What does global warming, or climate change mean to you?
It occurs to me that what global warming signifies for me is probably different than what it means to most people. I’d bet that a lot of people think that “when” global warming hits (it already has, of course), it will result in a gradual rising of the seas. They might think that some people on the coasts will be, ahem, inconvenienced, at most. This is not reality. It’s not even close. And while it’s impossible to know what other people are truly thinking about climate change, given the utter lack of panic and terror that swirls around the discussion of anthropogenic (human) caused global warming, one thing is certain: most non-scientists are completely unaware of what’s unfolding right before our eyes. Blame for all the carbon and pollution we’ve pumped into our environment can clearly be assigned to most of us who have lived, and who currently live, in industrialized societies, and yet who is at fault for the vacuum of credible and appropriately-alarming scientific information?
The deafening silence from the scientific community and from our elected leaders which has led to that vacuum in the first place has successfully been filled by climate change deniers and the fossil fuel industry propagandists. I understand that many, if not most, of the scientific community feel much more comfortable in a laboratory or out in the field vs. being used as target practice here in the real world, but their discomfort hasn’t served their species at all. Only now, and by “now,” I mean the last decade or less, have even some scientists crept out of their comfort zones, and began to publicly sound the alarm about how totally fucked we are. But, even now, they do it in their scientific-y and non-alarmist way.
Take, for example, a recent article appearing on the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory website, titled, “Rapid ice-wedge melting accelerates permafrost decline.” Just look at the photo (of the scientist, Cathy Wilson) which headlined the article:
How terrified, or concerned, does Cathy Wilson even look? If I had to assign a description to whatever feeling she’s displaying, it would be somewhere between, “Yay – I found a Cracker Jack prize,” and, “Wow – this is totally fun stuff! I just LOVE science.” Both of those assessments do not, in any way, align with the article nor do they give even the remotest of clues about what her research has uncovered, which should, if properly framed, scare the shit out of the rest of us. The rate of melting permafrost, which is also melting the “honeycomb,” or polygon, structures which kind of hold it all together, is shocking researchers, who assumed that it would take hundreds of years to melt away – not a few years. Indeed, even Cathy Wilson’s quote, which is sidebarred on the website, manages to send more mixed messages than a Nutella advertisement:
“Change is happening so fast. I never thought I’d see thermokarst occur over the course of a few years at our field site. It’s pretty exciting, but scary too.” Wilson said.
The appropriate emotion should be more like this:
The appropriate photo accompanying the article would have been the one tacked on to the bottom of the DOE page, showing the polygon structures in the Arctic which are dissolving before their eyes:
which is captioned with the following information, which would have been a far more apt sidebar:
“Ice wedge polygons impound snowmelt runoff at the DOE Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment field site near Barrow, Alaska. Thousands of square miles in the Arctic are covered by an interconnected network of ponds in polygon formations. Recent research reveals rapid and widespread degradation and melting.”
Because what’s happening to the Arctic (temperatures are going through the roof, everything is melting) and to the permafrost (also melting, and releasing methane into the atmosphere, which is much more potent than carbon dioxide) means we are so totally screwed that the photo of that scientist might have been taken when she decided to just go get drunk because of her fear. I dunno, but that would be more appropriate than the artificially gleeful patina all over that article. In December, I came across an article in my Earth and Space Science News (from the American Geophysical Union) which discussed, almost casually the disgusting existence and discovery of TONS of something they call sea tomatoes, which are now littered all over the floor of Arctic lakes, thanks to the melting of the ice and permafrost. These gross things are actually made up of cyanobacteria, which has played a role in Earth’s distant past. They’re toxic. And they shouldn’t be there. They’re just poison, basically. Eww.
Make no mistake about it – there have been, and are, scientists who are expressing panic, and concern, and who are indeed sounding the alarm, like James Hansen. They also won’t be found grinning from ear to ear while measuring stuff melting away like cotton candy. They often appear dour, depressed, and/or angry most days…which is understandable.
There are also scientists, like Guy McPherson, who not only realize the depth of how screwed we are, but who have given up hope, and have now gone to the dark-est side of despair and come back out again. McPherson’s brutal realism is hard to take for some, but no one can accuse him of softening the blow. He now openly talks about how we had all just better accept our situation, and choose, instead, to look at each day on this dying planet as a precious gift.
