Global population, limits to growth, peak oil and climate change activists have been coming up with such similar contraction scenarios that they are beginning to echo each other.
At the same time, there is a tendency in each community to think of their cause as more serious or profound than that of the others. For instance, the global warming community is seen by peak oilers as blind to the effects of energy and economic collapse, most notably on greenhouse gas emission projections. Yes, they acknowledge, we will have to suffer some climate karma that is already in the pipeline, but it won’t be as bad, as shocking, or as soon, as peak everything and the tidal wave of collapse that follows.
As the stragglers who came to the Peak Oil Revival Camp meetings after having got religion with climate change, we confess to having never quite received that part of the Peak Oil gospel with an open mind.
And sadly, with each passing year, the evidence mounts that faith-based graspings were indeed misplaced. We really are doomed, and climate is a much bigger threat than energy and economic collapse.
If you lose your economic underpinnings, you could fall back on the economic development chart to where you were in 1930, or 1830, or even 1330, but you are still around as a species, assuming you don’t totally lose your cool and just nuke everything in sight on your way down.
In contrast, if you lose your climate underpinnings, it’s game over, man. You not only take down the higher vertebrates, homo included, but everything alive on this third rock from the sun, potentially even the microbes in deep caves and ocean depths. Earth, meet Venus.
Every so often, and it seems to be coming more often now, our really dire climate nightmare, the scary runaway scenario we depicted in Climate in Crisis in 1990, gets support from the latest scientific publications. This week there was another really big boost to our pride, if you can call it that.
First, let us back up a month to May 19, and the publication by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s study involving 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate change measurements currently available. Conclusion: the effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago and the median probability of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2 degrees Celsius, compared to a finding of 2.4 degrees as recently as 2003. Moreover, the MIT group rated at 90% possibility a warming to 7.4 degrees by 2100 (and still accelerating). This, in spite of our feeble efforts at cap, trade, contraction and convergence.
A second report, by the Global Humanitarian Forum, found that 300,000 deaths per year are already attributable to climate change-related weather, food shortages, and disease. That could be called our baseline, or background count — of the 20th-century-long experience of less than a 1 degree C change.
All of these findings set the stage for the report released this past week by the Advisory Committee on Global Change Research, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2009). The authoring team was headed by senior climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and included half a dozen government agencies and laboratories and senior researchers from a dozen universities. Just reading the introduction is refreshing, because it cuts through so much of the b.s. that passes for public debate these days.
The “Impacts” report takes the projections for the coming decades to about as fine a grain as can be had, given the behavior of interrelated and reciprocating climate systems undergoing rapid destabilization. Here are some findings that really gave us a 1990 déjà vu feel, all over:
- Warming over this century is projected to be considerably greater than over the last century. The global average temperature since 1900 has risen by about 1.5ºF. By 2100, it is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5ºF. The U.S. average temperature has risen by a comparable amount and is very likely to rise more than the global average over this century, with some variation from place to place.
- Climate-related changes have already been observed globally and in the United States. These include increases in air and water temperatures, reduced frost days, increased frequency and intensity of heavy downpours, a rise in sea level, and reduced snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice. A longer ice-free period on lakes and rivers, lengthening of the growing season, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere have also been observed. Over the past 30 years, temperatures have risen faster in winter than in any other season, with average winter temperatures in the Midwest and northern Great Plains increasing more than 7ºF. Some of the changes have been faster than previous assessments had suggested.
- Likely future changes for the United States and surrounding coastal waters include more intense hurricanes with related increases in wind, rain, and storm surges (but not necessarily an increase in the number of these storms that make landfall), as well as drier conditions in the Southwest and Caribbean. These changes will affect human health, water supply, agriculture, coastal areas, and many other aspects of society and the natural environment.
- Impacts are expected to become increasingly severe for more people and places as the amount of warming increases. Rapid rates of warming would lead to particularly large impacts on natural ecosystems and the benefits they provide to humanity. Some of the impacts of climate change will be irreversible, such as species extinctions and coastal land lost to rising seas.
- Unanticipated impacts of increasing carbon dioxide and climate change have already occurred and more are possible in the future. For example, it has recently been observed that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is causing an increase in ocean acidity. This reduces the ability of corals and other sea life to build shells and skeletons out of calcium carbonate.
- Additional impacts in the future might stem from unforeseen changes in the climate system, such as major alterations in oceans, ice, or storms; and unexpected consequences of ecological changes, such as massive dislocations of species or pest outbreaks.
- - Unexpected social or economic changes, including major shifts in wealth, technology, or societal priorities would also affect our ability to respond to climate change. Both anticipated and unanticipated impacts become more challenging with increased warming.
- In an increasingly interdependent world, U.S. vulnerability to climate change is linked to the fates of other nations. For example, conflicts or mass migrations of people resulting from food scarcity and other resource limits, health impacts, or environmental stresses in other parts of the world could threaten U.S. national security.
- The European heat wave of 2003 [with >30,000 heat-fatalities] is an example of the type of extreme heat event that is likely to become much more common. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, by the 2040s more than half of European summers will be hotter than the summer of 2003, and by the end of this century, a summer as hot as that of 2003 will be considered unusually cool.
- There are also concerns regarding the potential for abrupt release of methane from thawing of frozen soils, from the sea floor, and from wetlands.
- Recent findings indicate that it is very likely that the strength of the North Atlantic circulation will decrease over the course of this century in response to increasing greenhouse gases. This is expected because warming increases the melting of glaciers and ice sheets and the resulting runoff of freshwater to the sea. This additional water is virtually salt-free, which makes it less dense than seawater. Increased precipitation also contributes fresh, less-dense water to the ocean. As a result, less surface water is dense enough to sink, thereby reducing the conveyor belt’s transport of heat. The best estimate is that the strength of this circulation will decrease 25 to 30 percent in this century, leading to a reduction in heat transfer to the North Atlantic. It is considered very unlikely that this circulation would collapse entirely during the next 100 years or so, though it cannot be ruled out.
- While very unlikely, the potential consequences of such an abrupt event would be severe. Impacts would likely include sea-level rise around the North Atlantic of up to 2.5 feet (in addition to the rise expected from thermal expansion and melting glaciers and ice sheets), changes in atmospheric circulation conditions that influence hurricane activity, a southward shift of tropical rainfall belts with resulting agricultural impacts, and disruptions to marine ecosystems.
That is the only reason we keep reading through all this doomer porn, toss in our sleep, get grey hair, and curse the darkness.
And yet… the line we have adhered to for the past 29 years, although it has yet to come into general discussion, is that what is required is a change of culture, change of lifestyle, change of consciousness and change of direction. Growth is so 20th century now. We can forget that.
Just don’t forget that what we need to do to extricate ourselves is also going to make our lives vastly better, and still better for our children, although, for them, it will be quite a bit warmer for a while.