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Why More Heat Means The End Of The Predictable World As We Know It
Who Is Causing This? Pogo Was Right
February 13, 2019
Why More Heat Means The End Of The Predictable World As We Know It
By not confronting the causes of climate change, we're setting ourselves up for huge economic and ecological impacts. A comprehensive analysis by Lance Olsen on this and the Green New Deal
My somewhat lengthy acquaintance with climate science hasn’t led me to see a lifeless planet, a treeless planet, or human extinction across the entire Earth. Nothing I know or think I know persuades me to expect anything quite that dire, at least not solely due to a hotter world.
I do see us headed in that direction, just because we’re still cranking up the heat with just about everything we do in the normal course of our daily routines. Because this trend persists, and might persist for too long, I am persuaded that, beginning in the lifetime of children born since 1980, a plausibly hot, hotter, and much hotter world could set off a severe and gruesome culling of the human herd, and that we’ll be bringing a lot down with us.
The end of the world? No. There’ll be some extinctions but, for humans, the effects of a hotter world are just a matter of increasing threat to familiar hopes for life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—and, yes, capital wealth including household wealth. In other words, the end of the seemingly predictable world as we know it today.
Some of this is clearly preventable, in theory, but the prevention clearly depends on our willingness to pull back from familiar daily routines of a recklessly comfortable way of life. A recent Ambio article by some heavyweights in climate laid out the situation well enough.
A team including the likes of Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, Veerabhadren Ramathan, Johan Rockstrom, Marten Scheffer and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber begin the abstract of their article by saying “Over the past century, the total material wealth of humanity has been enhanced …” and they end it by saying, “we risk driving the Earth System onto a trajectory toward more hostile states from which we cannot easily return.”
Their analysis is echoed across the scientists’ side of the situation. But it doesn’t take a scientist to get the drift of what’s going on. Liam Denning is former investment banker, editor of one of the Wall Street Journal’s most closely read columns —Heard on the Street — and a former columnist for Financial Times. Writing for Bloomberg, Denning has come to the conclusion that, “We have built our standard of living on forms of energy that we now know pose a threat to our very existence,” and that, “this is a conversation that is long overdue — and necessarily begins with a shout, not a whisper."
Why has it come to this? How did we get here? What will be affected by it, and when will the impacts hit home? Who has been driving us in this direction? And where has all this been taking us? Has it, at long last, been steering us to a Green New Deal?
Why? Enter Calls For A Green New Deal
Threats to our lives and times are rising because heat is rising, and this one change alone has consequences. Heat and its consequences span far across both environmental, economic, and physical foundations of human life. The higher it climbs, the greater the risk that it will scorch about everything that we’ve long taken for granted.
Once upon a time, the major cause for worry about a hotter planet was the carbon we routinely dump to the atmosphere thanks to daily combustion of fossil fuels. The dumping has turned the atmosphere into a better and better heat trap, and the heat we’ve already trapped in ocean and atmosphere has already become a powerful player over our lives and times.
Obviously enough, this familiar level of heat was already going to cause trouble, including real risk of pushing us out past danger points of 1.5 and even 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than before the fossil fuels era. But our routine dumping has been getting even more dangerous to life, liberty, happiness and capital wealth because it’s been inviting some muscular new kids to the block.
The new kids are seriously threatening to kick the heat to new heights on their own, independent of anything we do.
The new kids have a name—positive feedbacks. Positive feedbacks involve the accelerating loading of carbon into the atmosphere. For example, human burning of fossil fuels sends more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which warms temperatures, which causes the permafrost—loaded with carbon—to melt faster, thus releasing even more carbon dioxide, creating a feedback loop.
Although the series of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] assessments have given them scant mention, science has known of their implications since the 1890s.
Back then, the world had already begun burning coal at scale, it was already understood that burning the stuff added carbon dioxide (CO2) over and above what was already normal to the atmosphere. And, by 1860, it had already been established that CO2 is a heat-trapping gas. So, using the crudest, simplest model in the history of climate science, physical chemist Svante Arrhenius was able to predict in 1896 that increasing combustion would one day heat the world enough to force a loss of snow and ice.
Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone National Park. Snow cover not only serves as frozen natural water reservoirs that feed rivers and moisten landscapes but they help reflect warming sunlight. The decline in land mass covered by snow, owed to climate change, is a contributing factor to global warming. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
Arrhenius also knew that snow and ice reflect incoming solar radiation away from Earth, with a cooling effect called albedo. So, taking his analysis a next logical step, he expected that loss of albedo would increase Earth’s heat above and beyond the heat trapped by CO2, and would continue to heat the world on its own..
This was the world’s first glimpse into positive feedbacks. It wasn’t the last. We now have a virtual gang of them at the door, and the language of climate emergency has been gaining traction far and wide, in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US.
Why Times 10?
A journalist, Mark Lynas, was the first to take multiple positive feedbacks seriously enough to devote a book to setting out their clout. In his book, Six Degrees, Lynas describes a series of positive feedbacks that could force the world to get hotter, then hotter, then hotter yet, even if humans quit burning fossil fuels.
For example, Lynas cited the scientific record of evidence that the Amazon forest is at risk of dieoff from the same heating that endangers ice and snow. The scientific community had expressed concern that a collapse of the vast Amazon forest would have global consequences from the dying forest’s release of carbon to the atmosphere.
Lynas took that analysis to a next step, pointing out that the new dose of heat from a dying Amazon could force a thawing of permafrost, melting its ice, and setting its own carbon free to force the planet into even greater heat, thanks to one positive feedback setting the stage for another.
Sketching out the plausible consequences of serial positive feedbacks, Lynas argued that we could kick this process into gear if we if we fail to halt the heat at 2 degrees above the advent of the fossil fuels era. His analysis pointed to an increase of heat to 6 degrees C (that's an average of 7.2 degrees hotter Fahrenheit), and “mass extinction.”
At the time, climate scientist Eric Steig remarked that, if what he read about Lynas’ book in the newspapers was true, it was probably alarmist and not worth reading.
Lynas asked Steig to read it himself, so he did. After reading it, Steig said, “Mark Lynas will no doubt be pleased that I very much like the book. To be sure, it is alarming, but the question of whether it is alarmist is a more difficult one.” Steig went on to say, “all climate scientists (particularly those that talk to the public) ought to read this book."
Nine years later, in an article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientific community had also taken multiple positive feedbacks seriously. Without mentioning Lynas’ earlier work, the scientist authors considered how these feedbacks can hit in a series, like dominoes in a row, falling, one after another, forcing the heat higher, then higher, then higher yet, even if humans quit burning fossil fuels. Where Lynas saw risk of heat rising by about 6 degrees C, the scientists concluded that we could kick the heat higher by about 5 degrees C.
This has huge implications for the world, North America, the US, the West, the northern Rockies, high plains and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
This has huge implications for the world, North America, the US, the West, the northern Rockies, high plains and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The scientists identified10 positive feedbacks that could set the world on a trajectory toward a “Hothouse Earth.” Like Lynas, they concluded that we could kick this process into gear if we fail to halt the heat at 2C above the advent of the fossil fuels era.
Getting a 2 degrees C warming, they say, could set the planet on a trajectory that “would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies.” They concluded that avoiding two Celsius would require, among other things, “behavioral changes” and “transformed social values.”
Authors of the Hothouse Earth analysis could have added an 11th feedback from the heat added to oceans. Our dependency on fossil fuels has turned up the heat in the oceans, so that they can now evaporate — e-vapor-ate — more freely into the atmosphere above. Six years before the Hothouse Earth article, an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research had reported that, “water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas,” in the atmosphere, and that atmospheric heat could be forced even higher “through water vapor feedback.
Sunset over the Pacific Ocean taken from the International Space Station. Oceans function as vital carbon and heat sinks but their warming up also fuels acidification of the seas (threatening species like plankton, the building blocks of marine life) and is linked to climate change feedback. Photo courtesy NASA.
