Climate Change, Collapse of Industrial Civilization, Corporate State, Ecological Overshoot, Economic Collapse, Environmental Collapse, Financial Elite, John Reilly Senior Climate Change Researcher at MIT, Overly Conservative IPCC Estimates, Paul A. O’Gorman Professor of Atmospheric science at MIT, Take Shelter
The excerpt ‘On the Threat of Environmental Catastrophe’ at the bottom of this post is from an essay just published a few hours ago entitled ‘A Tale of Two Crashes Part 2‘ from Empirical Magazine. It elaborates a bit more on the coming climate chaos and the destruction of industrial civilization. As has been noted by others, the estimates of the IPCC have been overly conservative:
Read what John Reilly, a senior climate change researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has to say about future scenarios in ‘On the Threat of Environmental Catastrophe’. Also, take notice of this recent news article:
Climate scientists have long projected that increases in global temperatures will result in higher rainfall and flooding in tropical regions. But now a MIT study has put some numbers to the prediction. Writing in Nature Geoscience in a September 16th letter titled “Sensitivity of tropical precipitation extremes to climate change,” Paul A. O’Gorman, professor of atmospheric science at MIT, said that for every one-degree Celsius increase in global surface temperature, there will be 10 percent heavier rainfall extremes in the tropics.
O’Gorman tells MIT News that “The study includes some populous countries that are vulnerable to climate change, and impacts of changes in rainfall could be important there.” Extreme rainfall in the tropics responds to climate change in distinct ways from that of other regions. He added, “It seems rainfall extremes in tropical regions are more sensitive to global warming. We have yet to understand the mechanism for this higher sensitivity.”
For more details, read his letter here.
On the Threat of Environmental Catastrophe
“The influence of private power over human fate is as strong as it has ever been and looks set to have an impact generally on much of life on earth if the reckless and single-minded pursuit of profit so often associated with modern capitalism is not reigned in. The gravity of the problem is almost certainly unrivaled by any threat to the species in recent history since the Second World War or the Cuban missile crisis.
Yet the danger is not posed by the familiar boogeyman of corporate greed per se. The threat is represented by the effects of significant global climate change, presently on course to occur barring some miracle.
An authoritative government report released last year indicated that in only the next decade New York would be under threat from temporary or partial submergence by rising sea levels and increased storm activity similar to Hurricane Irene, causing enormous damage with a massive economic price tag attached to the mess. Yet this scenario, entirely plausible and very worrying, is only a taste of what looks set to be a part of our future.
In November last year the International Energy Agency released a report described as the “most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure,” which indicated that if global fossil-fuel-producing infrastructure (i.e. coal and power stations) is not widely replaced or significantly altered in the next five years, then it would “become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating runaway climate change will be lost for ever.”
Additionally, around the same time as the IEA report was published last year, the US Department of Energy reported that the “biggest jump” in carbon dioxide (a major cause of climate change) outputs ever measured occurred in 2010, indicating that the trajectory of risk from the effects of global environmental cataclysm is rising steeply.
World-leading academics like John Reilly, a senior climate change researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have warned that some of the most widely-accepted estimates of the effects of global warming have been far too conservative. Reilly’s team at MIT forecast carbon emissions scenarios, their likelihood, and what the most likely outcomes are in the event they occur. What they discovered recently does not bode well. According to an Associated Press report, a “[UN-organised International Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, report’s] worst-case scenario was only about in the middle of what MIT calculated are likely scenarios.” It is interesting to note that, to many climate skeptics, the IPCC report was widely derided as being “too alarmist.”
The IPCC estimates foresaw a rise in global temperature of somewhere between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4-6.4 Celsius), with the most likely outcome being a rise of 7.5 Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). To put this in perspective, the generally-agreed baseline for “safety” in terms of climate change would see an increase in global temperatures by only 2 degrees, in itself a global climate shift that would still have profound consequences.
However, topping the safety line things begin to look really scary. At 3 degrees alone the consequences for humanity are close to nightmarish.
According to British newspaper The Guardian’s science correspondent Alok Jha, who compiled the predictions of researcher Mark Lynas, the World Bank’s “Stern report,” and Britain’s Met Office, at 3 degrees: “Billions of people are forced to move from their traditional agricultural lands, in search of scarcer food and water. Around 30-50% less water is available in Africa and around the Mediterranean.” At 4 degrees “Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey become deserts and mid-Europe reaches desert temperatures of almost 50 degrees Celsius in summer. Southern England’s summer climate could resemble that of modern southern Morocco.”
At 5 degrees and above, the picture becomes apocalyptic. The results would see “global average temperatures … hotter than for fifty [million] years.” Additionally, Jha said that “most of the tropics, sub-tropics and even lower mid-latitudes are too hot to be inhabitable. The sea level rise is now sufficiently rapid that coastal cities across the world are largely abandoned,” with a risk that at 6 degrees and over, “there would be a danger of “runaway warming,” perhaps spurred by release of oceanic methane hydrates,” risking that the “human population would be drastically reduced.”
That’s quite some bad news. However, at present a 5-6 degree rise is not guaranteed, nor yet confidently forecast. There’s a lot of work to be done however to prevent or mitigate the worst effects of probable temperature rises above 2, 3 or even 4 degrees Celsius. God forbid anything higher.
Yet despite the urgent need for action on this issue, there are those who would try to convince the average citizen that climate change, a problem of planetary significance that Western industry has had an unrivalled role in creating, is merely the product of “liberal propaganda”–a kind of modern-day myth.
Oil companies like Exxon-Mobil are still largely the biggest in the world, and these groups have been proven to have funded climate change skeptics.
