Economics and politics - comment and analysis
6. March 2016 I Will Denayer I Ecology and Growth, General Politics

New shocking and terrifying climate change milestones

The climate system is breaking apart in front of our eyes.

Early last month (February 2016), atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 405.66 parts per million. This level has not been seen in the last 15 million years. Since the 1990s, earth was already experiencing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in a realm not experienced since the Pliocene epoch, 2.6 to 5.3 million years ago. During the mid-Pliocene, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were between 350 and 405 parts per million, average global temperatures were between 2 and 3 degrees C warmer than the climate of the 1880s and sea level was 25 meters higher. Now CO2 levels exceed those of the Pliocene (see here).

Figure 1

M1

Source: NASA (www.climate.nasa.gov)

As of Thursday morning (March 3rd), it appears that average temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere have breached the 2 degrees C above the ‘normal’ mark for the first time in recorded history. This rather arbitrary mark has long been held as the point about which climate change becomes dangerous. This is how surreal all of this has become: in 2016 the world will reach the climate outcomes that COP21 in Paris last year in December tried to avert from occurring in the year 2100 (see here). The expectation is that the surge in global warming will kick off a series of tipping points with extremely far-reaching implications.

Last February obliterated the all-time global temperature record set in January. It appears that February 2016 was somewhere between 1.15 and 1.4 degrees C warmer than the long-term average and about 0.2 degrees above last month. It became the most above-average month ever measured. As Eric Holthaus writes in Slate, it took from the dawn of the industrial age until last October to reach the first 1.0 degree Celsius increase. Now, we added as much as an extra 0.4 degrees C in the last five months (see here).

Dahr Jamail writes in Truthout that the climate has become so abnormal that for many parts of the planet there has basically been no winter. Last month, in what should typically be the coldest month of the year, temperatures on the Arctic were on a par with typical June levels. In Europe and Asia, dozens of countries set or tried their all-time temperature records for February. In the tropics, the record-warmth is prolonging the longest-lasting coral bleaching episode ever seen (see here).

The northernmost permanent settlement, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, has averaged 10 degrees C above normal this winter, with temperatures rising above the freezing mark on nearly two dozen days since December. That kind of extremely unusual weather has prompted a record-setting low maximum in Arctic sea ice. As Jamail writes, ‘Literally, the further north you go, the warmer it becomes’ (see here).

Figure 2

M2

Source: www.arctic-news.blogspot.com

Anthropogenic climate change is impacting agricultural output negatively soil productivity in agriculture (see here). Degradation of soils means that hundreds of millions of people around the globe will likely become displaced due to the lack of an ability to grow food in the coming decades. Global water scarcity is affecting already four billion people – two-thirds of the world’s population. This will certainly become one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century. Water tables all over the world continue to drop. And ocean acidification is expected to cause skeletal deformities in half of global juvenile corals, making them increasingly susceptible to dying off. Many types of Phytoplankton are endangered. Phytoplankton produces as much oxygen as all forest in the world together (see here).

In short, climate change threatens our oxygen, our water and our food supplies. On top of all of this, it is a potent threat multiplier: it increases the risk of conflicts and wars, the occurrence of failed states and ultimately of complete societal collapse.

According to Paul Beckwith from the Laboratory for Paleoclimatology and Climatology at the University of Ottawa, abrupt climate change is now upon us or if not we are very close to it. Beckwith studied the occurrences and consequences of abrupt climate change in the geological record of the planet. He writes:

“The temperature of the planet has increased by 5C or 6C within one decade or two decades (…) during the ice age period between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago, the temperature rose over Greenland 5-6C in a decade or two (…) and 55 million years ago (…) the temperature rose globally by 5C in 13 years, as shown in sediment samples” (see here).

Is there a risk for us to evolve into such an inferno? Absolutely. It is a matter of simple physics. It suffices for carbon dioxide emissions to warm up the planet to the point that the permafrost melts and methane gas finds its way to the atmosphere. If that happens, there is no way to avert disaster. Natalia Shakhova, who leads the Russia-US Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, showed in numerous studies that only a tiny percentage of the vast amounts of methane that are buried in Arctic ice is necessary to double current atmospheric CH4. Worse yet, she suspects that an outburst of 50 gigatons is not out of the question (see here and here).

The reason why methane is so important is that it has a global warming potential of 34 compared to CO2 over a 100-year period, and 72 over a 20-year period. The Earth’s atmospheric methane concentration has increased by about 150% since 1750 and it accounts for 20% of the total radiative forcing from all greenhouse gases, excluding water vapour. In 2010, methane levels in the Arctic were measured at 1850 nmol/mol, a level over twice as high as at any time in the 400,000 years prior to the industrial revolution.

The big problem is the Arctic. Beckwith explains that it is not global average temperature that counts that much, what is most important is the temperature distribution on the planet on a latitudinal basis. During the last number of decades, the Arctic temperature has risen by 1.0C per decade whereas the global average temperature rise has been about 0.15C per decade. Because massive quantities of CH4 are embedded within the ice, only a small fraction can cause the planet to heat up rapidly, going into deadly overdrive (see here). The so-called Arctic death spiral shows the evolution very well.

Figure 3

M3

Source: PIOMAS Arctic Sea Ice Volume (http://haveland.com/)

What about natural gas production? According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) methane losses are between 4 and 17% of US natural gas production. These figures are almost certainly inaccurate. A 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that anthropogenic emissions of methane in the US could be off by as much as 50%. This also means that the EPA climate change modeling data are flawed. In many cases, fixing a methane leak is as simple as tightening a valve or closing a hatch. The trick is to know which valve or hatch. Adequate detection and repair methods are needed. Incredibly, nothing of this is being addressed with any sense of urgency. In January 2015, Obama announced a plan to cut US methane emissions from 2012 levels by 2025. Of course, if these 2012 emissions estimates are off, that plan will require revisiting (see here). And so the madness continues.

The truth of the matter is that we are evolving into a holocaust on a scale which cannot be imagined. Those who have been saying this for quite a while by now have typically been laughed out of the door as hysterical alarmists with unrealistic agendas, crack scientists or just plain charlatans. It suffices to look at the scientific data. After years of careful preparation (or, if you prefer, endless palaver), an army of diplomats and many world leaders finally gathered in Paris for the COP21 conference last December. The world leaders signed up to an agreement that aims to prevent the climate from going in 2100 where we are right now, barely four months later. As Steffen Boehm from the Climate Centre at the University of Exeter said, the number 21 refers to the 21th time in a row that the world failed to negotiate a climate deal that would make a difference (see here).

The only ones left with legitimacy are the honest scientists which tell things as they are. If they sound alarmist, this is because the situation is alarming. It is incredible that the rulers of the world do not get it. Nothing legally binding was negotiated in Paris. Everything is voluntary. A full four days after signing the agreement, the UK government opened up the UK to fracking. Clinton runs on a pro-fracking platform. How far can you insulate yourself from reality and how much can policy-makers abdicate their responsibilities for the fate of mankind and all creatures on this planet?

What Heiner Flassbeck is saying about the European refugee crisis (see here) also holds for climate change: nothing can be solved without macroeconomic change. We need massive public investment and the reconversion towards zero emission economies.