Saturday, May 09, 2015

Connecting the Dots on Climate Change

One of the biggest failures in climate change reporting is the tendency to focus on particular aspects without considering the bigger picture.  What does sea level rise have to do with droughts or floods?  What is the role of changing ocean circulation patterns?  How do these impacts all factor into our rapidly changing jet stream?

When we look at individual aspects we usually wind up with charts that reveal a linear pattern.  Sure, there may be dramatic increases on the curve, but nothing that appears wild or unpredictable.

Yet we're nearing the point where climate change impacts will be wild and unpredictable, totally non-linear.  A big part of this results from the "cascade effect" in which a number of seemingly unrelated impacts begin operating together, even harnessing man-made change with natural feedback mechanisms that will be much harder to control and nearly impossible to reverse.  We can expect to be overtaken by fast-developing events and very possibly without adaptation strategies or preparations.  In the scope of climate change, it's like we've all but given up.

An online course being presented by Germany's prestigious Potsdam Institute provides the missing link.  It begins to connect all the dots to reveal how changes already underway that will continue to accelerate and worsen even if we miraculously decarbonize today to make our world a far more difficult place for almost all forms of life.

One example is the Greenland ice sheet.  As it melts, the cold freshwater released to the sea has a direct impact on the thermohalene circulation (Gulf Stream) which, in turn, speeds up the decline in the Arctic sea ice and the thawing of high latitude permafrost and the loss of Alpine glaciers.

As the Arctic warms the temperature differential between the Arctic and temperate latitudes narrows,  weakening the jet stream and giving rise to Rossby waves, blocking events that can stall weather fronts in a particular location for upwards of four weeks.  These Rossby waves are responsible for Atlanta, Georgia falling into a February deep freeze while a village in Alaska hits temps. in the 60s.  These Rossby waves created the conditions for the Calgary flood and triggered the recent drought in Russia that ruined the wheat harvest there.

The Amazon rainforest governs precipitation patterns in much of South America. A warming beyond 2C carries the risk of transforming the Amazon into savannah grasslands, upending essential rainfall needed for many millions of Brazilians and their neighbours.

The hydrologic cycle is the climate change cycle.  Our civilization is utterly dependent on the steady and predictable supply of precipitation for human needs (drinking, cooking, sanitation), for agricultural production and for industry. When precipitation falters and becomes unreliable or sporadic, there goes your economy and, with it, your civilization.   This is nothing new.  We have a rich history of this sort of societal collapse.

Already billions lack adequate access to safe water.  Billions do not have access to basic sanitation.  Even as we experience growing water scarcity many of the most vulnerable countries also heavily contaminate their freshwater resources. This is compounded by deteriorating ecosystems and by failing infrastructure and lack of investment.  Water is something we're all too ready to fight over when scarcity sets in and there are few coherent international policies to deal with conflict.

Two areas expected to be among the hardest hit are Africa and Asia.  They're also experiencing explosive population growth.  They're going to be especially vulnerable to droughts, floods and sea level rise.  It's estimated the world will need to up food production by 50-70% by 2050 to keep up with the growing population yet these climate change impacts, taken cumulatively, will cause a sharp decline in food production in the most needy areas.  Draw your own conclusions as to how that will play out especially in the Hindu Kush.

Our ecosystems are in a migratory transition.  Plants and animals alike are responding to climate change by steadily moving away from the equator. Although you may think otherwise in central and eastern Canada, Spring is now arriving two weeks earlier globally.  Pests and disease are also migrating.  West Nile virus is one example.  Above 2C be prepared for a spread of malaria and a sharp increase in infections.  As it warms the incubation period for malaria plummets and mosquitoes bite a lot more.  Water-related diseases from cholera to typhus to dysentery also increase.

It's critical to consider the effect this warming already underway will have on biodiversity.  Many species are incapable of evolving to survive the current, early onset, rate of change.  If we fail to arrest global warming at 2C (now considered highly unlikely) and instead allow it to reach 4C, the number of species lost will skyrocket. 2C simply gives many species a window to survive through adaptation, evolution migration.

