Ugly Talk about the Next 50 Years in the North Sierra
In one sense, it is correct to say there is no climate change “debate”. In terms of factual evidence, there are people who accept anthropomorphic global climate change, and some who don’t. Those who don’t simply refuse to consider what is known about the climate and human activity.
In another sense, there is a very heated debate going on in the scientific community. It is not over whether there is a human caused catastrophe on its way, but when and how bad? A recent study presented in preparation for the G20 meeting shows that we will have reduce carbon at a level of six times that of the Paris agreement. The US is on track to almost meet Paris, though it will be years down the road. If Trump is elected, even that small effort will be out the window.
We have very little likelihood of curbing greenhouse gases in time to prevent serious, long term changes to the climate.
But, how long do we have, and what changes should we expect?
Shouldn’t this be straightforward?
It shouldn’t. What we know about the future is based on what we know about the past. In the case of climate change, the evidence is built up across many disciplines, from those who study ancient ice, to those who study the animals and plants that exist under different climate ecologies, to those who study ocean currents, to those who study climate. What we know about human caused global climate change comes from running models and varying key elements, like greenhouse gas level or albedo (how reflective the surface of the planet is) and how the ecosystem responded in the past to similar situations.
There are many variables, and many positive and negative “feedback loops”. One example of the feedback loop involves the reflective power of ice in the Arctic. Ice reflects about 90% of incoming sunlight and heat; water absorbs a similar amount. The more ice you have, the more heat is reflected and the more ice you have. Likewise, the less ice you have the less ice you have until at some point you have no ice. That feedback loop is tied to another: there are gigatons of methane trapped in the ice and mud of the Arctic, held there by pressure and by temperature. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas; if all the arctic methane were released, the planet would rapidly heat up. The warmer the Arctic gets, the more methane is released, the warmer the planet gets, a positive feedback loop.
Another feedback loop is being experienced in California and Siberia, and indeed worldwide: increased wildfires. As the weather becomes unstable or hot, vegetation is stressed and wildfire becomes more common. Wildfires put off a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas; a feedback loop encouraging a hotter planet.
The problem is, even though the feedback loops are understood relatively well individually, they influence each other in what becomes a “multiple body problem” which can’t be resolved by ordinary mathematics. There are ways of mathematically determining some “possible” paths the planet might take, given what we have learned from the past, and many of those models “iterate”, or run an equation over and over, watching what effects emerge over time. Models can be very useful in getting a general sense of what might happen, but they are not specific, they only attempt to approximate climate behavior.
So, while it would be very convenient if we knew how soon, how bad things will change, we simply can’t.
The last time the planet got this hot was long ago.
The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) occurred about 56 million years ago. It as caused by greenhouse gases. The PETM experienced more gradual increase in greenhouse gases than the environment today. On a chart of carbon increase, the modern age has no equal, we have raised carbon so high, so fast.
The key feature of the PETM is that the initial warming led to feedback loops, and the warming resulted in an ever increasing release of methane from ice and deep ocean mud. The temperature eventually went to more than 5C, and species did die out, but mammals, like our ancestors, did very well during this period.
The PETM happened over many tens of thousands of years, species were able to adapt. It is not at all clear that our current heating will happen at all that slowly, and likely it will happen too fast for many species to adapt, which is why we are seeing the Sixth Great Extinction, and sea and land plants and animals are disappearing at an astonishing rate.
The Permian-Triassic extinction, which killed off the greatest majority of species (called the “Great Dying” happened about 252 million years ago, and one possible explanation for some of the extinctions are global climate change brought about by methane release.
What’s in a number?
The magic number, the increase in global temperature in degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, guides a great deal of public discussion. We are at 1C; there are already significant changes to climate. The magic number the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen is 1.5C. The Arctic has been 4C for months at a time. The true temperature of the planet is probably about 1.2C now; it could increase rapidly.
One factor complicating taking the planet’s temperature is water’s ability to absorb both heat and carbon dioxide.
“The evidence in this report shows a complex story of change in the ocean, change that is underway, is often already locked in for future decades, and is beginning to impact our lives. This is no longer a single story of challenges to coral reefs, but stories to changes across species and ecosystem scales, and across geographies and the world. It is pervasive change, driven by ocean warming and other stressors that is already operating
across scales and in ways we only barely understand.” https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2016-046_0.pdf
The Beautiful Sea
The oceans do a great deal of work for us. They distribute nutrients around the globe, giving us rich harvests of fish. The plankton in the ocean liberate much of the oxygen we breath. Ocean waters also do us another service: they moderate land temperatures and create weather. They not only absorb heat, they absorb CO2, but at a price. As oceans warm and become more acidic (the consequence of absorbed CO2), they become less hospitable to the life forms we rely on. There is solid reason to believe that, as the Arctic sea and the sea surrounding Greenland heat, the ocean currents will slow, stop, or even reverse, changing local weather and changing the way nutrients are distributed. Warm water floats on cold water, but fresh water floats above sea water. Those small differences power mighty currents. As the seas of the north are filled with cold, fresh water the conveyor system might break down.
