An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces


Humanity’s Choice (via M.I.T.): Inaction (“No Policy”) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether future warming will be catastrophic. Aggressive emissions reductions greatly improves humanity’s chances.

In this post, I will summarize what the recent scientific literature says are the key impacts we face in the coming decades if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path. These include:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 10°F over much of the United States
  • Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest and many other regions around the globe that are heavily populated and/or heavily farmed.
  • Sea level rise of some 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity.
  • Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
  • Much more extreme weather
  • Food insecurity — the increasing difficulty of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, and then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.
  • Myriad direct health impacts

Remember, these will all be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade. Equally tragic, a 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts would be largely irreversible for 1000 years.

The single biggest failure of messaging by climate scientists (until very recently) has been the failure to explain to the public, opinion makers, and the media that business-as-usual warming results in simultaneous, ever-worsening impacts that, individually, are each beyond catastrophic, but combined are unimaginablly horrific. For these impacts, terms like “global warming” and “climate change” are essentially euphemisms. That is why I have preferred the term “Hell and High Water.”

By virtue of their success in promoting doubt and inaction, the climate science deniers and disinformers have, tragically and ironically, turned the worst-case scenario into business as usual.

Business as usual typically means continuing at recent growth rates of carbon dioxide emissions, which we now know would likely take us to atmospheric concentrations of CO2 greater than 850 ppm if not above 1000 ppm (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm … the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories are being realised”). Annual emissions now exceed 10 billion metric tons of carbon (~37 billions metric tons of CO2). Emissions have been rising about 3% per year for the past decade.

What is less well understood is that even a very strong mitigation effort that kept carbon emissions this century to 11 billion tons a year on average would still probably take us to 1000 ppm (A1FI scenario) — a little noted conclusion of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (see “Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution“).

Until recently, the scientific community has spent little time modeling the impacts of a tripling (~830 ppm) or quadrupling (~1100 ppm) carbon dioxide concentrations from preindustrial levels. In part, I think, that’s because they never believed humanity would be so self-destructive as to ignore their science-based warnings and simply continue on its unsustainable path. In part, they lowballed the difficult-to-model amplifying feedbacks in the carbon cycle.

So I pieced together those impacts from available studies and from discussions with leading climate scientists for my 2006 book, Hell and High Water. But now the scientific literature on what we face is much richer — as climate scientists have sobered up to their painful role as modern-day Cassandra’s (see Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization).

In a 2010 AAAS presentation, the late William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge“: New scientific findings since the 2007 IPCC report are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected.”

This post will review the latest findings. It will serve as a foundation for a multi-part series that attempts to clear up some of the confusion over the supposed high degree of “uncertainty” surrounding climate impacts. That series will make clear that we have an unusually high degree of certainty around future climate impacts if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.

This post — an update — covers more than 60 recent scientific studies along with numerous review pieces that themselves each cover a large segment of the recent literature. Please add links to more studies in the comments.

We will see why inaction on climate change is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e.  4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level),” according to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain (see here).


Three of the best recent analyses of what we are headed towards can be found here:

As Dr. Vicky Pope, Head of Climate Change Advice for the Met Office’s Hadley Centre has explained:

where no action is taken to check the rise in Greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures would most likely rise by more than 5°C by the end of the century. This would lead to significant risks of severe and irreversible impacts.

That likely rise corresponds to roughly 9°F globally and typically 40% higher than that over inland mid-latitudes (i.e. much of this country) — or well over 10°F.

[Note: The MIT rise is compared to 1980-1999 levels — see study here). So you can add at least 0.5 C and 1.0°F for comparison with pre-industrial temperatures.]

Many other highly credible bodies share this conclusion, including the once-staid and conservative International Energy Agency (see IEA’s Bombshell Warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy”).

Based on two studies in the last few years:

By century’s end, extreme temperatures of up to 122°F would threaten most of the central, southern, and western U.S. Even worse, Houston and Washington, DC could experience temperatures exceeding 98°F for some 60 days a year. Much of Arizona would be subjected to temperatures of 105°F or more for 98 days out of the year–14 full weeks.

Yet that conclusion is based on studies of only 700 ppm and 850 ppm, so it could get much hotter than that.

And the Hadley Center adds, “By the 2090s close to one-fifth of the world’s population will be exposed to ozone levels well above the World Health Organization recommended safe-health level.”

The MIT press release called for “rapid and massive” action to avoid this. Study co-author Ronald Prinn, the co-director of the Joint Program and director of MIT’s Center for Global Change Science, said, it is important “to base our opinions and policies on the peer-reviewed science…. There’s no way the world can or should take these risks.” Duh!

MIT put together a good figure that compares the temperatures we risk on our current do-nothing path with those we might expect if we took serious action [see top figure above]. Note that in the “no policy case” there is an extremely high probability of more than 4°C (7°F) global warming, and  about a 25% chance of more than 6°C (11°F) global warming.

In a 2010 presentation, Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has a figure of what 1000 ppm would mean (derived from the 2010 NOAA-led report):

For more of the literature on U.S. warming, see “Mother Nature is Just Getting Warmed Up.”

