The real worst and best cases of climate change

What do you want? The planet Venus? The current degraded Earth? Or a better world we know how to create?

What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?
Joel Pett, Lexington Herald Leader, 18 March 2012, The cartoon seen ’round the world

Mostly I post about solar and wind power winning, which is what I think is happening. But sometimes it’s worth a reminder of what could happen if we do nothing about climate change, and I posted on my facebook page a story about that. Which actually didn’t go far enough to the real worst case. Nonetheless, that story has been attacked by numerous parties of all political and scientific and unscientific stripes for being too doom and gloom. Yet none of the attackers bothered to mention a best case beyond “the same world we have now”. I have news for you: the world we have now is an ecological catastrophe, and we can do a lot better. So here’s the real worst case, the current case, which is far from the best of all possible worlds, and the real best case, as I see it. Plus what we can do to head for the best case.

grinning fossilized skull

First, the story I posted: David Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine, 9 July 2017, The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think. Notice that word “could”, which a lot of his critics seem to have ignored. He didn’t say “will”, and he clearly labeled what he was presenting as worst case scenarios.

In case anybody thinks he was making any of that stuff up, Wallace-Wells has also linked to an annotated version with footnotes for every substantial assertion. The annotated version notes at the top:

We published “The Uninhabitable Earth” on Sunday night, and the response since has been extraordinary — both in volume (it is already the most-read article in New York Magazine’s history) and in kind. Within hours, the article spawned a fleet of commentary across newspapers, magazines, blogs, and Twitter, much of which came from climate scientists and the journalists who cover them.

Well, it looks like the article has served its purpose, to get people talking about climate change and why we need to do something about it!

Of the attacks I’ve seen, most of them did not bother to challenge any of the factual statements in his article nor did they try to deny that he was presenting real worst cases. Wallace-Wells says he has made four corrections or adjustments, which he summarized in a note added to the end of the original article:

*This article has been updated to provide context for the recent news reports about revisions to a satellite data set, to more accurately reflect the rate of warming during the Paleocene—Eocene Thermal Maximum, to clarify a reference to Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World, and to make clear that James Hansen still supports a carbon-tax based approach to emissions.

A few critics tried to undermine a few statements, such as the one about the satellite data. Wallace-Wells has now reworded that as

…there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines).

In a footnote he also provides a link to the news story he originally referenced.

At least one attacker attempted to debunk this sentence by exaggerating it as prophesying imminent demise through all the permafrost melting real soon now:

In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.

He didn’t say when, just “at a date that keeps getting moved up”.

Wallace-Wells responds in a footnote to his annotated version:

There has been a fair amount of criticism of my use of this material. Michael Mann in particular has faulted me for it; in his initial Facebook post about the story, he wrote that “the science doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb.” At Climate Feedback, several other scientists took issue with various aspects of my characterization as well.

There is little doubt that this permafrost is melting quickly.

According to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment, by 2100, “it is virtually certain that near-surface permafrost extent at high northern latitudes will be reduced as global mean surface temperature increases, with the area of permafrost near the surface (upper 3.5 m) projected to decrease by 37% (RCP2.6) to 81% (RCP8.5) for the multi-model average.” But there is some important context I did not include here: Few scientists believe there is a substantial risk of methane release from permafrost happening suddenly, or all at once.

Also, most of the carbon will likely escape as C02, not methane. In retrospect, I sympathize with those who find misleading the phrase “all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up.” The schedule I was referring to was the melting, which will take decades; the thawing is a process, not an event.

I believe that my original description of the possibility of the methane release lacked some relevant (reassuring) context.

But I do not believe the science was fundamentally misrepresented here: There is that much carbon in the permafrost; the permafrost is melting at accelerating rates; some of the carbon will be released as methane; and methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

My intention in referencing the permafrost was to illustrate, for readers unfamiliar with the particulars of projection models, how many uncertain factors were at play — how many forces we don’t understand, and how possibly significant those forces could be in the warming of the planet. As Joseph Romm writes, “The thawing tundra or permafrost may well be the single most important amplifying carbon-cycle feedback. Yet, none of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate models include carbon dioxide or methane emissions from warming tundra as a feedback.” He also writes, “A 2011 study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Snow and Ice Data Center found that thawing permafrost will turn the Arctic from a place that stores carbon (a sink) to a place that generates carbon (a source) in the 2020s—and release a hundred billion tons of carbon by 2100.” That study, he says, assumes none of the carbon will be released as methane, and yet still predicts a release “equivalent to half the amount of carbon that has been released into the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial age.”

