Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

A video postcard from Eaarth

Pete Sinclair, he of the must-see Climate Denial Crock of the Week site, has perfectly summarized the brutal weather the US48 has endured in recent weeks and what it might mean for food production. If you haven’t seen it already, please spend a few minutes to do so now:

Humanity long ago squandered our chance of making a leisurely, comfortable, and cheap transition to a lower carbon economy. Had we begun that conversion in earnest the day James Hansen gave his famous Congressional testimony in 1988 it still would have been a very tough challenge. Instead, we ignored the warnings of scientists, listened to the liars who wanted our votes and our dollars, obeyed the dictates of our ancient programming that became wildly obsolete the moment we kicked off the agricultural revolution, and dashed toward the cliff, accelerating all the way.

We have, to put exactly the rusty, barbed point on it that it deserves, so utterly screwed ourselves that it’s impossible to tell people not already deeply engaged with the topic just how screwed we are. They either refuse to believe the details — the current level and trend of our CO2 emissions, CO2′s long atmospheric lifetime, the utter lack of serious action by any of the major emitters — or they ignore the message and go back to recycling their trash and changing their light bulbs all while muttering something about “doing my part” and “we’ll find a way to fix it in time”.

This includes many people I’ve spoken with online and in person who are exactly the ones we would expect to “get it”, the people who belong to various environmental groups, attend meetings, try to teach others, and generally live the enviro life. The problem is that they don’t grasp the depth, breadth, or inherent nature of climate change. And because they are doing “their part” but are so often hesitant to “get political”, they are the best friends that the fossil fuel companies and the climate change deniers could have imagined. They consume activist energy and produce nowhere near the level of change needed. Even worse, many of them spread the belief, however inadvertently, that those little steps, like recycling their trash and driving a Prius and changing their bloody light bulbs will somehow be enough. They even have a cutesy little slogan — “if we all do a little then together we’ll do a lot”. Well, that’s simply wrong, because within the context of what’s needed, if we all do a little then together we’ll have done far too little.

I am more convinced than ever that our only hope of avoiding truly catastrophic climate change — and I’m talking about many millions, possibly billions of deaths over several decades from starvation, with all the societal turmoil that implies — is for us to get “lucky” enough very soon to be kicked in the teeth by the environment so hard that we’ll do damn near anything to make it stop.[1] But even a single horrible event won’t be enough; we’ve had plenty in the last decade and we continued to trundle on, determined to avoid connecting the flashing neon dots. No, what we will need is for the environment to knock us down and kick us in the ribs and stomach and head repeatedly, until the damage is so painful that we think we’re going to die. And even then it will take a level and nature of response that no one — and I repeat for the benefit of the people who troll this site looking for the non-existent proof of my extreme left-wing tendencies — not one person I know wants the kind of authoritarian, centralized control it will take to curb our emissions once we’ve crossed that line between bad and hideous impacts.

If I’m right, what is left for us to do? We can fight endlessly to nibble around the edges of climate change or more generally sustainability, but until we feel the infinitely cold hand of entropy begin to squeeze humanity’s heart, it’s all an exercise in farce.

[1] I’ve heard people suggest that hitting an atmospheric CO2 level of 400ppm, highly likely in a couple of years, would be a power wake-up call. This is terribly naive. Hitting that number would likely rate at the very most 15 seconds on the evening news, with no meaningful context.

The big event a lot of people seem to be pinning their hopes on is a Blue Arctic, meaning we get a near-total melting of the Arctic ice cap, even if only for a few days. This would likely get more than the 15 seconds that I predicted for hitting 400ppm, but I can see the faux balancing act from here: “Golly, look at the amazing photos from space! This hasn’t happened in X years! It’s probably climate change, but some wackaloon we found on the Intertubes with a PhD in shoelace design says otherwise! It also means we have lots of new shipping lanes every year, plus we can drill for more oil and natural gas! Breaking news! One of the Kardashians got a parking ticket!!!”

20 comments to A video postcard from Eaarth

  • “Welcome to the rest of our lives”?
    No. Not even close.

    By 2060 or so, on our current trajectory, the coolest years will be warmer than the warmest years today. This is not our future. Our future is much, much worse.

