Global Warming has been a message of warning since climate research and discussions began roughly two hundred years ago in western science. Today, the predominance of the future tense in the climate dialogue has set the tone and expectations that however many times the “window of opportunity” for meaningful climate action were to close, it would surely open again. Casting targets in the seemingly distant future such as 2050 (more seemingly distant in 1992 than today), provided a psychological cushion that eased us into a dreamlike state where even repeatedly failed international negotiations still left time for reprieve and salvation.
Biodiversity for a Livable Climate has, to a certain extent, been complicit in this silence-in-urgency. There has been so much fear, confusion and denial of climate reality that we as an organization wanted to calm the conversation over the past three years to provide a safer place, a place of openness to new perspectives, to consider alternatives that most people hadn’t yet addressed nor imagined.
On the one hand, we feel that this strategy has shown some success. By emphasizing the positive, particularly amidst the frenzy induced by the 2016 election cycle, we have continued to introduce biodiversity and eco-restoration strategies to thousands of people, provided many examples of positive action, and helped build support for regenerative land management on many millions of acres. There is a palpable difference in the conversation and research today than there was only two years ago, and we should all celebrate that (and that’s part of the purpose of this compendium).
On the other hand, the positive feedback loops in climate, as witnessed by the dramatic accelerations of weather crises, and many other environmental degradations such as extinctions (including unprecedented disappearance of insects), species migrations, plankton loss, and disrupted lifecycle timing, raise the urgency to such a level of alarm that even wanting to focus on the positive developments must make room for acknowledging our current dire situation.
Over the past thirty years, if we communicators of catastrophe have learned anything, it’s that it’s both extremely difficult and delicate to scare people into positive action. At the outset of the climate endeavor the assumption was that if we just give people the facts, we would all pretty much line up in a march of rational behavior.
As it turns out, in some senses the least of our problems with eco-collapse is the eco-collapse itself. The primary problem has been human psychology and culture, particularly the culture of civilizations, which relies on overshoot and inevitable collapse. We have met the enemy, and more truly than perhaps even Walt Kelly and the organizers of Earth Day 1970 realized, the enemy is deeply us [Kelly 1970].
While there are likely already some very unpleasant surprises in the pipeline, and outcomes are by no means certain, there is good news as well: the urgency is addressable. The tectonic level of destruction that we’ve set up in but a blink of geological time is reversible. The solutions are largely already known. What we’re struggling with is the psyche of that most puzzling of species, homo sapiens.
At this point, therefore, it behooves us to briefly outline the current urgency to paint what we hope is a clearer picture, based on a realistic foundation that rejects wishful thinking in favor of action moving forward.
Again, there is some good news: the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times which emerges from the sum total of human culture and the planetary context in which it must function, is finally setting a determined course towards a global systems approach. The zeitgeist has, in the nick of time, begun to address root causes of ecosystem collapse and not just obvious symptoms, as painful as they are. Symptoms are as varied as Nature itself, but root causes – anthropogenic degradation and desertification of the biosphere – are surprisingly straightforward.
We can solve this, and indeed, as we put our dominance of Nature behind us we already are. Nature will be happy to collaborate if only we were to pledge our allegiance to a few immutable laws of biology established over billions of years: repeal just isn’t in the cards. That’s the heart of what this Compendium is about. The time is short, the burdens daunting, but for the sake of preserving and protecting life on Earth we have little choice.
In 1958 Charles Keeling began recording the now-classic curve of carbon dioxide concentrations at the Scripps Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (the sawtooth annual variations of 6-8 ppm are a result of increased uptake of CO2 during the summer growing season in the Northern Hemisphere followed by the release of CO2 during the winter).
In that same year, Oscar-winning director Frank Capra released a film on the weather for the Bell Laboratory Science Series. Towards the end of the film there is a brief dramatic clip of global warming, collapsing ice and belching industry, indicating that we had a surprisingly good idea of what climate effects were about in 1958. It is well worth a look, both for the climate observations and the sense of the scientific over-confidence of the post-atomic age (start at around 47:50 of the full version). [Bell Labs 1958]
The sense of climate urgency in 1958, however, subsumed in the enthusiasm over the aspirations of science and overshadowed by the anxiety of the cold war, was understandably remote.
Fast forward to 1988 and James Hansen’s testimony before Congress. As reported in the New York Times,
If the current pace of the buildup of these gases continues, the effect is likely to be a warming of 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit from the year 2025 to 2050, according to these projections. This rise in temperature is not expected to be uniform around the globe but to be greater in the higher latitudes, reaching as much as 20 degrees, and lower at the Equator.
