Economics and politics - comment and analysis

How climate change is rapidly taking the planet apart

How climate change is rapidly taking the planet apart

‘There are no jokes. The truth is the funniest joke of all.’ Muhammad Ali 

  1. Introduction

Writing up articles on climate change is difficult these days. Last week alone, 46 new papers and reports were published. I am certain that there are many more. The figure only refers to the sources I usually consult. I try to read all abstracts and all articles I find interesting, but sometimes I shy away from it: it is just too depressing. As, for example, Camille Parmesan (Nobel prize laureate together with Al Gore) and Jason Box said on several occasions, many climate scientists suffer from some sort of mood imbalance or mild or serious depression. It is easy to understand why: we see the climate change taking the planet apart right in front of our eyes. We also clearly see, right in front of us, what urgently needs to done to stave off global disaster on an unprecedented scale. We need carbon taxes and the reconversion of industry and energy towards zero CO2 emissions systems. This route is without any doubt technically and economically feasible, but politically it seems to be permanently locked. If we do not unlock it, the future looks bleak, not to say hopeless, for humankind.

  1. Data on warming, rain bombs, storms and water vapour feedbacks

NASA recently released data showing that the planet has just seen seven straight months of not just record-breaking, but record-shattering heat (see here). We are well on track to see what will likely be the largest increase in global temperature a single year has ever seen (see here and here). The NASA data show that May was the hottest May ever recorded, as well as the fact that it crushed the previous May record by the largest margin of increase ever recorded. The same is now true for June (see here). That makes it five months in a row that the monthly record has been broken and by the largest margin ever. When record-smashing months started in February, scientists began talking about a “climate emergency.” Since then the situation has only escalated.

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that this is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be. Changes in extremes, such as higher temperatures and increases in heavy rains and droughts are not related to climate change, they are climate change (see here).

‘Rain bombs’ are a new breed of severe storms. Five to ten cm of precipitation, or even more, pours down in a mere hour. Such storms can destroy infrastructure in a matter of minutes. This happened in several place across the globe. In the US, Texas and other southern states suffer from never-before-seen flooding. The west of the country is soaring in heat. The east coast of Australia has been repeatedly hit by rain bombs, while Tasmania had to deal with never seen flooding. Everybody has seen the pictures of flooded streets in Paris. The Loire region got six weeks of rain in three days. In Germany the region of Baden Wurttemberg was been hit by torrential rains. Five weeks ago, thunderheads exploded into the skies, raining more than 330,000 bolts of lightning down upon the European continent in the course of just 8 hours.  The blasts hammered a wide region stretching from Portugal through France and the UK, into the Alps, Italy, Germany and Denmark and on through south western Poland (see here).  Ocean surface temperatures over a zone stretching from the Equator to Alaska now range between 1 and 6 C above late 20th Century values. A gigantic blob of hot water in the Pacific is feeding the growth of a powerful atmospheric wave. This will lead to new record hot temperatures to explode all over the US West coast and Canada. Of course, extreme events do happen from time to time. Such storms are supposed to happen once every 500 years or so, not in fast succession (see here).

What is the explanation for this? The storms are directly related to the ‘water vapour positive feedback loop.’ According to climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, today there is about 5 percent more water vapour in the atmosphere above the oceans than there was in 1968 (see here and here for the paper). This is because the oceans have already warmed by 1 degree C (global average).  As the oceans are getting warmer, they also become more acidic and contain less oxygen. Water vapour is of course a greenhouse gas. It leads to the water vapour positive feedback loop that causes dangerous warming amplification over time. A warmer planet holds more moisture in the atmosphere, which leads to more warning, leading to more atmospheric moisture. The increased water vapour roughly doubles the direct radiative forcing. However, the average 5 % increase in water vapour becomes amplified in weather systems because it adds buoyancy to the air flowing into storms, promoting them to become more intense and multiplying the effects. The warm moist air is readily advected onto land and caught up in weather systems as part of the hydrological cycle, where it contributes to more intense precipitation events that are widely observed to be occurring. The problem is not only that water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas. There is another problem. More atmospheric water vapour means that more energy is trapped in the atmosphere at any given time. According to NASA, as the Earth approaches 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warming (the increase of global average temperature), the resulting increase in water vapour traps an extra 2 Watts of energy per-square-meter. Given the surface of the Earth, this is an enormous amount of energy, which leads to the amplification of storms, rain bombs and other anomalies. NASA researchers estimate that the water vapour feedback is extraordinarily strong: calculations show that it is capable of doubling the warming due to carbon dioxide (see here). If this is true, the future looks bleak indeed.

