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Cooperation with Nature — Caroline Casey Climate Chat

Please join Caroline Casey and I for a broad-ranging discussion of key climate change, clean energy and climate related actions.

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Climate Change May be Readying to Split the Heavens over the U.S. Southeast — So What Can We Do?

None of us are bystanders when it comes to climate change. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all caught up in the most pressing trouble of our age. Our great burning of fossil fuels is steadily turning the Earth’s climate into something terrible. Once we realize this, the imperative for action becomes as clear and keen as a razor’s edge.

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Only a few weeks after severe rains inundated Louisiana, another powerful atmospheric bomb may be leveling its sights toward a broad region of Florida and the US Southeast. Rainfall amounts in excess of one foot are expected over portions of Florida as a tropical depression is expected to strengthen into a tropical storm as it churns in from a record-hot Gulf of Mexico. Coastal portions of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina may see 5-10 inches of rain over the coming few days. And long range forecasts indicate a possible tropical storm or weak hurricane threat to interests from the Outer Banks through New England by late this week.

The storm, fueled by unprecedented levels of ocean and atmospheric heat and moisture, has the potential to dump rains at rates capable of overwhelming local infrastructure. If this happens, vehicles and homes will once more be under the gun for severe and damaging flooding in a summer that has seen a seemingly endless litany of such events across the U.S. and around the world.

Florida Floods Inbound

(NOAA QPC forecast shows that parts of coastal Florida near Tampa could experience more than a foot of rainfall this week as a tropical depression moves in from the Gulf. Heavy rains are predicted to hammer most of Florida and the U.S. southeastern coastline. Such rainfall events are fueled by global warming which generates a heavier load of moisture held aloft in the Earth’s atmosphere, producing more extreme rainfall events.  Image source: NOAA.)

Behind the 8-Ball on Climate Change

Events like these increasingly drive home the point — whether we like it or not, we are now entering a new climate era. How dangerous and destructive that era will be still depends on our actions as individuals, communities, and nations.

Earlier this month, the IPCC issued two stark announcements. Though probably not a surprise to readers and researchers here, these statements will likely come as a shock to most of the climate-concerned world. The first statement indicated that the Paris 2 degrees Celsius target could not now be achieved without a rapid reduction of fossil-fuel burning to about zero combined with the application of a number of yet-to-be-developed negative carbon emissions technologies that would draw some of that massive, heat-trapping CO2 overburden out of the air. The second statement declared that given the likely difficulty of hitting the 2 C target, and considering the fact that 2016 will probably have already hit near 1.2 C above 1880s temperatures, the feasibility of keeping warming below Paris’ provisional 1.5 C target is now highly questionable.

In other words, even the fast-feedback biased Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity models show that the window for 1.5 C is probably closed and the 2 C window is slamming shut pretty fast. To this point, we should give a concerned nod to Hansen et al.’s shot-across-the-bow assessment of paleoclimate, where the 405 parts per million CO2 and 490 ppm CO2e currently in the Earth’s atmosphere hints that long-term warming from simply a maintained level of these greenhouse gasses is about 3-4 C (see How Sensitive is our Climate?).

Regardless of how climate sensitivity ultimately pans out, the world is in kind of a rough spot with some bad climate outcomes likely already locked in. Sadly, we are experiencing the first forays of these now, as the past week brings news of a freak lightning strike killing hundreds of Arctic-native reindeer in Norway, while three tropical cyclones formed simultaneously in the record-hot Atlantic. Tropical Depression 9 is expected to dump a foot or more of rainfall over parts of Florida just a couple of weeks after Louisiana experienced a flood disaster whose damages now rival that of Hurricane Andrew — resulting in a massive housing crisis with 86,000 people seeking federal aid.

Lake Mead New Record Lows

(Warming the Earth’s atmosphere increases both evaporation and precipitation intensity, resulting in more extreme floods and droughts. We see this in various record rain and drought events now ranging the world. At Lake Mead, Nevada — a key U.S. reservoir — water levels again hit new record lows this year, nearing the mandatory end-year rationing level of 1,075 feet. Image source: U.S. Lakes Online.)

At the same time, and on the other end of the hydrological scale from Louisiana (and possibly Florida), Lake Mead, Nevada, after suffering from a decades-long Colorado River drought, is edging closer to the mandatory rationing line where multiple states will see water supplies cut. Practically everywhere we look, from species migrating toward the poles, to ever-more-extreme weather, to the worst global coral-bleaching event on record, to the burning Amazon rainforest, to the thawing tundra, to diseases like Zika leaping out of the tropics, to algae blooms spreading dead zones into rivers, lakes, and oceans, we can see these climate impacts growing stronger and starker.

