The Ghost Of Climate Yet To Come

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

Unlike Scrooge, we don’t get a spirit to show us what the future holds if we don’t change our ways.

In the past two years, though, we have gotten the tiniest glimpse of climate gone wild (see “Masters: “The stunning extremes we witnessed [in 2010] gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability” and A New Record: 14 U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in 2011 and Experts Warn ‘Near Ice-Free Arctic In Summer’ In A Decade If Volume Trends Continue).

And we did get dozens of scientific papers warning us of what is to come (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

M.I.T. laid out the choice in its 2009 analysis:


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

Yes, it is increasingly unlikely that we will adopt the aggressive but low-net-cost policies needed to stabilize at 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and then quickly come back to 350 — thanks in large part to the deniers, along with their political pals and media enablers. But when reporters ask me if it’s “too late,” — or, as one did last year, “have we crossed a tipping point?” — I have to explain that the question doesn’t have a purely scientific answer.

It does seem clear that the most dangerous carbon-cycle feedback — the defrosting permafrost — hasn’t kicked in yet but is likely to with two decades (see “Carbon Time Bomb in the Arctic“).

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 “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“). 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 International Energy Agency explained, “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”. In releasing its 2011 Energy Outloook, the IEA said “On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change” and “we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F].” They concluded:

Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

This is all by way of introduction to a holiday rerun repost. Four 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.

And we know that large parts of the currently habited and arable land are at risk of turning into Dust Bowls, gravely threatening global food security.

We most certainly do not want to significantly exceed 450 ppm for any length of time, as Dust-Bowlification 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 was the perfect paper for someone, like say, Lou Dobbs, who went 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.

52 Responses to The Ghost Of Climate Yet To Come

  1. Joe,

    I like the way you think — the apropos, powerful Christmas simile and YES, we can and must still reduce carbon emissions and sequester existing atmospheric carbon.

    Gotta run, it’s Christmas morning, but thanks.


  2. prokaryotes says:

    Another factor: Looking for winter weirdness

    Connection between disappearing sea ice and an increase in blocking patterns caused by a meandering jet stream.

    This is from a recent post by Neven, i added a video by Yale University on the Jet Stream extreme weather link. The post assess current unprecedented weather anomalies in Europe and Russia. Though the US is atm also impacted by Arctic air intrusion.

  3. prokaryotes says: reporting on consequences for winter grains production. The combination of extreme cold and no (insulating) snow is not good for crops

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks for working on Christmas, Joe, you are a true warrior.

    When my son Malcolm was very young, I kept showing him a clip from Boorman’s Excalibur:

    Arthur: “Merlin, what is the most important quality in a knight?”

    Merlin: “It’s many things, it’s chivalry, it’s courage, it’s..”

    Arthur (interrupting): “Cut the evasion, Merlin, what is it?”

    Merlin (irritated): “All right, I’ll tell you. It’s truth! Every time you tell a lie, you murder some part of the world”.

    Literally true these days, and more than just a part.

  5. Thank you for working for us and the world.
    If your car is headed for a collision with a concrete wall, and you know you won’t be able to stop the car before you hit the wall, you don’t just continue as usual. You hit the break as hard as possible to minimize the damage.

  6. It has become obvious to me that Republican opinion manipulators keep informed about psychological research, and use it for their purposes. No real surprise. I’m reading “The Hidden Persuaders”, and it has been going on for at least 60 years. Earlier this year, I saw some of this “it’s too late to do anything about it” start coming out. Within a few days, on-line scientific news web sites were reporting on a recent study that found that if conservatives believe a problem has no solution, they are likely to reject the existence of the problem itself.

  7. dick smith says:

    I thought I was done opening presents for the day, but thanks for another gift Joe, and as Tiny Tim put it, “Merry Christmas to us all….”