The Hadley Center has a huge but useful figure which I will reproduce here:

Note again that this is not the worst-case scenario. It’s just business as usual out to 2100.

In the worst case, we get both continuing high levels of emissions and high carbon-cycle feedbacks. That possibility was discussed here:

This would be the worst-case for the 2060s, but is in any case, close to business as usual for 2090s:

This is a staggering 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic.

And there is every reason to believe that the earth would just keep getting hotter and hotter:

Steve Easterbrook’s post “A first glimpse at model results for the next IPCC assessment” shows that for the scenario where there is 9°F warming by 2100, you get another 7°F warming by 2300. Of course, folks that aren’t motivated to avoid the civilization-destroying 9°F by 2100 won’t be moved by whatever happens after that.


The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) in the 2060s and 2090s in a moderate emissions path. A “reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought.”

The PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here). The study finds:

The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part] appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States and much of he Mediterranean and Africa, could face readings in the range of -4 to -10. Such decadal averages would be almost unprecedented.”

For the record, the NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario — atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100. We’re currently headed much higher by century’s end, but I’m sure with an aggressive program of energy R&D we could keep that to, say 800 ppm.

  • The UK Met Office came to a similar view six years ago in their analysis, projecting severe drought over 40% of the Earth’s habited landmass by century’s end (see “The Century of Drought“).
  • A 2012 Nature Climate Change article, “Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models” (subs. req’d, news release here) confirms these findings, concluding, “the observed global aridity changes up to 2010 are consistent with model predictions, which suggest severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years over many land areas resulting from either decreased precipitation and/or increased evaporation.”  In particular, the author has a stunning warning for this country: “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.”

The projection of extended if not endless drought for the US Southwest (and parts of the Great Plains) has been studied a great deal:

The serious hydrological changes and impacts known to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times over North America reflect large-scale changes in the climate system that can develop in a matter of years and, in the case of the more severe past megadroughts, persist for decades. Such hydrological changes fit the definition of abrupt change because they occur faster than the time scales needed for human and natural systems to adapt, leading to substantial disruptions in those systems. In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.

An unprecedented combination of heat plus decades of drought could be in store for the Southwest sometime this century, suggests new research from a University of Arizona-led team”….

“The bottom line is, we could have a Medieval-style drought with even warmer temperatures,” [lead author Connie] Woodhouse said.

The literature makes clear future droughts will be fundamentally different from all previous droughts that humanity has experienced because they will be very hot weather droughts (see Must-have PPT: The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather).

  • A 2011 Environmental Research Letters article, “Characterizing changes in drought risk for the United States from climate change,” comes to a similar conclusion as the NCAR study, “Drought frequencies and uncertainties in their projection tend to increase considerably over time and show a strong worsening trend along higher greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, suggesting substantial benefits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.” See especially Figure 4C.

Another 2011 study, “The Last Drop: Climate Change and the Southwest Water Crisis,” that actually looks in some detail at the scientific literature for just one region, finds that drought and reduced precipitation in the U.S. SW alone could cost up to $1 trillion by century’s end.

Finally, while the Dust Bowl lasted under a decade, the NOAA-led study found permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe on our current emissions trajectory would be irreversible for many, many centuries:

Again, this is all just business as usual.

From a worst-case perspective, Princeton has done an analysis on “Century-scale change in water availability: CO2-quadrupling experiment,” which is to say 1100 ppm. The grim result: Most of the South and Southwest ultimately sees a 20% to 50% (!) decline in soil moisture.

Finally, the heat and drought drives wildfires. Here’s a National Academies figure from a presentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren in Oslo in 2010, about conditions projected for mid-century:


The 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) report ignored dynamic ice-sheet disintegration, which was already happening (see Nature: “Dynamic thinning of Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheet ocean margins is more sensitive, pervasive, enduring and important than previously realized”). The IPCC therefore low-balled sea level rise estimates, suggesting seas might rise “only” a foot or two this century, greatly delighting the anti-science crowd (see here)

Within a year, even a major report signed off on by the Bush administration itself was forced to concede that the IPCC numbers were simply too out of date to be quoted anymore (see US Geological Survey stunner: Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections).

A dozen major studies since the IPCC report have concluded that we face much higher sea level rise this century:

Four studies in 2012 provide yet more cause for concern

  • Three new Studies on Sea Level Rise Make Clear We Must Act Now. Staying near our current greenhouse emissions emissions path — not the worst-case scenario — still leads to over 40 inches of sea level rise by 2100 and then seas continue to rise 7 inches or more a decade!
  • Sea Level Rise: It Could Be Worse Than We Think: “Seas could rise dramatically higher over the next few centuries than scientists previously thought — somewhere between 18-to-29 feet above current levels, rather than the 13-to-20 feet they were talking about just a few years ago.”

