Updated most recently, likely for the final time, 2 August 2016.
The Great Dying wiped out at least 90% of the species on Earth due to an abrupt rise in global-average temperature about 252 million years ago. The vast majority of complex life became extinct. Based on information from the most conservative sources available, Earth is headed for a similar or higher global-average temperature in the very near future. The recent and near-future rises in temperature are occurring and will occur at least an order of magnitude faster than the worst of all prior Mass Extinctions. Habitat for human animals is disappearing throughout the world, and abrupt climate change has barely begun. In the near future, habitat for Homo sapiens will be gone. Shortly thereafter, all humans will die.
There is no precedence in planetary history for events unfolding today. As a result, relying on prior events to predict the near future is unwise.
I’m often accused of cherry picking the information in this ever-growing essay. I plead guilty, and explain myself in this essay posted 30 January 2014. My critics tend to focus on me and my lack of standing in the scientific community, to which I respond with the words of John W. Farley: “The scientific case is not dependent on citation of authority, no matter how distinguished the authority may be. The case is dependent upon experimental evidence, logic, and reason.” In other words, stop targeting the messenger.
A German-language version of this essay, updated 26 June 2014, is available in pdf form here with my thanks to Wermer Winkler. A Russian version focused on self-reinforcing feedback loops, courtesy of Robin Westenra and colleagues, is here. A Polish version, updated often, is available here.
American actress Lily Tomlin is credited with the expression, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” With respect to climate science, my own efforts to stay abreast are blown away every week by new data, models, and assessments. It seems no matter how dire the situation becomes, it only gets worse when I check the latest reports.
The response of politicians, heads of non-governmental organizations, and corporate leaders remains the same, even though they surely know everything in this essay. They’re mired in the dank Swamp of Nothingness. Margaret Beckett, former U.K. foreign secretary said in September 2008 on BBC America television, with respect to climate change: “Will it harm our children? Will it harm our grandchildren? Actually, it’s a problem for us today.” As Halldor Thorgeirsson, a senior director with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said on 17 September 2013: “We are failing as an international community. We are not on track.” These are the people who know about, and presumably could do something about, our ongoing race to disaster (if only to sound the alarm). Tomlin’s line is never more germane than when thinking about their pursuit of a buck at the expense of life on Earth.
Worse than the aforementioned trolls are the media. Fully captured by corporations and the corporate states, the media continue to dance around the issue of climate change. Occasionally a forthright piece is published, but it generally points in the wrong direction, such as suggesting climate scientists and activists be killed (e.g., James Delingpole’s 7 April 2013 hate-filled article in the Telegraph). Leading mainstream outlets routinely mislead the public.
Mainstream scientists minimize the message at every turn, with expected results. As we’ve known for years, scientists almost invariably underplay climate impacts (James Hansen referred to the phenomenon as “scientific reticence” in his 24 May 2007 paper about sea-level rise in Environmental Research Letters). A paper in 27 June 2016 online issue of Nature Climate Change reinforces the idea of scientific conservatism, pointing out that dependence upon historical records leads to missing about one-fifth of global warming since the 1860s.
In some cases, scientists are aggressively muzzled by their governments. Britain’s Royal Society began actively ignoring observational science about Arctic methane in 2014. Canada no longer allows some climate-change information into the public realm (and see this report from 20 August 2015. Even museums are not safe from misinformation about climate science to appease fossil-fuel philanthropists, as reported in the 17 June 2014 issue of AlterNet. I’m not implying conspiracy among scientists. Science selects for conservatism. Academia selects for extreme conservatism. These folks are loathe to risk drawing undue attention to themselves by pointing out there might be a threat to civilization. Never mind the near-term threat to our entire species (most couldn’t care less about other species). If the truth is dire, they can find another, not-so-dire version. The concept is supported by an article in the February 2013 issue of Global Environmental Change pointing out that climate-change scientists routinely underestimate impacts “by erring on the side of least drama” (also see overviews of this phenomenon from 21 May 2014 and from 15 July 2014, the latter from the U.S. National Research Council as reported by Truth-out). Even the climatic response to greenhouse gases has been too conservative, as reported in the 14 December 2015 online issue of Nature Climate Change. And even the often-conservative Robert Scribbler points out in his 18 July 2014 essay: “NASA’s CARVE study has been silent for a year, the University of Maryland has stopped putting out publicly available AIRS methane data measures, the NOAA ESRL methane flask measures, possibly due to lack of funding, haven’t updated since mid-May, and even Gavin Schmidt over at NASA GISS appears to have become somewhat mum on a subject that, of late, has generated so much uncomfortable controversy.” (Apocalypse 4 Real blog responded to Scribbler on 24 July 2014, and the response is linked here.) Schmidt increased his efforts to discredit the work of other scientists in early October 2014 with unfounded, unprofessional behavior. His insanity was made apparent in an interview for the August 2015 issue of Esquire with a single sentence: “There’s no actual evidence that anything dramatically different is going on in the Arctic, other than the fact that it’s melting pretty much everywhere.”
In addition, the consolidation of the scientific publishing industry is accelerating, with expected, profit-based results. A paper published in the 10 June 2015 issue of PLoS One based on 45 million documents indexed in the Web of Science over the period 1973-2013 found that the top five most prolific publishers account for more than half of recent papers published.
Almost everybody reading these words has a vested interest in not wanting to think about climate change, which helps explain why the climate-change deniers have won. They’ve been aided and funded by the fossil-fuel industry, the memos from which “reveal decades of disinformation—a deliberate campaign to deceive the public that continues even today,” according to an in-depth analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists in July 2015.
Investigative journalist Lee Fang, writing for The Intercept on 25 August 2015, uncovers a relationship between climate-denying attorney Christopher Horner and big coal. Horner is an attorney who claims that the earth is cooling, is known within the scientific community for hounding climate change researchers with relentless investigations and public ridicule, and he often derides scientists as “communists” and frauds.
Horner is a regular guest on Fox News and CNN, and has been affiliated with a number of think tanks and legal organizations over the last decade. He has called for investigations of climate scientists affiliated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and NASA, and inundated climate researchers at major universities across the country with records requests that critics say are designed to distract them from their work.
The 20 August 2015 bankruptcy filing of Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal companies in America, includes line items for all of the corporation’s contractors and grant recipients. Among them are Horner individually at his home address, as well as the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, where he is a senior staff attorney.
It’s not only the scientists who underestimate the damage. It’s the science itself, too. Consider, for example, information derived from satellites which, according to a March 2015 paper in Journal of Climate, significantly underestimate temperature of the middle troposphere. “In short, the Earth is warming, the warming is amplified in the troposphere, and those who claim otherwise are unlikely to be correct.”
Some university professors will promote climate-change denial for the right price. According to the 8 December 2015 issue of The Guardian, “An undercover sting by Greenpeace has revealed that two prominent climate sceptics were available for hire by the hour to write reports casting doubt on the dangers posed by global warming.” The professors in question are William Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett professor of physics at Princeton University and Frank Clemente, professor emeritus of sociology at Pennsylvania State University.
Beyond Linear Change
I’m often told Earth can’t possibly be responsive enough to climate change to make any difference to us. But, as the 27 May 2014 headline at Skeptical Science points out, “Rapid climate changes more deadly than asteroid impacts in Earth’s past.” That’s correct: climate change is more deadly than asteroids.
