From Ice Apocalypse to Mega-Thunderstorms, Continuing to Burn Fossil Fuels Makes the World Scary as all Hell

So I’ve got to say I feel for Eric Holthaus.

Here’s a smart guy. Probably a few years younger than me. A meteorologist by degree and a climate journalist by trade. A guy with two kids that, as is clear from his twitter comments, mean all the world to him. And he’s finally gotten to that point in his study of climate change where he’s thrown his hands up and said — this stuff scares the crap out of me, can we please all just do something about it?

(The calving front of the Pine Island Glacier as seen by a NASA DC-8 aircraft. Image source: Commons.)

For him, as with any of us, the point of existential realization can come through overexposure to a wide range of worsening climate problems. Declining ocean health, rising extreme weather, how much faster we are warming the world up than during the worst hothouse extinction, can all weigh heavily on the heart and mind of any compassionate, feeling person who takes these subjects seriously enough to actually read the science. For Eric, the big deal, and it is a very, very big deal, was sea level rise.

Ice Apocalypse

Yesterday, Eric penned this seminal article on the issue of ice cliff stability as explored by glacier scientist Robert DeConto entitled Ice Apocalypse.

Ice cliff stability is a pretty technical term. One that may make the eyes of your typical reader gloss over. But when we consider that the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica can be upwards of two miles high, then the question of whether or not the cliffs of those great ice mountains are stable may start to generate a flicker of warning. May conjure up a phantom of the titanic roar set off when such ice giants tumble away into the sea as has happened throughout the deep history of Earth whenever the world warmed up by a certain amount.

When I think of the words ice cliff stability, my mind’s eye pictures a vast wall of numbing white-blue stretching hundreds of feet high. It expands both left and right as far as I can see. And it looms over an endless warming ocean. Waiting for a colossal fall if just that right amount of extra heat is applied.

Ice is fragile. It’s not like stone. It doesn’t flex much. It doesn’t give much. And even minor stresses are enough to make it shatter. We see this with ice cubes in a cup of water at home. Put an ice cube into relatively warmer water, and that little 1×2 inch block will snap and crack. Now just compound that fragility. Set it on the massive scale of a mile-high glacier. Not too hard to image what can happen.

(2012 filming of massive calving event at Jakobshavn Glacier.)

It’s happened already at Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. The ocean warmed. The ice shelf protecting the glacier dissolved. And the front of the gigantic glacier fell like great, enormous, white dominoes. We’ve seen it happening in films like Chasing Ice. And we’ve struggled to grasp the enormous scale of it.

Our burning of fossil fuels did this.

Jakobshavn is, even now, contributing to a more rapid rate of global sea level rise. But the amount of ice held back by Jakobshavn is small when compared to the vast volumes kept in check by the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers of West Antarctica. What Robert DeConto did, and what has apparently scared Eric Holthaus so much, was apply a computer model based on observations of Jakobshavn ice sheet collapse to these larger Antarctic ice masses.

The DeConto study unearthed results that, indeed, looked apocalyptic. From Grist:

A wholesale collapse of Pine Island and Thwaites would set off a catastrophe. Giant icebergs would stream away from Antarctica like a parade of frozen soldiers. All over the world, high tides would creep higher, slowly burying every shoreline on the planet, flooding coastal cities and creating hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

All this could play out in a mere 20 to 50 years — much too quickly for humanity to adapt…

Instead of a three-foot increase in ocean levels by the end of the century, six feet was more likely, according to DeConto and Pollard’s findings. But if carbon emissions continue to track on something resembling a worst-case scenario, the full 11 feet of ice locked in West Antarctica might be freed up, their study showed.

The DeConto study is just one scientific exploration of what could happen in West Antarctica this Century. And, already, reassurances to a worried Eric Holthaus are forthcoming.

But the problem with the DeConto study, as with any other form of serious climate risk, is that there are plausible scenarios in which terrible catastrophic events are possible even if their degree of likelihood is still somewhat debatable. And reasonable precaution would dictate that even if there were just a 10-20 percent chance of DeConto like events coming to pass, we would do everything we could to avoid them. The risk of this scenario emerging, however, is probably a bit higher. As numerous studies have identified the potential for 6, 8, or even 12 feet of sea level rise by as early as 2100.