Needless to say, a sea level rise of one meter by 2100 (nearly 40 inches) would be an unmitigated catastrophe for the planet, even if sea levels didn’t keep rising several inches a decade for centuries, which they inevitably would. The first meter of SLR would flood 17% of Bangladesh, displacing tens of millions of people, and reducing its rice-farming land by 50 percent. Globally, it would create more than 100 million environmental refugees and inundate over 13,000 square miles of this country. Southern Louisiana and South Florida would inevitably be abandoned.


In 2007, the IPCC warned that as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe. That is a temperature rise over pre-industrial levels of a bit more than 4.0°C. So a 5.5°C rise would likely put extinctions beyond the high end of that range.

Many more studies have raised similar concerns:

And, of course, “When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.” There aren’t many studies of what happens to the oceans as we get toward 800 to 1000 ppm, but it appears likely that much of the world’s oceans, especially in the southern hemisphere, become inhospitable to many forms of marine life. A 2005 Nature study concluded these “detrimental” conditions “could develop within decades, not centuries as suggested previously.”

As for the worst-case scenario, we have:

Yes, some scientists disputed the analysis, but I have seen no refutation in the scientific literature.


If we go to 800 ppm — let alone 1000 ppm or higher — we are far outside the bounds of simple linear projection. Some of the worst impacts may not be obvious — and there may be unexpected negative synergies. The best evidence that will happen is the fact that it is already happened with even a small amount of warming we have seen to date.

“The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The pests areprojected to kill 80 per cent of merchantable and susceptible lodgepole pine” in parts of British Columbia within 10 years — and that’s why the harvest levels in the region have been “increased significantly.”

As quantified in the journal Nature, “Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change,” (subs. req’d), which just looks at the current and future impact from the beetle’s warming-driven devastation in British Columbia:

the cumulative impact of the beetle outbreak in the affected region during 2000–2020 will be 270 megatonnes (Mt) carbon (or 36 g carbon m-2 yr-1 on average over 374,000 km2 of forest). This impact converted the forest from a small net carbon sink to a large net carbon source.

No wonder the carbon sinks are saturating faster than we thought (see here) — unmodeled impacts of climate change are destroying them:

Insect outbreaks such as this represent an important mechanism by which climate change may undermine the ability of northern forests to take up and store atmospheric carbon, and such impacts should be accounted for in large-scale modelling analyses.

And the bark beetle is slamming the Western U.S. and Alaska, too (see “Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle“).

An April 2012 study explained, “Global Warming is Doubling Bark Beetle Mating, Boosting Tree Attacks Up To 60-Fold, Study Finds.”

The key point is this catastrophic climate change impact and its carbon-cycle feedback were not foreseen even a dozen years ago — which suggests future climate impacts will bring other equally unpleasant surprises, especially as we continue on our path of no resistance.


One of the basic predictions of climate science is that extreme weather will make the hydrological cycle more extreme. I’ve already discussed the extensive (and growing) literature on how dry areas will get drier. But wet areas will also get wetter:

1) Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas. These results are based on a comparison of observed and multi-model simulated changes in extreme precipitation over the latter half of the twentieth century analysed with an optimal fingerprinting technique.

Changes in extreme precipitation projected by models, and thus the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming.

2) Occurring during the wettest autumn in England and Wales since records began in 1766 these floods damaged nearly 10,000 properties across that region, disrupted services severely, and caused insured losses estimated at £1.3 billion….

it is very likely that global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions substantially increased the risk of flood occurrence in England and Wales in autumn 2000.

That post ended with its own review of the literature on the connection between global warming and extreme weather. Here are several more recent studies on how warming is already making our weather more extreme:

A new study by a Duke University-led team of climate scientists suggests that global warming is the main cause of a significant intensification in the North Atlantic Subtropical High (NASH) that in recent decades has more than doubled the frequency of abnormally wet or dry summer weather in the southeastern United States….

The models – known as Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3) models – predict the NASH will continue to intensify and expand as concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase in Earth’s atmosphere in coming decades.”This intensification will further increase the likelihood of extreme summer precipitation variability – periods of drought or deluge – in southeastern states in coming decades,” Li says.

The team calculates that a 1 ºC increase in sea-surface temperatures would result in a 31% increase in the global frequency of category 4 and 5 storms per year: from 13 of those storms to 17. Since 1970, the tropical oceans have warmed on average by around 0.5 ºC. Computer models suggest they may warm by a further 2 ºC by 2100.

  • Nature: Strong Evidence Manmade ‘Unprecedented Heat And Rainfall Extremes Are Here … Causing Intense Human Suffering’
  • Hansen et al: “Extreme Heat Waves … in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 Were ‘Caused’ by Global Warming”
  • Study Finds 80% Chance Russia’s 2010 July Heat Record Would Not Have Occurred Without Climate Warming
  • NOAA: Human-Caused Climate Change Already a Major Factor in More Frequent Mediterranean Droughts

The very latest science suggests we may actually be in the midst of a quantum leap or step-function change in extreme weather because of warming-driven Arctic ice loss:


In over two decades of tracking world food prices, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization index has never stayed so high for so long.

This represents true suffering for hundreds of millions of people who live on the edge, for whom food is a large fraction of their income like, say, North Africa (see Expert consensus grows on contribution of record high food prices to Middle East unrest).

