Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Getting Real on Climate

I did several versions of the following piece in 2005 and afterwards, which I posted on sites including Daily Kos. I was most inspired by a Mark Hertsgaard piece in the San Francisco Chronicle that year. It was the first I’d seen to say that because the climate was already changed and changing, we were going to have to deal with that as well as preventing even worse changes in the future.

 In his more recent book, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011), Hertsgaard traced his own awakening to this that year to an interview with David King, chief science advisor to the British government. At the time this was controversial. As Al Gore admits in his new book, The Future, he was among those who didn’t want people talking about dealing with effects of what’s already caused, because it would distract from what had to be done to lessen greenhouse gas emissions and all the other efforts to prevent worse effects in the farther future. He’s changed his mind about it now.

 But it was shocking to me as well in 2005 that climate disruption had already begun and was going to be manifesting effects for decades no matter how much greenhouse pollution was lessened now. It started me on investigating just what this meant, which led to exploring the concepts in this essay.

 I saw that because of these relatively unfamiliar concepts, and in particular the need to think and act along two tracks simultaneously, dealing with the climate future was going to be an even greater challenge in the evolution of humanity’s ability to understand the world, and to apply that understanding to this complex problem of  survival.  If it passes that test, then humanity takes another step to a greater destiny. 

 When discussing this two track challenge, I came up against that all too frequently bedeviling factor of nomenclature. For once again, the scientific and planning experts chose really unfortunate words to attach to each of these tracks: adaptation and mitigation. Neither of these words clearly distinguishes itself from the other, either can be applied in some way to the other track, and neither adequately describes what it’s about. They are also distressingly flat and abstract.

 I struggled for years to figure out better words to apply. Hertsgaard actually did very well in talking about “protection” and “prevention.” But I notice that in his book he’s reverted to the adaptation/mitigation terminology. I suppose that’s because they’ve become the most widely accepted terms. But frankly, I can’t accept them. I just don’t think that way. These days I’ve settled on discussing addressing the effects of global heating already underway or in the cards, and addressing the causes of climate disruption in the farther future. While perhaps not scientifically precise, the distinction between effects and cause make things much clearer to me, and I hope to others.

 I’ve edited one version of these 2005 essays down to the basic contentions. I’ve included some of the evidence I used, although individual facts may have become obsolete. None I fear has been superceded by anything more cheerful.

I've edited out in particular a political argument that now seems obsolete, but in a few years, may not. I argued that if Democrats were only going to talk about the causes, Republicans were eventually going to do a quick 180 and say—yes, global heating is real, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it, so we should apply all our energies to dealing with its effects—even if the methods we choose involve spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Some seven or eight years later, this looks less likely in the foreseeable future, as Republicans have become officially the party of global heating denial. But it could still happen, and it still might cause political chaos. For now, however, the point is that we must urgently link the efforts to address cause and effects simultaneously, if humanity is to have a chance.

Getting Real on Climate
Part of the problem is that there isn’t one problem: there are two.

There is the Climate Crisis of the next fifty years, which will require society to deal with effects of what it has already caused.   And then there is the possible end-game of the farther future, which requires different sets of actions now to prevent it.

Two sets of problems with different actions required. Getting this wrong is politically suicidal, not to mention self-destructive on a vastly larger scale.

It’s Here

This is what we must accept first.  It’s not “almost too late” to stop the Climate Crisis.  It is too late.  Moreover, it has been too late for decades.

It’s here.  It’s inevitably going to get worse for our lifetimes, and the lifetimes of today’s children and grandchildren.  We have to deal with it.

Perhaps the time beyond that can be affected for the better by what we do today.  And that’s the reason we should cut emissions.  For the farther future, beyond 2055.  So the Earth does not become an unrecognizable and unlivable planet.

Until then, the Climate Crisis will be our reality, and very likely our defining reality. 

But after that, things could get even worse.  And that’s something we probably can do something about.  And we should.

