Tag Archives: carbon dioxide

Why a hot year matters more than a cold year or a neutral year

Earth’s systems are already out of balance. The comparative equilibrium we saw during most of the last 10,000 years meant that the amount of ice we had was roughly the amount of ice we were likely to get and keep at our current temperature and greenhouse gas level. When we increased the average temperature, that balance was shifted, and ice started melting in response to the increased temperature of the climate.

The “lull” between 1998 and 2015, which was not much of a lull, still saw accelerating ice melt, permafrost thawing, and sea level rise, because we had already raised the temperature enough to make those inevitable, based on our understanding of physics. Even a year that was down to the 1990 or 1980 temperature level, on average, followed by a return to 2000s temperatures, would have fairly little effect. The melting would have slowed, without stopping, and then sped up again when the temperature returned to the decadal “norm”.

But a dramatically hotter year – like this El Niño year – is a different matter. It injects a bunch more heat into the system, which means faster ice melt, and so lower albedo for the coming year, and more permafrost melt, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year, and more water evaporation, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year.

A single, unusually cold year, does not do much when we’re still above the temperature at which the current ice sheets formed, but a single hot year can create a spike of warming factors, which will cause even more warming in the years to come.

If we had not been emitting fossil fuels, it’s possible that the dip in global temperatures in the late 1960s/early 1970s would have led to more global cooling, and even an ice age – we’re certainly due for one – but we had already started the slowly accelerating process of global warming. We already had warming momentum, even back then, so we had a temporary cool period, and then when we came out of the 1970s, the temperature skyrocketed.

We’ll have more warming “pauses” in the future. That is a virtual certainty, but unless we re-balance the planet’s temperature budget by reducing greenhouse gases, the planet will just keep warming until it reaches a new equilibrium. Because of feedbacks like the albedo and the melting permafrost, even if we stop emitting CO2 now, the planet will keep warming for thousands of years, and the new equilibrium will be far, far hotter than anything our species has ever encountered.

There are a number of ways we could respond to this, but our best bet is to stop contributing to the problem, prepare for the changes we know are coming, and develop a strategy for deliberately managing the planet’s greenhouse gas levels.

Priorities, or: My issue is (not really) more urgent than your issue

I’ve said many times that climate change is different from other topics of activism, because it is, more than anything else, one issue that will affect all other issues. Do you care about war? Climate change will make war more likely. Do you care about “the environment”? Climate change is affecting ever ecosystem on the planet. Do you care about civil rights and social justice? The elevated stresses of food shortage, high temperatures, and economic troubles will exacerbate the kind of tribalism that fuels prejudice. The list goes on.

The problem I find myself facing is that I can’t honestly say that any of these issues are separable – either from each other or from climate change. If there’s a war going on in your area, that is a far more immediate concern than where your energy is coming from, or whether you can work on reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, you’re not going to have time, energy, or money to spend on political change, or even on self-education about the complexities of climate science. If you fear for your life every time you see a police car, that’s an issue of immediate and unavoidable importance.

All of these are issues of vital importance. They all matter. They all need to be worked on for their own sakes, AND they all need to be addressed as part of acting on climate change. The problem is that we only have so much energy. There are a few human dynamos out there who manage to be really and truly active in every issue they care about, but for mosts of us, that kind of energy is beyond our grasp. In addition, all of these issues (and many that I haven’t discussed) deserve the full attention of smart, dedicated people, not a fraction of that attention.

And so we are left with a classic conundrum. We can’t address the serious obstacles to climate action without addressing money in politics. We can’t address money in politics without addressing low voter turnout. We can’t address low voter turnout without addressing voter suppression efforts. We can’t address voter suppression efforts without addressing institutional racism, and the chain goes on. I could have made the same series of connections with a dozen issues, and the reality is that NONE of these issues can wait till other things are solved.

Black people will not and should not wait to fight back against the systemic war that has been waged against them in this country since before the American Revolution. Women will not an should not ignore the problems of rape, harassment, and prejudice in our society. Non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered people will not and should not shelve their fight for equality and safety in a system that still allows for them to be treated as less than human. And almost none of the people I just mentioned fall into any one of those categories. The fact that white, cisgendered men like myself are the only group that does NOT have to actively fight for the right to live in peace shows just how important all of these battles are, and how important it is that we help our fellow humans even in struggles that do not directly benefit us.

