Every year the climate-science warnings based on models of contemporary comparisons to past climates get more and more frightening. And every year they get revised in the now-familiar manner: "Hmmm…looks like we're going to have extend our previous worst-case predictions." And every year the biophysical markers for ongoing climate destabilization get more and more pronounced and exponential. And every year the climate-related disasters and fatalities get more numerous and extreme.
Indeed, by all reality-based metrics, we are accelerating headlong towards the positive-feedback abyss of runaway climate catastrophe.
And any sane technologically-advanced society (…an oxy-moron?), when faced with such an overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence, would be gnashing its collective teeth and running for the powerdown-exits en masse at this point.
But we are surely not sane.
No sane society would ignore the screaming warnings of every single Earth system. No sane society would knowingly doom their children and grandchildren to misery and starvation. No sane society would stand by and do NOTHING -- NOT ONE DAMN THING!! -- while their very life-support systems eroded away before their eyes.
But such is the current state of the beleaguered climate and the 'developed' world's response to its ongoing destabilization. (And don't take my word for it -- check out the climate references listed below.)
AN URGENT WARNING FROM NASA'S JAMES HANSEN
Now, appropriate histrionics aside, the main reason for this essay is to highlight a new study by NASA climatologist James Hansen that suggests we have VERY little time to start reducing CO2 emissions if we wish to avoid climate catastrophe. Check it out for yourself here.
In a nutshell, Hansen's argument is this:
- Current global warming of less than +1oC has already produced noticeable and alarming climatic destabilization: (1) accelerating polar sea-ice decline, (2) accelerating decline of Greenland & Antarctic ice sheets, (3) receding of mountain glaciers, (4) expansion of hot-dry subtropical belts in Southern US, Middle East, & Mediterranean, with increased droughts, excessive heat, and fires, (5) rapid decline of coral ecosystems, and (6) increased frequency of 'mega heat waves' – ex: 2003 in Europe, 2010 in Russia.
- This already-observable climatic destabilization suggests that any scenario that maintains a global temperature more than 1oC above pre-industrial levels risks dangerous levels of climate change -- contrary to previous beliefs that the threshold for dangerous climate destabilization was in the range of ca. +1.5-4.5oC. Furthermore, paleo-climate studies (i.e. comparisons to past climatic regimes) reinforce the +1oC threshold as the level that would likely force us beyond the stable Holocene climate regime.
- Only a scenario where CO2 emissions are reduced immediately and significantly (at ca. -6% annually) will allow us to just barely exceed the +1oC threshold for a possibly-bearable time span of only about 30 years. Delaying the CO2-emmisions reduction until just 2020 will push us uncomfortably above the +1oC threshold for about 100 years – very likely too long to avoid catastrophic climate destabilization.
- The most significant danger of exceeding the +1oC threshold for an extended length of time lies in the passing of slow-feedback tipping points, where warming and climate destabilization are self-amplified beyond control, pushing the climate to largely unlivable states regardless of whether we cease further CO2 emissions. These slow-feedbacks – which are ALREADY becoming evident at current sub-1oC levels of warming – include (1) melting of tundra and release of methane, (2) mass loss of the Greenland & Antarctic ice sheets, and (3) release of methane from ocean sediments via destabilization of methane clathrates. [Note: There are also a number of additional positive feedbacks in play here -- see 'climate references' below]
Hansen, arguably the world's most knowledgeable climate scientist, then sounds the following warning: "There is thus strong indication that we face a dichotomy. Either we achieve a scenario with [immediately] declining global CO2 emissions, thus preserving a planetary climate resembling that of the Holocene or we set in motion a dynamic transition to a very different planet."
…And no, there wouldn't be many humans (or much else, for that matter) on this 'very different planet.'
A FEW KEY GRAPHS FROM HANSEN'S PAPER
For those hankerin' for a graphical representation of Hansen's argument, let me include a few of the key graphs from the Hansen paper discussed above – along with a brief explanation. Of course, I highly recommend checking out the paper itself, as well as ALL the papers on Hansen's website (see climate references below - figure numbers are those in the original).
Figure 2. Global temperature relative to peak Holocene temperature (Hansen and Sato, 2011).