This is the framework we should be talking about. 

In this space I’m going to summarize a basic framework that I believe is emerging from the science and from the reporting on it by analysts with far more specific experience and better credentials in the field than me. 

The effects of global heating have been difficult for people to understand, as well as to face.  Global heating involves factors like time lag, feedback and tipping points, that are unfamiliar in political discourse and approaches to societal crises.

The Climate Crisis 2005-2055

These are rough approximations, meant to suggest that we have two problems: the first is the Climate Crisis we are already in, though these are early stages.  It will unfold over the next several decades, regardless of what we do about CO2 emissions.  We can’t prevent it, but there are other actions we need to take to respond.

Update 2011: According to Hertsgaard's HOT, UK climate expert David King told him that the effects of emissions up to that moment will cause climate effects for about 25 years, suggesting that's the lag-time.  But mid-century is still a pretty good guess as to when this could become the runaway cataclysm and collapse, if nothing about emissions is done soon. 

Climate Cataclysm and Climate Collapse 2055-2300

These are prospects for the long-term future if we don’t start cutting and soon stopping greenhouse gas emissions.  It is the outer limit of possibility, a virtually lifeless planet.

We don’t know if that’s what will happen, or if the climate will stabilize at some intermediate stage that nevertheless could mean the end of life as we know it on earth (killing many species of animals and plants, except those that can survive and evolve in the heat of the dinosaur age), which would include the end of civilization and probably our species on this planet.  If such Armageddon were to happen, we don’t know if it will take two hundred or five hundred years.  But in fifty years, it’s likely we’ll know a lot more.  But the end of this century going forward is likely to be frighteningly bad.

The important thing to emphasize about the far future is, because of time lag and feedback effects and tipping points, what we do now will contribute to this future, one way or another. 

It may already be too late.  But right now it’s most useful to look at this in two stages.  If we do, we’ll see that the actions necessary are different, and the actions that people are fighting about now aren’t the appropriate ones.  One thing is becoming pretty certain: even if Kyoto-style reductions in fossil fuel emissions were to actually be enacted, they will probably not reduce the Climate Crisis for the next several decades, and they certainly will not end it. 

 And when they don’t, and people have misunderstood why they are necessary (which is to possibly the farther future), they will feel lied to and cheated.  And if we don’t do what we really need to do for the Climate Crisis period, people and the environment will suffer because the kinds of actions that could ameliorate the effects of the Climate Crisis weren’t taken.

To understand how all of this is possible, we need to introduce a few basic concepts.


We’re used to dealing with crises when they become crises, not when someone predicts they will.  Most of the time, even though people have suffered and died needlessly, the problem is fixed before it gets out of hand, or the crisis ends (like an epidemic that runs out of victims without immunity) and eventually things get back to normal.

That’s not the nature of the Climate Crisis.  The Cause is cumulative over time. Once changed, it establishes a new baseline.  What’s done to cause it occurs decades before the effect.

And ending the crisis, changing the effect, is not a matter of slowly subtracting the stuff that caused it.  Because once the effect is caused, it takes on a life of its own.  

So the first factor is lag-time: the time between the cause and effect.  When that time is measured in decades, while so much of our political life is measured in much smaller increments of time (from tomorrow’s news cycle to next week’s poll numbers to four years at most), it is difficult for politicians to take responsibility.  Especially when nearly everything else in our lives geared to small time frames: the quarterly report, the yearly income, the flavor of the week.

Mark  Hertsgaard explained all this last February:
“At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of the debate likes to talk about: It is already too late to prevent global warming and the climate change it sets off. Environmentalists won't say this for fear of sounding alarmist or defeatist. Politicians won't say it because then they'd have to do something about it. The world's top climate scientists have been sending this message, however, with increasing urgency for many years. “

After studying the matter since 1988, the United Nations panel of some 2000 scientists issued its report in 2001: 

“The panel said that human-caused global warming had already begun, and much sooner than expected. What's more, the problem is bound to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better.”

“Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on how to prevent it -- for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol… But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. No matter how many "green" cars and solar panels Kyoto eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain amount of global warming is inevitable.
The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them. “
"Contrary to the impression given by some news reports, global warming is not like a light switch that can be turned off if we simply stop burning so much oil, coal and gas. There is a lag effect of about 50 to 100 years. That's how long carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere after it is emitted from auto tailpipes, home furnaces and industrial smokestacks. So even if humanity stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet would continue warming for decades. “

         But time lag isn’t the only structural element involved.  The climate is at its simplest a complex system, and systems have their own behaviors that “systems dynamics” and related disciplines are only beginning to understand. 

          Much system behavior is counter-intuitive.  My own example is sitting in traffic twenty or so cars away from a red light.  If you notice, you tend to move up when the light is red and stop when it is green.  That’s counter-intuitive, but it’s the way that system works.  A lag effect is part of the reason.  Counter-intuitive is not very helpful when you need to convince large numbers of people, in a society that prizes simple if not simplistic issues and solutions.


Feedback is another important factor in global heating.  Feedback is basically an effect becoming a cause of other effects, which affect the original cause.  Often it amplifies the original effect, like feedback from a noisy speaker into a microphone makes more noise, or distortion.

In the past year, climate scientists have studied several feedback effects. A study  of the 2003 heat wave in Europe—extreme summer heat which itself led to deaths estimated in the tens of thousands, making it a severely under-reported catastrophe—showed that plants expended more CO2 “breathing” in the heat than they took out of the atmosphere in photosynthesis.

 They were actually sending more carbon dioxide into the air than they were absorbing---a finding that shocked experts who believed that climate change would accelerate green plant growth in Europe, which normally would take carbon out of the atmosphere.  But extreme heat set up a feedback system, in which heat caused plants to behave in ways which would eventually increase the heating.

A related study showed that extreme heat waves also released CO2 stored in soil, which would add to the feedback effect of heat creating heat.

What feedback means for the Climate Crisis is substantially more trouble ahead than more linear analyzes suggested.  Because of lag time, experts expect that heat waves like the one in 2003 will occur every other year by the 2050s.  “By the end of the century,” one scientist warned, “2003 would be a cool year."   Add to that not-yet quantified increases due to feedback effects.

Another example is the melting of Arctic ice. One scientist explained: “What we're seeing is a process in which we start to lose ice cover during the summer," he said, "so areas which formerly had ice are now open water, which is dark."

"These dark areas absorb a lot of the Sun's energy, much more than the ice; and what happens then is that the oceans start to warm up, and it becomes very difficult for ice to form during the following autumn and winter. It looks like this is exactly what we're seeing - a positive feedback effect, a 'tipping-point'." 

Tipping Point

Over the period of the Climate Crisis half-century, feedback will worsen situations that seem to occur without cause, but are results of time-lag. What this might mean for this period of present to near future will be discussed a bit below.  But let’s follow the logic of the feedback effect to the ultimate danger.

The greatest threat scientists fear is reaching the point of no return, when a process takes on a life of its own and can no longer be stopped.  These days it’s often called the tipping point.

The tipping point might be described as the moment when positive feedback effects reacting to phenomena that can’t be controlled because their cause was in the past (time-lagged), creates catastrophic and self-reinforcing change. 

Where most of the world’s ice is now concentrated, once the melting ice passes its tipping point, it could mean complete melting, with huge rises in sea level that would inundate coastal cities. 

Consider this report:

Experts say Greenland's 3,000 metre (9,800 ft) thick ice sheet, which has been melting at ever higher altitudes in summers in recent years, may be vulnerable to a runaway thaw.

If the Greenland sheet melted entirely over the next few centuries, world sea levels would rise by about 7 metres (23 ft). Antarctica's far bigger ice cap is likely to be more resilient as the giant continent acts as a deep freeze.