Human action has pushed atmospheric CO2 above 405 parts per million and the global concentration of all CO2 equivalent gasses to an amazing 485 parts per million CO2e (e means equivalent). On February 20th of this year, for about 12 hours, the NOAA measured a major atmospheric methane spike in the range of 3,096 parts per billion at 20,000 feet in altitude. On a molecule-by-molecule comparison to CO2, methane traps about 80 times more heat over the decadal timescale. Large additions of methane are added on top of an already dangerous CO2 forcing. The previous methane threshold was in the range of 2.660 ppb. – 400 ppb lower. This can mean only one thing, namely that methane sources of the world are growing more vigorous in their output. In the meantime, this problem just got incredibly worse – see below on the fires in Siberia.

Where is the methane coming from? There are the usual suspects, China, with its massive methane belching coals mines and coal burning facilities, Mongolia (idem), Russia, with its leaky gas fields, the Middle East, Europe which burns high-methane brown coal, Indonesia where tropical forests are burning down, the Amazon and the US where fracking has greatly increased methane emissions. But the data also point towards the Arctic where the permafrost spreading over many millions of square km is thawing. In total, more than 1.300 billion tons of carbon is locked away in the permafrost soils.  Much of this carbon is in the form of the frozen ice-methane called hydrate. As the Arctic Ocean warms and sea ice recedes to expose blue ocean for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, there is great concern that a significant amount of that submerged frozen methane will be released. The shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf has been identified by some to contain as much as 500 billion tons of carbon in the form of frozen methane (see here).

This also shows – it can literally be read off the charts – how completely ridiculous and disingenuous the arguments of the pro-frackers are in calling fracking a clean, secure fuel that can be used to bridge the gap between dirtier fossil fuels and cleaner renewable energy. In no way is fracking a bridge technology. It is responsible for local water pollution and health problems and for air pollution and increased methane emissions. In April 2014, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that fracking wells in south western Pennsylvania were releasing methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1.000 times greater than estimated by US regulators. Last month, new research published in Geophysical Research Letters concludes “that US methane emissions have increased by more than 30% over the 2002–2014 period.” This release of such a large amount of methane could account for anywhere from 30–60% of the global growth of atmospheric methane seen in the past decade. That is a huge contribution to global climate change. Still, it is out of the question that anything substantial will happen. Regardless of who becomes president next January, fracking will not cease (see here).

  1. What will the future bring?

The reality of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD) continues to outstrip our ability to model worst-case scenarios, as it is happening so much faster than ever anticipated. Sixty-three percent of all human-generated carbon emissions have been produced in the last 25 years and science shows that there is a 40-year time lag between global emissions and climate impacts. This means that we have not even started to experience the consequences of our growing emissions (see here). In the meantime, nothing substantial, nothing efficient is happening to curb CO2 emissions.

Consider this timeline:

  • “Late 2007:The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announces that the planet will see a one degree Celsius temperature increase due to climate change by 2100.
  • Late 2008:The Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research predicts a 2C increase by 2100.
  • Mid-2009:The U.N. Environment Programme predicts a 3.5C increase by 2100. Such an increase would remove habitat for human beings on this planet, as nearly all the plankton in the oceans would be destroyed, and associated temperature swings would kill off many land plants. Humans have never lived on a planet at 3.5C above baseline.
  • October 2009:The Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research releases an updated prediction, suggesting a 4C temperature increase by 2060.
  • November 2009:The Global Carbon Project, which monitors the global carbon cycle, and the Copenhagen Diagnosis, a climate science report, predict 6C and 7C temperature increases, respectively, by 2100.
  • December 2010:The U.N. Environment Programme predicts up to a 5C increase by 2050.
  • 2012:The conservative International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report for that year states that we are on track to reach a 2C increase by 2017.
  • November 2013:The International Energy Agency predicts a 3.5C increase by 2035” (see here).

A briefing provided to the failed U.N. Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009 provided this summary:

“The long-term sea level that corresponds to current CO2 concentration is about 23 meters above today’s levels, and the temperatures will be 6 degrees C or more higher. These estimates are based on real long-term climate records, not on models” (see here).