  8. David Goldstein says:

    I have a question for all you loyal CPers. I presume that many of you are aware of Kevin Anderson’s contention that we are past 2C at this point and looking at 4C at best which he say his essentially not adaptable for human civilization. But, I just now learned about the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (not sure how it escaped my attention til now). They are saying the emergency is NOW and that methane release from permafrost thaw and even hydrate destabilization is starting NOW and we actually need to geo-engineer the arctic NOW. and, of course, one of their team members, Prof Waldham (sp?) is one of the few to get the arctic sea ice melt correct so far- which seems to speak to credibility. This is astonishing to me- the implications seem to be that the feared great feedback cycles (permafrost/sea bed methane release) are being triggered- due to the impending complete summer ice loss- at far more accelerated rates than even almost every other climate org. states. Is AMEG credible? Are they being dismissed by most other climate scientists? Are we looking at a ‘zoom off’ acceleration by 2020 now? What’s going on? HELP!!

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Yes, they are credible, though i would like to read more on their conclusion about geo-engineering as the potential fix.

    Here is a recent summary from one of their members, on methane emissions (still searching for a full composition of the Nov 2012 CH4 emissions)
    Methane contributes to accelerated warming in the Arctic

  10. Superman1 says:


    I don’t think you’re going to get a straight answer on this one. Every person involved with climate change has their own agenda. Go to Dr. Guy McPherson’s site/blog; he believes we have passed the runaway feedback point already. Most of the climate scientists who receive funds from the USA government still offer a glimmer of hope: reverse every trend of what we’re doing completely, and we can make it under the wire. If I were you, I’d start saying Kaddish for this civilization.

  11. Will Fox says:

    I’ve just been listening to an interview with James Delingpole –

    This guy makes my blood boil. By far, my least favourite of all the climate change deniers out there. How can so many people be taken in by his absolute BS?

  12. prokaryotes says:

    A good advice from Guy McPherson is to start and plant your own garden.

  13. NJP1 says:

    Delingpole has to spout off what his newspaper (UK daily Telegraph) says he has to spout
    Doesn’t make him less of an idiot though

  14. aj says:

    Sea levels could rise more than a meter by the end of the century.

    Here’s something to blow your top off: Humans send up 135 times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    “We don’t get a spirit to show us what the future holds” – well let’s create one.

    It should not demand too many resources to put together a short clip of the results of the variety of major disasters that have hit us around the world in the last few years, just some biggies, e.g. Pakistani floods, Mebourne fires, Artic ice crashing into the sea, endless dead corn fields etc, no voice just factual labels of time and place. Last frame reads ‘The future – change it now’, ME

  16. Anne says:

    This is precisely the “premonition” of a story idea that popped into my head last night. An adaptation of the famous film could be developed on the premise that our bleak future could have been much much different and so much suffering avoided, if only…. The plot almost writes itself, and the location shots jump right out — the meltic Arctic, the devastated coastal areas, the heartland dustbowls — now for casting. Hmmmm…..

  17. prokaryotes says:

    I’m currently in the process to assemble a video with climate messaging from various scientist and climate hawks. Maybe i finish it this week…

  18. climatehawk1 says:

    Great post, Joe, thanks.

  19. climatehawk1 says:

    Good question. A better one: how did he get his platform, and how does he keep it?

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry Prok but that is a million miles from what I am envisioning, ME

  21. jean says:

    I believe Guy McPherson is right,but very hard to swallow….I am disappointed that my favorite Climate Progress says we can make it with 2 degrees rise in temps Guy discusses 8 tipping points we have passed….well???…the Amazon released more carbon in 2011 than the USA???? etc

  22. fj says:

    Merry Christmas Joe!

    You are a true hero of these difficult times.

    Somehow we will prevail.

  23. David Goldstein says:

    Prok: I am in the Eugene, Or area. We actually have a 2 acre permaculture food garden-plenty of folks are living in this area partly in anticipation of the changes. Superman- what did my name give me away? :)…your comment brings to mind ‘Requiem for a Species’ by Clive Hamilton. Good read if you haven’t already.

  24. This is the big threat–an imminent collapse of agriculture due to shifts in the jet stream caused by the disappearing ice cap. It’s already happening. Russia lost 40% of it’s wheat crop in 2010, and the U.S. is still having drought-driven grain production problems. These are harbingers unless, as Joe says, we act with WW2-style urgency.