Ever late to the party, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admits global warming is irreversible without geoengineering in a report released 27 September 2013. The IPCC is among the most conservative scientific bodies on the planet, and their reports are “significantly ‘diluted’ under political pressure.” On 22 April 2014, Truth-out correctly headlines their assessment, “Intergovernmental Climate Report Leaves Hopes Hanging on Fantasy Technology.” Time follows up two days later with a desperate headline, “NASA Chief: Humanity’s Future Depends On Mission To Mars” (first up: greenhouses on Mars). As pointed out in the 5 December 2013 issue of Earth System Dynamics, known strategies for geoengineering are unlikely to succeed (“climate geo-engineering cannot simply be used to undo global warming“). “Attempts to reverse the impacts of global warming by injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere could make matters worse,” according to research published in the 8 January 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. In addition, as described in the December 2013 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, geoengineering may succeed in cooling the Earth, it would also disrupt precipitation patterns around the world. In the Arctic, “any sea ice or snow retention as a result of geoengineering is lost within a decade,” according to a paper in the 15 February 2014 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. Furthermore, “risk of abrupt and dangerous warming is inherent to the large-scale implementation of SRM” (solar radiation management), as pointed out in the 17 February 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. About a week later comes this line from research published in the 25 February 2014 issue of Nature Communication: “schemes to minimize the havoc caused by global warming by purposefully manipulating Earth’s climate are likely to either be relatively useless or actually make things worse.” Finally, in a blow to technocrats published online in the 25 June 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, a large and distinguished group of international researchers concludes geo-engineering will not stop climate change. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences piles on with a report issued 10 February 2015, concluding geoengineering is not a viable solution for the climate predicament. An analysis in Europe reached the same conclusion in an assessment published 16 July 2015. As it turns out, the public isn’t impressed, either: Research published in the 12 January 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change “reveals that the overall public evaluation of climate engineering is negative.” Despite pervasive American ignorance about science, the public correctly interprets geo-engineering in the same light as the scientists, and contrary to the techno-optimists.
Unimpressed with evidence and public opinion, some scientists forge on, illustrating that the progressive perspective often means progresssing toward the cliff’s edge. As reported in the 27 November 2014 issue of New Scientist, initial efforts to cool the planet via geo-engineering have taken shape and might begin in two years.
The IPCC operates with a very conservative process and produces very conservative reports for several reasons, among them the failure to include relevant self-reinforcing feedback loops (as pointed out in the 1 April 2015 issue of the Washington Post). And then governments of the world meddle with the reports to ensure Pollyanna outcomes, as reported by a participant in the process (also see Nafeez Ahmed’s 14 May 2014 report in the Guardian and the 3 July 2014 paper in National Geographic). According to David Wasdell’s May 2014 analysis, which includes a critique of the IPCC’s ongoing lunacy, “equilibrium temperature increase predicted as a result of current concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gasses is already over 5°C.” I see no way for humans to survive such a rise in global-average temperature.
Wasdell’s analysis from September 2015 includes several noteworthy conclusions: (1) “Current computer estimates of Climate Sensitivity are shown to be dangerously low,” revealing (2) “an eight-fold amplification of CO2 forcing (in contrast to the three-fold amplification predicted by the IPCC climate modelling computer ensemble), (3) “the 2°C target temperature limit is set far too high” (emphasis in original), and (4) “anthropogenic change is at least 100 times faster than at any time in the Paleo record.” The report’s bottom line: “There is no available carbon budget. It is already massively overspent, even for the 2°C target.”
Further evidence of the conservative nature of the IPCC is revealed by a paper in the 8 January 2016 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans focused on warming of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment of projected global and regional ocean temperature change is based on global climate models that have coarse (∼100 km) ocean and atmosphere resolutions. In the Northwest Atlantic, the ensemble of global climate models has a warm bias in sea surface temperature due to a misrepresentation of the Gulf Stream position; thus, existing climate change projections are based on unrealistic regional ocean circulation. Here we compare simulations and an atmospheric CO2 doubling response from four global climate models of varying ocean and atmosphere resolution. We find that the highest resolution climate model (∼10 km ocean, ∼50 km atmosphere) resolves Northwest Atlantic circulation and water mass distribution most accurately. The CO2 doubling response from this model shows that upper-ocean (0–300 m) temperature in the Northwest Atlantic Shelf warms at a rate nearly twice as fast as the coarser models and nearly three times faster than the global average.”
Less than two weeks later, a paper in the 19 January 2016 issue of Geophysical Research Letters addresses the issue of Sandy-like superstorms under the influence of a substantially warmer Atlantic Ocean. The abstract of the paper includes these lines: “we find that possible responses of Sandy-like superstorms under the influence of a substantially warmer Atlantic Ocean bifurcate into two groups. In the first group, storms are similar to present-day Sandy …, except they are much stronger, with peak Power Destructive Index (PDI) increased by 50–80%, heavy rain by 30–50%, and maximum storm size (MSS) approximately doubled. In the second group, storms amplify substantially …, with peak PDI increased by 100–160%, heavy rain by 70–180%, and MSS more than tripled compared to present-day Superstorm Sandy.”
Gradual change is not guaranteed, as pointed out by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in December 2013: “The history of climate on the planet — as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores — is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years.” The December 2013 report echoes one from Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution more than a decade earlier. Writing for the 3 September 2012 issue of Global Policy, Michael Jennings concludes that “a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the sub-sea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable.” During a follow-up interview with Alex Smith on Radio Ecoshock, Jennings admits that “Earth’s climate is already beyond the worst scenarios.” Truth-out piles on 18 March 2014: “‘climate change'” is not the most critical issue facing society today; abrupt climate change is.” Skeptical Science finally catches up to reality on 2 April 2014 with an essay titled, “Alarming new study makes today’s climate change more comparable to Earth’s worst mass extinction.” The conclusion from this conservative source: “Until recently the scale of the Permian Mass Extinction was seen as just too massive, its duration far too long, and dating too imprecise for a sensible comparison to be made with today’s climate change. No longer. Piling on in January 2015, a paper in press in the journal Progress in Physical Geography concludes the abstract with this line: “All the evidence indicates that most long-term climate change occurs in sudden jumps rather than in incremental changes.” The Brisbane Times catches up with abrupt climate change on 18 August 2014: “Let us be clear: if these methane escapes continue to grow, the risk is they could drive the planet into accelerated or ‘runaway’ global warming. The last time this happened, 50 million years ago, global temperatures rose by an estimated 9 or 10 degrees. In the present context, that would mean the end of the world’s food supply.” Robert Scribbler finally joins the uprising on 29 October 2014: “What is clear is that feedbacks to the human heat forcing are now starting to become plainly visible. That they are providing evidence of a stronger release from some sources on a yearly basis.” The Daily Kos summarizes evidence indicating abrupt climate change on 14 March 2015 with an article headlined, “The Earth is Set for Rapid Warming.” A paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 12 October 2015 finds “abrupt changes in sea ice, oceanic flows, land ice, and terrestrial ecosystem response …. A particularly large number is projected for warming levels below 2°.” The latter paper was the focus of an an article in the 15 October version of the Washington Post. Also that month, a paper in the 15 October 2015 issue of Paleoceanography furthers the case for abrupt climate change: “This record reveals that the climatic shift during the early deglacial occurred rapidly (explained co-author Kennett, a professor emeritus in University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Earth Science. “Of the 13 degree Fahrenheit total change, a shift of 7 to 9 degrees occurred almost immediately right at the beginning.”
The California Climate Change Symposium was held in Sacramento on 24 and 25 August 2015. The conclusion is reported via headline in the 25 August 2015 edition of the Daily Breeze: “California climate researchers sound the alarm at symposium: ‘There’s no way out.’”
Susanne Moser, a leading Santa Cruz-based climate change researcher, was quoted in the article: “We need transformational change. We don’t need more studies as much as we need to communicate the urgency …. We need to not debate forever.” A scientist admitting we don’t need more study of an issue is stunning.