Currently about a quarter of the world’s population rely on the ocean for all or a large part of their diet. That diet is already in danger from practices which catch fish to feed to hogs or chum prawns or higher value farmed fish. It is further put at risk by large volumes of micro plastic and other kinds of pollution which accumulate in the seas. Warming and acidification put a final strain on the system which is already seeing a dearth of toothed fishes and an increase of jellyfish.
The seas are reaching a saturation point for CO2. A worst case scenario sees the oceans stagnate, anaerobic life growing, and the seas eventually becoming toxic with hydrogen sulfide gas, a deadly poison.
Studies now show that, even at the current level of carbon dioxide, the world is going to change, to get warmer, and the seas to become less hospitable. That’s if we stop, right now, any burning of fossil fuels. We all know we can’t do that, even though progress is being made. Bringing all the planet’s 7.5 billion people to an acceptable level of wealth is very unlikely, since we have already harvested the low hanging fruit, the easy oil, the easy coal, the easy farming soil, the easy aquifers. The wealth of the planet, even with miraculous technology yet undiscovered, is nearly spent.
“Exacerbating an already concerning situation is the fact that the absorptive role of the ocean is also predicted to decline in the 21st Century, suggesting that the physics and chemistry of the ocean will be significantly different by 2100.” http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/09/23/global-warming-will-accelerate-as-oceans-reach-limits-of-remediation/
The planet is getting hotter, but it is not likely to do so steadily everywhere. Some places will freeze; Britain, for example, will experience a short lived ice age, as the ocean conveyor stops bringing warm waters. The progress will be in fits and starts; we will have years again with cooler weather and snow, just not many, and the frequency will decrease. Storms will become increasingly unseasonable and unpredictable.
This is because the climate is a complex system, as noted earlier. It will not be a smooth thing, it can exhibit sudden rapid changes of state. By “rapid” we mean not 5000 years, but perhaps as little as a decade. This is abrupt climate change; species are not able to adapt. Again, some places, maybe the North Sierra, will get colder for awhile, but likely will remain dry. In the last 110,000 years, there have been 20 instances of sudden climate change, the most recent was 8200 years ago. Often, the weather got suddenly colder, but sudden increases in temperature are also represented. If the climate change which hit over 8000 years ago hit today, it would bring major destabilization to the world as we know it.
In the last 110,000 years, there have been 11000 years when the climate was relatively stable. That is the 1100 years when our species founded agriculture and cities and empires and global corporations which eventually sucked the planet dry and filled the atmosphere with carbon and the seas with plastic. As a result, the long stable period is likely about to end.
“NASA recently released data showing that the planet has just seen seven straight months of not just record-breaking, but record-shattering heat (see here). We are well on track to see what will likely be the largest increase in global temperature a single year has ever seen (see here and here). The NASA data show that May was the hottest May ever recorded, as well as the fact that it crushed the previous May record by the largest margin of increase ever recorded. The same is now true for June (see here). That makes it five months in a row that the monthly record has been broken and by the largest margin ever. When record-smashing months started in February, scientists began talking about a “climate emergency.” Since then the situation has only escalated.” http://www.flassbeck-economics.com/how-climate-change-is-rapidly-taking-the-planet-apart/
The world as we know it is complex.
Our food comes from far away, and all our food, except for that raised locally, is drenched in fossil fuels. Fossil fuels make the chemicals used in corporate farming, which feeds most people. Fossil fuels are used to till the soil and plant, and harvest, and process, and truck 500 or 3000 or farther to your table.
Likewise, most travel is now powered by fossil fuels, though some propose that solar power on our houses and powerful new batteries will do away with fossil fuel powered vehicles, even semi trucks will be electric. That would increase our resilience, but fossil fuels would still be the necessary energy for our food chain for some time. There still is no windmill factory which converts raw materials into windmills using windmill power; there still isn’t enough energy in our wind system.
We would miss coal powered electricity, and we would miss petroleum roadways. If the weather suddenly changed, and our food chains were disrupted not for days but for weeks or months, civil society would break down, as it has in Argentine and Venezuela. The food and resource shortages there were caused by the ruling class withholding resources to bring the populations in line. A climate changed crisis would have no easy resolution.