  25. Could be. But there are lot of pathways still possible. Let’s at least go down fighting.

  26. A Christmas Carol is a brilliant analogy, brilliantly extended. Well done, Mr. Romm.

  27. Brent Roberts says:

    It is my understanding that the calculations on this rather alarmist website:

    are incorrect. It seems to extrapolate an incorrect methane measurement into the future. Could someone tell me if this is correct, and what, if anything else is wrong with it?

  28. Paul Klinkman says:

    The crank is turned. We are pointed toward climate change now.

    The crank turns the other way.

    We’re an inventive, highly technological species. I’m an inventive person and I for one am sitting on simple, obvious inventions that we want to turn the crank the other way. I don’t need to protect most of the inventions from anyone with my backside, thank you, any more than you need to go through another hurricane.

    The Charles Dickens Scrooge story is about people realizing their own mortality. For death, we don’t have a cure. Stingy rich people die someday, and then their associates slowly forget that they ever lived, for they did not love while they were alive. Only love endures.

    Occasionally, such people realize their own mortality coming on. Some change a lot, because all of their money’s not good beyond earth. Some play silly games, trying to curry God’s favor with little tokens. It’s part of the human condition. The Ebenezer Scrooge character seems to have been quite forthstraight in his dealings with the eternal as an old man.

  29. prokaryotes says:

    Yeah, i think this is a bit over the top with the extrapolation.

    Yurganov, released this for AGU 2012 and so far Methane uptake seems to be gradual, but which could change.

    I think what we see next is a doubling or tripling of Methane, not the worst case all of a sudden. But without the sea ice we will get there eventually.

  30. Paul Klinkman says:

    I recently wrote them with better, cheaper, more ecologically benign ways to inhibit and then reverse Arctic warming.

    So far, I’ve been ignored.

    I think that their alarmism is reasonably correct. However, I suspect that they want to sell their own personal geoengineering methods, and so anyone else’s methods fall under the “Not Invented Here” taboo.

    As long as technology fixes are based for the most part on who yells louder and who has the best connections, climate change technology isn’t going to work except by sheer chance.

  31. prokaryotes says:

    From the paper:

    Methane emission from the Arctic shelf has a
    maximum in September-early October. (which coincidences with sea ice minimum)

    Current methane growth in the Arctic is gradual.

  32. David,

    Couple of notes: First, as Prok says, AMEG is credible. Their “Big Gun,” Wadham,” has a fancy title like Head of the Cambridge University Arctic Atmospheric Physics Group…something like that. He’s calling for the immediate geoengineering of the Arctic, which I think is a bad idea for several reasons. But it does show how freaked out he and other serious climate scientists are about the Arctic Death Spiral — and they are right as far as I can see.

    Concerning your other questions about will the sh*t hit the fan by 2020?, etc.?— there has been a pretty good discussion about those issues on this blog this fall, following the Big Melt. Go back through the posts, especially the ones about the Arctic, and you’ll see how people gradually grasped what Wadham said from the beginning — this is a big deal, 2/3 of the way up the creek without a paddle, etc.

    What, if anything can be done is another story, but as the esteemed Mr. Romm has stated, carbon reduction is still our best hope…especially now that the Arctic feedbacks are getting underway.

    Coincidentally, I live in Corvallis. Maybe we can cross paths for a chat. Get in touch with me through my web site at

  33. Artful Dodger says:

    Albert Einstein said “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

    Indeed, WW3 was fought with fossil carbon. And we must start WW4 with trees (biochar, renewable bio-fuels) and limestone (C02 removal from the oceans).

  34. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The clip should be silent, no more than the natural sounds emanating from the site. There is nothing more deafening or awe inspiring than the silence of death all around – no messages, no experts shoving their information down people’s necks, just let reality speak for itself as death creeps around the planet, ME

  35. ozajh says:

    I’ve been wondering about that myself. It seems to me that coral reefs offer some possibilities here, since they can to some extent sequester carbon while sea levels are rising about them. On the other hand, ocean acidification and increased water temperature interferes with their ability to even survive.

