Climate-Change Summary And Update
By Guy McPherson
06 January, 2013
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. They’re mired in the dank Swamp of Nothingness. 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.
This essay brings attention to recent projections and positive feedbacks. There is little new here beyond my recent presentations on the subject. Specifically, I presented most of this information at the Bluegrass Bioneers conference (Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock evaluates my presentation here). More recently, I presented an updated version on the campus of the University of Massachusetts. All information and sources are readily confirmed with an online search.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C, 7 C by 2100
International Energy Agency (November 2010): 3.5 C by 2035
United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050
These assessments fail to account for significant self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks). The IPCC’s vaunted Fifth Assessment will continue the trend as it, too, ignores important feedbacks. On a positive note, major assessments fail to account for economic collapse. However, due to the feedback loops presented below, I strongly suspect it’s too late for economic collapse to extend the run of our species.
As pointed out 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.” Planetary instruments indicate Earth has warmed about 1 C since the beginning of the industrial revolution. However, plants in the vicinity of Concord, Massachusetts — where the instrumental record indicates warming of about 1 C — indicate warming of 2.4 C since the 1840s.
Whether you believe the plants or the instruments is irrelevant at the point. 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 permaculture.
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010)
Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011)
Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011)
Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)
Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012)
Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012)
Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide
Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
As nearly as I can distinguish, only the latter feedback process is reversible. Once you pull the tab on the can of beer, there’s no keeping the carbon dioxide from bubbling up and out. Because we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else).
See how far we’ve come
Never mind that American naturalist George Perkins Marsh predicted anthropogenic climate change as a result of burning fossil fuels in 1847. Never mind that climate risks have been underestimated for the last 20 Years, or that the IPCC’s efforts have failed miserably. After all, climate scientist Kevin Anderson tells us what I’ve known for years: politicians and the scientists writing official reports on climate change are lying, and we have less time than most people can imagine. Never mind that even the Atlantic is displaying “five charts about climate change that should have you very, very worried.” Never mind that atmospheric carbon dioxide is affecting satellites. Never mind that even the occasional economic analyst is telling climate scientists to be persuasive, be brave, and be arrested.
Never mind all that: Future temperatures likely will be at the higher end of the projected range because the forecasts are all too conservative and also because climate negotiations won’t avert catastrophe.
Actually, catastrophe is already here, although it’s not widely distributed in the United States. Well, not yet. But the east coast of North America experienced its hottest water temperatures all the way to the bottom of the ocean. The epic dust bowl of 2012 grew and grew and grew all summer long. And climate change causes early death of 400,000 people each year.
Then see where we’re going
The climate situation is much worse than I’ve led you to believe, and is accelerating far more rapidly than accounted for by models. Ice sheet loss continues to increase at both poles, and warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is twice the earlier scientific estimate. Arctic ice at all-time low, half that of 1980, and the Arctic lost enough sea ice to cover Canada and Alaska in 2012 alone. In short, summer ice in the Arctic is nearly gone. Furthermore, the Arctic could well be free of ice by summer 2015, an event that last occurred some three million years ago, before the genus Homo walked the planet. In a turn surprising only to mainstream climate scientists, Greenland ice is melting rapidly.
Ocean acidification associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is proceeding at an unprecedented rate and could trigger mass extinction by itself. Already, half the Great Barrier Reef has died during the last three decades. And ocean acidification is hardly the only threat on the climate-change front. As one little-discussed example, atmospheric oxygen levels are dropping to levels considered dangerous for humans.
An increasing number of scientists agree that warming of 4 to 6 C causes a dead planet. And, they go on to say, we’ll be there by 2060. The ultra-conservative International Energy Agency, on the other hand, concludes that, “coal will nearly overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017 … without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.” At the 11:20 mark of this video, climate scientist Paul Beckwith indicates Earth could warm by 6 C within a decade
Guy McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. He's written well over 100 articles, ten books, the most recent of which is Walking Away From Empire, and has focused for many years on conservation of biological diversity. He lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he practices durable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community. Learn more at guymcpherson.com or email Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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