Climate disruption caused by global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases

By any other name, it’s still Hell and High Water


Last week Fox News and other conservative media outlets tried once again to fabricate controversy over climate science when they pounced on a presentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren in Oslo. In it, Holdren makes the case (for the umpteenth time) that it’s time to move past the oversimplified term “global warming” and start facing the painful reality that without sharply reducing our carbon pollution, we face something more akin to a “global climate disruption.”

Sadly, even the Atlantic monthly (which is seen as center-left but is center-right on climate) repeated the right-wing narrative that the White House was somehow pushing new rhetoric in place of real science with its stenographic post, “Right Has Field Day With New ‘Global Warming’ Term.”  Ironically, the Atlantic criticized Holdren’s phrase  “global climate disruption” while its own construction “the scientifically supported but nevertheless controversial theory of global warming” is risible.  Yes, well, it is only “controversial” if one buys into and keeps repeating right-wing anti-science talking points.

I’ve been writing about efforts to come up with a better term than “global warming” for a long time (see “Is ‘Global Weirding’ here? Humans are warming the globe and changing the climate. But what should we call it?”).  I myself tried to coin the term “Hell and High Water” a few years ago, since that is a more accurate description of what is to come if we stay on or near our current emissions path.  It didn’t take — even though Time magazine used the phrase for its Pakistan flooding story, which didn’t mention global warming and which wasn’t shared with U.S. readers anyway!

It was GOP strategist and wordmeister Frank Luntz who counseled in a confidential 2003 memo that the Administration and conservatives should stop using the term “global warming” because it was too frightening:

It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.

1) “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.

So let’s set the record straight on two points.  Holdren’s speech focused on laying out the rock-solid and increasingly dire science (must-see PPTs here).  And the term he was recommending is essentially identical to one that he and many other scientists suggested 13 years ago:

Scientists’ Statement
Global Climatic Disruption

June 18, 1997

We are scientists who are familiar with the causes and effects of climatic change as summarized recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We endorse those reports and observe that the further accumulation of greenhouse gases commits the earth irreversibly to further global climatic change and consequent ecological, economic and social disruption. The risks associated with such changes justify preventive action through reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases. In ratifying the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United States agreed in principle to reduce its emissions. It is time for the United States, as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to fulfill this commitment and demonstrate leadership in a global effort.

Human-induced global climatic change is under way. The IPCC concluded that global mean surface air temperature has increased by between about 0.5 and 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 100 years and anticipates a further continuing rise of 1.8 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit during the next century. Sea-level has risen on average 4-10 inches during the past 100 years and is expected to rise another 6 inches to 3 feet by 2100. Global warming from the increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere causes an amplified hydrological cycle resulting in increased precipitation and flooding in some regions and more severe aridity in other areas. The IPCC concluded that “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” The warming is expected to expand the geographical ranges of malaria and dengue fever and to open large new areas to other human diseases and plant and animal pests. Effects of the disruption of climate are sufficiently complicated that it is appropriate to assume there will be effects not now anticipated.

Our familiarity with the scale, severity, and costs to human welfare of the disruptions that the climatic changes threaten leads us to introduce this note of urgency and to call for early domestic action to reduce U.S. emissions via the most cost-effective means. We encourage other nations to join in similar actions with the purpose of producing a substantial and progressive global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions beginning immediately. We call attention to the fact that there are financial as well as environmental advantages to reducing emissions. More than 2000 economists recently observed that there are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions for which total benefits outweigh the total costs.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified by the United States and more than 165 other nations, calls for stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at levels that will protect human interests and nature. The Parties to the Convention will meet in December, 1997, in Kyoto, Japan to prepare a protocol implementing the convention. We urge that the United States enter that meeting with a clear national plan to limit emissions, and a recommendation as to how the U.S. will assist other nations in significant steps toward achieving the joint purpose of stabilization.

Initial Signatories

  • Dr. John P. Holdren
  • Dr. Jane Lubchenco
  • Dr. Harold A. Mooney
  • Dr. Peter H. Raven
  • Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland
  • Dr. George M. Woodwell

Signed by 2409 scientists as of June 11, 1997

h/t Tobis vis Essunger.  And I agree with Tobis that “climate disruption” is adequate — one need not add “global.”

Now I don’t actually think Holdren should spend time proposing different names for global warming in his capacity as White House science adviser, even if he has been doing so for over a decade.  It just gives people an excuse to ignore the science and call it “controversial.”  That said, it would be nice if any of his critics actually looked at his terrific presentation.  I am reposting a few of his PPTs.


