Lack of Environment

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

Posts Tagged ‘Guy McPherson

What on Earth are we doing?

with 37 comments

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:

  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
  2. Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
  3. United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
  4. Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
  5. Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C by 2100
  6. International Energy Agency (November 2010): 3.5 C by 2050
  7. 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.

Dismissive responses:

Concerned responses: (includes a good list of references);; and (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!”

Carbon emission (in billions of tons of carbon a year) from thawing permafrost
[from Schaefer et al, 2011]

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 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!”.

Climate sensitivity is now irrelevant

with 19 comments

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!

Written by Martin Lack

6 February 2013 at 13:00


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