Meanwhile, near-future vulnerabilities are becoming clearer. In one example, the Department of Energy just issued a new report showing, as has been stated here on this blog many times, that our current centralized power infrastructure is very vulnerable to even relatively moderate levels of warming, related extreme weather, and sea level rise.

The trouble is getting locked in, but it becomes even worse if we continue to emit carbon, to burn fossil fuels. So given this harsh context — a context that should be a call to action for everyone living upon the warming Earth — there is now clear and present cause to both ask and answer the question, What can we do? How can we respond before climate chaos sets in and it becomes difficult or even impossible to act effectively?

Mobilization for Climate Action

Many years ago, I asked the same question of myself — what could I do?

Back in 2011, after having kept a close watch on the emerging threat that was climate change and after having read James Hansen’s seminal book, Storms of My Grandchildren, I decided that something had to be done. 350.org was holding a ‘stop the pipeline’ rally that November and I signed up to participate. I wanted to get arrested along with climate leader Bill McKibben, but I let myself be swayed by family concerns. So braver and more noble souls than I stood on that thin line. Nonetheless, I did my own small part. More importantly, I returned from the rally even more resolved and, in a few short months, I started this blog. My climate activism has continued ever since.

Stop the Pipeline

(350.org and NRDC’s spearhead effort to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline was ultimately successful due to broad and ardent climate activism. However, in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, a great number of other pipelines, wells, and coal mines will have to be blocked or halted. It’s a simple fact, really, that we need to choose between a livable future and continuing to burn dangerous fuels. And that’s the reason why political participation and activism is so very important at this time. Image source: On Earth.)

Another person I respect, my father-in-law, is a long-standing member of the Sierra Club. If you’re not familiar, the Sierra Club is a 126-year-old environmental organization that supports an active transition away from fossil fuels and is currently involved in various anti-fracking and coal plant shutdown actions. This summer, my father-in-law participated in county meetings in King George, Virginia in an effort to get fracking banned in that region. For some reason, fossil-fuel interests are keen to frack King George. Apparently, there’s a decent amount of tight oil in this part of Virginia. In any case, my father-in-law helped to get strong anti-fracking regulations put in place for the county — so strong that the fracking interests are now, like TransCanada, threatening to sue.

We Can Do This Together

My good friend Colorado Bob used to be an oil worker. He, like so many of us, was part of a system that generated the harms that are now coming. Bob is now one of the most outspoken advocates for climate awareness and action that I know. For years, he’s written and linked to internet articles on the subject of climate change. He’s an active voice on some of the most prominent climate forums, like Weather Underground and ClimateProgress to name just a couple. Bob’s out there every day doing something to raise awareness, to educate people, to get us all moving in the right direction. Many of the concerned people who frequent this blog like Greg, Wili, Cate, DT Lange, ThereAreSoManyThings, TheSecularJurist, Kevin, June, Mulga, Redsky, Leland Palmer, Spike, Bill h, mlparrish and so many more have done something similar.

NASA Modified poster

(Houston, we have a problem… NASA recently modified this World War II-era poster to illustrate the need for a global mobilization to prevent harm due to human-caused climate change. Join NASA and become a part of that necessary action today. Image source: NASA.)

There’s an active debate ongoing as to whether or not climate scientists should become political advocates for climate action. Underlying this debate is a notion that climate change is somehow an issue with sides — that there’s some kind of legit, moral, non-biased middle ground a scientifically informed person can take. The truth is that climate change simply will continue to happen and worsen if we keep burning fossil fuels, and that non-bias in this case can swiftly tip into immorality. Once it is realized that climate change will result in mass migration, mass destruction of wealth and property, and a high risk of mass loss of human and animal life, it becomes abundantly clear that something must be done. These facts render the issue of climate neutrality in the sciences a moot point. Even those intending to remain non-biased will inevitably draw fire, as simply reporting facts on the issue, as Michael Mann found during the 2000s, has made scientists a target of fossil-fuel monetary and political interests seeking to obscure these facts from the public eye — a simple truth that scientists like James Hansen realized long ago. In his case, activism was not just morally courageous, it was practical and scientific. Something terrible was happening, would continue to happen if we didn’t do something about it. Hansen’s point on this was amazingly clear:

Only in the last few years did the science crystallize, revealing the urgency – our planet really is in peril. If we do not change course soon, we will hand our children a situation that is out of their control… [emphasis added]

As out-of-control as that future threatens to become, the bravery and resolve of some of this nation’s children in the face of that threat is, quite frankly, astonishing. If you think you’re too young to act, just take a look at Our Children’s Trust. In this case, a group of preteens and teenagers are taking on the federal government over climate change. They’re claiming that the government isn’t living up to its sacred pledge to protect their health and welfare. If these kids have the intestinal fortitude to go at the Feds with all legal guns blazing, to set aside huge chunks of their lives to take on an issue that is so important to everyone, then there’s no excuse for us adults.

