Archive for the ‘Anthropocene’ Category
So said Lord (Julian) Hunt, Vice President of GLOBE and a former Director General of the UK’s Meteorological Office, in an article published in The Times newspaper on 2 April 2013 (behind paywall). Fortunately (for me and all those without a Times subscription), the text of what appears to be the same article has been released to the media by the British Embassy in Beijing. This is presumably because Lord Hunt refers to China.
However, without further comment from me, here is the article in full:
It was the chilliest Easter Day on record, and last month is the coldest March for at least 50 years. But we are not alone in shivering. Across much of Europe, temperatures have been unseasonably cold. In Germany, this has been called a once in a “100-year winter”.
We should not be surprised. It has long been expected that climate change would bring more weird or extreme weather — not just cold but rain, droughts and heat waves — to the UK. So longer spells of colder winter weather are consistent with this. As were drought conditions around this time last year, followed by many months of heavy rain which resulted in the UK experiencing in 2012, the second wettest year on record.
Extreme weather has become more frequent across the world. Australia started 2013 with a record breaking heat wave. Similarly, a heatwave in the US in 2012 (the warmest year on record for mainland America) contributed towards widespread drought which proved devastating for many crops. Russia also experienced its second warmest summer last year. This follows the country’s hottest summer on record in 2010 with states of emergency in seven Russian regions as a result of brush fires, while 28 other regions were put under states of emergency due to crop failures caused by drought.
And then there is the steady increase in peak rainfall rates. These have doubled in South East Asia,for instance over 30 years. It is such a problem that the Malaysians have built a huge SMART tunnel (or Stormwater Management And Road Tunnel) in Kuala Lumpur which doubles up as both a motorway and a six-mile long pipe to cope with flash floods. A similar less pronounced trend is occurring in the UK, which help explains the rise in localised, incredibly heavy showers which have brought flooding from Cumbria to Cornwall. This is caused by a change in the atmosphere called “vertical mixing” in which cumulus clouds become stronger and bigger.
In the UK, the trend is likely to be towards colder winters as a large part of Arctic ice melts permanently (as now happens every summer). The winds over the ice-free ocean could then push colder currents up to Iceland and the Arctic ocean. And as a result of colder waters from the North, the northern UK, in particular, may no longer enjoy the same level of warming from the Gulf Stream as it did when the sea ice boundary was further south.
It is these colder oceans which help to rebut one of the more common arguments used by sceptics to argue that “global warming has stopped”. They often point to graphs which purport to show that Earth’s temperature has not risen in 16 years. But that graph combines land and ocean temperature. Separate the two, and you see that on land temperature is still rising — 0.3℃ over the past decade. More dramatically, in China it has risen by 2℃ over the past 50 years, and 3℃ in the Antarctic over 30 years.
The drop in sea temperature is not just taking place in the Arctic, where the ice is melting, but equally strongly in the eastern Pacific, where winds off the South American coast bring deep, colder waters to the surface. Normally this La Niña phenomenon lasts for three to five years. However, it has been active for more than a decade, caused by easterly trade winds along the equator that have been strengthened by general warming of the atmosphere. When La Niña finally falls away, some time in the next few years, the surface cooling will end. This will increase temperatures over large areas of the globe, disrupting agriculture and fisheries in many countries, and pushing up food prices.
Fortunately, even some sceptics are won round when they experience the problems themselves. The scepticism of some Russian officials has disappeared as they have seen the permafrost melt in the north of the country, and watched the effects of prolonged heatwaves and droughts.
Responsible nations are preparing for the effects of climate change. However, all governments need constant encouragement, in the face of financial austerity and the claims of sceptics, to expand programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It is critical they do so, otherwise future generations will have more to worry about than a freezing cold Easter Sunday.
For all those people who have not been duped into believing in the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas, Lord Hunt is someone whose opinions should carry weight. Experts are real and so is anthropogenic climate disruption. So, then, I really do hope that climate change denial will founder on the rocks of reality (and the sooner the better it will be for everybody).
What we know is this: As a whole (including the oceans), on average, over the long term, the Earth is getting warmer; and that it is doing so at a rate equivalent to – or in excess of – that at which it emerged from the last Ice Age. Therefore, since we were already in the middle of a warm inter-glacial period, the question remains, which one of these are we now witnessing:
ACD = Anthropogenic climate disruption; or
AGW = Anthropogenic Global Warming?