Regional warming events during the past 56,000 years were described in the 7 August 2015 edition of Science and led to the expectedly “unexpected” outcome: “Unexpectedly, rapid climate changes associated with interstadial warming events are strongly associated with the regional replacement/extinction of major genetic clades or species of megafauna.” In short, “it doesn’t bode well for the future survival of the world’s megafauna populations”. In this study, megafauna refers to animals exceeding 45 kg (about 99 pounds). Similarly, according to the abstract of a paper in the 17 June 2016 issue of Science Advances, “The causes of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions (60,000 to 11,650 years ago, hereafter 60 to 11.65 ka) remain contentious, with major phases coinciding with both human arrival and climate change around the world. The Americas provide a unique opportunity to disentangle these factors as human colonization took place over a narrow time frame (~15 to 14.6 ka) but during contrasting temperature trends across each continent. … We identify a narrow megafaunal extinction phase 12,280 ± 110 years ago, some 1 to 3 thousand years after initial human presence in the area. Although humans arrived immediately prior to a cold phase, the Antarctic Cold Reversal stadial, megafaunal extinctions did not occur until the stadial finished and the subsequent warming phase commenced some 1 to 3 thousand years later. The increased resolution provided by the Patagonian material reveals that the sequence of climate and extinction events in North and South America were temporally inverted, but in both cases, megafaunal extinctions did not occur until human presence and climate warming coincided.”
As reported by Robert Scribbler on 22 May 2014, “global sea surface temperature anomalies spiked to an amazing +1.25 degrees Celsius above the, already warmer than normal, 1979 to 2000 average. This departure is about 1.7 degrees C above 1880 levels — an extraordinary reading that signals the world may well be entering a rapid warming phase.” By July of 2015, Scribbler’s writing had become alarming — consistent with the situation — even though he still refused to accept the concept of human extinction as he adhered to 2 C as a target.
Not to be outdone, now that abrupt climate change has entered the scientific lexicon, is dire news published in the 25 July 2014 issue of Science. “The study found that synchronization of the two regional systems began as climate was gradually warming. After synchronization, the researchers detected wild variability that amplified the changes and accelerated into an abrupt warming event of several degrees within a few decades.” Global-average temperature rising “several degrees within a few decades” seems problematic to me, and to anybody else with a biological bent. As reported eight days later in Nature Climate Change, rapid warming of the Atlantic Ocean, likely caused by global warming, has turbocharged Pacific Equatorial trade winds. Currently the winds are at a level never before seen on observed records, which extend back to the 1860s. When this phenomenon ceases, likely rapid changes will include a sudden acceleration of global average surface temperatures.
A paper in the 10 November 2015 issue of Nature Communications reports that the pace of past episodes of climate change is likely to have been underestimated. The abstract concludes: “A compilation of 194 published oceanic and continental temperature changes spanning the Ordovician period (476 Myr ago) to the present provides a holistic picture of the attainable magnitude and rate of both warming and cooling episodes through Earth history across a range of measurement timespans. We demonstrate that magnitudes and rates of geological temperature changes in this compilation exhibit power law scaling with timespan, emphasising how geological data alias (sic) short-term climate variability. Consequently, the true attainable pace of ancient climate change may be commonly underestimated, compromising our understanding of the relative pace (and severity) of both ancient and recent climate change.” In this case, the title of the paper tells the story: “Maximum rates of climate change are systematically underestimated in the geological record.”
A paper published in the 9 March 2015 online issue of Nature Climate Change indicates that we are on the verge of “near-term acceleration in the rate of temperature change.” In this case, near-term means by 2020. As indicated in the paper’s abstract, “We find that present trends in greenhouse-gas and aerosol emissions are now moving the Earth system into a regime in terms of multi-decadal rates of change that are unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years.” “Anthropogenic carbon release rate unprecedented during the past 66 million years,” according to the title of a paper in the 21 March 2016 online issue of Nature Geoscience. The summary of a paper in the 8 April 2016 issue of Science concludes: “The climatic changes during the PETM occurred over longer time scales than those of anthropogenic climate change. The impacts of the latter may thus be even more severe.”
Deniers of abrupt climate change are running out of arguments. We are in the midst of abrupt climate change. This event has ample precedence, as reported in the aforementioned paper in Nature Communications. Even voices from the mainstream media are catching up to the reality of abrupt climate change. An article in the 11 January 2016 issue of The New Yorker points out the rapidity with which climate can change, leading to large numbers of dead humans: “One of the most important insights of recent studies is that, when the climate changes, it can do so swiftly and relentlessly. It is possible, in a human lifetime, to see sea levels rise and ice shelves break away, and, when they do, nothing about what happens next can be taken for granted. The climate record is full of sudden disasters.” Sea-level rise is proceeding at the fastest rate in the last 28 centuries, according to a paper in the 22 February 2016 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And record-setting hot years are attributed to anthropogenic climate change as far back as the 1930s, according to a paper in the 7 March 2016 online issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
As headlined in the 6 July 2016 issue of Grist magazine, “New York City hopes a 10-foot wall can save it from rising seas.” I wouldn’t bet on hope, prayer, or unicorns. And New York City will cease to exist in the years ahead.
Geoengineers will not be able to do away with rising seas, according to a paper published in the 10 March 2016 issue of Earth System Dynamics. The proposed approach of pumping water from the sea and storing it as ice on the continent of Antarctica will not delay sea-level rise. Rather, unless the seawater is pumped enormous distances at tremendous energy cost, the strategy will only accelerate the flow of the glaciers and it will all end up back in the sea again.
A study published in the 10 November 2015 issue of Nature Communications presents “geomorphological data that reveal the existence of a large buried paleodrainage network on the Mauritanian coast.” An article the same day in The Guardian includes these lines: “A vast river network that once carried water for hundreds of miles across Western Sahara has been discovered under the parched sands of Mauritania. … Water may last have coursed through the channels 5,000 years ago.” The Guardian quotes Russell Wynn at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, who was not involved in this study: “People sometimes can’t get their head around climate change and how quickly it happens.”
An article in press in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, presumably to appear in the February 2016 issue, reports on massive ice loss from the Mauna Loa Icecave in Hawaii. The icecave was surveyed in 1978, and then rediscovered by the authors of this study in 2011. Extensive measurements between 2011 and 2014 are reported as follows in the abstract: “Perennial ice still blocks the lava tube at the terminal end, but a previously present large ice floor (estimated 260 m2) has disappeared. A secondary mineral deposited on the cave walls is interpreted as the result of past sustained ice levels.”
According to an article published in the 28 December 2015 issue of Hawaii News Now, a 1978 article published in the “Limestone Ledger” included a meticulous map of the 656-foot-long cave, and vital information about where permanent ice was found. But after reading the piece, the researchers quickly noticed something: The 1978 survey, which included photos, showed a contiguous, walkable ice floor (known as the “skating rink”) and large ice blocks. In contrast, the team’s new survey of the cave showed far less permanent ice. The team said the “skating rink” was gone by the time they conducted their multi-year analysis. All of the former known ice blocks had melted away, too. And ice patches on the wall are now seasonal, rather than year-round. In short, the research team found that in three decades, much of the ice in the ice cave had disappeared.
A paper in the 4 January 2016 online issue of Nature Geoscience further illustrates the rapid rise of contemporary changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide compared to past events, even those long-thought to be characterized by rapid change. “During the Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a, about 120 million years ago, … The rise of CO2 concentrations occurred over several tens to hundreds of thousand years.” Contrary to the notion that this event transpired very quickly, according to the lead author of the paper: “The change, however, appears to have been far slower than that of today, taking place over hundreds of thousands of years, rather than the centuries over which human activity is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.” In other words, “rapid” in the fossil record is nothing compared to today.
