Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Climate Change: The News Is Sadder Than You Think

Hopefully, any readers are aware of the likely climate-change implications of the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency.  These include disengagement from international efforts to slow climate change, making government-driven change much more difficult; deregulation of “carbon pollution”, with predictable effects on the ability of wind and solar to replace rather than supplement oil; and effective barriers to any use of incentives (“carbon tax” or “carbon market”) to drive carbon-emissions reduction.  The effect on climate-change efforts is that China (hopefully) and Europe will have to drive them; which is a bit like trying to pedal a tricycle with one wheel gone.

And that doesn’t even include the likely effects of the new administration’s cuts in funding to NOAA, on whose metrics much of the world depends.  We have seen this before, in miniature, during the HW Bush years. 

But there is more sad news – much more – some of which I have learned very recently.  It concerns – well, let’s just go into the details.

Sea-Level Rise By Century’s End:  3 Feet and Rising

One recent factoid published, iirc, in thinkprogress.org/tagged/climate, is that in the period from late 2014 to early 2016, oceanic water levels rose by 15 mm, i.e., at an annual rate of 10 mm – up from 3 mm per year before that.  Very little of that rise is due to el Nino, which began around Dec.-Jan. of this year and ended around April-May.  Instead, there is a clear connection to the sharp rise in global temperature which began in 2014. 

So let’s put this number (10 mm/year) in perspective.  If we guesstimate the first 14 years of the 21st century at 3 mm/year, then 42 mm are already banked.  To get to 909 mm (3 feet) will therefore require 86.7 years.  There are 86 years from 2015 to 2100.  So at today’s rates, we will reach 3 feet of sea level rise by some time in the year 2101.

In other words, 3 feet of sea level rise by 2100 – the prediction widely disseminated as late as a year ago – is already “baked in”.  And what reason do we have for thinking that matters will stop here?  There is no reason to expect global temperatures to decrease over the medium term, and good reason (atmospheric carbon increases) to expect them to continue to increase.  So we are talking sea level rise of over a foot by 2050, at the very least, and we are wondering if the new “more realistic” estimate of 6-9 feet of sea level rise may be too optimistic.

The Faster Rise of Atmospheric CO2 Isn’t Going Away – and Other Greenhouse Gases Are Following

Let’s start with the CO2 rise that I have been following since early this year.  The “baked in” (yearly average) amount of CO2 has reached, effectively, 405 ppm, as of October’s results about 1 ½ years after it passed 400 ppm permanently.  More alarmingly, the surge caused at least partly by el Nino is not going away.  I have been following CO2 measurements from Mauna Loa for about 5 years, and always before this year the 10-year rate of increase has been a little more than 1.0 ppm per year.  The el Nino and follow-on has added almost 3 ppm to that rate, making a rate of almost 1.1 ppm per year.  And the new rate of increase shows little signs of stopping, so that we can project a rate of 1.2 ppm within the next 5 years -- a 20 percent increase.

Global Warming Appears to Follow – Right Now

A second measurement of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – this one including all greenhouse gases, e.g., methane – has recently been discussed in neven1.typepad.com.  It now stands at over 483 ppm.  Some caution must be used in assessing this figure, since we have no figure for 1850 and the years following.  However, we can make a rough guesstimate, based on the facts that natural methane production would then have been lower than now, man-made methane production almost non-existent, and as of the early 2010s human methane production was approximately equivalent to natural methane production. 

This suggests that at least 2/3 of the gap between 400-405 ppm of carbon and 483 ppm of greenhouse gases as a whole is due to increases in human-caused non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.  To put it another way, human activities that have caused the 145-odd ppm increases in CO2 have also caused at least 2/3 of the 80-odd ppm difference between today’s CO2 atmospheric ppm and today’s total greenhouse gas atmospheric ppm.

This is consistent with Hansen’s thesis that a doubling of carbon ppm in the atmosphere would lead to 4 degrees C global warming, not 2 degrees – the additional warming comes partly from the aforementioned non-CO2 greenhouse gases, and partly from the additional “stored heat” at the Earth’s surface due to changed albedo as snow melts.  The reason for the difference between the two estimates, afaik, is that no one knew just how fast this additional warming would occur, since there is (and was, 55 million and 250 million years ago) clearly a lag time between large atmospheric carbon rises and increased non-CO2 greenhouse gases and “stored heat”. 

In summary, not only is the rise of atmospheric CO2 speeding up, but the effect that appears to have a much shorter lag time than we thought.  And so, there is real reason to fear that the global warming we are afraid of (presently estimated at 1.2-1.3 ppm above 1850 already) will in the near and intermediate term increase faster than we thought.

The Arctic Sea Melt Resumes

As late as a month ago, it was possible to argue that the ongoing melting away of Arctic sea ice was still on the “pause” it had been on since 2012.  And then, surprisingly, the usual refreezing occurring during October stopped.  It stopped for several weeks.  As a result, the average Arctic sea ice volume year-round reached a record low, and kept going.  And going.  As of the beginning of November, the average is now far below all previous years.

What caused this sudden stoppage?  Apparently, primarily unprecedented October oceanic and atmospheric heat in the areas where refreeze typically occurs in late October.  This is apparently much the same reason that minimum Arctic volume by some measures reached a new low in late September, despite a melting season with weather that in all previous years had resulted in much less melt than usual.

And what will prevent this from happening next year, and the year after?  Nothing, apparently (note that the 2016 el Nino had little or no effect on Arctic sea ice melt).  It now appears that we are still facing a September “melt-out” by the mid-2030s, at best.  I am happy that the direst predictions (2018 and thereabouts) are almost certainly not going to happen; and yet the scientific consensus has gone from “melt-out at 2100 only if we continue business as usual” to “melt-out around 2035 with much less chance of avoidance” in the last 5 years, and I hope against hope, given everything else that’s happening, that the forecast doesn’t slip again.

The Bottom Line:   Agility, Not Flexibility

I find, at the end, that I need to re-emphasize my concern, not just about the first 4 degrees C of temperature rise, but even more so the next, and the next.  And the next after that, the final rise.

I find that that a lot of people discount scientific warnings about loss of food production and so on, reasoning that the global market can, as it has done in the past, adapt to these problems at little cost, by using less water-intensive methods of farming, shifting farming production allocations north (and south) as the temperature increases, and handling disaster costs as usual while doing quick fixes on existing facilities to adapt.  In other words, our system is highly flexible; flexible enough to get us through the next 40-50 years, I think, while providing food for the developed world and probably the large majority of humanity. 

But, as a systems analyst will tell you, such a flexible system tends to make the inevitable crash far worse.  Patching existing processes (in climate change terms, adaptation) rather than fixing the problem at its root (in climate change terms, mitigation) causes over-investment in the present system that makes changing to a new, needed one far more costly – and therefore, far more likely to deep-six the company, or, in this case, the global market.

At a certain point, the average of national markets going south passes the average of global markets still growing, and then the cycle starts running in reverse:  smaller and smaller markets that can be serviced at higher and higher costs, with food scarcer and scarcer.  The only way to avoid total collapse into a system with inefficient production of the 1/10 of the food necessary for the survival of 9 billion people is mitigation; but the cost to do that is 10 times, 100 times what it was.  The result is brutal military dictatorships where the commander is the main rich person, as has happened so often throughout history.  Today’s rich will suffer less, because they make accommodations with the military; but they will on average suffer severely, by famine and disease. 

An agile system (here I am speaking about the ideal, not today’s usually far-from-agile companies) anticipates this eventuality, and moves far more rapidly towards fundamental change.  It can be done.  But, as of now, we are headed in the opposite direction.