One is consistent with the reality that Earth’s climate is complicated (whereas the other is not). One is consistent with the fact that it can be unusually cold in one place whilst unusually hot somewhere else (whereas the other is not). One is consistent with the bulk of atmospheric physics; thermodynamics; and the Laws of conservation of Energy, Mass and Water (whereas the other is not).
Have you worked out which is which yet? If not, any or all of the following may help:
However, as highlighted by Joe Romm on the Think Progress website on 17 March 2013, it is not one that will always be true. With the author’s kind permission, this article, entitled ‘The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible’, is reproduced in full below.
If you have not already read it, I would very much recommend that you do so. However, by way of a summary, here are the key points as I see them:
1. The burning of fossil fuels is causing change that will not be reversible in any timescale meaningful to humans: Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say this will be at least 1000 years, the Geological Society of London (GSL) has warned it could take at least 100 times longer than that to undo the damage we are now doing. That being the case, the longer we fail to address this issue the greater the likelihood that the GSL estimate will be correct.
2. Warming will only ever stop if total CO2 emissions are less than the rate of CO2 removal; and one is already twice the other. Any change (current and future) could only be reversed if the CO2 content of the atmosphere were to be reduced (i.e. if removal exceeds emissions). Artificial carbon capture and storage (CCS) is almost certainly impossible to achieve safely, at scale, and within the timescale required (to prevent unstoppable change). That being the case, change is effectively irreversible; and we must stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
3. Wait and see is no longer a survivable option; we need to decarbonise our power generation systems as fast as possible. Burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels without CCS is very likely to cause unstoppable climate change (i.e. what is called a “runaway greenhouse effect” resulting from feedback mechanisms now observed to be mutually-reinforcing the change human activity has already caused).
Here, then, is Joe’s article in full:
The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible
The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:
A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”
This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”
The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.
We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.
This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.
First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).
Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going very slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!
Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.
The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”
It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:
Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.
McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:
“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”
D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?
Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.
For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:
Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions.Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.
GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.
Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.
Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:
But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.
Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.
But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.
With my thanks once again to Joe Romm, for permission to republish the above, all that remains for me now is to wish you all a pleasant [Passover/Easter/Spring Equinox] festival of renewal!
The UK Home Office is currently running a hard hitting campaign to highlight the common truth that both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse cannot recognise (or admit) the nature of their situation. The campaign is entitled, ‘If you could see yourself would you see abuse?’ Here is an example:
Is this where humanity is at today? Are we in denial about what we have done – and are doing – to the planet? I think many of us are. Therefore:
— On Monday, I re-published an article written by the Executive Director of CIWEM, Nick Reeves, highlighting the modern delusion that perpetual growth can be sustainable.
— On Wednesday, I published a summary of a conversation with a technological optimist who seems to want to insist that human ingenuity means that resources are effectively infinite.
— Today, I want to bring things full-circle to consider the ultimate problem, the numbers of human beings on the planet.
How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?
This was the title of a BBC Horizon programme first broadcast just over a year ago, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. If you have never seen it – and even if you have – it is well worth watching. However, at nearly an hour long, many may not watch it, so I will summarise it below.
In his own lifetime, octogenarian, Sir David has witnessed the human population of the planet triple. It is now seven times what it was before the Industrial Revolution; and the UN predict that, unless ecological limits intervene to prevent it, there could be anything between 9 and 15 billion by the end of this Century. A great deal depends on the education and emancipation of women: Given the health and freedom to choose, well-educated women choose not to have big families. Therefore, authoritarian government policies including enforced sterilisation and fines for having more than one child are not required.
However, all that is required to ensure that there will be over 9 billion humans by 2050 is for all the teenagers alive today to survive to be grandparents. This is the problem; and the programme examines three reasons why it is a problem, namely: Water, Food, and Energy.
The programme points out that there is no more water on the Earth today than there was 4600 million years ago: Most of it is salty and will kill you if you drink it; and most of the 1% that is fresh water is locked-up in glaciers and ice caps. Already, today, 1 billion people do not have access to clean water. Is it really sensible to suggest that water scarcity is not going to be a problem in the future when it is already one now?