A paper in the 3 February 2016 issue of Nature finds a long-sought “smoking gun” with respect to carbon storage in the deep ocean. As it turns outs, carbon was stored in the depths of the Southern Ocean when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were quite low. Further confirmation was published in the 9 May 2016 issue of Nature Communications: In the past 800,000 years of climate history, the transitions from interglacials and ice ages were always accompanied by a significant reduction in the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. It then fell from 280 to 180 ppm (parts per million). Where this large amount of carbon dioxide went to and the processes through which the greenhouse gas reached the atmosphere again has been controversial. This paper reports a major carbon dioxide reservoir at a depth of 2000 to 4300 metres in the South Pacific and it reconstructs the details of its gas emission history.
If you’re too busy to read the evidence presented below, here’s the bottom line: On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction (from Oliver Tickell’s 2008 synthesis in the Guardian). Tickell is taking a conservative approach, considering humans have not been present at 3.3 C or more above baseline (i.e., the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, commonly accepted as 1750). I cannot imagine a scenario involving a rapid rise in global-average temperature and also retention of habitat for humans. Neither can Australian climate scholar Clive Hamilton, based on his 17 June 2014 response to Andrew Revkin’s fantasy-based hopium. According to the World Bank’s 2012 report, “Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided” and an informed assessment of “BP Energy Outlook 2030” put together by Barry Saxifrage for the Vancouver Observer, our path leads directly to the 4 C mark. The conservative International Energy Agency throws in the towel on avoiding 4 C in this video from June 2014 (check the 25-minute mark). The 19th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), held in November 2013 in Warsaw, Poland, was warned by professor of climatology Mark Maslin: “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.” Among well-regarded climate scientists who think a 4 C world is unavoidable, based solely on atmospheric carbon dioxide, is Cambridge University’s Professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics, Dr. Peter Wadhams (check the 51-second mark in this 8 August 2014 video), who says: “…the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere, which now exceeded 400 parts per million, is sufficient, if you don’t add any more, to actually raise global temperatures in the end by about four degrees.” Adding to planetary misery is a paper in the 16 December 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluding that 4 C terminates the ability of Earth’s vegetation to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to a story in the 6 December 2015 issue of the Washington Post: “With no government action, Exxon experts … [said] average temperatures are likely to rise by a catastrophic (my word, not theirs) 5 degrees Celsius, with rises of 6, 7 or even more quite possible.”
I’m not sure what it means to plan for 4 C (aka extinction). I’m not impressed that civilized scientists claim to be planning for it, either. But I know we’re human animals, and I know animals require habitat to survive. When there is no ability to grow food or secure water, humans will exit the planetary stage, as finally realized by the mainstream scientific community with a paper in the 2 October 2015 issue of Science: a stable food web was critical to the few species that survived the most severe mass extinction event in planetary history. Even 10-year-olds understand that climate change is poised to cause human extinction, as indicated in this short video posted online 16 November 2015. And Wikipedia accepts the evidence for near-term human extinction, as indicated by the caption on the figure below.
According to Colin Goldblatt, author of a paper published online in the 28 July 2013 issue of Nature Geoscience, “The runaway greenhouse may be much easier to initiate than previously thought.” Furthermore, as pointed out in the 1 August 2013 issue of Science, in the near term Earth’s climate will change orders of magnitude faster than at any time during the last 65 million years. Tack on, without the large and growing number of self-reinforcing feedback loops we’ve triggered recently, the 5 C rise in global-average temperature 55 million years ago during a span of 13 years (subsequently strongly supported by this paper in the 15 December 2014 online issue of Nature Geoscience and then questioned in this paper from January 2015), and it looks like trouble ahead for the wise ape. This conclusion ignores the long-lasting, incredibly powerful greenhouse gas discovered 9 December 2013 by University of Toronto researchers: Perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA) is 7,100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and it persists hundreds of years in the atmosphere. It also ignores the irreversible nature of climate change: Earth’s atmosphere will harbor, at minimum, the current warming potential of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration for at least the next 1,000 years, as indicated in the 28 January 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The marine situation is similarly catastrophic: The Guardian‘s headline from 16 July 2015 screams: “Warming of oceans due to climate change is unstoppable, say US scientists” in response to the annual State of the Climate in 2014 report. According to a paper published in the 3 August 2015 issue of Nature Climate Change: “Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere has been proposed as a measure for mitigating global warming and ocean acidification. … Focusing on pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen, we find that even after several centuries of CDR deployment, past CO2 emissions would leave a substantial legacy in the marine environment.” In other words, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide, even if it were possible, would be insufficient to overcome the damage experienced by the ocean.
Finally, far too late, the New Yorker posits a relevant question on 5 November 2013: Is It Too Late to Prepare for Climate Change? Joining the too-little, too-late gang, the Geological Society of London points out on 10 December 2013 that Earth’s climate could be twice as sensitive to atmospheric carbon as previously believed. New Scientist piles on in March 2014, pointing out that planetary warming is far more sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration than indicated by past reports. As usual and expected, carbon dioxide emissions set a record again in 2013, the 5th-hottest year on record (since 1850). Ditto for 2014 and 2015, the new hottest years on record. The previous top three hottest years (2010, 2005, and 2007) were influenced by El Niño events, which cause short-term warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Is There a Way Out?
All of the above information fails to include the excellent work by Tim Garrett, which points out that only complete collapse avoids runaway greenhouse. Garrett reached the conclusion in a paper submitted in 2007 (personal communication) and published online by Climatic Change in November 2009 (outcry from civilized scientists delayed formal publication until February 2011). The paper remains largely ignored by the scientific community, having been cited fewer than thirty times since its publication. Support for Garrett’s work finally came from the broader scientific community with a paper published in the 15 July 2015 online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But then, a later response to Garrett’s work is the expected one, as elucidated by a paper in the 4 April 2016 issue of Nature Climate Change: “This highlights the importance of maintaining economic growth in a carbon-constrained world and reducing the cost of backstop measures, such as large-scale CO2 removal, in any ambitious consumption-maximizing strategy to limit peak warming.”
Garrett was preceded by Ted Turner. He pointed out on the 2 April 2008 edition of the Charlie Rose Show that continuing to burn fossil fuels “is suicide.”
According to Yvo de Boer, who was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009, when attempts to reach a deal at a summit in Copenhagen crumbled with a rift between industrialized and developing nations, “the only way that a 2015 agreement can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut down the whole global economy.” Politicians finally have caught up with Tim Garrett’s excellent paper in Climatic Change.
In an interview with the November 2015 issue of The Atlantic, The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, has said that the private sector is too selfish and inefficient to produce effective energy alternatives to fossil fuels. And he ought to know.
From the Associated Press on 1 December 2014 comes a story headlined, “Climate funds for coal highlight lack of UN rules.” The article points out the difficulty associated with using tools from industrial civilization to address a predicament created by industrial civilization: “Climate finance is critical to any global climate deal, and rich countries have pledged billions of dollars toward it in U.N. climate talks, which resume Monday in Lima, Peru. Yet there is no watchdog agency that ensures the money is spent in the most effective way. There’s not even a common definition on what climate finance is.” The bottom line from this story: About a billion dollars intended to mitigate climate change has been used to fund coal-fired power plants, the worst emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet.
Writing for the Arctic News Group, John Davies concludes: “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.” He considers only atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, not the many self-reinforcing feedback loops described below. Writing on 28 November 2013 and tacking on only one feedback loop — methane release from the Arctic Ocean — Sam Carana expects global temperature anomalies up to 20 C 2050 (an anomaly is an aberration, or deviation from long-term average). Small wonder atmospheric methane can cause such global catastrophe considering its dramatic rise during the last few years, as elucidated by Carana on 5 December 2013 in the figure below.
Lest we believe our profoundly large geographic distribution grants us the ability to avoid extinction, the title of an article in the 1 August 2015 issue of Nature Communications sets the record straight: “Geographic range did not confer resilience to extinction in terrestrial vertebrates at the end-Triassic crisis.” The study refers to a mass extinction event about 200 million years ago.