Every Life Matters

Back when I was writing about Hurricane Sandy slamming into the U.S. northeast, my wife was involved in the sheltering of animals displaced by the disaster, as part of the response effort in the region. She and many others spent days housed in the gymnasium at a local community college, taking cold showers and eating rations provided by local disaster agencies, putting themselves at risk walking dogs as a powerful ice storm followed the devastating coastal low. Their compassion for the voiceless, the innocent and the helpless are a part of what we will need to effectively deal with climate change. Part of our challenge will be to help the living creatures and forests of our world survive the rapid warming and the climate disruptions that result. We must open our hearts to the plight of the innocent, the poor, and the voiceless, and not turn our eyes away in callous denial of harm done.

Fish Lizard Island

(When it comes to facing climate change, every life matters. From fish, to coral reefs, to forests, to polar bears, to companion animals, to human beings, confronting climate change is ultimately an effort to save lives. Great Barrier Reef image source: The Guardian.)

Have my father-in-law, Colorado Bob, McKibben, Hansen, Mann, Our Children’s Trust, my wife and tens of thousands of other advocates, scientists, and everyday people won the war on climate change? Heck no. We see the results of our present failings with increasing extremity each and every day. But the point is that our actions have mattered and, more importantly, have become a part of a potential for heroism on a mass scale, a global effort to shift energy and climate policy and to help those that suffer due to the changes. All of us have the opportunity now to become a part of what will probably be the biggest life-saving effort ever undertaken by our race.

A Call to Act

Big or small, all our actions have an impact and we can all do something through the simple impetus of deciding to do the right thing. We can join 350.org and the Sierra Club, we can vote for candidates who promise strong action on climate change, we can speak out in support of the science, we can cut the lion’s share of meat out of our diets, we can install solar panels on homes and businesses, we can ride bikes, and support electric vehicles. We can raise awareness among our families, friends and neighbors. We can plant gardens and help to rejuvenate the carbon-capturing soil. We can join community, state, national and international aid and response networks to help people and animals harmed or displaced by climate change. We can defend the IPCC and other scientific agencies from politically-motivated attacks by fossil-fuel special interests. We can all become part of the action supporting positive responses and blocking the use of destructive fuels like oil, gas and coal.

What we ultimately choose to do first is not as important as the simple decision to begin to do something. The important thing is to act, to act now, and to resolve to do more each day. To become a part of a necessary growing effort. To stand up and make the moral decision to become a soldier in a global mobilization, not only to fight for the lives of our children and grandchildren, but for all the poor and innocent creatures of this Earth — human or otherwise — who are now so vulnerable to a rising disaster of fossil-fuel burning’s making.

So please join with me in lifting our voices in this call to act, swiftly, with purpose, and now.

Links:

IPCC — Two degree climate target not possible without ‘negative emissions’

IPCC Special Report to Scruitinize Feasibility of 1.5 C Climate Goal

How Sensitive is Our Climate?

Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level Rise, and Atmospheric CO2

Lightning Kills 323 Reindeer in Norway

NOAA

350.org

Sierra Club

The Guardian

Our Children’s Trust

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

NASA

Weather Underground

ClimateProgress

King George Moves to Protect Water Supply From Fracking

On Earth

Storms of My Grandchildren

Our Grid is Incredibly Vulnerable to Climate Change

Bill McKibben

NRDC

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

“A Harbinger of the End of the Fossil Fuel Era” — Coal Production, Exports Plummet as Peabody Energy Declares Bankruptcy

“Peabody Energy’s steep decline toward bankruptcy is a harbinger of the end of the fossil fuel era … Peabody is crashing because the company was unwilling to change with the times, — they doubled down on the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and investors backed their bet, as the world shifted toward renewable energy. They have consistently put profit over people, and now their profits have plummeted. Our world has no place for companies like Peabody.” — Jenny Marienau, U.S. Divestment Campaign Manager of the environmental group 350.org, in a recent statement.

