NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe

Important new research led by NOAA scientists, “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions,” finds:

…the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop…. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450-600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ”dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise.

I guess this is what President Obama meant when he warned today of “irreversible catastrophe” from climate change. The NOAA press release is here. An excellent video interview of the lead author is here.

The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science paper gives the lie to the notion that it is a moral choice not to do everything humanly possible to prevent this tragedy, a lie to the notion that we can “adapt” to climate change, unless by “adapt” you mean “force the next 50 generations to endure endless misery because we were too damn greedy to give up 0.1% of our GDP each year” (see, for instance, McKinsey: Stabilizing at 450 ppm has a net cost near zero or the 2007 IPCC report).

The most important finding concerns the irreversible precipitation changes we will be forcing on the next 50 generations in the U.S. Southwest, Southeast Asia, Eastern South America, Western Australia, Southern Europe, Southern Africa, and northern Africa (see also US Geological Survey stunner: SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050 and links below)

Here is the key figure (click to enlarge)

Figure: Best estimate of expected irreversible dry-season precipitation changes, as a function of the peak carbon dioxide concentration during the 21st century. The quasi-equilibrium CO2 concentrations shown correspond to 40% remaining in the long term as discussed in the text. The yellow box indicates the range of precipitation change observed during typical major regional droughts such as the ”dust bowl” in North America [except, of course, this Dust Bowl lasts 1000 years, not 10 to 20, which is what some people might call a desert (see Australia faces the “permanent dry” — as do we)].

On our current emissions path, we are headed toward 1000 ppm by century’s end, as a close reading of the IPCC report makes clear (see my 2008 recent Nature online article). That would put essentially every at risk region into conditions worse than the Dust Bowl for a long, long, long time. Clearly we must peak no higher than 450 ppm.

The authors include an important admonition to economists, who, as we’ve seen, invariably underestimate the cost of inaction (see Voodoo economists, Part 2 and Part 3):

Discount rates used in some estimates of economic trade-offs assume that more efficient climate mitigation can occur in a future richer world, but neglect the irreversibility shown here.

This is also an important admonition to reporters who cover the climate economics debate (see “How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics“).

The lead author, NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, spoke to reporters this morning:

Asked whether current efforts by some scientists and engineers to invent ways to suck excess CO2 straight out of the air would mean global warming could in fact be reversed after all, she agreed it would, “if by some miracle” such engineering feats could ever be realized.

Otherwise, she said, her study was only further proof of the urgency of the need for humanity to drastically reduce its greenhouse emissions worldwide.


Heck, I say, let’s do some geo-engineering research, but let’s not be deluded into thinking that pursuing research is the same thing as having any reason to believe that research will lead to anything practical or affordable — or any more successful than the billions we have flushed down the toilet trying to build a practical and affordable hydrogen car (see “The car of the perpetual future”).

If geo-engineering CO2 out of the air is plausible and affordable at a large scale, it is only after serious mitigation, to go from, say, a brief peak at 450 ppm, back to 400 ppm or lower. Going from 1000 ppm down to below 400 ppm is not only a staggering task to imagine — where the heck would you put the hundreds of billions of tons of carbon? — but it would be too late to save the ocean from becoming one large, acidic dead zone, and, in any case, we probably would have crossed carbon cycle tipping points that unleash the methane in the peatlands and permafrost.

Bottom line: A few decades of prevention is worth 1,000 years of cure misery.

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27 Responses to NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe

  1. Joe: What am I missing here? You state: “The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science paper gives the lie to the notion that … we can “adapt” to climate change”.

    Many have argued that to seek to adapt to climate change is admitting defeat, that we shouldn’t take focus away from mitigation. I used to believe this myself. But have’t we now reached the point where we should do both?

    Hey, if I’m building a house in New Orleans, it’s going to be on stilts. Is this not adaptation? And, if so, what’s wrong with that?

    [JR: “Adapt” as a primary strategy, the way it is for, say, Pielke. I’m just saying “adaptation” is a cruel euphemism absent ultra-aggressive mitigation. P.S. Don’t build that house in NO.]