Even without an 11th positive feedback from the ocean, Hothouse Earth co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber has said the language of global warming “doesn't capture the scale of destruction."
Much the same concern about the language we use to describe the rise of heat had already been expressed in an assessment by Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; “For decades, we called it ‘global warming,’ an innocuous-sounding phrase invoking a gentle increase in worldwide temperatures, like turning up the thermostat in a house.
“People asked, so the climate is getting warmer. Who cares?” said Michael B. McElroy, the Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard University. “And scientists are partly to blame for that because of how we’ve described climate."
Climate science has been struggling with this issue for years.
For example, in its October 13 2006 issue, Science quoted researcher Brian O’Neill’s concern that the IPCC reports don’t convey the full range of risks; “the extreme scenarios that tend to fall out of the IPCC process may be exactly the ones we should most worry about.”
In that same issue, Science quoted Michael Schlesinger, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign. Schlesinger remarked that, “Things are happening right now with the ice sheets that were not predicted to happen until 2100. My worry is that we may have passed the window of opportunity where learning is still useful.”
Science returned to these concerns in June, 2007, quoting climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf’s comment that, “The IPCC has been overly cautious in not wanting to give any large number to [future] sea-level rise.”
Reporting that “Scientists are still trying to strike a balance between their habitual caution and growing concern over uncertain but disastrous greenhouse outcomes,” Science also quoted glaciologist Robert Thomas’ remark that, “ ‘Most scientists don’t want to, but I think we need a way to explore’ the extreme end of the range of possibilities.” Thomas told Science that scientists need “a better way” than IPCC’s consensus approach, “so we can communicate with the public without becoming scaremongers.”
A crown fire races across Yellowstone in 2013. Researchers say that not only will drying forests make bigger wildfires more common but later in this century much of the forested habitat that covers the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems could be converted to grass and brush lands, markedly different from today. Photo courtesy National Park Service.
None of this can or should be taken as an excuse to blame what James Hansen has called “reticent’ scientists for the climate predicaments we face today. Actually, even their cautious warnings have been attacked by titans and toadies of the fossil fuel industry in the grossest and most scaremongering ways. Their attacks have so mortified so many that researchers including America’s Michael Mann and Canada’s Andrew Weaver have been targeted with death threats.
For a wide variety of reasons, then, today’s CO2 levels have already opened the door to the muscular new extremes of heat we’ll get from 10 or more positive feedbacks. Because the CO2 from our fossil fuel economy remains in the atmosphere for centuries, the open door for positive feedbacks won’t be closing anytime soon, and the risk of global emergency looms large unless we overcome the normal human resistance to change. And we haven't even delved into the subject of methane and it accelerating the feedback loop. Read the new series on methane appearing at Sightline.
How Do We Address Climate Change?
The extent of heat we’ll get from the growing gang of positive feedbacks depends a lot on how we spend our time and money. Just as the Hothouse Earth authors suggested, individual behavior and broader social values come into focus.
In May, 2018, the journal Nature Climate Climate reported that “The big challenge is still to deliver emissions reductions at the pace and scale needed, especially in a world where economies are driven by consumption.”
While there’s all the complexity anyone could want in our consumption’s power to force the heat to increasingly dangerous levels, at least three things are glaringly clear. First, the American and other major economics are driven by consumption. In the US, consumer spending props up about two-thirds of the national economy.
Obviously enough then, any suggestion that consumers pull back on spending will immediately trigger cries that the economic skies will fall. Frugality is damned as calamity.
Second, “The poorest half of the world population is responsible for “only around 10 percent of total global emissions attributed to individual consumption."
Obviously enough, the poor just don’t have the spending power to drive much consumption in the first place. Hopping a flight to some distant football game, for example, is the last thing on this half of the world’s minds. Ditto for the purchase of a clothes dryer to substitute for hanging clothes out in the open air to dry, or a hair dryer to substitute for a towel.