Population growth, dietary shifts, growing use of crops for biofuels, peaking conventional oil production and increases in extreme weather have all played a part. As the literature above makes clear, on our current emissions path, we face:

One analysis just of the impact of temperature rise on food finds “Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100.” And this is just a 700 ppm analysis with no discussion of the impact of soil drying up or other well-understood climate impacts.

Two major Oxfam studies in the past 12 months show the impact global warming poses to food prices. First we had “Extreme Weather Has Helped Push Tens of Millions into ‘Hunger and Poverty’in ‘Grim Foretaste’ of Warmed World,” with this chart:

Further modeling the impact of warming-driven extreme weather shocks lead Oxfam to conclude corn prices could increase a staggering 500% by 2030:

The “additional price increase” percentage (olive green bars) is calculated off the original price increase.

For the foreseeable future, the “Climate Story of the Year is that Warming-Driven Drought and Extreme Weather Emerge as Key Threat to Global Food Security.”


In 2011 the British Medical Journal warned that climate change “poses an immediate and grave threat, driving ill-health and increasing the risk of conflict, such that each feeds upon the other.” The UK’s Hadley Center notes that on our current one related impact, “By the 2090s close to one-fifth of the world’s population will be exposed to ozone levels well above the World Health Organization recommended safe-health level.”

A June 2011 peer-reviewed report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) — “Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution” — shows that the harm to Americans, especially children, from human-caused warming is upon us now.

A just-released September 2011 report by the European Lung Foundation finds:

Climate change set to increase ozone-related deaths over next 60 years

Scientists are warning that death rates linked to climate change will increase in several European countries over the next 60 yrs.

Earlier this year, Climate Progress reported on what the top medical and health groups warn are the health risks Americans face from climate change:

  • More than doubled asthma rates and lengthened asthma season (already 20 days longer)
  • Threatened access to clean drinking water
  • Increases in airborne and insect borne illnesses (e.g. mosquitos, ticks, tapeworm)
  • Increases in diarrheal, respiratory, and heart disease
  • Increased risk of salmonella spread as average temperatures rise
  • Increase in hospital use results in rising health care costs
  • Particular risk among low-income communities, children, the elderly, and the obese

See also The Lancet’s landmark Health Commission: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”


The possibility that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases would not do unimaginable harm to humanity has become vanishingly small. That’s because:

  • We remain near the worst-case emissions pathways
  • There is little prospect of major national or global action any times soon (thank you, deniers)
  • Many impacts are coming faster than the models projected, and
  • The overwhelming majority of the scientific literature in the past 5 years has been more dire than the 2007 IPCC report, which itself was more than enough motivation for the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and countries to call for urgent action to reduce emissions.

And I haven’t even discussed the many, many studies that suggest in fact carbon-cycle feedbacks (like the defrosting tundra) are almost all positive (amplifying) and yet largely ignored in most climate models:

  • NSIDC: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100 and links therein.
  • Nature: Climate Experts Warn Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation!
  • Forest Feedback: Rising CO2 In Atmosphere Also Speeds Carbon Loss From Forest Soils, Research Finds
  • For Peat’s Sake: Record Temperatures And Wildfires In Eastern Russia Drive Amplifying Carbon-Cycle Feedback
  • Stunning Peatlands Amplifying Feedback: Drying Wetlands and Intensifying Wildfires Boost Carbon Release Ninefold
  • Carbon Feedback From Thawing Permafrost Will Likely Add 0.4°F – 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100

So it’s no surprise that many climate impacts are coming much faster than the models had predicted:


Arctic Sea Ice is melting much, much faster than even the best climate models had projected. The reason is most likely unmodeled amplifying feedbacks. Image via Arctic Sea Ice Blog.

Inaction means humanity’s self-destruction. We must pay any price or bear any burden to stop catastrophic climate change.

45 Responses to An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces

  1. Laurie james says:

    Climate changes are ineviablej ust as a course of planetary cycles, BUT what we have now is human action speeding up the process. What would our planet look like with both poles barren and the tropics unliveable, the mid-areas in drought and unable to produce a food suppy for 7 billion people worldwide – well I won’t want to be part of that. Humans will begin to live indoors, and power will have to be supplied to condition the temps to liveable in more than half the planet. Many will die and our population will head into downward spiral as more and more die from starvation and lack of hydration. But, there is no one talking about this on a world platform, or even our own government, as it gets dispelled as a hoax in lieu of allowing the big oil interests to plunder even more of the planet with hopes of bigger and bigger profits. I see no answer to this, as too many have their heads in the sand and until it effects them personally they will continue to deny. This next summer might wake a few more up but at what point can we make the turn to less emissions and save what is left of our “pleasant” planet?

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe, this is a terrific article.

