renewable energy market with dramatic price reductions and the arrival of cost competitive solar and wind. It is hard to overstate the significance of this as it changes the game completely, as various recent reports have shown.
Rooftop solar for example has grown so fast it is now eroding the profitability of major utilities by taking away their high margin income – peak pricing – and reducing demand. This is already seeing major economic disruption to companies and national economic infrastructure as this report from UBS on developments in Europe shows, with major shutdowns of coal plants now inevitable.
Of equal importance, and partly triggered by these market shifts, is the awakening of the sleeping giant of carbon risk, with open discussion in mainstream financial circles of the increasing dangers in financial exposure to fossil fuels. This has been coming for several years because of the financial risk inherent in the carbon bubble. As Phil Preston and I argued in a paper in 2010 and I further elaborated in The Great Disruption, the contradiction between what the science says is essential and the growth assumptions made by the fossil fuel industry is so large it represents a systemic global financial risk. This has been well articulated and more deeply explored by groups like Carbon Tracker who have been taking the argument to the mainstream finance sector.
What’s surprising is how far its come and how deeply it has become embedded in such a short time.
In 2012 this hit home, with significant economic and financial players like the IEA, HSBC and S&P talking about the concept of unburnable carbon and the financial risks in both investing in fossil fuels and in lending to coal, oil and gas projects. HSBC forecast a market value loss of 40 – 60% for oil and gas majors if the world acted to keep below 2 degrees. The IEA forecast the revenue loss in that scenario for the global coal industry would be $1 trillion every year by 2035.
Combined, these two tipping points present the opportunity for the broad climate movement to achieve success, if they are understood and responded to appropriately by the activist, policy and business communities. But first they must be seen for what they are – indications we are poised on the edge of a truly historic economic transformation – the end of fossil fuels and the building of a huge new industry sector.
* To summarise:
* – The science shows how we are not just failing to slow down climate change, but are in fact accelerating towards the cliff.
* – In response, mainstream organisations focused on the global economy are becoming increasingly desperate in their calls for action, fearing the economic consequences if we don’t. They are arguing that the only way the world can avoid the risk of breakdown is to transform the economy urgently and dramatically.
* – Our capacity to do so is now real and practical, with the technologies required already being deployed at very large scale and at competitive cost. The size of the business opportunity now on offer is truly breathtaking.
* – In response, the financial markets are waking up to the transformation logic – if the future is based in renewables and these are price competitive without subsidy, or soon will be, the transformation could sweep the economy relatively suddenly, even without further government leadership.
* – This then puts in place an enormous and systemic financial risk – in particular investments in, or debt exposure to, the multi-trillion $ fossil fuel industry.
* – This risk is steadily being increased by activist campaigns against fossil fuel projects (worsening each projects’ financial risk) and arguing for fossil fuel divestment (putting investors reputation in play as well).
* – In response investors and lenders will reduce their exposure to fossil fuels and hedge their risk by shifting their money to high growth renewables.
* – This will then reinforce and manifest the very trend they are hedging against.
* – Thus it’s game on.
Is that it? Can we now sit back and expect the market deal with this?
What we are now hearing from major international economic institutions is that this is a binary choice. Either this happens or we head for social and economic breakdown.
Most definitely not. It is probably true that the market would sort this out by itself if we had 60 years for it to do so. But we don’t. The science is clear that we have less than 20 – and this is where the opportunity for the climate movement emerges and why the choice of focus and strategy is now is so important. The task at hand is clear for policy makers, for business and investors as well as for the activist community. It’s acceleration of existing momentum – to slow down fossil fuels and speed up clean energy. To make the 60 year process, a 20 year one.
It is now realistic to imagine removing the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy in less than 20 years. Doing so is required if we are to have an 80% or greater likelihood of preventing the climate warming past 2 degrees C, a point past where the system could spin out of control.
What we are now hearing from major international economic institutions is that this is a binary choice. Either this happens or we head for social and economic breakdown. As the World Bank argues, the latter “must not be allowed to occur”.
Timing is the key shift the world needs to make in its thinking – this is no longer about the future, it’s about now. We don’t have 20 years to decide to act; we have 20 years to complete the task. If we follow the science, then in 20 years we must have removed the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy and replaced them. It’s simple, it’s urgent and perhaps most importantly, it’s now achievable.
