Tuesday, December 03, 2013

2C Target is Too Little, Too Late

The majority of world leaders agree that we must keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if we're to avoid catastrophic  climate change.  They agree to that even as they embrace policies far more likely to result in 4C or more of warming by mid-century.  Write it off to cognitive dissonance.

Now a team of eminent climate scientists warn that we've underestimated the problem and even holding the line at 2C won't be enough to avoid global disaster.

The limit of 2C of global warming agreed by the world's governments is a "dangerous target", "foolhardy" and will not avoid the most disastrous consequences of climate change, new research from a panel of eminent climate scientists warned on Tuesday.

In a new paper, the climate scientist Professor James Hansen and a team of international experts found the most dangerous effects of a warming climate – sea level rise, Arctic ice melt, extreme weather – would begin kicking in with a global temperature rise of 1C.

Allowing warming to reach 2C would be simply too late, Hansen said. "The case we make is that 2C itself is a very dangerous target to be aiming for," he told the Guardian. "Society should reassess what are dangers levels, given the impacts that we have already seen."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its major in October that the world had only about 30 years left before it exhausted the rest of the 1,000 gigaton carbon emission budget estimated to lead to 2C warming. But Hansen and his colleagues warned that the UN target would not avoid dangerous consequences, even if it kept within that carbon budget.

"Fossil fuel emissions of 1,000 gigaton, sometimes associated with a 2C global warming target, would be expected to cause large climate change with disastrous consequences. The eventual warming from one gigaton fossil fuel emissions likely would reach well over 2C, for several reasons. With such emissions and temperature tendency, other trace greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide would be expected to increase, adding to the effect of CO2," the researchers said.
"The main point is that the 2C target – which is almost out of reach now, or quickly becoming out of reach – is itself a dangerous target because it leads to a world that is greatly destabilised by rising sea levels and massive changes of climate patterns in different parts of the world," said Professor Jeff Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, one of the PLoS paper's authors.

Oh well, you can't say we weren't warned - all of us, time and time again.   This is one horror story, the greatest in the history of mankind, that we have walked into with our eyes wide open having chosen not to act while we still had time.  To those of you born after 1970, all I can say to you is "good luck."  You'll be living in very interesting times.  To those of you born before 1960, count your blessings.


Dana said...

If there is intelligent, advanced life elsewhere in the universe who have managed to avoid exterminating themselves as we are on the verge of doing they would have a major stake in seeing to it we never get far enough off this planet to colonize another.

We're a profoundly and dangerously stupid species unworthy of further evolution.

Shame about Shakespeare, Bach, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci but...

The Mound of Sound said...

Nothing to add to that, Dana.

karen said...

Last year in the biology course I took we talked about Darwin and evolution. We talked about 2 of the massive extinctions in history- the Permian 250 million years ago, thought to have been caused by massive volcanic activity on the landmass that is now Russia, and the Cretaceous 65.5 million years ago, thought to have been caused by a meteor in the Gulf of Mexico area. 96% of marine species are thought to have been extinct in the Permian and 50% in the Cretaceous.
I find it mind boggling that we are on the cusp of something much worse, that we have caused it and that we will not just witness its approach, but know what is happening and why.

Purple library guy said...

C'mon people. What's coming will be pretty bad, cause lots of extinctions and a major crash in our civilization and population. But it's not gonna be worse than the Permian extinction, nor is it going to make humans extinct.

I'm betting about as bad as a typical ice age (obviously not working in the same way). And the disruption in human civilization will if anything arrest some of the non-climate-change-related damage we're doing as we eat the planet alive, which is in some ways worse. The destructive effects of climate change on us may actually avert as many extinctions as it causes in other ways.

But those destructive effects will not extend to eliminating us as a species. People who say that haven't thought it through. In order for humans to die out, the ecosystem would need to be not just badly disrupted and sparser, it would have to be completely gone, leaving no capacity anywhere for the planet supporting life. Humans are omnivores. We're very versatile in the conditions we can survive under and we eat practically anything. And we have the brain thing, which while it causes problems still means that in any given contest with other living things for resources, we'll win.

Really, I doubt we'll even lose our technology. It doesn't take a population anywhere near what we have now to sustain and even advance a technological civilization; we know because we sustained and advanced our technological civilization with a far smaller population than the current level (1 billion people in 1800, industrial revolution in full swing).

I realize it's satisfying in a weird way to say that doom will be complete because of those bastards resisting solutions. But it won't; doom will be horrific and messy because of those bastards resisting solutions, but very much incomplete.

karen said...