Scientists have been advocating for a new term for “global warming” for a long time. That’s because slight changes in global average temperature can have drastic effects on local climates and ecosystems around the world, affecting billions of lives. The simple term “global warming” does not capture the very severe and uneven impacts that warming is already having on society.

“Global warming is in fact a dangerous misnomer,” Holdren said, “because it implies something that is uniform across the planet, is mainly about temperature, is gradual, and indeed might even be good for you.” He then went on to tell how “the phenomenon in question” is none of these things. It is “highly non-uniform, it’s not just about temperature”¦.  It is not gradual but rapid compared with the capacity of society to adjust “¦ [and] it’s gonna be mostly bad and worse and worse going forward for more and more people.”

Warmer average global temperatures mean more devastating storms like Nashville’s Katrina, more floods like the devastating one that put one fifth of Pakistan under water, more intense droughts and wildfires like the one that wiped out tens of thousands of homes in Russia and caused them to stop exporting wheat for the year, and long-term droughts like the on Australia has faced for more than a decade years (see Absolute must read: Australia today offers horrific glimpse of U.S. Southwest, much of planet, post-2040, if we don’t slash emissions soon).


Unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases means a host of other interrelated problems from ocean acidification to species migration to the erosion and eventual submersion of coastal communities due to sea level rise (see Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century” and Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100).


Anyone who follows the science of climate change will agree that the term “global warming” is outdated, oversimplified, and gives only an incomplete picture of the multitude of ways in which a warmer world will disrupt not only the functioning of Earth’s ecological life support systems, but also out economic, social, and geopolitical systems.

Despite the laughable conspiracy theorists pouncing on Holdren’s remarks — “Resorting to word engineering demonstrates a substantial lack of confidence in the effectiveness of hysteria advocacy” and “Sounds like somebody’s starting to feel uncomfortable because the icecaps and Greenland ice sheets aren’t melting fast enough” — the dire nature of the facts and analyses that he presents go far beyond simple “global warming.”

That’s why so many people have been recommending other terms for so long.  James Gustav Speth, the former chair of the council on environmental quality under the Carter administration and founder of both the World Resources Institute and the National Resources Defense Council used the term “global climate disruption” in an article as far back as 2005. Other examples of scientists using the term before the Obama administration include:

So fear not, conservative and center-right media. “Global climate disruption” is not some new White House brand name designed to trick people into the malevolent clean energy conspiracy. It is simply a more accurate way of describing the many catastrophic impacts that global warming will have on our society, environment and economy if we keep listening to the siren song of “do nothing” from your fellow anti-science disinformers.

As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”¦

Call it what you will, but that which we call global climate disruption by any other name will still drastically alter our way of life, cause irreversible damage to our climate, and harm the health and welfare of billions of people.

— Joseph Romm, with assistance from CAP’s Sean Pool


42 Responses to Climate disruption caused by global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases

  1. A. M. Holen says:

    I am confused by the statement that “warmer average global temperatures mean… a host of other interrelated problems from ocean acidification to species migration to… ”

    Can you explain how warmer average global temperatures contribute to ocean acidification or was it a mistake to list it as one of the impacts of global warming? I know that excess carbon dioxide is responsible for ocean acidification but I did not think that the greenhouse gas properties of CO2 have anything to do with it.

    I love Climate Progress, by the way, and visit the site every day.

    [JR: Good catch. That was the remnant of an earlier draft.]

  2. Peter M says:

    Global warming is a rather generic name for the Human induced fossil fuels that are swiftly changing the stable climate we have had the last 12,000 years.

    We are yes now facing ‘Climate Disruptions’ and they will become increasingly extreme in the near future.

    Dr. Holdren’s change of names to identify Anthropogenic CC is certainly appropriate – Fox News anti science and crass politicization is not.

  3. adelady says:

    I much prefer the term disruption to warming because it’s more logical.

    It’s hard to make an instant, logical link between ‘warming’ and several feet of snow. But even the most unscientific observer can make the link between energy and moisture circulation being ‘disrupted’ and an unseasonally early or late or heavy or absent snowfall.

  4. Edward says:

    Disruption sounds good to me. How many ways can you say “catastrophe”? “Climate Russian Roulette”? “Climate chicken”? “Global warming apocalypse”? “Global warming desert/flood-ification”? “Global warming de-habitatification”?

  5. Doug Bostrom says:

    “Climate disruption” is very apt, more descriptive than “climate change.” Perhaps “anthropogenic climate disruption” would seal the deal.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Call it what you will. What ever the name, we are in trouble. Trouble that is getting ever deeper.

    We will learn that civilisation is fragile. Even small disruptions cause big problems, but we are in for some big disruptions. Rises in the price of food have caused riots, what will happen when there is no food. Our food supply system is utterly dependant upon oil from the first turn of the soil to distribution to the local retailer. Water already in short supply in many of the worlds’ bread baskets. Obesity will not be a common problem in three generations.

