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Is it just too damn late? Part 1, the Science

By Joe Romm on October 8, 2009 at 4:28 pm

"Is it just too damn late? Part 1, the Science"

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No.

It’s not too late to avert the worst impacts of human-caused global warming.  In fact, it’s not too late to stabilize total warming from preindustrial levels at 1.5°C — or possibly less.  But the U.S. must pass a comprehensive climate and clean energy bill, leading to a major global deal, to give us a plausible chance of getting on the necessary emissions pathway.

From a scientific perspective, a major new study (subs. req’d, discussed below) is cause for some genuine non-pessimism, concluding “Near-zero CH4 growth in the Arctic during 2008 suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates.”

The media and others want to move quickly from denial to despair, because both perspectives justify inaction, justify maintaining our grotesquely unsustainable behavior, justify sticking with the global Ponzi scheme in the immoral delusion we can maintain our own personal wealth and well-being for a few more decades before the day of reckoning.

I have, however, received a number of queries from progressives about the meaning of this somewhat misleading Washington Post article, “New Analysis Brings Dire Forecast Of 6.3-Degree Temperature Increase,” which begins:

Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program….

Robert Corell, who chairs the Climate Action Initiative and reviewed the UNEP report’s scientific findings, said the significant global temperature rise is likely to occur even if industrialized and developed countries enact every climate policy they have proposed at this point. The increase is nearly double what scientists and world policymakers have identified as the upper limit of warming the world can afford in order to avert catastrophic climate change.

 I don’t think the basic story should be a surprise to regular readers of this blog.  We’re in big, big trouble, and we’re not yet politically prepared to do what is necessary to avert catastrophe — as I’ve said many times.  But that is quite different from concluding it’s too late and we’re doomed.

The WashPost story is about the Climate Rapid Overview and Decision-support Simulator — the C-ROADS model.  It “translates complex climate modeling into readily digestible predictions” and “is being adopted by negotiators to assess their national greenhouse-gas commitments ahead of December’s climate summit in Copenhagen,” as explained in a recent Nature article (subs. req’d, excerpted here).

As one of the leading C-ROADS modelers — my friend Drew Jones — explained in his blog, the Post headline could have easily been:

“New Analysis Shows Growing Commitment to a Global Deal Will Help Stabilize Climate.”

The first thing to remember is that the major developed countries, including China or India, haven’t agreed to cap their emissions, let alone to ultimately reduce them.  Until that happens, no model of global commitments is going to keep us anywhere near 2°C (3.6F).

Second, people forget that the 1987 Montr©al protocol would not have stopped the atmospheric concentration of ozone-destroying chemicals from rising forever.  And yet we appear to have acted in time to save the ozone layer.

Third, people also seem to forget that the United States government led by President Bush’s father, and including the entire Senate, agreed that we would tackle global warming the same way — with the rich countries going first.

I have no doubt that China will ultimately agree to a cap (see “Peaking Duck: Beijing’s Growing Appetite for Climate Action“).  Indeed, if a shrinking economy-wide cap on GHGs similar to the House bill or draft Senate bill ends up on Obama’s desk in the next few months, then the international community will almost certainly agree on a global deal, which will include China sharply reducing its business-as-usual growth path.  Then in the next deal in a few years, China will, I expect, agree to a cap no later than 2025.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  This is an important issue that I will treat in a multipart series.  People seem to view this question of “Is it too late?” as if it were primarily a scientific issue, but that is because they have internalized their preconceptions about what is politically possible in terms of clean energy deployment in this country and around the world.

There is no evidence scientifically that it is too late to stabilize at 350 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, at 1.5°C total planetary warming from preindustrial levels.  Nor is there any scientific evidence that we can’t afford to overshoot 350 ppm — as we already have — for a period of many decades.

True, I don’t view it as likely that we will stabilize at 1.5°C warming.  But that overlays my view of the science with my view of the solutions and the politics.  I do think it is entirely possible that we will stabilize under 450 ppm, near 2°C.  That’s a key reason why I blog.  It would, however, probably require a heroic WWII-style and WWII-scale effort by the nation and the world starting sometime in the next decade.

This post will briefly touch on the science.  Future posts will consider climate solutions and the needed domestic and international action to employ them at the necessary scale and speed.

The catastrophe we are trying to avert is multimeter sea level rise, the loss of the inland glaciers that provide water to a billion people, rapid expansion of the subtropical deserts (i.e. Dust-Bowlification of one third the habited land mass), killing off more than half of all species and turning the oceans into hot, acidic dead zones  “” each of which is all-but inevitable on our current path of unrestrained greenhouse gas emissions (see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water“).

No one knows for certain what level of emissions is needed to avert that series of catastrophes.  Indeed, some of these catastrophes occur at much lower levels of emissions than others.  And some may play out over very long periods of time, but still become all but unstoppable at much lower levels of emissions.

The literature makes clear that as you go above 450 ppm and 2°C, these impacts become more likely, more intense, and more imminent.  In fact, no one knows for certain whether one can, in fact, stabilize at, say 550 ppm and roughly 3°C warming — in any meaningful definition of the word “stabilize” (which does not include desperately devoting all of humanity’s resources to sucking every last drop of CO2 and CH4 from the energy system and atmosphere).