PLG, I agree with you. I don't *think* extinction will be complete. I do think we have done some shitty things to the planet that have the potential to make the biosphere really unliveable though. I think it's possible (probable?) some pockets of humans will survive. Although, when so many of our skills are mechanized, and most of us are clueless about how to actually provide for ourselves, I think maybe higher survival rates will be among indigenous populations.
Sometimes I read about methane bubbles in the arctic and think we're screwed, but then I think maybe I am just one of the ranks of doom predictors that have always been with us. Maybe me and my horror of ocean acidification are not much different from second-comers.
I have to agree with Dana though. I think as a species we are profoundly stupid and dangerous and the earth should shake us off sooner than later.

The Mound of Sound said...

There are two factors you're overlooking, PLG. One is canvassed in some depth by Gwynne Dyer in "Climate Wars." Long before nature reaches its peak fury, we'll have gone for our guns and we've got some amazing, civilization-ending hardware in the back room.

The more worrisome factor is the transformation of our oceans. Paleontologist Peter Ward has researched five "greenhouse extinctions" that he discusses in layman's terms in "Under a Green Sky." Here's the essence of the phenomenon reduced to one paragraph:

"First, the world warms over short intervals of time because of a sudden increase of carbon dioxide and methane... The warmer world affects the ocean circulation systems and disrupts the position of the conveyer currents. Bottom waters begin to have warm, low-oxygen water dumped into them. Warming continues, and the decrease of equator-to-pole temperature differences reduces ocean winds and surface currents to a near standstill. Mixing of oxygenated surface waters with the deeper, and volumetrically increasing, low-oxygen bottom waters decreases, causing ever-shallower water to change from oxygenated to anoxic. Finally, the bottom water is at depths where light can penetrate, the combination of low oxygen and light allows green sulfur bacteria to expand in numbers and fill the low-oxygen shallows. They live amid other bacteria that produce toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and the flux of this gas into the atmosphere is as much as 2,000 times what it is today. The gas rises into the high atmosphere, where it breaks down the ozone layer, and the subsequent increase in ultraviolet radiation from the sun kills much of the photosynthetic green plant phytoplankton. On its way up into the sky, the hydrogen sulfide also kills some plant and animal life, and the combination of high heat and hydrogen sulfide creates a mass extinction on land. These are the greenhouse extinctions."

The good news is that there are lifeforms that can survive the caustic aftermath - some scrub vegetation, some insects - enough to be the feedstock for a fresh evolutionary cycle once something resembling a normal atmosphere returns when the green sky and oily purple oceans revert to something akin to what we have today. It only takes a couple of hundred thousand years.

Ward shows that the precursors for an oceanic extinction event now exist. It's an important (albeit dismal) book, PLG. I'd suggest you read it.

Dana said...

Karen points to one of the most intriguing aspects of our imminent downfall.

Never before in the history of the world have so many people been so well educated.

This maelstrom of converging catastrophes has not been brought about by people who were unsure of themselves, who were experimenting or exploring.

They were and are all highly educated people, supposedly well trained in how to think a problem through, test their hypotheses, doubt their certainties.

Everything they did they did with full confidence and certainty. Naysayers and doubters were not allowed to sway or delay 'progress' and were eventually eliminated in one fashion or another.

And here we are.

This does not speak very well for what we in the modern First World have come to accept as education.

Anonymous said...

Well educated does not mean smart. Too many seem to confound both.

Some of the stupidest people that I have come across where University educated.

And being smart does not mean have a conscience about the world around.

I only have to look at some business leader who advocate free markets who only care about gaming the system for their own gain.

This is why I think we need some real leadership even if the decisions maybe unpopular.

karen said...

I wonder about that, Dana. I was listening to the BBC on the radio as I woke up this morning and there was an interview with an American, Gregory Zuckerman, who has written a book about fracking called "The Birth of the Fracking Industry." He described some guy by the name of Hamm who is apparently the father of fracking in the States. According to the author, Hamm's parents were sharecroppers and kept him home from school until December every year and he didn't go to college or university or study geology. But he's greedy and rapacious enough to want to fracture deep shale to release the oil and gas without apparently ever having considered the consequences.
Maybe we are more educated. But we seem to be more destructive, and less able to consider the consequences. You're right, it does not speak well of what we call education.

The Mound of Sound said...

You've touched on a critical point, Dana, the confluence of a variety of threats that you call a "maelstrom of converging catastrophes."