To be additionally clear, none of the warming scenarios described in the remainder of this article are built on the premise of a methane release from permafrost. They all extrapolate from the median and high-end IPCC projections for business-as-usual warming.

Even if you take issue with my characterization of the threat from permafrost melt, it does not affect my discussion of any of the risks that follow. The permafrost melt is a wild card which could add to those IPCC projections. (Romm calculates it could add a degree of warming by 2100 all on its own.)

For those who are really interested in reading about methane, there are also the clathrates to consider — bubbles of methane at the bottom of the ocean, which many energy companies are now hoping to mine. Speaking about those with me, Lee Kump, a Penn State geoscientist, had this to say: “We haven’t really anticipated these positive feedbacks — for instance, these pockets of methane. That methane starts bubbling out, that’s a potent greenhouse gas. As that spreads throughout the globe, there’s a tremendous potential there for methane hydrates release.” He went on: “As you move towards the poles, we’re already seeing the consequences of warming there in terms of methane release.”

The point in quoting this lengthy response from the original author is to show his worst case scenarios are based on sober science, and are in harmony with the scientific consensus on climate change. He’s just talking about what climate scientists usually don’t talk about much in public: the worse case scenario, not their best case nor even the median case.

The Real Worst Case

To talk about the real worst case we need someone who is not a climate scientist: Tia Ghose, LiveScience, 5 July 2017, Stephen Hawking: Earth Could Turn Into Hothouse Planet Like Venus,

Earth could turn into a hothouse planet like Venus, with boiling oceans and acid rain, if humans don’t curb irreversible climate change, physicist Stephen Hawking claimed in a recent interview.

Earth and Venus
Why we live on Earth and not Venus

“We are close to the tipping point, where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees [Celsius], and raining sulfuric acid,” he told BBC News, referring to the president’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate deal.

The critic David Wallace-Wells quoted first above, none other than Dr. Michael Mann, responded in the same article:

“Hawking is taking some rhetorical license here,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the Pennsylvania State University, told Live Science in an email. “Earth is further away from the sun than Venus and likely cannot experience a runaway greenhouse effect in the same sense as Venus — i.e. a literal boiling away of the oceans. However Hawking’s larger point — that we could render the planet largely uninhabitable for human civilization if we do not act to avert dangerous climate change — is certainly valid.”

In that response Mann admits that Wallace-Wells’ main point is valid, which of course all climate scientists or anyone else who has read the IPCC reports knows.

As for Hawking’s point, Mann doesn’t address what might happen if major countries deliberately were to increase burning of fossil fuels beyond previous rates of increase, a scenario I’m not sure has been addressed directly by the IPCC. Meanwhile, right here in our solar system we have an example of an earth-sized planet far too hot to be habitable (Venus) and a smaller planet that recent evidence shows probably once was habitable but now is too cold and otherwise not very hospitable (Mars).

I wouldn’t put it past the ability of humans to turn Earth into Venus. Not that humans would care by that time; Earth would be uninhabitable by humans long before that.

Is Earth turning into Venus likely? Not at all. But it is the real worst case scenario.

Well, that and thermonuclear war, which wouldn’t make Earth Venus but could destroy human civilization as we know it.

The Current Case

Various critics have claimed that the best case scenario is for the world to remain more or less what it is today. The current case is far from the best case.

Longleaf Alliance: Cutover Longleaf Pine Forest

Perhaps they forget that global average temperature has already increased around 1° C (1.8° F) since 1800. Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is already above 400 parts per million (ppm) when it has never been above 300 ppm in the past 650,000 years. That’s back several ice ages and intervening warm interglacial periods. That’s more than three times as long as modern humans, Homo sapiens, have existed on this planet.

At the beginning of human civilization around 7,000 years ago there were about 5 million humans on the planet. When the Egyptians built the Pyramids, there were maybe 20 million. When the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of the people in the world, there were somewhere between 150 and 225 million total worldwide. In 1800 there were about a billion. Now there are 7.5 billion.

Even the lowest U.N. projections show world population peaking around 8.5 billion around the year 2050. The median U.N. projection exceeds 11 billion people by 2100. The highest U.N. projections reaches about 10.5 billion by 2050 and 16.5 billion by 2100. That highest projection is almost certainly unsustainable, and would very likely cause accelerated climate change. Even the median projection would be problematical. The lowest projection still requires getting on with stopping fossil fuel emissions.

world population projections
U.N.: World population

What have all we people done to this earth?

Ask any Floridian about algae blooms on both coasts and in springs. Look up the recent Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) that say nitrate runoff has to be reduced by 83 to 92% in the Suwannee River Basin.