    I don’t know who might have the resources and skills to do it, but it should be made into a video — perhaps narrated by you, or the narrator of your choice, with animated graphics and short interviews with the scientists who have authored the studies you cite.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    As bad as this sounds, and as Joe is becoming aware, all these projections are going to be severe underestimates of the effects. The reality is that we are watching a system with all interconnected parts change rapidly and nothing will remain unchanged. Our science cannot identify either the weakest links or the leading parts and we will continue to be surprised, e.g. your bark beetle, ME

  4. Curtis says:

    Nothing will be done, because not only is climate change completely absent from the Presidential campaign, it’s hardly ever talked about at all, at least as a sustained conversation about the consequences of doing nothing. See also a post from a week or so ago, “American Newspapers Give Far More Coverage To Climate Deniers And Skeptics Than Other Countries”. This isn’t surprising, given how powerful the energy industry is here (and how much of the world’s energy we consume).

  5. Joe Romm says:

    Thanks. I’ll talk to Peter Sinclair.

  6. Guest says:

    The die off of coral reefs due to ocean acidification and heat extremes is expectedto have a major impact on the ablity of these ecosystems to reduce the risk of damage from extreme weather….

    The very bad news is that recent research now suggests that “limiting global warming to 2°C is unlikely to save most coral reefs”

  7. Zan says:

    Joe, This is a really great article, practically a novella, but of
    course true. Congrats on Mother Jones saying, “Why aren’t more people listening to this guy?”

    Also why aren’t more people listening to Mother Jones.

  8. Zan says:

    This is a much-needed article! Thank you.

  9. Thank you for the impressive and depressing literature overview from a denizen of the US city with the largest per capita carbon footprint, Lexington, Kentucky, the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World”.

  10. Dave Yuhas says:

    Nothing to worry about. Geoengineering will solve all the problems.

  11. BobbyL says:

    I see no answer either. I thought that supporting former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson for president would help because he is an outspoken advocate for strong action on global warming and was effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Salt Lake City but the mainstream media has ignored him. Since I don’t live in a swing state, I plan to vote for him, probably more out of frustration than anything else. It looks like our ship is going down.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Geo-engineer away ocean acidification?

  13. wade says:

    this obviously is a convincing collection of scientific information. i didn’t need any more convincing. i’m particularly interested in the disconnect between sound, reliable information and popular opinion/belief (a world increasingly distracted) which I encounter when talking to people about climate change (e.g., long, frustrating discussions with facebook friends of friends or with family or at work). i was struck by the Justin Bieber cover of the Rolling Stone issue that contained the recent Bill McKibben article and I thought, what if the sober, geeky, avuncular statements of Bill McKibben were instead a consistent message of the Bieber pop culture juggernaut, like science with amazing, cool, cute hair! how can a youth movement to reduce carbon emissions be galvanized in the way pop culture captures the imagination of the generation that needs to be active in this movement? what is the celebrity-obsessed/pop culture-worshiping metaphor/aesthetic that would work for getting people to engage in this movement. i’m not talking about some dumb video pandering to teens, but something systematic.

  14. jaywfitz says:

    It may be just rhetoric, but calling our current path “inaction” is to my mind inappropriate.

    Let’s call a spade a spade: we’re actively committing suicide.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I’ll bet there is some cowboy out there now working on convincing somebody to try his latest ‘bright’ idea, ME

  16. Ozonator says:

    The article should include EssoKoch’s AGW death and destruction from earthquakes. For example, in Mary Ellen Harte’s “Climate Change This Week: Whacking Fracking, Wind Keeps Farms Aloft, and More … Posted: 10/08/2012 12:28 pm”, I was able to blog 28 predictions which have currently become at least 3 “impossibly” correct AGW quake predictions – US Georgia, Pyrenees, and North Island, NZ from the prediction week of 10/7 – 13/12 with ~6 days to go in:

  17. Gail says:

    Climate change is but one of many converging catastrophes, any one of which is an existential threat to humanity, certainly to modern industrialized civilization. Ocean acidification, peak oil, pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction and resource exploitation together with climate change (and no doubt a few others) are all subsets of overpopulation.

    A single fact emerges when contemplating the implacable nature of these problems with no solution – they are part and parcel of the innate, genetically determined character of our species. In Reg Morrison’s terminology, we are a plague, and like any other we will run our course to overshoot and then subside, if not be completely eradicated.

    Once this is fully understood different questions emerge, and they don’t involve electoral politics, cap and trade legislation, or the keystone XL pipeline – which are meaningless along with much else that we tend to get agitated about.

    The other key issue which is made clear by the amplifying feedbacks that are accelerating climate change, is that we are well out of time to even slow Hell and High Water which this post amply demonstrates. And as I have warned many times before, the ecosystem on land is collapsing in perfect parallel with the destruction of coral reefs in the ocean. In effect, with tropospheric ozone we have “acidified” the atmosphere and vegetation is dying out from absorbing toxic levels of air pollution as a result of the nitrogen cascade from fuel and agriculture emissions.

    We have passed the tipping point with forests – the trees are dying so fast, it is mind-boggling and with them – and life in the sea – goes our source of oxygen. Most people will never understand this. They will starve before they understand that all the insects, disease and fungus that are blamed for tree decline are merely opportunistic attacks facilitated by immune systems compromised from ozone damage.

    Pictures here (is anybody actually looking at the trees?)