This leaves the rest of the world responsible for 90 percent of the consumption that’s been forcing the climate into increasingly dangerous change. We’re the ones, then, in position to make a difference to how hot the planet will be.
Third, the corporations and the moneyed world as a whole have important roles to play. Resistance to changing their familiar routines — a.k.a., business as usual—has kept these entities dragging their feet, same as it has for anyone else. But they’ve recently come more and more awake to the risk that they, too, face in an increasingly hotter word. And some are moving directly against governments’ and corporations resistance to change.
For example, recognizing the risks that a hotter world brings to capital wealth, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, a group of 415 investment firms managing combined assets worth more than twice the size of the entire Chinese economy, has told corporations to come clean on reporting their climate risks.
The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, a group of 415 investment firms managing combined assets worth more than twice the size of the entire Chinese economy, has told corporations to come clean on reporting their climate risks.
That’s not all. This undoubtedly influential group also told governments to back away from reliance on thermal coal, and to give up subsidizing fossil fuels, and to get on with putting a price on carbon.
The beauty of this investment group’s four-point pressure campaign is that it doesn’t focus on corporate reform as a single silver bullet sufficient to the cause. It also urges government reform on three counts, not one, rejecting any suggestion that some single action by government can do the job. That’s consistent with climate scientist’s recent urging that action will be needed across broad swaths of our lives and times.
The group’s four-point campaign also begins to approximate, and could become incorporated in, the broader approach suggested by advocates for the Green New Deal. But, however the Green New Deal itself works out, the Quixotic quest for a silver bullet has delayed realistic thinking for too long.
That said, corporations deservedly got the spotlight in the December 22, 2018 issue of Forbes: “… the argument that powerful corporations could do more than they are to reduce GHG emissions is almost undeniable. The argument—and we need to have it—should be how much more and how quickly should they do more.”
Yes, and part of that debate has to recognize that businesses and corporations themselves are consumers, and, like any other consumer, could do more by doing less, specifically by spending less on consumption of energy.
The retail industry including grocery stores is a prime example of business and corporations as consumers. I’ve shopped in grocery stores with ceilings three stories high. These stores and other retail outlets could reduce their spending on energy for heating and cooling by lowering their ceilings, and, at the same time, do their bit toward saving the world from heat. Spread across the nation’s retail industry, these double-savings retrofits could pack real clout in any campaign against the growing gang of positive feedbacks.
Nevertheless, some advocates have put the onus on corporations by stressing that individuals and households can’t do it alone. Derrick Jensen, for example, points out that households can “only” reduce national carbon footprint by 22 percent.
That’s true enough, but it doesn’t get individual consumers off the hook. Who would recommend falling short by as much as 22 percent?
Which brings us right back around to the reality that some households are well-off enough to do a lot more spending on consumption than others. This fact does not hand us a simple dichotomy of rich nations and poor ones. It holds about equally true within rich nations, including the US.
As Business Week reported in its November 21, 1994 issue, “The gap between high- and low-income families has widened steadily since about 1980, hitting a new high every year since 1985.” The upshot is that, even within the US, there’s been a growing inequality in how much consumption people can afford to give up without feeling unnecessary and unreasonable levels of pain.
This leaves the rest of America responsible for holding the heat at livable levels by cutting back on consumption. Especially in the US, this is likely to be the third rail of climate politics. What politician can dare to tell comfortable, well-off voters they need to learn to get by with less?
We have yet to see American, Chinese, European or other politicians echoing the 2012 WWF message that, “We have only one planet and the time has come to transform our present lifestyle and consumption patterns."
Instead, former US president George H. W. Bush had already declared in 1992 that “The American way of life is not negotiable.”
What, and When?
Rising heat and its consequences are already affecting everything, not just the Amazon, Antarctica, and the Arctic, not just polar bears and pika, not just drying rivers or dying trees around the world, not just the life support system as a whole. Alas, concern about those was never going to turn the tide, because it’s easy not to care about polar bears and easy to dismiss the life support system as an airy abstraction.
