Global climate policy.
It’s a simple truth that comprehensive national and international action on climate change, which appears to be just now groggily lurching forward, should have begun at least 20-30 years ago. Since that time, humans have dumped about 250 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. And through the end of 2013, a staggering pace of emission in excess of 10 billion tons each year continued to grow (36 billion tons of CO2 and nearly 50 billion tons of CO2e with other greenhouse gasses added in).
It is a pace of initial greenhouse gas forcing that is without precedent in even the most violent times of Earth’s deep past. A pace of release of the heat-trapping demons at least 6 times more rapid than at any time in Earth’s more than 4.5 billion year span. Over that broad period, life on Earth has suffered numerous devastating extinction events. Of the five worst episodes of mass loss of species, at least two were caused by Earth changes due to catastrophic increases in greenhouse gasses, devastating warming, and a world ocean that, when heated, becomes an acidic, low-oxygen killing machine producing deadly hydrogen sulfide gas. And the worst of the worst extinctions, the Permian, has the fingerprints of a greenhouse gas spurred hot-house event all over it.
Through our multi-decadal inaction, these are the dark fates we tempt. And our folly, thus far, has been without parallel.
Across the world, the global population of fossil fuel-burning automotive machines grew to exceed 1 billion even as emerging countries such as China and India produced hundreds upon hundreds of new, coal-burning power plants. These countries looked to the developed nations for leadership, aid and partnership in confronting the combined crisis of dangerous fossil fuel dependency and impending climate emergency. They were instead met with mixed signals, international gamesmanship, and an endless panoply of national climate and energy policies en-webbed by fossil fuel influence. Now, the fossil fuel addiction has spread. Chinese annual greenhouse gas emissions exceed that of the United States and India may soon follow.
So for at least the past three decades, progress toward solving the critical, growing, damaging and ever-more-likely to be deadly problem of human greenhouse gas emissions stalled.
Hottest May on Record
Today, in the wake of glimmers of a comprehensive, if far too slow, climate policy response from US and Chinese administrations, we are reminded of the terrible consequences of multi-decadal foot-dragging. For, according to NASA, May of 2014 is now the hottest in the climate record at .76 C above the 1951 to 1980 average and about .96 C above average temperatures during the 1880s when global record-keeping began.
For comparison, the temperature increase that catapulted the last ice age into the warm inter-glacial period that is the Holocene was about 3.7 degrees C. The difference between 1880 and now is about 1/4 the difference between an inter-glacial and an ice age, but on the side of hot.
More ominously, however, is the fact that the three months of March, April, and May were the second hottest ever recorded beating out the same 1998 El Nino period by nearly .1 C and only falling slightly behind a similar period during the El Nino year of 2010 by a slim 0.04 C. Though sea surface temperatures in the Pacific touched the low El Nino range during the last week of May, most of this three month period was characterized by ENSO neutral conditions and moderate, but spiking into May, ocean-to-atmosphere heat transfer. (To this point, it’s worth noting that Japan’s Meteorological Agency found the same March to May period to be the hottest ever recorded).
(Global temperature anomaly map for May of 2014 provided by NASA shows numerous regions displaying hotter than average temperatures with few areas showing below normal departures. Image source: NASA GISS.)
It is worth noting that overall ocean surface readings during May were extraordinarily high, with daily values peaking in the range of +1.25 C above the 1979 to 2000 average. The broad heating of the ocean surface, including but not limited to the Equatorial Pacific, likely greatly influenced this new global record.
Wide-spread heat, few cool spots
Regions of hot extremes in the range of +2 to +4 C positive anomaly sprawled across Alaska, Canada, and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and a vast expanse from Archangel on the Arctic Ocean to the Caspian and south into Iran and Afghanistan. The Yakutia region of Russia continued a multi-month period of record warmth with anomalies spiking to +2 to +4.2 C. An Australia baking under its second consecutive hottest year on record also saw +2 to +4 C above average readings. And Antarctica found itself experiencing extreme late austral fall polar amplification as positive anomaly values hit +5.2 C above normal over a section of the near Antarctic Southern Ocean and 2-4 C + throughout the interior.