    Is it possible that an artificial substrate could be put into various places at an appropriate depth, and seeded with coral?

    I’m not so hopeful about biochar. I think there would be significant problems implementing a sufficiently large program, mainly due to the fact that in the tropical 3rd world charcoal is VALUABLE.

  36. prokaryotes says:

    Sounds good, maybe i do something like that next. Though i would probably go for some narrating?

    There was this very strong message video after the Joplin tornado which i found very good

  37. prokaryotes says:

    I would love to have that garden space :-)

  38. fj says:

    Just as as many of us have never worked so hard as for the future of our children, our homes, our nation,and our world, World War III will be fought extreme passion and urgency to preserve and restore the extraordinary bounty of our planetary home so that all may prosper.

  39. David G Swanger says:

    Paul, I’d very much like to see that list of alternative methods for slowing Arctic ice decline, if you wouldn’t mind.Thanks in advance.

  40. J.R. says:

    Why is 350ppm still being proferred as “acceptable”, when it clearly is NOT?

    Isn’t it obvious now that 350 still leads to a destabilization of the climate with some very serious long-term effects?

    So when then are authors who really do know better still making this claim?

    Political expedience is NOT what we need. We need THE TRUTH.

    It’s getting quite ridiculous to keep going on and on and on about facts and figures while making doodles in the sand. Easy to simply erase them and start over I suppose.

    Or just let the rising seas do it for us.

  41. A much more easily visualized goal is: Save the Ice Cap. It’s the idiot light at the top of the world.

  42. M Tucker says:

    “Unlike Scrooge, we don’t get a spirit to show us what the future holds if we don’t change our ways.”

    Hmm…I thought that is what our ever more sophisticated climate models were designed to do.

    “Yes, it is increasingly unlikely that we will adopt the aggressive but low-net-cost policies needed to stabilize at 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and then quickly come back to 350.”

    So you are suggesting that it is like losing weight. Just cut back a little and when we reach the magic 350 number we moderate our fossil fuel consumption? Man, that seems so easy. How do we sign up for CO2 Watchers?

    “Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable”

    With less than 1 degree of average warming we have seen alarming melting of the glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet, and the Arctic. I wonder how much melting and sea level rise we will get with 2 degrees? With 2 degrees you still won’t be able to live in New Orleans and Miami. New York will still suffer from historic storm surges. We will still need to migrate away from the coasts. We will still have chaotic weather.

    Kind of like Tiny Tim dies but Scrooge eventually gives Cratchit a raise and becomes a generous donor to the poor. Too little too late.

  43. prokaryotes says:

    Nick Breeze and Science on Arctic Methane…

  44. prokaryotes says:

    Watch and download the video

    Tipping Points in Earth Climate System – 2012 Arctic Methane Special James Hansen (NASA), Natalia Shakhova (University Alaska Fairbanks), Michael Mann (University of Pennsylvania) and David Wasdell about the threat of Arctic Methane emissions.

  45. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Prok, it would be good if you could try it but please do not add narration. That would ruin the whole impact which comes from people putting the implications of the increasing frequency of the disasters and their impacts together in their own minds. The video in the link is again didactic and can easily be interpreted as propaganda which will automatically turn off many who are inclined that way. It destroys the power of what they are seeing. Let’s try letting the planet speak for herself, ME

  46. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Better hurry – half the Great Barrier Reef is gone already, ME

  47. fj says:

    It should be obvious that things are unstable right now and it’s suicidal that we are not working at stopping climate change at wartime speed.

    The people must be informed and the powers that be must act on this crisis right now.

    Our leaders must be confronted with this dire reality every moment they fail to take effective action.

    Business as usual is not rational and extremely dangerous.

  48. fj says:

    This nation’s climate silent echo chambers must be held accountable for the extreme conseqences of their inaction . . . The trains are leaving for Treblinka, Dachau . . . and because of their silence millions and possibly billions will die as they had turned the other way as they had been called to action . . .