  2. crf says:

    There are many meanings of the word adaptation.

    In response to climate change, we are talking about adaptation in the evolutionary sense, economic sense, psychological sense, etc. The room for adaptation in each of those areas is limited. We can’t assume that for a problem there is a adaptation pathway to any particular outcome we may wish.

    For example, if you want to adapt to a U.S. prairie dustbowl, you’ll have to cut down your population or cut down their caloric intake, or replace those calories with plankton, or finagle food from another country, or some such mind-boggling thing. The 30’s dust bowl was mind-boggling. The prairie then being unable to support its population, people adapted by moving to “virgin lands” elsewhere and later by building irrigation to keep the prairie fertile (there is no virgin land today, and irrigation is at its physical limits). Most people now don’t think of adaptation this way. They think adaptation is: “I’ll spend 10 minutes a week sorting my blue box recycables”.

    It’s not just about putting a house on stilts.

  3. BumperSticker conclusion:

    We are riding the up elevator that can never go down.

  4. Aaron d says:

    Not sure what kind of “adapting” we’ll do to CO2 near 1000ppm. CO2 that high can be fatal to human beings after all. Try hanging out in an office with bad airflow ( I have experience in this), with CO2 close to 800ppm. See how you feel at the end of the day. I for one can tell you you’re much more tired and you get headaches rather frequently. Maybe we’ll all be wearing around CO2 backpacks…similar to rebreathers used in scuba diving. I see a money maker here…

  5. Anonymous says:

    This report made the national news that I was watching. Is more of that going to make the MSM as long as there is a voice for it in The White House as well as Congress? it’s hopefull.

  6. David B. Benson says:


    Enhanced weathering looks to cost around $15–20 per tonne of carbon dioxide permanently removed. If everybody would pay, say, $25 per tonne for fossil fuel emissions, enough monies would be raised to carry this out on sufficent scale. (More than the minimum is needed because some of the emissions are from largely illegal deforestation.)

    So that is more in the range of 1–2% of world gross product.

    Anyway, an “excess crbon dioxide removal fee” on fossil fuels would presumably raise the required sum. But it does mean that everybody has to pay to put excess carbon dioxide into the air..

  7. K. Nockels says:

    The voices are ringing out of the dark gloom of BUSH. I was wondering when NOAA would get its voice back. Maybe we will get the truth about the state of our off-shore waters now too. And ALL the results of the vertical water colume testing in the North Atlantic and the state of our inner-coastal waters around the US. I dont exspect it to be good news but at least it will be the WHOLE TRUTH

  8. Jerry Scovel says:

    There is a noticable drop in CO2 during every northern hemisphere summer due to the amount of vegetation growing there. If we make islands from our trash (plastic bottles, barrels and styrofoam et cetera) we could cover large areas of the southern oceans with growing plants to consume the excess carbon. Richard Sowa is building islands from plastic bottles, the flying neutrinos are making islands from styrofoam and I am building an island using barrels. These three styles of islands are inexpensive to build and the raw materials are everywhere. It is time to take charge of our future, the government will just talk about solving the problem until we are all dead from it.

  9. Putting more plastic in the ocean doesn’t sound right to me.
    There is already a sea of micro size particles of plastic in the North Pacific that are said to outweigh zooplankton by 6-1 near the surface.

    Tiny organisms at the bottom of the food chain are inadvertently injesting them. Toxins like PCBs and DDT are said to stick to these plastic particle making them into poison pills.
    Not that the plastic isn’t bad enough.

    Styrofoam dock floats for marinas are being banned in many places now.

    The only good news is that the solar plants in the southwest will definitely not run out of sunshine.

  10. ken levenson says:

    To my point on WaPo vs. NYTimes: In WaPo there is a thoughtful article regarding report on A04 today. In NYTimes….nada….

    (CaptialClimate, frankly I don’t care if the WaPo has a science section as long as it’s got Climate Change up front. NYTimes gives us Dot Earth and Tierney Lab….a bad joke.)