The rise in global temperature is predicted to cause a thermal expansion of the oceans and to melt glaciers and polar ice, thus causing sea levels to rise by one to four feet by the middle of the next century. Scientists have already detected a slight rise in sea levels. At the same time, heat would cause inland waters to evaporate more rapidly, thus lowering the level of bodies of water such as the Great Lakes. [http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html?pagewanted=all]
These predictions, using basic data and newly evolving models, were stark, even from today’s perspective. Hansen and others initiated the beginnings of a global emergency mindset. But despite leading to a series of international conferences and treaties, they were caught in a mire of political and economic resistance that has thus far proved an almost immovable force. While progress has been made on many fronts in the efforts to address greenhouse gases, none has yet yielded differences which will change the course of climate events. That will require a systems approach to the natural world that is only now in the process of coming to fruition, and which is the topic of this Compendium.
Hansen has gone on to become one of the most powerful and courageous voices in the mainstream climate science arena, stepping beyond his role as scientist and into the public and political arenas. He has given measured but insistent voice to the current urgency:
Global temperature is a fundamental climate metric highly correlated with sea level, which implies that keeping shorelines near their present location requires keeping global temperature within or close to its preindustrial Holocene range. However, global temperature excluding short-term variability now exceeds 1o C relative to the 1880–1920 mean and annual 2016 global temperature was almost 1.3o C. We show that global temperature has risen well out of the Holocene range and Earth is now as warm as it was during the prior (Eemian) interglacial period, when sea level reached 6–9m higher than today. Further, Earth is out of energy balance with present atmospheric composition, implying that more warming is in the pipeline, and we show that the growth rate of greenhouse gas climate forcing has accelerated markedly in the past decade. The rapidity of ice sheet and sea level response to global temperature is difficult to predict, but is dependent on the magnitude of warming. Targets for limiting global warming thus, at minimum, should aim to avoid leaving global temperature at Eemian or higher levels for centuries. Such targets now require “negative emissions”, i.e., extraction of CO2 from the air. If phasedown of fossil fuel emissions begins soon, improved agricultural and forestry practices, including reforestation and steps to improve soil fertility and increase its carbon content, may provide much of the necessary CO2 extraction. In that case, the magnitude and duration of global temperature excursion above the natural range of the current interglacial (Holocene) could be limited and irreversible climate impacts could be minimized. In contrast, continued high fossil fuel emissions today place a burden on young people to undertake massive technological CO2 extraction if they are to limit climate change and its consequences. Proposed methods of extraction such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or air capture of CO2 have minimal requirement of negative CO2 emissions estimated costs of USD 89–535 trillion this century and also have large risks and uncertain feasibility. Continued high fossil fuel emissions unarguably sentences young people to either a massive, implausible cleanup or growing deleterious climate impacts or both. [Hansen et al., 2017]
A dire picture indeed.
Notwithstanding Hansen’s steady voice, there are reasons for more urgent statements still. Positive feedbacks, i.e., climate accelerations, are asserting prominence, particularly in the striking accumulations of high temperature records and unprecedented weather calamities occurring during 2017.
On July 19, 2012, popular climate author Bill McKibben wrote “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is.” [McKibben 2012] The real enemy according to McKibben is the purveyors of fossil fuels.
McKibben puts forth what he calls three terrifying numbers:
2 degrees C, a dubious safe limit
565 Gt, the maximum additional carbon by mid-century to keep within that safe limit
2,795 Gt, the carbon in already-proven coal, gas and oil reserves
Given the rate at which we were burning fossil fuels, the math doesn’t offer a good prognosis, and McKibben concludes that, “So far, as I said at the start, environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed.” [McKibben 2012]
Over five years later on December 1, 2017, McKibben wrote “Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing: The technology exists to combat climate change – what will it take to get our leaders to act?” [McKibben 2017] His sense of alarm is clear:
If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win. That’s the core truth about global warming. It’s what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced. . . . It won’t stand still.
McKibben is also sensible with respect to his perspective on Donald Trump’s administration, i.e., that we were failing on climate long before the new president arrived, with the possible implication that we may even be avoiding our own failures by obsessing with his:
[W]e weren’t moving fast enough to catch up with physics before Trump. In fact, it’s even possible that Trump – by jumping the climate shark so spectacularly – may run some small risk of disrupting the fossil-fuel industry’s careful strategy.
While McKibben hails the ongoing progress in opposing the fossil fuels industry, the urgency of the timing and limited effectiveness of the actions weighs heavily upon him:
At 350.org, we’re rolling out a vast Fossil Free campaign across the globe this winter, joining organizations like the Sierra Club to pressure governments to sign up for 100 percent renewable energy, blocking new pipelines and frack wells as fast as the industry can propose them, and calling out the banks and hedge funds that underwrite the past. It’s working – just in the last few weeks Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, announced plans to divest from fossil fuels, and the Nebraska Public Service Commission threw yet more roadblocks in front of the Keystone pipeline.
But the question is, is it working fast enough? Paraphrasing the great abolitionist leader Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. used to regularly end his speeches with the phrase “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The line was a favorite of Obama’s too, and for all three men it meant the same thing: “This may take a while, but we’re going to win.” For most political fights, it is the simultaneously frustrating and inspiring truth. But not for climate change. The arc of the physical universe appears to be short, and it bends toward heat. Win soon or suffer the consequences.