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Jenny Marienau of the climate disaster prevention group 350.org is certainly right about one thing. A healthy world. A world full of life and of prospects for all people, all living things. A world that avoids the worst impacts of a terrible climate disruption on the road to a hothouse mass extinction. In this, far more hopeful, world there is no place for companies like Peabody Energy. Companies whose profit-making and related accumulation of a corrupting political power and influence is entirely dependent on locking in an ever-worsening global crisis.

STRIP_MINING_ON_INDIAN_BURIAL_GROUNDS_BY_PEABODY_COAL_CO_-_NARA_-_544109

(Peabody became infamous for its destructive strip mining efforts that transformed beautiful and treasured lands into toxic, lifeless moonscapes. Here, a Peabody crane scoops coal out of the Nara strip mine which was also the location of a sacred Native American burial ground. Continued fossil fuel burning will ultimately have a similar beauty and life-denuding effect on the whole of the global environment. Image source: Commons.)

Coal’s Moral and Economic Bankruptcy

Today that company, representing the largest coal interest in the Western World, declared bankruptcy. An optimistic announcement that comes amidst a swift sea change and a precipitous contraction in the global coal industry. One that, if world-wide public, private, protest action, and individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions on the back of 200 nations reaching a landmark global climate agreement in Paris continue in force, may well be a beginning of an end to the fossil fuel energy era.

With each passing day, that start of an end becomes more and more visible in what appears to be an ongoing global coal industry collapse and retrenchment. In three of the world’s largest coal producing and consuming regions — India, China, and the US — production, imports and exports are down. In the US, coal production has fallen by more than 50 percent since 2008. Meanwhile US coal exports plummeted by 23 percent in 2015 alone. In China, coal consumption is reported to have dropped during both 2014 and 2015. This drop comes as this world’s largest current greenhouse gas emitter has announced an expanding array of bans on coal burning for its highest polluting power plants and a cessation of coal plant construction in 15 of its provinces. In India, one region that coal backers had looked to for expanding consumption, coal imports are also down.

The broadening contraction in coal has forced bankruptcies not just for Peabody, but for other major American coal players like Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources. A devastating wave for a climatologically destructive industry that appears less and less likely to survive in any form resembling its former might.

The Supertrend That’s Driving Coal’s Downfall — Mass Protest, Divestment, The Rise of Renewables, Policy Push to Prevent Climate Change, and The Switch To Gas

It’s all a part of an emerging supertrend that is being reinforced along many fronts. The first of which involves a broad global protest action against new coal plant construction and wider fossil fuel based energy itself. Led by key groups like 350.org, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, these critical actions have targeted construction sites, pipelines, railways and mines. In addition, a comprehensive divestment campaign spear-headed by 350.org has targeted capital flows to the fossil fuel special interests. In this campaign, investing firms and institutions are faced with a call to moral action. A call to shift resources away from the fossil fuel-based companies that profit by locking in the ever-worsening impacts of climate change. In most cases, coal divestment is seen as the low-hanging fruit in these efforts. The coal companies produce the highest level of fossil fuel based carbon pollution per ton of fuel burned, are among the biggest threats to clean air and clean water, and are the most financially at risk entities among the fossil fuel based polluters.

Such campaigns against coal would be toothless without readily available alternative energy sources. And during recent years, clean substitutes for coal like solar and wind energy have become more and more accessible. Market prices for both resources have plummeted to the point where either can now compete directly with coal in most major markets. A fact that was brought into stark contrast this year when the cost of a newly constructed Indian solar power station fell below the cost of a newly constructed Indian coal plant fueled by imports. Solar energy in particular has been surging by leaps and bounds with India alone planning 100 gigawatts of new solar powered generation in just six years — a level of construction that will inevitably take a big bite out of what appears to be the last remaining major energy market where coal could potentially expand. In effect, what we are seeing is coal being crowded out by far more benevolent and increasingly competitive wind and solar based energy systems.

US Coal Production Eports Down

(US coal production has plummeted since 2008 in the face of rising renewables, increased use of gas, and falling overseas demand. Global trends seem to indicate that the US coal market is a microcosm of the larger shift in the international energy trade — one that has been driven by a broad-based effort to reduce carbon emissions and impacts related to a human-forced warming of the world. Image source: Clean Technica. Data source: US EIA.)

