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Climate Change – Too Late To Halt?

By Sanjeev Ghotge

04 May, 2015

Mr Alan Rusbridger, the Editor-in- Chief of the Guardian, and soon to step down after 20 years in that position, recently gave an interview  to the Hindu, a widely circulated Indian newspaper. The interview was published in the Hindu on 27 April 2015 and Mr Rusbridger's opening remark is as follows: “ I have had a feeling that this (i.e. climate change)is an important story, if not the most important story of our lives. Climate change does pose an existential threat to the species, and we haven't got long to do something about it. If we go beyond 2 deg C ( in global temperatures) then the consequences are really problematic for millions of people. So if that is right, then it is such an enormous story that you would expect it to be on the front page every day – and it almost never is. I was thinking about what I would regret not having done as editor and I wished we had done more on this story to wake people up.”

It is welcome news that the editor of a major newspaper  from the English speaking world has identified the most important story of our times. Mr Rusbridger also states that in order to save the planet from catastrophic climate change, global temperatures have to stay within a 2 deg C threshold. From this, we are led to believe that Mr Rusbridger apparently still believes that it is possible to contain temperatures within a 2 deg C threshold. Is his belief justified, in the light of what has been consistently stated by the climate science?

We wish to share , with concerned and deeply engaged readers, what are the actual conclusions that can be arrived at on the basis of the scientifically known studies on climate change.

For climate scientists, the earth system consists of five interacting components – the lithosphere ( the land system), the hydrosphere ( the water system, both freshwater and oceans), the cryosphere ( the frozen parts of the earth including both polar regions and all the glaciers), the biosphere ( all life forms on land and sea) and the atmosphere. As the Australian scientist Tim Flannery has put it, if the Earth were the size of an onion, the atmosphere would be equal to the thickness of the onion skin. This characterization is accurate because the operative part of the atmosphere is about 10 km thick, containing over  90% of the air on earth. It is this rather thin envelope of air that gets heated up due to the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the atmosphere starts heating up, the heat is transferred, by conduction and convection , to the other four systems indicated above. The consequences of this transference of heat have  been worked out by different scientific disciplines dealing with  the different fields of study involved. The major conclusion , across disciplines, is that the climate system is full of “positive feedbacks”. This innocuous, rather bland statement, should have set the alarm bells ringing amongst the policy elites of the world, if they had the intelligence and moral courage to understand what this statement really means.

The concept of feedback arises from the science of cybernetics, a new form of algebra created by Norbert Wiener around the mid 20th century. Briefly, a system could logically have 3 types of in-built feedback: zero, negative or positive. Of these, the case of zero feedback is trivial because it implies no feedback i.e. it is not a feedback system at all. Negative feedback can be analyzed to show that it is a self-correcting or self regulating system i.e. it tends to restore the system back towards balance as at the initial point. Positive feedback is the exact opposite i.e.it pushes the system further along the direction of initial disturbance. Two everyday examples from common experience can be used to illustrate negative and positive feedback. The steering mechanism of most automobiles is designed for achieving negative feedback, which is why when the steering wheel is released after executing a turn, it straightens the automobile and brings the vehicle automatically out of the turn. On the other hand, an example of positive feedback occurs when the hand-held microphone is accidentally  placed in front of the “ speakers” in an auditorium. The sound emerging from the speaker is carried to the microphone, is then magnified and carried to the speaker and thence again to the mike and further amplification and so on. This happens very rapidly in electronic systems and is the familiar irritating screech in the auditorium, which drives everyone crazy. A positive feedback loop, if unattended rapidly, can drive a system to damage or destruction.

Unfortunately, the feedbacks in the climate system are all positive feedbacks –increasing water vapour in the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect; longer periods of less ice at the poles and glaciers increases radiant heat absorption rather than reflection; heating of permafrost releases stores of methane which is a potent GHG; increasing ocean surface temperatures reduces CO2 solubility; drying of land increases forest and grassland fires; the eventual  release of methane by clathrates (unstable methane crystals formed on ocean floors over millions of years by a combination of high pressure and low temperatures) once the surface heat penetrates to the ocean floors ; all of these are examples of positive feedbacks in the climate system. Their knowledge of the highly unstable nature of the climate system had made the climate scientists draw the red line at 2 deg C of atmospheric heating, though even there several scientists had differed, holding that 2 deg C was too high a threshold for such an unstable system, in fact that the safe threshold should be even lower. Whatever the case may be, the clear signal was that above 2 deg C, the positive feedbacks would kick-in and the atmosphere would continue heating due to releases of stored carbon in the different components i.e. stored carbon in soils and in oceans.