Changing our dietary habits won’t help, either. A paper published in the 24 November 2015 issue of Environment Systems and Decisions finds that switching from a typical U.S. diet to a healthier diet based on the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines accelerates environmental destruction. Seems vegetarianism has its costs, notably a large carbon footprint. In this case, the switch from ‘typical’ to ‘recommended’ comes with a 43% increase in energy use, “primarily due to USDA recommendations for greater Caloric intake of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fish/seafood, which have relatively high resource use and emissions per Calorie.”
Aliens probably won’t save us from ourselves, either. A paper in the 20 January 2016 issue of Astrobiology indicates life on other planets likely would be brief and become extinct very quickly.
On the topic of tipping points, we crossed the Rubicon in 2007 at about 0.76 C warming. At this point, according to David Spratt’s excellent September 2013 report, “Is Climate Already Dangerous?”, not only had Arctic sea-ice passed its tipping point, but the Greenland Ice Sheet was not far behind, as the Arctic moves to sea-ice-free conditions in summer (the U.S. Navy predicts an ice-free Arctic in summer 2016. Glaciologist Jason Box, an expert on Greenland ice, agrees that the situation is dire. Box was quoted in a 5 December 2012 article in the Guardian: “In 2012 Greenland crossed a threshold where for the first time we saw complete surface melting at the highest elevations in what we used to call the dry snow zone. … As Greenland crosses the threshold and starts really melting in the upper elevations it really won’t recover from that unless the climate cools significantly for an extended period of time which doesn’t seem very likely.” (In January 2013, Box concluded we’ve locked in 69 feet — 21 meters — of sea-level rise.) A paper published in the 10 July 2015 issue of Science indicate a 1-2 C global-average temperature rise has contributed to rapid sea-level rise several times during the last 3 million years. Indeed, as stated in the September 2013 issue of Global Policy, “because of increasing temperatures due to GHG emissions a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the sub-sea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable.” By December 2013, the disappearance of Greenland’s ice had accelerated to five times the pace of a few years previously, and IPCC was acknowledging they’d been far too conservative with past estimates. Continued conservatism is buttressed by research reported in the 16 March 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change indicating melting of Greenland ice accounts for about one-sixth of recent sea-level rise and also by research published in the 18 May 2014 issue of Nature Geoscience indicating Greenland’s icy reaches are far more vulnerable to warm ocean waters from climate change than had been thought. From the 12 November 2015 online issue of Science comes a paper titled, “Fast retreat of Zachariæ Isstrøm, northeast Greenland.” The abstract reads: “After 8 years of decay of its ice shelf, Zachariæ Isstrøm, a major glacier of northeast Greenland that holds a 0.5-meter sea-level rise equivalent, entered a phase of accelerated retreat in fall 2012. The acceleration rate of its ice velocity tripled, melting of its residual ice shelf and thinning of its grounded portion doubled, and calving is now occurring at its grounding line. Warmer air and ocean temperatures have caused the glacier to detach from a stabilizing sill and retreat rapidly along a downward-sloping, marine-based bed. Its equal-ice-volume neighbor, Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden, is also melting rapidly.” A paper in the 18 November 2015 issue of The Cryosphere points out that as Greenland climate is now rapidly warming, summer melt intensity no longer oscillates around its long term mean, and instead previously exceptional events are becoming normal. A a paper in the 4 December 2015 issue of Climate of the Past indicates Greenland’s glaciers are retreating at least twice as fast as any other time in the past 9,500 years. The study also provides new evidence for just how sensitive glaciers are to temperature, showing that they responded to past abrupt cooling and warming periods, some of which might have lasted only decades. A study published in the 16 March 2016 issue of Geophysical Research Letters finds that climate models commonly used to simulate melting of the Greenland ice sheet tend to underestimate the impact of exceptionally warm weather episodes on the ice sheet. The study investigated the causes of ice melt during two exceptional melt episodes in 2012, which occurred 8-11 July and 27-28 July. During these exceptional melt episodes, which can be regarded as an analogue to future climate, unusually warm and moist air was transported onto the ice sheet. During one episode, the researchers measured the ice sheet melting at more than 28 cm per day, the largest daily melt rate ever documented on the ice sheet. While the two brief melt episodes only lasted 6 days combined, or 6% of the melt season, they contributed to 14% of the total melt.
As I’ve come to expect, a paper in the 25 January 2016 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that previous research on the effects of climate change has underestimated thermal expansion due to warming of the ocean. In fact, thermal expansion is about twice as large over the past 12 years as previously assumed.
Further on the topic of northern ice, a research paper published in the 13 June 2014 of Geophysical Research Letters points out that an ice-free Arctic is likely to cause rapid melting of Greenland ice. According the 10 August 2015 issue of Newsweek, “National Geographic Has Redrawn Its Atlas Because of the Melting Arctic.” Between 1999 and 2014, Arctic ice extent declined by about two-thirds. Further dismantling the arguments of climate-change deniers, a paper that appeared in the 4 December 2015 issue of Science Advances points out that the so-called Medieval Warm Period wasn’t particularly warm, and the warming was restricted to the eastern North Atlantic region.
According to the 4 January 2016 issue of the Washington Post: “Rising global temperatures may be affecting the Greenland ice sheet — and its contribution to sea-level rise — in more serious ways that scientists imagined, a new study finds. Recent changes to the island’s snow and ice cover appear to have affected its ability to store excess water, meaning more melting ice may be running off into the ocean than previously thought. … The … study … focuses on a part of the ice sheet known as “firn” — a porous layer of built-up snow that slowly freezes into ice over time.” The abstract of the paper under consideration, published online in Nature Climate Change on 4 January 2016, includes these final lines: “Our observations frame the recent exceptional melt summers in 2010 and 2012, revealing significant changes in firn structure at different elevations caused by successive intensive melt events. In the upper regions (more than ~1,900 m above sea level), firn has undergone substantial densification, while at lower elevations, where melt is most abundant, porous firn has lost most of its capability to retain meltwater. Here, the formation of near-surface ice layers renders deep pore space difficult to access, forcing meltwater to enter an efficient surface discharge system and intensifying ice sheet mass loss earlier than previously suggested.”
Melting of Greenland’s ice is linked to shrinking Arctic sea ice, according to a paper in the 26 February 2016 issue of Journal of Climate. Specifically, melting Arctic sea ice favors stronger and more frequent “blocking-high” pressure systems, which spin clockwise, stay largely in place and can block cold, dry Canadian air from reaching Greenland during summer. This phenomenon enhances the flow of warm, moist air over Greenland, thereby contributing to increased extreme heat events and surface ice melting.
A paper in the 9 June 2016 issue of Nature Communications includes data from the 2015 melt season. Titled “Arctic cut-off high drives the poleward shift of a new Greenland melting record,” the abstract reports, “we show that the persistence of an exceptional atmospheric ridge, centred over the Arctic Ocean, was responsible for a poleward shift of runoff, albedo and surface temperature records over the Greenland during the summer of 2015.” This finding is consistent with Jennifer Francis’ long-disparaged idea about the loopy, wavy jet stream. The paper’s abstract concludes: “The unprecedented (1948–2015) and sustained atmospheric conditions promoted enhanced runoff, increased the surface temperatures and decreased the albedo in northern Greenland, while inhibiting melting in the south, where new melting records were set over the past decade.”
According to a study published 8 April 2016 in the journal Science Advances, melting ice sheets, especially in Greenland, are changing the distribution of weight on Earth. As a result, both the North Pole and the wobble, which is called polar motion, have changed course. The north pole is on the run. It has taken a sharp turn to the east.
