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 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 recently, “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. Three 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.

14 Responses to The Ghost of Climate Yet to Come

  1. Peter Mizla says:

    The inertia in the climate system is our enemy. By the time we begin a truly ‘herculean’ effort to combat climate change, its likely events will have gotten out seriously of control.

    It remains to be seen when this point will be reached. Right now, despite increasing weather ‘anomalies’ there seems little motivation among the worlds governments to do anything.

  2. Time to commit to a global carbon budget of 660 gigatonnes max by 2050. Here’s a proposal by former UN negotiators who are trying to get the budget on the table.

    Radical Change Needed at Durban Conference, Experts Say

  3. Great Ghost of Christmas !

    We do have hope for attaining the mechanical and chemical changes that we know are possible. Because they are possible.

    More grim and hopeless is the delusional human psychology that prevents seeing, blocks clear thinking and enables inaction based on panic. Is it change anxiety? Normalcy bias?

    I am less worried about emissions targets than I am about improving cognition of social groups.

    What do we do if the nearsighted denialist Ebenezer Scrooge fails to become enlightened?

  4. with the doves says:

    Or you could say the inertia of the human system is our enemy.

  5. Usually, when one mentions “survialist” movements, it brings to mind images of right-wing militia types and paranoid extremists. But are there no survivalist movements that are reality-based, specifically those geared to coping with worst-case climate change scenarios?

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Even if we are already doomed, I would rather not race to it.

    We spend mountains on health care for the very elderly, who will inevitably die within a few short years. If a few short years is so valuable for a few, what value a few decades for all of humanity.

    Maybe we are not actually doomed yet. We spend huge amounts on alternative medicines when standard medicine says there is no hope, just for that glimmer of hope.

    We certainly do not stop trying when one would be doctor says it is hopeless and the professionals say there are well founded reasons for optimism.

    People who know much more than I do say I am overly pessimistic about climate change. For me to be right would take methane and lots of it.

  7. R Shamel says:

    It’s Christmas Day.
    Count your blessings.
    These will be the ‘good old days’ soon.
    God bless us, every one.
    Warm holiday wishes!

  8. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    All too true, Merry Christmas.

  9. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “But when reporters ask me if it’s ‘too late,’ — or, as one did recently, ‘have we crossed a tipping point?’ — I have to explain that the question doesn’t have a purely scientific answer.”

    No, that question does not have a purely scientific answer — YET.

    But it probably will. Because it’s the kind of scientific question about global warming that can probably only be answered retrospectively.

    We probably cannot know, at present, when we will reach a tipping point with, to use Joe’s example, “the most dangerous carbon-cycle feedback — the defrosting permafrost”. And we may very well not notice when we do actually reach such a point.

    But climate scientists in the not-too-distant future, analyzing the collected data from this decade, may well be able to point to a point on a peer-reviewed hockey-stick-shaped graph, and say, with 95 percent confidence, “here is where they passed the tipping point — and they didn’t even know it at the time.”

    And I would not be at all surprised to learn that the point they point to is one that we have already, unknowingly, passed.

  10. climatehawk1 says:

    Very nice topical title & post, one of the best I’ve seen in terms of, as George Wallace said, “putting the hay down where the goats can get at it.” Similarly recommended: R. L. Miller’s “Climate’s War on Christmas” at Daily Kos.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Or, more accurately, you could say it was the inertia of the bureaucratic system. When people are left to themselves, they spontaneously organize into self managing groups which foster cooperation, creativity and dynamic evolution, ME

  12. Solar Jim says:

    Prophets, Profits and Acid Economics:

    It is interesting that hundreds of billions of dollars of global, nation-state, fossil subsidies (identified in World Energy Outlook, IEA, 2011) is similar in scale to global fossil profits. This would seem to indicate that marginal economic advantage of fossils compared with local alternatives, which can generally be described as “sustainable clean energy economics,” is approximately zero.

    If a sign change were enacted changing that negative (half-trillion dollar) global carbon tax to a positive carbon tax instead, then we might begin to have life-affirming sustainable energy economics. Until then, global petroleum (and more generally fossil) subsidies are perversely leading all nations toward increasing illness, injury, damage, and famine (not to mention dependencies).

    Eco? No. Mist! The mist of carbonic acid gas.