    Keep on as we are and we may learn that humanities existence is fragile.

  7. Deborah Stark says:

    Pollution-driven climate destabilization.

    I am looking through Holdren’s Powerpoint presentation. THANK YOU for providing it in this post. I’m only down to the “Fingerprints” slides at the moment but I must say there has been no stone left unturned here in this beautifully organized summation.

    What concerns me, frankly, is that (at least in my observation thus far) while the Obama administration seems to be extremely well informed regarding the current reality and its ramifications for our future, they don’t seem to be giving concrete form to that understanding in the public arena. I do realize they are, to say the least, up against formidable opposition vis a vis the corporate sector. But why are we not hearing more DIRECTLY from them? Seriously, I think the time has come.

  8. MapleLeaf says:

    Hi Doug @5,

    I agree that whatever one chooses to use, it should be prefaced with “anthropogenic” or “human”.

  9. Yogi -One says:

    I think you are going to have trouble with the re-naming. “Global Warming” is what has set in the public psyche, not just in the US, but internationally. “Climate change” has gotten good traction too, if somewhat less.

    But you are fighting the “Band-Aids” or the “Scotch Tape” problem. Whatever company makes those little finger bandages, they get called “Band-Aids”, and no matter the company that produces a roll of clear tape on a snap-off dispenser, it will always be called “Scotch Tape.”

    After over two decades of having the term “global warming” pounded into the public brain, I think you are going to have a tough time of it.

    Imagine a conversation with some uninformed person. OK, they acccept the validity of the term “climate disruption”. Next question: give an example. In other words, prove the Russian fires were a direct result of human-caused climate disruption. Then you say, “well, it’s very difficult to tie a specific event to a specific human activity, but climate disruption predicts those very kinds of changes.”

    You are already backpeddling by that point in the conversation. And uselessly. Why? Because the public already knows the term Global Warming, and they have already been widely exposed to the very idea that one-to-one correspondences are not the way to understand “global warming.”

    You will thus be immediately on the defensive side of a completely unnecessary discussion.

    Not only that. As you know, the Koch Bros. people, such as the Cato Institute, and FOX have a field day with stuff like “you can’t prove disaster X was caused by human activity Y.” You’re giving these guys a hanging slow-pitch. Don’t be surprised when they hit it out of the park.

    Also the word “anthropogenic”. Great word – I like it, and I use the term AGW a lot. But here again, it’s a loser. I have a degree in anthropology, so of course I like the word, and I keep up with the climate news like at this blog, so I’m all over it.

    But I am not the general public, for whom “anthropogenic” is another piece of scientific jargon that you have to teach to whomever you are conversing with.

    So, now, in our hypothetical conversation, you’ve just confused them with a new term for something they already knew about, admitted you can’t prove specific examples, and now you’re talking down to them by “educating” them about some science jargon.

    You know, I appreciate the high-minded intention of all this. In principle I totally agree.

    I just think you’ll find it adds another layer to the already difficult situation we are in of effectively communicating the reality of the global climate situation, in a way that can cut through the denialist crap.

  10. adelady says:

    Mapleleaf, I’m not so sure. That should be the usual form. But once again, disruption has a logical background to it. Who or what did the disrupting?

    The “climate change” wording has achieved its objective. Hah, the climate is always changing! So it can be reframed as natural. Disruption is less ambiguous, so even when the anthropogenic is omitted, the message is not lost.

  11. catman306 says:

    I like ‘climate chaos’ because it implies that climate at particular location may not be the same next year (or ever again) because it has become unpredictable, or at least far less predictable than in the past. Summers will probably still be warmer than winters. But not everywhere, every year. Disruption implies that worldwide climate will somehow get back to the way it used to be. It won’t.

    Almost any climate prediction for a particular location will be spot on correct some years (guess which ones!) but miserably failed most years.

    anthropogenic climate chaos

  12. Robert Brulle says:

    Dr. Atiq Rahman of Bangladesh uses the term “Irreversible Catastrophic Climate Destabilization”. Seems to me that captures the situation pretty well.

  13. MapleLeaf says:

    Adelady and Yogi,

    Good points. I really dislike “climate change”, for the very reasons that you noted Yogi. If one could at least preface it with human, then that is not only more accurate, but also does not allow them to invoke the “oh this is all normal” argument.

    So how about “Human induced climate change”?

  14. adelady says:

    Not so keen on chaos.

    The idea itself is fine, but I think I’ve read far too much drivel about how we can’t possibly understand climate because weather is naturally chaotic.