Worse, campaigns to protect the environment have long been painted as an enemy of the economy. That old habit won’t change easily. Even at grassroots level, many still believe that blaming humans for a hotter world is “a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. economy.” But the joke’s on them, because we’ve come to point of endangering the environment and the economy at the same time.
Indicating the worldwide scale of threat to the economy, World Finance magazine recently pointed out that, “It is becoming more and more apparent that the developing threat of climate change is not simply damaging the earth’s natural ecosystem, but is also harming the world economy.
Indicating this risk specifically for the US economy, a 2018 Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond staff analysis found that even a modest one degree Fahrenheit temperature increase begins to take the wind out of the economy’s sails. In fact, the study found evidence that “rising temperatures could reduce U.S. economic growth by up to one-third over the next century."
The concern didn’t stop with that one report. In January 2019, American Banker magazine warned that “the planet is warming at an alarmingly rapid rate, and unless swift action is taken to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, the economic costs will be severe."
Citing “huge costs seen in climate inaction,” Business Insurance magazine points directly to what we all face if we fail to stop “the potential dire economic consequences of climate change."
The Bloomberg Climate Changed newsletter summarized the situation on February 7, 2019: “The last five years were collectively the world's hottest on record. That warming, which NASA and NOAA directly link to human activity, has immediate financial consequences.” The summary added that “Climate change isn't just an expanding threat to the environment; it's already a massive drag on the economy.”
It’s not just banks and insurance companies at risk from a hotter world. Households and individuals galore will take direct hits, some from rising seas that destroy homes once regarded as the epitome of the the American Dream, others from the heat and drought so basic to fires that burn homes to the ground, and yet others when drought dries up household wells — what’s a house worth when it loses its water?
Household and personal exposure to climate risk doesn’t end there. Thanks to low interest rates, many households pulled money out of savings accounts and used it to buy shares in the stock market. Pointing out that households are exposed to climate risk from this quarter, too, Financial Advisor magazine recently warned that “climate change could sandbag investment portfolios in 2019.”
As if all that isn’t risky enough for individuals and households, their pension funds are exposed to climate risks. A pensions industry newsletter, Professional Pensions, has warned of “the major economic impact of climate change and the serious long-term threat that it poses to pension funds' investments.
Something’s happening here, and what it is is becoming increasingly clear. After decades of claims that protecting the environment endangers the economy, it turns out that we’ve been endangering both. I have to count myself among those who see this emergent risk as an emergency. If our politicians won’t tell us that, we have to be telling it to them.
Who Is Causing This? Pogo Was Right
There are billions of us, which means a world with lots of consumers, and our numbers make a huge difference.
No matter how much consumption we indulge in, even if we relied entirely on combustion of fossil fuels, the heat we add to the atmosphere would be vanishingly small if the total human population added up to 100 people, even 100 million. Alas, the human population now adds up to about 7,000 million.
Of these, an estimated 1,700 million have been identified as the"consumer class"—the people described by National Geographic as “characterized by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.
For example, China’s middle class is but a fraction of its total population, but it’s middle class is roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United States. And many of the newly well-off Chinese are adopting what then US president George H. W. Bush referred to as the American way of life — flying off to vacation hotspots, demanding more living space, buying food, fuel, furniture, and clothing from halfway around the world.
European consumers had already joined this parade. When researchers set out to quantify how European consumers could reduce their carbon footprint, they determined that about 25 percent of the possible reduction could be achieved with reduction of spending on imports.
In 2017, Barron’s, widely recognized as a heavyweight in financial reporting, made the same point, and implied a role for government policy in saying, “As a nation, we ask a lot of our consumers. In tough times, such as after the 9/11 attacks, we urged consumers to shop and eat out as a sort of civic duty.”
The article went on to say, “Today, we export American-style consumption to the world, with shopping malls in communist China, and McDonald’s feeding more than two million customers a day in the Middle East.”
Where Has All This Taken Us?