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It will get worse than even your scenario. At some stage states where the population is facing death will act aggressively against neighbours, or merely allow hundreds of millions to flee, vainly seeking safety. The battle for dwindling resources will turn deadly, particularly as long as ‘The American Way of Life is Not Negotiable’ as Bush Major intoned. War for survival will be brutal, and real WMD will be deployed. I see no sign of leadership anywhere in the West that is up to turning the other cheek, or sharing the world’s resources equitably, even with the majority in their own societies.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As Seneca observed 2000 years ago, complex systems take an awful lot of effort to construct, but tend to fall apart with accelerating rapidity as all the parts are interconnected, and the failure of one undermines the rest. We can see truly deadly feedback loops, like the mass tree death, caused by tropospheric ozone or over-wintering beetles or higher temperatures and drier weather, which releases more greenhouse emissions which exacerbates the warming. And the consequent megafires release more greenhouse gases and soot, and on and on the deadly synergies, many never expected, go. The process, I would say, is already clearly unstoppable, too many holes having appeared in the dyke all at once.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Given the cornutopian techno-optimists’ track record in curing problems by creating new ones, I’m less sanguine than you-unless you are taking the piss, as they say.

  21. Dan Miller says:

    While I agree with most of the dire comments here, when it comes to action on climate change, I believe we will go from impossible to inevitable, without ever stopping at probable. Of course, the question is will we do this in time (or do we have any time)?

  22. aenoch says:

    It sure looks like the Hydrocarbon Suicide Bombers are in the driver’s seat.
    I’m grateful for the good work of Joe Romm and Bill McKibben and James Hansen and all the other real scientists that point out where this is going. The problem is that the suicide bombers aren’t going to stop pumping CO2 no mater what the science shows. All they see is someone trying to tell them what to do. They love a fight. They’re like my buck goat. I slap him on the head to get him to back up a bit and oh boy he loves that. He loves to butt heads. Bring it on. I don’t see us getting too far butting heads with the Hydrocarbon Suicide bombers. They’ve got aircraft carriers and Apache helicopters and a bunch of randy young troops all ready to go.

    Since sunshine is the only income we’ve got, maybe we could give them a lease on the Sun in exchange for all the mineral rights to the black stuff.
    Thirty or forty years ago Ralph Nader said solar would be feasible when Standard oil gets a meter an the Sun. OK lets make a deal.

  23. john c. wilson says:

    Yes, somebody is looking at the trees. I choose who I mention the subject to carefully. Seeing that the emperor has no clothes is a symptom of mental illness and one must be careful. The past few months I begin to find that there are other people who can see the trees, but it is always mentioned sotto voce. Standing up and saying that you’ve made direct observation of phenomena the wider world “knows” to be hallucinations is not easy to do.

  24. Spike says:

    Since our leaders are incapable of acting on CO2 quickly and decisively Prof Peter Cox of Exeter University has suggested they could at least start to act decisively on the other GHGs to buy some much needed time. In a recent talk he suggested action on methane, saying a 40% reduction in our emissions could buy us another 10 years to act on CO2. Desperate stuff I know, but these are desperate times.

    Joe I have bookmarked this terrific article of yours to help me continue to take on the deniers in the UK press, who are currently trumpeting the outright lie that global warming stopped 16 years ago. Many thanks for all your work – IMO you deserve international recognition for your fearless truth telling.

  25. Gail says:

    Maybe that’s why I never get invited to the neighborhood Christmas party anymore.

  26. Joe Romm says:

    Thanks. I guess I’ll redebunk that nonsense lie one more time.

  27. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree, Secular, a hard hitting video would be a great asset. Thanks to Joe for your continuously updated textbooks on what people need to know.

    I disagree that scientists are failing to communicate this incredibly urgent message to the media. It’s more that the media is failing to listen, because they are both compromised and controlled by greed crazed fossil fuel and financial interests.

    Some of us are working to try to correct this situation, and believe that they can be shamed. Polite entreaties to media public editors have failed. Few Americans are aware of the critical information that you continue to broadcast on this blog, and this must change. There are a number of strategies that can accomplish this goal, but a ground game is required.

  28. Mike Roddy says:

    Won’t work. They’re addicted to the easy oil money, and don’t want to change anything. Anyway, why reward them at all, or be afraid of them? Their assets should be confiscated.

  29. Andy Johnson says:

    Your note on the asymmetry of climate change research is critical. In climate discussions I rely less on specific science than the striking pattern of worsening predictions. Your graph showing arctic ice extent predicted versus actual is a great example.

    Have you done or could you do more extensive analysis of this pattern? Take 5-year periods of climate research going back 30 years, say, and separate out by impact (warming, extreme weather, sea level, food/water, health, etc). Then show how the science itself has trouble keeping up with reality.

    No question the debate is politically polarized, but there is still a large block of true “climate independents” blowin’ in the wind. Shifting the debate from any given piece of research to demonstrating how across the board the reality is worse than predicted, happening faster than predicted … can be impactful.

