Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Why the World Bank says we must decarbonise now

with 30 comments

In the context of 3 billion years of history, are we now witnessing the ‘last hours’ of most life on Earth?
(Click photo and/or read below for more information)

Must the World Bank now be added to the supposed list of environmentally-alarmist institutions seeking to use the perceived threat of climate change as a pretext for imposing global authoritarian government via the United Nations?  This is essentially the position of all those that dispute the reality of the 97% scientific consensus - or the IPCC’s 95% confidence - that humans are the primary cause of the climate change we are now witnessing.

Unfortunately for such conspiracy theorists, the truth of the matter is much more unpleasant:  Climate scientists are not engaged in a global conspiracy to provide the UN with an excuse to subvert the power of national governments.  Conspiracy or not, it would be bad enough if our national governments had spent the last 25 years ignoring the warnings of climate scientists.  However, the truth of the matter is even more insidious:  The IPCC has spent the last 20 years or so compiling reports detailing the nature, scale and urgency of the problem we face, only to have our national governments systematically neuter their reports and ignore the warnings they contained.

Similarly, it seems, our national governments appear determined to ignore warnings from professional bodies, national scientific academies, and international organisations.  Anyone who asserts that humanity needs to stop burning fossil fuels as fast as possible is, it seems, immediately dismissed as an environmental ‘alarmist’.

If you stop to think about it objectively, even for a moment, the reasons for this are very obvious:  Far more serious even than the USA defaulting on its debt repayments, the problem is that the share prices of the World’s fossil fuel companies are entirely dependent upon the assumption that all the Earth’s fossil fuels will be burned.  This is referred to as ‘business as usual’ (BAU).

Thus, in the minds of our politicians at least, if they accept the reality that we have a problem at all, the only solution to the problem is one that allows fossil fuel companies to continue with BAU.

Unfortunately for our politicians, fossil fuel companies, and all life on Earth (human and non-human), such a solution does not exist and is, almost certainly, technologically unachievable in the timescale that it would now be required.

The solution everyone is hoping will emerge is carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is a subject about which I have written a great deal; and I do not intend to repeat myself now other than to say this: CCS will only be able to help solve our problem when the rate of removal of CO2 from our atmosphere is greater than global emissions.  Getting CCS to work will take decades (as will decarbonising our economies).  It is quite possible that we do not have decades of time in which to do either but, one thing is for sure, it makes no sense to delay making a serious attempt to do either.

Therefore, I believe all would do well to ponder the question as to why the World Bank published ‘Inclusive Green Growth: The Pathway to Sustainable Development’ last year.  There is a big clue given in the ‘Abstract‘, which reads as follows:

Economic development during the next two decades cannot mirror the previous two: poverty reduction remains urgent but growth and equity can be pursued without relying on policies and practices that foul the air, water, and land.

The World Bank accepts that humanity cannot go on treating the Earth with contempt; treating it as if both its resources and regenerative capacity are infinite.  This is because, as is becoming increasingly obvious (in the case of the latter at least), they are not infinite.

This brings us to the crux of this post, which is to refute the entirely bogus argument that we humans have nothing to be afraid of because climate change is natural; life has survived it in the past; and will therefore do so again. There are at least two problems with this line of argument:
1. Because we were already in a warm interglacial period – and atmospheric CO2 is now 40% higher than at any time in the last 1 million years – it is highly unreasonable to dispute the fact that post-Industrial warming is unnatural (i.e. all sparrows may be birds but not all birds are sparrows).
2.  In the entirety of Earth history, there have been 5 mass extinction events (i.e. periods when between 50 and 95% of all species have been wiped out).  These events are each associated with periods when global average temperatures were more than 5 Celsius warmer than they are now (and there is strong evidence that a sixth mass extinction is already underway).

In responding to sensible comments on my previous post, ‘A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al.‘, I found myself referring to the most recent mass extinction event in the Earth’s history, the so-called Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred 55 million years before present (MaBP).  However, as the following video graphically demonstrates, what is now happening to the Earth’s climate as a result of the post-Industrial burning of fossil fuels, is looking increasingly like the Permian mass extinction event, which occurred 252 MaBP.