Take a look at Figure 2, above. We're at the far right of the graphs, in the warmish, interglacial Holocene – as we have been, semi-serenely, for the past 10,000 years. (Well…we WERE in the Holocene until we destabilized the climate. Now we're in the dicey 'Anthropocene' – too thin to see on this graph.) Note that two previous interglacial periods, the Eemian and Holsteinian, were less than 1oC warmer than Holocene maximum temperature – nevertheless, they STILL had sea-levels 4-6 meters higher than today. Yikes. See a previous essay of mine, "The Lessons of Climate History: Implications for Post-Carbon Agriculture," for a brief summary of the climate cycles.
Also, the key threshold of just 1oC above peak-Holocene temperatures has not been seen since the Pliocene, a few million years ago – and featured sea levels tens of meters higher and a climate radically different from today's. And note that, at that point, there were no humans yet -- we weren't too far evolutionarily removed from chimps, and still had millions of years to go before the appearance of Homo sapiens.
Our species has never lived in a climate like the Pliocene. It is not certain that we even COULD, given our inherent physiological limits (and lack of fossil-energy buffer at that point). And agriculture? Not even on the table.
…So, note to humans: +1oC is a BIG FRICKIN' DEAL.
Figure 6. Simulated future global temperature for the CO2 scenarios of Figure 5. The observed temperature record is from Hansen et al. (2010). Temperature is relative to the 1880-1920 mean. Subtract 0.26°C to use 1951-1980 as zero-point. Subtract 0.70°C to use 5-year running mean in 2000 as zero point.
The pair of graphs in Figure 6 (above) represent the crux of Hansen's argument. They show what will likely happen to the global temperature if we reduce CO2 emissions at -6% annually, beginning in 2012 (graph on left), versus 2020, 2030, 2045, and 2060 (graph on right).
Again, the +1.0oC level is the one we're concerned with here – above that level we risk passing catastrophic tipping points. Beginning CO2 emission reductions in 2012 (graph on left) puts us slightly over +1.0oC for about 30 years before dropping back down out of the danger zone – maybe enough time to avoid passing slow-feedback tipping points.
Waiting until 2020 to reduce emissions (lowest blue curve on right graph) puts us even further above +1.0oC and keeps us there for about 100 years. (Maintaining business-as-usual increases in CO2 emissions beyond 2020 is highly unlikely, for 'peak oil' and 'peak coal' reasons discussed later, so the 2030, 2045, and 2060 graphs are probably – hopefully! -- not relevant.)
It's important to note here that Hansen has NOT incorporated possible contributions from the already-occurring slow feedbacks into his temperature projections here. Thus, these temperature estimates are more conservative than what we'll likely get – i.e. underestimated. Hansen's point here, again, is that being over the +1oC line is dangerous because it apparently begins to awake the slow-feedback beast.
And we can't go there.
TWO POSSIBLE FUTURES: CLIMATE DISASTER OR CLIMATE CATASTROPHE
OK, so we have an urgent warning from one of the world's top climate scientist that we need to ratchet down our CO2 emissions starting NOW – or risk climate catastrophe.
In a country run by responsible adults, these prudent warnings based on the best available science -- would be blaring from every political and cultural orifice. In a country run by amoral, narcissistic, opportunists, they are whispered at the fringes – in the hushed politeness of power-point presentations, on fringe websites, in meagerly-read books, and among small groups of alarmed citizens. And whatever climate truths seep out into the maelstrom of pap in the mainstream press are shouted down with a desperate fury that frankly frightens me.
So in the spirit of 'then maybe THIS will work', I'd like to take a slightly different tack here in order to underscore the urgency of the next few years in determining our long-term future as a species.
It is important to note that some still-vaguely-quantified-but-painful levels of climatic destabilization are ALREADY in the cards for the US and the rest of the world. We have already pushed the climate system beyond its Holocene-stable state, and the great inertia of the climate system dictates both that (1) we haven't seen the worst of our past-climatic depredations, and (2) we will pay dearly for centuries for what we have already done.
We are already in store for a climatic disaster in the US far worse than what we have already experienced. All that remains to be seen is (1) HOW much worse, (2) how long it'll last, and (3) whether we can avoid the slow-feedback tipping points that will push us into an unlivable climate catastrophe.
