Tag Archives: global climate change

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.

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Richard Alley on ice sheets and the future of sea level

This video is well worth 44 minutes of your time. Dr. Alley knows what he’s talking about, and he lays out the current understanding pretty clearly.

Conversations – don’t we have the same amount of water?

Name redacted asked:

Please educate me if I am wrong, but I have been of the understanding that the Earth has the same amount of water in/on it that it has had for thousands of year, perhaps millions. It is just a matter of distribution. Some zones get way more than they need, and others have droughts.

Sure thing. This will be a bit long, because it’s a complex topic. First off, the only water that counts here is fresh water. Sea water’s not very useful for drinking, irrigation, washing, or industrial purposes.

So we’re focused on fresh water. For the entire history of the United States (and longer for older countries that dig wells) we’ve been relying on subterranian water reserves for a huge portion of our fresh water. Aquifers have a history of having a lot of clean, fresh water.

The first problem is that it takes a long time for them to fill up, and in the last hundred years we’ve been pulling water out faster than they’ve been refilling. That trend has been getting worse as more people have used more water. So those water sources are actually running out – there’s not as much there as there used to be. Once we pull it out of the ground, it becomes part of the water cycle, being moved around as rainstorms, or more often flowing down to the sea. Either way, it was once a reliable source of water, and now it’s not.

The second problem is snowpack. This is part of the drought (water shortage) that California has been facing. Normally large parts of California rely on the snow that accumulates in the mountains during the winter to provide water as it melts. The recent drought has meant that in some places where snowpack – and so water reliability – has been measured, there has been no snow for the first time in recorded history. That means no water. There are a LOT of people around the world that rely on similar patterns of snowfall, and because weather patterns are changing around the world, water availability is too.

And then there’s the question of what makes for “good” water. The reality is that we’ve “removed” a lot of water from the equation by polluting it. Removing some pollutants from water is very, very difficult and expensive, and as with desalination, we don’t currently have the infrastructure to do it at any meaningful scale.

This is why people are so up in arms over hydro-fracking. The waste products of it really are toxic – there’s no question about that, if pour it in the ground, things die. And there’s a real risk that it’s getting in ground water near fracking sites. Once groundwater is poisoned, there is NO method to make it clean again.

Then there’s the issue of changes in temperature. Let’s look at rainforests, for a moment. What’s a rainforest? It’s a place that gets so much rain that water is no longer a limiting resource. Life in rainforests gets so dense and weird and beautiful because there’s just water EVERYWHERE, and so things can grow everywhere. There are temperate rainforests, and there are tropical rainforests. In both cases, the amount of available water is more than local life can use up.

But here’s the thing – tropical rainforests get much, much more rain than temperature rainforests, even though the “saturation” effect is about the same. Why is that? Because tropical rainforests are hotter. The water they get evaporates much, much faster. That means that a place in the tropics that gets the same rain as the Smokey Mountains (one temperature rainforest, at least historically), is NOT a rainforest. It can’t be, because there’s not enough water available.

And that’s the other part. If rainfall stays the same, but temperatures rise, the amount of available water decreases, because more of it evaporates. We’re already seeing the effects of this. In California, before the drought started, we were already seeing some plant species dying out at higher altitudes and repopulating themselves at lower altitudes because while rainfall had stayed steady, temperature had risen, meaning available water had decreased. On the other side of the country in the Appalachians, a decrease in AVAILABLE water and an increase in temperature have meant that some salamander species have been shrinking at a rate of around 1% per generation since the 1980s.

The total quantity of water contained on Earth is much the same as it has been, but that has no meaning if that water is not available for our use, or the use of other life forms.

That’s what is meant by water scarcity.

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.

After We Win: Sewage Power

Very often discussions about renewable energy focus on solar and wind power, and other sources fall into the background. To be sure, these two will form a significant part of the new system, but they are not all there is. Aside from geothermal energy, tidal energy, and various forms of crop-based biofuels, we also have an abundant form of energy available that is directly proportional to the number of people living nearby.

Sewage.

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One of these things is not like the other: How global climate change is different from other social change issues.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
-Mohandas K Gandhi

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
-Nelson Mandela

Human-made global climate change different from every other social change issue in history, and behaving otherwise will lead to ruin.

The quotes at the beginning of this article are wonderful quotes, and the lessons they teach provide excellent advice for every human working to build a better world. So many of the problems we face stem from gargantuan power structures that work very hard to convey the message that change is impossible – that the way it is is the way it must always be.

The same is true for human-caused global climate change. Modern civilization has been built on fossil fuels, and the topic of energy production has become so entrenched in politics, that people feel their very identities are tied up in the issue.

The same has been true in the struggles for racial equality, and for gender equality, and for economic equality, and for a hundred other causes. It has also been true of the environmental movement that arose in the twentieth century. And while there is still much work to be done, all of these movements have made incredible progress. Slavery and segregation fell. Women have equal rights. Rivers are no longer catching on fire on a regular basis, and the edifices of unequal treatment and protections for homosexuals are crumbling fast.

Global climate change feels like the Next Big Struggle, and there’s a way in which it is. If only it were so simple. Global climate change is unique in that once we “win”, and the proverbial dust settles, we will be in the midst of an on-going warming event. Even if we get global fossil fuel emissions to zero in the next ten years, the warming that is already happening will have pushed every feedback loop scientists have been fearing into high gear. The arctic ice is already melting. The permafrost is already rotting. Vegetation is already suffering from heat and drought. Oceanic phytoplankton are already declining in number, and water is already evaporating more due to the rise in temperature.