History gives us many examples of dramatic economic shifts – like the arrival of the computer chip and with it, the internet, the emergence of communications technologies and other facilitators of globalisation. We also have many examples of “whoops” moments – points when we realise after the event something was a very bad idea. Like tobacco, asbestos, lead in fuels and paint, ozone depleting CFCs and various other chemicals. Collectively, this tells us something very important. While each case is different, we are capable of transformational economic change and while it’s often disruptive and always fiercely resisted, we regularly do it. This is much larger in scale but the same processes apply.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that this kind of economic transition is OK. That’s how markets works and while it will be challenging and require huge effort, it will work out. Yes, huge amounts of wealth will be lost and gained in the process, industries, countries and cities will face massive economic and practical restructuring challenges and many people will suffer in the process. But that’s how market shifts happen.
Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” to describe this process and to explain why it’s the underpinning strength of capitalism, calling it: ”A process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
But while we can be comfortable that this process will deliver the required outcome, it’s not going to be smooth or pleasant for many participants. It will rather be messy, highly controversial and see huge amounts of value and employment both destroyed and created as the economy restructures around the necessary reality of a post fossil fuel economy. I’m neither relaxed about this nor naïve about the scale of the challenge. I just accept that it’s now inevitable. I also know we can do it and that we simply have no choice.
Of course, the losers will fight all the way to the end, using every argument, manoeuvre and delay they can think of. We should expect nothing else of them and, realistically, most of us would do likewise faced with similar circumstances. But they will still lose.
I do not however think we should demonise the fossil fuel industry or the people involved in it. The job to remove this industry has to be done – the future of civilisation literally depends on it – but we can do this firmly and clearly without making it personal. As I’ve said in recent speeches on this topic – with some humour but a serious message – “we have to remove the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy with love and compassion.” This is the tough love of responsible parenting – the kids don’t like it but it’s still the right thing to do.
So with some surprise, this is where we find ourselves. It still won’t happen without focused and determined effort, but for the first time, we can envisage victory in the decades long fight on climate change. The science is clear, the technology is ready, significant sections of the elite are on side and the financial momentum is with us.
And this time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.
Originally posted at the Cockatoo Chronicles.
© 2013 Paul Gilding
Paul Gilding is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and an independent writer, advisor and advocate for action on climate change and sustainability. An activist and social entrepreneur for 35 years, his personal mission and purpose is to lead, inspire and motivate action globally on the transition of society and the economy to sustainability. He pursues this purpose across all sectors, working around the world with individuals, businesses, NGOs, entrepreneurs, academia and government.
2/2/13: Exiting Energy Secretary Chu Blasts Climate Change Nay-Sayers
Articles on Global Warming/Climate Change and Hydrofracked methane:
Jan. 8, 2013 story from the Huffington Post (edited) on data showing 2012 was the hottest year in the U. S.
Letter from Sandra Steingraber (excerpts) on fracking and global warming
Article by John Atcheson: Is Climate Change Hell Now Inevitable?
If You Aren’t Alarmed about Climate, You Aren’t Paying Attention (article by David Roberts, in Grist)
To Understand Climate Change, Listen to Us and Sandy, Too (article by Michael MacCracken and James McCarthy)
Exiting Energy Secretary Lets Loose on Global Warming Skeptics and Opponents of Clean Energy
Energy Secretary Steven Chu Resigns, Chastises “Stone Age” Climate Deniers And Clean-Energy Critics
Posted: 02/01/2013 6:51 pm EST | Updated: 02/02/2013 8:26 am EST
In a wide-ranging and defiant letter to staff announcing his resignation on Friday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu blasted critics of the administration’s investments in the renewable energy market, suggesting that opponents were living in the “Stone Age.”
“In the last two years, the private sector, including Warren Buffett, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Google, have announced major investments in clean energy,” Chu wrote. “Originally skeptical lenders and investors now see that renewable energy will [be] profitable. These investors are voting where it counts the most — with their wallet.”
The department’s support of renewable energy projects like wind and solar power has been at the the heart of Republican attacks on Chu’s tenure — particularly his oversight of clean-energy incentives and subsidy programs created or expanded under President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.
But Chu dismissed criticisms as being blind to the larger successes these various programs delivered — and to the nation’s obligation to continue pursuing them.