In many nations, drives to increase the rate of renewable energy adoption have been put at logger-heads with the special-interest funded bodies supporting polluting legacy fossil fuel generation. In the US, republicans have become infamous for their pro-coal, drill-baby, drill, anti-renewables, climate change denial political stance. But despite a well-funded effort by fossil fuel industry to lock in carbon pollution and climate disruption by stacking the political deck, policies aimed at confronting climate change have continued to advance. The Paris Climate Summit, though the object of much criticism, produced the strongest global climate treaty yet. And the broader effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has now been reinforced by a growing number of cities, states, and nations who now realize that continuing the current massive carbon emission is a hazard to their ongoing existence. Coastal cities and nations facing worsening sea level rise, states in expanding drought zones, regions stricken by water insecurity and increased crop damage, cities, states and nations dependent on healthy oceans for tourism and seafood, regions confronting waves of persons displaced from drought-stricken nations, and cities, states, and nations in the path of increasingly severe weather have all both quietly and loudly fought back — pushing the necessary cuts in hothouse gas emissions forward. These key stakeholders — who basically represent all of the rest of the non-fossil fuel interest world — are starting to realize that the carbon industry, though excessively influential, is not all-powerful. And they are starting to more effectively wield their own, far more just, influence in an attempt to reduce the climate harm that is now setting in.

Within the fossil fuel ranks there is also division. Even among the fossil fuel players there appears to be an acceptance that coal is on its way out. Messaging coming from the fossil fuel industry appears to have shifted to support of the still very harmful natural gas and for a new global fracking campaign. In essence, what we observe is that the oil and gas interests, including the new fracking interests, have basically maneuvered in a way that effectively throws coal under the climate change response bus. Coal is tougher to greenwash than natural gas and the spearhead campaign against coal as the worst of the worst among carbon polluters has proven undeflectable. This has been especially true in the UK where even conservatives are aiming to shut down coal plants (while continuing their harmful efforts in support of fracking and aimed at suppressing rates of renewable energy adoption).

Preventing Ever-Worsening Harm — Why The Fossil Fuel Era Must End as Soon as Possible

With today’s Peabody bankruptcy declaration, and in light of these observed trends, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the global energy game has changed and that the political and economic power of coal is fading. A positive shift to be certain. One that will help to reduce global carbon emissions. But we should remember that the current human greenhouse gas emission is now ten times faster than during the last hothouse mass extinction event 55 million years ago. And the only way to greatly reduce that terrible spewing of heat trapping gasses is to not only completely cut out the coal emission, but to also remove the major atmospheric carbon contributions coming from a massive burning of both oil and gas. To this point, we should work as hard as we can to help make Jenny’s prediction above a reality. For we desperately need the end of the fossil fuel era to happen soon.

Links:

A Harbinger of the End of the Fossil Fuel Era (Please Support 350.org)

The Western World’s Largest Coal Company Declares Bankruptcy

US Coal Production Continues Plunge

China Expands Coal Ban

Sans a Swift Switch to Renewables, Dangerous Climate Change May Be Imminent

COP 21

Greenpeace

The Sierra Club — Beyond Coal

350.org — Divestment

US Energy Information Administration

Peabody Strip Mining on Indian Burial Grounds

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

Leaked UN Report Shows Failure to Swiftly Act on Climate Change Results in Catastrophic Harm

Over the past week, various sources have leaked information passed on to them by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The reports highlighted stark consequences for continued failure by policy makers to act, providing a general view of rapidly approaching a terrible and very difficult to navigate global crisis.

Dancing on the Edge of a Global Food Crisis

The first weak link for human resiliency to climate change may well be in our ability to continue to supply food to over 7 billion people as weather and sea level rise takes down previously productive agricultural regions. And the leaked UN report hints at a currently stark global food situation in the face of a risk for rising crisis.

For the Mekong Delta, as with more and more agricultural regions around the world, by August of 2014, global warming was already a rampant crop killer.

The Vietnamese government this year made efforts to stem the effects of warming-driven sea level rise and saltwater invasion as 700,000 hectares of rice paddy farmland in one of the world’s most productive regions came under threat. But the efforts have not entirely prevented intrusion and many plants show the tell-tale yellowed leaves that result from salt water leeching into the low-lying freshwater fields that have, for so long, yielded a bounty of grain. Many farmers are now facing losses of up to 50% for crops that used to produce like clockwork year-in, year out. This year, the salt water has intruded as far as 40 to 50 kilometers inland, delivering a substantial blow to the region’s agriculture. But the potential effects, given even the IPCC’s conservative projections of sea level rise in the range of 29 to 82 more centimeters this century, are stark for this and other low-lying agricultural regions.

FAO index August 2014

(UN FAO food price index since 1961. Note the spike since the mid 2000s coinciding with energy price increases and ramping crop destruction due to climate change. The first price spike during 2008 was primarily energy price related, but the second spike during 2011 coincided with a string of some of the worst spates of crop-destroying weather on record. Note that prices remained historically high following the 2011 spike, an indication that global agriculture was having difficulty meeting increased demand, despite the price signal. Image source: FAO.)