So at the risk of venturing into the realm of doomer-porn, I want to try to make it plain here the difference between (1) the climate disaster that I (based on my readings of the climate science references below) believe we will likely see, as the inertial climate destabilization catches up with our past greenhouse depredations, and (2) the climate catastrophe I believe we will likely see if CO2 emissions manage to sputter onward near their current trajectory for another 10+ years and key tipping points are passed.
The key message is this: We DO still have choices – but only up to a point. Many doors to more desirable climatic futures have ALREADY been closed. More are closing every minute as the disastrous, CO2-belching industrial experiment bumbles onward.
…Slam! There goes another one. …Slam! There's another. …Slam! Another one…
BUT, the 'Big Door' – the one that lets us avoid runaway climate catastrophe -- may NOT yet be closed. We MAY still have a chance for a difficult, but livable future. …Maybe. And Hansen suggests the 'Big Door' is about to close. Should we ignore him?
So here are our choices, industrial civilization, circa 2011. All fine details are 'quibbleable', of course, but I think the main points are fairly well established (see climate references below). Also note that all effects of climatic destabilization will certainly be magnified by the advanced stages of resource depletion and ecological overshoot now bearing down on us like a falling piano.
THE ABJECT FAILURE OF POLITICAL SOLUTIONS
OK, so we've established that CO2 emissions need to decline IMMEDIATELY AND SIGNIFICANTLY if we are to maintain a livable planet. Of course, this begs the desperate question of how we can accomplish this seemingly-impossible, but biophysically-non-negotiable goal.
Of all the political solutions bandied about, only the carbon tax seems to make any sense from the standpoints of efficacy and fairness. Hansen writes, "An across-the-board price on all fossil fuel emissions emerges as the simplest, easiest, fastest, and most effective way to phase down carbon emissions, and this approach presents fewer obstacles to international agreement."
But c'mon -- absent some barely-conceivable "phase change" in US and global politics, does anyone in their right mind think such a tax has a snowball's-chance-in-the-Pliocene of being enacted? Of course not. Ditto for any of the myriad less-effective solutions as well – like Cap'n Trade. Ditto for an end to fossil-fuel subsidies and a massive ramp-up of 'renewables'. Ditto for a sudden, voluntary scaling-back of 'living standards' and CO2-emissions by the American people. Ditto for ANY changes in business-as-usual in this land-of-make-believe, socio-political cesspool.
Our politicians are twittering their penises to strangers while the ecosphere literally crumbles and burns. …Bravo! Encore! The demoralized and amoralized citizenry cry for more! Rehab redemption!
And while socio-political phase changes are, by nature, unpredictable, it's not lookin' so good on the tight time-frame biophysical reality has presented to us. Tick, tick, tick… And truth be told, I'd put my money on a phase change in the WRONG direction at this advanced stage of our political and moral degeneration.
Bottom-line is that political solutions have failed us, are failing us, and will almost certainly continue to fail us. To put all or even most of our eggs in that basket is, frankly, delusional. And while I can understand the need to maintain delusional thinking for psychological or professional reasons, it's a rather unbecoming way to commit suicide.
THE ABJECT FAILURE OF TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONS
But can maybe technology save the day? Can our vaunted technological cleverness rush in to snatch civilization from the maw of climate doom at the very last moment?
Because even IF the socio-political will to address the climate predicament magically coalesced from the miasma of industrial self-indulgence, all technology-based attempts to replace fossil fuels or capture CO2 emissions are limited by a deficit of both time and resources.
The dim prospects for the 1:1 replacement of CO2-belching fossil energy by more carbon-neutral 'renewables' – wind, solar, hydro – is addressed comprehensively in The Post Carbon Institute's 2009 report "Searching for a Miracle". Again, time and resources, not to mention energy quality are the key deal-breakers here.
And, as Gail Tverberg reminds us, all these 'renewables' require a robust fossil-fuel infrastructure for both their manufacturing and maintenance -- and as such, are really only fossil fuel 'extenders' rather than replacements. So…the 'renewables revolution' is just not gonna happen at the scale and in time frame required.