Whatever the threshold is, staying above it for any length of time risks a rapid acceleration of emissions that will make it all but impossible to get back below that point of no return.  Hansen and his leading scientific coauthors have made a case we must ultimately return atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million to avoid catastrophic climate impacts (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al“). But they don’t know — and on one knows — how long we can safely stay above 350.

If I have read Hansen et al. correctly, then I think they may be mostly right for a different reason than he thinks, which is to say, I think the carbon-cycle feedbacks act as the equivalent of the amplifiers that he models: “Additional warming, due to slow climate feedbacks including loss of ice and spread of flora over the vast high-latitude land area in the Northern Hemisphere, approximately doubles equilibrium climate sensitivity.”

It is increasingly clear that the virtually all of the major carbon cycle feedbacks are positive — see Science stunner: “Clouds Appear to Be Big, Bad Player in Global Warming” “” an amplifying feedback (sorry Lindzen and fellow deniers) and Study: Water-vapor feedback is “strong and positive,” so we face “warming of several degrees Celsius”).  These include

In short, if you get near 450 ppm and stay there for any length of time, you will shoot up to 800 to 1000 ppm, which certainly gets you an ice-free planet and other unimaginably catastrophic impacts.

But we aren’t there yet, and we can stay below 450 and get back to 350 (or lower) this century if we choose to.

The best piece of scientific news I have read in a while comes from a NOAA-led study, “Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden” (subs. req’d, NOAA online news story here), which found:

Measurements of atmospheric CH4 from air samples collected weekly at 46 remote surface sites show that, after a decade of near-zero growth, globally averaged atmospheric methane increased during 2007 and 2008. During 2007, CH4 increased by 8.3 ± 0.6 ppb. CH4 mole fractions averaged over polar northern latitudes and the Southern Hemisphere increased more than other zonally averaged regions. In 2008, globally averaged CH4 increased by 4.4 ± 0.6 ppb; the largest increase was in the tropics, while polar northern latitudes did not increase. Satellite and in situ CO observations suggest only a minor contribution to increased CH4 from biomass burning. The most likely drivers of the CH4 anomalies observed during 2007 and 2008 are anomalously high temperatures in the Arctic and greater than average precipitation in the tropics. Near-zero CH4 growth in the Arctic during 2008 suggests we have not yet activated strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates.

Woo-hoo!

Yes, early this year I reported that NOAA found “Methane levels rose in 2008 for the second consecutive year after a 10-year lull,” but so far that most dangerous of all feedbacks — Arctic and tundra methane releases — does not appear to have been fatally triggered.

Now it should be said that even if it did start, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t drop total emissions faster than the feedbacks overwhelmed them — it just means it would be much, much, much harder to do so.

Those who suggest it is too late are combining a scientific judgment that I believe is not yet possible to make with judgments about climate solutions and our political will to employ them fast enough that may prove true, but which are subjective judgments nonetheless — and that’s quite different from saying “it’s too late.”

In Part 2, I’ll look at the scale of the energy challenge, which simultaneously makes clear how difficult the political challenge is and how very far we can go using existing and near-term strategies (including behavior change, which is at one level much harder, and at another level, potentially the fastest change of all).

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39 Responses to Is it just too damn late? Part 1, the Science

  1. Ken Johnson says:

    Joe, This is a good post, very informative. But I think you are treading a fine line between optimism and wishful thinking. Drew Jones indicated that “… a Global Deal Will Help Stabilize Climate” in the sense that it would reduce the projected global temperature rise in 2100 from 4.5C to 3.5C. To plausibly assert that “it is entirely possible that we will stabilize under 450 ppm, near 2°C” you would need to posit some particular reduction path and policy strategy (e.g. including China’s adoption of cap and trade) that would, according to the C-ROADS model, reduce the temperature rise to 2°C. (Maybe you will do that in Part 2.) Also, the “Near-zero CH4 growth in the Arctic during 2008″ would not affect the C-ROADS projection unless the “strong climate feedbacks from permafrost and CH4 hydrates” are accounted for in the model. (I don’t know whether they are — maybe someone else can comment.)

  2. Note the obvious distortion.

    The Washington Post says: “researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges,

    But the graphic from the original study says: “even if every country enacts all climate legislation it has promised to enact to date.”

    There is a big difference. Obama (a leader) has pledged that we will have a cap-and-trade law, but the United States (a country) has not promised to enact a cap-and-trade.

    Many world leaders have pledged to work for a treaty at Copenhagen, but countries have not promised to sign the treaty. After that treaty is negotiated and ratified, countries will be promising much more than they are promising now.

    The conclusion from the original wording is that countries have to enter into agreements to do more than they have already promised. The conclusion from the Post’s wording is that nothing can be done.

    [JR: Neither conclusion is warranted, as I explained. Obviously, if China never agrees to a cap then nothing can be done. But it is going to.]

  3. tamino says:

    Who are the authors of the CH4 study? Where was it published? What’s the reference?

    All you gave was a link to the page where I can pay for the article. You did NOT give a link to the (free) abstract where I could find out who the authors are, whether or not you quoted the entire abstract, and whether or not you got it right.

    Damn sloppy referencing. Shame.

    As a courtesy to your readers: it’s Dlugokencky et al. (2009), Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L18803, doi:10.1029/2009GL039780.