This video is only about 10 minutes long, so I hope people will watch it. If not, however, the main points are summarised below:
1. There have been five mass extinctions before and humans are now almost certainly causing a sixth.
2. The ongoing melting of terrestrial ice will now cause sea level to rise continuously for several centuries.
3. This is probably unstoppable but is survivable (i.e. assuming all humans can move away from coastal areas).
4. All past mass extinction events occurred when global average temperatures > 5 Celsius warmer than now.
5. Common to each event is further rapid warming triggered by methane release from permafrost and seabed.
6. We already have evidence that rates of both species extinction and methane release are now accelerating.
7. Positive feedback mechanisms (such as disappearing sea ice) will soon make methane release unstoppable.
8. If this ‘tipping point’ is passed, anthropogenic climate disruption will almost certainly be unsurvivable.

This is why the World Bank agrees that we need to decarbonise our global economies as fast as possible.

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30 Responses

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  1. Unfortunately the denial industry seems as effective as ever – in some circles at least (for instance a major chunk of the American population). The relative flattening of atmospheric temperature (due to La Nina being dominant) and the “recovery” of the ice this year (to the sixth lowest extent ever…) are both being unreasonably pernicious and effective in misleading the easily misled.

    ccgwebmaster

    20 October 2013 at 00:36

    • Thanks CCG. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of the ideologically-blinded to be willfully-ignorant. However, sadly, such is the position of anyone capable of ignoring the geological record and, instead, asserting that:
      1. A 60% recovery of Arctic sea ice is one year is more important than an 80% loss over the previous 30 years; and /or
      2. A 15-year pause in surface warming is more important than a 150-year trend that cannot be explained by natural causes.

      Martin Lack

      20 October 2013 at 13:35

  2. The blogger at Wottsupwiththat posted this same video – http://wottsupwiththatblog.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/too-alarmist/ – and it generated a fair bit of discussion in the comments about whether or not it was too alarmist. Evidently some people think the risk of methane release from the permafrost is not something we should be worried about. I am of the view that if there’s a chance of this happening, however small, then we should be worried.

    Rachel

    20 October 2013 at 10:42

    • Thanks for that link, Rachel. What does too alarmist” actually mean? Is there evidence that we are nearing a tipping point beyond which change will accelerate faster than we can possibly adapt to it? Yes there is. Is there evidence for previous mass extinctions caused by such change? Yes there is. We are not talking about prophecies based on faulty interpretations of Biblical texts here. We are talking about evidence of palaeoclimatic analogues for the change we are now observing. Therefore, as a geologist, I think people should be alarmed but, importantly, I do not think we should be fatalistic. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of evidence that methane release from Arctic permafrost seabed is already happening. Even more unfortunately, as the video suggests, we will only be sure we have passed the tipping point when it is too late. Based on my understanding of Permian palaeoclimatology (something I fist studied in southwest Devon in 1985), I believe we are running very short of time to prevent a runaway greenhouse effect (i.e. less than 10 years) but, crucially, I also believe that it is not yet too late to stop it.

      Martin Lack

      20 October 2013 at 13:21

      • I largely agree with you, Martin. The latest IPCC assessment puts catastrophic release of methane from clathrates as unlikely to happen this century. It is for this reason that people felt the video was too alarmist, even though it did not make any false claims.

        The definition of alarmist is “someone who exaggerates a danger” and I don’t think there’s any exaggeration in this case. The danger is real regardless of whether it happens in 50 years or 150 years. I also don’t really understand why something that happens this century is cause for alarm, but if it happens next century, then we’ve got nothing to worry about. It seems a bit arbitrary to me to draw the line at 2100.

