13 September 2014

The Climate Disconnect

The standard “take” on climate change sounds like this:

  • Fossil fuel emissions cause the gradual accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the air.
  • This buildup is gradually overheating the planet.
  • That global warming, in turn, is gradually changing other aspects of our climate.
  • We can expect a nasty 2°C overheating by mid-century. But we can gradually adapt.
  • Reducing emissions will gradually fix the resulting climate problems, someday. 
It's not all wrong. How many fallacies did you spot?

  1. Even with a gradual buildup of heat-trapping gases, each “gradually” thereafter is just wishful thinking. Gradual loading can provoke sudden shifts, as in that idiom about the straw that broke the camel’s back.
  2. Climate scientists never said that reducing emissions would fix or even reduce the climate impacts. They said that reducing emissions would slow the rate at which things get worse—a little. A frequently-heard euphemism is “limit impacts” but there is no limit. 
The climate scientists know that climate can shift abruptly, but gradual is the only aspect of the future that they can calculate precisely enough to meet their exacting standards for prognostication.

Since the gradual story is bad enough, they have been leading with this least-uncertain aspect of the climate forecast when warning policymakers. Alas, gradual-only gives a low-ball estimate of the trouble ahead.

Facts that don’t fit a familiar framework tend to get lost in the retelling, especially when you are trying to make them into a good story that will be remembered. For forty years, the climate problem has been framed for us as a preventable disease, with a prescription that parallels “Limit sugar drinks to avoid tooth rot.”

Getting at the root cause always sounds like a good idea, and emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the root cause of our climate problems. Reducing the annual additions is indeed a good idea (it’s just not sufficient). Had anyone taken the climate scientists’ advice forty years ago, this strategy might have headed off much of the overheating.

The Disconnect

But now there is a disconnect between the problem and its recommended treatment. Even if we were wildly successful in reducing emissions tomorrow, and doing it worldwide, it would make little difference by mid-century in the overheating.

That’s because emissions reduction does not reduce the accumulated excess of carbon dioxide. Currently, only nature’s removal processes do that, and they are quite slow and fraught with side effects such as ocean acidification. Were emissions cut to zero tomorrow, it would take a thousand years to remove three out of four of the excess CO2 molecules.

It’s the current 43 percent excess of CO2 that counts for overheating and climate change, not this year’s additions. The excess continues to grow, since reduced emissions are not zero emissions.

Thus, another fallacy: emissions reduction doesn’t do what most people think it does—reduce our climate problem. It does not deserve to be called a “climate solution.” There is a medical name for such treatments: an adjuvant. It's a supplementary treatment that is ineffective by itself but can augment a more effective treatment. Chemotherapy following cancer surgery is an example; it won't reliably reduce a large tumor but may be effective for small tumors missed by the surgery.

Prevention versus Repair

In addition to being ineffective by itself, the clean energy notion of a climate fix is wrong-headed in another way, too. Imagine going to a dentist with a toothache— but getting nothing more than a video on flossing and better brushing.

Once you have a problem, the appropriate action is a repair such as cleaning up the excess CO2, to back out of the danger zone. It’s a fallacy to confuse prevention with repairs and restoration. Yet nearly every public utterance about climate goes right ahead and promotes the fallacy.

Being able to fix a tooth does not, of course, reduce the importance of prevention. The same is true for our climate problem. Clean energy restructuring remains as essential as ever for mid-century. (It would be necessary even if there were not a climate problem.)

But to get to mid-century with our civilization intact, we must also repair climate in the interim. To me, that means cleaning up the air’s 43 percent excess of CO2 within the next several decades. That is also the only action which will reverse ocean acidification. If there is no cleanup of the CO2 excess, our clean energy improvements may be for naught.

Global Warming is only a rough indicator

There is a second reason for the widespread failure to properly understand our perilous situation. The “global temperature” number that you hear about is merely a rough indicator of the trouble ahead. It is not, as the phrase suggests, about the whole earth’s temperature. It is only the near-surface air temperature, averaged over day and night, over both land and ocean, and lumping together all four seasons.

Its rapid rise started in 1977 but, thanks to a more vigorous ocean heat exchanger, it has stalled for the last ten years. The ocean currents are now stashing more warm surface water into the depths and, somewhere else, bringing up cold water to the surface, which cools the air above.

So the earth has not stopped overheating, only the average surface air. This hiatus cannot be expected to endure, given the fickle history of flushing surface waters into the depths.

“Overheating” is the increase in temperature since the good old days. You are free to pick when that was, unscientific as it initially sounds. That’s because the air’s average overheating is not, as many assume, the driver of climate change.

Beware the reification fallacy: averages are not actors. Concepts such as global warming do not push air around.

Uneven overheating, however, does push air around.

Uneven Overheating and Climate Instability

Since 1978, the land has been warming nearly twice as fast as the ocean surface. The continents have become hot spots.

This changes where the winds blow. As the warmer continental air rises, it sucks in more wind from off the ocean in a pattern familiar from monsoons. But as winds strengthen, they don’t always follow the customary path and may well deliver their moisture somewhere else. Drought here, deluge there.