    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2009/2009GL039780.shtml

    [JR: What is damn sloppy is your posting this inappropriate attack. Yes, as a subscriber, sometimes I forget which link people can't see the abstract in -- but I put in the more important link to the actual NOAA release, which is not behind a firewall and explains the whole thing to the general reader, including the authors. By the way, the NOAA release used the same link I did, so I don't think it's quite so heinous.

    As a courtesy to me, I'd like an apology.]

  4. mike roddy says:

    Excellent exposition, Joe, but something has been nagging at me for a while: Given that political solutions are so urgently required, what is the likely enforcement mechanism going to be? For example, some countries achieved their emissions goals from Kyoto and Montreal, but most didn’t, including signatories.

    Given that Obama is using the world “voluntary”, and that there are issues of short term competitiveness, how do the Copenhagen attendees pull off anything that is likely to succeed, even if the language is forceful? This is particularly worrisome if the instrument is likely to be cap and trade, which did not succeed in Europe.

    Your post certainly helped in that it showed that we have to try, and that it will be worth it. The details that we can expect from Copenhagen are what elude me.

  5. Denialism is not binary. We all have different levels of denial over different issues.

    I think you are thinking very near-term. Remember, the time lag for most greenhouse gases is so great that we all could revert to our pristine Adam and Eve lifestyles – and warming would continue for another 50 years – possibly a century. If six degrees is inevitable, we are in serious trouble

    This was discussed in a review of Mark Lynas’s book “Six Degrees” that reads:

    “Lynas’s reference to the “entirely different planet” actually refers to the fact that at five degrees, the “remaining ice sheets are eventually eliminated from both poles.” That’s entirely true. And unlike in Gore’s discussion of sea level in Inconvenient Truth Lynas does emphasize the long timescales (thousands of years) in this case. Furthermore, there is published research that raises the likelihood of the significant loss of ice sheets at lower temperatures, and Lynas could have claimed certainty of a disappearing Greenland ice sheet in an earlier chapter. That he doesn’t do that is characteristic of the book: it doesn’t tend to go beyond the published literature. This is what Lynas claims at the outset — “all of the material in the book comes from the peer-reviewed scientific literature” – and I think he does an admirable job.

    And that brings us back to the question I promised to raise at the beginning, which is this:

    If a reading of the published scientific literature paints such a frightening picture of the future as Six Degrees suggests – even while it honestly represents that literature – then are we being too provocative in the way we write our scientific papers? Or are we being too cautious in the way we talk about the implications of the results?”
    from http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/11/six-degrees/

    The challenge we face is not to the science, which will unfold as it must, the challenge is to humans as a species. Whether we will choose to survive.

  6. Stephan says:

    Meaning that we should act straight away instead of constantly delaying our decisions and making decisions that do not have instant effect.

    Good to see that being more environmental conscious about the environment also helps against our environmental impact, this is a Green News site that makes businesses and people more aware of the environment as well.

  7. Steve Bloom says:

    “Nor is there any scientific evidence that we can’t afford to overshoot 350 ppm — as we already have — for a period of many decades.”

    At least as regards ocean acidifcation, this conclusion may no longer be justified. See my comment in the 350 ppm economics thread (no link since it’s still in moderation).

    As has probably been discussed here before, one of the difficulties we face is that further research is prone to discovering that things are worse than we thought since the default assumption is that the unknown is benign. This aspect of reality is an especially poor fit with the way most politicians think.

  8. BBHY says:

    Of course it’s not too late, but it’s not too early either! We need to get this climate action going, right now.

  9. Gail says:

    JR, I agree with your take on the Washington Post distortions however, I’m not so sure that I agree it’s not too late, much as I would rather not think in those terms. I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I’m not sure how to reconcile your statement, that unfortunately appears to be indisputable, “that virtually all of the major carbon cycle feedbacks are positive” with any notion that we can now put the genie back in the bottle. We have already unleashed so many positive feedbacks, that have a momentum of their own, regardless of whether or not we humans curb emissions. I’m thinking of melting glaciers and polar ice, as well as ocean acidification, and the terrible droughts around the globe that are already causing famine and desertification.

    And of course I am convinced that the atmosphere has tipped far enough into intolerable ranges of ozone and peroxyacetyl nitrates for vegetation – certainly on much of the East Coast US and quite likely other regions as well – that an unmitigated calamity is about to ensue, for those areas impacted. And it represents yet another amplifying feedback as woodlands and soils even, become carbon emitters and not sinks.

    Even this study I think is too timid:

    http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2192

    My best hope is that we can slow down the release of greenhouse emissions long enough to but us time for those most clever among us to devise ways to remove noxious gasses from the atmosphere and stop the positive feedbacks.

    A slim hope!

    And Tamino? Very bad form. Shame on you!

  10. Wonhyo says:

    The science seems to clearly state that it is still possible to avert runaway climate change.

    Now, the hard part. Will humankind exercise its free will to do what is necessary to make it so?

    JR, your blog often walks a fine line between science and politics, for which you sometimes get unfairly criticized for being to soft on the required actions and “giving in” to the politics. For the times I’ve been the instigator, I apologize. Your combination of political insight and scientific understanding is a unique contribution to the climate change discussion.

    I hope we will make enough near term political progress that you can “move the bar” down to 350 ppm.

    [JR: Thank you so much for this comment. This is a tough line for anyone to walk. I very much hope you are right.]