  11. ken levenson says:

    I’ll correct myself….Times has it on A21. (Although it’s a weaker treatment, of a third fewer words and 5 times more buried than WaPo!)

  12. Guest says:

    Wasn’t one of the consequences of Global Warming supposed to be a general increase in precipitations? Why are we talking of droughts here?

    [JR: Dry areas get drier, wet wetter.]

  13. Lou Grinzo says:

    I think the key point on hydrological changes is that some of the most important assumptions that our economic development is based on are suddenly invalidated. We can live HERE and not THERE because there’s lots of fresh water from summer snow pack runoff. We can build a thermoelectric plant THERE because we can “always” cool it with water from the nearby river, which will “never” get too low or too hot to serve our needs.

    When glaciers disappear, rivers run low and abnormally hot, we’re suddenly stuck with an economic infrastructure that no longer matches reality, with very little hope of adapting to the changes at a comfortable or even “acceptable” cost in human suffering and dollars. This is the same situation with peak oil–reality changes the rules we “assumed” would never change, and suddenly we’re in a world of hurt.


    “The authors include an important admonition to economists, who, as we’ve seen, invariably underestimate the cost of inaction…”

    Once more: Can we stop this mindless and blatantly inaccurate broad brushing, Joe? Please??? Speaking as a living, breathing, and blogging for nearly four years counter example, this “economists are all evil morons” shtick is more than a little tiresome.

    [JR: 1) “economists are all evil morons” is not what I said, not even close. 2) I stand by my original statement. 3) Please identify even 2 counterexamples (other than Cline and Weitzman). 4) Get back to me when I’m done with Nordhaus, Tol, and everyone Tol cites!]

  14. Barry says:

    JR, I have to second Grinzo, not all economists underestimate inaction, only the ones you cherry pick to use for bashing purposes.

    Imagine picking a few skeptical climate scientists and dismissing the worth of the entire field based on a few bad apples. Not a very reasonable approach.

    There are mainstream economists who get it right in the climate arena. Geoffrey Heal, Sachs, Dasgupta come to mind….

    Instead of saying “stop listening to economists about climate change”, you should be saying “which economists should we be listening to about climate change?”

    [JR: As will be clear by the end of the series, there is no cherry picking of economists going on here, unless Nordhaus, Tol, and all the economists Tol cites in his surveys of the literature count as cherry picking!]

  15. Philip says:

    I find it hard to think beyond 2100 because the scale of our culpability for the degradation and destruction that might occur scares me.

    By the way, if anyone wants to read literally the worst article I have ever seen on climate, published by a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, go to…

  16. Philip says:

    Hmm, that link doesn’t seem to work, just google Joel Kotkin ‘Obama, Fight the Green Agenda’ published at today. Just an incredible specimen of disinformation that you might want to take a zoo trip to before it goes extinct.

  17. Douglas Williamson says:

    I saw this article and relevant links on Grist and thought it might add some fuel to the fire of this discussion.

    It’s not so important that Bush and co. tanked the reports, but that the reports have been made and substantiate most of the pessimistic news about climate change.

  18. TomG says:

    One wet area that could get very dry, very quickly, is the Amazon forest.
    It’s suffering a double whammy…AGW and massive deforestation.

  19. Adaptation is almost entirely death and extinction. When you say: “We will adapt”, what you are really saying is: “We will willingly die and go extinct.” 99% of all species that ever lived are extinct. Yet the maximum number of species alive at one time happened in about the year 1800. Adaptation is mostly extinction and the evolution of new species from the survivors. There is no reason to believe that Homo Sap would be among the survivors.