        Rachel

        20 October 2013 at 15:25

        • Given that we can already see methane being released from permafrost and seabed, I don’t understand how the IPCC could have reached that conclusion. It would appear to hinge on their definition of ‘catastrophic’ (i.e. whether the catastrophe is the point at which release gets out of control or the point at which its effects begin to be felt). I agree with you about dates being arbitrary. The danger lies in the predictable nature of the Laws of Physics.

          Martin Lack

          20 October 2013 at 19:28

        • Rachel, you are correct. IPCC AR5 is not confident about quite a lot of things. Regarding methane hydrates, it states (Table 12.4):

          Change in climate system component: Clathrate methane release
          Potentially abrupt?: Yes
          Irreversibility: Irreversible for millenia
          Projected likelihood of 21st century change: Very unlikely that methane from clathrates will undergo catastrophic release (high confidence)

          That’s pretty clear. But I would say, don’t believe everything written in the IPCC reports.

          oakwood

          23 October 2013 at 08:35

        • “But I would say, don’t believe everything written in the IPCC reports.” – Oakwood

          As I have said to you by email, Oakwood, you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. Given the line-by-line and word-by-word power of veto given to government representatives, it is a well established fact that IPCC reports have consistently been far too conservative (as opposed to supposedly ‘alarmist’). Indeed, that is what AR5 appears to be as well. This does not justify a ‘wait and see’ approach to climate science (quite the opposite in fact). The only way such a laissez-faire attitude can be justified is by questioning the reality, reliability or reasonableness of the scientific consensus that:
          1. Burning fossil fuels is the main cause of a 40% increase in atmospheric CO2.
          2. At 400 ppm, CO2 is now 40% higher than it has been for 3 million years.
          3. Correlation = causation because rapid change cannot be explained otherwise.
          4. Surface warming may have paused but many other things have not.

          Although I remain disappointed that you have not commented on the content of the above post (and/or video), I am grateful that you have at least stopped trying to make me the subject of it instead. Therefore, if you will actually stay on-topic and/or explain your position (rather than attack me), I may be able to stop moderating and/or trashing your comments.

          Martin Lack

          23 October 2013 at 12:03

        • Rachel, would you consider James Hansen then to be an “alarmist” for warning that if we continue BAU that all the water would boil from the Earth? [i.e. see final chapter of 'Storms of my Grandchildren'. - ML] In April of this year, he “clarified” that view stating that it would take millions of years to do that on Earth. Is the four century warning an “exaggeration of a danger?”
          [N.B. JK (John Kosowski) has a history of ignoring my rebuttals of his spurious arguments on this blog. Despite now using a new email address to get around being previously blacklisted, I am permitting this comment because... (well I don't know really but I am). - ML]

          JK

          25 October 2013 at 20:01

        • No, I do not think James Hansen is an alarmist. I went to his webpage [PDF] just now to see what he says about the possibility of a runaway situation here on Earth. He says: “..Earth is not now near a runaway situation…

          Rachel

          26 October 2013 at 12:21

        • Well Rachel, that is the point. He went around exaggerating the danger of AGW, and now, since April 2013, he has seemingly retracted that alarmism. [Hansen has admitted he may over-estimated the time required for the Earth to lose all its water but he has not retracted his comments regarding positive feedbacks and species extinction (etc). - ML].

          Would you say that he was an alarmist when he said that, if we continue with BAU, the water from the planet would boil within four centuries? [This is self-evidently true but does not mean that Anthropogenic Climate Disruption is any less of a serious problem. I have therefore deleted the rest of this comment as it is unnecessarily repetitive. - ML]

          JK

          26 October 2013 at 13:44

  3. Good post, Martin.

    Paul Handover

    20 October 2013 at 13:48

    • Thanks Paul. If he could suspend his disbelief long enough, I would be very interested to know how Dan Gomez reacted to actually reading both my previous post and this one. However, even if you cannot persuade him to do this, I think you can gain from these a very good idea of what I will say to supposed “sceptics” in the future.

