I along with many others noted the milestone of CO2 atmospheric concentrations passing 400 ppm last month – but that’s not all the data are telling us.
I recently checked Mauna Loa (and global) CO2 for the first time since Mauna Loa crossed 400 ppm for a day. It appears that in the last week in May, it was above 400 ppm on average for a full week, and on one day it approached 400.5 ppm. For the month of May, Mauna Loa CO2 was nearly 400 ppm (399.77) and was approximately 3 ppm higher than last year. It appears that so far this year Mauna Loa and global CO2 are averaging close to 3 ppm above last year, which would be a figure well above all other years since 1998 (2.93 ML). Btw, last year's was the second largest increase on record (2.65).
My overall conclusion: I don't know if this will affect overall weather the way 1998’s record CO2 increase may have (the year of the global yearly temp record, which has not been surpassed in a major way since, although we're getting pretty darn close). But it does add a potential major temperature booster. It does seem to confirm that CO2 atmospheric concentration continues to increase exponentially rather than linearly. And it does present a bleak prospect for the next few years.
What do I mean?
Still “Business As Usual”
The usual phrase for following the CO2-emissions track we have been on for the last 160 years, and especially the last 35 years, is “business as usual”. We see a lot of planning and some hopeful examples from nations like Germany and Sweden in trying to get away from this kind of inexorable percentage increase in emissions that results in exponentially increasing CO2 concentrations and leads to temperature increases from now on well above the 2 degrees C (actually, 2.6-2.8 C according to what I know of the latest credible research) that everyone seems to be trying not to surpass. In fact, “business as usual” has been estimated to result in perhaps 9 degrees F of global average temperature increase and 16 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Considering the fact that the models saying this are not nearly adequately factoring in permafrost melt that will lead to major additional CO2 releases to the atmosphere (and a few harder-to-estimate factors such as likely major increases in methane emissions), you should view the temperature figure as one that we will achieve only with extreme luck. Me, I’m guessing more like 12 degrees temperature rise and 20 feet sea level rise (plus 20 feet increase in storm surge).
What the Mauna Loa and global CO2 figures are telling us is that our present efforts are still not having a significant enough effect on “business as usual.” This suggests, for example, that the US figures showing perhaps a 7% reduction through 2011 or 2012 (figures for 2012 represent a preliminary estimate that has been shown in the past to underestimate actual emissions) probably represent the US multinational companies exporting their emissions to countries like China and India. They also suggest that the US switch to natural gas has far less effect on CO2 emissions than anticipated, and that announced Chinese efforts to reduce emissions have had a minor (if any) effect on what is now the world’s greatest CO2-emissions ramp-up.
A Call To Face Real Reality
It seems to me that much of the commentary about what to do about this simply does not comprehend the full dimensions of “business as usual” as we have been practicing it for the last few decades, including the ongoing efforts to do something about global warming. So here’s my initial attempt to summarize the way I see it.
Roughly speaking, political reality breaks down across the globe into three groups:
1. Climate deniers, or those who would effectively pursue policies that ramp up CO2 emissions further.
2. Political and economic ameliorators, who would attempt to respond to their understanding of the scientific research while placing first and foremost no or little change in the political and economic strategies that are presently being pursued, especially the ones that involve government regulation. That is, they seek to achieve what in the past has been change by achieving what is close to a positive-sum game for everyone. By the way, even carbon taxation right now falls under this heading.
3. The few (like me, unfortunately) who are calling for major changes now now now.
Responding adequately to this global warming crisis, it seems to me, requires that we face two unpalatable realities:
A. Neither group 1 nor group 2 will likely avoid the catastrophes that will result from “business as usual.” I’ll explain why in a minute.
B. However, things can always get worse. In other words, if we throw up our hands and say why bother to try if we can’t figure out how to do major changes, then, as in the case of handing matters over to the climate deniers, the catastrophes will be worse, and sooner.