    At the very least, adaptation means the fall of civilization. It isn’t just the southwest that could dry up. It could be the entire midwest, the farm belt. Reference “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas.
    Downloaded from:
    “Nebraska isn’t at the top of most tourists’ to-do lists. However, this dreary expanse of impossibly flat plains sits in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural systems on Earth. Beef and corn dominate the economy, and the Sand Hills region – where low, grassy hillocks rise up from the flatlands – has some of the best cattle ranching in the whole US. But scratch beneath the grass and you will find, as the name suggests, not soil but sand. These innocuous-looking hills were once desert, part of an immense system of sand dunes that spread across the Great Plains from Texas in the south to the Canadian prairies in the north. Six thousand years ago, when temperatures were about 1 [degree] C warmer than today in the US, these deserts may have looked much as the Sahara does today. As global warming bites, the western US could once again be plagued by perennial drought – devastating agriculture and driving out human inhabitants on a scale far larger than the 1930s “Dustbowl” exodus.”

    Many “adaptationists” assume that we will have a century or more of gradual desertification in which we will be able to build a perfect irrigation system. There is no reason to believe that the desertification process will happen slowly enough to allow us to build irrigation systems to preserve our food supply. It didn’t happen that way in the 1930s. It could happen in one year, and we wouldn’t realize what had happened until there was no food to harvest in September. Irrigation doesn’t work for centuries in any case because irrigation gradually makes the soil too salty to grow crops.

    Reference Book: “The Long Summer, How Climate Changed Civilization” by Brian Fagan, 2004 Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02281-2
    Summary: Smaller climate changes than we have caused already, caused the fall of dozens of civilizations. When there is no food, there is no civilization. Yes, the present civilization and the USA CAN collapse. Collapse means no more government, no more Americans, etc..

    Reference Book: “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond. 99.99% of all people in the collapsing civilization die, including the richest. Hunting the neighbors as food happens. We really don’t want to “adapt” that way. If you are reading this, you will be among the dead. The survivors are living in the stone age in some very out-of-the-way place.

    “Adaptation” is out. We have to take the opposite path to maintain our civilization. We have to prevent any more global warming. If we don’t, the survivors will be stone age people, if there are any survivors.

  20. Marc Barasch says:

    Why not a crash program to plant an average of 10 billion trees a year for the next 10 years on degraded lands, restoring the ecology and economy of the world’s poorest places, and sucking up increasing volumes of carbon? I’m not so naive as to suggest it’s the solution, but it will certainly help, and on both a human and environmental level. The new chairman of the new White House Council on Science and Technology, Woods Hole scientist John Holdren, has announced that to ““accelerate afforestation and reforestation in all regions where this is practicable” is one of seven wedges to address climate change and “avoid catastrophe.” We have begun our own contribution to this effort at, which we conceive as massively scaleable. I would particularly appreciate scientific comment, either to poke holes or help me refine the argument. I believe this idea has a compelling logic, and have noted it is shared in at least some circles.

  21. Greg G says:

    As mammals, a substantial period of our evolution was in the Jurassic period at 2000ppm CO2, and the Phanerozoic started out closer to 4000 ppm. The gases in each of our exhalations is close to 50,000 ppm.

    CO2 at 300 ppm is due to a drawdown by plant life. Plant life will draw it back down. 1000 ppm by the end of the century? I’d take a bet against that if I knew I could be alive to collect.

  22. AJ says:

    I wonder when people like Greg will learn the basics of the carbon cycle and the feedbacks/CO2 absorption limitations therein. Or that this issue isn’t about what may have happened in the past under different circumstances, but about rapid change and it’s impacts on holocene ecology and a civilization of billions.

  23. Leif says:

    Guest says: Wasn’t one of the consequences of Global Warming supposed to be a general increase in precipitations? Why are we talking of droughts here?

    Wet can come in many forms. A whole bunch at once so as to cause floods and massive run off that is not only unuseable but dettermental. Happening…
    Weather patterns can shift so that the moisture comes somewhere else or at the wrong time of the year. Happening… To name a couple. I have recently read a report by a Russian scientist that hypothesized that just removing sea side forests have a detrimental effect on further inland rainfall. Because the surface area for evaporation is so much greater in a forest than say the surface of the ocean, rain that falls in the forest is re-evaporated and redeposited further inland, instead of just falling in a narrow belt along the coast.
    It makes a lot of sense to me.