Ice matters. “Small fluctuations in the sizes of ice sheets during the last ice age were enough to trigger abrupt climate change,” as reported in the 13 August 2014 issue of Nature. As pointed out in the 25 September 2014 issue of Nature Communications, ice sheets melt for centuries once they begin the process. Not surprisingly, subsequent papers published in the 10 October 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters and also the 14 January 2015 issue of Nature indicate all previous work on the topic of sea-level rise has been conservative. In addition, sea-level rise is significantly slowed by land soaking up the extra precipitation associated with global-average rise in temperature. According to a paper in the 11 February 2016 issue of Science, “between 2002 and 2014, climate variability resulted in an additional 3200 ± 900 gigatons of water being stored on land, … slowing the rate of sea level rise by 0.71 ± 0.20 millimeters per year.”
Habitat matters, too. Already, according to a paper published in the 28 August 2015 issue of Nature, “5.7% of the global total land area has shifted toward warmer and drier climate types from 1950–2010, and significant changes include expansion of arid and high-latitude continental climate zones, shrinkage in polar and midlatitude continental climates, poleward shifts in temperate, continental and polar climates, and increasing average elevation of tropical and polar climates.”
The abstract from a paper in the 6 May 2016 issue of Environmental Research Letters reads as follows: “Here, we present the first analysis of coastal dynamics from a sea-level rise hotspot in the Solomon Islands. Using time series aerial and satellite imagery from 1947 to 2014 of 33 islands, along with historical insight from local knowledge, we have identified five vegetated reef islands that have vanished over this time period and a further six islands experiencing severe shoreline recession. Shoreline recession at two sites has destroyed villages that have existed since at least 1935, leading to community relocations.”
A paper published in the 29 June 2016 issue of Nature reports that climate change is disrupting the seasonal behavior of Britain’s plants and animals. The research analyzed 10,003 long-term phenological data sets of 812 of the UK’s marine, freshwater, and land-based plant and animal species collected between 1960 and 2012 on everything from fish spawning to plant flowering. According to the final paragraph of the paper: “Our approach makes the simplifying assumption that climatic change has an overriding influence upon seasonality. Nevertheless, our results suggest that systematic differences in climate sensitivity could result in widespread phenological desynchronization.” Well, duh. Every species is well-adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions. Changing the conditions causes loss of habitat for every species. For some scientists, apparently this is a novel finding.
** An article in the 3 July 2016 issue of the New York Times includes this brief, apocalyptic introduction: “Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of the people of tiny Kiribati, and even the island nation’s existence. The government is making plans for the island’s demise.” Four days later, the Times reports about refugees leaving the shores of a former Bolivian lake: “The water receded and the fish died. They surfaced by the tens of thousands, belly-up, and the stench drifted in the air for weeks. … The birds that had fed on the fish had little choice but to abandon Lake Poopó, once Bolivia’s second-largest but now just a dry, salty expanse. Many of the Uru-Murato people, who had lived off its waters for generations, left as well, joining a new global march of refugees fleeing not war or persecution, but climate change.” **
Predicting Near-Term Human Extinction
If you think we’ll adapt, think again, even if you’re the Wall Street Journal claiming on 2 September 2014 that it’s too late for mitigation. The rate of evolution trails the rate of climate change by a factor of 10,000, according to a paper in the August 2013 issue of Ecology Lettersfocused on vertebrates. An example comes from the 20 January 2016 online issue of Global Ecology and Biogeography comes research focused on California, which has an extensive collection of herbarium records. The researchers used 681,609 georeferenced herbarium records to estimate mean shifts in elevational and climatic space of 4426 plant taxa, and found that non-native, invasive species were more likely to be expanding their ranges than native species. Furthermore, plants and animals did not move together in synchronized fashion, and thus leading to the suspicion that ecological communities are breaking down and disassembling. Tack on the following title from a 6 June 2015 paper in PLos Biology and it’s easy to understand the importance of habitat for human animals: “Suitable Days for Plant Growth Disappear under Projected Climate Change: Potential Human and Biotic Vulnerability.” Even once-rich habitats in Antarctica are becoming biologically impoverished as icebergs, increasingly breaking free from the surrounding sea ice, scour the shallow-water rocks and boulders on which a diversity of creatures cling to life (according to research published in the 16 June 2014 issue of Current Biology). A paper in the 22 February 2016 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that, consistent with research on vertebrates, butterflies cannot keep up with rapid changes in habitat. The bottom line of the abstract: “These results highlight a potentially common situation in changing environments: evolutionary changes are not strong enough to fully compensate for the direct adverse effects of environmental change and thereby rescue populations from extinction.”
A study published in the 22 June 2016 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters reports that parts of the ocean became inhospitable for some organisms as the Earth’s climate warmed 94 million years ago. As the Earth warmed, several natural elements — what we think of as vitamins — depleted, causing some organisms to die off or greatly decrease in numbers. The decrease of these trace metals also suggests a global expansion of oxygen deficiency, which could lead to larger dead zones in bodies of water around the world, meaning little to no life could exist in those areas.
On the other hand, a paper in the February 2016 issue of Climatic Change indicates that snakes are doing fine. “Detailed projections of potential future range shifts on distributions of the medically most relevant species indicated that North American species’ ranges are likely to increase in the future, but mixed results were obtained for Latin American snakes.” And it’s not as if extinction events haven’t happened on this planet, as explained in the BBC program, The Day the Earth Nearly Died.
The rate of climate change clearly has gone beyond linear, as indicated by the presence of the myriad self-reinforcing feedback loops described below, and now threatens our species with extinction in the near term. As Australian biologist Frank Fenner said in June 2010: “We’re going to become extinct,” the eminent scientist says. “Whatever we do now is too late.” Filmmaker Werner Herzog, interviewed on 30 January 2013, says, “I’m convinced that our presence on this planet is not sustainable, so we will be extinct fairly soon.” Anthropologist Louise Leakey ponders our near-term demise in her 5 July 2013 assessment at Huffington Post and her father Richard joins the fray in this video from December 2013 (see particularly 1:02:18 – 1:02:56). Canadian wildlife biologist Neil Dawe joins the party of near-term extinction in an interview 29 August 2013 and musician-turned-activist Sir Bob Geldof joins the club in a Daily Star article from 6 October 2013. Health officials add their voices to the discussion about extinction in late March 2014, although they view 4 C as a problem to be dealt with later. Writing for Truth-Out, journalist John Feffer writes in his 27 April 2014 essay: “The planet and its hardier denizens may soldier on, but for us it will be game over.” American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky concludes we’re done in a 15 June 2014 interview with Chris Hedges at Truthdig, saying climate change “may doom us all, and not in the distant future.” Larry Schwartz, writing for AlterNet on 21 July 2014, concludes, “Many environmentalists think we have already passed the point of no return.” Johns Hopkins professor and fossil hunter Ken Rose agrees in an interview published 29 July 2014: “We’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction on Earth. It probably won’t take too long for humans to go extinct.” IT Project Manager Jennifer Hynes concludes near-term human extinction certain at the 1:20:30 mark of this comprehensive presentation about global methane release (updated presentation from 30 August 2015 is linked here). Three weeks later, Robert Scribbler concludes in his assessment of global methane release, “What I’ve just described is the process that most scientists believe occurred during the worst mass extinction event in the geological past … what humans are now doing … may well be shockingly similar.” Motivational speaker, writer, and politician Marianne Williamson concludes near-term human extinction in her early October 2014 interview with Thom Hartmann. Chris Hedges agrees in an interview conducted 22 November 2014. Hollywood catches up with reality as the 23 November 2014 episode of HBO’s The Newsroom channels me: Catch a snippet here. Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor at Georgia State University, writes for the Huffington Post on 8 December 2014: “it’s time to accept our impending demise.” Seemingly echoing many relatively wealthy, heterosexual, Caucasian men, writer Robert J. Burrowes adds his voice on 15 December 2014 in the Lahore Times (essay removed, but he writes in January 2016, “I expect human extinction by 2030 without a concerted and strategic effort by individuals, groups and communities”): “In essence then, it is fear that drives dysfunctional environmental behaviours. And, history tells us, fear will prevent us taking sufficient action in time.” Paul Ehrlich absurdly hails the glories of civilization but correctly concludes human extinction in the near term with his 10 January 2015 interview with MSNBC. As indicated in the abstract of a paper published 19 June 2015 in Science Advances, the “sixth mass extinction is already under way.” A coinciding interview with the paper’s lead author includes this line from him: “life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on.” Dave Thomas, writer for the 5 November 2015 edition of NBC’s The Blacklist, develops a techno-fantasy “escape plan” from Earth in light of near-term human extinction. Jill Stein, United States presidential candidate from the Green Party, in an interview conducted by Chris Hedges in February 2016, states, “We are undergoing extinction that we will not survive.” In the face of near-term human extinction, most Americans view the threat as distant and irrelevant, as illustrated by a 22 April 2013 article in the Washington Post based on poll results that echo the long-held sentiment that elected officials should be focused on the industrial economy, not far-away minor nuisances such as climate change.
