Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

The missing urgency over climate change

One of, if not the, bedrock issue(s) we face regarding climate change is urgency. Put simply, how bad is it, really?

I have contended for a long time that when you take a broad and deep view of the situation, including (but not limited to):

  • The very long atmospheric lifetime of CO2, which makes our emissions effectively a one-way ratchet, unless someone invents an affordable way to suck massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently sequester it.
  • The lock-in effect of even small temperature increases on sea level rise
  • Ocean acidification
  • Floods
  • Droughts
  • Heat waves, e.g. the Eu in 2003, Russia in 2010, both of which had major impacts on human health as well as agricultural and energy production

Any reasonable person would conclude that the situation is quite urgent. In particular, consider the knock-on effects of sea level rise on coastal population centers and farmland around the world. Displace enough hungry people and you have a recipe for at a bare minimum hugely expensive, ongoing humanitarian crises and possibly failed states and armed conflict.

And all of this is without invoking the slumbering monsters under our bed — the methane and CO2 emissions from no-longer-permafrost and methane hydrate deposits.

Podesta questions why environmentalists would challenge Obama’s energy strategy:

President Obama’s senior adviser John D. Podesta rebuked U.S. environmental leaders Friday for challenging the White House’s energy strategy, saying he was “surprised” they would question his commitment to addressing climate change.

In a two-page letter obtained by The Washington Post, Podesta provided a detailed account of steps Obama has taken to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and others he has pledged to undertake as part of the climate action plan he unveiled in June. Podesta, who has spent several years championing an aggressive national and global climate strategy as chairman of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, began advising Obama this month on issues including energy and the environment.

He noted that the administration had already adopted strict fuel efficiency rules for cars and light trucks that “will cut 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution,” had promoted renewable energy development and is now working to regulate carbon from power plants, impose tighter energy efficiency standards and more stringent fuel economy rules for heavy-duty trucks.

These steps, while seemingly significant, can only be judged within the context of our overall situation. That means looking at the global atmospheric CO2 level, which famously breached 400 parts per million in 2013 for the first time in recorded human history; the global rate of CO2 emissions, in both absolute rate (over 30 billion tons per year from energy consumption) and as a trend over time (rising); and what level of emissions are locked in for the next few years to decades, thanks to our carbon-intensive infrastructure, barring any massive and expensive effort to retire existing coal plants and motor vehicles long before the end of their service lives. To say that these unassailable facts collectively present a less than cheery picture would be a grotesque understatement.

Please note that as with the permafrost/hydrates issue above, I’m sidestepping at least one immense issue, water. The energy/water nexus (which should be called the energy/water/climate/food/security super nexus, if we’re at all interested in accuracy) is already becoming a big issue and will only become more painful in the near- and mid-term future. In a rare positive interaction between all these forces at work, in some locations it might be the primary factor that forces us to curtail or even abandon fossil fuel use in favor of far less water-intensive ways of generating electricity, like solar and wind power. This is likely one of the reasons that China is pushing so hard to expand its use of wind power.

One of the fundamental problems is that we are so prone to patting ourselves on the back for our minor accomplishments, when the science and the physical reality of our situation, as described above, say we don’t have that luxury. As the atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira once observed both colorfully and accurately, “The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.” If humanity had started taking our current steps in the early 1960s, when US President Johnson was first warned about where we were headed, and we continued to follow up with decades of aggressive emissions cuts, then we would be in vastly better shape today. Not only would we be dealing with a much smaller infrastructure issue, but we’d have a dramatically lower atmospheric CO2 level, and therefore less in the way of current and future impacts to deal with.

In our hyper-political, excessively polarized public discourse we forget that physics, biology, and ecology not only have the final say, but they are all infinitely indifferent to our political intentions and accomplishments. At root they respond to the level of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; how those gases got there is utterly irrelevant to our climate mess.

This is why environmentalists are so frustrated by and disappointed in US public policy. Politicians and regulators say a lot of the right things (at least the ones who aren’t science deniers), but then we dither and delay and do who knows what while not making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline or whether to allow fracking for natural gas in various states, even as our CO2 emissions remain much higher than they need to be to serve our own best interests.

But, of course, we didn’t heed the word of scientists in the 1960s, just as we’re effectively ignoring them now. Instead we chose repeatedly to kick the can down the road and chase after it, and now in 2014 we find that — surprise! — the road not only ends in a cliff, but the edge is uncomfortably close. At least it is for those of us willing to lift our gaze from the can at our feet.

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