The climate scientists have also worked out the mathematical relationship between the CO2 concentration and the atmospheric equilibrium temperature, which is captured in the following table:

Tables SPM 5 and Table TS 2 (abridged respectively from) – IPCC 2007 Vol III

Category of CO2 concentration

CO2 Conc. (ppm)

CO2Eq conc. (ppm)

Global mean temp. increase above pre-industrial at equilibrium (ºC)

Peaking year for CO2 emission


350 – 400

445 – 490

2.0 – 2.4

2000 – 2015


400 – 440

490 – 535

2.4 – 2.8

2010 – 2030


440 – 485

535 – 590

2.8 – 3.2

2010 – 2030

The first row of the table, taken from IPCC 2007, shows that a CO2 concentration of 400 ppm will result in an equilibrium temperature between 2.0 and 2.4 deg C   i.e. higher than 2 deg C. Since the CO2 concentration reached 400 ppm  last year (2014), this means that the earth's atmosphere will eventually heat up by 2 deg C, since we have no proven and tested technologies for decarbonizing the atmosphere. The deceptive aspect arises because there is a time lag, estimated between 35-40 years, between reaching a particular concentration level and reaching the corresponding equilibrium temperature. In other words, we can expect a temperature rise of 2 deg C by around 2050. When that temperature is reached, the land component of the earth system will stop absorbing net CO2 from the atmosphere, instead becoming a net emitter .Since this is contained in IPCC 2007, it may be considered holy writ. Hence Mr Rusbridger is mistaken in his belief that it is possible to contain global temperature rise within 2 deg C, in other words to prevent autonomous increase of the atmospheric temperature by the earth system. And Mr Rusbridger is one of the better editors on the planet, far more conscientious in reporting climate change issues. Others are far worse. However, if this is the continuing belief of one of the sympathetic editors, what hope is there of getting the message across to the much larger sections of humanity who will eventually be affected, especially with IPCC refusing to succinctly state this conclusion viz. that the time is now well and truly past for holding the line at 2 deg C. Roughly speaking, we are on course to reach 2 deg C by 2050, 4 deg C by 2100 and 6 deg C by 2150. A few years this way or that will hardly matter or disprove the basic science.

Another set of statements emanating recently from IPCC sources seem to claim that there is as yet a global “carbon budget” available before the 2 deg C threshold is breached. As the above table indicates clearly, this is simply incorrect in terms of the current knowledge and position taken by IPCC itself in 2007.The above table indicates that the carbon budget is now effectively zero; all that IPCC seems to be doing is buying time for the power elites of the world ,by keeping alive false hopes. This is not expected of an inter-governmental body set up under UN auspices, whose first priority should have been to speak out the truth, without fear or favour. Instead of doing this, they have stopped being faithful to the science and are instead dancing to their master's tunes, whatever those may be. The acceptance of a zero carbon budget from this point of time onwards means that natural gas stops being a clean fuel ( since it will still add carbon to the atmosphere), the world's vehicular fleet can no longer continue to run on petroleum, we cannot continue to manufacture cement, steel and several other economically important products as we have in the past. Obviously, the world's economic, political and military elites are neither competent to implement nor desirous of the rapid changes that will be demanded, hence IPCC puts out the story that a global carbon budget is still available. This buys time for the elites.The rapid changes needed would include not merely phasing out of all carbon emitting technologies but phasing in of zero carbon emitting energy technologies such as solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and wave, electricity based transportation systems ( with the electricity being generated from non-fossil fuel sources ) and hydrogen as a fuel – in short, technologies that are not based on hydrocarbon or carbon combustion.