  11. paulm says:

    Depends on the context of late. Another 0.8C is not going to be pleasant.

    Dr. Edward Miles of the University of Washington…”A world of 500 parts per million is a world of enormous environmental destruction. We ought to recognize that and say it.”

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Joe and All-

    Very interesting and well reasoned, IMO, as usual.

    I do think that it’s a solvable problem, but I don’t think that the solutions that are currently most likely to be implemented are sufficient.

    And, similar to Gail’s reasoning, it’s the unknown unknowns that scare the snot out of me.

    Nobody predicted the bark beetle infestation, that I know of, as a consequence of global warming, but here we are with something like 50 million acres of dead trees, in the U.S. and Canada together, or maybe even more than that. Boreal forests, long assumed to be stable carbon sinks into the future, are threatening to become net carbon sources. And there are hundreds of thousands of species of insects.

    The oceans contain really huge amounts of CO2, carbonate, and bicarbonate – something like 40 trillion tons of carbon, in these compounds, I think. If only a couple of percent of this carbon is released from the increasingly hot acidified oceans as CO2, this could double atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

    It’s good that atmospheric concentrations of methane are not increasing rapidly, but methane released from continental shelf deposits of methane hydrate might affect the oceans by acidification long before the methane makes it all the way through the oceans to air above the surface. There is a whole system of methanotroph bacteria whose populations could be booming, for all we know, busily transforming methane into CO2 and carbonic acid. And acidification of polar waters is occurring much more rapidly than was predicted, or even thought possible by most scientists:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/oct/04/arctic-seas-turn-to-acid

    Arctic Seas Turn to Acid

    Carbon-dioxide emissions are turning the waters of the Arctic Ocean into acid at an unprecedented rate, scientists have discovered. Research carried out in the archipelago of Svalbard has shown in many regions around the north pole seawater is likely to reach corrosive levels within 10 years. The water will then start to dissolve the shells of mussels and other shellfish and cause major disruption to the food chain. By the end of the century, the entire Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic.

    “This is extremely worrying,” Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, told an international oceanography conference last week. “We knew that the seas were getting more acidic and this would disrupt the ability of shellfish – like mussels – to grow their shells. But now we realise the situation is much worse. The water will become so acidic it will actually dissolve the shells of living shellfish.”

    It’s a solvable problem, I think.

    We’re just not solving it, though, at least not yet.

  13. Michael K says:

    To me the most mortifyingly convincing authority on the unavoidability of catastrophe is James Lovelock.

    Joe, this post was very edifying and helpful—but it still didn’t reassure me that Lovelock’s views are outside the realm of the “very likely,” especially since his theoretical framework of Gaia Theory is so intuitive and his credentials are so impeccable.

    It would be wonderful if you could engage with Lovelock’s writings at length and in detail.

    Thanks again for the work you do.

    [JR: I have blogged a few times on Lovelock. If you put his name in my search engine you will find the links. I don't find him convincing, though it's always "nice" to have somebody who makes me look like an optimist. I think humans are more adaptable and I think his scenario, though not impossible, is exceedingly unlikely especially in the timeframe he posits.]

  14. Rick Covert says:

    Joe,

    Great post. I had heard about the report about 2 weeks ago and I was concerned about the part involving the most aggresive efforts to curb green house gas emissions wouldn’t prevent a 6º C rise in average global temperature by the end of the century. You put it into perspective. Thanks, it gives me hope for the future.

  15. jorleh says:

    When reading popular journalists, politicians and even most of scientists I have become more and more pessimistic as to our 450 ppm.

    Almost everybody is very careful not to be too pessimistic. They think it is not very clever to be called Cassandras, they only hint that it would be wiser and so on…

    Et tu, Brute…

  16. Leland Palmer says:

    What we need to do is seize all of the coal fired power plants, and convert them on an emergency basis to enhanced efficiency carbon negative power plants, that burn biomass or biochar and deep inject their CO2 into saline aquifers a couple of kilometers deep in the earth:

    Here is a NATCARB map of deep saline aquifers possibly suitable for CO2 deep injection:

    http://geoportal.kgs.ku.edu/natcarb/atlas08/gsinks.cfm

    Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on biomass energy plus carbon capture and storage:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bio-energy_with_carbon_capture_and_storage

    It’s not too late, but we really have to get busy, and we need to seize the coal fired power plants and lead the world into a carbon negative future.

    This could be done in a way that is almost revenue neutral, I think, by adding a topping cycle to the carbon negative power plants to increase their efficiency, and pay for the conversion by increased efficiency.

    But cost doesn’t matter much, any more, IMO.

    What matters is that we have the capability to do this, and we need to do this while we still can, to head off a likely series of ever expanding positive feedbacks, that could rip our self-regulating climate system to shreds.

  17. SecularAnimist says:

    The anthropogenic warming that has already occurred is already producing changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere that will be catastrophic for human civilization — even if all anthropogenic emissions ended today, and there was NO additional anthropogenic warming beyond what has already occurred.

  18. paulm says:

    Its too late for coastal communities…

    Fossils Suggest an Ancient CO2-Climate Link
    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1929238,00.html

    It’s generally agreed that during the earlier warm period, known as the Miocene Climatic Optimum, which occurred 15 million years ago, the global temperature was high enough to make sea levels between 80 ft. and 130 ft. higher than they are today.