The Future of Mega-Thunderstorms Looks Grim if We Continue to Burn Fossil Fuels

Eric’s appeals to his Twitter friends related to his article were touching to me in that I feel like I go through similar shocks with each passing week. And what should be a time of national thanksgiving even as more than half of Puerto Rico’s population is still in the dark 63 days after the climate change amplified blow of Hurricane Maria is no exception.

For a model study recently produced by Nature Climate Change and explored by Bob Henson at Weather Underground has found that the rate of rainfall in large thunderstorm clusters could increase by 80 percent this Century if fossil fuel burning proceeds along a business as usual pathway.

To put this in context, an 80 percent increase in the amount of rain that fell in the Ellicott City Flood in Maryland last year would have produced nearly ten inches of rain in an hour and a half.

(The rainfall intensity in large thunderstorm clusters was found to be greatly enhanced under worst case fossil fuel burning scenarios [RCP 8.5] according to a recent Nature Study. Image source: NCAR, Nature, and Weather Underground.)

As with ice cliff instability, we find ourselves faced with another scientific term in the new study — mesoscale convective systems (MCS). And to translate this term we can simply say that MCSs are gigantic clusters of thunderstorms. The study found that rainfall amounts in the largest of thunderstorm complexes were greatly enhanced as warming proceeded along a business as usual track.

From the Study author’s statement to Weather Underground:

“These new simulations of future MCS rainfall are concerning, because they show very large increases in the amount of rain that a given MCS is likely to produce. The MCSs that we would today consider to be ‘extreme’ in terms of precipitation would become more commonplace in the future. There are also some regions that currently don’t see a lot of MCS activity that might start seeing some of these heavily raining MCSs in the future.”

These increases are on top of already elevated rates of rainfall intensity we presently see today in destructive events that our infrastructure and disaster planning is clearly not prepared for (as seen during Harvey). So as we take the time to give thanks for the great bounty that many of us still have, perhaps we should also take the time to think of the things we can do to keep safe what we have worked so hard for and care so much about and to do our best to help those who are less fortunate. Who have already fallen casualty to a time of troubles.


Upside Down America: Trump’s Shameful Opposition to Paris Puts U.S. Behind Syria

We all know someone who thinks this way. Put a stack of scientific evidence in front of them that reaches to the moon, and they will still disbelieve that human-caused climate change is real, harmful, and getting to be so bad that it’s increasingly capable of wrecking our lives. It is the very definition of ‘head-in-sand’ thinking. A pro-fossil fuel PR and politically-driven neurosis that American ideologues and other quacks appear to have perfected — afflicting so many of us through the medium of viral misinformation.

But such views of denial have real and devastating consequences in that they have often sabotaged the necessary societal and governmental response to a growing crisis.

(Yesterday, democrats created a blue wave election in repudiation of bad republican/Trump policies including Trump’s refusal to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. Members of the #Resistance cited Paris as one of the key reasons for demonstrated unity in support of democrats — both progressive and moderate — in opposition to Trump and in favor of helpful climate and energy policies.)

Just ask the 3.4 million people of Puerto Rico who have now gone for 49 days without power after a global warming fueled storm leveled their island. One hundred thousand of them — the lucky ones — have managed to escape this parcel of U.S. territory and avoid living in a world without access to electricity, water, reliable food supplies, decent transport, and medical care. They are now some of the likely 20-30 million refugees that will be produced by worsening climate change related weather, wildfires, sea level rise, and crop disruption this year alone. A number that will rapidly grow in years to come if we don’t adequately address the key disaster enablers — a warming planet and rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Upside Down America

Here, in the land of the American Dream, the dream is being slowly crushed by fossil fuel burning. And, yes, too by people like Trump who are working to prevent government policies that move us away from that harmful energy source and the carbon emissions that keep making the problem worse and worse and worse.

(COP 23 seeks to build on the momentum already developed under the Paris Climate Agreement.)