  24. Jerry Scovel says:

    Oddly enough if the ancient Romans and Persians had faced extensive droughts they would have built aqueducts to move exess water from areas of too much rainfall to storage cisterns in arid regions. The storage cisterns would release water slowly as needed. If we modern humans could build aqueducts from Greenland, Canada and Siberia to the Gobi, Sahara, Mojave et cetera we could use the pure water of the icepack to make the deserts bloom. The increase in plant life should be enough to reverse the carbon levels in the atmosphere.

  25. I think there is an adaptation problem when expertise in one field leads to an assertion (called “conclusion”) in another field outside their expertise.
    For example, I heard one expert claim that No. California will face a water shortage in the future because there will be less snow in the Sierra snow pack. Yet, another expert claime San Francisco Airport will be flooded because the Ocean will increase its level by Six (6) feet.
    I am a dumb thermodynamics expert (two advanced degrees) and have some trouble with both views. Either one is OK, but it contradicts, in my mind, the other one.
    To my simple mind, increased heating will evaporate more ocean water and the storms and typhoons will be more energetic. Where does the permanent sand storms come from?
    Yes, glaciers will melt, Aral Sea will dry up and 1.5 Billion in Central Asia will run out of drinking and irrigation water. We all know that, we hear it often enough. But, will there be more rains from the increased evaporation from the oceans? Can the oceans warm up but not evaporate water? I am going to see if my electric stove produces less or more steam off the pot, when the heat is on.
    Can there be dust bowls, of course, there were some before and there may be some in the future. If the weather is more energetic, should we expect more clouds, or less clouds and less rain.
    The SG (Science Gap) was made clear when some were astonished that the snowfall in Antarctica had increased. To my “Thermodynamic Outlook” or framework, or frameworld, or millieu, this is perfectly OK.
    But, to say that there will more Dust Bowls, because there were some in the past and “things change”, is just an underived assertion.

  26. While my above view is unchanged, I wonder if I left a gap that was not implied. I am not saying that more energetic weather will lead to less, or more, tornadoes or dust bowls, they are both possible. If the Aral Sea, that depends on Tijikistan melting glaciers, dries up, the Dust Bowl there will be worth studying as a possible precursor and evaluate mitigation efforts that facilitate survival. I think their only option now is evacuation but Russia is building a big canal to bring water and closing off part of the Aral Sea. It seems worth noting that the Aral Sea began to dry up when Soviet Russia build canals to intercept water to the Aral Sea to grow cotton and wheat, it may have been a big mistake, some say.
    The new canal option may not be available to the 1.2 Billion that depend on the Ganges River fed by a Himalaya glacier.
    Should we plan to help either Billion plus people when their emergency becomes drastic? Or, should we wait and see? A Poster will be shocking!

  27. Another assertion that seems misleading but is technically correct, is to assert “the CO2 effects will last 1,000 years.” The real number is expressed “the Carbon Dioxice half-life is infinite”, to say that it is 1,000 years implies that, after that period, the molecule will split. Why? By itself? With no external agent?
    The important consequence is that it is important, it is critical, to note that EVERY molecule of Carbon Dioxide, or the 20 times more potent Methane molecule, will continue heating the Earth forever, no matter what we do.
    To me, to even say, we have no way to bury CO2 “right now” implies there may be hope of doing this in the future. Yes, there may be but the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that it will take more energy to reverse the process, than the burning process provided while burning. It is a “losing proposition.”
    In simple terms, the maximum amount of Carbon Emission that can be “tolerated” is the amount the forests can absorb.
    With increasing forest fires, the forest may become net CONTRIBUTORS to GW. This will be the case when the huge fires, like those in California, Australia and Europe, produce more CO2 than all the other forests, in the rest of the world can process and the carbon is buried by the tree.
    NOTE: During severe forest fires, even the carbon buried by the tree is ignaited and becomes a Greenhouse gas.