Economics and politics - comment and analysis

Climate change: three tales about extraordinary insanity


This short series on climate change is in three parts. In the first part, I explain some of the latest findings about the climate. Things are looking increasingly poor, not to say outright disastrous. Incredibly, there is no reaction whatsoever. The second part reproduces and criticises one of the main hypothesises of the deniers: that not greenhouse emissions but fluctuations in the sun are responsible for the warming of the earth. Remarkably, this completely incorrect ‘hypothesis’ is even put forward by some university professors. I am all for pluralism (I wish we would have more, much more, of it) and of course scientists make mistakes. This is normal. It is how science advances. The thesis about the ‘cold sun,’ however, has nothing to do with science. I suspect that those who propagate these beliefs know very well that it is all wrong. Given the state we find ourselves in, I consider this behaviour criminal. But nothing happens against this either. The third part of the series deals with the question what we can do against climate change. This is complicated, because, first of all, there is no ‘we’ – there are rich countries which obstruct climate change mitigation and poor countries which are doing the best they can. There are big multinationals and fossil fuel companies that obstruct measures which we need to for our species – and many others (or perhaps all) – to survive. There is a population, or a substantial part of it, which understands the problem and wants action, but which has no effective channels to influence political decision-making processes. Apart from all this, it is not possible to see climate change as a problem which can be ‘solved’ on the condition that we take the right measures. Even if we implement the best possible policies, some future outcomes will be more than problematic. The world ended up in an emergency situation and it will be there for a very long time, even if we implement rapid reconversion, etc. The economic policies that Heiner Flassbeck discusses and his recommendations are not only proper (and sane) economics. Today, they are a matter of life and death for our world. While this may sound dramatic, I am convinced that it is true. The nonsense has to stop and quick. We had 21 climate conferences in the last thirty years. They all blatantly failed. Our emissions are still rising. I will explain in the third part what can – and urgently needs – to be done. We need macroeconomic change and we need changes in the sphere of money. Without it, there is no chance for humanity to survive climate change in the longer term.

Can humanity survive a temperature rise between 4.8 and 7.4 degrees C?

In an article “Nonlinear climate sensitivity and its implications for future greenhouse warming,” which was published on 9 November in Science Advances, Friedrich and his colleagues write that planet Earth may be on a course of warming by more than seven degrees by 2100 (see here – there is free access to this article).

Since the extinction event is estimated at 3.5 degrees C above the pre-industrial baseline, this means that within less than 3 generations, or basically one lifetime, global temperature may be twice as high as the extinction limit for human life. Still, in a non-act of absolute collective insanity, there is nothing but silence. The madness goes on as if nothing matters.

According to the current best estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a “business as usual” approach (using large amounts of fossil fuels) will lead to an increase of the Earth’s average temperature between 2.6 and 4.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2100. But Friedrich et al. looked into how the Earth’s climate has evolved over nearly 800,000 years. They warn that the IPCC estimate could be a major under-estimate. The reason is that the geological record shows that the climate become more sensitive to greenhouse gases when it is warmer. To chart how Earth’s climate had altered over hundreds of thousands of years, the researchers studied marine sediment cores, ice cores and planetary movements known as Milankovitch Cycles (how changes in Earth’s orbit and tilt affect how the Sun heats us). They estimated greenhouse gas levels through air bubbles extracted from ice cores over the last eight glacial cycles (almost 784.000 years). The data unequivocally show that the Earth becomes more sensitive to warming in interglacial warming phases (periods between ice ages), like the one we are now in (see here).


Figure 1: A reconstruction of the Earth’s global mean temperature over the last 784,000 years, on the left of the graph, followed by a projection to 2100 based on new calculations of the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases (Friedrich, et al. (2016)).

Instead of a warming between 2.6 and 4.8 degrees C by 2100, Friedrich et al. predict that the range could be between 4.78C and 7.36C by 2100. In the meantime, despite already obviously real global climate change, global emissions are still on the increase. Donald Trump has said that the United States will exit the Paris COP21 Agreement.