“While critics try hard to discredit the program, the truth is that only one percent of the companies we funded went bankrupt. That one percent has gotten more attention than the 99 percent that have not,” Chu said. “The test for America’s policy makers will be whether they are willing to accept a few failures in exchange for many successes. America’s entrepreneurs and innovators who are leaders in global clean energy race understand that not every risk can –- or should –- be avoided.”
Quoting Michelangelo, Chu added, “‘The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.'”
Carol M. Browner, former director of the White House office of Energy and Climate Change Policy and now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress said, “The next secretary of energy must maintain Chu’s dogged focus on using all of the Energy Department’s tools in the fight against climate change — especially its financial resources and significant convening power.”
“Ultimately we have a moral responsibility to the most innocent victims of adverse climate change. Those who will suffer the most are the people who are the most innocent: the world’s poorest citizens and those yet to be born,” Chu said. “There is an ancient Native American saying: ‘We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,'” he added. “A few short decades later, we don’t want our children to ask, ‘What were our parents thinking? Didn’t they care about us?'”
From the Huffington Post:
It’s official: 2012 was the warmest year on record in the lower 48 states, as the country experienced blistering spring and summer heat, tinderbox fire weather conditions amid a widespread drought, and one of the worst storms to ever strike the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2012 had an average temperature of 55.3°F, which eclipsed 1998, the previous record holder, by 1°F.
The 1°F difference from 1998 is an unusually large margin, considering that annual temperature records are typically broken by just tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. In fact, the entire range between the coldest year on record, which occurred in 1917, and the previous record warm year of 1998 was just 4.2°F.
The year consisted of the fourth-warmest winter, the warmest spring, second-warmest summer, and a warmer-than-average fall. With an average temperature that was 3.6°F above average, July became the hottest month ever recorded in the contiguous U.S. The average springtime temperature in the lower 48 was so far above the 1901-2000 average — 5.2°F, to be exact — that the country set a record for the largest temperature departure for any season on record.
“Climate change has had a role in this [record],” said Jake Crouch, a climate scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. He said it isn’t clear yet exactly how much of the temperature record was due to climate change compared to natural variability, but that it’s unlikely such a record would have occurred without the long-term warming trend caused in large part by emissions of greenhouse gases.
During the summer, nearly 100 million people experienced 10 or more days with temperatures greater than 100°F, which is about one-third of the nation’s population, NOAA reported.
With 34,008 daily high temperature records set or tied the year compared to just 6,664 daily record lows — a ratio of about five high temperature records for every one low temperature record — 2012 was no ordinary weather year in the U.S. It wasn’t just the high temperatures that set records, though. Overnight low temperatures were also extremely warm, and in a few cases the overnight low was so warm that it set a high temperature record, a rare feat.
Even more astonishing is the imbalance between all-time records. According to data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, there were 356 all-time high temperature records set or tied in 2012, compared to four all-time low temperature records. All of the all-time
The year was also characterized by extreme drought, and two states — Nebraska and Wyoming — also had their driest year on record. Eight more states had annual precipitation totals that ranked in the bottom 10.
At its maximum extent in July, drought conditions encompassed 61 percent of the nation, with the most intense conditions in the Great Plains, West, and Midwest. The nationally averaged annual precipitation total was 2.57 inches below average, making 2012 the 15th-driest year, and the driest year since 1988, which also featured a major drought.
The drought was instigated in large part of very low snow cover and warm temperatures during the winter of 2011, and record warmth during the spring, which allowed for an early start to the growing season and depleted soil moisture earlier than normal. The record March heat wave put the drought into overdrive, accelerating its development across the Plains and Midwest in particular.The drought conditions created ideal conditions for wildfires, as 9.2 million acres went up in smoke in the West, the third-highest on record.
The same weather patterns that led to the drought helped suppress severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, with a final tornado count that is likely to be under 1,000, which would be the fewest twisters since 2002.
According to NOAA, the year saw 11 natural disasters that cost at least $1 billion in losses, including Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast on October 29-30.
Globally, 2012 is expected to be ranked as the eighth-warmest year on record.
(2) EXCERPTS from a “Call To Action” Open Letter to New Yorkers from Sandra Steingraber:
Dear fellow New Yorkers,
Dec. 7, 8:00 pm
After days of wild, record-breaking weather, our village winter festival was cancelled because of rain and flood warnings. When I told Elijah the bad news on the walk home from school, he began to cry. I told him I was sorry and that I knew how much he was looking forward to the festival.
