Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

From the archives: Planetary prognosis

Given that the IPCC released their latest report last night (US time), the “AR5 WGII” report (available here as the SPM (Summary for Policy Makers) and the full report in sections), and it contains, to put it mildly, not exactly cheery news[1], I thought this gem from April 12, 2009 was particularly relevant, even if I strongly disagree with something the author says, as I explain below [emphasis added]:

Poor prognosis for our planet

Every patient with an incurable illness will ask how long they have to live. The answer goes something like this: “No one can say how long you may live, because every individual is different, but focus on the changes you observe and be guided by those. When things start changing for the worse, expect these changes to accelerate. So the changes that have occurred over a year may advance by the same degree in a few months, then in weeks. And that is how you can judge when the end is coming.”

Apply that thinking to climate change. When An Inconvenient Truth opened in 2006 it was generally supposed we had a window of two or three decades to deal with climate change. Last year that shrank to a decade. Last month Australia’s chief scientist, Penny Sackett, told a Canberra gathering that we have six years to radically lower emissions, or face calamitous, unstoppable global warming.

Six years. Given that this problem is usually described as a process unfolding over centuries, how can it be that things have spun out of control in such a short time? The worst case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dismissed a mere three years ago as remote possibilities, are now given very short odds: the death of the Murray Darling, the drying of southern-east Australia to a tinderbox, the increased flooding in low-lying areas, the defrosting of the Siberian tundra, the dramatic loss of rainforest and the break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf. All these things are happening as predicted but – if you believe the evidence – at several times the expected speed.

I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed. The current financial crisis is merely the curtain raiser to a grand opera of social and ecological collapse. Our children – forget our grandchildren, I’m talking about my own kids, aged 14, 11 and 9 – are going to live in a world in which major cities are flooded, fertile plains become deserts, populations run out of food and water, rivers run dry, fishing grounds become dead zones, our rainforests and living coral reefs become curiosities of history.

Climate change is often described as linear decline followed by some kind of distant “tipping point”. But consider these statistics: in 1979 Arctic sea ice cover remained above 7 million square kilometres all summer; from 1989 it was consistently above 6 million; in 2002 above 5 million; since 2007 above 4 million. I read recently we may have reached a tipping point and the ice will be gone in 20 years. But there is no tipping point – a curve is always tipping, and each new finding redraws the curve. If this year’s figure comes in under 4 million square kilometres the patient could be dead inside five years, and ships will be crossing the North Pole in September 2014.

The same kind of graph applies to most aspects of climate change – species extinctions, ocean acidity, loss of rainforest. These probably can be equated to the multiple indices by which we plot human health – white and red cell count, blood pressure, temperature and so on. For the planet, these have been tracking downwards for 30 years and, yet, we find comfort in distant thresholds, burning coal as if there is nothing to panic about.

It should be obvious to everyone reading this that trying to make predictions even a few years out about an absurdly complex system-of-systems, like our biosphere and the ecological web built atop it and then human civilization built atop that is almost unimaginably hard. The author is right that we should be acutely aware of non-linearities, tipping points, feedback loops, etc. Push enough of those subsystems far enough away from their prior equilibrium and we risk throwing not just those conceptually localized pieces but the whole smash into a very different state, one that we can’t fully predict and one that’s certainly less hospitable to human civilization as it developed over the last 10,000 years. As I so often say, the fundamental issue with climate change is that it invalidates the assumptions virtually all of our human and physical infrastructure depends upon; adjusting to those rewritten rules will be both painful and expensive.[2] The 21st century may soon become known as the Century of Dynamical Systems Science as we’re prodded ever more often and ever harder by climate change impacts.

So, yes, I do grok how serious this mess is. But are we “stuffed”? Is it “game over, man, game over!” as Bill Paxton memorably whined in Aliens? Well, no. The simple fact is that future emissions haven’t been emitted yet, a detail many people somehow seem to have trouble grasping. And not emitting them means less pain and expense than emitting them. As I’ve pointed out perhaps a billion times online and in presentations, we’ve already locked in and continue to escalate a mind-blowing amount of pain thanks to the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2 and the resulting sea level rise (along with other hydrological disturbances, like droughts and floods) for a very long time. But it is a basic misreading of the situation to look at that situation and leap to the conclusion that there’s no hope and therefore we should do nothing to reduce our emissions and instead focus on adaptation and disaster relief.

That basic formula — what we’ve done already is very bad, but we can stop it from getting far worse — should be all the motivation we need to leap off our couches and take swift, smart, and effective steps that serve our own best interests. But, of course, it’s not enough. CO2 emissions are still rising rapidly, and it seems all but impossible for us to avoid sprinting past the endlessly discussed 2C line that supposedly separates “safe” from “unsafe” levels of warming. Why are we like this? Why do we act like a band of obstinate children who refuse to collectively recognize a glowing-red stove is hot until enough of us has individually touched it and been badly burned?

I see this form of denial all the time in my friends and relatives, many of whom are highly educated people who have no doubt that climate change is real, present, serious, and man made. When I ask them about it, which isn’t often, almost invariably the response is that it’s such a big and scary problem that they don’t want to think about it, or they are willing to think about it but they have no clue what to do. Of course, this means they don’t change their voting or consumption patterns to be more climate-aware, so, to no one’s surprise, nothing changes. I can hear the executives at fossil fuel companies laughing maniacally in the background as I type this.

We are a patient that’s been diagnosed with a very serious medical condition, one that will radically alter our life — meaning modern civilization roughly as we know it — and could even end it. But the pain we’re already feeling isn’t nearly enough to make enough of us take action.


[1] There’s an explosion of media coverage of this report, as there should be, so I’m not going to attempt to give you, Dear Reader, representative links. Fire up ye olde Google Machine and/or the TwitMachine (assuming you follow climate-oriented individuals and media outlets) and you’ll find hours of reading material.

[2] As I said on social media this morning, the latest IPCC report reads like Fodor’s Guide to Hell and High Water. Or, as Bill McKibben would call it, Eaarth.

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