 Due to the entrenched power of the climate deniers, we have refrained from bringing this role of the IPCC to the notice earlier of concerned scholars around the world. That time is now past. It is completely irrelevant what is discussed and agreed upon in Paris at the end of this year. The combined power of the world's elites, and the governments they control, cannot change the laws of physics and the consequences that flow from those laws. In the public domain, we really need to pose the question: why do we continue to owe any allegiance, even civility, to governing elites of the world, whether they represent governments that are plutocratic, monarchic, pseudo-democratic, fascist, military dictatorships, socialist or communist. I do not have an answer to this question but I believe that there has been a massive failure of all forms of governance because of their fundamental failure to perform a basic duty of any government, which is to protect its people from harm. All that I see are the political elites from around the world genuflecting to the economic elites of the world, their real masters, in conferences like Davos every year. Do we really believe that the participants at Davos really care for the future of the world , its peoples and diverse life-forms?

One final comment deserves to be added before closure. This is to the effect that it is possible for concerned scholars to build a simplified toolkit to track the build-up of GHGs in the atmosphere in future. Both IPCC 2001 and IPCC 2007, in appropriate tables, had estimated the annual carbon absorption capacity of the earth system at 3.1-3.2 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon per annum. Any carbon emissions, on an annual basis , above this level results in the accumulation of carbon ( as CO2 ) in the atmosphere. IPCC 2001 had split the components as 1.7 btC absorbed by the oceans and 1.4 btC absorbed by land systems. IPCC 2007 had revised these figures to 2.2 btC by oceans and 0.9 btC by land. These absorption capacities are fundamental to understanding the science, as they do not change in the short run. However, beyond 2 deg C , the land component reverses and the land becomes a net emitter of CO2. Moreover, what changes from year to year are the total quantities of carbon based fuels that the worldwide economy burns. The annual addition of carbon to the atmosphere may be roughly estimated  based on the global production of coal, crude oil and natural gas in the global economy, the annual figures being published by the International Energy Agency. In 2012, the global economy produced about 5.5 billion tonnes of coal, 30 billion barrels of crude oil equal to about 4.2 billion tonnes of crude and 3.2 trillion cubic metres of gas. Converted to carbon content, the global economy added to the atmosphere around  4.1 btC via coal combustion, about 3.4 btC via oil combustion and 1.6 btC via gas combustion, totaling about 9.1 btC of global emissions. Since the earth systems absorbed 3.2 btC, the balance 5.9 btC was added to the atmosphere, equaling about 2.5-3ppm CO2. (Researchers at Princeton, I think Socolow and Pacala, had calculated that 2.1 btC of carbon equals 1 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere). This crude methodology frees us from the use of computers and datasets to track in future what is happening to the global atmosphere. At the current level of fossil fuel consumption, we are adding between 2 and 3 ppm of CO2 every year. Researchers also add 22-25% to the existing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 to derive the CO2 equivalent, which is the figure that matters where global warming is concerned. Scholars may note that quantitative emissions above 3.2 btC per annum will continue increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is only when global emissions reduce below 3.2 btC that the absorption will exceed emissions and the concentration start reducing. However, this does not mean that cooling will start because the heating is proportional to the atmospheric concentration of CO2 equivalent, merely that the rate of heating will start reducing. Cooling will begin only when CO2 concentrations are held well below 3.2 btC per annum; simple calculations based on the climate science can show that this process will take centuries.

Mr Rusbridger and the Guardian are exceptions to the rule, most of the world media are busy projecting that there is a carbon budget available before the 2 deg C threshold is breached. This belief is contrary to what the science has been saying for a long time now.

An anonymous artist has created an impressionistic view of what the world will be like when global temperatures reach 6 deg C.  This is more or less consistent with the predictions of the basic science. Under the circumstances, the artist must be complimented on retaining a sense of humour. If the artistic depiction is even approximately true, Mr Rusbridger and readers may ponder whether the eventual human toll will number in millions or billions, plus the toll on other life-forms. It is beyond the pseudo-science which masquerades as economics to even begin to grasp the magnitude of the irreversible chain of consequences now set into motion.

We are not given to making doomsday predictions….. nor do we accept wooden nickels.

The author was earlier Professor at the Centre for Applied Systems Analysis in Development ,  Pune and later Sr. Fellow and Head, Climate and Sustainability Policy at the World Institute of Sustainable Energy, Pune. Views are personal







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