Yesterday, with Syria’s signature of the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S., under Trump, is now the only nation that is not a party to it. Though not the ultimate ideal response to climate change, the Paris Agreement, if held to, will move the world rapidly away from the high level of harmful fossil fuel burning and related carbon emissions that are presently ongoing. Paris alone is not enough to prevent about 3 degrees Celsius worth of warming this Century. A level of warming that will bring a number of far worse climate outcomes than we see today. But it does get us off the very harmful path toward 5 C or more that comes from business as usual coal, gas and oil burning. The world, and the dedicated ratifiers of Paris — who now include everyone but Trump’s upside down version of America — recognize that the agreement is just the first step in a number of necessary global policy moves to address climate change (hence the convening of COP 23 in Bonn). A response that will need to rapidly escalate if we are to preserve the safety and stability of modern civilization.

Toxic Thinking = Terrible Policy

Trump’s moves seem completely irrational, idiotic, and nonsensical to anyone who understands the reality of climate and the severe harm that ultimately comes from fossil fuel burning. It does, however, make sense in the frame of a kind of small-minded world-view. One that puts the profits and protection of a single industry over the short term ahead of the safety of everyone and everything else over the medium to long term. Trump’s actions are directly aimed at protecting environmentally destructive fossil fuels from more advanced and less harmful energy sources. His action is less U.S. interest focused than it is aimed at protecting a global industry. For a sitting President would recognize the substantial benefit of the hundreds of thousands of jobs the renewable energy industry is creating even as it replaces more feeble job producers like coal.

(It’s an upside down world that features the U.S. as the only global climate policy laggard. Trump’s world. Image source: World Resources Institute.)

The U.S. has long been a renewable energy innovator. A leader in solar, wind, and electrical vehicle technology. And we are certainly capable of helping to lead the world both away from ever-worsening climate nightmares even as we begin to realize the amazing health and economic benefits granted by clean energy. Trump, however, like many of his republican fellows, appears bound and determined to sabotage this new, jobs-rich, industry in favor of the older, dirty and very dangerous fossil fuels. That’s where his own economic and political interests lie. That can be the only explanation for his otherwise irrational actions that now run counter to the far more clear-thinking leadership of the entire world.

New Study: Rapid Transition to Renewable Energy Helps Global Economy, Prevents Worst Climate Impacts

We may not be living in the belly of the beast just yet, but we are most certainly now caught up in its jaws. In this case — the jaws of a politically and economically powerful set of fossil fuel interests that, unless they release their death grip, will condemn the world to a catastrophic future.

Fossil Fuel Interests vs a Benevolent Climate

Global warming in the range of 1.1 to 1.2 C above 1880s temperatures is already starting to have a destabilizing effect on many of the world’s nations. Seas are rising, the ice caps are melting, droughts, floods and wildfires are worsening, impacts to crops are growing more acute and unrest and inequality are on the rise. A related conflict over what energy sources will supply the world’s nations in the future has resulted in a sea change in the global political dynamic — setting climate change deniers representing fossil fuel special interests against honest scientists, renewable energy advocates, environmentalists and concerned businesses and citizens alike.

(Increasing rates of sea level rise, as shown in the most recent World Meteorological Organization report on The State of the Global Climate, are on track to render numerous cities, regions and island nations uninhabitable by the middle of this Century. This is just one of the many impacts of global warming. And continuing to burn fossil fuels makes each of these problems worse.)

This crisis and its related power struggle is the defining moment of our time. For its outcome will determine whether or not global civilization collapses in a series of worsening conflicts and climate calamities or if a new age of equal access and cooperation arises as more democratic and beneficial energy systems emerge and as nations decide to cooperate to come to the aid of those most hurt by the coming difficulties.

New Study Urges Rapid Deployment of Renewable Energy as Best Path Forward

We should be very clear that doom to human civilization by climate catastrophe is not inevitable. We have a shot at getting out of that trap if we escape the death-grip some fossil fuel industry backers now have on the global political and economic system. We can make it through if we take an alternative path. We can cut carbon emissions, make the global economy more resilient, and prevent the worst effects of climate change all at the same time. It will take a lot of concerted investment and effort. But it’s basically the conclusion of a recent joint study published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) that pursuing a rapid deployment of renewable energy systems combined with ongoing efforts to increase energy efficiency can steer the world away from the worst impacts of climate change.