A melting of the Arctic "may happen very abruptly. It's one of the big unknowns and would be irreversible," said Paal Prestrud, head of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

“The concern is that there are tipping points out there that could be passed before we're halfway through the century," said Tim Lenton, an earth systems modeller at Britain's University of East Anglia."

The infusion of cold water into certain warmer ocean currents possibly could create another tipping point, which would result in the ultimate paradox of global heating causing a new Ice Age---the scenario in a report to the Pentagon in 2004, and dramatized in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.
Atmospheric temperature change is itself a candidate for causing a cascade of effects that could radically change the planet. That possibility was given a dramatic and shuddering boost last week with the finding that CO2 levels are now higher by some 27 % than at any time in the past 650,000 years.  That’s a point in time at which our species still had nearly a half million years to evolve to the point we could be called almost human.

Back beyond 650,000 years is an earth that cannot support humans or much of any other familiar life forms. This is the ultimate end point: a planet too hot and dry to sustain much of life as we know it.

The 2 degrees of separation

The difference between the ongoing, onrushing Climate Crisis and Climate Cataclysm is a matter of degree.  Maybe one degree.

Mark Lynas in his Open Letter to the Montreal conference stated that at two degrees C above pre-industrial temperature or more, ”we'll likely lose the Greenland ice sheet - flooding coastal cities across the world - as well as coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, and many of the world's major breadbaskets, as deserts sweep across continental interiors.”  He reckons the planet has ten years to prevent this by seriously reducing emissions.

We’re at about one degree F higher now, about a half degree C.  Some predictions, based on our current rate of increasing fossil fuel CO2 levels through 2050, show a large rise by the end of the century of from 2 to 11 degrees C.

There are bound to be more surprises as information is gathered and calculations become more sophisticated.  No climate scientists, however, are looking for things to cool off anytime soon.
The lesson of 100 year predictions is this: we may be able to affect the future of our great-grandchildren’s children by moving aggressively to renewable and sustainable energy systems.  Some people alive right now will have to do something anyway when oil starts to run out, and renewable energy is likely to benefit people in their own lifetimes with better health, for instance. 

It may not save the far future, but if there’s any chance for us to save it, we should take it. That’s our responsibility, and I believe it will be the defining test of our civilization and of humanity itself.  If we don’t face this responsibility and Earth becomes barren because we didn’t, we don’t deserve to survive anyway.  Unfortunately we’ll take down the only known ecosystem in the universe with us.

The Climate Crisis

Even though cutting emissions may benefit the far future no matter why we do it, I believe it’s wrong to continue insisting that cutting CO2 is going to prevent the Climate Crisis, and especially that it is the single way to deal with the Climate Crisis.

If we insist that cutting emissions will do it, and the climate continues to get worse, all credibility will be lost.  Let’s do it, but for the right reasons.

More to the point, we’re going to have our hands full long before the end of the century, and we’d better face up to what might be needed.  That’s what our science fiction gathering of scientists and world leaders would be talking about now.

What are those effects?  As Katrina was about to hit the Gulf Coast, Ross Gelbspan wrote an oped piece that catalogued the year’s weather effects the press wasn’t reporting, at least not coherently as a gathering Climate Crisis.  They included: a two foot snowfall in Los Angeles, 124 mph winds that shut power in Scandavia, the Midwest drought that sent the Missouri River to its lowest recorded level, drought in Europe that caused wildfires in Spain and low water levels in France, 37 inches of rain in one day in Bombay that killed 1,000;, and a lethal heat wave in Arizona that killed 20 people in one week.

“The consequences are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying, “ he wrote. Yet the dots are not connected “because the coal and oil industries have spent millions of dollars to keep the public in doubt about the issue.”    

 Just this past week, studies on a couple of large but specific problems were released.

Disease: A World Health Organization study estimated that the Climate Crisis contributes more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year, now.  By 2030, a conservative estimate is they could double.