He said, I’m not upset about the festival. I’m upset because the planet’s dying. I know this is all because of global warming. Just like the hurricane.
And this is what I heard myself say: Mom is on the job. I’m working on it. I’m working on it really hard, and I promise I won’t quit.
Now you are all my witnesses.
Dec. 26, 5:00 pm
These words are being written in a cinema bathroom. I’m the chaperone for my 14-year-old daughter and her friends—the movie is rated R—but I’ve snuck out of the theater to read the proposed revised draft regulations for fracking. There are 328 pages of them, and we’ve been given only 30 days to offer public comments—right in the middle of the holiday. Pretty much all I’ve done since December 12 is read regs and help people create comments. To that end, I’ve dreamed up an Advent calendar project called Thirty Days of Fracking Regs.
It’s tough sledding. None of us has access to the previous draft of the regulations—which was removed from the DEC website—so we can’t judge how it’s been revised. We don’t have access to the environmental impact statement that’s supposed to serve as the scientific basis for the regulations. That study is not even finished yet. But, as a last-minute maneuver to avoid blowing a deadline, the Department of Environmental Conservation released a huge batch of regulations anyway. They are hastily drawn and full of glaring errors. They are legal placeholders in the march toward fracking in New York State, which makes the whole exercise of submitting comments absurd and maddening.
But this I know: silence is consent.
It’s Day 15 in the regs comment calendar. I need to finish tomorrow’s post (Section 560.6, on the use of diesel fuel in fracking fluid) before the movie ends. Happily, it’s Anna Karenina. I can only hope that Leo Tolstoy and Tom Stoppard are keeping the sex and violence quotient under control.
Am I a terrible mother?
Dec. 27, noon
The deadline for finalizing the regulations is exactly two months from today: February 27.
It’s weird to see people shopping, heading out for the gym, and meeting for lunch as though life were normal. As though an army were not massing on the border with plans for occupation. Is that a crazy thought? But that’s how the gas industry talks: The shale army has arrived. Resistance is futile. Those were the actual words of Bill Gwozd, vice president of gas services for the Ziff Energy group.
I choose not to believe the second half of that statement.
The shale army is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent industry with no boundaries. The shale army seeks to use our land as its beachhead, our water as its battering ram, and our air as its receptacle for its toxic fumes. The proposed regs for New York are no defense. They do not prohibit flare stacks, open pits, or indefinite venting of toxic gases.
My son has a history of asthma. The land all around us is leased.
My daughter will be learning to drive soon. By that time, our rural roads could be filled with fleets of eighteen-wheelers hauling hazardous materials. Data from other states show that the arrival of drilling and fracking operations brings sharp upticks in traffic fatalities.
Resistance is not only necessary, it feels like a fundamental responsibility of parenthood.
This is what I tell my kids: Until further notice, mom is on anti-fracking detail. That’s where all our money is going. That’s where all my time is going. You’ll have to pack your own lunch. We’re on wartime footing now.
Am I a terrible Quaker?
Dec. 31, 11:00 pm
New Year’s Eve with the regs. It’s quiet. I’m working on Section 750.3 tonight. As I type, I see my father’s hands. He was an amazing typist. When I was a girl, he let me practice on his prized Selectric, and he challenged me with typing drills: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. Over and over I typed those words. Faster and faster.
My father was a life-long Republican. He believed that the words “conservative” and “conservation” shared more than etymology. So do I.
Jan. 3, 2:00 am
I was about to go to bed when a story broke: someone just leaked a document from the NY Department of Public Health. It’s an eight-page analysis—drafted last February—that looks to be the beginnings of the health study that is being carried out in complete secrecy. If so, it confirms the worst fears of Concerned Health Professionals of New York. In letters to the Governor, in policy papers, and at press conferences, we’ve been calling for a transparent Heath Impact Assessment with public participation. This document repudiates that request.
In fact, this document repudiates the power of science altogether. In a series of assertions unencumbered by data, it seems to say that the health effects of fracking are both unknown and unknowable. A Health Impact Assessment is unnecessary because the uncertainties are too great to analyze, therefore the risks can be safely mitigated.
That’s not a scientifically sound line of reasoning.