Growing food needs lots of water; a very significant proportion of available freshwater is already used for agriculture. In the last 50 years land-locked surface water drainage systems like those that feed the Aral Sea (in the former USSR) and Lake Chad (in Africa) have been so over-exploited for agricultural purposes that, today, both bodies of water have almost disappeared (i.e. they are about 10% of their former size).
The mechanisation of farming and the widespread use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers (derived from hydrocarbons and phosphate) enabled massive increases in agricultural productivity and efficiency. In the last half century alone, such technology has resulted in a fivefold increase in crop yields. Surely, it is delusional to think this can continue indefinitely? To borrow a phrase from the sphere of stock market traders, “past performance does not guarantee future returns on your investment”. Talking of investment, many governments (like China) are already buying up land in other countries to feed their own people: This has already produced the insane situation in which countries like Ethiopia (that cannot feed their own people) are being used by foreign governments to grow food that is then exported to be consumed by others. Where is the justice in that?
More humans will use more energy and, unless each one of us starts using much less of it, there will soon not be enough to go around. This is already a genuine concern to many governments around the World (although many do not admit it publicly).
Here in the UK, we face record high energy prices and increasing energy insecurity as a result of the failure of successive governments to plan ahead; and encourage as many people as possible to become energy-independent (by generating their own electricity from renewable sources). Had they done this, we would not now need to consider implementing massive new power distribution networks that will disfigure our countryside far more than do any number of windfarms. Therefore, with the possible exception of the long term implications of an ageing population, the failure to facilitate the decentralisation and decarbonisation of our power generation systems is probably the greatest political failure in modern Britain.
On a global scale, therefore, it is little wonder that Clive Hamilton has described the anthropogenic climate disruption that we now see unfolding around us as “a failure of modern politics”.
Towards the end of the programme, Sir David Attenborough cites the work of Professor William E. Rees at the University of British Columbia. It is Rees that first came up with the concept of ecological carrying capacity. Attenborough summarises Rees’ work by saying that the Earth might be able to support 15 billion people if everyone was living like people in many poor countries today but only 1.5 billion if everyone was living like people do in the USA. There are many who think even this is insanely optimistic: This is because the greater the amount by which we humans exceed the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity, the greater the amount by which that capacity is ultimately reduced. That being the case, the fact that the Earth supported 1 billion humans for tens of thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution may well now be irrelevant. http://www.greatchange.org/ophuls,ecological_scarcity.html
So, then, is it about time that we humans admitted that we have been guilty of domestic abuse on a planetary scale? I for one think that it is.
Does that make me anti-human, anti-progress, anti-Western, or anti-Capitalist? No, it does not: As I said on Wednesday, it just makes me an environmental realist. It just makes me someone who recognises that, unless we stop abusing our environment, we will eventually make life impossible for many millions if not billions of our fellow humans; and consign a significant proportion of all known life-forms to the pages of our natural history textbooks. As one of my regular readers, Pendantry, would undoubtedly point out, I think we really are living in The Age of Stupid.
I appear to have a habit of posting items starting with the words “What on Earth..”. Here, then, is another one to add to that list…
A few weeks ago, one of the regular contributors to discussion on this blog (Pendantry), brought the work of Professor Guy McPherson (University of Arizona) to my attention. I must admit that I was a bit lazy and just watched the video embedded on Pendantry’s blog. However, in my defence, that was partly because I was shocked by what I saw and heard. Even though I have since embedded the same video on this blog, I had still done little more than scratch the surface to examine the huge amount of research to which McPherson refers. Here and now, I intend to put that right.
Having worked out how to get Professor McPherson’s attention (by inserting a link in my post to a specific post on his blog), he has since graciously joined the discussion. In welcoming him to my blog, I said this:
…Thanks also for providing a link to the new article on your brilliantly-named Nature Bats Last blog… I had thereby also found the Think Progress article by Joe Romm, highlighting the fact that, even today, the IPCC is still not incorporating the effects of positive feedback mechanisms into its projections. This would be truly incredible, were it not for the fact that I understand the pressure the IPCC is put under to avoid being “alarmist”… What amazes me, therefore, is that there are not more scientists like you who are speaking out about the way in which humanity is sleepwalking to catastrophe. However, I know, you say this is because they want to keep their jobs. What about [preserving] the lives of their children? By 2030, I will have reached retirement age, but my children will only be in their early 30s; they may even still be childless…
So, then, I am reluctantly coming round to Professor Guy McPherson’s view that both mainstream climate scientists and climate change sceptics are equally guilty of believing what they want to believe and seeing only what they want to see. This is because, when you investigate the ten positive feedback loops that McPherson has recently highlighted (see below) you realise that, in doing so, he is referring to the results of peer-reviewed research; all of which is already in the public domain.