    Give those people a mm, and they’ll take 10km.

  15. Gord says:

    I prefer ‘global warming’ because it lies at the heart of the matter.

    However, we are really in a, ‘War on CO2’.

    One way or another, in this war we must prevail.


  16. David Smith says:

    If we stop burning fossil fuels the global system recovers, correct? There are no other significant human factors. Why beat around the bush. It’s not human activities in general that are causing the problem… “Fossil Fuel induced Climate Disruption”. There’s probably a better way to say it.

  17. BBHY says:

    “If we stop burning fossil fuels the global system recovers, correct?”

    Well, only up to a point. Go too far and the global climate never goes back.

    Personally, I still like global warming. The primary effect is that adding more CO2 to the atmosphere traps more heat energy that would normally radiate into space.

    All of the other problems; sea level rise, droughts, floods, storms, ocean acidification, etc, are certainly very severe in their effects on human civilization, but they are still secondary effects beyond the central issue of the Earth getting hotter.

    Forecast for the Washington DC area for tomorrow, the first day is fall is 90 degrees. Weather is not climate, but it certainly is influenced by climate!

  18. Michael says:

    To me, “climate change” sounds worse than “global warming”, since the latter might only suggest that it will get warmer (which sounds like a good idea on a cold winter day), when of course warming will be only one impact, and one of the lesser ones (directly; not counting more extreme precipitation/storms, drought, fires, melting ice, and sea level rise), but those warmer winters will go with hotter summers and more extreme heat.

    As for using a new name, I think it is better to stick with what we already use (recall the claims that global warming was renamed climate change because it wasn’t warming, or so deniers said).

  19. Paulm says:

    How about Global Baking or Global Roasting.

    Xtreme Climate Warming

    Anthropogenic Climate Extremes

  20. Leif says:

    A few months ago we were having a similar discussion here on CP and the topic of the two to one warm to cold weather extremes of the last ten years was brought up.

    Another commentator brought up the fact that even though no one extreme can be attributed to climatic disruption it would be safe to say that every other warm weather extreme would be a fair call. Warm weather extremes would include extraordinary rain or snow events in my book as well, as extra water vapor is part and parcel of warmer atmosphere, even in the winter.

    I would go a step further and even lump some extreme cold events as well, because the extra energy that is in the atmosphere surely disrupts jet streams and intensifies storm systems. Thus bringing cold from the Arctic or Antarctic to lower latitudes than normal.

  21. Good article – I prefer the term “global warming”, although I dont believe in it at all.

  22. riverat says:

    “If we stop burning fossil fuels the global system recovers, correct?”

    The time scale may not be satisfactory for you. It will take several human lifetimes to recover. Also, some things like extinctions are irreversible.

  23. Human Induced Climate Disruption

  24. William P says:

    We dither about terminology while the world heats and ice melts. If it weren’t so serious, it could be funny.

    The world will not wake up until there is a single, dramatic, large event that kills a lot of people. Is there anything happening soon like that?

    All I can think of is a very large piece of ice slipping off land in Greenland or Antarctica. Is there any good estimates out there of when this will occur?

    Sea levels would rise immediately, inundating coastal areas developed countries care about – England, Florida, New York and others.

    Unless there is a “Pearl Harbor” disaster that hits suddenly, we will adjust to each notch up in temperature and melting ice around the world, with climatologist Rush Limbaugh explaining why its all a hoax.

    Another possibility is a big die off of humans from an intense heat wave as in Europe in 2003. But creeping disaster we will adjust to I am afraid.

  25. John Mason says:

    I agree with Deborah Stark #7: Climate Destabilisation.

    The term emphasises the fact that civilisation requires a relatively stable climate in which to flourish within the planet’s habitable zones. Destabilisation essentially means these zones either changing in their properties or shifting in terms of longitude and – particularly – latitude at a rate which makes adaptation increasingly difficult. In a world that variously consists of nations, territories, tribal grounds and private property, just upping and moving is not the easy option that it was during the last interglacial. If we are to live nailed-down to the surface of the planet, a stable climate is essential.

    Cheers – John

  26. Inverse says:

    This article starts with graph showing continuous and steady Global Warming but you want to change it to Disruption which sounds more like a problem with the railway line.
    If you had a swimming pool and said it was warming we know what you mean, the next day you say its changing, that’s getting vague then its suffering disruption, maybe its turned into a jacuzzi.
    Changing a name changes the name it does not change what it is…

  27. Graham Coghill says:

    I reckon we will continue to need at least two terms – one to describe the energy imbalance and one for the consequences on climate. For the first, ‘global warming’ is too simplistic because it implies that the energy all goes into thermal energy and stays there, and that’s why we get all the arguments about global temperatures instead of more meaningful indicators. I propose something like ‘global energy retention’ or ‘global energy accumulation’.