Michael Mann, of Penn State University, who led research that produced the famous “hockey stick” graph showing how humans were dramatically increasing the Earth’s temperature, told The Independent the Friedrich paper appears “sound and the conclusions quite defensible”. “(I)t does indeed provide support for the notion that a Donald Trump presidency could be game over for the climate,” Mann writes (see here). This is also the reason why, last week, Noam Chomsky called the Republican Party “the biggest terrorist organisation on the face of planet.” It may well be true that the GOP wins first prize, but it has to be said that the competition is stiff. It is more than simplistic – and perhaps disingenuous as well – to single out the GOP.

The truth is that there are a lot of such “terrorist organisations.” This includes many of those who wrote up and negotiated COP21, which has come into effect a couple of weeks ago (sooner than expected – it depends on the number of signatory states that ratified the Agreement). The reason is, as I often explained, that it is a complete loss of time to negotiate a toothless agreement. When everything is voluntary and there are no sanctions, nothing of any substance will happen. COP21 formulates goals but no strategies to achieve these goals. Not that there is scientific basis of these goals to begin with, they are, essentially, limits made up by politicians (as Hansen explains very well here). This is not the way to fight an emergency. But we are not fighting. On the 12th of December 2015, right after signing the COP21 agreement, Cameron proudly declared that “We have secured our planet for many, many generations to come.” Five days later, on the 17th of December, the Cameron’s government slashed solar subsidies by 65%. The same day, the Conservatives opened up the land to fracking. Make no mistake: nothing of any substance is happening. The situation is so insane that the world is now teetering on the brink of disaster – literally obliteration within a few decades – and we are not even correctly accounting the emissions that are killing us (see here and here). We live in a completely schizophrenic situation in which many countries are decreasing their emissions, while global emissions (caused by humans) are increasing. We are not even using the right compass to manoeuvre the ship through the biggest storm Earth has ever seen (see also here).

What we are doing instead is trying to make carbon markets, so that the ‘right price’ can be paid (see also here). The most advanced system in the world is the European Trading Scheme (ETS). If we ever would decide to confront climate change head on, the ETS is one of the very first schemes that should be completely abandoned (as I explained here). I am not sure how solid the extinction even of a 3.5 C is, but it is clear that a 6 or 7 degrees C increase is game over for the human race. If temperatures rise by that much, runaway climate change will be completely unstoppable. Mark Lynas, who wrote Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, commented on the Friedrich et al. study by referring to a recent NASA study according to which Venus may, at one time, may have been habitable before runaway global warming turned the planet into an hellish oven with almost no water and an atmosphere which consists mainly of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulphuric acid (see here).

Friedrich said in an interview that “The only way out is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” In fact, even that is doubtful (see here and here for the reasons why). But we need to try. There is no other choice.

The poorest countries will be hit soonest and hardest

Moody’s drew up a map of countries most at risk of defaulting on their debts because of climate change showing that some of the poorest parts of the world are expected to be hardest hit (see here).

In a warning to oil-producing states, it says they would face “an additional set of economic, fiscal and institutional credit challenges”  as the world moves to a low carbon economy (see here). The list of the “most susceptible” countries includes the likes of India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola, Namibia, Bolivia and Honduras (see here).

This is nothing new. The report’s conclusions fit with the general trend that poor countries which have done the least to cause global warming will suffer the most and the nations that built their wealth on fossil fuels will fare better – of course, all within certain critical parameters. Countries with larger, more diversified economies and geographies are less susceptible. These economies generally have better infrastructure quality that can withstand disruptive events and an ability to carry a higher debt burden at more affordable interest rates. In contrast, those with a greater reliance on agriculture, lower incomes, weaker infrastructure quality and smaller fiscal capacity exhibit greater susceptibility. The report cites potential economic impacts as a result of lost agricultural production; damage to infrastructure cause by floods and storms; rising social costs resulting from health or food crises and population shifts due to forced displacements resulting from climate change. It will also increase the risk of violent conflict and war (see here). For example, the gradual desertification of Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is leading to land degradation and soil infertility.  According to Lebanese predictions, economic damage from climate change could reach more than $80 billion (156 per cent of 2015 GDP) by 2040 (see here). Floods in Mozambique in 2015 resulted in critical damage to roads and bridges, cutting land access to almost 70 per cent of the Zambezia province. The severe El Nino-driven drought in Papua New Guinea in 2015 affected more than two million people (one third of the population). It is not only climate change. It is also climate change as a threat multiplier – the risk of violent conflict and war, the displacement of many tens of millions of people, spiking food prices, the creation of failed states. The inequality in climate change is glaringly obvious. As a spokesperson for Global Justice Now said:

“The history of the world’s fossil fuel bingeing is fundamentally one of environmental racism. “While it is the global north that has by far materially benefitted the most by being historically responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions, it is countries in the global south that will be bearing the brunt of the rising sea levels, droughts, shifting disease patterns and so on caused by climate change. One of the fundamental problems of the UN climate talks is the unwillingness of Western countries to acknowledge the scale of this climate injustice and their refusal to stump up anything close to sufficient funds to financially support those countries who are going to suffer the hardest impacts” (see here).