People like James Hansen and Guy McPherson must, at the very least, feel like they’re trapped in a perpetual nightmare where they are screaming underwater and no one can hear them. I tiptoe right up to that line each and every day. If it weren’t for my kids keeping me so distracted and busy, I’d have leapt into the cauldron with them by now. But I also know what the answers are to the problem. I know what we need to do, and it is entirely within our capabilities to do what is needed to be done, not only to halt the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but to begin reversing the trend. The laws of nature cannot be changed. The laws we humans conjure up out of thin air and then decide that we need to adhere to can be changed. One is impossible, the other is not. People have to choose the one that is possible to do, because otherwise, it’s going to be decided for us.
In addition to Hansen and McPherson, I’m also going to include 350.org’s Bill McKibben into the category of people who are not only giving it their all working to inform the general public about the grave danger they are in, which understandably takes its toll on them, personally. Increasingly, Bill McKibben’s writing and actions have become angrier, less hopeful, less upbeat, and more dire. I’m not blaming him or saying he’s unreasonable but I am concerned (for him). I almost feel like he’s at a precipice and he’s deciding between continuing to scream into the void or just give up on us and go sit in a corner, rocking back and forth.
The panic and despair of Hansen, McPherson, and McKibben is, just to be clear, the only appropriate response. That feeling, which literally gives me nightmares, which then get confirmed by what I read when I wake up, makes so many of us, in the words of Naomi Klein, just want to “look away” from the climate crisis, unable to keep staring down into the maw of what we’re facing. And how about Naomi Klein? I suspect that she’s found a way to manage her own understanding and terror in a way that neither allows her totally to ever look away, nor does it make her so scared that she can’t function.
As crazy as it sounds, even “allowing” myself to become concerned about, and write about really important and terrible stuff like the Flint water crisis, or the Zika virus, almost feels like a vacation from the horror that I can’t escape in the climate science literature. I know that this sounds weird. But allowing myself to get worked up, angry and motivated to deal with assholes like Governor Rick Snyder in Flint, or what Monsanto and those icky mosquitoes are doing to innocent babies in Brazil “feels”
a thousand times less terrifying a million times less terrifying, than what that article about melting permafrost means for life on our planet.
In fact, what climate change means to me, and, I’m pretty sure what it means to Hansen, McPherson, and McKibben along with people like Russian Arctic scientist Natalia Shakhova:
who I wrote about here last year, pointing out how she was trying really hard to hold it together during a press conference about the melting permafrost, is that this picture of Venus (below) is very well what may be about what’s going to happen on Earth, at any moment, because that’s just how far we’ve pushed up temperatures in the Arctic. I’m not even kidding when I say that as I type this, I can hear my heart pounding in my ears because that’s how scared I am.
I recently paid $32 to read a scientific paper behind a paywall, written by Peter U. Clark, which I can only provide a link to the abstract (which is free), but which has been referred to, and written about here. The paper, titled, “Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change” is disturbing and important, and yet, believe it or not, Clark almost makes me hopeful. I say, “almost” because I actually suspect, having read some of his other work, that he’s just changed his tactics to try and wake people up to the dangers of climate change. And who knows? It may actually resonate better than other stuff that’s been written on the subject.
Clark’s paper discusses how all the climate change warnings to date focus on what’s going to happen up to the year 2100, so that’s only 84 years from now – a blink of the eye in the geologic time of our planet. Not only is 84 years really an insignificantly small amount of time to examine the carbon cycle on Earth, but most of the timeframe used to look at the entirety of the situation regarding the impacts of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere, typically focuses on 150 years ago (from the dawn of industrialization) to 100 years into the future (again, to about 2100), so we’re talking about a total of 250 years, which is also next to nothing, geologically. And so far, much of the climate modeling and explanations, which center around that paltry 250 years, have been playing “catch up” to the reality of what is happening. What scientists are watching, right before their eyes, in real time, has only proven both a) how little we understand all the interconnections and impacts of a warmer climate, and b) how very little it actually takes to perturb our climate. This is because of something called positive feedback loops, which are tricky and unpredictable (and by “positive” feedback loops, the scientific community actually is referring to something that means “negative” or something bad, to the rest of us non-scientists). Such positive feedbacks do not fall into knowable, steady, linear narratives. Often, when one “thing” wobbles too far out of its natural state, or equilibrium, another “thing” acts up and amplifies it, or (less often), makes up for that change in equilibrium in another way, possibly initially decreasing, or masking, the impact.
