Monday, January 11, 2016

The Climate Science Global Warming Model, Part II: Implications for Action

To repeat:  In this series of blog posts, I attempt to give an overall view of the physics/chemistry-based climate science dealing with climate change and today’s global warming.  I do so because I can’t find an overall summary such as the one I’m about to try to create.  My hope is that readers will understand why this science makes me so alarmed and seemingly so pessimistic.  As always, misunderstandings and misstatements are my fault and do not reflect on the science itself.

Implications from Climate Science for Action on Global Warming

I don’t want to stray too far from the science in discussions of implications for actions in fighting today’s global warming.  However, it seems to me that there are very clear links between the science and certain strategies that are worth discussing.  Here they are:

1.       Mitigation is far more important than adaptation.  Here, mitigation means action directly aimed at ceasing carbon emissions, e.g., converting a house to solar heating/cooling, while adaptation means changing our environment to handle present and future changes in it due to global warming – for instance, changing the mix of heating and cooling devices to emphasize greater efficiency at cooling a house, or moving away from ocean shorelines.  The point that climate science makes is that when we are choosing between $1000 of spending on mitigation and $1000 of spending on adaptation, in the long run, we are better off spending on mitigation.  Remember, many warming-related damages increase exponentially, and that increase is happening extremely fast, and therefore the increment of comfort gained now, even if it suffices to handle the changes arriving 40 years from now, is not equivalent to the lesser damage caused by doing mitigation now, even with a reasonable NPV factored in.  This is particularly true when we assume, as seems likely, that your behavior replicated over a major proportion of a global population will have a major impact on the effectiveness of mitigation.

2.       Certain key complementary strategies are also vital to success.  In particular, we may cite reductions in emissions of black carbon; strategies aimed at keeping a large proportion of reserves of oil, natural gas, oil shale/tar sands, and above all coal, in the ground for the next 2000 years; water conservation and better soil-erosion handling to allow the maximum of future arable land; cessation of fertilizer and garbage runoff into the oceans, to delay or mitigate killing of ocean life/food; and investment in the lands that we are likely to move to and their future ecosystems, so that we may eventually move to them at low cost and live in them with low carbon emissions.

3.       There should be investment in moving to low-carbon-emissions technologies, products, and services at a much greater and/or more rapid rate than we are doing now.  Climate science – in particular, the records of increases in atmospheric carbon at Mauna Loa, Hawaii – tells us that our present efforts are not yet having a really detectable effect on the exponentially increasing amount of atmospheric carbon.  We need to do much more, as soon as possible. 


I first began to read and write about climate science – peripherally – about 6 years ago.  At that time, the core climate science as I have laid it out here was in existence.  In the last 6 years, all that has happened has given greater detail, firmed up the data behind some of the conclusions, and fleshed out the model with particular cases such as the effects of a lower Arctic-northern America temperature gradient.  As science, it is more solid than ever; but I knew that then.

Almost all the climate science news since then that I did not anticipate but recognized was possible has been negative.  The visible effects of climate change have showed up in dramatic form 15 years earlier than I expected – Hurricane Sandy, 60 degrees in Boston on Christmas Day.  The ancillary effects have moved the consensus estimate for effects associated with a doubling of atmospheric carbon from 2-3 degrees C to 4 degrees C.  Permafrost has begun to melt earlier than hoped, and the Antarctic land ice at a greater rate than first estimated.  At least the research on what it would take to turn Earth into Venus has given us 900 million years of breathing room.

As a model explaining the workings of the world, I find climate science breathtakingly elegant and beautiful.  As a new way of seeing the world I live in, it is a constant revelation.  As a pointer to the implications of today’s global warming, I find it hard not to feel sick.  How would you feel, if you thought there was a significant likelihood that the vanishing of 90% of arable land would mean the death of at least ½ of all of today’s great-great-grandchildren (and yes, that includes those of the rich)?  And that that likelihood turned into a probability if we continued to do pretty much what we have been doing for another 60-100 years or so?

I am reminded of Lincoln’s tale of the little boy who stubbed his toe.  He was too old to cry, he said, but it hurt too much to laugh.  I appreciate climate science very much; but its implications hurt too much for me to revel in it.

Happy New Year.

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