“These rapid changes in the climate are already exacerbating natural disasters, water, food, energy and health insecurities, contributing to conditions that can lead to conflict, state instability, and state failure, straining military readiness, operations and strategy, and making existing security threats worse. During both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, the security community has taken steps to prepare for and reduce the risks climate change poses to the security landscape. Given that climate change affects all aspects of the security environment – including interactions with other state and non-state threats – these actions have been necessary to ensure the United States is able to protect and promote its interests.” https://climateandsecurity.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/climate-and-security-advisory-group_briefing-book-for-a-new-administration_2016_091.pdf
Real world consequences.
President Obama recently instructed the military to prepare for climate change. It was an odd move on his part, since the Pentagon has had an increasingly complete plan for over eight years.
Part of the Pentagon’s plan to deal with climate changed involved using renewable fuels from biofuel projects. That has proven to be a carbon positive choice, since it takes almost as much fossil fuels to grow and deliver biofuels as to simply use oil. Further, it is the activities which require combustion of any sort which liberate CO2. Biofuels are not an intelligent substitute for fossil fuels.
But, the military has looked carefully at the likely outcomes of climate change.
Due climate change and other environmental impacts such as ground water pollution, food and water will be in increasingly short supply.
The US military has said that climate change is already destabilizing some countries, and that we should expect much more unrest internationally, and here in the US.
Climate change is projected to produce more intense and frequent extreme weather events, multiple weather disturbances, along with broader climatological effects, such as sea level rise. These are almost certain to have significant direct and indirect social, economic, political, and security implications during the next 20 years. These effects will be especially pronounced as populations continue to concentrate in climate-vulnerable locales such as coastal areas, water-stressed regions, and ever-growing cities. These effects are likely to pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades, though models forecast the most dramatic effects further into the future. https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-and-publications/214-reports-publications-2016/1415-implications-for-us-national-security-of-anticipated-climate-change
In California, hot and dry.
Recent studies have shown a correlation between the temperature of the Eastern Pacific and rainfall in California. Even state government acknowledges the climate is going to change, and is taking steps both to reduce greenhouse gases and to prepare the population for a change in the availability of water. It is likely that the millions of dead and dying trees in the Sierra will be replaced by brush and grass.
Our lot won’t improve, either, as we’ll almost certainly see more state involvement in our lives, more law enforcement, increasing restrictions on our liberties. California is currently disarming its people, making sure that only police have modern center fire rifles. Budgets will be cut; weather crises will emerge, and the populated parts of the state will get the resources. It is possible, as carbon taxes increase and personal auto ownership decreases, that our roads will be let go, since they are remote, and used little compared to some roads and highways. If we don’t learn to grow foods which fit our new climate, and if we fail to build local energy infrastructure, times might be hard.
Again, there are things which could mitigate our situation; solar power and rechargeable vehicles might work well enough to keep our scattered communities from being isolated, but they require rare earths which are, themselves, subject to shortages. It requires a certain amount of social complexity for a given technology. For example, paper emerges as society becomes so complex record keeping is necessary. No one knows how bad climate change will become, or how much strain the global system can withstand. It may be that 2C is more than enough to rend the complex global network in which our lives are embedded.
Some feel abrupt climate change could happen any time, and point to the polar caps which are diminishing much more quickly that was earlier assumed. They point to weather caused food shortages and the increasing number of extreme weather events. Wildfire, for example, has swamped the resources of local governments and even national governments, as Russia lets huge fires burn simply because there is nothing to be done. Social migration to due to sea level rise and due to resource depletion is a strong component of the daily news. Some suggest that at any time the climate might abruptly tip to a new high.
“A 10°C temperature rise could eventuate within one decade and this also makes the danger imminent…” http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-threat-of-arctic-albedo-change.html
Others feel real climate change is thousands of years off. A relatively modest paper which suggested a rise to 5C in a few thousand years if nothing is done was condemned as alarmist by a National Geographic article. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/09/global-warming-study-13-degrees-is-wrong-climate-change/
What should we do?
What people have always done, for tens of thousands of years: hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
We can already see the advantages of going solar, for example. By now, most people know about the local food movement, and the importance of learning to grow at least some of your own food. We should invest in community, if we can. We should reduce flammable fuels from around our homes. We should have a plan for the very likely day when the cell phones and internet don’t work. We should demonstrate resilience, and we should be prepared for sudden changes not only in weather, but in government. We should find joy whenever we can, and we should learn now to rely more on love and less on anger.
In short, what people who lived through hard times have always done.
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