My hope is that, if people visit these writings, we can participate in a real discussion of the truth about our extraordinary moment at this crossroads of Earth's history. The climate situation is so complex to understand, both in its physical nature and in the social and economic challenges, that very few will take the time to fully comprehend it, and many simply don't have the knowledge to do so.
Yet reducing the message of the climate emergency to boilerplate scripting is liable to lead us down dead end paths of action. Sometimes, the labyrinthine details must be followed closely, and in this article, I will write about two hairpin turns in the climate narrative that may be shaking off many people who otherwise would be very concerned about our planetary situation.
First, let's look at the science. When Pacing the Planet is out walking, we are giving people a "Climate Crisis Information Sheet" that reports Earth's temperatures are rising fast -- but is that really true? Well, strictly speaking, it is. For instance, 2012 was among the ten hottest years on record since 1880, and is the 36th consecutive year above the long-term average. Moreover, every year of the 21st century so far has been in the top 14 years for record heat.
However, over the past decade, scientists have noticed that the rate of temperature increase has been slowing, after the sharply increasing rate of the 1990s. This is information is making its way to a wider public audience, most recently (as far as I can tell) in a Reuters article last month that declared "Extreme global warming is less likely in coming decades..." What is going on here?
The actual report in the journal Nature: Geoscience, which Reuters used as the basis for its article, states that the researcher's modeling found that extreme global warming still occurs eventually, and moreover, the driving factor -- the doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere -- is on track to be realized within the next twenty years. Moreover, the variable that provokes the change in expected warming in the next few decades, according to the study, is just one: the amount of heat the world's oceans can absorb. Over the past decade, the oceans have absorbed more heat than anticipated, and these researchers imagine that trend will continue.
However, other studies have been finding that this decade of slower-than-expected rise in sea-surface temperatures is probably soon to end, and Nature: Geoscience also published a paper last year which says that so-called "missing energy" in the earth-climate system is, in fact, being stored in the oceans at the same rate as the energy imbalance in the upper-atmosphere. In other words, the ocean is heating up at the same rate as global warming is occurring on average across the whole planet. It would be a foolish policy to ignore the possibilities for swift social action to address climate change just because we think the oceans might delay the worst effects of global warming on land (even though increased heat is already seriously stressing the ocean ecosystems). This is especially true when we note that many non-linear, multivariable systems -- and the climate definitely is one -- undergo a period of slowing change just before they abruptly transition to a new, radically different state of behavior.
The Reuters article is curiously silent on some of these factors that are necessary to relate if the public is going to fully understand what is being said; perhaps, the incentive to frame a story as a reversal of such deeply established science is partly to blame. After all, if it could be said that global warming was exaggerated after all, the reporter who brought that news to light would be in line for some serious awards. Unfortunately, it can't be said.
Now we come to the second turn in the climate story that is worth close observation -- this one is political and sociological. Word is coming through to the mainstream media (at last) that the pathways to limiting global warming to 2 degrees C have been all but lost to us, now. The 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change will probably say as much.
This past Tuesday, The Guardian published an essay entitled: "Climate Change -- What's Next After the 2C Boundary?" which raised the alarming prospect that, as carbon emissions sail past the atmospheric budget for limiting the Greenhouse Effect to a 2 degree C warming, climate policy will become even more divorced from climate science. The essay argues that climate policy will no longer be informed by research because, after 2 degrees C, science doesn't have much to say that is positive or specific about how to avoid major calamity -- it is already too late.
Conversely, says The Guardian, climate science will no longer enjoy the extensive attention and funding it now receives; the failure of the world's governments to respond effectively to the science of atmospheric carbon budgets, which is demanding serious carbon rationing of us, will convince many politicians that science-based policy just isn't feasible, no matter the consequences. It is unlikely we would hear much complaint from the world's fossil fuel industries, should that happen.
At the same time, we are being told that policy discussion is shifting from mitigating climate change to preparing to adapt to it. Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city will spend $20 billion dollars to build protections from the kind of damage that was wreaked in last fall's Superstorm Sandy. Climate spokesman Al Gore says, in his new book, of his previous stance rejecting the strategy of adapting to climate change (rather than halting it): "I was wrong." And President Obama's science advisors have put adaptation preparedness at the top of the list of national priorities when responding to an extreme climate.
As a third ingredient to this Perfect Storm of confusion, we have Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, declaring in a recent speech, "What's the good of saving the Earth if humanity suffers?"
Again, let's look at the details. On the surface, it would appear that a positive movement is afoot, after decades of political stagnation. However, 2 degrees C was always a policy target, not a benchmark with any kind of scientific validity. The truth is that somewhere, invisible on the horizon, is a "point of no return," where the climate system will inexorably shift to a new stable point; and that shift may not be incremental, but abrupt and large. If humanity is serious about rescuing some part of the world we've known for 10,000 years, we must still curb our fossil fuel excesses dramatically, and now, because we are fast approaching the threshold where natural feedback loops will reinforce and amplify global warming.
