"Dangerous Climate Change" is already here, and the scientists know it.
The IPCC’s new assessment report hasn’t even been released, but the denialist fog machine is already running hard. If you’re tired of it — and, frankly, if you’re tired of the smoothly-leveled understatement that we usually get from the IPCC — take a look at Is Climate Change Already Dangerous?, a new report by David Spratt of Australia’s Climate Code Red.
I’ll not summarize this report; there’s no point because it’s already a summary, one which sticks extremely close to the original scientific literature. But I will say that its focus is the Arctic, which as you may have noticed is getting a lot of nervous attention these days. And this for the very good reason that it’s melting before our eyes! Spratt’s paper is excellent on this subject – it lays out the basics of the situation and gives you the citations you need to drill deeper. Assuming you’re up to it. The message, after all, is that we’ve already crossed the thin red line into the days of “dangerous climate change.”
What’s happening here? Here’s a nice overview from Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University and the Catlin Arctic Survey. The author of a recent paper called Arctic ice cover, ice thickness and tipping points and a leading authority on the polar regions, Wadhams says:
“I have been predicting [the collapse of sea ice in summer months] for many years. The main cause is simply global warming: as the climate has warmed there has been less ice growth during the winter and more ice melt during the summer… in the end the summer melt overtook the winter growth such that the entire ice sheet melts or breaks up during the summer months. This collapse, I predicted would occur in 2015–16 at which time the summer Arctic (August to September) would become ice-free. The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be completed by those dates. As the sea ice retreats in summer the ocean warms up (to +7ºC in 2011) and this warms the seabed too. The continental shelves of the Arctic are composed of offshore permafrost, frozen sediment left over from the last ice age. As the water warms, the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas so this will give a big boost to global warming.” (Vidal, 2012)
Wadhams’ conclusions are not uniformly accepted, but this is no great solace, and should not be taken as one. For while we may get lucky on the permafrost front, this is by no means certain, and in any case the Arctic albedo situation leaves us much less space for upbeat interpretations. It’s well known that the last generation of polar models understate the rates and severity of the Arctic ice melt, and here the key thing is that Wadhams is working with a new and specialized regional climate model (named “NAME”) that by all accounts is a major improvement on the old state of the art. Which is really too bad, because according to Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski, one of NAME’s developers . . .
“Given the estimated trend and the volume estimate for October–November of 2007 at less than 9,000 cubic kms, one can project that at this rate it would take only 9 more years or until 2016 +/-3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer.” (Maslowski, Kinney et al., 2012)
What’s at stake? Only that lengthening periods of sea-ice-free Arctic summers, together with all the other forcings that are already “in the system”, will soon push more elements of the climate system past their tipping points. In other words, don’t be surprised if the rate of planetary warming accelerates, and soon.
By how much?
“The sea-ice cover in June is about two per cent of the earth’s surface. Replacing that during summer in the Arctic with darker, more heat-absorbing ocean waters is equivalent to about 20 years of human greenhouse emissions, or about +0.5ºC of warming. . . This is consistent with a study by Stephen Hudson (2011), which found that, if the Arctic were ice-free for one month a year plus associated ice-extent decreases in other months, then, without taking cloud changes into account, the global impact would be about +0.2ºC of warming. If there were no ice at all during the main three months of sunlight, the increase would be +0.5ºC.”
No ice at all during the main three months of sunlight. We’ll get there in the next few decades.
Spratt’s conclusions echo Jim Hansen’s. Which is to say that 350 ppm is not some sort of aspirational goal — useful for organizing and such, but not really serious. Rather, it’s an unsafe, though achievable, compromise with an implacable physical system. What we actually need to do – what we would try to do if we were capable of acting rationally – is reduce the atmospheric carbon concentration to *below* the “Holocene maximum.”
“Holocene CO2 levels have varied between 270 and 330 ppm. The higher figure occurred in the early Holocene around 10,000 years ago when temperatures were around 0.5°C warmer (known as the Holocene maximum) than pre-industrial levels, when the CO2 level was around 280 ppm.
A safe climate would not exceed the Holocene maximum. The notion that +1.5ºC is a safe target is contradicted by the evidence, and even +1ºC degree is not safe given what we now know about the Arctic.”
An extreme position? Perhaps. Though it’s worth knowing that, as long ago as 1989, a few visionary scientists and policy activists (see for example Bill Hare’s Carbon Logic report, which he wrote when he was at Greenpeace) were campaigning to hold the +1ºC degree line. That ship, alas, has sailed. The challenge now, as Bill McKibben has so memorably put it, is “to avoid the unmanageable, and manage the unavoidable.”
Fortunately, we still have options – even so-called “negative emissions” options – and we can still plot a path in which we pull aside from the disasters now looming before us. But it would be foolish to pretend that this will be easy. Spratt, certainly, does not do so. He ends his report with talk of wartime mobilization, and with the brief, understated claim that “if we are to prevent the world tripping past a number of critical tipping points, some forms of geo-engineering such as solar radiation management (SRM) will be necessary in the short term.”
This is not a popular view, but it is an instructive one, and I would like to linger on it for a moment.
Spratt is an honest man, and it would serve us well to recognize that, in drawing this conclusion, he is not a mere dupe of some geo-engineering mafia. To be absolutely clear, the awful truth about geoengineering is that, all else being equal, it’s far more likely to serve as an excuse for inaction and twisted thinking (see for example Russia urges UN climate report to include geoengineering) than as a regrettable last-ditch backstop within a larger and more capacious mobilization. Still, inaction and twisted thinking are not our unavoidable fate. In fact, it‘s more likely that, as the severity of the climate threat becomes altogether manifest, it will rise to play a defining role in the larger reckoning that’s now washing over us — the one in which we finally admit that a meaningful climate mobilization can only occur within a larger social mobilization, one in which economic justice and climate emergency share the stage.
Our task now is to speak terrible truths in ways that can be heard, and on that basis to somehow deliver an unprecedented mobilization. Moreover, this is no longer an exotic view; there are many people now, around the world, who are reading the writing on the walls. But, still, let’s be frank – given the late date, and given the sad state of our polity, the mobilization we need may simply be beyond our grasp. Certainly it’s easy enough to see why close familiarity with climate science can increase your sense of dread and desperation, and lead you to dream of technological interventions – like large-scale solar radiation management – that might allow us, perhaps, to square the circles of our collective future. But consider the thing concretely. SRM means high-altitude blimps, or maybe rockets, and the endless “injection” of reflective chemicals into the stratosphere. An injection that goes on and on and on. The good news, if I may say so, is that people won’t like it, or even the thought of it, not one little bit. If the geoengineers dream of their vast interventions, and think that with them they will push aside the far more obvious conclusions that are, as Orwell used to say, “in front of our nose,” well then, as my mother used to say, they have another think coming.
The problem is only that we’re running out of time.
The actual challenge before us has more to do with economic solidarity and the nuts and bolts of straightforward solar revolution than it does with God-like technological interventions and the religions of denial. You don’t like geoengineering and all that it entrains? Then have a big think about climate justice and global emergency, and have it quickly. Because if we don’t somehow cobble together the mobilization that we need, and soon, the logic of “least-worst choices” is going to be in the saddle, whether we like it or not.