It is certainly not a lack of knowledge that is the problem. We know all we need to know. CO2 emissions have to come down immediately.

On December 3rd 2015, a study by 18 scientists, including the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, showed that “the long-held, internationally agreed upon target to limit rises in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius was in error and far above the 1C threshold that would need to be maintained in order to avoid the effects of catastrophic climate change” (see here and here).

While there is no consensus about Hansen’s 1C threshold to stave off catastrophic climate change, hundreds of papers predicting catastrophic climate change can be found.

A 3.5 degrees C increase is considered to be the extinction point, because in such a world the food chain collapses, oceanic plankton dies off and these temperatures severely limit terrestrial vegetation (see also here). Horribly enough, the grasslands of the world that we use for agriculture are threatened the most. The extinction of species will create chaos in many of these grasslands – for example the disappearance of bees will create enormous problems with pollination (see here). The acidification of the oceans depletes the oxygen in the waters. Temperatures higher than the extinction point are being predicted, not by crackpots, ideologues of sci-fi writers, but by serious scientists. An increasing number of climate change scientists now fear that our situation is already so serious, and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play, that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Some are convinced that we will run into major problems in the course of just a few decades from now (see here). Climate change is creating an emergency situation. Action needs to be taken immediately. And it needs to be right action. No carbon trading markets, no bowing to corporate power. Steep carbon taxes are essential.

For a long time, the ‘alarmists’ were not taken seriously. It seems to be changing now. Studies have shown that approximately 55 million years ago, a 5 degree C increase in global temperatures occurred in only 13 years. A scientific report published last year revealed that in the near-term, Earth’s climate will change 10 times faster than at any other moment in the last 65 million years.  Science already shows that we are currently experiencing change 200 to 300 times faster than any of the previous major extinction events (see here).

The World Bank issued a new report warning that global water shortages will deal a “severe hit” to economies across the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia as ACD progresses. The report warned that by 2050 growing demand for water from both cities and agriculture will cause dramatic water shortages in regions where it is currently still in abundance, in addition, of course, to worsening shortages that already exist. According to the World Bank, this will generate broad amounts of conflict and human migration across these regions: climate change will multiply threats and create new ones. Another World Bank report shows that by 2050, 1.3 billion people, along with $158 trillion in assets, will be put at risk from flooding and sea level rise alone. Last Monday, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research (PIK) provided other figures concerning the damage of rising water levels (see here). Sea level rise is continuing at abrupt rates. A study by the UK-based charity Christian Aid projected over 1 billion people at risk from coastal flooding by 2060, with the populations of China, India and the United States being the most heavily impacted.

In Austria, the glaciers are melting so fast that they have retreated an average of 72 feet during last year alone, which is more than twice the rate of the previous year. The Antarctic saw an incredible new record high temperature of 17 degrees Celsius last year. This, coupled with the ongoing ramping up of the melting of the ice shelves, is having global consequences already, including sea level rise and impacts on global weather patterns. Southwest Asia and India recently saw historic heat waves that have brought more than 150 deaths. Cambodia and Laos each set record highs for any day of the year during April. Thailand set a record for national energy consumption (air conditioning). India went on to break its heat record in May, when temperature in the city of Rajasthan climbed to 51.3 degrees Celsius. The heat wave besetting northern India persists, as temperatures have exceeded 40 degrees Celsius for several weeks in a row. Looking to the north, the Russian Hydrometeorological Center recently reported that since May 2015, every single month has been the warmest in Russia’s history. By way of example, in March, the temperature deviation on islands in the Barents Sea was a staggering 12 degrees Celsius.

  1. Cruel joke number nr. 1: a Citi bank study

Last year, Citi Bank Global published a report looking at the economic costs and benefits of a low-carbon future (see here and here for the report). The report considers two scenarios: “Inaction” or business-as-usual, and “Action” or reconversion to a low carbon energy mix. The researchers find that the investment costs for the two scenarios are almost identical. In fact, Action is cheaper than Inaction (the figures are respectively $190tr versus $192tr). This completely refutes the main argument against climate change mitigation that it is too expensive and that it would create economic disaster (apart from the question too expensive compared to what?). Citi finds that investments will save money, of course before accounting for the tremendous savings from avoiding climate damage costs. This is not a new finding. Other reports have arrived at the same conclusion, and have found that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be modestly beneficial for the economy (again, before accounting for the economic benefits of curbing global warming). This is why most economists and most rational people on this planet are in favour of a carbon tax. The report then poses the real question: if climate change mitigation is an economic no-brainer, why does it not happen?

