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Friday, August 31, 2012

John Atcheson: We Are Writing the Epilogue to the World We Knew

by John Atcheson, Common Dreams, August 31, 2012 

The data continue to roll in, and they are telling us we are in the process of bringing an end to the world we evolved in, and creating a new, harsher world. We will be forced to devote more and more of our resources trying to adapt to this new world, and less on development.
While politicians fiddle, the world burns.  While the press plays he-said, she-said, the ice melts, the seas rise.
In 1990 we could have averted this disaster and saved money doing it. As late as 2010 we still had a shot at avoiding it.  But now, the die is cast, the future foretold.  What follows will be an epilogue to civilization, as we knew it.
Hyperbole?  Let’s look at the facts.
Arctic sea ice hits lowest extent ever measured (and it’s still melting) – check.
Hottest winter, spring, summer, year, decade ever measured – check.
Most extensive drought in 50 fifty years, and getting worse – check.
Worst floods in recorded history – check.
Hottest seas in eons – check.
Most acidic oceans ever measured – check.
Most greenhouse gasses released in a single year – check.
Highest sea levels since Pleistocene – check.
Most permafrost melted (with record releases of methane) ever measured – check.
Massive crop failures and record high food prices – check.
Most severe weather events ever recorded – check.
Meanwhile, in Tampa, the fossil fuel funded Republican Party is doubling down on climate denial, pushing greater use of oil, coal and gas, and trying to gut programs designed to save energy and use more renewables.  In short, they’re working diligently to hasten our demise. 
And no, that’s not hyperbole, either.  Check out Romney's energy plan
What about the Democrats?  Well, except for one mention of climate change in an interview with Rolling Stone, the President has been mum on the topic, as has most of the rest of the Party.
How about the press?  Week after week of record heat and drought brought nary a mention of global warming.  It was as if people were dropping dead from bullets, but no one mentioned guns – oh wait.  Bad analogy.  That's actually happening.  OK, how about, as if the nation were getting obese, but no one mentioned massive farm subsidies for fattening foods –Whoops.  That's happening too.  Oh well, you get the idea.
And so the last chapter concludes.  The story ends.  Only the Epilogue remains.  The part where we reveal the fate of the characters.
But here’s the thing.  We are writing the story, but our children and their children’s children will inhabit the epilogue.
Imagine a world where vast regions of an acidic ocean are dominated by jellyfish.  A world where tuna, salmon, halibut swordfish, crabs, shellfish, shrimp and the rest of the seafood we take for granted – the primary source of protein for more than a billion people – is virtually gone.  Oh, and that might come with a side of oxygen depletion.   You know, the stuff we breathe.  Think of it as planetary COPD.
The land?  An unending series of drought, flood, fire and famine.  Throw in some disease, a little social chaos – with as many as billion climate change refugees  desperately swarming the planet by 2050.  Good thing the Republican platform reinforces everybody’s right to bear assault weapons. 
The coasts will be their own special blend of hell on earth.  Ports will have to be abandoned.  The richer countries might get away with extraordinarily expensive dikes, levies, and pumps for a while, but eventually even they’ll have to be abandoned. Wicked storms will be routine.  International trade will become difficult and unreliable.  That is, assuming anyone has the social cohesion and political capacity to engage in global trade.
This is the epilogue we are writing. It is all but inevitable at this point. What Bill McKibben called, global warming’s terrifying new math
But as terrifying as McKibben’s math is, it doesn’t even consider the increasingly likely horror of methane releases from permafrost and clathrates.  Methane just happens to be 72 times as strong a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide in the short term, and 25 times as strong over the long term.  And there are 1.5 trillion tons of carbon trapped in perma-frost and about the same amount in clathrates.
Not to get all techno-geek on you, but the people modeling the effects of this much carbon suggested it would be hell on Earth by 2100.  But in calculating the rate and amount of methane and carbon released from Arctic sources, they didn’t even add in the effect of accelerated warming from the permafrost releases themselves.  In other words, they looked at greenhouse gas emissions from conventional sources only, despite the fact that releases from methane feedbacks are equivalent to those from fossil fuels. 
So yeah, Hell is coming, but it’s coming a lot faster than any predictions you’ve see so far from the scientific community. 
Now, as we’re closing the book on civilization as we know it, yes, let’s talk about how we can increase the production and use fossil fuels; let’s serve up divisiveness, hate and fear at a time when unity and courage are needed; let’s get guns into the hands of every possible frightened and hate-filled person so we can up the ante on the chaos to come; let’s talk about gutting government – the only force capable of mounting a coherent response to this unfolding tragedy.
That’s the real Republican platform.
Democrats?  They don’t even have a platform. To the extent they do, it seems to be “We’re not quite as bad as them.”
And the press?  They’re busy hammering away at the Epilogue.