This week it was announced that, in March, we set another record when every part of the planet experienced GHG concentrations about 400 ppm. Everywhere. To put that in perspective, our coral reefs cannot survive long beyond 350 ppm. of atmospheric CO2.  It's calculated that 1.5C of warming will kill off all but 10% of the world's corals.  Here's the thing.  It was recently reported that our existing emissions, what we've already put into the atmosphere, will "lock in" 1.5C of warming by 2100.  We've already pulled the Celsius trigger.  Now we've pulled the acidification trigger.  Sea level rise stresses corals.  So do severe storm events such as the cyclones savaging the central western Pacific.

As I went through the lectures from these top world scientists, leaders in their own disciplines, in looking to what awaits in a 4C world each said the same thing - "all bets are off."  Each of them described their field in the context of a climate change impacts "cascade" but noted that these combined impacts and they synergies are beyond anything in the experience of human and other life forms. Most also pointed out that, by the time we get to understand the cascade fallout, it'll be too late to do anything about it.

To sum up, we've got two choices - just the two.  Either decarbonize now, just as quickly as humanly possible, or "don't worry, be happy."  


Toby said...

A couple of questions: Why do the very poorest have the most kids?

Why can't most people foresee risks? An American study on automobile accidents in which which black box recorders were installed in government cars and analyzed after collisions came to the conclusion that most drivers did not see it coming and did nothing to avoid it. The world will go over the climate change cliff wondering what happened.

The Mound of Sound said...

Toby, I wish I could dispute any of your remarks. Can't be done.

Dana said...

"Who could have known?"

Humanity's epitaph.

The Mound of Sound said...

Well, Dana, we can't say we weren't warned. We weren't given the luxury of time but we were warned in sufficient time to act. It's at that point we had to make a choice to act or choose to essentially sit on our hands and settle for token gestures.

We opted for the path other civilizations chose in the past before their collapse. At this point I doubt that we have the will to overcome the inertia of our political, economic and social organizations that would be necessary to move in a new direction. The collective will doesn't exist and time is running out.

Anonymous said...

We are doomed, because of our nature which is HARDWIRED into our genome. We were built to spread our genes and thus to acquire power and material goods.
Mind you, our firmware served us very well in the past, well, well, until now.

I say, let's party.

Dana said...

I was being quite facetious, Mound.

If you recall that was the catchphrase of all and sundry around the Bush admin until it was revealed that they'd been told to expect something catastrophic from ObL.

We've been warned for several decades now. At least 4 that I'm aware of.

Still the death cry of this foolish, shallow species will be "Who could hsve known?"

The Mound of Sound said...

Remember, Dana, "who could have known" was also the excuse Harper used for not seeing the 2008 global crash coming and, again, after the Calgary flood. Both times he ducked responsibility by claiming no one could have seen these events coming when, in fact, there were plenty of economists who foretold 2008 including Krugman, Stiglitz and Roubini and lots of scientists who saw the flooding and drought fallout from the Arctic jet stream changes.

Our jackasshole in chief simply chose to ignore any warnings that didn't comport with his faith-based world view.

Hugh said...

In BC there was a buildup in GHG emissions in BC in the years leading up to the banking meltdown in 2008.

2008 was when BC started its carbon taxes, and a carbon credit system.

Now recent figures show GHG emissions rising in BC, since the slowdown in 2008/2009.

So my own view is that carbon taxes and credits don't really do anything. What's needed is to ramp down the things which produce GHG emissions. And that doesn't seem to be happening.

The Mound of Sound said...

I think we need both, Hugh. Carbon taxes do work to discourage consumption of fossil fuels but remember we have a government that plays both sides of the fence. While Clark likes the mantle of environmentalism from Campbell's carbon tax she'll do most anything to promote the extraction, transportation and export of coal and natural gas. Hypocritical? Sure. Surprising. Not remotely.

Another major factor in our overall emissions is the beetle kill off of our forests. Those trees, that had been a major carbon sink, have now become a net greenhouse gas emitter.

I agree that we have to do a lot more to cut carbon emissions but I think carbon taxes are an integral part of the effort.

Anyong said...

Organic Magazine was talking about climate change way back in 1971.