There is no doubt that this is true.

How’s your summer this November?

Let’s stop talking about predictions for a moment and see what is happening right now. There is no longer any doubt that 2016 is going to be hottest year on record.  But in one region — the Arctic — the rate of heat accumulation has been outrageously extreme. It is there that this new record warmth inflicts some of the worst damage to an increasingly fragile Earth System. For in the Arctic Ocean above the 80 degree north latitude line which encircles the crest of our world, temperatures today are around 17 degrees Celsius above average (see here). These are the warmest temperatures for this region that have ever been recorded. They include numerous locations in which temperatures spike to well above 20 C warmer than average. And, as Robert Scribbler notes, this is nothing new either. Readings have remained consistently high throughout autumn. They have levitated off the baseline 1958-2002 average range for the better part of 80 days. As temperatures maintained near late summer or early fall averages, the departure from normal has continued to intensify throughout November (see here).

The United States experienced its third-warmest October on record, and warmth has continued through the first third of November. North America’s most astonishing warmth this week has focused in Canada, where temperatures have been up to 30 degrees warmer than normal. British Columbia and Winnipeg and Manitoba have seen weather records fall like dominoes. Many areas of Canada which normally have snow at this time of year have bare ground. A massive area of high pressure has developed south of the jet stream over interior Canada and ballooned southward over much of the central United States. The intensity of this high-pressure cell is about three standard deviations from normal, or expected to occur just 0.3 percent of the time. But it is in the Arctic that the situation is the most extreme (see here).



Figure 2: Temperature anomalies in the US, Canada and the Arctic (Source: University of Maine). 

Zachary Labe has produced a graph based on NSIDC recorded global, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice values. As you can see, global sea ice extent during the hottest year on record has steadily plummeted to near 4 million square kilometers below average as the months progressed (see here). To compare, the size of Germany is 357. 168 square km. More ice cover than 10 times the size of Germany has disappeared in the Arctic and Antarctica. Or, for Americans, it represents a region of lost ice of nearly 40% of the land water area of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.



Figure 3: 2016 Sea Ice Departure by Zack Labe. Image: Zack Labe’s Sea Ice Figures and NSIDC (see here). Zack Labe’s website contains a real wealth of figures on Arctic ice).

It is clear now that the loss of sea ice is the climate change canary in the coal mine. Sea ice sits upon warming oceans and beneath a warming atmosphere. These oceans are taking up the majority of the heat that is being trapped in the atmosphere. The warming ocean surfaces have a higher specific heat value than the air and this greater overall energy capacity generates a substantial blow to ice coverage, even if the initial water surface temperature swing is only moderate (see here). Once sea ice is lost for a significant period, a feedback loop comes into play where dark ocean surfaces trap more of the sun’s rays during polar summer than once-white ice coverage. This newly absorbed heat is then re-radiated back into the atmosphere during polar fall and winter, creating an intertial barrier to ice reformation and ultimately generating a big jump in seasonal ocean and atmospheric surface temperatures (see here).

This was yet another problem which has been under-estimated – or under-played – by the IPCC. Even four years ago, the majority of scientists – or better: the majority of scientists of who the IPCC selected peer-reviewed publications– considered that an Arctic ‘blue ocean event’ would not appear before the early 2050s. The consensus is now that this state will be achieved rather soon –  certainly by the early 2030s, but probably sooner. It looks really very bad. On top of this, the NOAA has just announced that La Nina conditions are now present in the Equatorial Pacific. The new La Nina will push more ocean and atmospheric heat towards the poles – particularly towards the Arctic (see here).

It is absolutely clear that the world is facing an emergency. Still, the deniers continue to downplay or ignore the role of fossil fuels. I will give an example of what they come up with in part 2.