    For me ‘climate disruption’ is a good alternative to ‘climate change’.

    And then we need something to describe the harmful chemical effects of carbon dioxide. ‘Ocean acidification’ is fine for scientists, but lay people mostly think that acidity-basicity is a duality and since the ocean is still on the alkaline side, they judge the term as deceitful. Any suggestion there?

  28. Whatshisname says:

    “Coward-Induced Climate Change.” Science has proven on paper what the rest of us are witnessing. The problem is the people who caused this and the ostriches are counting on passing the blame on to their own children. They include the Drugstore Cowboys and militia-wannabes down here who wear denial like some sort of badge of courage. I’m not a cowboy or militiaman, but many are trusted, lifelong friends. They are good people. Though they don’t want to be called environmentalists, they know the land and fear what they see happening. And like other real men and real women everywhere (including climate scientists who have risked everything), the idea of passing a problem down to their children is a sin. The Drugstore Deniers have wimped out on their families and Mankind.

  29. adelady says:

    Acidification is fine. What does it mean? It means more acidic. More acidic than it was before.

    People are quite used to looking at children and observing that they are taller than they were – even though a four year old is short by any average person’s standard.

    This nonsense about it’s really alkaline so it can’t possibly be ‘more acidic’ is one of that Monckton man’s themes.

  30. Graham Coghill says:

    Precisely my point, adelady.

    Anyone who understands science knows that the acidity-basicity scale, as measured by pH, is a continuum. But lay people don’t understand that. And aren’t we talking about using terms that communicate to the widest possible audience?

  31. Brooks Bridges says:

    Thought of “Climate Crash” lying awake at 5am. It suggests something urgent and bad.

    Then googled and discovered that as usual I’m not original. Found “Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change And What It Means For Our Future” by John D. Cox.

    Regardless, I like it a lot.

    Note that in the geological sense, even our current almost linear changes are happening so fast as to qualify as a “crash”.

    Disruption is better than “Change” but I get a picture of a kid blowing a bubble and “disrupting” a class. And “Warming” sounds good in the middle of winter in Chicago.

    “Climate Crash” leaves out high water and ocean acidification but so does global warming or climate change.

    It’s short and catchy.

    Only alternative is to come up with something long and explanatory that creates a catchy acronym – like “FUBAR” did in WWII.

  32. Nick Palmer says:

    Oil and Fossil Fuel Unleashed Climate Chaos – O.F.F.U.C.C?

    Seriously, I like anthropogenic climate disruption best of all.

  33. Wit'sEnd says:

    Ecocide. It encompasses the whole range of climate change, disruption, warming – as well as peak oil, resource extraction, habitat destruction, plus ground, water, and air pollution.

  34. Berbalang says:

    I prefer the phrase “Global Warming” for several reasons, but mainly because trying to change it is something the deniers do to confuse the issue and I strongly think we are playing into their hands when we attempt to do so.

    Besides, since deniers try and argue that we tried to change it to “Climate Change”, I take great delight in pointing out that it was the Bush administration that pushed the name change at the suggestion of Frank Luntz.

  35. Anthropogenic Climate Amplification

  36. John McCormick says:

    Well, finally. We have a new term for “climate change” or as some would say “global warming”.

    Now, we can call it “global climate disruption.”

    Ok. I’ll go with that.

    So. How many new votes will that pick up in this Congress for any kind of climate something or other legislation? Anyone got an answer?

    John McCormick

  37. Paul Koberstein says:

    I don’t think the term “climate disruptions” is inclusive enough. The effects of a warming planet include climate, geologic and ecosystem disruptions, as well as increased human suffering.

  38. Meghan says:

    By any other name, this clip from NRDC is what it looks like:

  39. Richard Miller says:

    I have been using the term global climate disruption and I have been thinking lately that the modifier “irreversible” needs to be put in the mix so “irreversible climate disruption” sound right. In reading the posts though I think Robert Brulle’s post captures it best:

    “Irreversible Catastrophic Climate Destabilization”.

  40. Jay B. says:

    Well, no matter what name it has it will always be the same. It doesn´t have to be disastrous but it will have a serious impact on the Nature and then it will automatically influenced a human race. To lower CO2 emissions can mitigate the impact on the Nature but we still don´t know if it is enough what we could do for it…

  41. David Ferrell says:

    John Holdren is, of course, correct that the term “global warming” is—or has become—a dangerous misnomer. Let’s therefore ask: what on Earth (Eaarth?) were Wallace Broecker, Jule Charney, and Stephen Schneider thinking when first Broecker (in a 1975 Science article, “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”), then Charney, and later Schneider (in his around-1990 book Global Warming: Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?) used the term so publicly and (it seemed at the time) unambiguously, without confusing anybody?

