Global cataclysm, mass extinctions and ecosystem collapse
All coming soon, to a planet near you.
Twenty years ago, June of 1988, Jim Hansen of the Goddard Space Institute presented the first sound data showing human involvement in changing the Earth’s climate. Since then all of his predictions, from temperature rise to melting of the polar ice caps and the glaciers, have come true. With new data, a more comprehensive understanding of the feedback mechanisms and better modeling, he sees much worse to come: sea level rises that will displace hundreds of millions of people, floods and drought on a scope and scale far beyond anything known in human history, extinction of half or more of the species on the planet and collapse of entire ecosystems.
Not to worry, though; we still have twenty years before it all spirals hopelessly out of control.
Hansen spoke at the National Press Club yesterday, and the only term that can be used for his outlook is grim. The most current data show that we have been underestimating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. A counterbalancing effect called “global dimming” has been masking the full impact of gaseous insulation. Global dimming results from atmospherically suspended particulates – soot and other aerosols – which reflect sunlight and reduce the amount of energy absorbed by the planet. This effect has acted as a counterbalance to the raising of surface temperatures from gasses, leading earlier models to over estimate the gasses effect.
With real increases being at the low end or below what the models predicted, skeptics (and liars) have claimed that the models are inaccurate and there is nothing to worry about. We now know that as the gaseous insulation effects begin to outstrip the reflective effects of soot there will be a sharp increase in global warming. If atmospheric CO2 levels are not reduced to 350 ppm or less, the warming process will engage more and more feedback loops that will accelerate the process beyond any hope of human influence. As a species, we will survive; as a civilized, decent society, however, we will be doomed.
From Hansen’s speech, emphasis added:
What is at stake? Warming so far, about two degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, seems almost innocuous, being less than day-to-day weather fluctuations. But more warming is already “in-the-pipeline”, delayed only by the great inertia of the world ocean. And climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.
Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.
More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well underway it will become unstoppable.
Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.
Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.
The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year.
Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.
And what is the probability of this disaster unfolding as predicted? Hansen again:
…I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.
That will be p < 0.01 for the statisticians among you. What it means in plain English is that there is no doubt; we are on the verge of drowning our seacoasts, destroying the food chain and killing off most of the species on the planet. The few remaining naysayers and skeptics may be ignorant, ill-informed, delusional or lying, but they are certainly wrong.
Hansen has some ideas about how to deal with the worst of them:
Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming.
CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.
He has a list of other necessary objectives, including an immediate halt to the use of coal, the conversion of vehicles to non-fossil fuel and the construction of a national interstate electrical grid based on buried high-voltage DC transmission. Like it or not, we will have to go now to non-fossil fuels including nuclear or we will – literally – drown in our own wastes. To keep ourselves, and our children, from disaster we will have to begin seizing control of the process now. There is no more time left to wait. If ever there was a call to arms for the whole of humankind, this is it.
Citizens in the UK have begun protests, including incitement of arrest, to stop the building of new coal-fired plants without CO2 mitigation. More, larger protests are planned beginning in August. The goal is to stop construction of any more new unmitigated coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile here in the US, as well as in the rest of the world, plans to build new coal-fired power plants by the hundreds continue, accelerating the speed of global warming and hastening doom.
The Republican intransigence on environmental destruction is the major roadblock to change, and they have been relentless in their lies and deceits. Five years ago, billing himself falsely again as environmentally concerned, Bush touted a new initiative to design and build “clean” coal-fired power plants. Last February, with little fanfare, the entire program was scrapped as unworkable and no functional alternative approach has been implemented.
This failure was no surprise to anyone willing to give a cursory look. The plan, the only plan, was to build new coal-burning power plants with the capacity to move the CO2 into geological formations where the gas would be absorbed. Never mind the Pollyanna hopefulness in that regard, since even the absorption part of the process is unproven; the plain fact is that capturing and storing only 10% of the harmful gaseous emissions generated from just today’s existing power plant capacity would require moving volumes of compressed carbon dioxide larger than the total annual world-wide flow of oil. That none of the steps in the approach has ever been proven is not the problem – if everything worked as planned on a technical basis, the scale alone makes it impossible to execute. That this plan could ever work was, from the beginning, a bald-faced lie.
Meanwhile, through obfuscation and deceit and misdirection and outright lies, the real objectives of the Plutocracy have been achieved; rising gasoline and heating fuel prices, extending dependence on dwindling and uncertain oil supplies, increasing drought, food shortages, environmental degradation, and continual war are all part of the plan. In the panic to come, attempts to sustain the unsustainable by drill, drill, drill here at home and the conquest of new oil lands abroad will create increasing levels of fear and deprivation, leading citizens to yield more and more civil rights. If you think the current attempts at undermining the Constitution are threatening, wait until you see what people are willing to give up when they are dying in the dark of thirst and starvation.
Those at the top of the economic ladder envision a future where 1% of the human race controls 90% of the capital and all the means of production. The rest of humanity, those who survive, will be kept in an economic, social and political subjugation teetering at all times at the margin of physical survival. The systematic destruction of our education system, growing lack of healthcare, obstruction of environmental concerns in the face of rising pollution levels, blocking of any attempts at conservation of resources, increasing militancy and systematically institutionalized under-and-un-employment are not random products of general incompetence or misguided philosophical differences. They are all part of a sophisticated plan of destruction that if it works will leave only the wealthy elite in comfort while the rest of the world’s population sinks into a medieval netherworld of hand-to-mouth survival distracted by the hijinks of Paris and Britney and lulled by reassurances that all is well from Plutocrat-owned politicians and MSM talking heads.
This is not a secret conspiracy; it is being done right out in the open, and with the willing complicity of near to 20% of the American populace (more than 33% now of registered Republicans) who believe that the end of the world is nigh and their God will arrive just in time to save them. (Fully a third of America's young believe the world will end with a Christian Armageddon.) They also believe that the rest of humankind, those who are not saved, is doomed to suffer the torments of hell here on earth – and they rejoice in that prospect. The merger of doomsday religion and government is exactly what they desire, and global destruction is what they relish. Continued penetration of religious fanatics into governance, lately the norm here in America under Republican administrations, cannot be further tolerated by the majority who recognize this suicidal nonsense for what it is.
The Republican-Plutocrat criminal conspiracy studied 1984 just like the rest of us, but for them it is not a caution – it is a plan. Unless they are stopped, unless the citizens of today are willing to put their freedom and if necessary their lives on the line to put an end to this madness now, there will be no future worth preserving.
Hansen’s latest speech is here [pdf]. Read it and weep.