The study determined that rapidly adding renewable energy systems and pursuing increased efficiency would be enough to reduce global carbon emissions by a rate of 2.6 percent per year. It aimed to produce a best shot at limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius this Century. And though such a goal may still be overshot somewhat under the IEA/IRENA study’s recommended path, the overall results would be a dramatic departure from business as usual fossil fuel burning which would produce between 4 and 7 C (or more) warming this Century. This rapid transition to non carbon energy would reduce the severity of global warming consequences — giving space for people, cities and nations to adapt. Without this kind of transition, it is difficult to imagine how human civilization and large subsets of the vulnerable natural world could survive through 2100 or even through mid Century.

(IEA/IRENA report urges rapid cuts in carbon emissions by G-20 to prevent worst-case climate impacts.)

The study calls on the biggest global emitters and largest industrial nations to take responsibility for the bulk of this transition (represented by the G-20). And the heavy lift would come in the form of a 2.5 percent reduction in energy intensity per year to increase efficiency and a more than tenfold increase in renewable energy demand. The study calls for a 150 percent increase in renewable energy investments and a doubling of the present overall renewable energy adoption rate (120 to 150 gigawatt annual approx to 240 to 300 gigawatt annual approximate).

Energy Transition a Big Investment that Produces Major Benefits

Meanwhile, the industrial sector would need to lower its carbon intensity by 80 percent through 2050. Present global energy investments of 1.8 trillion per year would need to rise to 3.5 trillion per year to achieve these goals. Fossil fuel investment would decline while renewable energy investment would increase by 150 percent. Oil and coal use would fall as natural gas was used for lower emissions fuel switching before being phased out or entirely mated to carbon capture and storage (CCS) by mid century. The study notes that some investments in oil, gas and coal may be unrecoverable but that CCS could be deployed on a limited basis to strategically help soften the blow to certain market sectors even as overall use rates declined. The hard to access fossil fuels would be abandoned first while demand for the easier sources would be winnowed down later on in the period.

(Recommended policies would result in lower energy expenditures per household while both pollutants and emissions were dramatically reduced.)

By 2030, solar and wind energy combined, according to the report, would be the largest global provider of electricity. And by 2050, 95 percent of energy sources would need to be low carbon while 70 percent of automobiles would need to be electric. By 2060, the study envisions a zero carbon energy system.

Ironically, the economic benefits of this transition would be considerable. Such an energy transition alone would be expected to boost global GDP by 0.8 percent in 2050 (adding 1.6 trillion dollars to the global economy) and the total overall benefit to GDP would be 19 trillion. Overall, this is more than a 10 percent return on the 145 trillion invested over the period.

Serious Political Challenges Remain

It’s worth noting that the IEA/IRENA study presents its findings to a G-20 that is presently being strong-armed away from responses to climate change by the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia. After apparent bullying by Trump, G-20 leaders are now afraid to even mention the term climate change. But Trump’s approach has not only spurred a backlash from scientists and environmentalists, a large subset of the business, civic and public policy leaders that often produce the basis for G-20 initiatives are speaking out against industrial nations moving in retrograde at the exact time that they should be moving forward. The leaders point out that leaving 19 trillion dollars on the table is nonsensical and that the climate crisis is already starting to harm both G-20 nations and the developing world (which has contributed comparatively little to the problem of climate change).

As a result, it appears that the fossil fuel interests backing Trump and that are the mainstay of petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Russia are producing a crisis of confidence among key G-20 constituents. It has become obvious to most of the non-fossil fuel world that an energy transition needs to happen and that it would be beneficial to pretty much everyone. But old interests are hanging tight on the reigns of power and delaying a necessary, helpful, and ultimately life-saving set of policy actions.


World Meteorological Organization Statement on Climate Change in 2016

Perspectives for the Renewable Energy Transition

Don’t Mention the C-Word

Business Leaders Urge G-20 to Put Climate Back on the Agenda

G-20 Urged to Return to Climate Agenda

First Ever IEA/IRENA Report

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