    Depressingly, you are right again.

  • Lou


    I can’t disagree with your 2060 point.

    Right now, I’m really struggling to find a minimally plausible path forward that doesn’t lead to almost unspeakable human pain.

    I’ve been reduced to hoping for some Big Natural Event that wakes us up without hurting too many people. Another possibility is a string of smaller incidents — failed corn crop in the US, failed Indian monsoon, heat waves in various parts of the world, etc. — that wear down our resistance so that we don’t need the Big Natural Event. Honestly, that feels to me like I’m being overly optimistic.

  • Terry Moran

    I fear you are too optimistic. When Arctic ice goes within the next few years, the switch from latent heat to sensible heat will be devastating. I don’t see an authoritarian centralized government being able to sustain itself, rather a swift return to tribalism with the xenophobia that implies.


  • mt

    See also

    “Disasters are the new midwives of history. But in order to play this role, they need to be catastrophic, like the accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 that led governments to suspend and even abolish their nuclear energy programs.

    “To spur real action on climate change, a disaster would have to be serious enough to change people’s minds, but not so great as to be uncontrollable, according to Martin Lees, Rector Emeritus of the United Nations University for Peace.”

  • Steve Bloom

    Consequences will be bad enough, Terry, but not as bad as that.

    Lou, IMO the likely minimal political impact of the first relatively Arctic sea ice-free summer period will be due first to the lack of instant major effects but secondly to the fact that it’s been talked practically to death. Familiar things are far less threatening than surprises.

    Just consider the certifiable climate impacts of the present vs. the lack thereof at the time of the first Rio conference 20 years ago. I kind of think that if the current stuff had been happening then there would have been something akin to a panic. After 20 years of slowly getting used to it, though, not so much. This is, of course, the slow drip/boiling frog/shifting baselines concept, which I used to be somewhat dismissive of, thinking that we couldn’t possibly be that stupid collectively. These days I’m not so sure.

    Well, I suppose it’s possible that the first Arctic ice-free period will lead quickly to an abrupt decline in year-round ice, major additional warming in winter in particular, and some attendant nasty weather changes in northern mid-latitudes that will be impossible to ignore, but even in that regard I’ve lost some confidence.

  • Peter

    I frankly see no hope at this time. Some say there is still ‘time’ to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But that ‘time’ is measured in a few years. Can we really peak our emissions by 2017? The climate is now reacting even more robustly to C02 then scientists thought 10 years ago, even 5 years ago. Frankly thus far many scientists have been very reticent to speak louder of the deep peril we now face as a civilization. A powerful plutocracy in this country has evolved over the last 35 years, beyond that of the Gilded Ages. This has made it nearly impossible to not only reform our energy sources, but also our healthcare system and our banks.

    The American Public still remains clueless about the deep trouble we are in. They may be beginning to see the light- admitting that global warming is ‘real’ but most do not know we are now at a point of no return. The entire hopes, dreams & future most Americans have planned for themselves and their children is about to go over a cliff- tragically most do not know or understand the profound disruptions ahead for them. And its beginning now.

  • Whatever effort we undertake may still help – that’s worth remembering. There are degrees of climate hell. The metaphor I always steal is the phase transition in random networks: connectivity remains low until, at a certain point, adding a few extra links creates a sudden jump. We can’t know at what point the world will catch on, but we have to keep on doing what we can to make those connections – cos I do think the necessary change could well happen quickly. Who knows exactly what rhizomatic activity is going on underground?

    Me and my partner have been having exactly the conversation you mention, Lou. Actually, I’ve been very quiet and polite to friends, and I’m only really just starting to become mildly hysterical. I find it impossible to know what to say when they ask, “well, what can we do?” It would be good to hear some answers. I guess first-up would be, ‘listen to just how bad the situation is. Don’t ignore it. Then we can work out what to do’. I think most people don’t know.

    As I mentioned a while back (and Steve suggested a collective job to get it done), I don’t think we should be waiting for the next IPCC report to tell us where things are at. One thing we could collectively do is try and very clearly lay out where things are at: how bad the physics is, what particular effects might be. This would all be useful for me – especially thinking through the effects if we do, in fact, continue to increase the yearly emission *rate*, as we’re doing right now.