And action on climate change cannot wait. It has waited for too long. It is now over 50 years since we knew enough to start taking action with confidence that it was the right course. I can think of well over a dozen examples, off the top of my head, of plant and animal species that are changing radically in response to the planet’s rise in temperature, on every continent on the planet. This is happening now, and it has only just begun

So what should those of us who are pouring our energy into climate change be doing about all this? Well, to be honest I don’t know. Not really. But I have an educated guess. In my opinion, the single most important thing we can do is make it easier for others to help out. We can pour our efforts into making it clear what can be done in people’s daily lives. We can work to make the science accessible and understandable for as many people as possible. We can make sure to tell people about ways THEY can take action. We can experiment in our own lives and spread the results of our experiments. We can write letters to politicians and pass them around for other people to sign and send in. We could even do things like writing scripts for those who want to call congresspeople – to get a clear, concise message across.

It’s good to engage in demonstrations, but I fear that our power structure has gotten all too good at shunting such protests to the side, and ignoring them. We have to recognize that climate change, and the actions required to address it, not only represent a challenge to the most profitable industry on the planet, they also represent a challenge to the quasi-religious rule of free market fundamentalism, and the actually religious philosophies that say that God is in control, and that the world will end soon by God’s hand, so none of this matters, or if it does, we should be HELPING bring about the end, so we can all get to our afterlife and enjoy heaven. These ideological forces are much, much harder to fight against than a set of business practices or confusion about climate science, or misinformation about the actions that can be taken. There are entire worldviews that are directly contradictory to the reality of human-made climate change, and those are what stand between us and a better future. And we need to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to fight against those ideologies.

An Excellent Video on Sea Level Rise

This not only talks about using roman fish pens and ancient coral as markers for the rising waters, but also about the relationship between sea level and melting ice in Greenland, which is not what you’d think.

With the so-called Arctic death spiral continuing apace, and methane seeping out of the melting permafrost, all signs point to an imminent acceleration of warming in the Arctic, and that means even faster melting of the greenland ice sheet.

This is not good news, and understanding what the effects of that melting will be is crucial to preparing for those effects.

Symphony of Science – Our Biggest Challenge

Take a break, open this in fullscreen, and turn up the volume.

Will plants and animals be able to adapt to climate change? For many of them, probably not.

One way in which deniers often try to say there’s no reason to worry about climate change, even if it is happening, is by saying that species will just adapt to it, and everything will be just fine. There are a number of other arguments tied up in this one, but only a couple of them are directly relevant to answering this argument. First, there is the question of the scale of the change. If we look at the current temperature, and assume that this is as warm as it’s going to get, then really, there’s no cause for alarm. Indeed, the letter from the Hudson Institute makes the case that in the last ten thousand years we have seen climatic changes like the current one, and in some cases higher temperatures. The article does NOT note that those events were regional, not global, and it also fails to take global CO2 levels into account.

NOTE: The relationship between CO2 and global temperature is not under debate by any reasonable people, and I don’t have space to address that issue here, so if you want to look into that, either send me a note and I’ll discuss it later, or go here and see if you can find your answers. It will have to suffice, for now, to say that the influence of CO2 on atmospheric temperature has been tested, calculated, retested, and confirmed repeatedly from the late 1800’s, through the military’s development of heat-seeking missiles, and is now the field of fourth-grade science fair projects.

So – while regional temperatures, may have risen comparable amounts in the last couple thousand years, what about CO2 levels? Since that’s what’s driving this temperature increase, and we know that when CO2 increases, it takes time for the temperature to rise in response, how does today’s CO2 level compare?

Temperature and CO2 since the last ice age. Data sources: Vostok, Law Dome, Mauna Loa. Continue reading

Discussions with strangers

So one of my hobbies is discussing climate change with people online, mostly on Huffington Post. I do this for a couple reasons. One is that it gives me a reason to keep up-to-date on what’s up in the world, and the other is that it gives me a chance to help provide solid information to those who may have use for it. Not all of my comments are worth reading, but a minority of them are pretty useful, and I’ve found myself going back to refer to them.

The ones that I think are good take a fair amount of time to research and put together, and so I’m going to start pasting some of them here, both for my own future reference, and for the benefit of anybody who might find it useful.

I’ll post the comment I respond to, and the conversation thereafter, along with a link to the whole thread. Other people’s comments will be in a different color from mine.

So here’s the first, without further ado (discussion excerpt below the fold): Continue reading

In search of a climate theory

There are a number of scientific theories that we rely on in day to day life, whether we think about them or not. These various and sundry chemical, biological and physical theories are used daily in research and development of technologies, medicines, cleaning products, development strategies etc. and they are taught regularly in schools precisely because they are so useful.

The theory of anthropogenic global warming is a useful theory, but it is, on the whole, a sub-theory – a set of hypotheses born out of the larger concept of a planetary climate that effects and is effected by the life that moves within it. Continue reading