I have written about this for years, this fabric of natural and man-made existential challenges confronting us. Jared Diamond and others have shown that we can't solve any of them without solving them all. Here's a partial list right off the top of my head:

climate change and associated impacts including severe weather events of increasing frequency and intensity; protracted droughts and severe floods; cyclical droughts and floods (Sahel for example); sea level rise, storm surges, coastal inundation and salination of freshwater resources; species extinction, particularly the collapse of global fisheries, and migration (as we're seeing in British Columbia); pest and disease migration; air/soil/water contamination of all descriptions; resource depletion and exhaustion, particularly groundwater resources; overpopulation and population migration; and a host of global security threats including permanent food insecurity, poverty, destabilizing inequality, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the regional arms races underway particularly in Asia.

That is not a complete list. It is not exhaustive. Yet we have to solve all of those things if we're to have a realistic chance of solving any of them.

How do we do this? It's at this point that I challenge readers to go through that list again and again until they discover the common threads that run through all of those problems. Once you identify those common threads the solutions and their urgency become apparent. There's very little point in me telling you. It's far more important that you reach your own conclusions and then challenge someone else to do the same.

Dana said...

Who works for Hamm, Karen. University educated engineers of several persuasions. There are probably multiple PhDs among them. They have to be university educated and the universities have to be reputable - permits require information about who's in charge of the operation not only who owns the company or the patents.

This is true in this instance and it is true of Monsanto, CNNOC, ConAgra or any other environmentally, culturally or socially destructive corporation at work anywhere in the world with few exceptions.

Dana said...

And BTW, the current financial crisis the world is in is entirely a product of "higher education" completely ignoring the concept of responsibility except is how to avoid it.

Current poster boy being Benjamin Perrin of the UBC Law Faculty.

Anonymous said...

Dana...People are certainly educated but not when it comes to knowing what sustains life and that means, keeping the earth alive. Or, they continually have brain burps that don't allow them to get past their bundle of indifferences. (Anyong)

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, all of the crises that beset the world - financial, environmental, geo-political - are the handiwork of highly educated individuals. The pastoral herder of the Sahel sure as hell didn't create the mess we're in.

Purple library guy said...

Karen: Perhaps the earth should shake us off sooner rather than later, but it won't. I see no mechanism (barring MoS' shift to an unbreathable atmosphere killing everything that breathes oxygen, and maybe not that) that could actually cause that to happen.

MoS: Granted, if there's a nuclear exchange all bets are off. In spades. I'm kind of skeptical of the hydrogen sulfide scenario, though. As I understand it the world has been warm before without such a thing happening, so I dunno. And granted, we may currently be on course to push greenhouse gas levels to the insane heights that would give us that situation . . . but the very catastrophic climate change and various other ecological disasters coming to a head are likely to disrupt our civilization too much to let us keep on that long. Our emissions will be dropping soon, just not mainly because we're doing sensible things.

On the education thing . . . well, the problem here is ultimately the reach of elites. People aren't that bad at dealing with local problems. Education probably helps with that. But elites like getting bigger, and the wider your net the bigger you are, so they wanted a global economy. At that scale things are much harder to deal with. Things get much more complex, but worse, actions are separated from consequences and so interests diverge. At which point education, particularly if framed under capitalism as a tool to help achieve interests, doesn't help enough and can even hurt. But I don't know that ignorant people would have managed a global economy better. I don't think it's something that can be done well by human beings.

Dana said...

Those are the 2 available categories?

University educated and ignorant?


The Mound of Sound said...

I agree with Dana, PLG. Define "ignorant." Some countries prove that educated and ignorant are not mutually exclusive.

As for Ward's conclusions and a discussion of whether we're already at the onset of another greenhouse extinction, read his book. All he's really describing is a feedback loop mechanism.

The Mound of Sound said...

One other thing, PLG. When exactly do you think our emissions will be dropping and just how? The IEA projections aren't anticipating any drop in GHG emissions in the foreseeable future but, instead, a substantial increase.

The more important aspect is atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that, in the case of CO2 have an effective life of more than a century. We know that even if we stopped all emissions today, existing atmospheric CO2 would continue warming the planet into the next century.

I don't fault you for your optimism, PLG. It's essential for hope.

Scotian said...

I would note that no-one has included the potential of biological warfare being used as one point for human extinction in resource wars, frankly bioweapons scare me a HELL of a lot more than nuclear weapons do. Next to a renegade bioweapon nukes are just a very large bubblegum pop, intense, but localized for the most part in the damage done. Bioweapons though are something very different, and when you combine our level of genetic medical understanding with our computational capabilities it is not that hard to see the rise of the biological equivalent of computer viruses being created by the biological world equivalent of script kiddies with all the potential for harm that can cause. Imagine biological hackers and crackers for a moment, and then imagine how dangerous those things can be since they would likely retain the ability to evolve/change beyond the parameters they are originally set at.