    One of the most impossible-seeming things about this for me: even within those working to do something, entirely different political and economic philosophies come into play. The Transition Movement has exploded in popularity – a very successful grassroots movement, perhaps of the type that Elinor Ostrom called for in her final article. But they have a lot of untested, questionable assumptions. Or questionable to me, and who’s to know who’s right? Well – we do need to work that out, or at least find some way of acting while working it out. We have to move forward, not navel-gaze forever.

    I want to get better at talking to people I know about this. It seems to me that I’ve wasted waaaay too much of my energy arguing with deniers – which felt terribly righteous at the time, but I now suspect was utterly pointless. The important people are around me. If ever I want that sudden phase transition to take place, that’s how it happens. But how best to do it?

  • “There are degrees of climate hell.”
    Yes, this is a very important point. Three degrees could well be unbearably bad, but that is far, far better than four degrees, which in turn is worth fighting for over five. And so on.

    I recently posted some thoughts on this, reflecting on Monbiot’s three reasons for fighting a losing battle. In short, better to fight and die than die on your knees.

    • Lou

      “Three degrees could well be unbearably bad, but that is far, far better than four degrees, which in turn is worth fighting for over five. And so on.”

      That may qualify as the most accurate and terrifying use of the phrase “and so on” I’ve ever seen.

      This is a point I have to fight to keep in mind at times, the notion that this is most definitely not a binary issue — we keep warming below 2C and everything is just peachy, but it’s uniform and unspeakable hell at 2.000C and above. I think it’s also clear that the incremental awfulness of the global impacts of warming (marginal disutility, in economist-speak) likely increases for any conceivable scenario. (I’m referring here to the rate at which awfulness increases, not the total level, so going from 2C to 3C is very bad, but doesn’t deliver the amount of additional pain that going from 3C to 4C would.) Given that we have a world of over 7 billion people, headed for a peak of over 9 billion, so say the optimists, we have a stage set for more pain and suffering than just about anyone can imagine.

      To be clear: I’m not predicting that we’ll ride this mess straight into the ground at full speed. I agree, for the most part, with Paul Gilding when he says that things will get bad enough that we’re guaranteed humanity will respond. So the truly apocalyptic scenarios are very highly likely off the table. The issue is how much of the not-quite-worst impacts we’ll lock in before we have that long-overdue epiphany. This is where the timing issues I’m always blathering on about become our worst enemies. Imagine a timeline that runs from “we wake up” through “we figure out what to do”, “we get the right governments in place to do it”, “we implement the right policies (taking into account the long drag caused by the need to make massive infrastructure changes)”, “CO2 emissions drop a lot”, and “atmospheric CO2 levels start to decline”, finally ending at “we overcome the thermal disequilibrium and see a reversal of warming”. That’s a pretty long timeline, and we’re still trying to figure out how to get to the first milestone (the epiphany).

      This is also why I keep saying that it’s a virtual certainty that we will resort to one or more geoengineering hacks. We’ll wait so long, and so many things will start hitting the fan, that people will be desperate to do something NOW to try to alleviate the impacts. It will be like something out of a truly dreadful and unintentionally funny science fiction story.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou -

    “The issue is how much of the not-quite-worst impacts we’ll lock in before we have that long-overdue epiphany. This is where the timing issues I’m always blathering on about become our worst enemies. Imagine a timeline that runs from “we wake up” through “we figure out what to do”, “we get the right governments in place to do it”, “we implement the right policies (taking into account the long drag caused by the need to make massive infrastructure changes)”, “CO2 emissions drop a lot”, and “atmospheric CO2 levels start to decline”, finally ending at “we overcome the thermal disequilibrium and see a reversal of warming”. That’s a pretty long timeline, . . . .”

    While I don’t know any site that describes our position more plainly than this one, there are a few points on your comment I’d be glad of your thoughts on.