Look up the history of forests in North America, and you’ll find in the last part of the 1800s into the early 1900s we cut down more than 90% of the longleaf pine forest that used to run from southern Virginia across the entire coastal plain to east Texas, with an intermission at the Mississippi River. That was the most diverse ecosystem outside of a tropical rain forest.

Longleaf Alliance, History of Longleaf.

We in south Georgia and north Florida live in an ecological disaster zone. To feel this for yourself, go to Fort Stewart near Savannah (that’s right: much of the surviving few percent of longleaf pine forest is on military bases; some of the same bases that feature below) and drive among the hundred-foot-tall longleaf as far as the eye can see with the red-cockaded woodpeckers laughing at you. Then drive west out of the woods, and it will feel like entering a desert.

Albert Way, Chris Dobbs, New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2006 and 2017, Longleaf Pine Ecosystem.

Instead we have monoculture crops (trees and row crops) doused in pesticides and fertilizers that run off into our streams and groundwater (see above about BMAPs). And we have too much poorly-planned impermeable surface (roads, parking lots, etc.) that produces floods like we had here in 2009 and 2013.

Probably I don’t have to remind anyone what we’ve done and are doing to tropical rain forests. Or the Pacific Garbage Patch, or….

This is not the best of all possible worlds.

The Real Best Case

To start with, thanks to Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobson and his research team, we know how to convert each and every U.S. state and most countries to sun, wind, and water power by 2050, 90% by 2035, 80% by 2030, and 25% by 2025. Convert as in completely, everything, including transportation, heating, and cooling, with zero use of coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, or biomass. The U.S. electrical grid will be converted much earlier than 2050 to sun, wind, and water power. The harder parts like air transportation would take the longest.

600x339 End-Use U.S. Power Change over Time, in 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States, by Mark Z. Jacobson et al., 27 May 2015

How important is it to do that conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050? For comparison, Susan Joy Hassol, Presidential Climate Report, August 2011, Quesions and Answers: Emissions Reductions Needed to Stabilize Climate,

In order to stabilize CO2 concentrations at about 450 ppm by 2050, global emissions would have to decline by about 60% by 2050. Industrialized countries greenhouse gas emissions would have to decline by about 80% by 2050.

How about 100% by 2050?

We are on track to do that. Last year, in 2016, more new U.S. electricity came from solar power than any other source. Solar power deployed in the U.S. continues to more than double every two years, which puts us on track for most U.S. electricity to come from solar power by 2023, which is in line with Jacobson’s 2050 scenario.

And what would we get for reducing emissions to zero by 2050? More jobs than would be lost from dirty energy: solar power already employs more people in electrical generation than coal, oil, and gas combined, and is creating new jobs 17 times faster than the rest of the economy. And thousands fewer premature death from polution, saving about 4% of U.S. GDP, plus saving $3.3 trillion worldwide climate change costs. Plus solar prosperity will help reduce population growth.

Did I mention no more wars for oil or gas? No more mountain-top removal or open-pit mining for coal? No more pipeline boondoggles drilling under our rivers and taking our lands?

Oh yes: at some point in emissions reductions, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will start to decrease. Eventually it will return to pre-industrial levels.

Unfortunately, ice is already melting, and sea level rise is already happening. Maybe we won’t lose Miami, but then again with groundwater salination we may. Bangladesh and Himalayan glaciers may be goners. Or maybe not, if we get on with it fast enough.

There has already been and will be more massive species loss, and unfortunately nothing we can do will bring all the dead back to life, not the animals, not the plants, not the humans dead from pollution or unnecessary wars.

But getting on with converting to renewable energy as fast as possible will reduce deaths and extinctions and can end up with a world significantly better than the one we’ve got now.

There is even some evidence that we may be starting to head towards the best case scenario: Major climate change victory in U.S. House on Bastille Day 2017-07-14, in which the U.S. military is directed to do what it wants to do anyway, which is a major study of effects of climate change.

And of course Jacobson’s 2050 scenario isn’t even the best possible case. We can do it faster if we grow the political will to do it. Convert all those fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies into clean energy and smart grid subsidies. Or just phase them out and let the ever-decreasing price of solar and wind power accelerate the sea change already happening. Solar power will win like the Internet did.

sun over solar panels

Meanwhile, we can start reforestation and promote non-polluting agriculture, both of which will help ameliorate climate change, because trees and crops are mostly CO2 from the atmosphere.