Supporters of carbon farming — the nonsensical notion that industrial civilization can be used to overcome a predicament created by industrial civilization — claim all we need to do is fill the desert with nonnative plants to the tune of an area three-quarters the size of the United States. And, they say, we’ll be able to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide by a whopping 17.5 ppm in only two decades. Well, how exciting. At that blistering pace, atmospheric carbon dioxide will be all the way back down to the reasonably safe level of 280 ppm in only 140 years, more than a century after humans are likely to become extinct from climate change. And, based on research published in the 2 May 2014 issue of Science, soil carbon storage has been over-estimated and is reduced as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration rises.
Afforestation and forest management are considered to be key instruments in mitigating climate change. But, as indicated by a paper in the 5 February 2016 issue of Science, the expansion of Europe’s forests toward dark green conifers has stoked global warming. The darkly colored evergreen have been planted for their ability to grow quickly with relatively little management, but their propensity to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide has been outstripped by their dark color. Thus, according to the abstract of the paper, “two and a half centuries of forest management in Europe have not cooled the climate.”
According to the plan presented in the 23 August 2013 issue of Scientific American, the nonnative plants, irrigated with increasingly rare fresh water pumped by increasingly rare fossil-fuel energy, will sequester carbon sufficient to overcome contemporary emissions. Never mind the emissions resulting from pumping the water, or the desirability of converting thriving deserts into monocultures, or the notion of maintaining industrial civilization at the expense of non-civilized humans and non-human species. Instead, ponder one simple thought: When the nonnative plants die, they will emit back into the atmosphere essentially all the carbon they sequestered. A tiny bit of the carbon will be stored in the soil. The rest goes into the atmosphere as a result of decomposition.
This essay brings attention to recent projections and self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks). All information and sources are readily confirmed with an online search, and links to information about feedbacks can be found here.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007):n1.8 C by 2100 (up to 4.5 C, depending upon emissions scenarios)
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): ~2 C by 2100
Later in 2008, Hadley Center’s head of climate change predictions Dr. Vicky Pope calls for a worst-case outcome of more than 5 C by 2100. Joe Romm, writing for Grist, claims, “right now even Hadley [Centre] understands it [> 5 C] is better described as the ‘business-as-usual’ case.”
United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C, 7 C by 2100
United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050
International Energy Agency (May 2014): up to 6 C by 2050 with business as usual
These assessments fail to account for significant self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks, the term that implies the opposite of its meaning). The IPCC’s vaunted Fifth Assessment continues the trend as it, too, ignores important feedbacks (also listen here). As with prior reports, the Fifth Assessment has been altered after the expert review stage, with changes added that downplay the economic impacts of a warming planet.” Consider, for example, the failure to mention Arctic ice in the Working Group Summary released 31 March 2014 (additional links here). By 3 September 2014, even Business Insider was announcing via headline: “The Arctic Sea Ice Problem Is Actually Worse — Not Better — Than We Thought.” The importance of Arctic ice in delaying catastrophic warming is enormous, as explained quite simply in 2007:
Anyone who does not know what Latent Heat is will have a false sense of security. It is not hard to understand if I do not use physics jargon. Place on a hot stove a pot of cold water containing 1 kg of ice cubes. Stir the ice water with a long thermometer and take temperature readings. My question is: When will the thermometer begin to show a rise in temperature? Answer: After all the ice has melted. In other words, all the heat from the stove would first all go into melting the ice, without raising the water temperature. The amount of heat entering a system without raising the temperature of the system is called Latent Heat. It takes 80 calories of heat to melt one gram of ice. So in this case, the first 80,000 calories of heat from the stove went into melting the 1 kg of ice first. Only when the ice is all gone will the water temperature rise, and it will do so until it reaches 100C, when the water will begin to boil. Once again, Latent Heat comes into play, and the water temperature will stabilize at the boiling point – until all the water have changed from liquid to vapour, at which point the temperature of the dry pot will rise to the temperature of the flame itself. So how does this apply to Earth’s climate? Consider the Arctic Ocean to be a gigantic pot of ice water, and the sun as the stove. For as long as there is still sea ice to melt, the Arctic Ocean will remain relatively cool, in spite of the ever increasing solar heat entering the Arctic ocean due to ever decreasing ice cover. When the sea ice is gone in the summer, as early as the latter part of this decade, the Arctic Ocean’s temperature will steeply rise, and when it does, so will the global mean temperature, and all hell will break lose (sic).
Between now and then, the Arctic Ocean continues to warm up. Some parts are warming faster than others, and ice is still providing a tremendous cooling impact where it persists.
On a positive note, major assessments fail to account for economic collapse. However, due to the four-decade lag between emissions and temperature rise, the inconvenient fact that the world has emitted more than twice the industrial carbon dioxide emissions since 1970 as we did from the start of the Industrial Revolution through 1970, and also due to the feedback loops described below, I strongly suspect it’s too late for economic collapse to extend the run of our species. Indeed, as pointed out by Bruce Melton at Truth-out in a 26 December 2013 piece featuring climate scientist Wallace Broeker: “today we are operating on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from the 1970s. In the last 29 years we have emitted as many greenhouse gases as we emitted in the previous 236 years. Because of the great cooling effect of the oceans, we have not yet begun to see the warming that this recent doubling of greenhouse gases will bring.” Greenhouse gas emissions continue to accelerate even as the world’s industrial economy slows to a halt: Emissions grew nearly twice as fast during the first decade of the new millennium as in the previous 30 years, as reported in the 11 April 2014 issue of The Guardian.
As it turns out, the so-called 40-year lag is dangerously conservative. A paper in the 3 December 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters indicates that maximum warming from carbon dioxide emissions occurs about one decade after a carbon dioxide emission. Rising emissions during each of the last many decades points to a truly catastrophic future, and not long from now. According to a paper in the May 2015 issues of Geophysical Research Letters, the planetary warming potential of carbon dioxide outstrips its warming potential for individual use within two months, and the carbon dioxide’s cumulative radiative forcing exceeds the amount of energy released upon combustion by a factor of more than 100,000.
Guy Callendar pointed out the delayed influence of rising carbon dioxide on temperature in a 1938 paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. The hand-drawn figure from the paper shown below clearly illustrates an irreversible rise in global-average temperature beginning about 1915, a few decades after the consumption of fossil fuels increased substantially. Callendar’s work was used by J.S. Sawyer in a 1972 paper published in Nature to predict an “increase of 25% CO2 expected by the end of the century … [and] … an increase of 0.6°C in the world temperature” with stunning accuracy.
Broadening the Perspective
Astrophysicists have long believed Earth was near the center of the habitable zone for humans. Recent research published in the 10 March 2013 issue of Astrophysical Journal indicates Earth is on the inner edge of the habitable zone, and lies within 1% of inhabitability (1.5 million km, or 5 times the distance from Earth to Earth’s moon). A minor change in Earth’s atmosphere removes human habitat. Unfortunately, we’ve invoked major changes.