Prospects for CO2 sequestration, either at the source of emission or concentrated from the air, are similarly doomed. The obvious deal-breaker here is the significant fraction of fossil energy that is required to capture the CO2. Economically, we're stretched too thin at this point; we no longer have the cheap-energy slack to pull it off. We also have no idea what to do with the stuff after sequestration – and whatever we DID would require cheap energy and material resources we no longer possess. Hansen discusses other carbon-cycle problems with sequestration, but it's more than safe to leave it at this: not gonna happen.
And geo-engineering? Please. Every single one of these geo-engineering proposals are pathetic exercises in techno-masturbation -- ridiculous snake-oil, pure hubris. Any student of complexity should realize that there just ARE no viable climate-engineering solutions at the planetary scale – our understanding of the climate system is (and forever will be) far too incomplete, our resources too scarce, our civilizations too short-lived for such nonsense. 'Ecocide-engineering' is probably the more appropriate term. Or just suicide. Geo-engineering needs to be filed just after 'Everybody Drink the Purple Kool-Aid' option.
So I repeat, there are NO ways to address our climate predicament with the technologies of industrial civilization – existing or proposed. We're running up against a pressing biophysical deadline, the hard material and energy limits of a finite planet, an ecosphere in an advanced stage of material and energetic dissipation, and the iron-clad Laws of Thermodynamics. And none those inconvenient truths are gonna give one damn bit, no matter how desperately we plead.
And as for that fabled last-minute, miracle-technology break-though all my high school students are banking on, I'd say this: 'don't hold your breath' – except that Hansen reminds us that we don't even have TIME to hold our breath. It's money-time NOW -- and we got no 'money'.
The abject failure of 'even more technology' to solve this problem of essentially 'too much technology' points to one remaining solution: a rapid return to simplicity by any means possible.
OUR OPTIONS NARROW TO ONE
So it now becomes painfully obvious that our options have narrowed to one: JUST QUIT BURNING FOSSIL FUELS – replacements be damned -- and figure out the monumental (impossible?) adjustments on the fly.
Wow. We really let it come to this? …Really? Wow. The wise ape?
Now while our lone 'just stop it' option can be either voluntary or involuntary, we have already dismissed the 'voluntary' option above as requiring a political phase change that's very unlikely to happen in time.
So we're left with this sad truth: Likely the only thing that will save our species (and all species) from climate catastrophe at this point is a global collapse of the industrial economy -- beginning in the next few years and progressing rapidly to an extremely low level of technological complexity.
The 6% annual decrease in CO2 emissions modeled by Hansen dictates that emissions get halved about every twelve years. That's what we need. And we might even need it faster. Tipping points loom large and dark – still partially concealed in the mists of complexity, but there nonetheless.
Now, do I realize the extreme amount of human suffering a rapid economic collapse will cause? Yes. Do I realize that neither I nor my loved ones will likely make it through unscathed – or maybe even alive? Yes.
But I answer with this: What's the alternative? The answer here also stands alone --climate catastrophe. That's it. That's where we are. That's the bed we've made.
So, sadly, at this late hour, we just flat-out NEED the dark angel of economic collapse to swoop down onto the stage, 'Deus ex Machina' style, and save the day.
God help us.
PROSPECTS FOR NEAR-TERM ECONOMIC COLLAPSE
Now I don't claim here to be a state-certified, economic fortune-teller, but I do know a few economic truths that lead me to believe the Dark Angel of Economic Collapse might be about to make her entrance, stage left.
(1) ACUTE ENERGY STARVATION: The first truth is that energy input is THE fundamental requirement to our industrial economy (and any other type of economy or entropy-defying entity) – both to maintain the dizzyingly complex industrial infrastructure in which we now find ourselves trapped, and to enable the new growth that our debt-based economy requires.
Fossil energy – and particularly conventional oil -- is the 'food' for the voracious beast that is our economy, and oil production is about to fall off a cliff. As Chris Martenson writes persuasively, "It's official, the economy is set to starve."
In fact, ALL our industrial energy inputs have approached (or are very close to approaching) their earthly limits and are nearing collapse – oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, biomass – all of it. (See energy references below.) But as even a leveling off of energy input would send the economy down the tubes of collapse, we're more than primed for a classic Wile-E-Coyote moment – followed by the terrible, nourishment-deprived convulsions of "The Beast that Consumes the Earth."