We are presently crossing some of those thresholds; there are frozen lakes in the Arctic where you can break a hole in the surface and light a match, and a gas flare will erupt because of the methane that is releasing from the tundra there. Sadly, the 2014 IPCC report will, yet again, not include estimates of the amount of methane that is being released from the "permafrost" and the deep-ocean clathrates -- because figuring an amount is so technically difficult and politically dicey.
Why is it convenient for political and business leaders in the U.S. to shift focus to adaptation? They argue that the U.S. is reducing its emissions (though, as we said in this article, the U.S. is actually not reducing emissions when our import manufacture is taken into account), and that the burden of responsibility for blowing our future lies with China and India, principally.
In fact, this is a comment that Pacing the Planet has heard on occasion, in conversation with strangers on our walk: "What about China? Aren't they the real problem?" China seems to inhabit the American imagination as a kind of simultaneous fantasyland and bogeyman, remote, incomprehensible (Communist and Capitalist?), anger-inducing, intractable to American influence, particularly by actions of the American public. In some ways, it seems that American protesters of the nuclear arms race in the 1980s held more hope that the USSR would take note of their position than climate activists of the 2010s believe in the possibility that China might be responsive to U.S. climate policy.
And, then there's Rex Tillerson. When Tillerson speaks of "humanity suffering," he is alluding to the poverty that would presumably continue in China and India, if fossil fuel use is curbed. Last fall, in an agonizingly inane debate with Bill McKibben, Alex Epstein, President of the Center for Industrial Progress, tried at one point to pin the deaths (or future deaths) of millions of people on McKibben personally, arguing that fossil fuels grow food, aid medicine, transportation, and are now an inextricably woven part of human welfare, and that calls for restricting them are tantamount to consigning the developing world to an early grave. (Never mind that native people like the Guarani are going to war and/or committing suicide over the oil rush in South America, and let alone that native people in Canada are firmly opposed to the exploitation of the Tar Sands there.)
This is the neo-liberal error: that the only practical solutions to the climate crisis will be ones where capitalism can still thrive, and the free-market corporatocracy has a chance to profit from the new "green" economy. Bottom line is: someone still needs to be raking it in, if something is going to happen. Unfortunately, environmentalists wanting to get something done (like Al Gore) are now firmly rooted in this supposed axiomatic truth...even though climate science (not to mention science looking at a host of other environmental degradations) clearly shows that unrestrained capitalism is inimical to successfully dealing with these problems.
Very recently, Richard Muller suggested a pragmatism of a different kind. Muller is the Koch Brothers-funded researcher, skeptical of Greenhouse Effect claims, who set out with a self-assembled team of 250 to independently review the evidence for global warming, and famously announced himself convinced, in a NewYork Times editorial in 2011, that human-caused climate change is indeed real, and a very big problem.
Muller now says that if humanity is going to buy time and space in the atmospheric carbon budget, Americans have to provide the Chinese know-how and technology to initiate fracking of their own vast natural gas deposits -- and do it at cost, or for free. Getting the Chinese to burn natural gas instead of coal over the next twenty to thirty years, says Muller, would transform the carbon budget landscape, and perhaps even put the 2 degree C limit back on the table.
Of course, there are lots of legitimate concerns about fracking, but it is an important break from the self-justifying world of "market-driven solutions" to hear someone highly respected (and funded by the Koch's, no less) declare in a major newspaper that what we need is an industrial solution taken on a major scale that eschews the profit motive for the moral one.
He's not the first to suggest this kind of action, but perhaps -- hopefully -- his words will point the way to an important truth: fossil fuels are not the only way to feed and clothe people and lift them out of destitution. Unrestrained industry has often lost people a quality of life that will not be replaced for generations or millennia.
Soon we will hit the rock-bottom failure of the industrial, corporate, political world to meet even the most universally agreed upon benchmarks of protecting life on Earth. We don't have to let these people design our strategies for adapting to climate change. They will continue to put the market first. Ultimately, it is their own adherence to what they consider to be non-negotiable economic truths that have led them to seal the lid on the coffin of humanity's attempt to stay this side of dangerous climate change.
In the window for action that is still open, we need to move fast, put all assumptions on the table, and be willing to "kill our darlings," even if they are basic beliefs about how competition and profit are the most powerful motivators of human innovation, or our prejudice that the Chinese somehow exist in a different ethical and environmental world than we do.
When we follow the hairpin turns, we find there is still another way to save ourselves.