    According to the new study, CO2 levels in the atmosphere at that time hovered at from 390 to 430 parts per million (p.p.m.). Today’s CO2 level: 387 p.p.m. and rising.

    [JR: Sorry, this doesn't make your case.]

  19. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #17: Well, as the comment at the end makes clear, it is a first paper that will need confirmation. OTOH the match to the ice cores seems like very strong evidence that the method is valid.

    I’m not sure what case Joe thinks hasn’t been made, but this paper seems to me to provide some strong additional backing for Hansen’s view. Of course the rate of the sea level response remains unknown, and there’s a limit to the extent the paleo evidence can help in resolving that question since past CO2 rises occurred much more slowly than at present.

    [JR: The case that hasn't been is precisely the same case that Hansen hasn't made -- how long can you afford to be above the critical point? There is no reason to think the answer is not "several decades" -- even if that is a risk we would all like to avoid.]

  20. mike roddy says:

    Leland, #15, solar thermal, even with salt storage, is cheaper than any kind of CCS right now, even if you’re burning biomass. Why not think along those lines?

  21. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Joe, I hope you are right. I do not think we can know for sure until, the climate is either long term stabilised or, out of control.

    Continuing on our current path for much longer will ensure that it is too late. Even if Copenhagen is successful, mild geoengineering may be necessary. If Copenhagen is unsuccessful geoengineering will have to be at a level that will have dire consequences.

    Interesting experiment; is it possible for mankind to turn the Earth into another Venus? Trouble is I do not really want to find out.

  22. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi mike (#19)-

    The reason to use carbon negative technologies is that they actually take carbon out of the climate system and put it back in the ground. This can have a huge synergistic effect on greenhouse gas emissions – it’s equivalent to actually draining the tub, rather than just running water more slowly into it, to use an analogy.

    Take a look at the graph in the Wikipedia article (not written by me, by the way), if you like, which purports to show the cost to reach various levels of CO2. Notice that the plot that includes BECCS says that we can reach 350 ppm CO2 using BECCS for about 6 trillion dollars USD, and the cost to reach 300 ppm is only about 12 trillion. This sounds like a lot of money, but it is only equivalent to the U.S. national debt, and paid off worldwide over 20 years we would scarcely notice it. The graph might be wrong, but I think it’s roughly right- the orders of magnitude are right, for the various alternatives.

    There’s a lot of misinformation, and outright disinformation about CCS, IMO. Progressives don’t like it because it would be polluting the deep underground with CO2. Conservatives don’t like it because it would disturb profitable operation of coal fired power plants. The oil industry doesn’t want it because it might keep the Arctic from melting, and keep them from drilling for oil under the Arctic icecap. But to me it looks like the best solution, for the earth as a whole, and the majority of people on it.

    The climate system appears to be going out of control. We don’t know much about how to bring it back into control, but we know that it has been in control until recently. The main difference between then and now is the 300 billion tons or so of carbon we have injected into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

    The idea is to take as much carbon out of the atmosphere and biosphere and put it back underground as fast as is humanly possible, and hope that the system will heal itself. The system may not heal itself, but it seems worth a try.

    Using the coal fired power plants worldwide, plus reforestation and massive biomass plantations, we might be able to take 10 billion tons of carbon per year out of the atmosphere, and put maybe 8 billion tons back underground per year. That might just be enough to turn the corner on this problem, and head off the positive feedbacks we are starting to see.

    Maybe not, it might be too late.

    But the idea is to make the maximum effort that the human species is capable of making to head off the positive feedbacks, and make it NOW.

  23. Thanks for this excellent blog!

    I looked around after reading what you posted about methane not being up. I found this disturbing info about how little data is available about the condition of the permafrost.

    http://nsidc.org/fgdc/

    I read this introductory paragraph:

    “Permafrost and seasonally frozen ground regions occupy approximately 24% and 60%, respectively, of the exposed land surface in the Northern Hemisphere. The actual area underlain by permafrost is approximately 12% to 18% of the exposed land area*. Frozen ground data and information collected over past decades, and to be collected in the future, are critical for fundamental process understanding, environmental change detection, impact assessment, model validation, and engineering applications. However, much of this information remains widely dispersed and unavailable to the science and engineering communities, and some data are in danger of being lost permanently.”

    Then went to see the updates on the addendum page:

    “Although our intent was to update CAPS every five years, no updates have been made since CAPS 2 in 2003, and no new updates are planned. While we have made every attempt to correct errors and problems in CAPS 2, we are aware that some errors may exist. The following are updates and corrections to CAPS 2:

    25 January 2007

    * Active Layer Monitoring, Arctic and Subarctic Canada: Data now go through 2004.”

    So, the fact that methane wasn’t up this year seems to me to go along with the fact that the arctic sea ice extent wasn’t worse that 2007 and 2008. (See:)

    http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

    They say it was unusually cloudy this summer, and winds dispersed the sea ice so that the extent appeared wide. But the amount of older, thicker ice is at an all-time low.