    First, i wonder if you’d agree that we know some parts of what we’re locking into our future, including:
    - around forty years of intensifying impacts (to 2052) from the timelagged warming off our past pollution output;
    - another ~forty years of intensifying impacts after that (to 2092) if we take as much as forty years to end our net GHG emissions;
    - ending our net GHG output also ends our maintenance of the cooling Sulphate Parasol, giving an additional warming of between 80% and 140% (says Hansen);
    - CO2 then resides in the atmosphere for a prolonged period due to the outright loss of some carbon sinks and the swamping of others by the interactive carbon feedbacks, some of which are already active and accelerating.

    Thus what we are already committed to, assuming that included zero emissions by 2052, does not permit a natural decline of airborne CO2e within a timescale to avoid the positive feedbacks taking over. We know of no negative feedbacks capable of preventing them from making the planet largely uninhabitable.

    Second, one of the parts that we don’t know is how soon we’ll have put enough heat into the oceans to commit us – maybe far down the road – to the destabilization of the massive seabed methyl clathrates stocks – which would be beyond any geo-engineering’s control. Thus I wonder if you might agree that effective geo-engineering as an adjunct to emissions control is not simply an inevitable panic response ? That it is in fact the utterly necessary and urgent requirement to halt further warming of the oceans and the further acceleration of the feedbacks ?

    For any who may question this on grounds that it doesn’t cleanse the atmosphere, and so doesn’t avoid terminal ocean acidification, I’d entirely agree that such cleansing is one essential form of geo-engineering – we have to be looking at Emissions Control AND Carbon Recovery AND Albedo Restoration – none of these is optional; all three are requisite to resolving our predicament.

    Meanwhile, according to the recent slightly veiled statement by the UK’s Chief Scientist, we are within 15 or 20 years of serial global crop failures, and the giga-deaths and conflict they would entail. The nearer we get to that global destabilization, the more difficult the negotiation of the essential climate treaty to legislate the global strategy of “Contraction & Convergence for Recovery”.

    Meanwhile, how many Americans yet see that current US climate policy is actually bipartisan ? That both Bush and Obama and Romney are quite content with the rising threat of climatic destabilization facing the Chinese Govt – If, or when, the Chinese people get hungry enough and overthrow it, that would be the end of China’s bid to usurp America’s global economic dominance.

    So the third question is whether you can see any higher priority for American nationalism than the deflection of any real threat to US global economic dominance ?

    From where I stand it seems that until enough Americans wake up to what is being done in their name, and stop wasting time on the convenient distraction of the circus of fabricated denial, we’ll continue to raise our commitment to catastrophic damage and suffering.

    All the best, and thanks for your dogged perseverance in posting what needs to be read,


  • Steve Bloom

    “We know of no negative feedbacks capable of preventing them from making the planet largely uninhabitable.”

    Well, bear in mind that the planet was perfectly habitable even at peak-PETM, although probably humans wouldn’t be able to live in much of the tropics under those conditions. Humans may well not survive such a disruption, but if so it will be because of other things we do to ourselves.

    Out of time now, but I’ll have a few more comments later.

  • Lou

    Lewis and Steve:

    Man, you guys sure know how to make comment thread interesting.

    Rather than respond here, I’ll elevate this to a new post in the next day or two, and try to meld it with something else I’ve been itching to write about, a slightly different analysis showing just how large is our CO2 challenge. (My timing for making that post will be even more suspect than normal as I’m engulfed in some positive-but-time-consuming personal matters right now.)

    But if you want to add anything else here in the mean time, please do so.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Steve -
    my notion of ‘uninhabitable’ is a place where you can’t grow food. As a farmer I can say that here in Wales (far from the tropics) it’s already a lot harder than it was ten years ago, and this year is the worst yet, and I get much the same message from farmers’ reports worldwide. At the other end of the profession, agribusiness tears up virgin land and pours on more chem inputs to try to keep production volumes up, but it’s a losing battle.

    I’m not sure this was your point though – but I doubt you’re suggesting that we stick with emissions control alone, and let the feedbacks rip. Could you clarify ?