The problem is that the vast majority of mainstream scientists are refusing to join the dots and admit that these 10 feedback loops are going to interfere with – and mutually reinforce – each other. It also does not help that the IPCC is still not incorporating these feedback loops into its projections (link below).
I started by reading what is currently the most popular post on McPherson’s blog, Climate-change summary and update, which starts by listing a nasty-looking trend in large-scale projections of global average temperature rise:
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
- Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
- United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
- Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
- Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C by 2100
- International Energy Agency (November 2010): 3.5 C by 2050
- United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050
Having done this, McPherson then goes on to list the 10 Positive Feedback Mechanisms that he has identified from recent research. Below, I have reproduced his list and, where they were missing, inserted links to more information in each case.
10 positive feedback mechanisms:
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010)
Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011)
Siberian methane vents have increased… to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the USA in 2010 (Science, February 2011)
Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Comms., November 2011)
Methane is being released from the Antarctic (Nature, August 2012)
Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012)
Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (J. of App. Physics, October 2012)
Exposure to sunlight increases [is] accelerating thawing of the permafrost (PNAS, February 2013)
Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
Having listed these, McPherson then points out that the only one of these over which humanity has any control (and can therefore choose to stop or reverse) is the decision to drill for oil in the Arctic. The same could be said for all unconventional fossil fuels. However, acknowledging this reality, McPherson then adds… “Because we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else).”
For the sake of brevity, I will not comment on all of these mechanisms but, for those that are interested, here are some of the more notable responses I found (both dismissive and concerned) on the Internet.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_methane_release (includes a good list of references);
http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/01/31/1524981/why-climate-scientists-have-consistently-underestimated-key-global-warming-impacts/ (discussed below).
As intimated above, I want to focus on the fact that the IPCC is still not including any of these positive feedback mechanisms and is therefore continuing to be overly optimistic (i.e. under-reporting the nature, scale and urgency of the problems we have now created by failing to decarbonise our economies already).
Why is the IPCC being unduly optimistic?
Writing in the Scientific American magazine 6 years ago, in an article entitled ‘Conservative Climate’, David Biello gave us all the answer:
By excluding statements that provoked disagreement and adhering strictly to data published in peer-reviewed journals, the IPCC has generated a conservative document that may underestimate the changes that will result from a warming world, much as its 2001 report did.
The IPCC was set up by conservative political leaders in the 1980s (Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachov) but its hands were tied from the start; its complicated internal and external review process (i.e. government-appointed reviewers) ensuring that it never publishes anything that is too scary. By refusing to countenance the possibility that more pessimistic opinions amongst the scientific community might actually be coming from those that are being the most objective, it has completely inverted the well-respected precautionary principle; and promoted instead the wait and see approach of climate sceptics everywhere.
However, the IPCC has not just wasted 6 years, it has wasted 20 years; and things are now getting serious: If you are not convinced, then I would invite you to read what Joe Romm on the Think Progress website has to say about all of this: He starts by informing the reader that the thawing of the permafrost will release “a staggering 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere, much of which would be released as methane… 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 to 100 times as potent over 20 years!”Therefore, with reference to the above graph, the thawing permafrost is already releasing 0.2 Gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere on an annual basis. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that, in the short term, even this has the warming potential of 20 Gigatons of carbon, which is twice the global anthropogenic carbon emissions in 2010. Given that the thawing of the permafrost is something we cannot now stop; and it is not going to be possible to capture and burn all this methane, the fact that the quantities being released are projected to quadruple between now and 2030 is not good news.
It is little wonder, then, that Dave Roberts posted an item on the Grist website almost a year ago, entitled: Climate change is simple: We do something or we’re screwed.
If you have not done so already, please join Bill McKibben’s 350.org and/or join a local group promoting sustainable responses to the approaching socio-economic meltdown: To me, and many others who are not ideologically blinded to the nature of reality, this now seems to be the inevitable consequence of the refusal of our carbon-based civilisation to acknowledge the impossibility of perpetual growth on a finite planet.
I therefore fear that it may be time to “brace for impact!”.
