The Ghost of Climate Yet to Come

Irreversible does not mean unstoppable: “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

Christmas yet

Unlike Scrooge, we don’t get a spirit to show us what the future holds if we don’t change our ways.   We did get the tiniest glimpse this year of climate gone wild (see “Masters: “The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability”).  And we did get dozens of scientific papers warning us of what is to come (see A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice).

Yes, it is increasingly unlikely that we will stabilize at 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and then quickly come back to 350.  But when reporters ask me if it’s “too late,” — or, as one did last week, “have we crossed a tipping point?” — I have to explain that the question doesn’t have a purely scientific answer.

For if humanity gets truly serious about emissions reduction — and by serious I mean “World War II serious” in both scale and urgency — we could go to near zero global emissions in, say, 2 decades and then quickly go carbon negative.  It wouldn’t be easy, far from it (see “How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution“).  But even in the 2020s it would be vastly cheaper and preferable to the alternative (see Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must).

Delay is very risky and expensive.  In releasing its 2009 Energy Outloook, the executive director of the  International Energy Agency said last year, “The message is simple and stark: if the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe.”  They explain, “we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector”.

This is all by way of introduction to a holiday rerun repost. Two years ago I wrote about a NOAA led paper, which found:

“¦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.

We most certainly do not want to significantly exceed 450 ppm for any length of time, as Dust-Bowl-ification isn’t the only impact that is irreversible:

That said, RealClimate made a good point with the title of its 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

We at Realclimate have been getting a lot of calls from journalists about this paper, and some of them seem to have gone all doomsday on us.

Indeed, the NOAA-led study is the perfect paper for someone, like say, Lou Dobbs, who can go from hard-core doubt/denial to credulous hopelessness in one breath, as he did January 30, 2009 [ (h/t ClimateScienceWatch):

Let’s assume, for right now, that there is such a thing as climate change, let’s assume it’s manmade. What indication-what evidence do we have, what reason do we have to believe that mankind can do anything significantly to reverse it because a number of people, as you know in the last two weeks, are reported that, that, this is a 1,000-year trend irrespective of what we do.

Yeah, let’s assume, for right now, there is climate change and let’s further assume its manmade since there’s like no factual basis for actually knowing those things (see U.S. National Academy of Sciences labels as “settled facts” that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities”).  Then let’s tell the public the latest research means if there is manmade climate change, the situation is now hopeless “” when in fact the latest research makes it all the more urgent to keep total emissions and concentrations as low as possible.

Seriously. This guy had his own hour TV show on a major cable network “” albeit one that fired its staff covering science and environment and hired a psychic to cover climate change (OK, let’s assume, for right now, that I made up that last part).

The whole world has become Dickensian (see “A Tale of Two Disasters“), which just happens to remind me of another Dickens story relevant to the theme that irreversible does not mean unstoppable:

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.

“Am I that man who lay upon the bed?” he cried, upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The finger still was there.

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

The kind hand trembled.

Or, as RealClimate put it less poetically:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable “” and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years:

Such is the climate change yet to come.

21 Responses to The Ghost of Climate Yet to Come

  1. pete best says:

    The tobacco industry too 60 years before it lost a court case brought against it and the anti ACC brigrade are sill casting doubt today even as our global energy demands grow as does the global population. To say we have time to avoid 450 in 35 years time (2 ppmv per annum) with a mismatch of technologies none of which is proven as yet to do more than offset our growth requirements (2-3% per annum)is a little odd to me.

    Sure the public dont need to be sold doom but what else are we selling them otherwise? We have tried selling them reasonable risk alternatives but all that does it drive the deniers on politically which is working. The recent ACC political conferences have drawn up little more than frameworks rather than hard and fast terms for emissions reductions.

    I also see only yesterday that the USA is a bit peeved at China for subsidising alternative energy sources in its own country. Shame on the USA really but thats politics for you and bodies such as the WTO, WB and IMF lie arnt really helping either now are they.

    Time to have a real political battle again and to stop being kind.

  2. Bill Maddox says:

    I printed and picture framed (hot red letters,white background) the acronym AGW/WAF in my hallway in hopes that someone might ask me what it means at this evenings get together. Little purposeful xMas spirit for the cause.

  3. Ziyu says:

    Joe, as a progressive, it’s best not to use words like “mankind” and “manmade”. Those are linguistic representations of patriarchy and us progressives need to move beyond that gendered language.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Merry Christmas and thanks, Joe Romm.

    I wish Climate Progress were made into a weekly television show. The need, storylines, and talent are all there, and the subject’s many facets would make for a fascinating journey. Richard Brenne and I know a few people on the fringes of Hollywood, and next time you’re on the West Coast maybe we can try to make some introductions.