  24. Sid Abma says:

    Increasing energy efficiency is the cheapest and fastest method of reducing emissions, and this can be started today or almost right away. So why is it not happening?
    If everyone would change every light bulb in their house, a lot of electrical load would be reduced from those dirty emission producing coal power plants.
    Why are these coal plants still allowed to operate? Very quickly they could be converted to natural gas. Emissions reduced by 1/2.
    If the coal people can prove in 10 or 15 years that they can operate more efficiently and cleaner than natural gas, then would be the time to change back to coal. For climatic reasons I just don’t want to wait and see, while they attempt to figure out how to do it.
    Natural gas the “clean burning” fuel can also be consumed a lot more efficiently than is being done today. This “home” supplied fuel can be combusted to over 90% energy efficiency. The only thing leaving the chimney’s of these buildings and industries would be COOL exhaust. Not HOT exhaust as it is now.
    Coal produces ash, natural gas produces water, and this water can also be utilized for a number of different purposes.
    Check out the technology of “condensing flue gas heat recovery”.
    If global warming is to be combated, all forms of available energy efficiency technology’s must be put into practice as soon as possible. Then as newer and more efficient methods are developed, these changes are then going to have to be applied so as to become even more efficient and reduce even more emissions.
    What is everybody waiting for? Somebody else to do it first?

  25. pete best says:

    If the USA manages to get an agreement on its herculean 2.5-5% C02 reductions by 2020 relative to 1990 levels then the world will need to do even more which it is unlikely to agree to for several reasons.

    Historic emissions. USA and Europe and hence we have a need to act.
    Future emissions are gowing between 2 and 3% per annum and the USA and the EU are still high emitters and more importantly consumers. CO2 emissions are not just from producers but also from consumers and the USA and Europe consume whilst China and India produces.

    This entire argument rages between the optimists and the pessemists but reality is the key here. Reality states that 450 ppmv is 60 ppmv away or around 20-30 years. Fossil fuels are locally plentiful and CCS does not as yet exists commercially and even if it is will we give it to china for free?

    Too many questions and little or no real answers.

  26. From Peru says:

    To me appears that is not too late, ABSOLUTELY NOT, to save humanity and the planet from climate change.

    But I think it IS too late to do that with the current economic system. Too late for free trade systems.

    Again the example of WWII:

    Did someone, after Pearl Harbor criticize Roosvelt government for taking control of means of production (quite the greatest violation of “free trade” system) to convert them (in less than a year!)to weapons production?

    Did someone said that Roosvelt was “Sovietizing” the US, and that in a few years America will be a Soviet Republic, and Franklin D. Roosvelt was like Stalin (as someone say about Obama)?

    So, let’s gain some time with a cap and trade regulation and clean energy development,that is, the seeds of clean energy infrastructure.

    Then we will be more prepared for the big State intervention that will grow that seeds. To shut up the conservatives, it sadly to say, a Climate Pearl Harbor, or in modern terms, a Climate 9-11 (like a cat 4 or 5 hurricane destroting New York + a Typhoon doing the same in Beiging + a mega-drought in India ).

    Only after that big action can be made. If Planned Economy changed the production of US industry in a mere year, (saving the world from Nazi-Fascism), why not the same thing could change the energy use from fossil to renewables(saving humanity from Hell and High Water)?

  27. Steve Bloom says:

    From #18: [JR: The case that hasn't been is precisely the same case that Hansen hasn't made -- how long can you afford to be above the critical point? There is no reason to think the answer is not "several decades" -- even if that is a risk we would all like to avoid.]

    Er, if we can afford it, it’s not a risk, recalling that what’s at stake is a tip into large-scale ice sheet collapse. IMHO the apt metaphor for present circumstances is “Russian roulette” — yes, the first couple pulls of the trigger *probably* won’t end in disaster…

    Models may or may not be able to give us a firm answer on where the tipping point is located, but Jim seems to think we can compensate to some extent by drawing down CO2 to well below 350 ppm after the overshoot we’re presently making worse (although this is true only *if* the ice sheet response time is sufficiently long).

    It’s clear at this point that the climate science community is in the process of unifying on 350 ppm (see e.g. Rockstrom et al and the coral paper I linked earlier), and even though not all of the policy makers who form the key audience for this blog are going to like having the 450 ppm rug pulled out from under them, I think it’s time for you and CAP/AF to make the move.

    (OT: I just heard Lisa Jackson on the radio [Commonwealth Club speech] firmly identifying herself as an environmentalist. Cool!)

  28. Anonymous says:

    The new book: “Climate Code Red” by David Spratt and Philip Sutton says the following:

    Long term warming, counting feedbacks, is a least twice the short term warming. We have already warmed the planet 1.4 degrees F since 1750, short term. The long term effect of the warming we have already done is at least 2.8 degrees F, maybe much more.

    560 ppm CO2 gets us 6 degrees C or 10.8 degrees F. We will hit 560 ppm before mid century.

    Per “Climate Code Red”, we need ZERO “Kyoto gas” emissions RIGHT NOW and we also need geo-engineering because we have already gone way beyond the safe CO2 level of 300 to 325 ppm. We are already at 455 ppm equivalent and we have tripped some very big tipping points. We aren’t dead yet, but the planet needs critical intensive care if we humans are to have a chance of survival.

  29. Giove says:

    Joe, thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my opinions.

    I too am hoping that its not too late.. although it will doubtless be if we don’t do the right actions. There are many things, all very right, which have been proposed here and i wanted to add an observation concerning the recent USA experiment of cloud whitening:

    The idea of reducing global warming by sun shielding is WRONG!.