    Hunter Lovins’ quote “we have just enough time, starting now” may have been relevant in an IPCC2007 world, but the shifting goalposts of climate science prediction show it to be false.

    Thanks for your great work. I’d love to talk energy districts sometime. In your writing on dust-bowl-ification you must have studied the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Coordinated, supported, technically sound local leadership is a key missing link in the energy/emissions picture – thoughts?

  30. Mike Roddy says:

    I second that suggestion. Sweden, home of the Nobel Prize, may be the most progressive country on earth when it comes to working toward a low carbon future.

    Joe deserves a special Nobel. I have contacts and relatives in Sweden, and have done work for one of their trade groups. I’m headed to their consulate this week to plant that seed. Their awards are not based on popularity, or Bill O’Reilly would have one. When Joe (or Bill McKibben, Jim Hansen, or Michael Mann) has a Nobel, maybe people will pay attention. It may be too soon even for the Nobel Board, but recognition like this could change the conversation.

  31. aenoch says:

    Seems like back about 150 years ago we confiscated some of our prominent citizen’s livestock and turned them loose. A half million people died in the fighting before that was settled. To think that we can confiscate the fossil fuel assets is just as suicidal as to keep burning them. “Should be”s don’t count.

  32. I agree. This is a really terrific and sorely need article. Thank you so much.

    I feel you have brought a huge amount of knowledge and skill to bear in compiling and condensing this massive, crucial information update to this size and clarity.

    And yet, honestly, I’m struck at the same time by the resulting density. Many Americans will not be able to follow the argument at this level – various temperature scales, shifting time baselines, terminology and concepts – and they really can’t be expected to.

    While thinking about how this can be simplified to some functional for wide consumption, I’d like to propose who I think _must_ read this, understand it, and be accountable for accurate use of the knowledge:

    Any members of the media or other forms of pundits who report on or express opinions on climate change and/or any of the myriad implicated, related topics.

    If members of the media can grasp this, they will have a reasonable basis for accurate reporting going forward.

    If they can’t or don’t grasp this, they should have no claim to make for professional status in their work.

  33. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    I imagine you’ve tried this argument: A line constructed between two “chosen” points in a noisy data set does not a trend make.

  34. Jan says:

    I would love to see this article in the NYT or Wash Post. I would donate $$ for it to appear as an ad, if it couldn’t make it as a letter or op ed.

  35. Rita says:

    The scenarios do not account for the effect of peak oil, peak coal, global currencies break down,capitalism transforming into a feudal like economy without free market, third world war etc. These all may happen in the near future and normally should have a big effect on lowering the CO2 emissions.

  36. Peak oil and peak coal are just plain wrong.

    There are approximately five times more fossil fuel reserves already booked than the climate can handle getting out in the atmosphere. And successful exploration continues.

    The point is, we have to stop using fossil fuel long, long before it runs out.

  37. Sean Alan says:

    seasons do not run in cycle. time unwinds in twisted spirals. down we drift as darkness falls.

  38. Sean Alan says:

    I want any documentary to address plainly this may be the end of natures human experiment. not just the end of life as we know it, but the literal end of our life. in all the talk, i have not read or heard anyone say it. 10*C? we’re only 20*C above freezing now. half again as hot. we have no concept.

  39. Stefan Pasti says:

    The most comprehensive summary I’ve seen. More and more evidence is suggesting that both insufficient awareness and accelerating feedback loops are at “flashing red” levels. There are many ways education can take place that have not yet been explored. I believe we need to get much more active about exploring such other ways.

    One thing I do not see enough of at global warming mitigation websites, and in the most significant articles I have seen, is the placing of global warming in among many other very critical issues which also have “flashing red” aspects. The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative (which I am building) offers a list of ten critical challenges (see last page of “IPCR Critical Challenges Assessment 2011-2012: Summary Report”—accessible from the IPCR homepage, at ). The ten critical challenges include: global warming; cultures of violence, greed, corruption, and overindulgence; the end of the era of “cheap energy”; financial crises; increasing world population; trends towards urbanization; etc.

    Complicated though it may be to focus on so many challenges, one positive consequence is that it heightens awareness that there is a need for problem solving on a scale most of us have never known before—however much there may be disagreement on the seriousness of some of the issues. Reaching that level of heighten awareness makes it possible to consider ways of accelerating solution-oriented activity like Community Visioning Initiatives. [Here are two quick references with more details (which can be found via a Google search): “The Potential of Community Visioning Initiatives (in 500 words)”and an IPCR outreach package document titled “The 1000 Communities 2 Proposal: Creating a Multiplier Effect of a Positive Nature” (1022 words).] Reaching that level of heightened awareness in a local community might be possible through a combination of preliminary surveys to 150 key leaders, and Community Visioning Initiatives supported by many Community Teaching and Learning Centers.