Meanwhile, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are reporting an alarming 9 percent leakage rate from drilling and fracking operations. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—way more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Methane leaks like that, if typical, would mean shale gas is a worse enemy to our climate than coal.
What role will science play in Governor Cuomo’s decision on fracking in New York, which grows ever nearer?
(3) Article: Is Climate Change Hell Now Inevitable?*
by John Atcheson**
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!” Ebenezer Scrooge, to The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, in “A Christmas Carol.”
Although I spent most of my career involved in climate change, in the last year, I’ve resolved to try not to think about it much. Too stark; too grim. But from time to time, I screw up my courage, stare into the Eye of Sauron and face the reality of global warming futures. When I do, I write about it, and the articles have become increasingly dire. Good friends, relatives, commenters, and colleagues have been telling me to focus on solutions: to accentuate the positive; to avoid doom and gloom.
Of course, that advice assumes our actions will make a difference, that there is still a chance to avert catastrophe.
Can we? If we depart from our present course will the ends change?
Well, there’s a growing consensus that staying above atmospheric concentrations of 350 parts per million will permanently change our climate, and not for the better.
We’re now at 392.41 ppm and rising. This year’s catastrophes are a mild preview of things to come.
So regardless of what we do, we have already altered the climate in ways that will cost us a great deal of money, kill millions if not tens of millions, and create as many as a billion refugees by mid century.
Bad as this sounds, there’s strong evidence it’s about to get a hell of a lot worse.
Positive feedbacks can effectively double the amount of GHG released to the atmosphere, and the worst of these – methane releases from hydrates and permafrost –is self-reinforcing. That is, once started, it feeds on itself. More methane means more heat which causes more methane and so on. This process is slow, but inexorable, once triggered.
We know from the geologic record that runaway methane releases have occurred several times in the past. Some 55 million years ago, during what geologists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, temperatures soared, as clathrates (or as they are sometimes known, hydrates) released massive amounts of carbon, mostly in the form of methane. Many scientists believe this was triggered by volcanic releases of carbon. Other factors may have been at play, but the key takeaway is that methane releases caused runaway warming that lasted for more than 150,000 years, and that today, humans are releasing carbon at ten times the rate that is thought to have triggered the releases.
Some 600 million years ago, geologists identified another, even more extreme event: the Permian Die-Off. The period came by the name honestly, as some 94% of the marine fossil record disappeared and biologic diversity plummeted. For a time, life itself teetered on the edge of extinction – all life. Again, massive methane releases triggered by volcanic releases of carbon are the prime culprit. And again, our current rate of releases is much faster than the one that started this devastating feedback.
If we have triggered a self-reinforcing methane feedback – and there is growing evidence that we have — then there is little point in talking about solutions. What is needed is a strategy for maximizing the quality of life for those of our species who survive the coming catastrophe. There will be fewer of us, and we will consume far less, and the world will be a far harsher place. We will, quite literally, be inhabiting an alien environment, and our best bet is to prepare ourselves for the softest possible landing in this hostile new world.
But let’s say we’re lucky, and we haven’t triggered this cycle of hellish warming, and “all” we have to deal with is our own emissions. Do we have the technical solutions to walk us back from the brink of the greatest disaster our species has ever faced?
Yes. Just barely.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that we could provide 80% of our power needs using renewable energy by 2050, using today’s technologies.
And there are a variety of policies that would not only make that affordable, it would make it one of our best opportunities for creating jobs.
Strategies like lengthening the amortization period and lowering interest rates on renewable energy could make the cost per month to consumers less than conventional power in many states.
Allowing efficiency and on-site renewables to bid into forward capacity markets makes clean energy competitive with even the cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel power for utilities.
Feed-in tariffs assure that renewables will pay for themselves.
And fuel standards could be raised to 50 mpg – something that is achievable with several cars now available. And improved batteries have made EVs practical.
Taxing embedded carbon on imports would force exporters to lower carbon emissions, eliminating the fear of foreign “free-riders.”
Agricultural polices could make our farms and forests carbon sinks – actually removing carbon from the atmosphere – while improving the quality and sustainability of our food supplies and soils.
So, yes, we can meet this challenge, if we haven’t bumbled into positive feedbacks like some planetary-scale Inspector Clouseau.
What would it take?
People often speak about mounting a Manhattan Project level of effort to achieve this.
