Two recent pieces of scientific evidence really hammer home the predicament of modern industrial civilization, and they have to do with the fact that our globalized, just-in-time economic model is hopelessly wed to carbon-based energy. Once one understands this, then there can be no delusions about why we are on such a catastrophic trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. As wasexplained in a previous post, GDP is fundamentally and directly linked to CO2 emissions. Below, two graphs(click to go to source) illustrate this fact:
It’s not really about evil fossil fuel companies, although they do certainly exert enormous political clout and do conspire to protect their business model by doing such things as spreading doubt on climate change science, but as with all corporations, externalizing social and environmental costs is endemic to the profit system and the coercive forces of competition in capitalist markets.
This clearly shows we are firmly on track for hitting 3.2-5.4°C warming by the end of the century or sooner. This kind of rapid warming is incompatible with most life on Earth. To get an idea of what the world will be like at 3°C once lag time catches up to real time, we can look back 3 million years ago in the Pliocene Era when CO2 levels were similar to today and temperatures were 3°C warmer:
The northern hemisphere was free of glaciers and icesheets, beech trees grew in the Transantarctic mountains, sea levels were 25 metres higher [Climate Dynamics, 26, 249-365], and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were 360-400 ppm, very similar to today. There are also strong indications that during the Pliocene, permanent El Nino conditions prevailed. Hansen says that rapid warming today is already heating up the western Pacific Ocean, a basis for a coming period of ‘super El Ninos’ [Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 103, 39, 14288-93]…
…The collapse of the Amazon is part of the reversal of the carbon cycle projected to happen around 3 degrees, a view confirmed by a range of researchers using carbon coupled climate models. Vast amounts of dead vegetation stored in the soil – more than double the entire carbon content of the atmosphere – will be broken down by bacteria as soil warms. The generally accepted estimate is that the soil carbon reservoir contains some 1600 gigatonnes, more than double the entire carbon content of the atmosphere…
…Three degrees would likely see increasing areas of the planet being rendered essentially uninhabitable by drought and heat. Rainfall in Mexico and central America is projected to fall 50 per central. Southern Africa would be exposed to perennial drought, a huge expanse centred on Botswana could see a remobilisation of old sand dunes [Nature, 435, 1218-21], much as is projected to happen earlier in the US west. The Rockies would be snowless and the Colorado river will fail half the time. Drought intensity in Australia could triple, according to the CSIRO, which also predicts days in NSW above 35 degrees will increase 2 to 7 times.
With extreme weather continuing to bite – hurricanes may increase in power by half a category above today’s top-level Category Five – world food supplies will be critically endangered. This could mean hundreds of millions – or even billions – of refugees moving out from areas of famine and drought in the sub-tropics towards the mid-latitudes. As the Himalayan ice sheet relentlessly melts with rising temperatures, the long-term water flows into Asia’s great rivers and breadbasket valleys — the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtse and Yellow rivers — will fall dramatically. If global temperatures rise by three degrees, and that’s becoming the un-official target for western governments, water flow in the Indus is predicted to drop by 90 per cent by 2100. The lives of two billion people are at stake.
As the Arctic continue to warm, melting permafrost in the boreal forests and further north in the Arctic tundra is now starting to melt, triggering the release of methane, a greenhouse gas twenty times more powerful than CO2, from thick layers of thawing peat. The West Siberian bog is estimated to contain 70 billion tonnes of CO2. Prof. Sergei Kirpotin, a botanist at Russia’s Tomsk State University, says: “There’s a critical barrier… Once global warming pushes the melting process past that line, it begins to perpetuate itself.” The West Antarctic ice sheet would likely to irreversibly melt.
• Five degrees of warming occurred during the Eocene, 55 million years ago: breadfruit trees grew on the coast of Greenland, while the Arctic Ocean saw water temperatures of 20C within 200km of the North Pole itself. There was no ice at either pole; forests were probably growing in central Antarctica.
• The Eocene greenhouse event was likely caused by methane hydrates (an ice-like combination of methane and water) bursting into the atmosphere from the seabed in an immense “ocean burp”, sparking a surge in global temperatures. Today vast amounts of these same methane hydrates still sit on subsea continental shelves.
• The early Eocene greenhouse took at least 10,000 years to come about. Today we could accomplish the same feat in less than a century.
• At the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago, up to 95% of species were extinct as a result of a super-greenhouse event, resulting in a temperatures rise by six degrees, perhaps because of an even bigger methane belch than happened 200 million years later in the Eocene.