    I think it could make things worse: how many of our CO2-removal systems on earth (negative feedbacks) run on solar power? Plants/algae for sure, but i am sure a number of other natural systems too. And the solar plants we will need to install.

    So shielding the sun would reduce the efficency of earth in cleaning up our messes. Now .. if this is true, and we implement it .. are humans really an intelligent species? :) I am starting to doubt it..

    Some worry about ocean iron insemination too. How likely is it that it triggers a dead zone in the ocean, by making it anoxic after the algal bloom?

  30. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi All-

    Looking at post number 21, and thinking what it will sound like to people who have not gone to the Wikipedia link in post number 15, and looked at the graph, I think that I misspoke. This is an important subject, so I’ll try to correct post number 21.

    What the figure referenced in the Wikipedia article shows is that it’s much, much cheaper to reach target CO2 levels using BECCS (Bio-power with carbon capture and storage) than it is to reach target levels without BECCS.

    The figure also shows that using BECCS it is possible to go down to pre-industrial levels of CO2, while without BECCS this would be truly astronomically expansive, and maybe not possible at all.

    So, I’m convinced that the relative relationship of the curves on the graph are correct, but think we can improve on the cost numbers for the BECCS scenario, reducing them to as little as 1/10 the amount shown, by adding a topping cycle to the resulting carbon negative power plants. So, it could cost as little as 600 billion beyond business as usual to implement this scheme and get to 350 ppm atmospheric CO2. So, we could do it, I think, for far less than the cost of the Iraq war, for example, or even possibly for no additional cost beyond business as usual- by boosting the efficiency of the combustion process.

    Such topping cycles, using a standard gas turbine run by air heated by a high temperature heat exchanger, are not “pie in the sky”. Topping cycles like this, extensively studied by the Clinton Administration, can almost double the electricity generated from the same amount of fuel, raising overall efficiency from about 30% to about 50%. The hardest part is the high temperature heat exchanger, and by using the same alloy used in F-15 fighter jets, perhaps additionally protected by ceramic, the problem appears to have been solved:

    http://www.ms.ornl.gov/FEM19/Proceedings/papers/Session%20III/Hurley.pdf

    Laboratory and pilot-scale tests of a very high-temperature heat exchanger (HTHX) that could be used to produce pressurized air at up to 2000°F for an indirectly fired combined-cycle (IFCC) power plant were performed while three coal–biomass blends were fired. An IFCC using this type of heat exchanger has the potential to reach efficiencies of 45% when firing coal and over 50% when a duct burner is used to additionally heat the gas entering the turbine. Because of its high efficiency, an IFCC system is the most appropriate power concept for employing oxygen enriched combustion in order to make carbon dioxide removal more economical.

    This indirectly fired combined cycle concept should work better with oxyfuel combustion (for carbon capture and storage), because oxyfuel combustion burns hotter than air combustion, and this should increase the thermal efficiency and eliminate the necessity for a natural gas “boost” for the resulting carbon negative power plants.

  31. ken levenson says:

    Joe,
    I think you’ve neglected to acknowledge one important piece of information: all the positive feedbacks are coming much faster and stronger than the science has been telling us they would.

    Having said that, no matter the difficulties we face, this is a fight we must wage with all we have – for our children and grandchildren.

    The pundits analysis of results based on “current agreements” would be a bit like judging the likely outcome of WWII based on America’s initial limited reaction to the German and Japanese invasions.

    We have just begun to mobilize…these initial agreements are little more than our limited support of Britain and China before we went “all in”.

    If Katrina wasn’t Pearl Harbor…can we go “all in” without a Pearl Harbor? That is the question!

    And because it is worse than the science suggests…we better start planning our mobilization to go negative sooner than later….

  32. ken levenson says:

    Joe,
    One more quibble:

    It is of little comfort to have methane levels currently flat when we can see all of the permafrost melting away before our eyes….

    It’s seems not unlike one standing on the Maginot Line, declaring Paris safe because at current no German movement can be detected.

    No matter how dire, the fact is that we will fight to win the climate crisis – because at the end of the day, our climate is our home, and human’s fight for their homes no matter the odds.

  33. Anonymous says:

    According to the book “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas there are several kill mechanisms. These include starvation, forest firestorms, and fuel-air explosions from methane bubbling out of the oceans. Lynas says that 6 degrees Centigrade above the 1750 climate is the for-sure extinction point for Homo Sapiens.

    [JR: No anonymous comments!]

  34. pete best says:

    yes but in order to get that fabled six degrees of torture we need to emit exactly how much carbon ?

    I have read and grafted the issue. Global growth is around 2-3% per annum and with emissions presently around 30 billion tonnes per year (down in 2009 due to world recession by 3%)that means its a major issue. This is because of the time it takes to double present emissions is based around the log2 (time it takes to double something) which is the number 70. Divide 70 by the growth percentage to get the doubling time. At 2% its 35 years and during that time (2045) we would have emitted 1.5 trillion additional tonnes of CO2. At 3% the growth rate is only 23 years and thats 2033 and 1 trillion tonnes added.