As the “carbon bubble” is being readied for bursting by rising emissions, a drop in media coverage of the effects of climate change has been measured by groups monitoring the news, helping to efface the issue from the public mind in an election year, where the aftermath of the economy still rides high among concerns for most people.
Yet regardless of the economic woes that still persist for many people, through little fault of their own, something has to shift in the world if it is to be rescued from the threat of climate change.
A Stark Choice
If this is to be done, a stark choice between submitting to the imperatives of the economy’s endless need for profit or protecting the future of the planet may be required of us. As environmentalist Bill McKibben articulated recently: “If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons–five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground. Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent towrite off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil … If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything–including fund an endless campaigns of lies–to avoid coming to terms with its reality.”
“Growth for its own sake,” so the saying goes, “is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Regardless of the cliché of this thoroughly-abused slogan, its message is apt to our present crisis: the interminable desire for gain required by our present way of life may yet so damage the organism from which it derives sustenance (our planet) that it sabotages its own existence. This negative-sum game is given license to continue apace because it is inexpedient for those with real power to challenge it.
Endless clamoring for growth has meant that along with development, massive pollution has shadowed the steps of Western prosperity–yet the effects of this on the climate, now widely accepted as fact, are an “externality” not incorporated into market calculations. Climate change thus remains a total irrelevance to the closed system of global capitalism, regardless of its long-term impacts on the future of the sine qua nonbase that supports the market itself: human beings and their labor, the environment and its resources.
For big business, even when there are devastating economic crashes, somebody always benefits. Goldman Sachs famously reaped massive rewards by betting on the housing crash that they themselves contributed to, helping to consolidate their leading position in the banking world. However shocking this may seem, however such acts stink of grotesque immorality–they are merely consistent with the demands of the system in which they operate, and the rigid logic of the market.
It remains for politicians to act on this issue. But they are not doing enough.
As a result of runaway climate change, losses in the future may be so broadly and profoundly felt, however, that future generations can hardly be expected to accept with equanimity what history may teach them about how the miserable state of the world they have inherited came to be. Explaining to our grandchildren that the Earth was left to go to hell because it was deemed too much for our politicians to reign in corporate and industrial irresponsibility will not be easy, but it won’t stop it from being true–if we do nothing.
It is time to forget what is convenient or ideologically appealing, and address what is real–for our children’s sake…”
To me this analysis is still wildly overoptimistic. There are no known mechanisms that will halt warming, until the earth reaches a new and very high temperature equilibrium of energy exchange with the sun. In human time scales, the trajectory of heating is irreversible. This is part of the paleoclimatic record, brilliantly described in “With Speed and Violence” by Fred Pearce.
The initial forcing (in this case, humans burning fossil fuel but in others, volcanism, orbital perturbation, asteroid hit) is the least of it. Far more powerful are the amplifying feedbacks, which cause rapid acceleration. They are clearly (arctic ice melt, methane release, forest dieback, phytoplankton dieoff) already well underway, and unstoppable.
The scientists and activists like Bill McKibben must know this at some level, but for the most part they are still stuck in anthropocentric solutions – political action, market adjustments, and clean energy. They are limited by focussing only on CO2, which is but a symptom of the larger and utterly intractable (because of human nature) problems of overpopulation, resource extraction and habitat destruction, and pollution. Ecology, in other words.
A very interesting discussion ensued yesterday at Nature Bats Last, in case you haven’t seen it. This is a group of people who understand that we have committed ecocide – not for our grandchildren, but within the lifetime of anyone who can read – and the question then becomes, what, if anything, is one to do?
According to a paper published by the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there are 14 known ”tipping elements”?
Anyone care to post the list of 14?
Dane Wigington said:
I fully agree. Always there is a propensity to gloss over the dire and unstoppable wheels that have now been set in motion. Runaway warming is here, now. What roll have the ongoing geoengineering programs played in worsening our now dire climate catastrophe? SRM (solar radiation management) and SAG (stratospheric aerosol geoengineering) have been completely denied by virtually all governments, yet there is a mountain of evidence that clearly indicates these programs have been going on for perhaps decades. Hope the dire subject of geoengineering and what damage these programs may have done will become part of the discussion.
Hm. I will leave that list to others, but note that Rockstrom’s 2009 paper which refers to 8 planetary boundaries asserts that three (climate change, species biodiversity, and the nitrogen cycle) had already been passed as of publication. This raises 2 interesting points to me (being an Ozonista) first that reactive nitrogen is a precursor to ozone and second that the situation has deteriorated markedly in the past few years. Discussed here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2012/01/to-traffic-cleverly-in-soulful-poetry.html
For those who know, please correct the following list:
1.) Melting of Arctic sea-ice (approx 10 years)
3.) Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (>300 years)
4.) Arctic circle methane release (time?)
5.) Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (approx 100 years)
6.) Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (approx 100 years)
7.) Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (approx 1 year)
8.) Alteration of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (approx 10 years)
9.) Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (approx 50 years)
10.) Dieback of the Boreal Forest (approx 50 years)
11.) Destruction of the marine biological carbon pump (time?)
12.) Climate change-induced Ozone Hole?
Is there a link to the paper published by the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the “14 known tipping points”?
here’s the paper: http://www.pnas.org/content/105/6/1786.full.pdf%20 and some good discussion: http://climatelab.org/tipping_points
Thanks! I’ll read and do a post on it later when I get more time.
And I suppose this can be added as one of the 14:
Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (>300 years)
Permafrost and the Southwest North American Drought would round out the 14 on that list. The Ozone Hole is not part of the list.
Paul f. Getty said:
This well thought out article gives some insight as to why we humans may not be able to solve the problems facing us:
Haha, the race for what’s left: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/24/science/earth/melting-greenland-weighs-perils-against-potential.html?pagewanted=all