Don’t say it can’t happen. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, History Of State Forest Program,

By the 1880s, less than 25% of New York State remained forested.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York State’s remaining forests were spread thin and losing stock. The New York Forest, Fish and Game Conservation Commission warned that the state would run out of timber within 50 years. The commission had reason to be alarmed. Timber companies were cutting the remaining trees at an alarming rate, leaving bare hillsides to be stripped of soil by erosion.

Forests in all the northeastern states were disappearing fast, but New York was the first to reverse this seemingly inexorable process by beginning to plant seedlings to replace trees that had been cut. The commission believed in using the latest science: sustainable forestry, the concept of managing forests for long-term productivity rather than short term profitability. Gifford Pinchot, who later founded the U.S. Forest Service, introduced this new forest management concept to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. He had studied forestry in Europe where timber was grown as a renewable resource on carefully managed plantation forests. In 1901, the commission planted the first tree plantation on state land in the Catskills to replace trees that had been logged….

There’s a lot more in there about what they did and how they did it. But I think you’ll agree this map of current forests in New York State show pretty much the opposite of the 1880s:

Forests in New York State
NYDEP: Map of NY State showing forested areas of 5 acres and larger

Gifford Pinchot didn’t understand diddly about longleaf pine forests, and not many people did until decades into the twentieth century. Yet now we know how to plant longleaf seedlings and get them to start growing quickly, and the state of Georgia (and others) encourages doing so, along with some of the original ground cover plants such as wiregrass and partridge pea.

We’re already doing some other things that are needed. While impervious surface is still a problem, most local land development codes now require retention ponds and other methods of greately reducing runoff.

We can proceed to make a better world, starting with the sea change from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable sun, wind, and water power, which is already under way, driving by sheer economics. And continuing with fixing some of the other things we’ve broken in recent centuries.

What we can do

To make this happen the biggest thing we can do is to get our local, state, and national governments and companies to get on with solar power. In the southeast, that’s solar power on land and wind power offshore.

Lobby Southern Company and Georgia Power and all the other utilities. Lobby the state Public Service Commissions and legislatures. Lobby Congress. Lobby your local county and city governments and state agencies. Talk to your Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority: you may be surprised to find they’re already on board.

Lobby your bank or mutual fund or retirement account manager to divest from fossil fuels.

Divest logo

That’s one of the most effective ways to deal with the 100 companies worldwide that produce 71% of global emissions. Investors shouldn’t be risking their investors’ funds in stranded assets, which is what stocks or loans to those fossil fuel companies will be as solar and wind power take over. Some of those companies won’t be able to convert their businesses, and their corporate lives will be “nasty, brutish and short” going defunct within about a decade. Others maybe be able to turn their considerable assets to renewable energy. And utility companies certainly can do that.

Do what you can to stop any new pipelines, or fracking, or LNG export, including lobbying Congress to stop FERC nominations. Already in the United Kingdom: Ian Johnston, The Independent, 14 July 2017, Fracking firms struggling to raise money from UK banks amid environment protests: ‘Fracking is a failed industry in the UK. The sooner our Government acknowledges that and throws its weight behind the booming renewable energy sector, the better for us all,’ says Greenpeace. Richard Anderson, Greenpeace, 14 July 2017, Fracking firms tell government the industry is ‘struggling’ as finance dries up.

And in the U.S. and Canada: Christopher M. Matthews and Bradley Olson, Wall Street Journal, 29 June 2017, A New Problem for Keystone XL: Oil Companies Don’t Want It: After weathering years of protests, pipeline operator TransCanada is struggling to attract customers amid low crude prices and competing oil-transportation options. Protests matter. Investors don’t like to invest in projects or companies that people protest. And writing directly to the investors can be more effective than waving a sign.

Multiple countries and U.S. states (New York, Vermont, and Maryland) have outright banned fracking. Next year there will be a bill for that in the Florida legislature again: you can help it pass.

Don’t be distracted by articles recommending you should drive less, eat less meat, or even not have children. Sure, maybe you should do many of those things. Although if you’re reading this you’re probably not one of the people who is having too many children.

The most effective ways to reduce the number of children per couple are well known: increase per capita income, and even more importantly educate girls and women. Notice that’s a collective goal, not something you as an individual alone should do.

Which is my point: articles recommending you should do this or that in your personal life are maybe helpful as tips, but if they don’t include the real actions that need to be done, most importantly stopping the hundred big company polluters, such articles are just distractions.

You did not personally cause global warming: big corporate greed did. And it’s those hundred big companies (and the utilities and banks that feed them) that we must stop.


Added 2014-07-16.

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