Lately I’ve seen a number of posts, often by climate activists, with inspirational quotes about social change from people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and others, and all of these quotes have something in common – they’re about social change.

Climate change is a sticky issue because, of course, part of it IS about social change. It’s a problem caused by our collective action AND our collective inaction. It’s a result of a social, economic, and political status quo, and that makes it similar to the fights against Apartheid, slavery, segregation, women’s rights, gay rights, and other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and abuse. Ultimately, how we vote is what has allowed us to get to this point, and ultimately, public opinion will sway towards reality, and change will occur.

And as Nelson Mandela famously said, it will probably seem impossible right up until it’s “done”.

But that’s the problem with climate change – it will never be “done”. Not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren. Even if we get every person on the planet working together to end fossil carbon emissions, the problem will continue without us. But we’re years, if not decades away from that kind of collective effort, and we’ve already waited almost half a century beyond the point when we really had a pretty solid case that human activity is warming the planet.

Most people who have been paying attention to the issue have at least a faint idea that there are feedback loops that can come into play, but if you weren’t aware of this phenomenon, there are numerous phenomena that can be caused by a small rise in temperature that cause more warming in turn, which carries on in a chain reaction.

These feedback loops are already in progress, at this point. Our albedo is lower, there’s more water vapor in the air, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane, and we’ve already seen the Amazon Rainforest – one of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks – have two droughts so severe that it became a carbon SOURCE.

That means that while the social change aspect of this is taking time, just like ALL social change, the planet is moving on without us.

Changing where we get energy and how we use it is not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Beyond that, simply not possible if we don’t take into account that the planet has ALREADY CHANGED, and by the time we get our act together, it will have changed EVEN MORE.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves about whether there is a battle to be fought, or when it should be fought, or HOW it should be fought, or even whether there is an enemy to fight.

We’ve been fighting amongst ourselves for fifty years, but after all that fighting is done – after the social change is achieved – then the real fight will be just beginning. Then we have to figure out how to survive.

Edit: Here’s another way I put it in conversation with a friend – Think of it as being like cracks in the road. With racism, and with other such issues, we repair the cracks. We improve what the road is made of so that the cracks don’t happen as often, and aren’t as big. We do maintenance, and over time, we have better roads. If we ignore it, it gets worse, usually in different ways, but it’s all about the road.

With climate change, we’re working on the road, when the ground the road is built on is falling away.

This blog is mostly about how we can work on building a bridge under the road as the ground beneath it falls away, so that the whole road doesn’t collapse.

Off the Deep End: After we “win”

With every decade being hotter than the last, on a global scale, it seems appropriate that every climate rally is bigger than the last. The upcoming march on 9/21/14 is expected to be the biggest gathering of people in America to call for action on climate change.

And there’s a LOT of political action needed. Our government’s policy, on the whole, is still in limbo on what’s happening in our climate, with one of the two parties in power having denial as a crucial part of its science platform.

Conventional wisdom is that if we can threaten their ability to get re-elected, the Republicans will come around on the issue, and it seems likely that that’s the case. Gingrich, Romney, Bush, McCain, and many others have all acknowledged the reality of our warming climate at one point or another, so it’s clear that at least some members of the GOP are aware of what’s going on. What’s less clear is how long it will take for public pressure to override the flood of money unleashed by recent relaxations in campaign finance laws.

In time, however, we will get there. In time, and with continued pressure and protests, we will come to a national recognition that there is a problem, and that we have put it off too long for anything but drastic measures to be taken. In time, we will begin the work, as a nation, of dealing with global climate change.

And here is where climate change differs from every other important issue in history. With labor laws, there was a long, hard fight, lives were lost, livelihoods destroyed, and in the end, the battle was won, laws were passed, and employers were required to treat their workers with a minimum amount of respect and dignity. With Segregation, the battle was won, and laws were passed changing how humans were allowed to treat each other, and providing legal frameworks to give some power to those who had none, and some defense to the defenseless. With leaded gasoline, there was a nasty political fight with powerful, wealthy corporations misleading the public and politicians alike, but in time, laws were passed, tetraethyl lead was banned, and the amount of lead we were exposed to began to fall almost immediately.

On many of the problems we’ve solved there is still much work to be done, both in America and in the rest of the world, but in the end, as tangled and complex as human interaction is, these problems all improve as people stop taking certain actions. On the surface, global climate change may seem the same. If we stop burning fossil fuels, we will have “solved” the problem, right?

Wrong.

If we had addressed global warming in the 1980’s, a couple decades after the first warnings came, or even in the 1990’s, after it became unequivocal that the planet was warming and humans were to blame, then we might have been able to follow the old model. We could have passed laws, phased out fossil fuels, and been done.

Now, in 2014, it’s too late for that. The amount of CO2 we’ve added to the atmosphere would keep warming the planet for another 20 years or so even if we stopped adding to it today, but even that isn’t the whole story. The heat we’ve already added to the planet has been enough to trigger a number of feedback loops that are increasing the rate at which the planet warms. Lowered albedo, melting of the permafrost, increased evaporation through higher temperatures, and decreased photosynthesis through heatwaves and droughts – all of these may to be enough to drive continual warming for centuries to come.

So, if the protest movement is successful, and the problem is acknowledged, what comes next? If we can’t stop the warming, then is there any point in trying?

In a word, yes. There is a point. But the goal has changed. We are no longer fighting to stop the warming, we’re fighting for the long-term survival of our species, and of our civilization.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about what that means, the kinds of action we can take, and the sort of changes we need to make in how we think as a society. In this series, I’m going to cover topics like food production, energy generation, energy storage, water use, disaster preparedness, and the art of thinking generations ahead.