Let me give you an example of something that, on the face of it, doesn’t make sense, and which may not have been even predictable. In a paper which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), titled, “On avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system: Formidable challenges ahead” (by V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng), which I often call my “Aw shit” paper, scientists point out that something like good old-fashioned air pollution actually, in the short term, helps “mask” or make global temperatures appear lower. The scientists in the PNAS paper even make a little joke about it, saying that since Europeans have improved their air quality, which has resulted in a decrease of air pollution, they’re actually more responsible for raising the Earth’s temperature than most other countries, saying, tongue-in-cheek:
“The GHG-SO2 coupling illustrated above is consistent with a more quantitative modeling study. This study showed that when fossil fuel related CO2 emission is considered along with fossil fuel related SO2 emission, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries [Europe] emerged as the “dominant contributor” to recent global warming because of their great success in reducing SO2 emissions.”
I know it seems nonsensical, but it’s the reality of feedback loops and how complicated the Earth’s environment is. For example, one thing getting out of whack, like how fast the ice is melting in the Arctic because of air temperatures rising, has led to increasingly “open waters” (ice-free) which then absorb more heat, resulting in the Arctic being stuck in one of those positive feedback loops. So, as the temperature rises and there is less ice in the Arctic to reflect heat back out to space (this is known as a change in albedo), this causes the melting of (previously frozen for thousands, or even millions, of years) permafrost which naturally emits methane as it melts, which is now being released, or “unlocked,” from its previously frozen (and safe) state. And because bursts of methane cannot adequately be absorbed (or eaten up) by methane-eating microbes along the way to the surface of the water because it’s happening too fast for them to “keep up” – this very well may lead to a runaway greenhouse gas (extinction-level) event, because it could make our climate like Venus, or hell, on Earth:
James Hansen wrote about such a runaway greenhouse gas situation in his 2009 book, “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity,” saying:
“If we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.”
Keep in mind that Hansen has been sounding alarm bells about the dangers of global warming, non-stop, since his testimony before Congress in 1988 but some in the scientific community, such as University of Chicago’s Raymond Pierrehumbert responded to the warning in Hansen’s book by saying:
“I think you can say we’re still safe against the Venus syndrome. If we were going to run away, we’d probably have done it during the PETM.”
Colin Goldblatt of the University of Victoria in British Columbia agreed with Pierrehmbert’s assessment that if the high temperatures of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) which occurred (naturally) 56 million years ago didn’t set off a runaway greenhouse gas effect similar to what happened on Venus, then humans would, or could, not achieve a Venus syndrome simply by continuing to burn fossil fuels.
Goldblatt even initially went so far as to comment, regarding Hansen’s assertions:
“It is unlikely to be possible, even in principle, to trigger a runaway greenhouse.”
Guess what? Goldblatt later changed his mind, saying that what Hansen had predicted was right, almost giddily referring to his own previous dismissals by saying:
“Yeah—and I was wrong! I was plain wrong then.”
Well, all I can say (for Hansen) now is, “Aw shit.” You can read more about Goldblatt’s eye opening moment(s) here. Lotta good it does Hansen, considering that his 2009 book was not only under non-stop attack by the climate change denier propoganda machine, but dismissed by some climate scientists as being impossibly dire. And a lot of good it does the rest of us now, when more support and attention to Hansen’s book seven years ago could have made a difference, but that’s life. Or death (extinction), I suppose.