How about a World War II magnitude endeavor?
The bottom line is, it would take an effort unlike any humanity has ever attempted for us to avoid catastrophic global warming and devastating ocean acidification. We would have to march in lock-step as a species, making carbon the obsessive focus of all we do, in every facet of our life, if we hope to awaken Scrooge-like, a changed species, filled with redemption, converted from history’s greatest villain, to its greatest hero.
Solutions? Sure, they’re out there.
But as I tell my friends, when it comes to actually using them, and using them in time, I am hopeful, but I am not optimistic.
And of course, if we have triggered feedbacks …
* Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2012 by Common Dreams
**John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and Book One of a Trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.
If You Aren’t Alarmed about Climate, You Aren’t Paying Attention,
From Grist, written by David Roberts (minor edits by OV)
A Few Things We Know:
We know we’ve raised global average temperatures around 0.8 degrees C so far. We know that 2 degrees C is where most scientists predict catastrophic and irreversible impacts. And we know that we are currently on a trajectory that will push temperatures up 4 degrees or more by the end of the century.
What would 4 degrees look like? A recent World Bank review of the science reminds us that first, it’ll get hot:
Projections for a 4°C world show a dramatic increase in the intensity and frequency of high-temperature extremes. Recent extreme heat waves such as in Russia in 2010 are likely to become the new normal summer in a 4°C world. Tropical South America, central Africa, and all tropical islands in the Pacific are likely to regularly experience heat waves of unprecedented magnitude and duration. In this new high-temperature climate regime, the coolest months are likely to be substantially warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. In regions such as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Tibetan plateau, almost all summer months are likely to be warmer than the most extreme heat waves presently experienced. For example, the warmest July in the Mediterranean region could be 9°C warmer than today’s warmest July.
Extreme heat waves in recent years have had severe impacts, causing heat-related deaths, forest fires, and harvest losses. The impacts of the extreme heat waves projected for a 4°C world have not been evaluated, but they could be expected to vastly exceed the consequences experienced to date and potentially exceed the adaptive capacities of many societies and natural systems. [my emphasis]
Warming to 4 degrees would also lead to “an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean,” leading to levels of acidity “unparalleled in Earth’s history.” That’s bad news for, say, coral reefs:
The combination of thermally induced bleaching events, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise threatens large fractions of coral reefs even at 1.5°C global warming. The regional extinction of entire coral reef ecosystems, which could occur well before 4°C is reached, would have profound consequences for their dependent species and for the people who depend on them for food, income, tourism, and shoreline protection.
It will also “likely lead to a sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, and possibly more, by 2100, with several meters more to be realized in the coming centuries.” That rise won’t be spread evenly, even within regions and countries — regions close to the equator will see even higher seas.
There are also indications that it would “significantly exacerbate existing water scarcity in many regions, particularly northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, while additional countries in Africa would be newly confronted with water scarcity on a national scale due to population growth.”
Also, more extreme weather events:
Ecosystems will be affected by more frequent extreme weather events, such as forest loss due to droughts and wildfire exacerbated by land use and agricultural expansion. In Amazonia, forest fires could as much as double by 2050 with warming of approximately 1.5°C to 2°C above preindustrial levels. Changes would be expected to be even more severe in a 4°C world.
Also loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services:
In a 4°C world, climate change seems likely to become the dominant driver of ecosystem shifts, surpassing habitat destruction as the greatest threat to biodiversity. Recent research suggests that large-scale loss of biodiversity is likely to occur in a 4°C world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of the Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of ecosystem services on which society depends (for example, fisheries and protection of coastline afforded by coral reefs and mangroves.)
New research also indicates a “rapidly rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms.” So food will be tough.
All this will add up to “large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems.” Given the uncertainties and long-tail risks involved, “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.” There’s a small but non-trivial chance of advanced civilization breaking down entirely.
Now ponder the fact that some scenarios show us going up to 6 degrees by the end of the century, a level of devastation we have not studied and barely know how to conceive. Ponder the fact that somewhere along the line, though we don’t know exactly where, enough self-reinforcing feedback loops will be running to make climate change unstoppable and irreversible for centuries to come. That would mean handing our grandchildren and their grandchildren not only a burned, chaotic, denuded world, but a world that is inexorably more inhospitable with every passing decade.