    Tiny Tim was able to touch Scrooge, and move him to contemplate the horror of his life. People like Koch, Boyce, and Tillerson embody evil of such breadth that they appear to be beyond such appeals.
    This means that, as with the Nazis, the only recourse is to fight them with everything we’ve got, but this time without employing violence.

    The stakes are only… everything.

    Please enjoy your vacation, Joe, you’ve certainly earned it. Don’t even drop in here for a week, and empty your mind for a while. It’s going to be a long and desperate fight, and we will need you at full and rested capacity.

  5. I. Snarlalot Theisdaise says:

    Lou Dobbs: “…what reason do we have to believe that mankind can do anything significantly to reverse it because…”

    because, because, because jibber jabbering pundits and their heedless audiences can’t see themselves as part of the problem. This is what happens when authoritarians wind people up with moronically nonchalant prescriptions for how society should work and how to get along in the world — total lack of self and social awareness, total lack of imagination. The robots end up in futilely butting against corners awaiting new instructions from inept programmers.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Saving all of civilization is probably no longer possible. The longer we delay the less that will be saved. BAU to the end of the century will eventually bring humanity to the brink of extinction.

    So it is already inevitable that it is going to get bad, but we could end up making it so much worse.

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    The reason we can do something about CO2 based climate change is the same reason that CO2 is destabilizing the climate in the first place.

    It’s because the greenhouse heating from burning a ton of fossil fuel is thousands of times its heat of combustion.

    Even within a single year, the greenhouse heating is maybe fifty times as great as any possible benefit.

    What this measns is that efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere could also display this disproportionate amplifying effect.

    Massive WWII style efforts to shift to carbon neutral renewables could be coupled with retrofitting existing coal fired power plants to become carbon negative BECCS power plants.

    It’s a solvable problem.

    We’re just not solving it, right now.

  8. K. Nockels says:

    I just can’t see how we are going to tackle all the crisis that are now running at us at full speed. 10yrs ago I felt we had a chance, but the dollar amounts involved in solving even one are remote.Oil has been over $90.00 a barrel for 3 days. Tracking the upward swing of prices and the OPEC decision to not raise quotes (I don’t think they can really)puts the chances of changing from a growth based economy to a sustainable one farther out of reach. As long as we are still fighting over the question of is global warming real and is it caused by man we lose ground. If most people understood that the truth is right in front of them we could make headway, but even now that truth is still being challenged. And not just in the U.S. if everyone is not on board how do we solve it? And by the time enough people have no doubt about it, will we be able to afford the changes we must make?

  9. yogi-one says:

    I am seeing the phrase massive WWII-style efforts a lot here.

    So here’s my deep philosophical pondering on this (I’ll try to keep it brief).

    WWII presented humanity with a challenge on a scale we had not dealt with before: planetwide war, with the capability of destroying a large swath of humanity. As Chruchill stated of the Americans, we indeed did do the right thing, after all the alternatives were exhausted.

    I say – here we go again: the thing about AGW is it presents us with a scale of challenge that we simply haven’t met before. AGW demands that the entire human species act as a single unit. It’s not enough for the Americans to wake up out of slumber at the 11th hour. It’s not enough for all the equatorial third world nations to scream at the top of their lungs at the UN. It’s not enough for China to do something all by itself, while rejecting to cooperate with any other nation.

    The whole human species has to act together, as a single team, or we won’t avert a very serious disruption of civilization, as well as alter the biodiversity and the climate of the planet.

    We’ve never done this before. We are still at the level of “how can we negotiate with the Chinese, and still keep American interests protected?”. The Chinese are like “we’re big enough now to do this on our own terms, we don’t need no stinkin’ negotiations.”

    The less powerful third world countries have it right for the wrong reason – they understand the whole world must co-operate in order for their nation to be spared disaster, but they adopt this position simply because they are not big enough to be the bullies on the world stage, not out of any true compassion for the rest of the world.

    Old paragigm “Our strategic interests vs Your strategic interests” won’t work, but that is essentially how ALL the major players are approaching this.

    The Ghost of Christmas Future is actually standing there with us and our neighbors that we have hated for fifty years and saying – “OK, here’s a problem that cannot be solved unless a critical condition is met. And that condition is that you and your neighbors, who have hated each other for generations, who have disagreed on fundamental philosphical grounds, religious grounds, and even consider each other military threats, must work on this together. Only then can you solve this problem.”

    The WWII metaphor is apt because like WWII, this is the problem that will define our century in history, and like WWII, it will demand us to scale up our thinking and co-operation to a level we haven’t operated on before.

    I can only hope that Churchill’s statement applies not only to the US, but to all the major players – that we will, in the end, do the right thing, after we have exhausted the other possibilities.

  10. Badgersouth says:

    Speaking of the International Energy Agency (IEA)…

    If you have not done so already, you’ll want to read: “The IEA’s New Peak” posted on Nov 24, 2010 by Tom Whipple on the website of the Post Carbon Institute.