Even leaving aside deliberate human bioweapons one must also remember that viruses evolve in response to changing environments and at a MUCH faster rate, so it is more than possible that as a result of the changes being talked about that nature creates its own super bioweapons to eliminate humanity as a functioning/viable species. Indeed, what happens if we see a hyper-contagious virus that doesn't kill, just renders humans sterile? Seriously folks anyone that does not believe that we can see true extinction is dreaming in my view, whether it will happen or not is one thing, but that it can happen and without having to go to very low order potentials is quite another. Things happen in interactions, not isolation, and the more we see massive changes the greater the risks for events that can cause our extinction beyond the argument Ward puts forward that MoS cited.

I realize that this was not precisely on topic, but I do see the biological weapons/mutations risks as some that must be considered along with the elements others already discussed here when it comes to how well humanity as a species can survive the ecological damages we have done to the planet. So that is my gloom and doom contribution to the conversation, as if there wasn't enough already said to depress any sane person.

The Mound of Sound said...

Scotian, your concerns are addressed by Britain's Astronomer Royal, Baron Martin Rees, in 'Our Final Hour, How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster threaten Humankind's Future in this Century.'

Rees explains in his book why he gives mankind no better than a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century.

In this TED talk, Rees gives a brief commentary on the book beginning at the 8:15 mark.


Purple library guy said...

Yes, yes, there are categories other than "educated" and "ignorant". I put it poorly. Apologies. This has little bearing on the points I was making though.

MoS, if the process is a feedback loop, which would come into play whenever the world warmed significantly, then I don't believe it's real, because there have been in prehistory a number of warm periods which did not involve that sort of atmospheric change. I can believe in it as a loop that only sets in after a really high threshold.

As to optimism . . . I'm not sure the people replying to me have been reading what I posted. I am far from optimistic. I am merely trying not to let my thinking be reduced to two registers. The impacts of climate change will be negative, but complex. The traits which are leading us to harm ourselves and the world are nonetheles traits which will make us very hard to wipe out. And the world is not plotting against us.

MoS, what I mean to say is that as world economies begin to crash they will emit less, no matter what elites wish to be the case. That is likely to start happening soon. I don't see how you can be forecasting complete armageddon without forecasting a deteriorating economy happening before that. Heck, we already got a foretaste in the Great Recession, which reduced emissions significantly, at least relative to what we would have had with continued growth.

The Mound of Sound said...

PLG, you're a "library guy" right? What's the point of critiquing my take on this guy's science? Read the book and then come to your opinions of his research and conclusions.

You may be right about economic collapse, eventually, but who can foresee what will follow? We could enter a new Enlightenment or a Dark Ages reversion. Who can say?

Today's release of the U.S. National Research Council study suggests we've already lost the emissions battle. I just did a post on that report with a link to the PDF if you're interested.

Purple library guy said...

I'm not quite sure why you find my remarks controversial. Are you positing that climate change will cause our extinction without collapsing our economy? Or, are you envisioning that the process will be instant, one minute continued expansion and then the next, economy gone, then the third minute everybody dead from climate change?

Of course you aren't. Presumably it will be a gradual process--perhaps an accelerating one, but still one that takes a few decades before we hit bottom, whatever that bottom may be. So when problems from climate change and various other kinds of massive ongoing ecological damage begin to bite, it will damage the economy. This in turn will reduce emissions. How else can things work? Why does this observation bother you?

Nowhere have I claimed this means nothing disastrous will happen. I have stated throughout that disastrous things will happen. But my pride will not allow me to use logic up to the point where I conclude disaster will befall, and then just abandon it by throwing up my hands and saying "And disaster means we're alllll dead". It almost certainly doesn't, it means other more complicated things.

As to the book, well you're quite right to be sure, but there are an awful lot of books. Must I read every book anyone cites in a comment to a blog post before taking the momentous step of commenting back? I buy climate change because there's a consensus of climate scientists saying it's happening (also because by now it's bloody obvious, but I accepted it before that stage). In contrast, I've never heard anyone else predicting climate change means we won't have a breathable atmosphere. I don't think it's completely out of line to express skepticism. Maybe the guy's right, but it's an awfully strong claim, especially as you've presented it (that is, apparently locked in already due to runaway feedback). I'm not going to feel terrible about expressing some doubt.

Joe the Lion said...

This has been a very interesting, informative and, more importantly, civilized discussion, which is a rarity these days in the comments section of many blogs. Thank you.

Anyong said...

Let's call it what it is, "Educated beyond Intelligence". If someone graduates from University with a -C does that show any intelligence? How many Universities require a breath requirement before entering their major? I know of one in Alberta.