To understand climate change, listen to us and Sandy, too
Following two of the most destructive years for climate catastrophes, President Obama is now calling for a “wide-ranging” conversation with scientists. Let’s talk.
As climate scientists who’ve together spent decades studying how and why our climate is changing, we welcome that opportunity. “Frankenstorm” Sandy brought a message for you and all of us: climate change impacts are here now, right now.
Climate change clearly contributed to Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive superstorms in U.S. history. On the stretch of the Atlantic Coast we call home, sea level is rising four times faster than the global average. Global warming is heating the Atlantic Ocean and increasing atmospheric water vapor loading, both of which contributed to Sandy’s power and deluge.
Were Sandy just a single disaster, the story might end there. Unfortunately it is not. The insurance giant Munich Re reports annual weather-related loss events have quintupled in the United States, costing Americans more than a trillion dollars.
This year we have suffered through a string of record-breaking extreme weather events, all worsened by climate change. These included “Summer in March”; the hottest month in U.S. history (July 2012); the worst drought since the 1950s; and a wildfire season that is rivaling the worst ever, a record set only six year ago. In 2011, the United States broke its record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters in a year: 14, totaling $47 billion. And this year’s number of disasters puts it on track to be No. 2.
The last few years are part of a longer trend of climatic disruption that is impacting communities and the world here and now. Already, observations indicate that the ranges of more than a thousand species are shifting poleward and up mountainsides to escape the increasing heat; CO2-driven ocean acidification is starting to dissolve coral reefs; the number of regions experiencing drought have doubled since the 1970s; over the past 10 years, wildfires in the American West burned twice as much land area each year as they did just 40 years ago; twice as many high temperature records have been set in the past decade as record lows; and both the minimum area and minimum volume of Arctic sea ice each summer are well below their values of 30 years ago with records set in 2012.
The danger of such large changes, accompanied by an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather, loss of biodiversity, imperiled food systems, a 2- to 4-foot sea level rise, and myriad national security risks, will present enormous challenges to our nation’s infrastructure and landscapes and to the well-being of people and communities around the globe.
An increasingly disruptive climate and a bankrupt nation could be the legacy we leave our children. According to projections presented to the U.S. Congress by Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman, inaction will cost our nation more than 1 percent of GDP by 2025 more than $200 billion a year. And costs will skyrocket from there to an estimated $1.8 trillion a year by 2100.
The next four years the second term of President Obama’s administration will be critical. Faith Birol, chief economist for the usually conservative International Energy Agency, has repeatedly said that real progress toward a low-carbon economy needs to start very soon to avoid warming of 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
Patience and credence can no longer be given to those denying climate change. The delays that these so-called “skeptics” and vested fossil-fuel interests are causing in the face of convincing detection and attribution only increase the staggering costs of adaptation and relocation.
Having seen the devastating impacts of Sandy, at least a few leaders in Washington seem poised to acknowledge what scientific analyses have clearly shown: human activities are causing climate disruption. Whether encouraged and forced by regulations, product standards, a cap-and-trade policy, or a carbon tax (possibly with a proportional dividend to every American), we need a national policy to initiate the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Investing in energy efficiency and switching from use of coal, petroleum, and natural gas to primary reliance on renewable wind and solar energy is a change that we CAN make. Switching away from petroleum would also build independence from OPEC and fossil fuel cartels.
According to Bloomberg Finance, the best wind farms in the world already produce power as economically as coal, gas and nuclear generators, and solar energy is proving a good investment in many states. Iowa now generates nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy and Colorado and Oregon more than 10 percent.
Clean energy is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. today, growing at a rate of 8.3 percent, creating vital American jobs despite the depressed economy and the fact that over the past century fossil fuels have received subsidies 75 times the size of those for renewables since the mid-1990s.
We saw inspiring political leadership when Sandy struck. Now we need equally bold and visionary action that taps into the best in ingenuity and technology that our country has to offer. Encouraging both economic development and environmental well-being requires creation of a modern, clean energy system that protects both our nation and our environment.
The scientific community is eager to engage in the conversation the President seeks, but we all must recognize that the conversation must turn quickly from talk to action. This story can have an ending we can live with. It is up to us.
Michael MacCracken is chief scientist for Climate Change Programs at the Climate Institute in Washington. James J. McCarthy is a professor of ocean science at Harvard University and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.