Around the world, tales from agricultural zones are much the same — ever-increasing challenges due to climate change driven droughts, floods, fires, spreading diseases, invasive species, and sea level rise. Since mid 2010, these added stresses have driven the United Nation’s FAO food price index — an indicator for global food security — above 200 for four years running. Historically, international insecurity and food-related unrest have sparked when prices hit and maintain above 208. And though the price of food has fallen somewhat from highs nearing 230 during 2011 to a range near 204 during 2014, the ongoing and worsening impacts of climate change mean that new and starker challenges to feeding the world’s 7 billion and growing population are just over the horizon.

Instances of food riots correlated with food price

(Instances of food riots from 2004 to late 2012 correlated with global food prices. Image source: ABC.)

These climate change related impacts are ongoing and, according to recent scientific reports, have resulted in a 3-5 percent loss of annual grain production for maize and wheat and could result in 10 percent total losses in grain production through the early 2020s. But even if agricultural difficulties are somehow delayed through the next decade, the UN report shows climate change eventually winning out by compounding damages that cause:

“slow down [of] economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing poverty traps and create new ones, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.”

Wide-ranging and Terrible Impacts

Of course, damages from climate change aren’t just limited to crops. More extreme weather, vicious heatwaves, rising seas, ocean acidification and anoxia, loss of glacial and ocean ice, rampant wildfires and other jarring impacts are likely to coincide as warming continues to spike higher.

At 0.85 degrees Celsius and 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warming since 1880, we already see some rather radical impacts. But, according to IPCC, these impacts are likely to seem paltry if human business as usual emissions continue and hit the IPCC projected level of warming by 5.4 C or 9 F by the end of the 21st Century.

For illustration, IPCC provides the following impacts/risk graph:

IPCC Level of Risk

(Projected risk related to a given level of warming according to IPCC via Bloomberg.)

As a risk-related graph, the analytical function is notably vague. The graph defines risks to unique systems (primarily natural ecosystems or human systems such as agriculture and tourism related to those systems), risks associated with extreme weather (which is self-explanatory), risks associated with distribution of impacts (which generally defines how widespread climate impacts will become), risks associated with global aggregate impacts (this attempts to define the level of net positive or net negative impact, with some positive impacts resulting in an almost neutral net impact early on but overall and increasingly severe net negative aggregate impacts going forward), and risks associated with singular large-scale events (related to catastrophic weather or Earth changes such as glacial outburst floods, methane release, slope collapse and other unforeseen catastrophic, large-scale instances).

For +0.85 C warming above 1880s levels, we can add an imaginary line at +0.25 C above the 1986 to 2005 level. There we find current changes that are now visible and ongoing and that, to us, seem pretty substantial. Along that line, we see risks to some threatened systems from climate change (ramping damage to reefs, agriculture, rainforests etc), a moderate risk of extreme weather events outside the 20th Century norm (and we see these with increasing frequency), we are edging into increasing risks of disruption in some regions (as we’ve seen in Syria, the US Southwest and a shot-gun of other areas), we are edging into a zone where most people are starting to see impacts (though these are still comparatively minor for many, but increasingly bad for a growing minority), and we are at low but rising risk of catastrophic events (major glacial outburst floods, methane release, continent spanning megastorms etc).

And given this context, we can see how much worse things will be with just another 0.25, 0.75, or 1.5 C of warming. By the end of this century, under business as usual, we are at the top of the risk graph and would be witnessing events that many of us would now consider both strange and terrifying.

IPCC researchers add the following chilling and entirely apt caveat (Bloomberg):

“Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases cease,” the researchers said. “The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.”

To this point, I would like to add that some changes are now irreversible, but the worst impacts are not, as yet, unavoidable.

The Terrifying Rate of Human Emission

IPCC now recognizes that human greenhouse gas emissions are at or near worst case levels. Current global volume of all human greenhouse gas emissions is now likely in excess of 50 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) each year. As of the latest IPCC assessment, the emission stood at 49 gigatons CO2e for greenhouse gasses each year by 2010 (more than 13 gigatons carbon). This rate of emission, if continued and/or increased through the end of this century, is enough to trigger Permian Extinction event type conditions over the course of just three centuries or less (the Permian Extinction took tens of thousands of years to elapse) a shock that is unprecedented on geological time-scales.

Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels 1970 through 2010

(Global greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 through 2010. Included are human emissions from CO2 through fossil fuel burning, CO2 through land use, Methane emissions, N2O emissions, and fluoride gas emissions. Image source IPCC via Bloomberg.)

This immense volume of emission is probably more than 6-10 times faster than at any period of the geological record. Its vast and violent outburst is worse than any of the great flood basalts of Earth’s long history. And its pace of out-gassing will rapidly overwhelm any of Earth’s carbon sinks, likely turning many of these into sources. The human greenhouse gas emission is, therefore, likely on track to be the worst greenhouse gas disaster the Earth system has ever experienced.

Rapid Mitigation is the Only Moral Option

To this point, IPCC recommends rapid mitigation to prevent the worst possible consequences.

“Risks from mitigation can be substantial, but they do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation action,” the authors wrote.

IPCC finds that the cost of mitigation is low so long as policies aim to rapidly reduce energy consumption, rapidly affix existing carbon emitting infrastructure with carbon capture and storage, leave new and unconventional fossil fuel sources in the ground while allowing existing sources to go into decline or be replaced outright by alternative energy, keep current nuclear capacity running until the end of its life expectancy, and provide all replacements and new additions for energy generation through various renewable energy sources (my personal opinion about the carbon capture policy position is that it creates moral hazard by giving the fossil fuel interests wiggle room, but that discussion is for another post).

IPCC model runs show a stark difference between business as usual fossil fuel emission based warming and warming by end century under rapid mitigation:

Warming Scenarios Rapid Mitigation vs Businesss as Usual

(Approximate 1.9 C warming by 2100 under rapid mitigation vs 5.4 C warming under business as usual. Note that potential substantial Arctic and marine carbon store feedbacks are likely not fully taken into account and may require additional mitigation to alleviate. Source: IPCC via ThinkProgress.)

The approximate 3.5 C difference between the rapid mitigation scenario and the business as usual scenario is a glaring contrast between a world in which humans can cope with and reduce the long term impacts of difficult to deal with climate change and a world in which climate change essentially wrecks all future prospects. Between these two choices, there is only one moral and, indeed, sane option.

Overall, the most recent IPCC report is likely to receive broad criticism from climate change deniers for its more direct language. And this is probably a good sign that it is on the right track. In my view, however, the report is still cautious and leaves out a number of key risks, including significant amplifying feedbacks from Arctic carbon stores and other carbon stores, or simply deals with them by implication without further analysis (such as through the use of the term ‘large-scale singular events’ in the graph above). So, in some ways, the report hides actual risks behind obtuse language and dense scientific terminology.

Given the current behavior and mindset of policy-makers, an even more direct approach may well be necessary. That said, the current IPCC report, as alluded to by these leaks, appears to be a far more impactful summation than its previous iterations. Given the very narrow window in which we have to prevent the most severe future harm, such a shift is appreciated and highly appropriate.

Links:

Climate Scientists Spell Out Stark Danger and Immorality of Inaction in New Leaked Report

Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980

Irreversible Damage From Climate Change

UN Draft Report Lists Unchecked Emissions Risks 

Climate Change Impacts to Mekong Delta

Rising Sea Level Means Trouble For Vietnam’s Rice Farmers

FAO World Food Price Index

Hat Tip to TDGS

Gung Ho, Climate Policy, and Striving Together For a Greater Good

For years, we have focused on what we can do, as individuals, to address climate change. And though much has been achieved through the efforts of many valiant individuals, these admittedly heroic efforts have fallen short. This short-coming is through no fault of those who have attempted, alone and without aid, to surmount it. It is simply that the scope of the problem that is climate change is greater than any single person, or any fragmented group of leaderless people, can adequately manage.

If we are truly going to address the issue of climate change we are going to need to learn to act a little bit more like Marines. We are going to need to adopt the practice of ‘Gung Ho.’ In other words, we are going to need to learn to work together.

Though there is much we can do alone, including using less energy, eating less carbon intensive foods, purchasing solar panels for our homes, driving an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle, riding a bike to work, using public transport, switching out for more efficient light bulbs, and a host of other positive actions, there isn’t much we can do, alone, to make those good choices and actions more appealing or more available to others. And when the pace of emergency grows, as it has in recent years, it becomes more clear that we need to step out of our individual worlds and join with others in our communities, our states, our countries, our nations and even throughout the world to address these problems.

Simply put, sometimes problems exceed the ability of an individual to manage. It is during these times when we must make use of the agencies available to us in order to work together for a common good.