(2) UNPAYABLE DEBTS: The second economic truth is that our debts – both monetary and ecological -- have now spiraled beyond the point of ever being able to pay them back.
As for our ecological debts, most non-renewable resources have been plucked and dissipated to the point that without the huge, teetering, cheap-energy infrastructure currently in place, further extraction would be physically limited to the faintest trickle. Most 'renewable' resources have been abused – by both over-harvest and degradation of their ecological foundations -- to the point where they are no longer even renewable. These are debts in the most fundamental earthly sense. Our ecological cupboard is close to bare – and now threatening to topple over completely as climate chaos intensifies.
As for monetary debts, Chris Martenson puts it succinctly: "Without mincing words, the world does not face a crisis of liquidity, nor a crisis of insufficient debt, but one of entirely too much debt. That's the entire predicament in three words: too much debt. …To the question, 'Is there enough oil to repay the debts?' we must answer with a resounding 'No.' …[Thus], the endgame is really very simple: The debts will either be defaulted upon or they will be inflated away."
(3) LIEBIG'S LAW: The third truth is that complex human-designed systems – of which our beloved industrial economy is an increasingly creaky example – do not fail linearly when stressed passed a key point; they collapse in a big heap of smoking rubble.
The reason, of course, is that while our clever engineers can design relatively-complex, efficient systems of every kind, humans simply lack the mental capacity to buffer these systems with the appropriate resiliency. We lack the depth of imagination and subtlety to match the rich structure and redundancy of the resilient natural systems (i.e. our life support systems) we try so heroically to dismantle. As such, complex human systems – like the industrial economy – suffer acutely from the problem of Liebig's Law, or "the weakest link" syndrome: the inevitable failure of one part of an inter-linked system causes failures that ripple through the entire framework, bringing the entire system to its knees in short order.
And the list of candidates for 'weakest link' in our fragile industrial economy is long and growing: fossil-energy production, the integrity last-minute supply chains of every sort, mounting socio-political tensions both in this country and all over the world, scores of impending debt defaults, etc, etc.
Gail Tverberg illustrates the fast collapse dynamics here in regards to a key component of the industrial economy, oil production rate: "A slow decline [in oil production] assumes that the only issue is geological decline in oil supply, and the economy and everything else can go on as usual. …A fast decline can be expected if one or more adverse factors make oil supply decline faster than geological factors would suggest. These might include (a) Liebig's Law of the Minimum – some necessary element for production, such as political stability, or adequate food for the population, or adequate financial stability, is missing or (b) Declining Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) interferes with the functioning of society, so the society generates too little net energy, and economic problems ensue… My view is that some version of the faster decline scenario is likely, because we will hit limits that interfere with oil production or oil demand."
Bottom line from any angle: "The Beast that Consumes the Earth" is indeed not long for the world. God speed.
WHAT MUST WE DO?
So here we are: (1) the Earth requires that we stop burning fossil fuels NOW, (2) a painful mechanism to stop us from burning them may arise shortly via rapid global economic collapse, and (3) if collapse does not arrive soon, no other mechanism to prevent catastrophic climate destabilization seems viable. We will burn. Literally.
So what's a person to do when confronted with such a predicament?
My first suggestion is to try to UNDERSTAND our terrible predicament as deeply as possible. I've tried to do my part here, but I highly recommend finding and reading every word written by Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, James Kunstler, Carolyn Baker, and Chris Martenson. Then you will understand – at least as much as it's POSSIBLE to understand the mind-bending, monumental changes on our doorstep. Those who understand will be less apt both to blame the blameless for their misfortune and waste precious dwindling resources pursuing the hopeless in search of mirage solutions. We need to be grounded in reality for the tough road ahead.
But what else? Well…while we NEED the global economy to crash, there's obviously no way for an individual or single community to 'crash' it – even if this were morally defensible. (But since that's a moot point, we'll leave it to the philosophers.) Even the recommended and laudable steps of trying to extricate ourselves and our communities from the 'Industrial Web of Destruction' will not do it. Collapse is something that must (and thus hopefully will) arrive shortly, but there is no sense trying to hurry it along. That'll probably just put you in prison at this point.