    Present emissions from 1750 total 500 billion tonnes and 300 billion tonnes (60%) have been absorbed by flora and oceans etc whilst 200 billion tonnes (40%) have increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 100 ppmv and in just 20 to 35 years time we would have emitted 1 to 1.5 trillion additional tones and for every 200 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted its a 50 ppmv increase. Its an additional 375 ppmv at 2% growth for 35 years and 250 ppmv for a 3% growth in 23 years time.

    That makes 385 + 375 = 760 ppmv come 2044 and 385 + 250 = 635 ppmv come 2033. You cant really be that optimistic if the USA agrees to only cut 2.5% come 2020. Thats only 13 more years to a big issue. We need 40% by 2020.

    You must admit that?

  35. pete best says:

    if we decrease emissions by 2-3% per annum from 2010 then this will happen. We will only emit another 500-600 billion tonnes or add an additional 125-150 ppmv CO2 to the atmosphere making only 485-515 ppmv in total. Its not likely to stop 2C but it will stop 6C.

    2-3% from 2010 is the only way and its more than likely needs to be 5-7% further down the line come 2020 we should do more faster to avoid 2C altogether.

  36. Cynthia McPherson says:

    Yes, we have time. But not much time. It really bothers me that so little is being done at the place which matters most: Washington, D.C. Everything hinges on the U.S.: if we take bold, drastic action to reduce emissions, then the rest of the world will most likely follow. This is no time to play chicken little; we must lead. Congress is balking at passing a bill that calls for 80% emission reduction by the middle of this century. In reality, we need zero emissions now, as Hansen, the leading climatologist, points out.

    Bush used the pen to make sweeping reform– mostly for delusional or evil purposes. Likewise, Obama could use his presidential powers and make sweeping reforms for legitimate, critical purposes (climate change). I think he should seriously consider this.

    In my opinion, we need the following: 1)a ban on meat. Raising animals for meat produces around 20-40% of CO2 emissions, I think I read. 2)a ban on destruction of trees (except under strict, special circumstances). Trees and oceans are the main sinks we have for absorbing CO2. Oceans are becoming saturated. If we don’t stop cutting down trees they will become a SOURCE of CO2 in the near future and all bets will be off. 3) We need a rationing of gasoline. So what if we lose a couple days of work and a depression follows? It’s better than “most of the earth’s inhabitants– including humans– not surviving”, which is what the IPCC research scientists predict as to the outcome of GW. Only under special circumstances should gas be allowed in unrestricted use: for the construction of alternative energy sources.

    I realize this sounds drastic, but drastic times calls for drastic actions. If the democratic process is too slow to solve the dilemna, which seems to be the case, then Obama needs to take a stand. As the author of “Climate Code Red” points out: “we have a Global Climate Emergency” and Obama needs to address the nation under this context, like the president during WW2 and pull us all together to solve this dilemna.

  37. Cynthia McPherson says:

    Kevin Levinson, I loved your post!

  38. Excellent post. We need more of this and more pointed.
    We need a plot with three lines, Ocean levels as a function of decades up to 2175 assuming
    1. We do nothing to alter current trends.
    2. Assuming we do the best that has been proposed.
    3. The politically in between, with only Emission Restrictions which a liberal Republican would support -according to a Democrat.

    I know, it must be very difficult, or somebody would have done it.
    we need to clearly see consequences before the mid-term elections, afterwards it will not matter. Mother Nature will not wait until the last head-in-the-sand candidate is voted out of office.

  39. J4zonian says:

    Joe,

    Answering Steve Bloom 19, you say “…how long can you afford to be above the critical point? There is no reason to think the answer is not several decades”.

    But invoking the Precautionary Principle, is there any reason to think the answer IS “several decades”? Melting ice and boiling tundra suggest not.

    Maybe the answer is “you can’t.” Massive reforestation and a rapid and complete shift to organic permaculture to drastically increase the amount of organic matter/carbon in the soil combined with a crash program to stop burning things, could take us back to pre-industrial levels. But (it seems to me) only if nearly every government, business, social, academic and religious institution in the developed world (and China and India) and most in the de-developed world take strong positions, and actions, to make it happen.

    And…are we really sure even pre-industrial levels are low enough? We’ve been decarbonizing soil for 10,000 years in some places, and while we’ve assumed the observed desiccation and desertification effects of that have been local, that may turn out to be not the whole truth. If you simultaneously stress a system beyond its normal limits and destroy its normal regulatory mechanisms (eroding, compacting and covering soil, creating lifeless deserts of sand, concrete, and toxins, cutting down forests galore and destroying marine ecology)…well, then nothing is normal anymore, to say the least. The RELATIVELY minor effects such local and low-level outgassing had then may not be the same as the effects it will have now. Maybe we will have to return, in some way, form or measure to pre-agricultural levels to heal the damage to the system to the point where the runaway spirals of destruction now being triggered are stopped. That’s an even bigger job, and needs an even bigger commitment.

    paulm, Leland,

    Especially in the light of peak oil and decreasing marginal utility of fertilizers and pesticides, by far the most efficient, effective, affordable and technically achievable form of sequestration is organic perennial permaculture and reforestation (including massive food production shifts to food forests). All those other fancy schmancy pie-in-the-carbon-saturated-sky are unproven, likely of only marginal carbon yield, and will be expensive as all get-out. So get out. Why try to make diamonds when you can dig them up (or buy them at the jeweler’s)? Let nature do the work, with efficiency, solar, wind, permaculture, and forests.