We are in a crisis of civilization but most people, by and large, have not realized it yet. It is as if we are a prizefighter in the ring with a stronger opponent and we have just been dealt a knockout punch but we are still on our feet, uncomprehending of what has just happened. It is not as though the fight can continue. We will shortly be on the floor. It is not as though we will suddenly bounce back, alert and still fighting. We are done. We just don’t know it yet. If we are lucky, our opponent will relent for the moment it takes us to go down, sparing us another, potentially lethal blow from which we would be completely defenseless.
Lets bore in on the illusion that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), having been awarded the Nobel Prize, has prescribed a rescue remedy to “avoid dangerous interference with climate” if nations are willing to take it.
Perhaps you concur with that conventional wisdom even while lamenting that national governments lack spine.
“The scientists have been the finger-pointy adults in the room on this issue,” said Andrew Revkin, former NY Times reporter and author of the dot earth blog. But the IPCC quickly learned that not only did it not have any authority to set policy, it was an object of ridicule. It came to expect that any advice it gave would be resisted and so it took measures to soften its approach. It fed governments baby food — sugar coated, easy to digest, and somewhat shy of full nutrition.
Case in point: the IPCC future scenarios (RCPs for “Representative Concentration Pathways”, and ECP’s for “Extended Concentration Pathways”).
Over the course of many years the IPCC science community produced RCP and ECP models representing a broad range of climate outcomes, based on the peer-reviewed literature. The RCPs and ECPs are defined by their total radiative forcing (cumulative measure of human emissions of atmospheric pollution from all sources expressed in Watts per square meter) starting in 2005 and accumulated change by 2100 in the case of the RCPs and 2300 in the case of the ECPs.
They are not forecasts, just a survey of known possibilities. Assessing likelihoods requires comparisons of the projections with observations in real time.
In 2011 the figure to the right appeared in the journal, Climatic Change:
The dark grey area contained the range of estimates previously deemed to be 90% certain. The blue line — RCP 8.5 — is tracking closest to actual data at the moment, and so the light great area was added to extend the range to a 98% certainty for 2050-2100.
If you were assigning likelihoods, you would probably give RCP 8.5 a pretty high probability now, but bear in mind you are just looking at where the line begins to arc upwards in 2016 and there is no real evidence that the arc will then settle into a straight line and even bend back down a little in the 2090s. It could as easily turn straight up and shoot off the top of this chart in the 2040-2075 interval.
The other three lines were chosen in 2011 to represent a few selected RCPs that expressed the confidence range. Each RCP could result from different combinations of economic, technological, demographic, policy, and institutional futures. For example, the second-to-lowest RCP assumes technological improvements and a shift from manufacturing economies to service industries but does not make any efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions as a goal in itself. The highest line represents industrial expansion as usual, or, alternatively, industrial contraction supplanted by runaway methane releases, radical deforestation, change of arctic albedo or some other phenomenon, or combination, that keeps the rate of forcing growing even though industrial GHG emissions decline.
The scenario process then moves to translating what effect each Watts per meter change would have on the biosphere.
These scenarios have been developed by the same means humans have planned for their future since we first started keeping history: by observing past events and projecting that process of development into the future. It is entirely linear. Pattern recognition.
Granted, when you are projecting an observed exponential rate of growth into the future (such as a doubling rate for CO2 concentration, which can be taken from Keeling’s Mauna Loa data) at some point the curve turns a corner and rockets upward until the distinction between linearity and non-linearity becomes moot. Like a broken clock, even linear models will be right occasionally in a non-linear world. What the IPCC models do not do, and cannot do, is predict the geobiological results of non-linear change. That’s unknowable.
[T]he present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. We suggest that such a ‘no-analogue’ state represents a fundamental challenge in constraining future climate projections.
— Zeebe, R., A. Ridgwell, and J. Zachos. 2016. Anthropogenic Carbon Release Rate Unprecedented during the Past 66 Million Years. Nature Geoscience 9:325–29.
|Observed decline in global sea ice to Jan 2017|
The only thing holding this global tsunami back is the cold depth of the deep blue sea. Deep sea holds around 95% of the heat in the climate system. It is the biosphere’s thermal battery. The deep sea is now just above freezing, but it is warming. If we stopped adding GHGs today, it would take about 1600 years for the ocean to stop warming. Additions are not slowing down however — they are speeding up.
Implicit in the failure of the IPCC to model non-linear dynamics and long-term equilibrium is the gap in information being communicated to decisionmakers regarding the potential for the unexpected. One “known unknown” is the capacity of critical failures to cascade complimentary forcings. Any sound policy response should be building resilience and antifragility to buffer against these unknowns. Employ nature as a hedge. Instead, nature is being rapidly removed and in its place we are being sold risky geoengineering schemes.
IPCC prides itself on taking the conservative approach and being non-alarmist, but it does not offer hedges. To the contrary, it makes grand speculations based on science fiction. The most recent annual reports assume that as we pass some as yet unknown threshold of political pain, presumedly around mid-Century, human civilization will implement large scale CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) and begin pulling legacy carbon back from the atmosphere.
Anyone who has seriously studied this assumption (the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, for instance) has concluded it is one part wishful thinking and 9 parts fairy dust.
CCS does not exist.
Experiments at putting liquefied carbon dioxide into geological storage have been both horrendously expensive and remarkably ineffective — leaking back to the atmosphere relatively quickly. The technology only holds promise for those unwilling to crunch the numbers. In that camp are most of the national delegations to the UN climate talks and much of the business world.
Technological fixes, after all, would be so much easier than systemic social change.
Of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of no more than 2°C warming . . . 344 assume the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. Even more worryingly, in all 56 scenarios without negative emissions, global emissions peak around 2010 . . . In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2°C target work on the basis of either an ability to change the past, or the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies.
— Anderson, K. 2015. “Duality in Climate Science.” Nature Geoscience 8:898–900.
Over the next few months, this weekly blog will sketch our manifesto. We will try to set forward a multitrack approach that has a realistic chance of reversing climate change within the short window of time required. It is no secret — it does it by building resilience and letting nature do the heavy lifting.
Motivating this change is another matter. It is our view, born of our experience, that nothing short of extreme social change is capable of relieving the existential crisis of climate change and nothing short of extreme crisis will be capable of motivating that kind of extreme social change. If we learned anything from 2016, it is that people are clamoring for change.
So, buckle your seatbelts. We are going to crash. What it looks like on the other side of that crash, however, is utterly charming. It is not like being hit by Conor McGregor and going down hard in the first round. It is more like a snowboarder’s crash in powder or a kiteboarder on water. You can get back up.
We need not fear the power zone, but we should be cautious as we approach.