The northern hemisphere is particularly susceptible to accelerated warming, as explained in the 8 April 2013 issue of Journal of Climate. Two days later, a paper in Nature confirmed that summers in the northern hemisphere are hotter than they’ve been for 600 years. As pointed out by Sherwood and Huber in the 25 May 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and then by James Hansen in his 15 April 2013 paper, humans cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of 35 C (95 F).
As described by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1990, “Beyond 1 degree C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage” (link mirrored here). But, as David Spratt points out in this video from October 2014, 0.5 C
is was a more reasonable target (he fails to recognize that 2 C is already locked in). James Hansen and crew finally caught up to the dire nature of 1 C warming 23 years after the U.N. warning, more than two dozen self-reinforcing feedback loops too late. On 12 August 2015, Hansen concluded, “temperature was at most ~2 C warmer than pre-industrial climate” at any time during the run of humanity on Earth.
How important are these less-than-2 C targets? James Hansen is quoted in a 4 January 2011 interview with The Independent: “Two degrees Celsius is guaranteed disaster.” And consider the 8 November 2014 headline at Al Jazeera America: “Capping warming at 2 C not enough to avert disaster, climate experts warn.” Neither source recognizes that 2 C is already assured in the absence of fantasy technology: Specifically, as pointed out via the title of a paper published in the 3 August 2015 issue of Nature Communications, “Negative emissions physically needed to keep global warming below 2 °C.” According to the abstract of the paper, this approach has “not been shown to be feasible.” Finally, a paper in the 12 October 2015 online edition of Nature Geoscience concluded: “Delivery of palatable 2 °C mitigation scenarios depends on speculative negative emissions or changing the past. Scientists must make their assumptions transparent and defensible, however politically uncomfortable the conclusions.”
We’ve clearly triggered the types of positive feedbacks the United Nations warned about in 1990. Yet my colleagues and acquaintances think we can and will work our way out of this horrific mess with the tools of industrial civilization (which got us into this mess, as pointed out by Tim Garrett) or permaculture (which is not to denigrate permaculture, the principles of which are implemented at the homestead I occupy). Reforestation doesn’t come close to overcoming combustion of fossil fuels, as pointed out in the 30 May 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change. Furthermore, forested ecosystems do not sequester additional carbon dioxide as it increases in the atmosphere, as disappointingly explained in the 6 August 2013 issue of New Phytologist. In addition, carbon stocks have been overestimated, as pointed out in the 18 December 2015 issue of Nature Communications. Adding egregious insult to spurting wound, the latest public-education initiative in the United States — the Next Generation Science Standards — buries the relationship between combustion of fossil fuels and planetary warming. The misadventures of the corporate government continue, even as collapse of ecosystems is fully under way. As pointed out in the April 2013 issue of PLoS ONE — too little, too late for many ecosystems — “catastrophic collapses can occur without prior warning.”
Some green-washing solutionistas take refuge in the nuclear solution. It’s astonishing what one can conclude when grid-tied electricity is a viewed as a natural right. James Hansen’s endorsement notwithstanding, nuclear power plants contribute to, rather than prevent, additional warming of Earth. As pointed out by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on 18 February 2016, climate change is accelerating, not slowing, with the construction and use of nuclear power facilities.
Let’s ignore the models for a moment and consider only the results of a single briefing to the United Nations Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP15). Regulars in this space will recall COP15 as the climate-change meetings thrown under the bus by the Obama administration. The summary for that long-forgotten briefing contains this statement: “THE LONG-TERM SEA LEVEL THAT CORRESPONDS TO CURRENT CO2 CONCENTRATION IS ABOUT 23 METERS ABOVE TODAY’S LEVELS, AND THE TEMPERATURES WILL BE 6 DEGREES C OR MORE HIGHER. THESE ESTIMATES ARE BASED ON REAL LONG TERM CLIMATE RECORDS, NOT ON MODELS.”
In other words, near-term extinction of humans was already guaranteed, to the knowledge of Obama and his administration (i.e., the Central Intelligence Agency, which runs the United States and controls presidential power). Even before the dire feedbacks were reported by the scientific community, the administration abandoned climate change as a significant issue because it knew we were done as early as 2009. Rather than shoulder the unenviable task of truth-teller, Obama did as his imperial higher-ups demanded: He lied about collapse, and he lied about climate change. And he still does.
Ah, those were the good ol’ days, back when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were well below 400 parts per million (ppm). We’ll blow through the 400 ppm mark soon, probably for the first time in 3.2 to 5 million years. And, as reported in the journal Global and Planetary Change in April 2013, every molecule of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1980 comes from human emissions. Not to be outdone, methane levels reached an average mean of 1800 parts per billion (ppb) on the morning of 16 June 2013. The SWERUS C-3 expedition reported a second major methane seep on 3 August 2014 in the East Siberian Sea, including a local methane release of 3,188 ppb. Tacking on a few of the additional greenhouse gases contributing to climate change and taking a conservative approach jacks up the carbon dioxide equivalent to 480 ppm (and see here, from NOAA). Seeps are appearing in numerous locations off the eastern coast of the United States, leading to rapid destabilization of methane hydrates (according to the 25 October 2013 issue of Nature). The situation worsens with every report, too: A paper accepted for publication in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems on 1 October 2015 reports methane plumes bubbling out the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Lead author H. Paul Johnson says, “What we’re seeing is possible confirmation of what we predicted from the water temperatures: Methane hydrate appears to be decomposing and releasing a lot of gas. If you look systematically, the location on the margin where you’re getting the largest number of methane plumes per square meter, it is right at that critical depth of 500 meters.” On land, anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States have been severely underestimated by the Environmental Protection (sic) Agency, according to a paper in the 25 November 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This figure is 1100 ppb higher than pre-industrial peak levels. Methane release tracks closely with temperature rise throughout Earth history — specifically, Arctic methane release and rapid global temperature rise are interlinked — including a temperature rise up to about 1 C per year over a decade, according to data from ice cores. The tight linkage between Arctic warming and planetary warming was verified in an article in the 2 February 2014 issue Nature Geoscience, which found that the Arctic’s cap of cold, layered air plays a more important role in boosting polar warming than does its shrinking ice and snow cover. A layer of shallow, stagnant air acts like a lid, concentrating heat near the surface. Finally, adding fuel to the growing fire, a paper in the 27 March 2014 issue of Nature articulates the strong interconnection between methane release and temperature rise: “For each degree that Earth’s temperature rises, the amount of methane entering the atmosphere … will increase several times. As temperatures rise, the relative increase of methane emissions will outpace that of carbon dioxide.”
How long will the hangover persist, after we’re done with the fossil-fuel party? According to University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer: “The climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge,” Archer writes in his January 2008 book The Long Thaw. “Longer than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilization so far.” A paper in the 8 February 2016 online issue of Nature Climate Change points out the long-term impacts of ongoing changes in Earth’s climate: “Here, we argue that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries … need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the … next ten millennnia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist. This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millenia and beyond.”
The 17 December 2015 issue of Nature includes a paper describing shifts in the assembly of plants and animals. The bottom line of the abstract: “Our results suggest that the rules governing the assembly of communities have recently been changed by human activity.” What the authors fail to point out, of course, is that the human activity coincided with agriculture (i.e., civilization). Attributing the damage to humans is an error. Attributing the damage to civilized humans would be more accurate.
According to a paper published 29 December 2015 online issue of Reviews of Geophysics, agriculture by humans 7,000 years ago likely slowed a natural cooling process. This paper settles a decade-long debate regarding the role of humans in global warming during the Holocene. In the absence of civilization, Earth would have entered the early stages of a natural ice age.