I was looking for something else in the Letters to the Editor section of the Geological Society website, when I came across this very short but massively powerful letter. I knew instantly that I must draw it to the attention of the widest-possible audience. The “letter” is from someone I have known since 1998 – Chris King, Professor of Earth Science Education at Keele University – and it is, in fact, almost entirely composed of a quotation from a peer-reviewed article published over 100 years ago.
‘Our interest in the evolution of the atmosphere and of climate is of more than theoretical interest… Van Hise, on what he regards as a moderate estimate of the coal the human race will burn per annum during the present Century, estimates that in 812 years the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be doubled. According to the view of Arrhenius such a change would greatly ameliorate [see Update appended below] the climate of the world. This view of the heat-holding effects of an increase of CO2 is not undisputed, but so large a change in the constitution of the atmosphere, by the hand of man himself, may well cause him to investigate, with serious persistence, the terrestrial consequences of his own deeds…’ From: ‘Scenery, Soil and the Atmosphere’, by A P Banham: Popular Science Monthly, June 1910, pp.570-580.
I feel that absolutely no comment is necessary.
With the greatest of respect to Chris, however, for the benefit of a non-expert audience, I feel that further comment is necessary:
This letter demonstrates that there was scientific concern over the potential consequences of doubling atmospheric CO2 concentrations over 100 years ago. However, what many may not realise is that, when account is taken of all anthropogenic gasses in our atmosphere, we have doubled the effective CO2 content of our atmosphere in 100 years. Indeed, we have done this so fast that the Earth has yet to catch up: Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, the Earth would continue to warm for decades.
There is also the problem of positive feedback mechanisms and tipping points. That is to say, self-reinforcing change and the possibility that we have now triggered irreversible change. Even if it is reversible, it is unlikely to be so in any timescale relevant to an individual human lifetime: Glaciers that have been stable for decades will probably all be gone within 100 years. How long do you think it took them to form in the first place? The answer is almost certainly at least two orders of magnitude longer (i.e. 10 thousand years).
In the face of risks such as these, does it not also seem unreasonable to you that, here in the UK, our Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Finance Minister), George Osborne, should be trying so hard to ignore the warnings of the Government’s own scientific advisors and, instead, listen to climate change scpetics who say “there is no cause for alarm” and that we can indeed “have our cake and eat it”…?
This story is not over by a long way yet…
UPDATE: 18 Feb 2013 2130hrs – After much semantic discussion about the appearance of the word “ameliorate” in the above quotation, it has been confirmed that this is correct: Being a Scandinavian, Svante Arrhenius considered that it would be a good thing for the climate to warm up a bit. This adds yet another layer of irony to the waywardness of the 1910 prediction about time required to double the CO2 content of our atmospherere.
UPDATE 2300 hrs UTC: I have amended this post to include a Russian TV news report and explanation of events. The commentary states that the DA14 asteroid is the size of an olympic swimming pool (i.e. 50m in length).
On the day that we were waiting expectantly for an asteroid to come within 17 thousand miles of the Earth’s surface (i.e. a distance equivalent to about twice its diameter), the poor DA14 asteroid has been completely upstaged by a meteorite (shower?) in Russia.
The main meteor streakes across the early morning sky burning up in the process:
How the events were reported on Russian TV:
James Hansen has described anthropogenic climate disruption as an approaching asteroid that we have failed to see and failed to prevent impacting the planet.
If I were a superstitious person, I must confess I would be tempted to ask whether this near miss of an asteroid and actual impact of a meteorite are some kind of warning.
A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and – as atmospheric physicists have been warning us for over 50 years now – this will result in more frequent and more extreme weather events of all kinds.
A recent opinion poll in the USA suggested that people who were skeptical of scientists are being convinced by the evidence of their own eyes. About time too, people; welcome to reality!
A big (possibly historic) winter storm just hit the Northeast of the United States — and climate change played a role in making it stronger.
Unusually warm ocean surface temperatures put more energy and more moisture in the storm, making a mess of roads and power grids.
This graph shows how climate change is making big storms more likely.
Still not convinced? How about this from James Hansen (et al) last July [PDF]:
The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is probably the natural
variability of local climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the
notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?…
We illustrate variability of seasonal temperature in units of standard deviation (σ), including
comparison with the normal distribution (“bell curve”) that the lay public may appreciate. The
probability distribution (frequency of occurrence) of local summer-mean temperature anomalies
was close to the normal distribution in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in both hemispheres (Fig. 2).