      Martin Lack

      20 October 2013 at 13:58

  4. Good luck with that.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,grossbild-1046027-523178,00.html

    At a guess, at least an order more fossil fuel than all the rest put together.

    The Japanese have successfully completed their pilot project, South Korea has just started one.

    catweazle666

    20 October 2013 at 18:15

    • One good thing to be said for mining methane hydrates is that burning them would be better than just letting them dissolve into the ocean.

      Having said that, such mining has the same problem as fracking: The almost unavoidable 4% leaks from transmission systems, boilers and stoves almost doubles the GHG warming potential of the 96% gas we will actually burn. This means that using gas is not that much better than using coal. We would be far better off investing in biogas (i.e. Waste from Energy) systems, which recycle biospheric CO2 rather than add geospheric CO2 form fossil sources.

      If we had not given up on nuclear (i.e. Fast Breeder Reactors) 20 years ago, we would not now be in this mess (i.e. unable to replace fossil fuels sources as fast as is now necessary).

      Martin Lack

      20 October 2013 at 20:42

      • On nuclear, I could not agree more. Our leaders have failed us big time considering the UK was a pioneer of nuclear. I well remember the cutaway of Calder Hall in the Eagle in the 1950s (incidentally Lindzen reminds me of Dan Dare’s would be nemesis The Mekon).

        For a primer on nuclear I recommend this one:

        Nuclear Renaissance: Technologies and Policies for the Future of Nuclear Power: Technologies and Policies from the Future of Nuclear Power

        by William J. Nuttall

        Lionel A

        22 October 2013 at 18:20

        • Thanks Lionel. I have referred to Nuttall’s book in the past. However, your constructive feedback is very welcome. Sadly, it seems, people like Catweazle and Oakwood are too focused on attacking me to even notice the olive branches I am offering them (i.e. attempting to find areas of common ground on which we might well agree).

          Martin Lack

          22 October 2013 at 19:49

  5. Communication is everything- it is the only tool to achieve change. Things are bad enough and we are experiencing the finite bit of fossil fuels now.

    Science comes with caveats- as you say Martin, it has not the certainty of religion- and those caveats need to be communicated. People need to realise we are in the world’s biggest experiment and no one knows the outcome.

    julesbollocks

    21 October 2013 at 08:59

    • Thanks Jules. In the video, Michael Mann echoes the words of 1950s scientists who advised US President Lyndon B Johnson that humanity was conducting a vast uncontrolled geophysical experiment on the atmosphere. Sadly, I think today’s scientists understand all too well what the outcome will be.

      Martin Lack

      21 October 2013 at 11:09

  6. Hi Martin. I’m intrigued (sorry, not about this post). I check out your site from time to, as I find it entertaining, and it helps me keep the concept of rational debate in perspective.

    I can’t remember how I got there, but I recently came across a Facebook post by Bjorn Lomborg, that well known academic and writer on environmental issues, on some potential benefits of climate change over the coming decades. https://www.facebook.com/bjornlomborg/posts/10152002147093968
    I noticed a little down the comments section a challenge from a ‘Martin Lack’ (the photo tells me its you) to debate on the issue “anywhere in the world”.

    Now, given your passionate and often vitriolic approach against those who question any aspect of ‘catastrophic climate change’, I would have presumed you to have already made the simple decision not to fly on aeroplanes. This offer to debate “anywhere in the world” indicates you have not. Passion is easy to accept, but hypocrisy not. Thus, I am intrigued to hear your justification for flying. If you think planes should use only biofuels, that also needs justifying.

    I can understand some justifications from even the most ardent ‘climate change concerned’. For example, to visit sick relatives across the world; if you have an essential job such as world leader, or working for a valuable do-good NGO. But for such things as an intellectual debate (which could be done via the internet), and of course holidays (a click on your FB shows you recently visited Everest Basecamp). [It was 5 years ago, actually, as I think you know. - ML]

    I look forward to it. If you can explain how these activities are achieved without flying, all the better.

    oakwood

    21 October 2013 at 12:58

    • I often get comments like this directed at me: what are you doing personally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? I’ll copy and paste a response given by someone I don’t know in my defence which explains quite nicely the problem with this argument.