  • Dan

    This week I’m off to a mini-conference on the gap between the physics and politics of decarbonisation. The stuff being written about here is so, so vital – but somehow, we don’t seem to have any way to effectively convey what we face. I’ll be snaffling what I can from here…

    I’m afraid I’m a terrible one for suggesting things to do, and too many at the same time so I only do about 1% of them… but there should be some interactive graph / feedbacks / effects stuff to be done to help with this, and to include the uncertainties. Steve Bloom’s previously mentioned crowdsourcing something like this. Can we get some decent numbers / diff equations etc for the most basic, but most informative of the effects, timescales, feedbacks and impacts we’re talking about here? Can any of them get stuck into a viz? Here’s a couple of ones I’ve produced recently (time series playing, certainty of uncertainty) the first unfortunately too reliant on keyboard shortcuts (see ‘controls’). But that’s the rough area I’m thinking is needed.

    It’s bizarre really: *the* most important set of ideas that have ever needed to be clearly communicated, and we hardly seem to be talking about it. I say we: it needs to be made clear enough that politicians can no longer avoid the fact that everyone else – their voters – knows what situation we’re in. At the minute, they can rely on fudging and confusion.

  • Dan

    Oops, sorry, wrong link for random walking one: here’s the one with an explanation.

  • Steve Bloom

    Lew, it’s just that I think “argely uninhabitable” is too strong of a statement, even for PETM-like conditions. But noting my caveat, land degradation and chemical over-use (and phosphorus depletion is right up there) are among the things we are doing to ourselves that will only make the effects of warming worse..

  • Lewis Cleverdon: is anyone keeping farm-gate yield numbers for examining the sort of thing you describe? I’m not doubting your word, but yield amounts at a decently disaggregated level would be better than word-of-mouth (since what businessman ever says, “yes, this year is actually much better than before…!”) Numbers would be very interesting to see. I’ll check this too with a friend who’s doing a PhD on Welsh food production, if I remember rightly.

  • Lou

    Once again, we have the issue of what a catastrophic impact would be — I’m talking about the “uninhabitable” point upthread.

    While I know of no one who is seriously talking about climate change or even sustainability issues in general triggering the literal extinction of human beings, I think those of us engaged on the topic make the mistake all too often of letting the deniers use that as a straw man argument. The question is not while every last human being perish, but will the cumulative effects be so great that they dramatically and negatively affect the trajectory of human civilization. If you look at the many indicators of looming water issues in critical areas — China, India, and US leap to mind — plus the “other water issue” of sea level rise, it’s clear that sticking to a BAU path means we’ll be faced with both staggering humanitarian costs as well as purely economic ones. By “humanitarian costs” I mean lack of food and potable water in some places, triggering great suffering as well as the creation of large numbers of environmental refugees. I think Lester Brown has it exactly right when he points out that we can sustain only so much of that before we start to see failed states. And by “purely economic” costs I’m referring to things like relocating or sea walling very large coastal cities. As just one of many possible examples, does anyone care to estimate the cost to relocate NY City, or “merely” re-engineer its entire, gravity-fed sewer system to withstand storm surges?

  • Hi all,

    I’m very impressed with this blog, including the comments.

    Anyone who is knowledgeable about climate change should be able to see that we are facing the potential breakdown of human civilization, within the next few decades.

    What is to be done about the Republican party here in the US? I have long felt that reasonable and compassionate people showed too much tolerance for the flagrantly wrong misconceptions held by Republican voters. I don’t see how the US (and by connection the world) has any chance of ameliorating climate change as long as the Republican party remains a major force in American politics. Of course many Democrats are far from climate-change heroes, but to me it seems clear than we need to completely decimate and discredit the Republican party as soon as possible, as they are surely the worst of the bunch.

    Any thoughts on this?


    • Lou


      Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about the, um, “loyal opposition”. We’re so far down the wrong path in terms of infrastructure and emissions (past, present, and locked-in future), and politics has become so insanely polarized that I think it’s just one more hurdle that Some Big Event will have to push us over.

      (By SBE I mean the endlessly discussed event that acts as a wake-up call. Right now, I think the most likely scenario is not some singular event, like a piece of Antarctic ice the size of a country in Western Europe breaking off, but repeated body blows, as in a string of droughts that curtail food production and cause repeated serious pain. It’s an ugly prospect, but I don’t see how anything less than that does the trick.)