    Time and space constraints prevent me from answering these questions here. I merely note that from the discovery of global warming to the invention of global-warming denial, the name “global warming” has stuck to the reality the way scotch tape sticks to Kleenex. It is much too late to disinvent this particular wheel. Global warming is real, and humans, by dint of their unrestrained fossil-fuel emissions, are the indisputable cause. Physically, in the world of mass and energy, the cause is the excess heat trapped by man-made greenhouse gases. Not temperature, mind you, but heat, measurable on the exponential scale of energies from watt-seconds to equivalent world nuclear arsenals (eqWNAs) and equivalent K-T impacts—energies of magnitude sufficient to not simply change climate but destroy worlds.

    Adding such heat to the earth’s system does, of course, raise the temperature, in addition to drastically modifying the weather and upsetting human life. Warming-related disruptions are already happening worldwide, some severe, and a pattern of worsening disruptions can be expected in the years and decades ahead—HELL AND HIGH WATER under any name you choose. And the Hell will only get more hellish, the High Water higher. To make matters worse, for an increasing number of the world’s people an increasing percentage of the time, there will be NO WATER. As happened so painfully in the Moscow region of Russia in the summer of 2010, just when you really need it, there will be no rain, not a drop of water either for the dying crops or to help clear the atmosphere of the toxic smoke and suffocating gases of countless wildfires. And nothing save an atmosphere filled with smoke and pollutant haze to shield the earth from the merciless beating down and absorption by the surface of solar rays whose re-emission to space as photons of thermal infrared is blocked by the heat-trapping ability of a thick overlying blanket of water vapor. Wherever and whenever such a brutal combination of extreme temperature and high relative humidity occurs, it typically leads to a massive wave of heat deaths in humans, as happened in the European heat wave of 2003 and again in Russia this year.

    If nothing else, climatic events in the globally hot year of 2010—the hottest in history so far—provide a bitter and painful foretaste of what the future, like a store, holds in terrifying abundance for us and our descendants if we continue to ignore the large, rapid build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

    The heat trapped by these gases, amounting to about 4 x 10^23 watt-seconds (joules) over the span of a quarter-century at the contemporary Earth-warming rate of about one megajoule per square kilometer per second (corresponding to the real-time net radiative forcing [TOA flux imbalance] of 0.9 to 1.0 watts per square meter) becomes part of the climate system’s internal energy, cumulatively building up over the years and especially in its thermal sinks (oceans and ice sheets). It takes an appropriate yardstick together with a Herculean effort of the imagination to begin to understand what 4 x 10^23 (4e23 or 400000000000000000000000) joules is. It is much more than just “a big number.” In fact, it is about equal to the sun’s total energy output to the entire universe over one millisecond—the total solar luminosity being about 4 x 10^26 watts. That humans, almost entirely without being aware of it, are now cumulatively adding energy of this magnitude to what Shakespeare’s Cleopatra called “the little o, the earth” on a time-scale as short as 25 years is surely alarming news, worthy (one would think, even in this age of brain-dead mainstream broadcast journalism) of being trumpeted to the ends of “the little o.”

    I must tell you, furthermore, that 4e23 (four hundred thousand million trillion) joules is also the energy estimated to have been released by the asteroid strike which wiped out the dinosaurs and most other life on Earth 65 million years ago. This is the K-T impact energy, equivalent to the explosive yield of roughly 100 trillion tons (one hundred thousand gigatons) of TNT, on the scale of ten billion Hiroshimas happening in the same place at the same time. From the fact that one million tons of TNT requires a freight train some 300 miles (480 km) long to carry it, you can see that a freight train long enough to carry 100 trillion tons of the stuff (comparable to the nuclear yield of 100,000,000 tons of weapons-grade uranium—the real thing and not something in Dick Cheney’s imagination) would stretch far beyond the conventional limits of the solar system. Indeed, it would cover a span some ten times greater than the 4.5-billion km distance from the sun to the perihelion of the orbit of Pluto, or 45 billion km. That’s a distance so great that if the man at the rear of the train wanted to communicate by cell phone to the man at the front, the commencement radio signal (“Hello!”), travelling at 300,000 km/sec, would require almost 2 days to reach its destination—some 41 hours and 28 minutes to be exact. From a distance of 45 billion km (>1.7 light-days), our sun would appear as nothing more than an extraordinarily brilliant star. Here we’re almost on the interstellar distance scale, reducing Cleopatra’s “little o, the earth” to something far less perceptible than even Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.”