From Bio4Climate’s perspective, McKibben’s frank assessment and even despair are laudable. Admitting failure is an opening to new solutions. What is discouraging is his reluctance to at least consider the full potential of eco-restoration to overcome both geophysical and political obstacles to positive action on multiple pressing environmental issues, including climate.
- From tropical coral reefs to the polar ice sheets, global warming is already dangerous. The world is perilously close to, or passed, tipping points which will create major changes in global climate systems.
- The world now faces existential climate-change risks which may result in “outright chaos” and an end to human civilisation as we know it.
- These risks are either not understood or wilfully ignored across the public and private sectors, with very few exceptions.
- Global warming will drive increasingly severe humanitarian crises, forced migration, political instability and conflict. The Asia–Pacific region, including Australia, is considered to be “Disaster Alley” where some of the worst impacts will be experienced.
- Building more resilient communities in the most vulnerable nations by high-level financial commitments and development assistance can help protect peoples in climate hotspots and zones of potential instability and conflict.
- Australia’s political, bureaucratic and corporate leaders are abrogating their fiduciary responsibilities to safeguard the people and their future well-being. They are ill-prepared for the real risks of climate change at home and in the region.
- The Australian government must ensure Australian Defence Force and emergency services preparedness, mission and operational resilience, and capacity for humanitarian aid and disaster relief, across the full range of projected climate change scenarios.
- It is essential to now strongly advocate a global climate emergency response, and to build a national leadership group outside conventional politics to design and implement emergency decarbonisation of the Australian economy. This would adopt all available safe solutions using sound, existential risk-management practices.
While Disaster Alley is primarily concerned with the Asia-Pacific region, the issues are clearly global. Following closely on Disaster Alley, on September 6, 2017, Breakthrough published What Lies Beneath: The Scientific Understatement of Climate Risks [Breakthrough 2017b], which further emphasized the chronic underestimation of climate risk in mainstream science, and the risks posed by poor risk analysis itself, which is a chronic condition in much of mainstream climate science.
It is now clear that climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation: that is, an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential. Temperature rises that are now in prospect, even after the Paris Agreement, are in the range of 3–5°C. The Paris Agreement voluntary emission reduction commitments, if implemented, would result in the planet warming by 3°C, without taking into account “long-term” carbon-cycle feedbacks. With a higher climate sensitivity figure of 4.5°C, for example, which would account for such feedbacks, the Paris path would lead to around 5°C of warming, according to a MIT study. A study by Schroder Investment Management published in June 2017 found — after taking into account indicators across a wide range of the political, financial, energy and regulatory sectors — the average temperature increase implied across all sectors was 4.1°C.
Warming of 4°C or more could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%, and the World Bank reports “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.” A study by two US national security think tanks concluded that 3°C of warming and a 0.5 metre sea-level rise would likely lead to “outright chaos”. A recent study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that if global temperatures rise 4°C, then extreme heatwaves with “apparent temperatures” peaking at over 55°C (131o F) will begin to regularly affect many densely populated parts of the world. At 55°C or so, much activity in the modern industrial world would have to stop. (“Apparent temperatures” refers to the Heat Index, which quantifies the combined effect of heat and humidity to provide people with a means of avoiding dangerous conditions.) [p. 9]
Finally, on July 9, 2017, a climate reality bludgeon reached the American (and global) public with the publication of “Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine. More widely read by far than any of the other references here, author David Wallace-Wells interviewed numerous climate scientists about bad- and worst-case scenarios.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
Wallace-Wells digs wider and deeper, and while many climate scientists objected to at least some of his inferences and logic, overall he’s on solid ground. It is, after all, the ground that these scientists helped prepare – and all in all, they did their jobs well.
To this sad litany we would only add that the most terrible, excruciating lethal strokes that we face from climate catastrophe are more likely the whimper than the bang. While sea-level rise, hurricanes and fires are dramatic, the primary cause of death for billions of people will be no food and no water.
Bell Labs, 1958, Unchained Goddess, http://www.openculture.com/2015/04/frank-capras-science-film-the-unchained-goddess-warns-of-climate-change-in-1958.html, accessed February 1, 2018; full version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqClSPWVnNE.
Breakthrough, 2017a, Disaster Alley, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_8c0b021047fe406dbfa2851ea131a146.pdf
Breakthrough, 2017b, What Lies Beneath, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_56b252a7d78b485badde2fadcba88d00.pdf
Hansen, James et al., 2017, Young people’s burden: requirement of negative CO2 emissions, Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 577–616, 2017, https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-8-577-2017 http://csas.ei.columbia.edu/2017/07/18/young-peoples-burden-requirement-of-negative-co2-emissions/
Kelly, Walt, 1970, http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/04/we-have-met-enemy-and-he-is-us.html.
McKibben, Bill, 2012, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012 https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719
McKibben, Bill, 2017, Winning Slowly Is the Same As Losing, Rolling Stone, December 1, 2017, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/bill-mckibben-winning-slowly-is-the-same-as-losing-w512967