We’ve arrived at a point of dawning realization that we have no single silver bullet to save us, and must instead do many things, and very soon, in order to take the muscle out of serial feedbacks that could kick our lives and times into dangerously escalating heat.
If we fail, it will be at the cost of lives, liberties, the pursuit of happiness, and a loss of wealth greater than the cost of prevention. On this, Ben Franklin had it right: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Enter, the Green New Deal. As I type these words early in 2019, everyone is agreed that the Green New Deal is lacking in detail. Some say that as a simple point of fact. Others see it as cause for criticism.
But it’s lack of detail has to be put in perspective both scientific and political.
Like the Green New Deal in its call for bold action, the recent IPCC special report on 1.5 C found that halting the heat short of 1.5 C above the fossil fuel era would necessitate, "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes". However, like the Green New Deal, that widely cited report didn’t cite specific details of these "far-reaching and unprecedented" changes.
America’s most recent — fourth — national climate assessment, a product of 13 federal agencies, cited need of “substantial and sustained global efforts,” but that widely cited report also didn’t provide specific details of what these efforts must be.
The recent PNAS article on a Hothouse Earth pointed to need for, take a deep breath, “... decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.” Like the Green New Deal, the PNAS article didn’t spell out the daunting details across these important efforts.
Did it have to? Did any of these scientific analysis have to flood us with detail before we could get the drift? Is it really so hard to understand that we’re up against something big enough to span everything from pension funds to polar bears, ice fields to insurance policies?
On the political side, the details will be coming soon enough, in the form of proposed specific legislation for this and that piece of the big Green New Deal pie. After all, bargaining over details is part and parcel to politics, and there’ll be plenty of that in the coming weeks and months.
But in politics, too, just as in science and economics, the basic message is plain. We have our work cut out for us, we need to get on with it soon.
Sorting through the details isn’t an insurmountable challenge because much of that work has been done. For instance, there are now 415 major investment managers who won’t oppose a Green New Deal that includes their basic recommendation that governments need to quit subsidizing fossil fuels. And all those grocery stores with ceilings three stories high? I for one find cause to cheer the Green New Deal’s aims for retrofitting buildings all across America.
And it’s not that the champions of a Green New Deal have left us clueless for very long. The framework they issued on Thursday, February 7, 2019 is packed with enough meaty stuff to get the conversations rolling. As Vox’s David Roberts says, “at last something to argue about.”
Because Roberts has followed this issue as well as any and better than most, I feel totally as ease with recommending his take on what’s now “an official Green New Deal. Here’s what’s in it.
I see this latest declaration of the Green New Deal as every bit as prosocial as it is pro-environment and, for that matter, economically friendly. It’s advocates aren’t afraid to confront the long-running trend of antisocial economic inequality that Business Week had spelled out for all to see in 1994: “The gap between high- and low-income families has widened steadily since about 1980, hitting a new high every year since 1985.”
That’s not a rosy picture for anyone to ponder, but it hasn’t gone away. Indeed, The Washington Post reported on February 7 2019 that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell warned that income inequality is the nation’s biggest economic challenge in the coming decade. As quoted by the Post, Powell said income growth for middle- and working-class Americans “has really decreased,” while “growth at the top has been very strong.”
He said we need to do something about it; “We have some work to do to make sure that the prosperity we do achieve is widely spread.” The Fed chairman didn’t endorse or even mention the Green New Deal, but he seems to have its back on at least that one important issue.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Long interested in the tensions between environmental protection and economic demands, in 1981 Lance Olsen took two seminars on economics from Tom Power, then-chairman of the University of Montana Dept. of Economics. After reading a 1970s Science article on atmospheric ionization, his attention had also turned to topics in the atmospheric and related sciences. He was founding president of the Great Bear Foundation and re-elected to that office every year for 10 years until his resignation in 1992. For the last 15 or more years, he’s managed a listserv on climate and biodiversity primarily for scientists and staff of conservation groups operating at local, state, regional, national and international scale.
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