07 November 2014

Why Climate is Already an Emergency

As World War Two was starting in Europe, the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the metaphor of a “four-alarm fire up the street” that needed to be extinguished immediately, whatever the cost.

The situation in 1940 was not merely a crisis, what with Europe engulfed and Britain under attack. It was an emergency: there was a danger of not acting quickly enough while there was still a chance of reversal and recovery.

An emergency is when there is a shrinking time window for taking effective action. Suppose you are alone and see a fire spreading up the stairwell of a building full of sleeping people. Which do you do first, wake up everyone by breaking a few windows or phone the fire fighters?

It depends on the time lag for the action that will save the occupants, not the building. In the country it will take fifteen minutes for help to arrive—and in that length of time, the fire could spread throughout the building. In an urban setting with a three-minute response time and a mobile phone in your pocket, it’s a different answer.

Actively managing an emergency response is something that the military teaches its senior officers and we medical school professors teach to medical students and residents. Get fluids and vaso­pressors started up front. Make sure that you think of a number of possible diagnoses early, rather than fixating on the most obvious one. Get the lab started on all of them. If you don’t think of a second possibility until giving up on the first, and it takes another hour to get the lab results back, the unnecessary delay can see the patient’s condition become irretrievable.

Few people seem to approach climate change in this manner. One must start with questions such as:

How fast is the damage spreading?

The increase in extreme weather events (deluge and drought, prolonged heat waves, wind­storms, big hailstones, and such) since the supersized El Niño of 1998 is the relevant indicator, not global average temperatures. Extreme events are no longer tracking our usual indicator, the slow ramping up of average near-surface air temperature, averaged globally and over all four seasons.

What’s the irrecoverable condition that we must focus on?

Focus on the setups for global economic collapse, as it can set up a human population crash via famine, disease, resource wars, and genocides. Recovery will be much delayed by memories of what happened between groups during the "downsizing.”

What is the time it takes to back out of the danger zone?

Most would say centuries; my perhaps over-optimistic estimate is 24 years. See my post on an emergency CO2 drawdown for caveats.

“It’s already too late” is one of the premature opinions about our escalating climate crisis. Yet no one has done a serious analysis of this.

Have we already passed the “Last Exit” on this Expressway to Hell? Or just most of the exits?

If we want a restoration before global economic collapse sets in, we have indeed already passed most possible exits, e.g., reforestation. Methods that take a century will be too little, too late.

Removing the excess CO2 from the air and stashing it in the ocean depths for thousands of years appears to be the only avenue remaining that promises to be big enough, sufficiently quick, and dependable enough in a situation where we are unlikely to get a second chance. It also reverses the other major threat to the food supply, the acidification of the oceans.

So yes, the climate emergency is already upon us. In retrospect, it started back in 1998 with that supersized El Niño.

Our usual framing, with near-surface averaged temperature as the relevant input and emissions reduction as the appropriate response, has failed us—however logical it was a half-century ago.

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). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 geoengineering climate contest.

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