Thankfully, our government systems already provide many of these agencies. We can contact our Congressmen. We can express our concern through media bodies, through the net, and at town hall meetings. We can enhance policy discussion by sharing our input and experiences. And, through these agencies, we can encourage our governments to adopt sound policies and to work with other nations to address the growing problem of climate change.

With expanding zones of drought gobbling up ever-larger sections of the world. With Arctic sea ice in full retreat. With the Greenland Ice Sheet beginning to soften up. And with Arctic methane beginning to emerge as an amplifying feedback, it is high time to establish national and international policies to both prevent further climate change and to mitigate the effects of the climate change already happening. We have spent years quibbling and arguing. But now, for the good of us all, it is time to act.

Some countries have already accepted the need for sound climate policies and these countries have benefited from their own actions. Australia, for example, after suffering a 1000 year drought, recognized the necessity of responding to climate change and put serious policies in place to begin that process. With the US having suffered its own series of extraordinarily dry periods — the driest 800 year period on record from 2000-2004 and the recent major droughts of 2011 and 2012 — it is high time that national climate change prevention and mitigation policies are established.

Climate change will not stop and wait for us. And if we wait for things to grow worse, events can quickly spiral beyond our control. The size of the problem is comparable to the threat posed by nuclear proliferation during the Cold War. Though different in many respects, the need for coordinated action and policy measures to address a wide-ranging threat makes it a useful corollary. We may also compare the current climate difficulty with the ozone threat dealt with during the late 20th century. Both were major issues and both were made manageable through sound policy measures established by nations around the globe.

Both nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation policies as well as chlorofluorocarbon reduction policies resulted in a safer world for all inhabitants of all nations. They contributed to peace, stability, and the healthy economies of all participating nations. There is no reason that climate change policy could not also function in this manner.

In general, the goals of nations engaged in climate change prevention, mitigation, and adaptation policies must be simplified. General goals of reducing carbon output, replacing fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable infrastructure, and of making countries more resilient to the ravages of ongoing climate change should be put in place. Broad definitions should be applied. But very specific long-range goals should be established. We should call for voluntary compliance but we should also put in place serious measures for keeping track of compliance, as well as mechanisms to incentivize that compliance.

Approaching this problem, we must be careful not to allow the special interests of powerful industry players to dominate. However, since some industries will clearly be losers in any transition away from fossil fuels, incentives should be put in place that provide a means for these industries to survive short-term, and prosper long-term, should they take part in a transition away from fossil fuels. For example, government subsidies to fossil fuel industries that replace a significant and growing portion of fossil fuel out-put year-on-year with renewable energy output could be provided. An example of such a transition would be the outfitting of mobile oil platforms to serve as mobile wind generation platforms, finding areas with the highest wind concentration and then transmitting it back to the mainland.

That said, since the false comforts of a dangerous status quo are so appealing, there will be pressure from these interests to only deal with and adapt to the problems caused by climate change and not to address the root cause itself — fossil fuel burning. Unfortunately, bowing to this directive would consign the world to a global warming future that it could not economically or politically adapt to. The threats to world food production, to coastal towns, to livable climates, to the health and well being of citizens for many nations of the world is far, far too great.

The impact of 1000 parts per million CO2 on the climate system, a level that will almost certainly be reached if business as usual fossil fuel emissions continue, is a force that no single nation on this Earth is equipped to handle. And planning to deal with such an instance would be to plan for the dismemberment of human civilization before the end of this century. This is not an acceptable outcome, so adaptation-only policies must be recognized for what they are: plans to fail.

Yet we should still hope that our swift action can result in a good end. Though we are very likely to experience a period of difficulty, though we are already experiencing some difficulty due to climate change, we can still prevent the worst impacts if we start working together immediately. And in doing so, we can affect changes to our countries, lands, and ways of doing business, that result in a more resilient world. In a world that relies on sustainable energy sources. In a world that has managed to balance its populations and consumption with the world’s resources. In a world that has a future well beyond the span of the 21rst century. If we do so. If we start to do so now, we can begin that good work which will enable a greater prosperity and improve the prospects of all people.

This is the promise of a good, sound climate policy. And we should not turn away from it. Instead we should embrace the benevolent spirit of working in ‘thy brother’s service’ in the spirit of ‘Gung Ho.’ We can certainly do this. And we can do this the right way. The way that avoids conflict, domination, and the threat of disintegration. Let us join to take this path together. To take the road of stabilization and to enjoy the rewards of good work. To set our feet on a path toward shining futures and to enjoy the comforts of a world of shrinking troubles.

And of the other way? Let us say no more of it than this: that way lies the abyss.

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