Monday, July 21, 2014

Sweet Dreams Maisy vs. Global Warming's Terrifying New Math





June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.


Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I've spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.


To grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn't yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.


The first number [is] 2° Celsius. […] So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) […] At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out disappear."


The Second Number: 565 Gigatons Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. ("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.) […] Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year – and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school.


The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain. […]

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet. […] John Fullerton, a former managing director at JP Morgan who now runs the Capital Institute, calculates that at today's market value, those 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions are worth about $27 trillion. Which is to say, if you paid attention to the scientists and kept 80 percent of it underground, you'd be writing off $20 trillion in assets. The numbers aren't exact, of course, but that carbon bubble makes the housing bubble look small by comparison. It won't necessarily burst – we might well burn all that carbon, in which case investors will do fine. But if we do, the planet will crater. You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet – but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can't have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That's how the story ends. [...]

The numbers are simply staggering – [the fossil-fuel] industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they're planning to use it.


You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.


11 comments:

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

This is terribly depressing, and so much more so because none of my actions (all that recycling, reusing, small living etc.) have no impact if the fossil fuel industries use all of their assets. Time to install solar panels and build a bunker.

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

None of my actions have *any* impact ...!

Dan Pangburn said...

The two drivers of climate change have been discovered. CO2 is not one of them.

Unknown said...

Thankfully there is quite a different body of science that conflicts with this position -which I consider narrow and lacking in a holistic perspective.

HORansome said...

My, but the science deniers are finding you already.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, they get on to it pretty quickly.

HORansome said...

One must admire their organisational skills. You'd almost think there was a conspiracy in existence to suppress talk of climate change.

Dan Pangburn said...

The ‘different body of science’ predicted that the average global temperature (agt) would increase 2001-2013 by 40% of the increase in the 20th century. The agt trend has been flat since 2001 (average of the 5 reporting agencies).

Another ‘body of science’, (me) using only the two natural climate drivers, has explained climate change since 1895 with 90% accuracy (R2 > 0.9), provided credible agt back to 1610 and shown that CO2 change has no significant effect on climate.

How much longer should one cling to denial of natural climate change?

Giovanni Tiso said...

"How much longer should one cling to denial of natural climate change?"

There's the entire scientific community minus you writing comments on a perfect stranger's blog. Let's see...

Anonymous said...

The Children's book made this article a lot more scary. My body has that empty feeling right now.

Stack said...

Will we be saved by the end of the current corrupt capitalist economy we live with? When the inevitable revolution in the west occurs and we start living in a localised and cooperative manner? It's a race between the end of the world and the end of the financial world. I know which one I'd like to win.

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