    To access “The IEA’s New Peak”, go to:

  11. Inverse says:

    Lets be optimistic this year as CO2 will start to drop now that the world is starting to cool. We can then start burning coal again to keep all those poor pensioners warm.

    Make money over the next few years, invest in below ground crops like potatoes as we watch above ground crops like wheat start to fail in the northern hemisphere.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We certainly could still save ourselves, from the spectres of climate disruption, oceanic acidification, anoxic oceanic ‘dead zones’, financial collapse due to massive debt creation and resource depletion, but only through the greatest and most concerted action in history by humanity as a whole over decades. The chances of that occurring in reality are, alas, vanishingly slight. The reason why is plain. The rulers of the planet, they who call all the shots through their money power and control of politics, most decisively that of the corrupt ‘republic’ (of thieves) the US of A, do not wish it so. They are happy enough wallowing in the trillions that centuries of graft, larceny, pillage and financial legerdemain and decades of deliberate redistribution by their political servants have allowed them to accumulate. To be a plutocrat one must be contemptuous of the rest of humanity, greedy, morally unscrupulous and indifferent to the fate of those yet unborn. Behind every great fortune lies a crime, as Balzac observed. There is no greater crime than the crime against the process of life,(is it not the ‘crime against the Holy Spirit’ that God will not forgive?)but the capitalist overlords commit it every instant of their existence.
    To survive requires that those who are actively and ruthlessly obstructing action be removed from power. If you imagine that you can achieve it by the electoral process in a sham democracy totally controlled by money, where every denialist moron has a vote, then you are dreaming. Experiencing a waking nightmare might be more apt a description. I suggest instead that we do everything in our power to do things on a local level, like growing trees and food, going solar, and crucially, co-operating with others in everything in order to reduce consumption. Living the capitalist ideal of ruthless competitiveness and self-interest, atomising society into billions of ruthless ‘individuals’ plays right into the pathocrats ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Bring the system down by withdrawing from it. Stop spending, stop borrowing, live like a monk. Business as usual is suicide, a fate probably already sealed, but certain soon if nothing is done. Of course the forces of evil will fight back. A system prepared to go to the lengths of banning seed banks and seed exchange, to shore up the profits of the corporate undead, will be infinitely vicious when cornered, but, if I might quote that remarkable confection, Margaret Thatcher, a woman in my opinion so spiritually deranged and morally insane as to be worthy of a Dickens or Shakespeare, ‘There is no alternative’. Thinking that we can muddle through or wait for a Redeemer, political or otherwise, is madness.

  13. Richard McGee says:

    Realistically, under the the most optimistic scenarios imaginable, a negative carbon emission goal is politically impossible. China continues to build a new coal-fired generator every week to 10 days, and the rest of the developing world is not far behind. By the time the consequences have become so painfully obvious that the denialists no longer are in control, our path will be irreversible.

    But as for now, every incoming GOP member of Congress denies human-caused global warming.

  14. dbmetzger says:

    Coal and wood burning in winter has turned Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar into a city of smoke and fog in its cold winter. Apparently the pollution is from wood and coal burning by local residents and power plants to cope with the freezing temperature.

  15. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Why do I cry at night
    Why do I feel so bad
    Something holds me tight, something in the air
    I have a prayer, a prayer
    A prayer from the heart
    Night after night after daylight
    Memories of home.

    Or if you prefer Led Zeppelin

  16. paulm says:

    Wonder what the 12 o’clock version will be….

    Silent Night – 7 o’clock news

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    #9, yogi-one said “… the thing about AGW is it presents us with a scale of challenge that we simply haven’t met before. AGW demands that the entire human species act as a single unit. ”

    It’s a fundamental event which happens everywhere in the universe, once a species becomes more powerful than their planetary habitat. We either take control or the planet will boot. Such circumstance is the best solution to throw away dangerous species and or to teach them to evolve. See also the fermi paradoxum.

  18. Raul M. says:

    Tis egoism to claim that Christmas Future is a
    Ghost, for a writer may distance oneself from
    inherent truths, but that an inherent truth should
    be welcomed not treated as a haunting.

  19. Paulm says:

    #17 prok,

    Could be also that Gaia/God does not tolerate any individual species which may treaten her.

  20. Prokaryotes says:

    It also means that the chance to met hostile aliens is low.

  21. Wit's End says:

    JR, that ghost analogy is brilliant and of course perfectly timed. I was just re-watching this movie (hey, we’re getting snowed in!) about global dimming – which is a fascinating and enormous topic that is rarely broached. It would appear that without the pollution decreasing the sunlight that reaches earth by a very significant percentage, we would be heating much more rapidly with even wilder destabilization than has already occurred.

    I have a question and would appreciate any thoughts. Could global dimming be a reason the arctic is heating disproportionately faster than lower latitudes? Is Antarctica also warming more quickly?