    What happens, then, back on “the little o,” to this immense load of greenhouse-trapped energy? About 93-94% of it goes into the oceans as thermal infrared radiation from CO2 and other man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, adding imperiously to the long-term store of oceanic heat and working subtly but powerfully to change the climate of the earth. From there, a portion goes to enhanced evaporation and moist thunderstorm convection from the globally-warmer sea surface—boosting the global specific humidity, the latent-heat content of a typical parcel of air, and the greenhouse effects of water vapor and clouds—thus providing powerful feedbacks on the warming due to anthropogenic GHGs.

    The energy also goes to melting polar ice, mostly sea ice at first, which adds another warming feedback due to globally reduced ice albedo. The entire global atmosphere is warmed by these effects, speeding the melting of permafrost on land, which in turn releases climate-warming CO2 and methane (CH4). About half of the increased oceanic heat is mixed down to cooler waters below, significant warming having now penetrated the World Ocean to a depth approaching 2 kilometers. Deep Ocean warming proceeds relatively slowly but works massive climate changes over the long term, eventually destabilizing frozen methane hydrate deposits on the seafloor around continental margins and flushing out deeply buried stores of dissolved CO2 and carbonate, causing oceans to outgas CO2 and CH4—devastating warming amplifiers which could easily return the earth to a 100% ice-free state and probably will if we continue on a business-as-usual path.

    (Concluding remarks are posted as a separate comment immediately below. Though either comment could stand alone, each represents one portion of a more comprehensive thought.)

  42. David Ferrell says:

    The seriousness of man-made climate change becomes evident when we compare the forcings associated with natural climate changes such as the glacial-interglacial transitions of the past million years with today’s long-term forcing due to anthropogenic CO2 and other GHGs. The latter is unnaturally large—thus virtually certain to be highly destabilizing to the physical climatic system as well as, in the end, profoundly disruptive to the human condition. Natural climate changes are typically associated with forcings at least one to two orders of magnitude smaller than today’s anthropogenic GHG forcing and proceed too slowly to be apparent on the scale of a human lifetime except at those points where critical climate thresholds have been crossed. During such slow changes, the earth tends to remain in energy balance to within a few hundredths of a watt per square meter, with various competing forcings of opposite sign (due to fluctuations in the solar irradiance, for example, and volcanic eruptions) as well as feedbacks (changes in vegetation, albedo, atmospheric CO2, clouds, and the like) all playing a role.

    The dominant climate forcings over the past million years, which determined the directionality of the changes—whether toward long-term warming or cooling—were variations in the amount and distribution of solar radiation secondary to slow cyclic changes in the tilt and precession of the earth’s axis of rotation and in the eccentricity of its orbit. Because such forcings, though small in comparison with today’s GHG forcing, were maintained over tens of thousands of years, the cumulative effects, which included the eventual triggering of powerful climate feedbacks due to long-term changes in ice albedo and ocean temperature, were large. Undoubtedly the most potent of the climate feedbacks responsible for the large terminal warming at the end of the last ice age was the earlier warming-driven increase in atmospheric GHGs, with the out gassing of CO2 by warming deep oceans playing a starring role.

    This naturally raises two questions, the first being of what would happen if the contemporary real-time net forcing of 0.9 to 1.0 watts per square meter—representing today’s imbalance between incoming (solar) and outgoing (terrestrial) radiation at the top of the atmosphere and which over just 25 years adds a staggering 4e23 joules of heat to the climatic system—were maintained over a time span comparable to the orbital forcing which initiated the last glacial-interglacial transition. Writing in a somewhat different context, Hansen et al. (in “Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications,” Science, vol. 308, 3 Jun 2005), answer essentially just this question, observing that a global imbalance of just one watt per square meter, maintained over ten thousand years, would melt enough ice to raise global sea level by one kilometer (if that much ice existed) or, alternatively, raise the temperature of the upper layers of the World Ocean to the boiling point. The conclusion is inescapable that today’s climate change is associated with a global energy imbalance far beyond the range of what is normal on Earth. Hansen et al. write: “Clearly, on long time scales, the planet has been in energy balance to within a small fraction of 1 watt per square meter.”

    The second question concerns the climate sensitivity, which links forcing to feedbacks. If the net effect of the feedbacks is (say) positive but small, then the sensitivity is low and the sum of forcing + feedbacks leads to little amplification of the initial forcing change. If the sensitivity is high, that’s because the feedbacks produce many-fold amplification of the initial forcing change. However, from much evidence including the study of paleoclimate, we know that the sensitivity of the earth’s climate to long-term forcing is at least moderately high.