      This problem is a tragedy of the commons. Suggesting that people arguing to limit the abuse of the commons should have to show THEIR commitment by abandoning it to more “greedy guts” abusers is simply asinine. The commons can ONLY be saved by the collective action of the society, to regulate its use of the commons. It can NEVER be saved by individual action. Your solution to lifeboat ethics is to toss the folks who point out the water shortage out of the lifeboat? Really smart.

      (source: http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff-nation/8797754/Climate-change-math-doesn-t-add-up)

      The other obvious thing is why does anyone need to fly anywhere in order to have a debate with someone living in another country? We have the internet for this. Parties to the debate can sit in their own living rooms and argue as much as they like.

      Rachel

      21 October 2013 at 13:20

      • Thanks Rachel. I had never quite made the link between this ‘blame-shifting’ argument and Garrett Hardin’s (1968) ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ paper.

        Oakwood is a fellow hydrogeologist (or so he claims to be – very hard to verify given his anonymity). I think this is why he feels the need to attack me so persistently – see my response to him this time (i.e. below). Sadly, by repeating himself despite having his arguments repeatedly debunked, he just makes the stupidity of his position all the more obvious.

        Martin Lack

        21 October 2013 at 15:25

    • Ah yes, the ‘Aren’t you being a hypocrite by flying’ gambit (as used by all those that cannot falsify the scientific reasons for being concerned). Also known as, ‘If you cannot attack the message, shoot the messenger!’ (or make him look like a hypocrite at very least). Very predictable and entirely unoriginal, Oakwood (or – following your being politely asked by the Geological Society not to use your professional qualifications whilst hiding behind an an anonymous alias – should I call you ‘Richard Parker’?).

      I can but refer you to the response I gave you the last time you tried to ‘play this card’, namely ‘Postcard from a Herculean guilt trip’ (on 18 April 2012). As I said back then, “You (Oakwood) are like a non-Muslim insisting that I be stoned for adultery in accordance with Sharia Law.”

      Please get back to me when you have a legitimate scientific basis for believing that you know best and/or that all genuine experts are either muppets, mistaken, or mendacious.

      Alternatively, of course, you could chose not to self-identify as a ‘Troll’ – by actually posting a relevant comment? For someone who claims to have at least some of the same qualifications as I do, will there ever a post better than this on which you could give us the benefit of your relevant knowledge?

      Martin Lack

      21 October 2013 at 15:20

      • Thank you Martin. I’d forgotten about the previous exchange. I can appreciate you find this a difficult question to address. But eventually, you make your position clear. I need not further clarify what other readers can see.

        oakwood

        21 October 2013 at 16:26

        • What I hope others can see is this: You swanning in here, shamelessly off-topic, chucking sarcastic remarks around like confetti and then, when challenged to justify your ‘scepticism’, hiding behind a barrel-load of feigned indignation and hurt pride. That is what I am confident most people would call ‘hypocrisy’.

          As for me, I have nothing to address. However, Rachel’s response was better than mine: Futile gestures by individuals will get us nowhere. And using biofuels to power aircraft may well have to be the solution we pursue (because it is hard to see that people will ever stop flying). However, if so, the biofuels must be made from something other than edible food (e.g. Higher Mixed Alcohol Fuels that could, for example, convert waste methane and atmospheric carbon dioxide into heptane).

          Martin Lack

          21 October 2013 at 17:23

  7. I said I still look here for entertainment… [This was sarcasm. QED. - ML]

    I admit to posting ‘off-topic’, but only because I didn’t see anywhere else to post my question… [which you had asked before and which had been rebutted. - ML]

    [Further attempts at self-justification without reference to scientific facts have been deleted. - ML]

    oakwood

    21 October 2013 at 18:03

  8. […] began my previous post by asking the question: “Must the World Bank now be added to the supposed list of […]


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