    One very important advantage of the above mentioned kind of approach to collaborative problem solving is that it does not set out a preexisting set of goals—organizers would be believing that “the urgency and awareness that needs to come will come”, and would be focusing more on building a collaborative problem solving approach which people with many different backgrounds and agendas could believe in… could believe will make best use of the knowledge and skills each person has to contribute. (There are difficult challenges ahead. We will need the best efforts we can make at working together to overcome such challenges). In other words, though it is critical to have evidence which points towards urgently needed achievements, what we need more of (I believe) is problem solving approaches which would 1) grow from the actual “who we are” of the community 2) give residents a healthy appreciation for each others strengths 3) add valuable knowledge and skill sets relating to problem solving as a team 4) maximize citizen participation in identifying challenges and solution-oriented activity 5) give people an opportunity to become actively involved in a solution-charged environment 6) minimize the risk of “transformation unemployment” 7) give the community as a whole a well-developed capacity to resolve even the most difficult challenges and 8) give local residents many more opportunities to encourage and support each other in the everyday circumstances of community life.

    If I may add—I am currently in the process of creating two new websites: a Community Visioning Initiative clearinghouse website, and a Community Teaching and Learning Center clearinghouse website. I would appreciate constructive comments from anyone who might be interested in assisting with those works-in-progress.

    For a Peaceful and Sustainable Future,

    Stefan Pasti

  40. Michele Morgenstern says:

    It is a very good point that you dont hear about this in any of the campaigning for our future president. Someone needs to step up to the plate and take this to Washington, for the sake of our children, our childrens children and for the sake of all of humanity. Our beautiful world is literally wasting away before our very eyes. Something needs to be done immediately for it is already almost to late. For all of those who dont believe it now…what more information do you need to wake up??? Read the facts. It is so very clear. It is so very obvious that action needs to be taken. I love the comment about airing shows on tv to get the world to see what is happening and to do something before it really is to late.

  41. Michele Morgenstern says:

    I could not agree more with Dan Miller’s comment. I also agree with what Jan said about loving to see this article in the newspapers. It should be in every newspaper all over the world. This is what should be of major concern for everyone to get talking about and then maybe we the people can finally get the attention this deserves. God gave us all these scientists to do all the work they do so that something can be done. Why is it that nobody wants to listen and do something to save our world??? I do not understand…do you???

  42. Thomas Nass says:

    I would aver that nothing will prove more precisely the old Maxim: “What goes around, comes around”, than the fact that what, we have, allowed to be Sprayed on our Crops, Spilled onto our Land -including the run-off from crops, Spewed into our Air, Buried in our Soil, Dumped into our waters, left in our sub-surface as a result of Mining and Drilling operations, will soon be seen, smelt and tasted, in that order, as it comes back at us out of our spigots.
    Count on it!
    The potential for the survival of our environment is directly proportional to the, insatiable, sociopathic GREED of the “Special Interests” and their carte blanche to continue to Pollute, Deceive the Public and, then, Pollute some more! If not brought under control, GREED will soon take this great Country Down!
    We are our Environment’s Keeper!
    If not us, WHO? Certainly not those who are Profiting from its Destruction!How many gallons of water does it take to recover One(1) Cubic Foot of natural gas?
    Water that must be contaminated by chemicals to make it useable in the recovery process. Water that will remain so contaminated that it will be unfit to flush a toilet. I suspect that we will run out of drinkable water while trying to solve our energy problems and filling the coffers of the Polluters! Who will be the winner here? I would hazard that there won’t be any!
    Tom Nass
    5th Marine Division – WWII

  43. Susan Campbell says:

    Your group sounds like a great idea and could be effective. However, while I agree with your comment and your proposed efforts, I despair at your communication style. I am a college-educated, involved citizen, and even I found myself overwhelmed by the complicated way in which you stated your points. It sounds like the bafflegab you hear in almost any institutional or corporate mission statement. Please, if you want to attract an uninformed and apathetic public (which is crucial, by the way, to the effectiveness of your group), KISS.

    As a quick top-of-my-head summary of one part of your pitch: “Let’s get our friends and neighbors together by showing them the day-to-day harmful impacts of climate extremes on us and our children. They will see how climate extremes affect our ability to make a living and threaten our survival. And then, let’s do something about it! Many of our friends and neighbors have creative ideas and scientific abilities that could begin to solve some of the problems we face, and/or they have connections to others with even more expertise. Let’s get all of us together and see what we can do immediately to make individual changes, and what we can do as a community. Together we can apply much more effective pressure on those in public and private power to make bigger changes.”

    No, this statement doesn’t cover every possible nuance of the group’s mission, but at least it’s easily understandable. I’m sure, with some more attention, you can come up with better ways to say it and cover more ground. But if, by the complexity of the mission statement, I believe I’m going to be subjected to hours and hours of bloviation and technobabble, I’m just not interested in joining, no matter how great the project. I have far too much to do already to waste time listening to people trying to impress me with their vocabularies, etc. Yes, scientific and institutional jargon will probably happen, but it can be minimized. It can be translated. It can be accessible. If it isn’t, the public will continue to ignore it, whether from not being able to understand it or just from feeling like an outsider.

    Truly, I’m not trying to be mean. I love language and big words and complicated ideas. But I want your group and groups like it to work with “the actual ‘who we are’ of the community”. This is just my small suggestion to make that happen.