    We are thus forced to conclude that any emissions pathway except one that gets us off a diet of carbon as rapidly and completely as possible risks bequeathing to future generations an Earth so different from our present one that you likely wouldn’t recognize it. The question is whether that “future Earth” will be habitable to humans at all. For the combined (net) effect of the feedbacks is to multiply the forcing change (which for simplicity’s sake we are assuming is fixed rather than ever-increasing)—represented by that almost 4e23 joules per quarter century of added heat we were talking about—by an incompletely known large factor, blowing it up into something much larger and possibly exponentially larger.

    All the feedbacks acting (and interacting) in concert over their various time scales are far worse than any one feedback acting alone. Yet even one of them can seriously amplify the warming. Dessler et al., using the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder on NASA’s Aqua satellite, found that the water-vapor feedback of the CO2 greenhouse effect is capable of doubling the warming due to CO2 itself. An initial rise of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 deg F) due to added CO2 humidifies the atmosphere enough to cause H2O vapor to trap an extra 2 watts of radiated terrestrial power per square meter—two joules of longwave energy per square meter per second. That amounts to one quadrillion or 10^15 (1000000000000000) joules per second of excess long-term heating for the earth as a whole due to just one of many expected feedbacks—the H2O-vapor feedback—of a CO2 increase like the one happening now. The implications are very serious in that the total solar power both reaching and absorbed by the earth’s surface is only about 85 quadrillion watts (8.5 x 10^16 watts, or 170 W/m^2). In other words, that extra quadrillion watts of surface heating due to just a few percent more H2O vapor is by itself comparable to a ~1% increase in solar brightness, rather like the effect of shifting the earth into an orbit about one million kilometers closer to the sun, with no way to undo the change for at least the next ten centuries, if then.

    The eventual effect of this and other feedbacks will be to add net energy to the climate system at a much faster rate than now, with an imbalance in Earth’s energy budget being maintained until some point in the far future when the sum of forcing + feedbacks has been fully translated into a global temperature rise and the entire system has come into a new stable equilibrium.

    Presently, the extra charge of atmospheric water vapor from enhanced evaporation over the warmer sea surface, in addition to intensifying water-vapor and cloud greenhouse effects, supplies the latent heat for super-energizing storms of all sizes and types, from ordinary rain and snow storms to monsoons and tropical cyclones (hurricanes), which gain energy from the increased moisture and heat-trapping within clouds. At the wet or low-pressure extreme of the hydrological cycle, more abundant water vapor makes downpours heavier and intensifies flooding; while at the opposite or high-pressure extreme it intensifies the already deadly heat waves, droughts, and wildfires of the global-warming era through the greenhouse effects of uncondensed steam which allows solar radiation in but acts as a thermal blanket to trap heat.

    Thus it was that during the globally record-hot Northern Hemisphere summer of 2010 Pakistan was at the epicenter of a deadly concatenation of global-warming effects—including a 128-degree Fahrenheit record high temperature (the highest ever recorded in Asia) and the abnormally jet-stream fed, supermassive monsoon flooding which inundated a fifth of the country, in the process destroying vital food supplies as well as croplands and displacing up to 20 million people, with consequences which have yet to play out fully. To call these effects “disruption” is possible only from a distance. More realistically, it is indulging in euphemism. To the victims, most of whose individual stories will for obvious reasons never be told, it is mostly unmitigated catastrophe.

    Simultaneously, nineteen nations set all-time temperature records, while by mid-September Arctic Ocean ice reached what appears to have been the lowest volume on record. From last winter’s warm-water-fed “snowpocalypses” in eastern North America to epic flooding in China and the U.S. Midwest, and from the parching of croplands and forests in many tropical areas to murderous heat, drought and wildfires in Western Russia, a global epidemic of “weird weather”—including tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in places where these were formerly rare—pummelled the world in 2010. El Niño was clearly a player, but the extremes of today’s climate, like today’s more powerful storms and El Niños, are not the extremes of yesteryear but the harbingers of the severe disruptions attendant upon the shift to a new and potentially much hotter climatic regime.

    Ours is the age, then, of wholesale climate destabilization—more serious than mere disruption in that disruption is by nature temporary and thus does not usually preclude return to a prior state, whereas destabilization implies irreversible and potentially catastrophic change: once key climate thresholds are crossed, prior clement conditions cannot be restored but are as “gone forever” as extinct species are, at least on any human time scale.

    The stable and equable Holocene climate in which civilization arose, lasting approximately 10,000 years, has therefore been thoroughly left behind, with possible consequences ranging from “serious but survivable” to “absolutely catastrophic” depending on whether and how fast we succeed in correcting our abysmal failure thus far to rein in emissions of fossil-fuel-derived CO2.