The most-given answer to this question is interests and corporate power. The clear loser of Action is coal, which would see its investment fall by ca. $11 tr over the next 25 years. Gas investment would also fall, by ca. $ 3.4 tr (see here). The fossil fuel industry would basically go bankrupt and disappear – this is of course the ultimate goal of a carbon tax and the sooner it happens the better. Since the industry has extensive influence over many world governments, every move in this direction is being completely sealed-off. Politicians are being bought, either literally, or with a litany of crooked arguments about employment and the ‘craziness’ of leaving fuels in the ground. These merchants of death spend many millions on disinformation campaigns and many hundreds of millions on lobbying.

There is no doubt that this answer is correct, it is indeed trivial. But there are still other factors. As Heiner Flassbeck explained in another context a while ago: if we say ‘carbon tax,’ we say ‘government’ – a government which works for the majority of the population and, indeed, the world. This goes completely against the grain of what happened the last forty years. The conservative revolution transformed our countries into authoritarian pro-business states, which are not just undemocratic but inherently anti-democratic. The last thing these people want to is to give democratic power to the state that they cannot control, manipulate, make irrelevant or buy.

  1. Cruel joke nr. 2: Siberian wildfires

Here is the latest news on Siberia and the methane problem. I take this information from Robert Scribbler’s blog (see here). Scribbler is a highly respected climate science writer. It is remarkable indeed, as he says, that until today the mainstream did not pick up on this (see also here and here about the media).

NASA satellite pictures show that Northern and Central Siberia is burning. There are scores of massive fires, some the size of cities, some the size of small states. This is extremely worrying because the tundra and permafrost lands — some of them frozen for hundreds of thousands to millions of years — are now thawing and igniting. There are, literally, thousands of fires in an area which at its north western end is the Yamal Peninsula and the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Its south eastern end is Lake Baikal, nearly 2,000 miles away. Some fires are small, others are vast with fire fronts of 20 to 25 miles wide, covering as much as 400 square miles of land. Some of the multiple clusters easily cover a region equal to the size of the state of South Carolina (82.931 square km – in order to compare: Belgium has 30. 528 square km). The problem is that these large fires are occurring in a contiguous permafrost zone. Even typically hard-frozen tundra regions are burning. Near the town of Nuya, along Obskaya Bay just east of Yamal, enormous fires are raging. In recent years, such fires have become more common. It is not only the forests that are burning. Fires burn far north of the farthest northern extent of the Siberian tree line. For some regions, temperatures are 17 to 22C above average. At the northwestern end of the vast, fire-marred range that now covers a land area larger than most countries, temperatures near the Arctic Ocean shore at 70.9° N, 81.4° E are 22 C above average. The fires also consume duff and peat, increasingly thaw sections of the permafrost and are therefore in the process of activating a very large northern carbon store, thus representing a very dangerous amplifying feedback to human-forced warming (see here).

As Scribbler explains, the Yamal region is also the location of the recent methane blowholes. The region sits over large gas deposits, some of which are in the form of clathrate. Some of the previously stable frozen deposits appear to be facing an increasing release pressure due to thawing and the invasion of warm liquid water into the subterranean environment (see here). This is not science fiction. This is an emergency for a human race.

  1. Cruel joke nr. 3: Paris under water

When Paris ran under water and the Louvre closed its doors contemplating the possible transportation of its art works, I wondered how the Palais close to the Eiffel tower looked like where the last climate change conference (COP21), sponsored by, among others, Exxon mobil (this is not a joke), took place. This conference has had a extremely positive result after all. The feast of grotesque and obscene self-congratulation of all those unwilling to act in order to bring the world back from the brink of disaster does not remain without consequences. Today, all over the world, many people fully realise that this self-congratulatory crowd of useless global policy-makers are a full 100% part of the problem and will never be part of any solution. After a full 21 pathetic failures to efficiently tackle the biggest threat humanity as a whole has ever changed, this is the best result that one could have hoped for. All these people need to go and quick. Go away with your market nonsense. The world needs regulation and democracy. The key to addressing climate change is to win elections and break the deadlock of corporate power. No economic, social and technological solution is possible without it (here).