Monday, December 29, 2014


"For the rest of your life, your job is to make the impossible possible.—David Roberts, Grist  |  More quotes

Okay. I knew the news was going to be bad, but I didn't know it was going to be this bad. I knew it was important that I take time to study climate change and its effects for myself and my family, but still, I have put it off. Though, it's not hard to notice that there is an uptick in extreme weather from super storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to heat waves and drought.

So, in late December 2014, the time came and I looked at it. Here's the bottom line: the research points to a bleak future at best and near-term human extinction at worst.

Mostly so I can understand it, I've spent a lot of time trying to simplify the research, which I found to be beautifully synthesized by Guy McPherson in an ongoing climate change update here.

It all seems to boil down to these three primary areas of focus and they're all linked together:
  1. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are the highest they've been in 3.2 million years; so:
  2. Global average temperatures are approaching deadly limits for human existence; which has triggered:
  3. Self-reinforcing positive feedback loops
It goes like this: we keep emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere, which means the global average temperature keeps rising, which means we keep triggering and amplifying self-reinforcing positive feedback loops, which means more CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere and on and on.

For some more context on these three points, keep reading.

1. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are the highest they've been in 3.2 million years

Source: NASA via

Before the industrial (fossil fuel) age — the time climate scientists refer to as the 'baseline' for global average temperature — the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was measured at 260 parts per million (ppm). Today, CO2 levels now exceed 400 ppm. It has been 800,000 years since CO2 levels exceeded 300 ppm and at least 3.2 million years since they were as high as 400 ppm.

This is dangerous territory because, as McPherson notes, "humans have not existed on Earth when atmospheric carbon was at 320 ppm."

2. Global average temperatures are approaching deadly limits for human existence

The climate during all of human existence over the past 10,000 years. Source:

The current global average temperature in 2014 is .85°C above baseline (pre-Industrial global average temperatures). A "safe" climate is 1°C. The EU and other world governments have agreed that temperatures should not rise above 2°C. An overwhelming number of scientists and agencies now predict that 4°C is all but guaranteed — double what was deemed "the limit." Why? In part, because there is a 30-40 year lag between CO2 emissions and their effect. So, we won't start to see the effects of the last 30 years of record breaking CO2 emissions — in which each year has basically been higher than the previous year — until now. This is seen in the EPA chart below. It's hard not to find it alarming.


What does 4°C look like? As the Guardian summarizes: "Up to 4 billion people left without water. Up to 5 billion at risk of flooding. Half a billion left hungry as agricultural yields decline by 15-35% in Africa with entire swaths of the world ceasing food production altogether. More than 80 million exposed to malaria in Africa. The Amazon collapses and 50% of species go extinct. It's basically the end of the world." A World Bank 2012 report says "the coolest months are likely to be substantially warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century."

There is also a troubling trend worth noting. Climate scientists make overly-conservative predictions, as argued here by Guy McPherson and here in an article that takes a close look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Have a look at these dramatic revisions:

It's not hard to jump to the conclusion that 4°C is still too conservative. This conclusion was supported by the International Energy Agency in May 2014 when they projected 6°C by 2050 with 3.5°C increase by 2035. Guy McPherson explains 6°C "causes a dead planet." And the IEA is not alone. Climate scientist Paul Beckwith takes it one step further (at the 11:20 mark of this video and this video) and says that 6°C is possible within a decade. Scary.

Again, this is super troubling news when McPherson points out, "humans have not existed on Earth when global average temp was 3.5°C above baseline."

3. Self-reinforcing positive feedback loops


According to McPherson, most projections fail to take self-reinforcing positive feedback loops into accountThese feedback loops, once triggered, feed on themselves. For example, as this TEDx talk explains well in laymen's terms:
"In Siberia, there's this permanent ice — the permafrost — and it contains a bunch of methane in it. As it melts, it releases that methane. The methane causes more warming, which melts more ice, which releases more methane. It's a self-sustaining process. Or, sea ice melts. Ice is white. It reflects energy. When it melts, it becomes dark blue and absorbs more energy, which heats the oceans, which melts more ice, which creates more dark surfaces."
McPherson has identified over 45 positive feedback loops. As conditions continue to deteriorate, more self-reinforcing feedback loops are triggered, making it increasingly difficult to turn the ship around. Many scientists, including Guy McPherson and the growing list of voices he references here, believe we are already past the point of no return.

So, where does that leave us?

According to Guy McPherson, none of the projections take into account the collapse of Industrial civilization, which would drastically change the course of CO2 in the atmosphere. So, that's something... to hope for? Something extreme. Are we at the point for extreme solutions? McPherson also points out that such a collapse is a double edged sword as it would likely trigger Fukushima-type meltdowns at the 400+ active nuclear power plants around the world that require lots of energy and money to be safely decommissioned. As ecological designer Ben Falk noted in response to this Vermont nuclear power plant closing:
"There's $1.5 billion dollars to actually close the plant down which, likely, taxpayers will end up paying most or all of. And 60+ years of letting the atomic materials cool while high level monitoring is maintained. Then there's about 25,000 years to wait (with monitoring) until the site on the banks of the Connecticut River becomes fully (for the most part) non-lethal. Nuclear power: "one hell of a way to boil water." - Albert Einstein."
McPherson also argues that collapse could "take us directly to 2°C within a matter of weeks" if atmospheric particulates, created by ongoing human pollution, go away. NASA climate chief James Hansen described this concept well:
"Human activity modifies the impact of the greenhouse effect by the release of airborne particulate pollutants known as aerosols... Aerosols have a net cooling effect because they reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground and they increase cloud cover... known as "global dimming." ...Hansen’s new study estimates this aerosol "dimming" at 1.2 degrees (plus or minus 0.2°), much higher than previously figured. Aerosols are washed out of the atmosphere by rain on average every 10 days, so their cooling effect is only maintained because of continuing human pollution, the principal source of which is the burning of fossil fuels."
I recommend watching Guy McPherson's video presentation based on his work, but first maybe starting with David Robert's TEDx talk, which I think does a good job of condensing the climate change problem into 15 minutes. 

When I think about what to make of all of this, I think David Roberts sums up my thoughts best:
"You and I look around at current politics — particularly U.S. politics — and massive, coordinated, intelligent, ambitious action does not strike us as particularly plausible. In fact, it might strike us as impossible. But, that is where we are: stuck between the impossible and the unthinkable. So your job —anyone who hears this — for the rest of your life your job is to make the impossible possible.
As someone who believes that miraculous things can happen and that we're all capable of being superheroes, I would like to accept that challenge and play my part in working on this human problem to somehow "make the impossible possible."

See all my posts on Climate Change

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