Cooler than normal zones were confined to much smaller areas along the coast of Antarctica, off the South American capes, off the eastern coast of Japan, and in a stormy area of the North Atlantic east of Newfoundland and south of the tip of Greenland. Meanwhile, temperatures in the very warm range of +0.2 to +2 C above the 1950 to 1981 average were nearly ubiquitous, combining in a cloud of record warmth surrounding sparse and shrinking islands of cooler air.
(Temperature anomalies by Latitude. Image source: NASA GISS.)
Temperature anomalies by Latitudinal zone showed very strong polar heat amplification with the deep Antarctic below the 80 degree south Latitude line hitting a +2.7 C positive anomaly. Southern Ocean surface temperatures were the only noted cool zone at -0.1 C negative anomaly. As has been typical of recent early summer and late spring periods, the Arctic and near Arctic in the range of 60 to 70 North Latitude also showed strong positive anomalies with May’s readings between +1.7 to +1.8 C. Meanwhile, the high Arctic remained in the very warm range of +1.4 C above the 1951 to 1980 average.
No El Nino Yet Shows Global Warming Proceeding a Rapid Rate
Despite a very strong March Kelvin Wave which pushed upper ocean sub-sea temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific for the month to record values and despite Nino 3.4 readings hitting a +0.5 C positive anomaly value in late May, ENSO conditions throughout May remained at neutral status. So though ocean-to-atmosphere heat transfer ramped into positive during the past month, the amount of added heat forcing was less than what we would see during a full El Nino.
As a result, May touching record high temperature readings with ENSO at still-neutral status is a clear sign of a raging pace of Earth Systems warming. A clarion signal that the human forcing continues to very rapidly bend the world’s atmosphere, ocean, and ice to new heat extremes.
Current Climate Policy a Small First Step Inadequate to a Major Crisis
In this context, it also important to note that US commitments to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 (15% below current levels) is an important but minor step forward. Globally, this commitment may shave about 1% off of predicted 2030 emissions, which are still projected to show dramatic increases from today. China’s own pledge to cap carbon emissions may also help to slow the bleeding somewhat. But it is important to take into account that China’s current carbon emissions are on the order of 3 billion tons each year (11 billion tons CO2e) or just shy of 30% of the global total. This is a massive emission that, by itself, is two times that seen during the worst events in the deep geological past and even if the Chinese achieve the pledged goal of peaking coal use and carbon emissions by around 2025 to 2030, China still remains on track for 10-14 billion tons of CO2e emissions (about 3-4 billion tons of carbon) per year through at least 2040.
Such action is slow and minor compared to the greatness of the ghg emissions threat. And failing to follow up on the new policy initiatives with far more aggressive moves practically ensures that the world shatters the so-called 2 C warming limit and at least challenges the 3 C level during this century.
Under current emissions, we hit enough CO2 equivalent forcing (without aerosols) to achieve a 2 C warming before the end of this century within about 3-5 years. To this point, the current CO2 equivalent forcing minus aerosols is a staggering 481 ppm. On the present emissions path, we reach 550 ppm CO2e and enough to warm the Earth by 3 C before the end of this century by 2037, or within less than 23 years.
Given these bleak prospects, global climate policy should be looking toward ways to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. And though positive first steps, currently pledged carbon caps and minor reductions by major emitters should be seen as a start to comprehensive action and not as an end goal.
(Under current ghg emissions trends, assuming a moderate Earth Systems feedback response, global temperatures are projected to rise by between 3 and 4.6 C by the end of this century and by 6 and 9.2 C long-term. If all nations held to ghg emissions pledges, warming could be limited to 2.5 to 3.9 C by the end of this century and 5 to 7.8 C long-term. Either trend is enough to melt all the ice on Earth and risk an anoxic ocean and related greenhouse gas extinction event. Image source: Climate Action Tracker.)