So beyond that, we just need to begin and/or accelerate the extrication process -- so that our families and communities can stand on two steady feet when the industrial tide washes out to the sea of history and the already-earned climate destabilization arrives in full-force. We must begin refashioning our lives so we can both do without all the services currently provided by the doomed industrial economy – and do so in a resilient manner befitting the coming instability.
The basics of this post-industrial, resiliency preparation include securing water, food, shelter, and the strengthening of local community bonds. After that is the reestablishment of local manufacturing and transportation infrastructures. Some good resources for these necessary preparations can be found in the following articles by Marteson, Druid, Angelantoni, DeDeker, Orlov, and Baker.
So…do what you can do. I often feel like I'm trying to live in two worlds simultaneously – the frenzied industrial world of my salaried employment and the 'world made by hand' I'm trying to help fashion as a replacement. It's not easy, to say the least – it often feels schizophrenic. But it's necessary.
If you're overwhelmed by all this, I recommend a wonderful essay by John Michael Greer entitled, "Peak Oil Advice from German Poets." For those searching for a way to get started down the necessary road to a sane future, Greer advises this:
"It's simple enough, really: learn one thing, give up one thing, save one thing."
So do that. And then do it again …and again … and again -- until you wake up one morning and realize you have done something as useful, virtuous, and beautiful as any human being has ever done: you have left behind the seductive darkness – the Way of Destruction -- and you have returned to the light – the ancient, infinitely-rich conversation of Creation.
- James Hansen: Storms of My Grandchildren, & all links therein – including the key paper, The Case for Young People and Nature & regularly-updated data for key state-of-the-climate diagnostics, Updating the Climate Science What Path is the Real World Following?
- Joe Romm's fantastic climate-science review posts: A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice, and An illustrated guide to the latest climate science.
- Positive-feedback & tipping point references: Climate scientist: "Positive carbon-climate feedback is still very likely" — and even without "a runaway feedback," warming will be "substantial and critical",
Study: Climate-driven vegetation change by boreal forests is yet another positive, amplifying feedback, and The methane hydrate feedback revisited.
- …Plus more generally: David Archer ('The Long Thaw', 'The Climate Crisis', 'The Carbon Cycle'); Fred Pearce ('With Speed and Violence'); Mark Lynas ('Six Degrees'); Richard Alley (Ice Sheets Unplugged: The Future of Sea Level in a Warming World); Tyler Volk ('CO2 Rising'); William Ruddiman ('Earth's Climate: Past & Future')
About the Author: Dan Allen is a high school Chemistry teacher in New Jersey, USA. He is also a concerned father, organic farmer, and community garden organizer. Other posts by Dan Allen at Energy Bulletin include the following:
The Speech Obama Needs to Give
What 'Lower Consumption' Means
A Doomer's Christmas Carol
Cornucopian Man vs. Biophysical Reality
Sasha and Barack Debate the Merits of Peak Oil Preparation
'Generation Limits': An Open Letter to Teenagers
Who Then Will Lead Us?
Peak Oil Rock & Roll
387 ppm and Rising: A Plea for Increased Urgency in Developing Post-Carbon Living Arrangements
Post-Carbon Schools: Back from Hell
The Fierce Urgency of this Spring: Veggie Seeds and Nut Seedlings for Us All
The Infinite Energy Machine and the Myth of Green Energy
That Which May Be Gained: A Return to Scale, Community, and Morality
Conservation and the Community Garden: One Suburban Model That Works
The Lessons of Climate History: Implications for Post-Carbon Agriculture
A Land & Community Ethic: Preliminary Draft
The Lost Civilization: A Dream
The Lost Civilization: Finding a Reality-Based Frame of Reference in the Age of Delusion
Surprise! I'm your new President-for-Life: The post-peak military coup & beyond
An Agriculture that Stands a Chance: Perennial polyculture & the hard limits of post-carbon farming
My Chestnut Seedlings Don't Know the Economy is About to Collapse
The Perennial Imperative: Breaking the Land-Abuse Spiral of Annual Agriculture