• One scientific paper investigating “kill mechanisms” during the end-Permian suggests that methane hydrate explosions “could destroy terrestrial life almost entirely”. Acting much like today’s fuel-air explosives (or “vacuum bombs”), major oceanic methane eruptions could release energy equivalent to 10,000 times the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Another valuable website worth reading describes, degree by degree, the changes that will happen to the Earth from anthropogenic global warming. Due to the unpredictable nature of the internet and web pages disappearing, I have saved that essay as an entire screenshot here.
Keep in mind that the IPCC, an institution that has consistently underestimated the effects of anthropogenic climate change, states that in order to stay below 2°C of warming, emissions will have to be 40-70% lower than they were in 2010 by 2050 and at zero by the end of the century, “or could possibly even require taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, a controversial proposition.” As the Keeling Curve grows ever steeper year after year, the Hail Mary of a techno-fix inevitably becomes the only option left. However, concomitant with the CO2 problem is the acidification of the oceans which will require a miracle solution as well. As was explained in a previous post, if all emissions stopped yesterday, we would still be locked into a warming of 2.65°C.
The second important piece of information is a recent MIT study:
Above graph, from MIT’s Climate and Energy Outlook 2014, shows a drastic rise in global energy consumption by fuel type.
If CO2 levels were to double to 800ppm:
If carbon dioxide levels reach 800 ppm, ocean pH is projected to drop another .3 to .4 units (Today we have measured a decline of .1 pH units from 8.2 to 8.1 in the last century) – one of the scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by 2100 –raising levels of hydrogen ion, H +, 100 to 150 percent (Orr et al., 2005). As this happens and it will take “tens of thousands of years” for the chemistry of the oceans to return to pre-industrial levels, at least that is what the Royal Society of Britain proclaims. – link
We’re already seeing massive die-offs of oysters and scallops from an acidification (PH-decline) of 0.1PH, but what would happen at a drop of 0.3-0.4 units(150+% more acidic than at the beginning of the industrial revolution)?:
“…we found that reef development ceased below pH level 7.7… Ultimately, what we observed was that the diversity of reefs progressively declines with increasing CO2. At concentrations similar to those predicted for the end of this century at a ‘business as usual’ emissions scenario, the “coral reef” observed was depauperate and lacked the structural complexity of present healthy tropical coral reefs. These changes are simply due to ocean acidification, i.e., even without the projected +2°C warming of the oceans associated with rising greenhouse gases. The 0.5° warming we have already observed in the tropics in the last 50 years has already caused mass coral bleaching events and declining coral calcification.” – link
…The authors of the report, released today from the Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World, review the current science on the effects on marine organisms, and write that there is a “medium confidence” level that shellfish harvests will decline. There is also a medium confidence level that economic damage will result from impacts on coral reefs, with tourism, food and shoreline protection suffering. The size of this is unclear but one estimate is for $1 trillion in damage from coral loss alone.
How larger species will fare as oceans acidify is less clear. The report gives only a “low confidence” rating to the idea that top predators and fin fish catches will be reduced. But any losses in this area could hit hard the 540 million people whose livelihoods depend on such fisheries.
Scientists also have a “very high confidence” that the ocean’s capacity to take up carbon decreases as waters acidify. So even larger cuts in human greenhouse gas emissions than currently envisaged may be needed to meet targets set to limit global warming as a result, the authors write….
…The report authors also say that the acidity of the oceans could increase by 170% by the end of the century, corresponding to a drop in surface ocean pH by 0.32. This occurs under a pessimistic scenario of high human emissions. Since the industrial revolution, surface ocean pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1. As pH is a logarithmic scale, the increase in acidity since the industrial revolution could reach around 170% under this scenario.
Under lower-emissions scenarios, this decrease would be around 0.07. But current emissions show no sign of dropping to those necessary to achieve such a goal, cautions Riebesell.
“If you look at current trajectories we’re no way below the [high emissions scenario],” Riebesell says. “Of course we hope the human race is smart enough to learn at some point and turn the wheel round.” – link
As long as the shelves in the local grocery store are filled with relatively cheap food, the television is broadcasting the usual “bread and circus”, water is flowing from the faucet, and other creature comforts of industrial civilization are on tap, homo economicus will blithely ride into the dark future of mass extinction, tectonic shifts of the biosphere, and the collapse of an unsustainable lifestyle.
CNN is running a program of their newscasters’ family roots. Why do I feel like this is a slick PR campaign to put a main street face on the mainstream media? Sorry, but I still don’t trust them and we’re still on track for the collapse of modern civilization despite all their smug smiles.