Anonymous said...


I believe the situation is far worse than you have depicted. When a significant amount of open water appeared in the Arctic, there was a 'sea change'. A number of positive feedback elements came into play that the presence of significant ice cover had kept in check. More solar absorption rather than reflection, increased temperature differential to drive stronger cyclones, increased transfer of mass, momentum, and energy across the atmosphere-ocean interface to energize the quiescent ocean, increased methane release, etc. It was as though Nature had pulled out all the stops to accelerate melting of the ice cap. This is nonlinear dynamics in operation, and means the past will be an extremely conservative predictor of the future. And, essentially all the feedbacks go in one direction only, so expecting the worst is actually the most realistic.

Kevin Anderson, ex-Director of the Tyndall Centre, Britain's leading climate research institute, and presently a Professor at University of Manchester, wrote some recent papers and gave the following presentation


laying out what needs to be done to possibly dodge the climate change bullet. David Roberts wrote a more readable two part series to summarize Anderson's main points



The main thrust of the analysis is to identify the allowable temperature increases over pre-industrial values for life on Earth to survive with some semblance of where it is today, and then identify CO2 emission reductions required to maintain the temperature limits. Years ago, a temperature increase of four degrees C was considered a reasonable target to dodge the major climate change bullet. While there would still be serious impacts from such a substantial temperature increase, it was believed that such an increase could be maintained stably, and not lead to runaway temperature increases due to synergistic positive feedback loops.

In the first decade of this century, two degrees was considered a more reasonable target, as four degrees now appeared to lead to almost guaranteed runaway temperature increases from positive feedback loops. Science in the last few years has questioned whether two degrees can be maintained stably, and has shown that one degree is perhaps a better target to avoid serious consequences. We are now approaching one degree, and are already seeing some ominous consequences, as mentioned above in the Arctic.

Diplomacy does not always keep pace with technology. Because international agreements are still fixated on the two degree target, Anderson looked at carbon emissions reductions required to limit the temperature increase to two degrees. He initially examined uniform global emission reductions, then later assigned different emission rate reductions to advanced countries and developing countries. He looked at emission reduction rates as a function of emission peak years; we stay on our present trajectory of emissions to year x, then reduce emissions thereafter. For example, if the peak year for CO2 emissions is 2020, then the world would have to reduce carbon emissions on the order of ten percent per year for decades.

Anonymous said...


Roberts places this level of carbon emissions reduction in context, as follows:

"Just to give you a sense of scale: The only thing that’s ever pushed emissions reductions above 1 percent a year is, in the words of the Stern Report, “recession or upheaval.” The total collapse of the USSR knocked 5 percent off its emissions. So 10 percent a year is like … well, it’s not like anything in the history of human civilization.

This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance."

Given that most of the economies in the world today are in trouble, and the remedy they all seek is enhanced economic growth, how consistent is that with the level of carbon emissions required to maintain two degree temperature increase? To paraphrase Anderson, 'the developed nations need to exchange economic growth for planned austerity'.

I see absolutely no way the politicians would recommend reducing economic growth in the time frame of interest and adopting austerity. I see no way the fossil fuel resource owners (read, energy companies) would write off the 80% of the ~thirty trillion dollars of fossil fuel reserves (that are on their books) necessary to keep the CO2 emissions constrained, as McKibben said is required in a recent article. I see no way that most of the electorate would support the austerity and economic depression that would accompany this level of reduced fossil fuel use, or that most of the electorate would be willing to make the personal lifestyle sacrifices that huge intensive energy use reduction requires to achieve the desired emission rate reductions. It completely goes against historical trends; we have been increasing CO2 emissions for many decades, and presently are hovering about 5% annual global increase. Anderson's realistic assessment implies there is no credible way out of a climate catastrophe, other than the emergence of a miracle.

I also have the uneasy feeling that the situation is even more dire than described above. The governing process is driven by nonlinear dynamics, where many of the drivers are part of positive feedback loops, and essentially all of these loops are synergistic in one direction only. In nonlinear dynamical systems, small changes in the spatial and temporal boundary conditions can result in large changes in the solution space. From what little I have read, the fully integrated models don't contain all the known phenomena, like the methane feedback, or many others I have seen mentioned. How can we forecast the magnitude of the changes if critical terms are omitted from the nonlinear models, and we know these omitted terms are only driving the results in one direction? Is even a one degree increase maintainable?

So, the predictions I have seen are, in my estimation, very conservative. Now, maybe the researchers are 'gun-shy' after years of assault from the 'denier' community, and are only willing to offer the most conservative and unassailable predictions. Or, maybe they and the government sponsors and the politicians are concerned about what would happen if the hard truth were to be released to the public.