Why do I say we can’t avoid catastrophes via group 2’s strategies? Let’s think of Japan just after WW II – about as devastated economically as it was possible to be. And yet, 30 years later, we found ourselves worrying if Japan was going to become the #1 economy in the world. It’s a story we have seen repeated over and over, and it involves the fact that as long as there is an outside world to take a hand and as long as the economy can piggyback via investment on its core labor and resource assets (I’m including farming here) underlaid by government regulatory “rules of the game”, the body of understanding of how to run a modern economy and government allows springing back to somewhere where you were before catastrophe struck.
But global warming’s effects, it seems to me, for the first time in human history, make this an approach that will break down sooner or later. In effect, in systems analysis terms, this is simultaneous strain on all key components of the system, increasing exponentially, that you respond to by fixing problems only after the fact and only to handle last year’s strain. In other words, while you are handling last year’s disaster and spending money to buy levees to handle that unprecedented disaster, another exponentially greater disaster is on the way, on which you are going to have to spend more money than this year’s. And this is happening on such a widespread scale across the world that all of the multinationals and all of the nations are facing these increasing strains simultaneously – and so their attempts to help each other are more and more limited.
At a certain point, then, things begin to operate basically in reverse. Political elites reflecting economic elites react to the rising costs by failing to serve greater and greater segments of the population in order to keep up the economy. This creates unrest and government breakdowns, which add yet more economic stress. This also means that governments and political elites will decrease efforts to cut emissions, continuing the emissions rise that counteracts to some extent the effects of the shrinking economy. And, at a breaking point, there is a major downward economic shift that represents a major decrease in the global economy’s ability to handle the increasing catastrophes.
All this sounds theoretical. I would suggest that the likely proximate cause of the breaking point will be agriculture – in other words, feeding ourselves. I am not just talking the developing world here: I am talking about the developed nations. A projection of the world in 2050-2090 shows most temperate-zone areas in extreme drought. Add to that drawdown of aquifers, loss of winter melt-off, and 55-odd feet of increased reach of salt water into today’s deltas and estuaries that comprise 1/3 of global food-growing, and we are talking about losing up to 90% of the world’s present growing areas, much of this occurring somewhere between 2050 and 2100. For example, California’s growing areas east of San Francisco provide an amazing amount of the world’s food. Presently proposed fixes to the dams that keep salt water out of this area, even if they ever get them done, are probably only going to be adequate to handle matters until 2050-2060. And there’s no obvious comparable area to move that production to.
Is there really anything to be done about all this? Lots. But it all involves (a) being far more aggressive on emissions reduction (“mitigation”) and (b) spending much more money now to handle oncoming disasters much further into the future (“adaptation”). (a) is our only hope for avoiding things being even worse than this; (b) is our hope for making things more tolerable in the horrible future world that we have already created for ourselves, and so increasing our chances of doing (a) well. Let’s be clear on this: even good adaptation won’t avoid the consequences of failure to mitigate. Protection for our food sources will sooner or later have to face the fact that we will have perhaps 10-20% of the food sources we have now. Whatever else we do, we need to mitigate first and foremost.
There is one known successful model for doing this: it’s called WW II in America. We accepted drastic changes in the economy, decreases in food supply, and disruptions in life in order to win the war. That is what the world could do, or what nations could do – except that this is a war of all against ourselves, in which we do not destroy the enemy unless the enemy effectively resists major changes in its economy and its peoples’ lives.
Failing that, I simply assert from long familial knowledge of politics and governments that there is far, far more that could be done about global warming under the covers than is being done now. Fundamentally, the ameliorators don’t really believe that this is anything new in human history. So they don’t take the political chances that they could get away with, and they don’t play dirty politics with the deniers.
And that brings me back to facing reality. For the ameliorators, for us all, a key part of the answer lies in facing the realities that I have outlined – and especially the part about the less you do, the worse things get, even beyond where they are now. And so, my own personal response is simply to say, it ain’t so, rather than keep silent – while making it clear who is worse than whom, and why that matters.
How should we react to the continuing exponential rise in CO2 atmospheric concentration? I would suggest that we begin by facing the real reality of its effects and of our failure to deal with those effects.