Back to Peter Clark’s excellent paper about the very long-term implications of what we are doing right now, in the span of only about a hundred years, and the consequences for life on Earth on timescales of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of years…
It’s a really important paper. Well worth the $32 bucks, in my opinion. Clark looks at the past 20 millennia (20,000 years) and projects what will happen to the carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere right now, for the next ten millennia and beyond. Clark and his colleagues say that policymakers are wrongly thinking of global warming as a twenty-first century problem, when what we are NOW doing will impact life on Earth for the next 10,000, to hundreds of thousands, of years. Did you get that? Future generations of whatever may exist on this planet (if we don’t have a runaway greenhouse gas event in the meanwhile) will curse us…they will despise us, and blame us, whether they know our names or not. We have sealed the fate of countless, nameless forms of life for hundreds of thousands of years into the future because that’s how long carbon dioxide and the other remnants of fossil fuels stay in the atmosphere, impacting sea level rise, volcanism, the availability of water and other precious resources, and the type of climate they will be left to deal with. In fact, and Clark doesn’t mention this, but I will, much of the effects of previous generation’s burning of fossil fuels, along with the destruction of “carbon sinks” due to humans changing land use on Earth, are what we now experience. It’s not like you drive your car across town, and that carbon dioxide is what’s swirling above your head, melting the permafrost. It takes time for it to build and get distributed and “resonate” within the Earth’s climate. Clark says:
“The long residence time of an anthropogenic CO2 perturbation in the atmosphere, combined with the inertia of the climate system, implies that past, current, and future emissions commit the planet to long-term, irreversible climate change…This long term view shows that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”
Clark points out that current annual emission rates of 2.5% per year are more than twice the emission rates of the 1990’s (1% per year). So, literally, thanks Obama. Thanks a fucking lot for your “all of the above” energy policy. Clark further says:
“20-50% of the airborne fraction of anthropogenic CO2 emissions released within the next 100 years remains in the atmosphere at the year 3000; 60—70% of the maximum surface temperature anomaly and nearly 100% of the sea level rise from any given emissions scenario [he’s referring to IPCC projections, which are pathetically low] remain after 10,000 years, and the ultimate return to pre-industrial CO2 concentrations [will not be] occurring for hundreds of thousands of years.”
Clark breaks down the impacts of a warming planet on sea level rise, taking stock of contributions to global mean sea level rise from 1) thermal expansion: 1.1 meter above present sea level after 2,300 years; 2) glacier melt: .25 – .34 meters above current sea levels; 3) the melting of the Greenland ice sheet: 7 meters of sea level rise; and 4) the Antarctic ice sheet melting which will contribute 58 meters (190 feet) of sea level rise, with 45 of those meters occurring within 10,000 years.
Clark correctly states that, “decisions being made today will have profound and permanent consequences for future generations as well as for the planet, yet future generations are not part of today’s decision making and today’s decision makers do not have to live with most consequences of their decisions.”
The relative stability that we humans have enjoyed for the past 11,700 years has resulted in our species not only thriving, but getting so overly comfortable that we have been deliberately changing the Earth’s environment to better suit our own needs. This alteration of our planet has ushered in what has become known as the Anthropocene epoch. which has set us on a course for what scientists call the Sixth Mass Extinction, which they believe is currently underway.
Our hubris knows no bounds because we have also not paid any attention to what should have been invaluable lessons proven by science that the Earth’s climate, entirely without our consent or interference, can abruptly change in the span of only a few years. Such abrupt and radical climate changes, which have been documented by studying ice cores from Greenland, occur naturally, and can result in extreme and devastating changes in weather patterns, with as much as 33 feet of sea level rise occurring in one instance in just over a decade due to unpredictable changes in atmospheric circulation. I’d bet that most people don’t understand how truly incredible it is to live during these tranquil times, how just plain lucky we have been, compared to other periods of naturally-occurring chaos on this planet of ours. And yet, we not only continue to take this for granted, but we play dice with the incredible gift of climate stability, pushing our natural world up to, and beyond, its limit, focusing our efforts on new ways to extract the very last bits of coal or gas when what we SHOULD be doing is using our brains to protect against naturally occurring extinction level events, such as asteroid impacts or extraterrestrial attacks to our electric grids, such as a spot-on coronal mass ejection, which will with near certainty, knock us back to the 19th century, civilization-wise.
I began this post asking what global warming means to you, the reader. I hope I’ve answered that question from my own perspective. For me, at worst, global warming results in hitting one too many tipping points, with a resulting runaway greenhouse gas extinction-level event which will leave our vibrant planet dead and barren for the rest of eternity. At best, we’re aggressively damning generations of creatures far, far into the future to a radically different existence, forcing them to fight for adequate precious resources like water and an even marginally habitable environment.
As glaciologist Sune Olander Rasmussen gently states, “The more we force a system, the more likely it is that we will get some kind of response that is violent.” Or, as Guy McPherson more ominously warns, “Nature bats last.”