Why? Hotter temperatures mean that disease-carrying insects flourish where it was too cold before, and they live longer and reproduce more in places where cold winters kept their numbers down.  For example:

Just this week, WHO officials reported that warmer temperatures and heavy rains in South Asia have led to the worst outbreak of dengue fever there in years. The mosquito-borne illness, which is now beginning to taper off, has infected 120,000 South Asians this year and killed at least 1,000.

Senior U.S. and international officials said they now regard climate change as a major public health threat. Howard Frumkin, who directs the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called climate change “a significant global health challenge” in an interview this week.

Parasites that cause killing diarrhea flourish in the heat.  Though poor people and poor countries are the most vulnerable to disease as well as heat waves and hurricanes, being rich doesn’t guarantee immunity.  Rising temperatures also correlate with deaths from air pollution---from smog.

Water.  In a study also released last week: "Climate change experts led by Tim Barnett at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., found that at least one-sixth of the world's population, including much of the industrial world and a quarter of global economic output, appeared vulnerable to water shortages brought about by climate change."

Another study of 12 other models agrees generally with this conclusion. "I think this will be one of the first greenhouse gas-related problems that will fall on the civilized world," Barnett said. In particular, glacier and snow melt that furnishes fresh water to many places will fade in warmer climate.  This will also affect the ecosystems of rivers and their relationship to the ocean, and could lead to a lot of other effects, like a drain on protein from disappearing fish species.

This is another way that the Climate Crisis interacts with systems dynamics: it fools with the existing webs of life.  Species crash is already a problem, as habitats disappear or change because of development and exploitation.  The wetlands around New Orleans that used to protect the city against the force of hurricanes have disappeared, and the lack of them is an acknowledged cause of that city’s flooding.  Just because we ignore how the natural world supports our lives doesn’t mean we won’t suffer when those systems collapse, even before we’ve cared enough to figure out how they interrelate and are interdependent. Destroying keystone species and otherwise shredding the web of life can affect us even in the Climate Crisis period.

As it becomes worse, the Climate Crisis can unleash the ultimate human folly: warfare.

As Mark Hertsgaard pointed out, that Pentagon study “said that by 2020, climate change could unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes including mega-droughts, mass starvation and even nuclear war as countries like China and India battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce food and water.” 

What Should We Be Doing?

Mark Mark Hertsgaard:

"The need for such a two-track strategy of prevention and protection is gaining acceptance from most of the world's governments. In Britain, the Department of the Environment promises to publish its strategy for adapting to global warming by the end of 2005.
At the most recent international meeting on global warming, held in Buenos Aires in December, a majority of the delegates supported the establishment of a fund to aid countries already suffering from the early effects of global warming.

The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them.

Among the steps needed to defend ourselves is quick action to fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration flows by environmental refugees.We must also play offense. We must retroactively shrink the amount of warming facing us by redoubling efforts to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequester them where they are no longer dangerous." 

In addition a 2004 study suggested that global heating could mean the extinction of a million species by 2050. We need to put preventive measures beyond carbon on the Climate Crisis agenda.

There are so many specific areas to work on that regardless of what part of this two-track thesis anyone accepts, there's work to be done.  But ultimately an understanding and a working acceptance that this is a two track process is essential.  Because there may yet be temptations to argue about them as either/or propositions.  But this they cannot be.  That's part of the test for these generations.

There's much to overcome. As Ross Gelbspan wrote, "the ignorance of the American public about global warming stands out as an indictment of the US media.” But part of the problem, along with the millions spent on disinformation and on p.r. positioning,  is that people just don’t want to hear about it much---not in the way it is presented.  Because it seems so hopeless.  Even on these blogs, a piece on global heating is almost guaranteed to be unread.

But the emotional work to face the future must be done.  Hope isn't simply something you feel.  It's something you enact.  Hope for the future is made in the present.