However, in each subsequent decade the distribution shifted toward more positive anomalies,
with the positive tail (hot outliers) of the distribution shifting the most.
Figure 2. Temperature anomaly distribution: The frequency of occurrence (vertical axis) of local
temperature anomalies (relative to 1951-1980 mean) in units of local standard deviation
(horizontal axis). Area under each curve is unity. Image credit: NASA/GISS…
Yet the distribution of seasonal temperature anomalies (Fig. 2) also reveals that a significant
portion (about 15 percent) of the anomalies are still negative, corresponding to summer-mean
temperatures cooler than the average 1951-1980 climate. Thus people should not be surprised by
the occasional season that is unusually cool. Cool anomalies as extreme as -2σ still occur,
because the anomaly distribution has broadened as well as moved to the right. In other words,
our climate now encompasses greater extremes.
What then should we learn from all this analysis of historical weather data?
We should not be surprised by the storm that has just hit the NE of the USA.
Thanks to Professor Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez (Transition Times blog), I have been alerted to an article by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, in which he takes A Closer Look at Moderating Views of Climate Sensitivity (where climate sensitivity is the amount of temperature change expected per doubling of atmospheric CO2).
This even includes an update wherein Revkin reports an exchange of emails with Gavin Schmidt (NASA), in which the latter suggests that Revkin has implied that “the wishful thinking of people like Ridley and Lindzen for a climate sensitivity of around 1 deg C is tenable”. For the record, I think this criticism was unjustified because, at the beginning of his article, Revkin clearly states that:
There’s still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a “benign” situation, as some have cast it.
However, with the greatest of respect to both Revkin and Schmidt, all this arguing about climate sensitivity (to CO2) may be moot, if, as many scientists are now saying, the warming that has already occurred is now very close to triggering widespread methane release:
— from permafrost (which is already happening); and
— sediments on the deep ocean floor (also already happening).
If these things are already happening, it is almost certainly too late to stop them. It is tantamount to trying to stop an avalanche that has already started. This is because, as a greenhouse gas (GHG), methane is over twenty times more powerful than CO2. Therefore, the warming effect of all this methane could be many times more than all the CO2 humans will ever emit as a result of burning fossil fuels. We could of course try and trap this methane and burn it. This would still not be good (but it would be better than uncontrolled release). However, trapping and burning all this methane would make the technological achievement of landing a man on the Moon look like child’s play by comparison.
In essence then, the widespread release of geospheric methane back into the biosphere, which has already started, renders discussion of climate sensitivity to CO2 irrelevant; and means that significant climatic change is now inevitable and irreversible. Sadly, just as Bill McKibben noted over a year ago (thanks to Learning from Dogs for the reminder), we continue to be deafened by:
— climate change denial from the fossil fuel lobby;
— denial of the problem from our politicians.
Whichever way you slice the cake, it is not good news. With my thanks to another British blogger, Pendantry, for alerting me to it, here is the bad news in full from Guy McPherson (ecological biology Professor Emeritus at University of Arizona)…
I guess I should have called this post, “Confessions of an environmental alarmist” but, I do not see that I have much choice because… Denial is not a river in Egypt.
UPDATE (1500 GMT): Thanks to the fact-checking of Jules (see comment below), it has been pointed out to me that the release of methane from the seabed may not be the massive problem McPherson makes it out to be above, because:
Methane emitted at the seafloor only rarely survives the trip through the water column to reach the atmosphere. At seafloor depths greater than ~100 m, O2 and N2 dissolved in ocean water almost completely replace CH4 in rising bubbles (McGinnis et al. 2006). Within the water column, oxidation by aerobic microbes is an important sink for dissolved CH4 over some depth ranges and at some locations (e.g., Mau et al. 2007).
Ruppel, C. D. (2011) Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):29.
However, this does not change the fact that methane is already being released direct to the atmosphere across vast areas of formerly-frozen permafrost in the north of Canada and Siberia.
UPDATE (1845 GMT): In responding to my comment on the NYT website, Andy Revkin claims most scientists doubt that methane release is the game over scenario some claim it to be; and he refers to a David Archer piece on the Real Climate blog a year ago. My response to that would be: So what, this is not – nor was it ever – a reversible laboratory experiment!