So we have to expect a rearrangement of our usual wind and rain, even if we cannot yet predict where or when. The alternative is not a continuation of the status quo. It has already been destroyed.

And as long as further overheating keeps enhancing the temperature contrast across coastlines, there will never be a settled new arrangement of wind and rain, to which food production might adapt. Unless the temperature contrast across coastlines stops rising, there can be no such thing as “climate stabilization.”

If the suitable habitat for a crop was creeping northward with the years, you can imagine tracking it (“adaptation”). But if shifts randomly bounce the suitable habitat all around the continent every few years, tracking is unlikely to work well.

Remaining unsettled is called climate instability, and it will relentlessly undermine both agriculture and infrastructure. In this new era of climate instability, don’t make the mistake of thinking things will change gradually. Or predictably.

Suppose it’s time to dust off the pharaoh’s seven-year plan for stockpiling grain? The world’s current “reserve” will only last eighty days and much of it is held by speculators with a profit motive, not in the public interest by governments.

The Danger Zone from Extreme Weather

Deluge and drought may come from the same shift in the winds. More heat waves and “Arctic outbreaks” are encouraged by the meanders of the weakening jet stream.

Extreme windstorms already have an interesting track record, as insurance companies report that a 20 percent increase in wind speed from 50 to 60 mph causes a 500 percent increase in damage, not 20 percent. (Welcome to nonlinearity.) So damage from higher winds is readily estimated. That from more prolonged heat waves, however, has little data to analyze. But we know that three sleepless nights, as you try to keep from overheating, is a setup for fatalities.

More frequent episodes of extreme weather can strike serious blows to our civilization via our food supply, and do so much sooner than the effects of any slow rise in your local average temperature.

The longer we take in backing out of this danger zone for unexpected lurches, the more risk that a major downwards spiral could start—one that could so disorganize our society that we could no longer act effectively to avoid a devastating collapse.

The Second Manhattan Project

Thanks to forty years of postponed action, time is now of the essence. Effective action must start while we are still strong. That’s because even the fastest cleanup project will take decades before it starts to reverse the climate trend.

First, there is the lead time for a
Second Manhattan Project to design a big, fast, and sure-fire cleanup—and then to build it (say, four years with wartime priorities).

Then it takes another twenty years for it to remove enough CO2 to lessen the danger of sudden blows from instability. (That’s my
estimate, but I am probably the only scientist who thinks it can be done that quickly.)

The Case for Urgency

And if that timeline does not make a sufficient case for urgency, just look at the trends from the last ten years where it is claimed that “global warming has stopped.”

Climate change did not even pause, showing the fallacy of assuming that overheating and climate change march together in lockstep. Climate change surged ahead as, among other things, the Arctic warming weakened the polar jet stream. That allows it to meander, forming long loops. Some reach down from the Arctic to the tropics. This briefly allows Arctic outbreaks, frigid air spreading much farther south to coat palm trees with a thick crust of ice. Paradoxically, global warming can cause regional cooling for weeks at a time.

Long jet stream loops can also block the usual eastward storm tracks via long ridges of high pressure. Storms, when stalled, can cause three-day downpours and, farther east, a lack of rain. Three years of blocking highs offshore set up the current California drought.

The jet stream detouring around California (green circle is the San Francisco Bay Area) in January 2014 because of the high pressure ridge offshore. At upper left is the low in the Gulf of Alaska.
Blocking highs in both 2003 and 2010 promoted those European and Russian heat waves that just would not quit.

That 2011 Preview of the Road Ahead

Among the consequences of the summer 2010 heat waves were widespread crop failures—and the world proved surprisingly vulnerable.

In more than a dozen countries, food riots with fatalities occurred the following winter when world grain supplies ran low and prices soared. A number of improvident governments lost power in the spring of 2011, not having implemented the pharaoh’s seven-year plan.

Yet this is small-scale stuff compared to what could happen if such episodes become more persistent or widespread. Then you can get trapped, neither able to import food from neighboring countries nor able to successfully cross the closed borders. Enter the four horsemen.

When a country invades a neighbor in an attempt to steal food, all cooperation is lost. Similar events within a country get called civil wars, if not genocides. This tailspin can cause a human population crash. It has happened before, on smaller scales.


A Collapse of Civilization?

Unless you are trying to promote an apocalypse, you might consider trying to head off such an impoverished future.

Just as a carbon dioxide cleanup means there is nothing inevitable about worsening climate, there is also nothing inevitable about collapse; we are not without resources and ideas. I am quite comfortable about the ability of climate science to understand what’s going on, and am fairly optimistic about our technical ability to clean up the excess atmospheric CO2 within decades.

But the only loud voices regarding climate action seem to be those of the Do-Nothings, often on behalf of special-interest sponsors concerned with protecting profits or property values in the short run. Climate scientists do not have the billion-dollar advertising budgets with which to respond to blatant misrepresentations, nor the armies of lobbyists.

Had enough?

This is truly an existential moment, with enormous consequences that few are talking about.

William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin

“The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” a 2011 paper [PDF] by Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand, and Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute documents the link between riots and high food prices.

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